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Situational Ethics

Definition:

Situational Ethics - A philosophy which promotes the idea that, when dealing with a crisis, the end justifies the means and that a rigid interpretation of rules and laws can be set aside if a greater good or lesser evil is served by doing so.

Any Thought in a Storm

Situational ethics can be dangerous when combined with the distorted, crisis-prone thinking of those who suffer from Personality Disorders. For example, imagine you are invited to dinner at the house of a friend. You arrive, exchange polite conversation, enjoy a few appetizers and sit down at the table. Midway through the main course you suddenly begin shouting at the other guests, overturning the chairs, grab the host out of his chair and begin physically assaulting him.

That would be considered highly inappropriate behavior - unless, of course, you had just observed him choking, took charge of the situation, instructed one guest to call for help, another to wait outside and flag down the ambulance and meanwhile cleared obstructions out of the way and administered the life-saving Heimlich maneuver.

This extreme example illustrates an important point:  there is a world of difference in what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior depending on the situation. In particular, when dealing with a crisis, many behaviors which most people consider to be highly inappropriate become highly appropriate. In some emergencies, normal ethics are not applicable for a good reason. Where it becomes an issue is where faulty reasoning due to a Personality Disorder manufactures a sense of crisis and therefore justification for unacceptable behavior.

What it Looks Like in Genuine Crisis

  • Breaking a window - to escape a fire.
  • Assaulting a stranger - in self-defense.
  • Killing a person - in war time.
  • Driving through a red light - when rushing an injured person to a hospital.
  • Killing an animal - to shorten a painful death (euthanasia).

Situational Ethics are applied in most mainstream legal and religious systems because of a recognition that a strict or fundamentalist interpretation of rules, laws and moral codes can sometimes lead to injustices or may provide a person who has questionable motives with enough cover or justification to behave in an unjust manner. Most court cases are an exercise is evaluating the situational ethics surrounding a case in light of the applicable laws, available evidence and relevant circumstances.

Situational ethics also have considerable limitations and weaknesses. Since situational ethics attempt to justify actions and behaviors based on expected consequences they are dependent on the individual subjective judgment of each person, their interpretation of a situation and their current beliefs about the future consequences of their actions. When Personality Disorders are brought into the mix, and therefore the people involved have vastly different realities, the results can be explosive.

Now imagine you are back at that dinner party, and the same sequence of events takes place - but this time you were mistaken and you only believed or imagined that the person was choking. This time, you are not going to be considered a hero. You may be considered a trouble maker, a liability or a fool. You have brought a crisis response into a non-critical situation. People may begin to question your judgment, your motives, your reactions and your methods.

This is a scenario played out many times in the lives of people with Personality Disorders, as over and over they  perceive a crisis and adopt a crisis response, where parents, children, siblings, family members, partners, co-workers, friends, acquaintances and bystanders see no crisis. This difference in perception is at the heart of many of the conflicts in a PD/Non relationship.

How it Looks when Situational Ethics are Applied by Personality-Disordered Individuals

  • A man’s friendly disposition towards a female co-worker is interpreted by his Personality-Disordered wife as an adulterous intent, triggering a fear of abandonment response and accusations of flirting, unfaithfulness and adultery.
  • A Histrionic mother consumed by fear feels her children desperately need emergency care and withdraws a large sum of money from the family bank account to get private treatment administered as quickly as possible.
  • A Narcissistic employee interprets the growing professional accomplishments of a peer as a personal threat, justifying a vindictive response.
  • A Borderline mother, feeling trapped, alone and draped in a sense of failure in her own life, feels worthless when observing the growing confidence and independence of her teenage daughter, who is younger, smarter, prettier than her, is not bogged down by the same overwhelming heap of constraints and responsibilities and is prone to challenge her mistakes in moments of adolescent pride. Feeling mocked and ridiculed, the mother decides to “hit back in self-defense”.
  • An Avoidant father, tormented by his children’s incessant demands for attention and praise, withdraws to a place where he feels he can take care of himself.

In all these cases, a change in priorities is justified by a perceived need to address a crisis. It’s not that the Personality-Disordered individual has no conscience or sense of morality. It is more that in their eyes, the lesser of two evils is being chosen.

And since the priorities are different for the people involved - the usual result is conflict.

Examples of Situational Ethics Applied by Nons

Situational Ethics can also play an important role in a Non individual’s responses to typical Personality-Disordered behaviors and the crises which result. In order to protect themselves and prevent further abuse, injury or damage, Nons sometimes have to break cultural protocols or social taboos, for example:

  • Going “No-Contact” with a parent - to avoid emotional or verbal abuse.
  • Forcing a person against their will into a mental care facility to get treatment.
  • Divorcing a spouse - to escape abuse.
  • Removing a parent’s custody rights or access - in order to protect children.
  • Avoiding family gatherings - out of fear that a family member will repeat past bad behavior.

These kinds of actions can sometimes lead other bystanders to misunderstand the motivations of the Non. For example, it is not uncommon for distant family members to scold adult children for going “No-Contact” with an abusive parent, or for non-custodial family members to accuse a protective parent of Parental Alienation, or for religious friends to look down on a Non who divorces their spouse.

What NOT To Do

  • Don't ignore a real crisis where there is one, or play down an abusive situation.
  • Don't make excuses for a person who is prone to behaving in dangerous, dysfunctional or inappropriate ways.
  • Don't argue, complain, criticize or condemn. The other person is likely to respond simply by justifying their own behavior.
  • Don't let yourself get isolated or try to deal with it on your own.

What TO Do

  • Surround yourself with people who understand the situation, understand personality disorders and can give you a reality check.
  • Protect and remove yourself and any children from dangerous or abusive behaviors.
  • Have an action plan prepared in advance for what you will do next time.

Related Personality Disorders:

Paranoid, Schizotypal, Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Avoidant, Dependent, Obsessive-Compulsive


For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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