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Situational Ethics


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.


Imagine you are invited to dinner at the house of a friend. You arrive and sit down to eat. Midway through the main course you suddenly rise up, begin shouting and overturning chairs. You grab the host out of his chair and begin physically assaulting him. That would normally be considered inappropriate social behavior.

If, however, your friend was choking, it might be appropriate to shout, overturn chairs and administer the life-saving Heimlich maneuver.

This example illustrates that what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior often depends on the situation. The differences are often most pronounced when dealing with a crisis.

Examples of Situational Ethics:

  • 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 often applied in legal settings and religious codes of conduct because a strict or fundamentalist interpretation of rules, laws and moral codes can often lead to injustice. Many legal cases require an evaluation of thecircumstances surrounding the case in addition to just the events themselves.

Situational ethics also have considerable limitations and weaknesses. Since situational ethics attempt to justify actions and behaviors based on circumstances, 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. Very few people agree 100% of the time on the root causes and best course of action when tackling a problem or dealing with a crisis. When personality disorders are brought into the mix and two people 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 are mistaken. You believe that your friend is choking when, in fact, he was just clearing his throat. This time, you are not going to be considered a hero. You have brought a crisis response into a non-critical situation. People may begin to question your judgment and criticize your actions.

People who suffer from personality disorders often perceive a crisis where there is none, and may adopt a crisis response where a more thoughtful problem-solving approach would be more effective. This difference in perception is often at the heart of the conflicts in their relationships.

Examples of Situational Ethics 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 that 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 and alone, 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 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 no sense of morality. It is more that in the eyes of the personality disordered individual, 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 Non-Personality-Disordered Individuals:

Situational Ethics can also play an important role in a non-personality-disordered individual's approach to problem solving. Non-PD's are notorious for playing-down a real crisis with rationalizations such as "It's not that bad" or "He/She is nice most of the time". Often, at the root of these responses is a fear of being seen as too reactionary or impatient. They may be afraid to break cultural protocols or social taboos. This can develop into a form of Enabling.

In order to protect themselves from abuse, injury or damage, Non-PD's sometimes have to adopt a more critical response such as:

  • 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 be misunderstood by others who don't see the abuse or recognize that there is a crisis. For example, it is common for extended family members to judge adult children for going "No-Contact" with an abusive parent, or for religious friends to look down on a Non-PD who divorces their spouse.

What it Feels Like

Living with someone who sees a crisis in everything can be a frustrating experience. You may find yourself trying to ignore them, arguing with them, or walking on eggshells around them.

Learning to Cope

Getting objective advice from others who understand the situation and who understand personality disorders is the best approach. You need a reality check so that you can make better decisions on what is, and is not, a crisis.

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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