Be sure to check out Elizabeth Stoker’s recent post, “Pope Francis, Abortion, & Quandary Ethics.” As Stoker shows, both the left and the right are having a very difficult time placing Pope Francis; try as they might, the man just doesn’t quite fit into their narrow political paradigms.

Stoker goes on to discuss and diagnose the problem of “quandary ethics,” a form of moral reasoning that continues to infect most of our cultural debates. Quandary ethics imagines a world of renegade trolley cars and fat men being tossed from bridges; it seems to have little time for everyday dilemmas, like affordable day car or PTA involvement. Such ethical reasoning represents

a tendency to think of ethics as the universal rules that arise from the resolution of high-stakes, zero-sum moral puzzles, like abortion and the infamous ‘trolley problem.’ As Pincoff points out, one of the major problems with the quandarist pursuit of ethics is the type of reasoning it demands to produce suitable solutions: “what is relevant must have nothing to do with me, only with the situation: a situation in which anyone could find himself. What is right for me must be right for anyone.” This is essentially the stripped-out, hyper-abstract sense in which we’ve come to imagine abortion, despite the fact that both sides harp endlessly about dealing in the harsh realities of lived human experience. In practice, the discussion of abortion zeroes down to categories so broad they’re almost vacant: woman, fetus, equality, freedom.

This form of abstract reasoning not only creates unhelpful generalizations, but creates political stalemate. As just one example, witness the impasse in The Episcopal Church over sexuality. The net effect of this peculiar ethical reasoning insists “upon ethical rules too general and too extreme for our real sense of the matter,” as Stoker points out.

Proponents of quandary ethics tend to side with Kant over Aristotle: authority is rule-based in nature and application. Compare this, however, with traditional catholic teaching on ethics, where factors like “intention, purpose, and overall cultural tendencies” inform moral decision making, and you can see how far some Christian ethical discourse has strayed from its classical roots.

But isn’t this to be expected? After all, “Aristotle is the great historical figure that the Enlightenment forgot,” according to Sam Wells.


At the end of the day, Classical Christian ethics is a messy affair; it doesn’t have the luxurious clean lines of quandary or rule-based ethical systems, which is to say, it doesn’t have the precision of math. As Wells reminds us, “the key question about New Testament ethics is not ‘What exactly do these instructions require and are exceptions ever legitimate?’ Instead the key question is ‘What kind of a community did the early church need to be to be faithful to Jesus in the light of the world’s challenges, and thus what kind of a community does the church today need to be to do the same?’”