In The Responsible Self by H. R. Niebuhr, the author develops a moral philosophy based not upon rigid rules or prescriptions but instead a flexible algorithm developed by answering two sequential questions: (1) “What is happening?” and (2) “What should I do?” Resultantly, proper ethical conduct, says Niebuhr, is described in terms of responsibility not only to our own values and self but also to others that we subsequently engage with. In practice, this responsibility is accountable to others, considers divergent interpretations of the event a hand, and is molded by the society that one identifies with. Niebuhr’s philosophy liberates the user from rigid moral prescriptions (the deontological approach) or a strict consequentialist model that seeks an appropriate end (the teleological approach).
A deontological approach, for example, would state that homicide is absolutely wrong, always, regardless of the circumstances. A teleological approach would praise homicide in some cases and shun it in others, depending on the end result—the same act can thus have different ethical interpretations.
I reflect on Niebuhr’s formulations because many issues in contemporary society, I think, ought to be thought of in terms of responsibility and not unyielding moral and/or ethical parameters.