Existential ethics, as distinguished from situational ethics, refers to the contemporary attempt of Catholic theologians, especially in Germany, to work out a concrete, existential, individual ethics that will supplement traditional scholastic ethics, which they regard as limited to an abstract, essential, universal frame of reference. These thinkers, insisting on the uniqueness of the individual moral situation, deny the sufficiency of any straightforward application of universal moral principles to such a situation. According to them, the general moral norms do not cover the existential moment of self-commitment in a concrete situation, and therefore cannot tell the individual what he must do. In other words, the will of God for an existing individual in a concrete situation cannot be adequately expressed in terms of conclusions from the natural law. The norms of the natural law can give no more than a "case" of the general, and so cannot express the complete moral demands of the individual situation. For there is a positive individual element belonging to the concrete moral act that escapes even the subtlest casuistry.
Individual vs. Situational Ethics. This is not to say that the concrete duty of the individual is not also a case and an application of a universal law or laws. It is indeed this; in fact, it receives a large part of its justification from the general law. But beyond this exemplification of the universal it is the expression of an individual call that demands a comparably individual answer. Or, to put it in another way, whereas the "cases" of the universal law can be known and stated in objective universal concepts, the individual, concrete, moral duty has a uniqueness that can be expressed fully only in a kind of nonobjective, peculiarly personal, subjective knowledge. This contrast between objective and subjective existence reflects the existentialist and phenomenological cast of the thinking of the theologians espousing this type of ethics (see existentialism; phenomenology).
Existential ethics is similar to situational ethics in this emphasis on the individual and subjective side of moral experience. It is distinguished from situational ethics in that it undertakes its portrayal of the strictly individual duty within the framework of a traditional, universal, essential ethical theory. Existential ethics, then, is best understood as a complement and corrective to traditional Thomistic ethics rather than as a complete, independent system. For this reason, if for no other, it would escape the condemnation of purely situational ethics that was promulgated by the Holy See in 1952 [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 44 (1952) 413–19].
Uniqueness of the Situation. Perhaps existential ethics can be best described in terms of the concrete moral challenge each man has to face. This challenge has a double aspect. It can be described according to its content and according to its mode of realization. In both of these aspects the style and approach of phenomenological existentialism exert a strong influence. The content of the moral act is described phenomenologically so that in addition to the objective description of the object and circumstances traditionally discussed, existential ethics adds "the sense of the concrete situation" (Heidegger's Befindlichkeit ). For example, a traditional moralist will give as essential circumstances of stealing that the property belong to someone else and that it be taken against his reasonable will; or of fornication that the two persons be unmarried. The existentialist would say that this describes the objective, "essential" situation. To it he adds "the sense of the concrete situation," i.e., the reality out of which the individual's distinct being is formed and which the individual in turn determines. It contains a personal sense of finitude and contingency and a sense of being cast out into the world with no roots or supports of one's own. It is a point of tension with objective and subjective factors. In a sense, it is the point of intersection of the universal laws that apply to a given situation, plus a peculiarly individual law that applies to the person at this specific point of his historical development. From this there comes an individual imperative, tailored to the present state of a soul, an individual arrangement and predetermination for men as individuals standing at particular crossroads of life.
"I-Thou" Relationship. In addition to this emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual situation, existential ethics lays great stress on the "I-Thou" relationship between each person and those who come into his life, and between each person and God. Here, as in every variety of existentialism, we find a sharp distinction drawn between persons and things or objects. Traditionally, we are told, moralists missed the importance of this distinction and tended to treat persons as they did objects. They set up an objective framework of rights and duties that dealt with cold abstractions expressed in universal norms. From this it is difficult to reach down to the warm, living concreteness of moral experience.
The existentialists prefer to have man establish a loving "I-Thou" relationship with his neighbor. They claim that man can often know what this personal relationship demands of him without his having to go through any complicated coordination and application of universal moral principles. Love is the key to this intuition of duty. It keeps one from considering the individual as a composite of universals and reveals his unique personal being.
The "I-Thou" relationship to God is built around the same loving commitment to another person. No longer is God a remote legislator. Instead, He is the infinite Thou, who calls man personally and immediately. This call is indeed a command, but much more than a universal commandment. God's commanding will is a clear call and is morally binding, even in what have been traditionally considered as matters of counsel. Thus a call to the religious life would seem to bind under pain of sin. This call of God, which can refer to any area of life, religious or secular, is not heard by all men. One has to be well attuned to God's voice to hear His call, and this takes a "charismatic art" of discernment of spirits and a special prudence. This discernment and prudence are the out-growth of a personal immediacy with God that is inspired by faith and love.
In view of this orientation to love rather than law, it is not surprising that the proponents of existential ethics look on morality as a personal challenge to surrender oneself to God that outstrips all objective norms and any purely legal morality. Man must act from his whole heart with a firm grasp of inner truth. He has to be aware of the divine demand on him personally to engage himself totally in the concrete moral challenge. When he does, he will realize that this alone will give him the truly personal life that alone can satisfy him, namely, one in which he comes to grips with absolute, transobjective moral value in direct confrontation with God.
Evaluation and Critique. Historically and ideologically existential ethics can be considered as an attempt to integrate the subjective elements of Protestant theology and the phenomenological insights of existentialism into Catholic moral theology. Taken in this light, it is not an attack on traditional views, but an attack on the exaggerated objectivism of extreme voluntaristic nominalism and its accompanying legalism. Existential ethics emphasizes the personal in a way that augments without contradicting traditional moral theology. It claims to give a less artificial and more realistic moral theory by putting the loving will of God at the center of all morality. Man's personal response to God's personal love for him is not the observance of a commandment but the loving embrace of His will.
The one outstanding figure in the discussion of existential ethics is Karl rahner, who exposes this doctrine in his Gefahren im heutigen Katholizismus (Einsiedeln 1950) and Das Dynamische in der Kirche (Freiburg 1958). Two other moral theologians, Joseph Fuchs and Bernard Häring, lean toward existential ethics, but cannot properly be called proponents of it.
There has been favorable reaction to the proposals of these thinkers among Catholic moral theologians. Many have approved their emphasis on love and have, in their turn, suggested that charity be put at the heart of moral theology. There have been, however, three main objections to the moral theories of existential ethics. First, some theologians—protestations of its proponents to the contrary notwithstanding—think that existential ethics undermines traditional objective morality and falls into a dangerous subjectivism. These critics reject the claim that existential ethics is but an extension of traditional Catholic morality, which goes beyond it without denying it. Secondly, and this complaint is more widely voiced, some hold that existential ethics wipes out the distinction between commandment and counsel. For, in some instances at least, it would seem that one is supposed to perceive a command from God to enter the religious life or to marry some particular person, and so understands that he is obliged to enter religion or marry the person in question. Thirdly, some Thomists object that existential ethics is based on a misunderstanding of the role of prudence in the direction of human action, and in reality solves only a pseudo-problem.
It is unlikely that existential ethics will be generally accepted by Catholic theologians until these points are clarified to their general satisfaction.
See Also: prudence; moral theology; human act; morality.
Bibliography: f. bÖckle, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 3:1301–04. j. d. gerken, Toward a Theology of the Layman (New York 1963) 54–81, 107–52. j. fuchs, "Situation Ethics and Theology," Theology Digest 2 (1954) 25–30. This appeared originally as "Situationsethik in theologischer Sicht" in Scholastik 27 (1952) 161–83. w. a. wallace, "Existential Ethics: A Thomistic Appraisal," The Thomist 27 (1963) 493–515.
[j. v. mcglynn]