Situational ethics, or situation ethics, is a teleological and consequential theory of ethics concerned with the outcome of an action as opposed to an action being intrinsically wrong as in deontological theories. The theory was principally developed in the 1960s by the Christian Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher in two books, The Classic Treatment and Situation Ethics. Fletcher argued that sometimes moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love (agape) is best served for in Christianity 'Love is the ultimate law’. Fletcher believed that establishing an ethical system based on love was the best way to express the Christian principle to 'love thy neighbour' taught in the Bible. He believed that there are no absolute laws other than the law of Agapē love and all the other laws were secondary and subsumed by agape in order to achieve the greatest amount of this love. This means that all the other laws are only contingent on agape, and thus they may be broken if other courses of action would result in more love. Thus, in the case of situational ethics, the ends can justify the means.
Because of its consequentialism, situational ethics is often confused with utilitarianism, because utilitarianism's aim is the greatest good for the greatest number, although situational ethics focuses more on creating the greatest amount of love and it also has different origins. Having said that, however, situational ethics can also be classed under the ethical theory genre of 'proportionalism' which says that 'It is never right to go against a principle unless there is a proportionate reason which would justify it.' Through situational ethics, Fletcher attempted to find a 'middle road' between legalistic and antinomian ethics.
Fletcher's 'Three Possible Approaches' to Ethics
Fletcher argued that there were only three possible approaches to ethics, which he identified as the legalistic approach, the antinomian approach, and the situational approach:
The legalistic approach
Legalistic ethics has a set of prefabricated moral rules or laws. Many western religions, such as Judaism and Christianity have a very legalistic approach to ethics. Pharisaic Judaism approaches life through laws, based on the Halakah oral tradition. Through history, Christianity has focused on Natural Law and Biblical commandments, such as the Ten Commandments of Moses. Fletcher states that life runs into many difficulties when its complexities require additional laws. For example, when one initially establishes that murder is morally wrong, one may then have to make exceptions for killing for self-defence, killing in war, killing unborn children, etc. Fletcher argues that the error of a legalistic approach to ethics has been made by Catholics through their adherence to Natural Law and by Protestants through puritanical observance of the texts in the Bible. As such, Fletcher rejects legalistic ethics.
The antinomian approach
Antinomian ethics, is literally the opposite to legalism, it does not imply an ethical system at all. An antinomian enters decisions making as if each situation was unique and making moral decisions is based on the matter of spontaneity. Fletcher argues that the antinomianism approach to ethical decision making is unprincipled so it too is an unacceptable approach to ethics.
Principles of Situational Ethics
Situational ethics relies on one principle—what best serves love. According to Fletcher, Christian love is unconditional and unsentimental. Situational ethics is based on the golden rule "love your neighbour as yourself" and altruism, which is putting others before yourself and showing agape towards everyone. It agrees on reason being the instrument of moral judgments, but disagrees that the good is to be disconcerned from the nature of things. All moral decisions depend on what the most loving thing to do is. Nevertheless, Fletcher felt compelled to outline his theory in ten principles, which he split into the four working presuppositions and the six fundamental principles.
The four working presuppositions
Fletcher identifies four working presuppositions before setting out the situational ethics theory:
- Pragmatism - This is that the course of action must be practical and work.
- Relativism - All situations are always relative; situational ethicists try to avoid such words as 'never' and 'always'.
- Positivism - The whole of situational ethics relies upon the fact that the person freely chooses to believe in agape love as described by Christianity.
- Personalism - Whereas the legalist thinks people should work to laws, the situational ethicist believes that laws are for the benefit of the people.
The six fundamental principles
- First proposition
- Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at all. (Fletcher 1963, p. 56)
- Second proposition
- The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else (Fletcher 1963, p. 69)
- Third proposition
- Love and Justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else. (Fletcher 1963, p. 87)
- Justice is Christian love using its head, calculating its duties, obligations, opportunities, resources...Justice is love coping with situations where distribution is called for. (Fletcher 1963, p. 97)
- Fourth proposition
- Love wills the neighbour's good, whether we like him or not. (Fletcher 1963, p. 103)
- Fifth proposition
- Only the end justifies the means, nothing else. (Fletcher 1963, p. 120)
- Sixth proposition
- Love's decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. (Fletcher 1963, p. 134)
As a priest, Joseph Fletcher claimed situational ethics to be a true set of Christian morals that tie in with Biblical teaching. However, not all people agree with him on this. The following biblical scriptures have been cited to both support and challenge whether situational ethics is compatible with the Bible.
Jesus in relation to The Law and The Prophets
'Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until Heaven and Earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of Heaven.'
(Matthew 5:17-19 NIV)
The Greatest Commandment
'One of...[the Pharisees], an expert in the law, tested Him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments."' (Matthew 22:35-40 NIV)
'One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." (Mark 12:28-34 NIV)
Lord of the Sabbath
'Then He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath..."'
(Mark 2:27 NIV)
Jesus at a Pharisee's House
'One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, He was being carefully watched. There in front of Him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, He healed him and sent him away. Then He asked them, "If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?" And they had nothing to say.'
(Luke 14:1-6 NIV)
Paul talks about the relationship between Love and the Law
'Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.’
(Romans 13:8-10 NIV)
Paul talks about freedom we have in grace
'For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love...You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbour as yourself."'
(Galatians 5:6-14 NIV)
Criticism of situational ethics
Upon writing Situation Ethics, Fletcher claimed that, like its predecessor utilitarianism, the theory was a simple and practical one, hinging around one single principle of utility which is agape love. However, he then goes on to attempt to define agape love and in the process creates more and more principles. Some would claim this makes situational ethics more complicated and less practical than the original utilitarianism.
John Robinson, an Anglican Bishop of Woolwich and Trinity College started off a firm supporter of situational ethics referring to the responsibility it gave the individual in deciding the morality of their actions. However, he later withdrew his support for the theory recognizing that people could not take this sort of responsibility, remarking that "It will all descend into moral chaos."
Some people say that situational ethics gives people more freedom to make their own decisions (which could be a good or bad thing but if you look into it, it has just the same amount of freedom as the next ethical theory; it says that you should take the most loving course of action, showing you the one option you should choose from the many available, which is just the same as many other ethical theories).
Situational ethics is individualistic and therefore may give people an excuse for not obeying the rules when it suits them. For example, if someone wants to do something badly enough, they are likely to be able to justify it to themselves. Agape love is an ideal, whereas some have argued that humanity is a practical species full of selfishness and other flaws. Situational ethics is subjective, because decisions are made by the individual from within the perceived situation thus calling into question the reliability of that choice.
One of the problems with teleological or consequential theories is that they are based on the future consequences, and the future is quite hard to predict in some cases. For example it may be easy to predict that if you harm someone, then it will make them and those around them sad and/or angry. However, when considering more tricky situations such as an abortion, it is impossible to tell for certain how the child's life and its mother's will turn out either way.
Some point out that although Jesus was known to break the traditions and extra laws the Pharisees had set in place (as shown in some of the biblical references), He never broke one of the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Levitical Law found in the Bible. However, some would argue that he did in fact break the 10 commandments, since he worked on the Sabbath day.
One other criticism of situational ethics is that its quite vague: It says that the most moral thing to do is the thing that is the most loving. But then when it outlines what the most loving thing to do is, it says that the most loving thing to do is the thing that is the most just; from where it goes round in circles.
Situational ethics is prepared to accept any action at all as morally right and some people believe that certain actions can never be justified.
- Paul Tillich
- Hoose, 1987.
- All quotations are from the New International Version translation of the Bible.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Davis, John Jefferson. 2004. "Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today." P & R Publishing. ISBN 978-0875526225
- Fletcher, Joseph F. 1997. "Situation Ethics: The New Morality." Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0664257613
- Geisler, Norman L. 1989. "Christian Ethics: Options and Issues." Baker Academic. ISBN 978-0801038327
- Hoose, Bernard. Proportionalism: The American Debate and Its European Roots. Georgetown University Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0878404551
- West, Traci C. 2006. "Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism And Women's Lives Matter." Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0664229597
All links retrieved January 29, 2023.
- Situational Ethics explained, evaluated and applied A good introduction to Situational Ethics from rsrevision.com
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