Situation Ethics



Originated in 1950/60 radical movement.In 1960s, USA was involved in Vietnam war against communism. Fletcher was opposed to war and wanted to establish most important aspects of Christ morality: law of love.

Rudolph Bultman : Jesus taught nothing but "love thy neighbour as thyself".

Biblical Influence : "God is Love"(1 John 4:8) and AGAPE

Why Reassessment of Christian morality :

  • Church decline due to WW2 'absence of God'.
  • Big Bang ideas.
  • contraception and media weakening family value.
  • traditional NML and Protestant Divine Command Theory is unrealistic as bible outdated.

Cowardice to hide behind ethical morals- only grow morally if we make mistakes.

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written in 'Situation Ethics - The New Morality' in 1966- contreversial.

rejects absolutism.

supports relativism.

written in Christian context but with AGAPA as the only Christian presupposition (Fletcher was active Christian in Episcopal Church.)

rejects legalism.(-always right to obey moral law; casuistry corrupts laws in Catholocism.)

rejects antinomianism.(-laws should be rejected; intellectually irresponsible 'anarchic' e.g. Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism as victim to believe he has a built-in conscience.)

situationism is a mid-point between the 2 = morality based on Christian love.

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  • human behaviour is determined by surrounding circumstances rather than personal qualities.
  • middle ground between legalism and antinomianism.
  • rules should be set aside when love demands.
  • only Christian presupposition = AGAPE as the only intrinsically good thing.
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4 working principles

PRAGMATISM -morality is about facts and actions that maximise love.If something is not pragmatic, it's worthless.William James says that the pragmatist "turns his back on fixed principles..towards power."

RELATIVISM -morality is relative to situation, avoid absolutes: 'never' or 'always' etc.Agapeic love is the only constant as it "relativises the absolute, it does not absolutise the relative."

POSITIVISM -faith come first and we should love because love is from God e.g. you read a book because you want to and arent expected to justify it.(Situation ethics = faith commitment to Christian love.)

PERSONALISM -morality is about people not rules; humans are made 'in God's image' and Jesus is God incarnate.

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6 fundamental principles

these allow us to calculate how love is best served in a situation:

1 Love only is always good. "one thing is intrinsically good:namely, love".

2 Love is the only norm. "the ruling norm of Christian decision is love : nothing else."

3 Love = Justice. "justice is love distributed."

4 Love is not liking. "love wills the neighbour's good whetehr we like him or not."

5 Love justifies it's means.

6 Love decided there and then. "love decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively."

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  • Guides christians due to it's compatability with Jesus.
  • Has moral common sense.
  • Promotes individual autonomy ; ignore laws that don't fit situation.
  • Promotes social justice - looks at desired end and changes for the better e.g. discrimination.
  • Modernised.
  • Focuses on people not laws like NML e.g. death penalty would still be enforced for adultery now in following NML.
  • Provides an alternative Christian ethic.
  • Flexible and practicle.


  • John Robinson - wrote contreversial 'Honest to God' in 1963 where God is the 'ground of being'. Says Fletcher is the only one with approach suitable for 'man come of age' and both agree that 'God is love'.     
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  • puts too much pressure on individuals- doesn't human selfishness prove that autonomy will end in everyone acting for their own 'telos'.
  • neglects 2000 years of Church tradition and authority; John Robinson ends up rejecting situation ethics as it may lead to moral chaos, William Barcley opposes situation ethics stressing the point that "not all men are angels".
  • no way to identify most loving action.
  • only tackles extreme circumstance and not real life.
  • emphasises motivation and love to an unreasonable extent e.g. obsessive love from parent to child will hinder development.
  • not consistent, coherent, rational or objective so will not stand test of time (e.g. Robinson ended up opposing it.)
  • depends on consequentialism in which future predictions may not necessarily be right.


  • Robinson - eventually.
  • Barcley.
  • Pope Pius XII criticises it for deeming outrageous acts reasonable e.g. birth control. He banned 'Situation Ethics - The New Morality' from all academies.
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