Situation Ethics

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Key Words

  • Agape: The 'selfless love' principle which is the foundation of situation ethics
  • Antinomianism: The idea that people are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality. There are no rules, laws, or principles
  • Consequentialism: A view taken by some ethical theories that moral decisions should be based entirely on the effects or consequences produced by the action
  • Joseph Fletcher: American professor (1905-1991) who formalised the theory known as situation ethics 
  • Four working principles: One of the two sets of guiding principles of situation ethics. They are personalism, positivism, pragmatism, and relativism
  • Legalism: An ethical approach based on prescribed rules by which people can make every moral decision. Linked to the idea that obedience to a code of religious law is necessary in order for a person to gain eternal life
  • Personalism: One of the four working principles, meaning that people must be put before laws in any given situation
  • Positivism: One of the four working principles, meaning that acting in the most loving way is the right thing to do without any proof. Love is justification for an ethical decision
  • Pragmatism: One of the four working principles, meaning that one must evaluate the situation and perform whatever action that is practical
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Key Words

  • Relativism: One of the four working principles, meaning the view that there are no universal moral norms and an action should be judged right or wrong depending on the circumstance
  • Six fundamental principles: Guiding principles devised by Fletcher in order to help decide what the most loving action is in any given situation. These fundamental principles are: only love is intrinsically good, only love provides a reasonable base for decision making, love and justice are the same, love wills the good of other, a loving end justifies the means, love's decisions are made situationally
  • Situation ethics: Ethical theory based on the premise that the right course of action is to do the most loving thing and that the most loving thing varies from situation to situation
  • Teleological: Relating to the effects or consequences produced by actions
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Relativistic, Consequentialist, Teleological

  • In 1966, Joseph Fletcher published his book Situation Ethics: The New Morality
  • His theory was based on agape love - a selfless love 
  • Situation ethics is relativistic meaning there are no universal moral norms or rules and every situation has to be looked at independently because each situation is different
  • It is considered to be consequentialas it states that moral judgements should be based on the outcome or consequence of an action
  • It is also teleologicalas it is concerned with the end purpose or goal of an action
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Additional Resources

  • Paul Tillich, Havard University Professor
  • The Shaking of the Foundations, 1957
  • Theologian who made a key contribution to the task of re-interpreteting and communicating the fundamentals of the Christian faith within contemporary culture
  • "We may shake the certainties on which generations lived"
  • Many Christians were questioning the absolute morality of Natural Law and the teaching of the Church during the 1960s and were searching for a new ground for morality
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The Four Working Principles

Situation ethics is based on one principle: acting out of agape. Agape is selfless love which is given constantly and unconditionally, regardless of the actions of the loved one. Situation ethics has often been referred to as 'Christian utilitarianism' because it aims to achieve the greatest love for the greatest number. Fletcher came up with ten principles that he believed could guide people and help them achieve agape love in any situation.

  • Pragmatism: The proposed course of action must work and be motivated by love
  • Positivism: Agape provides justification, not proof, for an ethical decision. People must accept that acting in the most loving way is the right thing to do
  • Personalism: The desire to put people, not laws, first. The Christian is committed to love people, not rules or laws
  • Relativism: The right response will depend upon each situation. People must respond with agape love to each situation. A supporter of situation ethics avoids words like 'never' or 'always' as they believe that circumstances can always throw up exceptions
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The Six Fundamental Principles

  • The ruling norm of any Christian decision is love, nothing else
  • Only love in intrinsically good, nothing else at all
  • Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else
  • Love wills the good of others, regardless or feelings, showing love to all, even our enemies
  • Love's decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively
  • A loving end justifies the means
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Biblical Evidence to Support Situation Ethics

  • John 15v13: Jesus states 'No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends' This supports the conept of agape love.
  • Galatians 5v14: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself' This appears to support many of Fletcher's six fundamental principles
  • John 5v1: Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, showing Jesus adopting a relativistic approach to ethics. This links to Fletcher's four working principles
  • Luke 6v27: Jesus stated 'Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you' Supports the idea of Fletcher's six fundamental principles
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Compatible with Christianity

  • Luke 10 (The Good Samaritan): Related to 'Love wills the good of others - even our enemies'
  • John 5: Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, related to 'personalism'
  • Galatians 5: Love thy neighbour as yourself, related to agape love as a Christian selfless love
  • John 8: The adulterous woman, relates to 'relativism' and 'love is justice distributed'
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Not Compatible with Christianity

  • Romans 13: St Paul reiterates the 10 commandments being fundamental to Christian life, goes against 'relativism'
  • Galatians 5: St Paul states it is not love, but joy, happiness and peace that are the fruits of spirit, goes against 'the only instrinsically and absolute good is love, nothing else'
  • Pope Benedict XVI: We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism, goes against 'relavtivism'
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