In 1966, Joseph Fletcher published his book ‘Situation Ethics: The New Morality’. His theory was based on one guiding principle – agape. This is the Christian principle of selfless love.
Situation Ethics is also referred to as relativistic, consequentialist and teleological theory.
Historical events such as World War II, the Vietnamese War and the Cuban Crisis had lead the younger generations to reject the traditions and belief of world leaders. Fletcher was also influenced by these historical events. Another thing that influence Fletcher was The Beatles song – All You Need Is Love.
He was an American professor. He was born in 1905 and he died in 1991. Fletcher formulated the theory known as Situation Ethics. He was a leading academic who was involved in topics ranging from abortion to cloning.
He also was ordained as a priest, but later identified himself as an atheist. He stated that we should always use the principle of love or agape and apply it to each unique situation.
Antinomianism is “against law”. This approach argues that the situation itself will show us what we ought to do. Each decision and each occasion is totally unique. The right thing to do is dependent on things like intuition or waiting for the “inner voice” to guide us.
Fletcher rejected this as he said with no guiding principle here could well be moral chaos.
Strengths of Antinomianism are;
Do what you want (freedom) / Appeals to a person’s own satisfaction / Makes decisions that reflect you own values
Weaknesses of Antinomianism are;
Some people can’t make their own decision / Can cause chaos / Freedom can be abused
Legalism is a set of prefabricated moral rules, laws or regulations. Decisions are made by appealing to these rules. Fletcher rejected Natural Law as he said it gave people no choice but to follow the rules.
Strengths of Legalism are;
Ordered society / People can be protected / Stick to morals (10 commandments)
Weaknesses of Legalism are;
Innocent suffering / Every situation is treated the same / Takes away choice
Antinomianism and Legalism
Fletcher saw his ethical theory as a “middle way” between two extremes, this extremes were antinomianism and legalism.
Situation Ethics is described as a relativist, consequentialist and teleological theory.
Relativist; this mean there are no universal moral norms or rules and that each situation has to be looked at independently because each situation is different.
Consequentialist; this means that moral judgement (whether something is right or wrong) should be based on the outcome or the consequences of an action.
Teleological; this means that it is concerned with the end purpose or goal of an action. In this case the goal should always be “self-sacrificing love”.
Agape is a self-sacrificial (selfless) love. A love which puts others first. It is a love that isn’t concerned with one’s self. Jesus demonstrated agape in his willingness to die for others.
St. Paul describes what is meant by this type of love – “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy.” (Biblical Evidence).
Four Working Principles
Fletcher came up with the Four Working Principles in order to help people understand how situation ethics works and why it is a good idea.
They are; personalism, positivism, pragmatism and relativism.
Personalism; the desire to put people first, not rules or ideals.
Positivism; a person should freely choose to believe in agape love as described by Christianity.
Pragmatism; this is that the course of action must be practical and motivated by love.
Relativism; the right response will depend upon each unique situation, situation ethics try avoid words such as “never” and “always”.
Six Fundamental Principles
These are guiding principles devised by Fletcher in order to determine what the most loving action in any given situation would be.
1. Love only is always good
Actions are only good if they help humans (showing love for one another) and they are bad if they hurt people.
2. Love is the only norm
Jesus and St Paul replaced the Torah with the principle of love, in the past Christians have broken the 10 Commandments in order to do the right thing e.g. Bonhoeffer tried to kill Hitler
3. Love and justice are the same, and love is justice distributed
Love and justice cannot be separated.
Six Fundamental Principles (Continued)
4. Love wills the neighbour's good, whether we like him or not.
Your neighbour is anybody and agape love goes out to everyone
5. Love is the only means
When weighing up a situation, one must consider what you want the outcome to be and what you need to do to get there. Fletcher said the end must be the most loving thing
6. Love decides there and then
Whether something is right or wrong depends on the situation and can’t be pre-determined
Fletcher rejects the idea that conscience is an intuition, a channel for divine guidance, the internalised values of the individual’s culture, or the part of reason that makes value judgements. He thinks this because all of these treat the conscience as a thing, which Fletcher believes is a mistake. Rather, for him, a conscience is a verb rather than a noun – it is something you do when you make decisions, as he puts it ‘creatively’.
John 15v13; Jesus states “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” – this supports agape love.
Galatians 5v14; “for the whole law is fulfilled in one word, you shall love you neighbour as yourself” – this supports the six fundamental principle (the ruling norm of any Christian decision is love, nothing else).
Mark 2v27; “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” – some claim Jesus adopted a relativistic approach to ethics, for example he attacked the Pharisees (this links to the four working principles – relativism).
Biblical Evidence (Continued)
John 5v1-16; Jesus put people first, he broke Sabbath laws to heal on the Sabbath. This links to the working principle – personalism.
Matthew 22v37-39; Jesus stated that “love your neighbour as yourself” is the highest principle above law.
Luke 6v27; Jesus stated that you should “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” – one of Fletchers six fundamental principles states love w ills the good of others regardless of others.
Compatible with Christianity
It is modelled on the teachings of Jesus e.g. “love one another as I have loved you” - John 13v34-5
Some claim that Jesus adopted a relativistic approach to ethics, for example he attacked the Pharisees' insistence on following the Jewish law “The Sabbath was made was made for man not for the Sabbath” - Mark2v27
The idea of personalism is keeping with the actions of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. Jesus put people first, he broke the Sabbath as he healed the paralysed man. - John Chapter 5
Jesus and St Paul taught that love is the highest principle above law.
Non-Compatible with Christianity
It rejects moral laws such as the Ten Commandments, but St Paul said that love is the fulfilling of the laws - Roman 3v10
St Paul stated that love is not the only desirable quality “the fruit of Sprit is love, joy peace, patience…" - Galatians 5v22-23
Situation Ethics removes God as the source of ultimate authority in the universe and substitutes man in his place
Situation Ethics fails to consider religious tradition or the teachings of church leaders. For example, the bible states that sex should only take place in marriage, but this theory allows sex before marriage if based on agape.
It is based on love, which, rationally as well as emotionally, is a key feature of all moral systems.
You don’t have to follow a conventional rule, if that goes against your deepest sense of what love requires.
It is easy to understand: you follow a single principle.
Situation ethics is flexible and practical. It takes in to account how complex human life is and can make tough decisions when, from a legalistic stance, all actions seem wrong.
It is individualistic – what is the most loving thing to one, is not to another.
It is subjective – we don’t always have the fact to make a sound decision.
People need laws and rules to spell out behaviour in order to keep us all safe and singing from the same song sheet.
It is prepared to accept any actions as long as the outcome is supposed to be loving.