situation ethics

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  • Created by: kelsey
  • Created on: 18-03-14 11:26

The social and intellectual background

  • Moral rules are good in themselves and should be obeyed irrespective of the consequences, and they comprise moral duties and obligations that are binding to humans.
  • Situation ethics was most commonly assosiated with Joseph Fletcher and Robinson.
  • The rapidity with which moral perspectives changes in the 20th century connot be underestimated. 

The church's reaction the situation ethics:

  • Not attracted to it.
  • The church was thrown into disarray and disagreement. There was controversy, after a change in perspective.
  • Robinson challenged the traditional, conservative view of god. 
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The law of love

  • Fletcher and Robinson used new testiment dialogues between Jesus and the pharisees as an illistration of new versus old morality. Fletcher and Robinson were aware that the move from a supernaturalist view of ethics, where right and wrong is derived directly from god through commandments and laws that are eternally valid for human life and behaviour, to a situationist or existential ethic, it was not going to be universally popular. 
  • Situation ethics declares that nothing can be labelled as 'Wrong' or 'bad', Robinson said to respond to things situationally, not prescriptively.
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situation ethics and Divorce law

  • Situation ethics could be applied more effectively to the then hotly debated issue of divorce law.
  • It questioned the conservative view that marriage created a supernatural bond that was impossible to break.
  • Although it may appear that marriage is about two human beings signing in legal contract, in reality 'something' happens in the metaphysical realm that binds those two people together in a relationship that is beyond the legal contract between them.
  • Robinson stated that this kind of thinking was out dated and potentially damaging.
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Joseph Fletcher

Fletcher identified three approaches to morality:

  • Legalism: conservative rule based morality.
  • Antinomianism: The polar opposite to legalism. No rules or maxims can be applied to a moral situation.
  • Situationist: a midway between the two other positions.
  • The middle way always lay in the application of agape, the love that Jesus commanded.
  • Situation ethics is based on a single principle that enables man to enter every situation armed with the experience and precedents of past situations, but willing to lay them aside if the principle of love, agape, is better served by doing, and enable us better to bring about the greatest good. 
  • Comparing utilitarianism and situation ethics: although they share similarities of approach, rejecting absolute rules and allowing situations to be judged relatively according to the principle of utility, the principle of happiness and agape are quite different.
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Principles and Presumtions

Fletcher proposed four presuppositions of situation ethics:

  • Pragmatism: demands that a proposed course of action should work, and that it's success of failure should be judged according to the principle.
  • Reletivism: rejects such absolutes as 'never', 'always', 'perfect' and 'complete'.
  • Positivism: recognises that love is the most important criterion of all.
  • Personalism: demands that people should all be put first. Fletcher emphasised the fact that ethics deals with human relations and should therefore put people at the centre. the lagalish, he observed, asks 'what is the law?' while the situationist asks 'who is to be helped?'

Fletcher was detailed in explaining how agape should be understood and how it applied to the theory of situation ethics.

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Unique situations

Fletcher developed his theory by drawing on a wide range of cases that could not be resolved by applying fixed rules and principles.


  • Woman kills her crying baby to save a party from massacre.
  • Fletcher also drew on situations he had experienced first hand: Visited man with stomach cancer  who would die in six months without treatment that would cost money. he would have to give up work and borrow money from his insurance. if he refused treatment, family get money and no debt left behind.
  • And borrowed examples from literature and history.
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Challenges to situation ethics

  • Barclay adopted a conservative view on christian ethics, and challenged Fletcher's new morality on several grounds. Correctly observes that Fletcher's cases are extreme ones. How often are we going to make the kind of life or death choices that he talks about? Rarely, if ever.
  • Flether overestimates the value of being free from rules and the constant decision making processes that this forces humans into.
  • If it were the case that agape could always be fairly amd accurately dealt out, the laws would be redundant. There are no such guarrantees, and so a degree of law is necessary for human survival.
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