- Of or pertaining to a particular situation.
Situational ethics, or situation ethics, is a Christian ethical theory that was principally developed in the 1960s by the Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher. It basically states that sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served; as Paul Tillich once put it: 'Love is the ultimate law’. The moral principles Fletcher is specifically referring to are the moral codes of Christianity and the type of love he is specifically referring to is 'Agape' love. Agapē is a term which comes from Greek which means absolute, universal, unchanging and unconditional love for all people. Fletcher believed that in forming an ethical system based on love, he was best expressing the notion of 'love thy neighbour', which Jesus Christ taught in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. Through situational ethics, Fletcher attempted to find a 'middle road' between legalistic and antinomian ethics. Fletcher developed situational ethics in his books: The Classic Treatment and Situation Ethics. situation ecthics is a relatavist theory.
Fletcher believed that there are no absolute laws other than the law of Agapē love and all the other laws were laid down in order to achieve the greatest amount of this love. This means that all the other laws are only guidelines to how to achieve this love, and thus they may be broken if the other course of action would result in more love.
Situational ethics is a teleological, or consequential theory, in that it is concerned with the outcome or consequences of an action; the end, as opposed to an action being intrinsically wrong such as in deontological theories. In the case of situational ethics, the ends can justify the means.
Fletcher's 'Three Possible Approaches':
Joseph Fletcher argued that there were only three possible approaches to ethics:
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 is an unacceptable approach to ethics.
The situational approach
Situational ethics relies on one principle, what best serves love. 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 judgements, but disagrees that the good is to be disconcerned from the nature of things. All moral decisions are hypothetical, as they depend on what the most loving thing to do is.
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' (Hoose, 1987)
Fletcher's Four Examples
Joseph Fletcher famously gave four situations that he used as examples in which the established moral laws might need to be put on hold in order to achieve the greater amount of love. They were all either real situations, or based upon real situations; also he never gave any final judgment for these situations, but rather made people think about the best outcomes themselves.
Here are four cases adapted from J Fletcher's "Situation Ethics"
Himself Might his Quietus Make
- I dropped in on a patient at the hospital who explained that he only had a set time to live. The doctors could give him some pills (that would cost $40 every three days) that would keep him alive for the next three years, but if he didn’t take the pills, he’d be dead within six months. Now he was insured for $100,000, double indemnity and that was all the insurance he had. But if he took the pills and lived past next October when the insurance was up for renewal, they were bound to refuse the renewal, and his insurance would be canceled. So he told me that he was thinking that if he didn’t take the pills, then his family would get left with some security, and asked my advice on the situation.
Special Bombing Mission No. 13
- When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the plane crew were silent. Captain Lewis uttered six words, “My God, what have we done?” Three days later another one fell on Nagasaki. About 152,000 were killed, many times more were wounded and burned, to die later. The next day Japan sued for peace. When deciding whether to use “the most terrible weapon ever known” the US President appointed an interim committee made up of distinguished and responsible people in the government. Most but not all of its military advisors favoured using it. Top-level scientists said they could find no acceptable alternative to using it, but they were opposed by equally able scientists. After lengthy discussions, the committee decided that the lives saved by ending the war swiftly by using this weapon outweighed the lives destroyed by using it and thought that the best course of action. Were they right?
Christian Cloak and Dagger
- I was reading Gardner’s ‘Biblical Faith and Social Ethics’ on a shuttle plane to New York. Next to me sat a young woman of about twenty-eight or so, attractive and well turned out in expensive clothes of good taste. She showed some interest in my book, and I asked if she’d like to look at it. “No,” she said, “I’d rather talk.” What about? “Me.” That was a surprise, and I knew it meant good-bye to the reading I needed to get done. “I have a problem I can’t get unconfused about. You might help me to decide,” she explained…There was a war going on that her government believed could be stopped by some clever use of espionage and blackmail. However, this meant she had to seduce and sleep with an enemy spy in order to lure him into blackmail. Now this went against her morals, but if it brought the war to an end, saving thousands of lives, would it be worth breaking those moral standards?
- As the Russian armies drove westward to meet the Americans and British at the Elbe, a Soviet patrol picked up a Mrs. Bergmeier foraging food for her three children. Unable even to get word to the children, she was taken off to a POW camp in Ukraine. Her husband had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge and taken to a POW camp in Wales. When he was returned to Berlin, he spent months rounding up his children, although they couldn’t find their mother. She more than anything else was needed to reknit them as a family in that dire situation of hunger, chaos and fear. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Mrs. Bergeier learned through a sympathetic commandant that her husband and family were trying to keep together and find her. But the rules allowed them to release her to Germany only if she was pregnant, in which case she would be returned as a liability. She turned things over in her mind and finally asked a friendly Volga German camp guard to impregnate her, which he did. Her condition being medically verified, she was sent back to Berlin and to her family. They welcomed her with open arms, even when she told them how she had managed it. And when the child was born, they all loved him because of what they had done for them. After the christening, they met up with their local pastor and discussed the morality of the situation.
These situations were criticised by many as being quite extreme, although Joseph Fletcher agreed that they were so, because in normal cases, the general guidelines should be applied and it is only in extreme cases that exceptions would need to be made.
Situational ethics outlined
Fletcher outlined his theory in ten principles, which he split into the four working principles and the six fundamental principles.
The four working principles
There are four presuppositions that Fletcher makes 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
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, so here are some passages of relevant biblical scripture, and it is left to the reader as to whether the teachings of situational ethics are Biblical or not.
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)
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)
'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)
Lord of the Sabbath'Then He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath..."' (Mark 2:27)
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)
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)
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)
Criticism of situational ethics
John Robinson, an Anglican Bishop of Woolwich and Dean of Trinity College started off a firm supporter of situational ethics, saying that it was: "The only ethics for the man come of age" referring to the responsibility it gave the individual in deciding the morality of their actions. Although later he withdrew his support recognising that people couldn't 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, as stated by Bishop Robinson) 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, which is another thing Bishop Robinson may have been referring to. The problem is that it gives people an excuse for not obeying the rules when it suits them. 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 humanity is a practical species full of selfishness and other flaws.
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 it's quite vague and doesn't help much in the way of guidance. 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 subjective, because decisions are made by the individual from within the perceived situation thus calling into question the reliability of that choice
Situational ethics is prepared to accept any action at all as morally right and some people believe that certain actions can never be justified.
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.
- Faithnet on Situation Ethics An easy to understand explanation of the topic.
- Situational Ethics explained, evaluated and applied A good introduction to Situational Ethics from rsrevision.com
- Situation Ethics Article Another good overview and explanation of situational ethics.
situational in German: Situationsethik
situational in French: Éthique de situation
situational in Swedish: Situationsetik