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Rudolf Bultmann claimed that Jesus Christ had no ethics except for “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. This is what the Anglican Joseph Fletcher based his theory of Situation Ethics on. Fletcher opposed the idea of Legalistic and Antinomian Ethics.
Legalistic ethics is where there are absolute rules to what should and should not be done. Fletcher said that Legalism couldn’t accommodate the “exceptions to the rule” and that rejecting a particular aspect of the law than you surely must reject it all. For example the law “Do not kill” may require more laws to allow killing in self defence, killing in war, killing unborn babies etc. and doing this contradicts the law in the first place.
Antinomian Ethics means “against law” and people using this approach do not live by an ethical system at all. Fletcher is against this not only because it is unprincipled but also on the basis of existentialist ethics, which argues that reality is composed of singular event and moments in time and Antinomian ethics follows no predictable direction from one situation to another.
Situation ethics is based purely on agape love for all. That every ethical decision we make should be made on the premise that “the end justifies the means”, and that the most loving action with a pure motive is the best one. He claims that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount should be our moral code rather than the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments. Jesus’ ethics of “love thy neighbour as thyself” can be related to every ethical dilemma, whether modern or old.
“Jesus said nothing about birth control, large or small families, childlessness, homosexuality, masturbation, fornication, premarital intercourse, sterilisation, artificial insemination, abortion, sex, foreplay, petting and courtship. Whether any form of sex (Hetero, Homo or Auto) is good or evil depends on whether love is fully served.” (Fletcher quoted by Jenkins)
Fletcher pointed out that even Jesus broke Jewish law if love was better served by doing so.
“Christ Jesus … abolished the law with its commandments and legal claims.” Ephesians 2:13-15
Christians of all denominations can use Fletcher’s theory, which is an advantage as religious disputes and anger between the Protestants and Catholics is such a divide in the Christian religion. Situation ethics could help break down the barriers and unite a faith once again, as situation ethics main principle is love.
Fletcher developed six fundamental principles. These are:
1) No actions are intrinsically right or wrong. Nothing is good in and of itself except for love. Actions are good if they help people and bad if they don’t. One cannot expect to live responsibly with moral absolutes.
2) Good actions should not be done for reward (E.g. experiencing a good feeling or seeking altruistic deeds in return) but should be done for their own sake. Jesus and Paul taught love as the highest principle above the Law.
3) Justice is love at work in the community.
4) Love is practical and not selective. We should show love to all, even our enemies. Christian love is unconditional.
5) Love is the end – never a means to something else.
6) Humans have the responsibility of freedom. They are not bound by any Law. With this comes the responsibility to ‘do the most loving thing’ in every situation.
“Fletcher claims that it is a mistake to generalise. You can’t say ‘Is it ever right to lie to your family?’ The answer must be, ‘I don’t know, give me an example.’ A concrete situation is needed, not a generalisation. ‘It all depends’ may well be the watchword of the Situationist.” (Vardy & Grosch p.130)
There are many benefits to Situation Ethics. The Bible does not cover many modern topics such as abortion, artificial insemination etc and situation Ethics allows us to work out which is the most loving action with the most loving end. It is also true to the Gospel representation of Jesus and what rules he lived by rather than living by the Old Testament or Jewish laws such as the Ten Commandments, which Jesus came to amend.
Situation ethics is flexible, practical and allows for certain actions if the motive is pure and loving for others. It allows the evaluation of actions to choose the least wrong out of two wrong actions, which a legalist cannot do.
There are however many criticisms which mostly come down to the problem of knowing what the most loving action is. As we cannot predict actions of other or even actions of our own, it is difficult to know whether the most loving end will actually come or whether an unseen factor may emerge and change the outcome. Selfish people also may twist situation ethics to suit themselves.
Agape love is only an ideal to follow as closely as possible not to live by, as it is difficult to see things from an objective point of view. How can we be sure that an action comes out of Agape? Who is to decide whether an action is pure by motive? Can God only decide this at Judgement Day? Another very important criticism is that it can be argued that Hitler was killing Jews out of love for the Arian race and the future of the world. Does Situation ethics allow for such actions that have been dubbed “Wrong, and that’s that.” such as the Holocaust, September the Eleventh and the Bali bombing?
Although the arguments for situation ethics are very convincing and useful for everyday life, the criticisms cannot be ignored, as they are very plausible and important for world issues and topics.
A way that considers both Situation ethics and legalism and is somewhere in between is Proportionalism. Proportionalists believe moral rules can only be overridden if there is a proportionate reason in a particular situation. This includes both Natural law (killing, stealing, lying, cheating) and the Situational ethics view. Proportionalists believe that these laws should be adhered to unless there are good reasons not to. This allows for flexibility and a certain amount of relativism whilst still using the fundamental aspects of the Bible.
An evil like pain, death or mutilation is, in itself, pre-moral or non-moral, and should never be described as ‘moral’. It is the act as a whole, which is right or wrong, and it is the person, or the person in his or her acting, who is morally good or morally bad. (Bernard Hoose quoted by Vardy & Grosch)
I conclude that Fletcher’s situation ethics is highly useful for Christians in everyday life for all the reasons above. However I do believe that there has to be a balance and in my opinion it seems that Proportionalism is the best and most moral route to follow. It contains principles of both Situation ethics and Legalism and seems to make the most sense.