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Situation Ethics Essay

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Situation ethics is not dissimilar from utilitarianism, in that it is a way a deciding upon the correct action that is to be taken in a given situation. It does however take an individualistic approach, with the emphasis being upon each person, rather than looking after the majority, as is the case in utilitarianism. It is a Christian principle, and so would not apply to those outside of Christianity. It revolves around what the most loving thing to do is.

Joseph Fletcher, an American professor of ethics used his beliefs and concerns to come up with what he believed was a fair way of deciding what was the right action to take in a situation.

He didn’t like the way in which so many ethical theories, such as utilitarianism were based upon and around a basic set of rules, a legalistic approach. He believed that it was too rigid, and did not allow for exceptions. He also firmly disapproved of any antinomian, because it “Rejects the idea that there are any authoritative laws, rules or regulations that you ought to obey in a decision-making situation.


Instead he used love as a general rule in decision making; not “storge”, to love a country or place; not “philia”, to love a family member or friend; and not “eros”, to make love and to lust for someone; but instead “agape”, self-giving love, as is demonstrated by Jesus dying upon the cross. To Fletcher, “agape” was fundamentally sacrificing, without any reward or pleasure, as the teachings of Jesus are told in the Bible, and he took a lot of his ideas from this. The quote in Matthew saying, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself,”2 epitomises what agape is all about. He believed that something could be determined as good or evil, depending on whether or not love had been fully served.

Fletcher used four different working principles before setting out his theory:

i) Pragmatism – “the proposed course of action must work, and must work towards the end, which is love”3 This is based around the idea of reaching a goal or the end.

ii) Relativism – in situation ethics Fletcher tries to avoid the absolute by not referring to words such as ‘never’, ‘perfect’ and ‘always’. He also added that, “all decisions must be relative to Christian love.”4

iii) Positivism – faith comes before reason and anything else. People must see for themselves that love is the most important thing.

iv) Personalism – a situationist believes you put people first, not laws, and that, “There are no “values” in the sense of inherent goods – value is what happens to something when it happens to be useful to love working for the sake of persons.”5

He then worked out six fundamental principles about love and these were:

The first proposition – Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love; nothing else at all

The basic idea behind this lies in his thinking that only love can be good in all situations, and everything else is good or bad depending on the situation and are not properties of actions. Something can only be good if it brings about love.

The second proposition – The ruling norm of Christian decision is love; nothing else

Fletcher believed you are only required to follow laws, rules and regulations if they serve love. Love replaces law and cannot be equalled by any other law.

The third proposition – Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed,

nothing else

Love is intellectual and Fletcher said, “Owe no man anything except to love,”6 categorising the two together. His reasoning behind this lies in his belief that “Justice is agape working out its problems.”7

The fourth proposition – Love wills the neighbour’s good, whether we like him or not

Agape doesn’t have to be a matter of felling, but of attitude. “It isn’t sentimental or erotic, but, rather, a desire for the good of the other person.”8 This applies to everybody, not just people we know or people we like, but universally, and nothing is required in return.

The fifth proposition – Only the end justifies the means, nothing else

This is the same principle that applies within utilitarianism. You must consider what the consequences of moral actions will be, and the end must be the most loving result.

The sixth proposition – Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively

Something is right or wrong depending on the situation.

b) I am now going to examine one moral dilemma relating to sexual equality, and apply some of the principles outlined in situation ethics in this argument, in order to work out what is “The most loving thing to do”. I shall also try to establish whether or not there are any problems with the ideas of situation ethics in deciding upon the outcome of the given dilemma.

The dilemma is one which takes into account a number of moral issues regarding what is right or wrong and it is this:

Two people, Mr A, a 25 year old father of one, and Mrs B, a 24 year old single woman have both applied for a vacant job working as a nurse in the accident and emergency department of a hospital. They have both graduated from universities with the same exam grades, and are both in desperate need of work in order to pay off their universities debts; Mrs. A also wants to help save lives after she saw her mother die in casualty, and Mr. B in order to support his family. They are the final two on the shortlist from over 20 applicants and the governing body at the hospital must now decide which one they shall employ.

There is a stereotype that would say the Mrs. A is more likely to get the job as it is thought that nursing is a job for women, as building is a job for men, but is this taken into consideration when the choice is taken? There is also the question as to whether or not personal circumstances will be taken into consideration, as you may argue that Mr. B is more entitled to the job, and therefore the pay, because he has to support a family.

If you argue from a situationists perspective you may reach one of a number of different conclusions based on your choice of argument. One that you would not come to however is that Mrs. A deserves the position on the grounds that she is female and nursing is a woman’s job.

If you look at the argument from the perspective of why they want the position you may look at the different meanings of love and you could say that they both want the job in the sense of “philia”; Mrs. A because she is doing it for her mother, after witnessing her death, but this could also be seen as “agape” on the grounds that she wants to help people who are in a similar position to her mother so this raises a slight problem which is not dealt with within situation ethics.

This is a criticism and quite an important one, because if there are numerous reasons for wanting to do something, such as apply for a job, which do you taker into consideration more, “philia” or “agape”, and if you choose one or the other, which one and why? Mr. B on the other hand seems to only want the job in order to support his family, and to pay off his debts. This once again raises a problem in the way in which you perceive his reasoning behind supporting his family. Is it because he loves them in the sense of “philia” and does not want them to leave him if he fails to support them? or is it because he loves them in the sense of “agape” and wants to be there for them and not for selfish reasons? This again raises a debate as to how you determine what somebody means when they say something.

I shall now examine how each person’s argument would be accepted or rejected by the situation ethics in relation to the consequences that would occur in giving each person the job, and the benefits of this. Firstly I shall look at Mrs. A and then Mr. B, to finally draw a conclusion to this ethical dilemma.

There are a number of reasons for giving the job. Firstly Mrs. B is obviously a very clever person and would perform the job to a very highest standard but this is not one of the criteria which would be looked at from the view of a situation ethicist unless you thought that it would be the most loving thing to do on behalf of the patients who she would treat at the hospital because she would be able to help them in the best way possible.

A good reason for her being appointed is that it looks as though she wishes to work from the perspective of “agape” and this is vital in making any decision within situation ethics. If she is prepared to work for the people you would believe she would not mind working double shifts, and would do the best she could all the time. If this was the case then she is beginning to build a string argument for her being appointed. It is unlikely that she is extrinsically motivated, and working only because of the benefits she will receive in wages, because the pay of nurses working on the NHS is very poor, but she does mention that she wants to pay off her debts.

This could be taken as the main reason for her applying for the job, and if this is true she is unlikely to get the job on a situationist basis because this may not be seen as just, if the other applicants are prepared to work for the people not just the money. This may be thought of a reason she should not get the job but if you put it into context then it seems as though her argument of “agape” and wanting to help the people of her community outweighs her need for money, and it is not as though she wants the money to be greedy. She requires it in order to pay off her debts.

The great majority of Mr. B’s argument from a situation ethics perspective lies in the interpretation of his need to support his family. In some ways this could be seen as wrong as he is not using “agape”, and wanting to help the patients, but on the other hand you could say that he is doing what he believes is the best and most loving thing for his family, not for himself. However, somebody may take a different approach to his actions and reasoning, and for this reason alone prevent him from getting the job. This is another problem that arises when arguing from situation ethics. The ideas are not precise enough to account for all of the possibilities that could arise, and every situation is different to the last one.

If you did not give the job to Mrs. B you would have a young woman who does not have a steady income, in a great deal of debt, and unable to support herself, but you would have exactly the same problem if you did give her the job. You may then have a whole family who cannot support themselves, but it is unclear from the criteria, whether or not Mr. A’s wife is bringing in any sort of income. If she was then you may give the position to Mrs. B because she is unable to support herself, but this would really not be a situation ethics argument.

In conclusion, you would not have as much of a dilemma if you were arguing from utilitarianism because for the greatest good of the greatest number you would give Mr. A the job, but you are not, and situation ethics is far broader than one simple statement. I believe you would give him the job however even from a situation ethics perspective but it is very difficult to decide because you have no way of telling the main reasons for each applying, but the fact that Mr. A loves his family and wants to support them appears to give him the edge, not to say that Mrs. B does not have a strong argument, but just not quite as strong as Mr. A’s.

1 Dialogue-Special Issue, Ethical Theory; p.47

2 The Holy Bible New International Version; Matthew 22:39

3 Ethical Studies; Robert A Bowie; Nelson Thornes Ltd; published 2001; p.102

4 Ibid; p.102

5 Situation Ethics- The New Morality; Fletcher; p.50 (Taken from ibid)

6 Situation Ethics; Fletcher; SCM Press Ltd; published 1966; p.89

7 Moral Responsibility; p.19

8 Ethical Studies; p.104

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