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A. Moral Relativism is a philosophical school of thought, it states that there is no moral or universal truths regarding whether or not something is morally or ethically acceptable. Instead it claims that one must take into account: cultural; social; historical and personal circumstances. Different people have different moral codes and therefore what is morally right and wrong to them is entirely subjective. For instance King Darius observed that while one tribe of Greeks burnt the bodies of their fathers upon death, another tribe of called the Callations ate the bodies of their fathers.
Darius asked how much he would have to pay the tribes to adopt each others practices and both were outraged by the proposal and the practice of the other tribe. What was morally acceptable for one tribe was not for the other; both were right because one tribe’s opinion could not be more valid than the others. The Greek philosopher Protagoras said “there’s no truth in anything beyond what it seems,” meaning that all knowledge depends on ones perceptions of information. In short there can be no absolute moral principles.
An example of a relativist theory is situation ethics. Joseph Fletcher an American priest was the man to first develop this theory in 1966 when he published his book “situation ethics.” Fletcher’s theory is from a Christian perspective, but he felt that Christians needed to escape from following absolutist principles like the Ten Commandments and that Christian morality was about blind obedience instead of autonomy, taking responsibility for ones own actions and decisions. He said that legalism was wrong because it often lead to people doing the supposedly right thing without thinking of the consequences. For instance a mentally ill person is raped but, decides to follow laws forbidding abortion present in her culture. Under the circumstances this would be morally wrong. Fletcher also stated that antinomianism, having no morality or grounds to judge something as better than something else, was also wrong.
Someone who believes in Situation ethics follows the laws and principles of their community but is prepared to sacrifice them if they feel that they could achieve a more loving solution if they did so, note that love in this context is “agape” a self sacrificing unconditional love for your fellow creature as opposed to a sexual love.
Situation ethics says that reason is the instrument with which one should make moral judgements and that one can perform any action as long as reason dictates to them that the action is for a good cause and that one has a proper motive in doing that action. It disagrees that the nature of an action is intrinsically right or wrong but that what is moral changes depending on the action that is most loving in the circumstances. Fletcher based his ideas on that of Augustine who reduced the Christian ethic to a single principle, “dilige et quod vis, fac” meaning, love with care and then what you will do. This is very similar to Fletcher’s theory as both supports doing the most loving thing.
Fletcher said that in order for situation ethics to work in practice one must observe “four working policies.” Firstly was pragmatism, meaning that the proposed course of action must be able to work in the circumstances and work towards love as the end. The second is relativism; there are no fixed rules that must always be followed, only love which decisions must be made relative to. Thirdly, positivism is the belief that reason works within faith therefore people should act reasonably depending on their faith. Finally one must use personalism; one must put people first and do what will help human best.
With these things established Fletcher then established the main theory. Namely that, only love is good in itself, actions cant be intrinsically good or evil they’re good or evil depending on whether they do the most loving thing their circumstances and their consequences. Laws can be broken by love there is no law that can equal love it replaces law when needed. Love and justice are the same they can’t be separated from each other. Fletcher writes about this in his book, he says that “Justice is Christian love using its head; justice is love coping with situations where distribution is called for.”
The love that situation ethics is concerned with is agape it is a desire for the good of another person, not just those we like but everyone it is unconditional. Actions become moral depending on their end therefore to consider a moral action without considering its end is foolish. When thinking on a moral dilemma one must consider the desired end, the means to the end, the motive and consequences of those means and end. After this ask if it would work out as the most loving thing. Finally, Fletcher says that something being right or wrong depends on the situation. If an action will bring about an end that serves love the most then it is good.
Fletcher’s theory therefore seems radically different from any kind of traditional Christian ethic. Actions are right or wrong depending on their result, the end justifies the means something that traditional Christian ethics conflicts with.
B. Situation ethics has weaknesses and strengths along with all moral relativism. It provides an alternative Christian ethic consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Its approach attempts to take modern day Christianity away from its sometimes inflexible base showing that Jesus himself broke the law when the sake of love demanded it. It is flexible and practical, taking into account the complexity of life and therefore coming to the conclusion that absolutes are fairly pointless. It can also help people make tough decisions where in legalism all courses of action are wrong, meaning that it can give solutions to previously deadlocked dilemmas.
In situation ethics one is able to take the lesser of two evils option which other ethical theories forbid meaning that in the end may bad may come than if you had chosen either one of the options. If someone who you know wishes to ham someone asks for that persons whereabouts you face an absolutely impossible dilemma if you’re a legalist or absolutist who can never lie. If you refuse to tell him then he may hurt you before finding the other person and also hurting them. This theory allows you to set aside the rules for the better outcome and lie. Another advantage of situation ethics is that Christians can use it to make decisions on things not mentioned in the bible, namely things like genetic engineering, modern day things because unlike the bible situation ethics is constantly able to move with the times because it is relativist.
However situation ethics does have weak points as well even before the book was published Pope Pius XII condemned the theory as it was wrong to appeal to individual circumstances in order to justify things that went against the church. Another thing is that because it is subjective decisions must be made within the situation. But how can people be sure that their perception of the situation is the right one how can individuals safely decide which is the most loving action? Surely to do this one must have an unobjective view of the situation, because we don’t have this it is more then plausible that people will make unloving decisions because of their bias. It is also almost impossible to perceive all consequences of a possible action which could be said to show the theory as unworkable.
As situation ethics is individualistic there’s surely a danger that the course that will best serve love will be obscured by the tendency of humans to be selfish, the truth is that Agape is an unreasonable ideal how likely is it that a woman will do as much to help a complete stranger as their husbands or help a stranger if it inconveniences themselves and their partner even if it is the most loving action.
Finally it appears that situation ethics appears to accept actions as long as people believe it is the most loving action. Surely after the acts that human kind has seen and done, most people surely have a sense that some things that are just wrong and can never be right. This theory could justify actions that many regard as totally wrong.
Ethical Studies by Robert Bowie
Foundation for the Study of Religion by Libby Ahluwalia