The key features of situation ethics

Categories: BioethicsEthics

Examine the key features of situation ethics. Then outline the main weaknesses of situation ethics. How far do these lead to a rejection of the theory?

Despite the view of Kant, and many Christian people, that it is not ethical to only act after assessing the implications of a moral action, since the 1960’s a view that situation ethics is an effective way to judge an action and its consequences has emerged in the secular community. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the Christian ethos in order to fully make a decision on the ethical viability of something in such an ephemeral world.

Situation ethics is a theory most commonly associated with the work of Joseph Fletcher, an American professor and one of the key pioneers in bioethics, and J.A.T. Robinson, a New Testament scholar, author and a former Anglican bishop of Woolwich. Fletcher wrote a book called Situation Ethics, which was published in 1966, a time when the ephemeral nature of the country was highly accentuated by political matters; Women were more commonly going to work, following the suffrage movement before the war and their valued contribution to the war effort during it, President John F.

Kennedy of the United States had been assassinated and there was a large amount of shock and horror surrounding the brutal Vietnam war.

Furthermore, Martin Luther King had left his legacy at this time, even though it would be many years before the divisive pre-civil rights attitudes and laws were truly shaken off, and the sexual revolution that occurred in the 1960’s, where the invention of ‘the pill’ came about, and sexual promiscuity was finally accepted.

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Also, the emergence of ‘the teenager’, a concept that had not been acknowledge before as a type of person with his or her own music, fashion and politics, the consequential growing power of the student movement and the rebellious spirit of the rock and roll culture that went hand in hand with the aforementioned new young adult’s power, when combined with the other reasons mentioned above, all meant that the scene was set for a radical shift in the social power base.

The church, in particular, did not see this impending shift in power as an appealing prospect. The British Council of Churches in 1964 appointed a Working Party that set out to “Prepare a Statement of the Christian case for abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage and faithfulness within marriage…and to suggest means whereby the Christian position may be effectively presented to the various sections of the community.” They wanted to convey “a sane and responsible attitude towards love and marriage in the face of the misleading suggestions conveyed by much popular literature, entertainment and advertising.”

They also observed that “a widespread feeling, especially among Christian people, that recent years have witnessed a general lowering of moral standards, and that this is particularly evident in the realm of sexual behaviour. The Church put much emphasis on a report called The Sexual Behaviour of Young People by Michael Schofield, saying that they wanted to reassess where Christian moral truth lay. The report was conducted in 1965, and concluded that in the 1960’s young people were exposed to these factors; “greater independence; more money in their pockets and purses; the weakening of family bonds and religious influences; the development of earlier maturity physically, emotionally and mentally; the impact of modern books, television, periodicals”.

1963 saw the publication of an extremely controversial book that threw the Church into disarray and disagreement. J.A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God is a theological text in which the author challenges the traditional view that God is watching over the world as a supreme power in a three-storied universe, instead suggesting, in conjunction with Paul Tillich, a German-American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher, that God should be understood as “the ground of our being” as opposed to a deux ex machine, a phenomenon that cannot be explained, which influences and interferes with the world while remaining detached from it.

This book was also in support of the ‘new morality’ outlined in Joseph Fletcher’s article “The New Look at Christian Ethics” published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin before the more famous Situation Ethics book. Fletcher had written in this that “Christian ethics is not a scheme of codified conduct. It is a purposive effort to relate love to a world of relativities through a casuistry obedient to love. In other words, the new Christian morality for ‘man come of age’, a phrase coined from Dietrich Bonheoffer, was not based on law, or rather, perhaps, on one law only: the law of love.

To illustrate their beliefs on new morality over old, both Fletcher and Robinson cited the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees, which were meant to exemplify new morality and old morality respectively. Whilst the Pharisees elaborated the Torah to accommodate every possible situation, the example of Jesus say “You who are not guilty of sin may cast the first stone” in John 8:2-11, after a woman who had been caught in adultery was sentenced to stoning.

This is an example of Jesus demonstrating love, passion and integrity and showing the weakness of using absolute laws as a meaning of judging individual moral cases. Fletcher further observed that “Bultmann [A German theologian] was correct is saying that Jesus had no ethics if we accept, as I do not, that his definition of ethics was a system of values and rules ‘intelligible for all men”. This gives the implication that a system of moral codes is unnecessary.

Both Fletcher and Robinson acknowledged that the shift from a supranaturalist view of ethics to a situationalist or existentialist view of ethics would not be universally popular. This was shown as early as 1956 when the Pope Pius XII anticipated this, and consequentially banned the view from all seminaries. Protestants, however, were equally suspicious, as they realised it meant that nothing can be labelled as universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However, Robinson argued the only way to deal with situations was “situationally, not prescriptively”. He said “Whatever the pointers of the law to the demands of love, there can for the Christian be no “packaged” moral judgements – for persons are more important even than standards.”

Robinson argued that a situationalist view should be applied to divorce law. Questioning the conservative view that marriage created a supernatural, unbreakable bond between two people, he argues that the metaphysical bond that binds two people in marriage can be broken through divorce depending on the situation surrounding it. In the book Honest To God, Robinson wrote “It is not a question of ‘Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder’: no man could if he tried. For marriage is not merely indissoluble: it is indelible”. He believed that it was potentially damaging and out-dating to believe that divorce was an impossibility.

He thought it was time for humans to seek liberty from such supernaturalism thinking, and be ready to leave behind the restrictions of the old moral law if love was best served by so doing. Fletcher and Robinson identified agape love, a term used to distinguish the different types of love known as agape, philia, storge and eros, as the only intrinsically good thing, and it was defined by William Barclay as “unconquerable good will; it is the determination to seek the other man’s highest good, no matter what he does to you. Insult, injury, indifference – it does not matter; nothing but good will. It has been defined as purpose, not passion. It is an attitude to the other person.”

This kind of love is highly demanding or, as Barclay suggested, ‘a highly intelligent thing’. It is not random, fatalistic, romantic love that cannot be demanded. Rather, agape love is required of one human being to another, and demands that the whole personality be involved in a deliberate directing the will, heart and mind. To employ agape, it is conceivable that laws must be put aside, although this may leave many legalists and supernaturalisms without a reliable foundation on which to maintain their position of moral superiority. Fletcher wrote “If the emotional and spiritual welfare of both parents and children in a particular family can be served best by a divorce, wrong and cheapjack as divorce commonly is, then love requires it.”

Joseph Fletcher identified three approaches to morality: Legalism, a conservative, rule-based morality like that of the Pharisees, or as Fletcher said, a morality in which “Solutions are preset, and you can look them up in a book – a Bible or a confessor’s manual”; Antinomianism, the polar opposite of legalism which means that no rules or maxims can be applied to a moral situation; and situationism, a midway decision between the other two positions, or, as stated in Situation Ethics, “The situationist enters into every decision-masking situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect… Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so”.

Fletcher developed his theory by drawing on a wide range of cases that could not be resolved by applying fixed rules and principles; for instance, the famous case of Mrs Bergmeier who deliberately asked a Russian prison camp guard to make her pregnant so she could be released to return to her family in Germany.

Furthermore, Fletcher even developed four presuppositions of situation ethics: Pragmatism, which demands that a proposed course of action should work, and that its success or failure should be judged according to the principle; Relativism, which rejects such absolutes as “never”, “always”, “perfect”, and “complete”; Positivism, a concept which recognizes that love is the most important criterion of all; and finally personalism, a concept which demands that people should be put first. He then went on, developing his opinion on how agape love should be understood conceptually, and how it should be applied as a theory in situation ethics.

He said that not only is love always good, but that it was the only norm, appealing to Jesus’s teaching in Mark 12:33 that the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbour. Hr also said that love and justice are the same, and love is justice distributed, that love is not liking and always wills the neighbour’s good and that situation ethics is a teleological theory that identifies the ends or the outcome of the actions as the means of assessing its moral worth. Finally, he said that because there is no way of knowing in advance whether something is right or wrong because every situation is different, the situationist must be prepared to make every moral decision afresh.

Some believers believe that morality consists of obeying the commands of God as directly revealed by him through scripture and the Church. They believe that what is morally good and what is morally bad is pre-determined by what ‘God’ has said through scripture and other means, and that to contradict the views of God is to be immoral and ‘bad’. This view was backed up by Kant in his deontological approach to ethics, as he said that moral rules are good in themselves and should be obeyed irrespective of the consequences. Professor Gordon Dunstan also agreed with this, saying “It is possible, though not easy, to forgive Professor [Joseph] Fletcher for writing this book, for he is a generous and loveable man. It is harder to forgive the SCM Press for publishing it.”

In contrast to Fletcher, William Barclay adopted a conservative view on Christian ethics, challenging the so named “new morality” of Fletcher on several grounds. He argued that it is highly improbable for someone to be presented with the extreme circumstances presented by Fletcher, so it is not reasonable to base the principle of situation ethics on these such matters. He wrote in Ethics in a Permissive Society, “It is much easier to agree that extraordinary situations need extraordinary measures than to think that there are no laws for ordinary everyday life.” He also suggests that Fletcher 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 and accurately dealt out, then laws would be redundant. As it is, there are no such guarantees, and so a degree of law is necessary for human survival.

Barclay believes that law is essential for a variety of reasons: because it clarifies experience; because it is the means by which society determines what a reasonable life is; because it defines crime; because it has a deterrent value, and because it protects society. He also says that Fletcher was unrealistic in his observation on how truly free humans are to make decisions and judge the moral worth of something when not shackled by any laws. Barclay particularly emphasises that law ensures that humans do not make an artificial distinction between public and private morality, and was quoted as saying “A man can live his own life, but when he begins deliberately to alter the lives of others, then a real problem arises, on which we cannot simply turn out backs, and in which there is a place for law as the encourager of morality. In summary, Barclay criticised Fletcher for his miscalculated optimism about the ability of humans to be morally good while remaining free of personal preference and consequential bias. How can we arbitrate a case in which two people reach different conclusions about an action, yet both claim to be acting in the interests of love?

In the same year that the scandalous Honest to God by J. A. T. Robinson came into publication, Susan Howatch composed a novel named Scandalous Risks in which a number of characters face moral dilemmas, and attempt to examine each of these while conceptually following situation ethics. In one scene we see a character called Venetia seeking the help of another called Father Darrow in an attempt to understand the way in which her romantic friend rationalises and conducts their relationship along the lines of situation ethics. The, so to speak, moral, of this story is that situation ethics is idealistic and cannot work, despite its obvious theoretical benefits. Rarely do our real-life situations conform to the neat solutions that would apparently be available to us if we applied the principles of ethical theory.

An overall conclusion must be drawn from both parts a) and b) of this essay collectively. It seems that the argument is relatively balanced debating the validity of Robinson’s and Fletcher’s approach to moral-decision making. It is commonplace to strive for the freedom to make choices situationally, whether or not it be within the framework of agape, although this is constrained by not only the law, but also by the moral judgment of others. In this age, when we might suppose that secularism and liberalism would have a stronger hold on religions than previously, organizations such as Silver Ring Thing and True Love Waits are encouraging young people to take a vow of celibacy, which infers a return to traditional sexual ethics. Perhaps, instead of offering a realistic answer to morally-challenging situations, situation ethics offers a ‘tantalising’ alternative to structured and relatively inflexible law-based morality.

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The key features of situation ethics. (2017, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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