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Situation Ethics is an 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. Situation Ethics is a Christian ethical theory and 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 Situation Ethics, Fletcher attempted to find a 'middle road' between legalistic and antinomian ethics. Fletcher developed Situation Ethics in his books: The Classic Treatment and Situation Ethics

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.

Situation 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 situation ethics, the ends can justify the means.

Fletcher's 'Three Possible Approaches'Edit

Joseph Fletcher argued that there were only three possible approaches to ethics:

The legalistic approachEdit

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 commandents, 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 foetuses, etc. Fletcher argues that the error of an 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 approachEdit

Antinomian ethics, is literally the opposite to legalism, it does not imply an ethical system at all. An antinomian enters decision 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 approachEdit

Situation Ethics relies on one principle, what best serves love. Christian love is unconditional and unsentimental. Situation 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.

Ethical ClassificationEdit

Because of its consequentialism, Situation Ethics is often confused with utilitarianism, because utilitarianism's aim is the greatest good for the greatest number, although situation ethics focuses more on creating the greatest amount of love and it also has different origins.

Having said that, however, Situation 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 ExamplesEdit

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 judgement 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 MakeEdit

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 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 cancelled. 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.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and NagasakiEdit

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. Winston Churchill joined them in favour. 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 DaggerEdit

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?

Sacrificial AdulteryEdit

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 the 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 the 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.

Situation Ethics OutlinedEdit

Fletcher outlined his theory in ten principles, which he split into the four working principles and the six fundamental priciples.

The Four Working PrinciplesEdit

There are four presuppositions that Fletcher makes before setting out the situation ethics theory:

  1. Pragmatism
    This is that the course of action must be practical and work
  2. Relativism
    All situations are always relative; situation ethicists try to avoid such words as 'never' and 'always'
  3. Positivism
    The whole of situation ethics relies upon the fact that the person freely chooses to believe in agape love as described by Christianity.
  4. Personalism
    Whereas the legalist thinks people should work to laws, the situation ethicist believes that laws are for the benefit of the people.

The Six Fundamental Principles Edit

Criticisms of Situation EthicsEdit

John Robinson, an Anglican Bishop of Woolwich and Dean of Trinity College started off a firm supporter of situation 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 withdrew his support recognising that people couldn't take this sort of responsibility and saying remarking that "It will all descend into moral chaos"

Some people say that situation 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.

Situation 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 and its mother's lives 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

One other criticism of situation 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 it circles.

Situation ethics is subjective, because decisions are made by the individual from within the perceived situation thus calling into question the reliability of that choice

Situation 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 it's 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 situation ethics more complicated and less practical than the original utilitarianism.


Situation ethics is an ideological ethical theory that many people like the look of as a general value, although don't like the smaller components as it is broken down. With it being introduced in the '60's, when everyone was enthused about love, it was a big success, although nowadays is seen as an 'ethic of the age' by many.
But it is nevertheless, a well respected theology with notable values and aims.

Whatever you think of situation ethics, though, 'you can't blame Fletcher for being loving' (Someone famous said this, but I can't remember who - if you know please, then please update this)

Professor Graham Dunstan wrote of Fletchers theory: 'It is possible, though not easy, to forgive Professor Fletcher for writing this book, for he is a generous and loveable man. It is harder to forgive the SCM Press for publishing it'

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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