Situation Ethics Revision

Traditionally Christian ethics has been deontological in approach. In the 1960s an alternative approach
emerged. It was not exclusive to Christian ethics and could be used by secular ethicists as well, however it
is obviously Christian in origin. In 1966 Joseph Fletcher wrote Situation Ethics. It is important to
understand the context within which he wrote this.


Fletcher used New Testament dialogues between Jesus and the Pharisees to illustrate old versus new
morality. The Pharisees used the Torah to provide an explanation for every situation, whereas Jesus went back to first principles. The example of Jesus intervening to save a woman charged with committing adultery is a good example of this: ‘He who is without sin, cast the first stone at her.’ (John 8:7). Jesus was not using the law of the time as written in the scriptures as his guidance, but was acting out of the basic principle of love and compassion for his fellow human. Situation Ethics is about using love and compassion as guidance not a pre-packaged rule.

Robinson used this idea when referring to divorce. Traditionally marriage is seen as a supernatural bond which is wrong to break. ‘Those who God has joined together let no man put asunder’. (Matthew, 19).
Robinson believed that this kind of thinking was outdated and potentially damaging. He believed that people should do what best served love and not what accorded with tradition. Robinson is not advocating divorce, but rather addressing it situationally.

Agapé is a particular kind of love and it is based on the principle of ‘Love thy neighbour’ it is unconditional love that every person has for their fellow human beings, regardless of their personal relationships with them. Situation Ethics requires people to best serve agapé. No action is right or wrong in
itself, it is judged based on whether it is the most loving thing to do or not.

Situation Ethics vs. Legalism and Antinomianism

In his book Situation Ethics, Fletcher identified 3 different approaches to morality. The first was the
legalistic approach. This was a conservative rule based morality. The second was antinomianism which was the opposite of legalism with no maxims whatsoever, each individual moral situation should be treated as a new one. Situation Ethics is a mid-way between these two, there is not a set of maxims for every situation as there is in legalism, but there is an overriding principle, that of agapé which must be served, thus making it more than antinomianism.

Situation Ethics is therefore a teleological theory based on the Biblical teachings about unconditional love: ‘Great love has no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends’ (John, 15).
The crucifixion is the best example of the love shown by Jesus in that he sacrificed his life out of love
for humanity to save them from their sins.

Principles and Presuppositions

Fletcher proposed 4 presuppositions to situation ethics:

  1. Pragmatism: demands that the proposed course of action should work. It’s success or failure should
    be judged according to the principle.
  2. Relativism: Rejects moral absolutes. Fletcher states: ‘Christians cannot go on trying to lay down the
    law.’ (Fletcher, 1966).
  3. Positivism: recognises that love is the most important criterion of all expressed in the teaching
  4. Personalism: demands that people should be put first.
    The ethos governing Situation Ethics is based on 6 principles of agapé.
  5. Love is always good: There is no action or moral rule which is good in itself, an action is only good
    insofar as it brings about agapé: ‘Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at
    all.’ (Fletcher, 1963).
  6. Love is the only norm: This was at the centre of Jesus’ teachings, there were others that were
    considered useful, but love was to be the norm that provided a solution to all moral issues: ‘The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else.’ (Fletcher, 1963).
  7. Love and justice are the same and love is justice distributed: Fletcher claimed that justice is
    giving everyone their due, the one thing that everyone is due is love and love and justice are therefore the same. Justice settles how love is to be applied to every person in every situation, it cannot be distributed through laws: ‘Love and justice are the same, for love is justice distributed: nothing
    else.’ (Fletcher, 1963).
  8. Love is not the same as like and always wills the neighbour’s good: Agapé is not conditional upon
    whether we like someone or not, it is unconditional love that we must have for every person regardless of how we feel about them: ‘Love wills the neighbour’s good, whether we like him or
    not’ (Fletcher, 1963).
  9. Love is the only means: Situation Ethics is a teleological theory and is therefore focused on consequences, therefore anything can be justified as long as it brings about the most loving outcome:
    ‘Only the end justifies the means, nothing else.’ (Fletcher, 1963).
  10. Love’s decisions are made situationally: every situation is different and there is no way of knowing
    in advance whether something will be right or wrong, the situation ethicist must be prepared to enter every moral situation afresh: ‘Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively’ (Fletcher, 1963).

Fletcher developed Situation Ethics by referring to a range of cases that could not be resolved by referring to moral rules. One of these examples is the case of Mrs Bergmeier who deliberately asked a
Russian prison camp officer to make her pregnant so she could be released and return to her family in
Germany, as Fletcher termed it sacrificial adultery. Another case that Fletcher cited was that of patient in a mental hospital in 1962 who was raped by a fellow patient. The father requested that the hospital perform the abortion, which they would not do as it was against the law at the time. Fletcher argued that in this case abortion would have been the most loving action.

Elements of situation ethics

The elements of situation ethics were described by Joseph Fletcher, its leading modern proponent, like this:

  • Moral judgments are decisions, not conclusions
    • Decisions ought to be made situationally, not prescriptively
    • We should seek the well-being of people, rather than love principles.
  • Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love: nothing else
    • Love, in this context, means desiring and acting to promote the wellbeing of people
    • Nothing is inherently good or evil, except love (personal concern) and its opposite, indifference or actual malice
    • Nothing is good or bad except as it helps or hurts persons
    • The highest good is human welfare and happiness (but not, necessarily, pleasure)
    • Whatever is most loving in a situation is right and good–not merely something to be excused as a lesser evil
    • Moral theology seeks to work out love’s strategy, and applied ethics devises love’s tactics.
  • Love “wills the neighbour’s good” [desires the best for our neighbour] whether we like them or not
    • The ultimate norm of Christian decisions is love: nothing else
    • The radical obligation of the Christian ethic to love even the enemy implies unmistakably that every neighbour is not a friend and that some are just the opposite.
  • Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed
    • Love and justice both require acts of will
    • Love and justice are not properties of actions, they are things that people either do or don’t do
    • Love and justice are essentially the same
    • Justice is Christian love using its head–calculating its duties. The Christian love ethic, searching seriously for a social policy, forms a coalition with the utilitarian principle of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number.’
  • The rightness depends on many factors
    • The rightness of an action does not reside in the act itself but in the loving configuration of the factors in the situation–in the ‘elements of a human act’ –i.e., its totality of end, means, motive, and foreseeable consequences.

[The text above is based on material in Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work, by Joseph Fletcher; Westminster Press, 1967]

A Romanian Jewish woman doctor aborted the pregnancies of 3000 Jewish women brought
to the concentration camp. If they were found to be pregnant, they would be incinerated.
Even if we believe that the human embryos are human lives, by “killing” 3000 the doctor
saved 3000 and prevented the murder of 6000 in total. Is this not good?

You are at the wheel of a runaway trolley quickly approaching a fork in the tracks. On the tracks extending to the left is a group of five railway workmen. On the tracks extending to the right is a single railway workman.

If you do nothing the trolley will proceed to the left, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to avoid the deaths of these workmen is to hit a switch on your dashboard that will cause the trolley to proceed to the right, causing the death of the single workman.

Is it appropriate for you to hit the switch in order to avoid the deaths of the five workmen?

You are at home one day when the mail arrives. You receive a letter from a reputable international aid organization. The letter asks you to make a donation of two hundred dollars to their organization.

The letter explains that a two hundred-dollar donation will allow this organization to provide needed medical attention to some poor people in another part of the world.

Is it appropriate for you to not make a donation to this organization in order to save money?

You are a member of a government legislature. The legislature is deciding between two different policies concerning environmental hazards.

Policy A has a 90% chance of causing no deaths at all and has a 10% chance of causing 1000 deaths. Policy B has a 92% chance of causing no deaths and an 8% chance of causing 10,000 deaths.

Is it appropriate for you to vote for Policy A over Policy B?

You are a doctor. You have five patients, each of whom is about to die due to a failing organ of some kind. You have another patient who is healthy.

The only way that you can save the lives of the first five patients is to transplant five of this young man’s organs (against his will) into the bodies of the other five patients. If you do this, the young man will die, but the other five patients will live.

Is it appropriate for you to perform this transplant in order to save five of your patients?

You are on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat you’re in is sitting dangerously low in the water-a few inches lower and it will sink.

The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. It seems to you that there is only one way to stop the boat from sinking, and that is to start throwing other passengers overboard, starting with old people who are too weak to resist.

Is it appropriate for you to throw some of your fellow passengers overboard in order to save yourself and the remaining passengers?

Enemy soldiers have taken over your village. They have orders to kill all remaining civilians. You and some of your townspeople have sought refuge in the cellar of a large house. Outside you hear the voices of soldiers who have come to search the house for valuables.

Your baby begins to cry loudly. You cover his mouth to block the sound. If you remove your hand from his mouth his crying will summon the attention of the soldiers who will kill you, your child, and the others hiding out in the cellar. To save yourself and the others you must smother your child to death.

Is it appropriate for you to smother your child in order to save yourself and the other townspeople?

You have been dissatisfied with your marriage for several years. It is your distinct impression that your wife no longer appreciates you. You remember how she appreciated you years ago when you took care of her after she was mugged. You devise the following plan to regain your wife’s affection.

You will hire a man to break into your house while you are away. This man will tie up your wife and rape her. You, upon hearing the horrible news, will return swiftly to her side, to take care of her and comfort her, and she will once again appreciate you.

Is it appropriate for you to hire a man to rape your wife so that she will appreciate you as you comfort her?

You are a fifteen-year-old girl who has become pregnant. By wearing loose clothing and deliberately putting on weight you have managed to keep your pregnancy a secret. One day, while at school, your water breaks. You run to the girls locker room and hide for several hours while you deliver the baby. You are sure that you are not prepared to care for this baby.

You think to yourself that it would be such a relief to simply clean up the mess you’ve made in the locker room, wrap the baby in some towels, throw the baby in the dumpster behind the school, and act as if nothing had ever happened.

Is it appropriate for you to throw your baby in the dumpster in order to move on with your life?


  • THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT… It fits in with ‘philosophy and practical ethics’ because of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus broke the religious rules and dealt with everyone as individuals and according to circumstances. Bases it’s decisions upon Christ’s statement that the whole of the law was summoned by the command that we ought to love our neighbour. In the greatest commandment, one of the Pharisees tested him as to what was the greatest commandment, he replied ‘love the lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and mind’ this is the greatest- the second greatest is- ‘love your neighbour as yourself’
  • IT IS FLEXIBLE… giving people personal freedom to decide what is the most loving action. It is also flexible in the sense that it allows people to take responsibility for their own moral decision making, so it doesn’t patronize them and insist they follow the rules unquestioningly. God did not make us like robots he gave us free will to make moral choices and we must exercise that will not hide behind the rules
  • DOESN’T REJECT LAWS… but sees them as useful tools which are not absolutely binding. As opposed to a legalistic, who follows the absolutes, and believes they must tell the truth could one day be faced with a murderer who wanted to find out where their wife was, they would be in an impossible position and most likely go against their approach. An advantage of a situationist is that they can lay aside the rule of not lying for the better outcome of saving a person’s life.
  • AGAPE IS CENTRAL TO MORALITY… is the basis of Fletcher’s theory and there can only be a Christian basis of morality if agape love is seen as central to morality, if we follow how love guides us how can it be wrong?


  • WHAT IS MOST LOVING?… The biggest issue is that there will always be a dispute as to what is the most loving action and what this actually means in practice, everyone is subjective and have their own interpretations of different things and could see one thing as loving and another not that someone else may object. If two people using this system of ethics came to opposite conclusions as to what they should do, there is no way there dilemma could be solved because it rejects the absolute rules that could guide their actions. To depend a situation on the principle of agape love would be inadequate
  • HIS VIEW DOESN’T REFLECT NEW TESTAMENT…on morality, the New testament appears to have clear moral views on theft and adultery, ‘thou shall not steal’, ‘thou shall not commit adultery’ the commandments- these suggests ABSOLUTES which could infer a legalistic point of view that Fletcher rejects, even though Jesus broke two rules the two commandments also suggest they were rule
  • EXAMPLES FLETCHER USES = TOO EXTREME…they account for very few real instances in life, for example he uses the anecdote of the sacrifical adultery where a POW woman debates on whether to commit adultery with a guard in order to be reunited with her family, his idea being that it would bring the most love about, however it would be immoral and go against ‘thou shall not commit adultery’. This is also very unlikely that a guard would do this and go against their morals, not based on an actual situation, very improbable it happened
  • WILLIAM BARCLAY… argued that if law is the ‘distillation of experience’ that society has found to be beneficial, then to ‘discard law is to discard experience’ and the valuable wisdom and insight it may bring, when looking back it is clear that laws have had great impact on the world, it is clear they have stopped people from commiting murder, if they weren’t there the world would be chaotic. This links to the idea that the law and absolutes are there for the protection of society, typically a situationist could result in killing someone if they managed to base it around bringing the most unconditional love for another which would be morally wrong and go against ‘thou shall not murder’
  • IT DECONSTRUCTS ITSELF… We need a specific or definitive idea of what outcome is the most valued, right before we can decide upon which acts are needed to bring about the right thing.
  1. “Situation ethics is too demanding as a system of ethical decision-making”. Discuss
  2. “Goodness is only defined by asking – how is agape best served”. Discuss
  3. “Agape is not so much a religious idea as an equivalent to saying ‘I want the best for you’”. Discuss
  4. Evaluate the extent to which situation ethics is individualistic and subjective.

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