Situation Ethics

[adapted from Titus, Smith and Nolan, Living Issues in Philosophy (9th ed., 1995), pp. 131-132.]


Joseph Fletcher
(1905-1991)

     Since the 1960s, especially in the United States and Great Britain, many philosophers and theologians have been interested in situation ethics. This outlook has appeared in various forms and has often been confused with relativism, especially the antinomian view. Proponents of situation ethics see it as a middle ground between two extreme approaches: legalism/formalism (“go by the book”) and antinomian relativism (no absolutes or rules at all).

     On the one hand, absolutism in its legalistic application consists of final codes, prefabricated rules, and regulations that permit few if any exceptions. One adheres to absolutes (general standards) and rules that are logically consistent with the absolutes. These absolutes and rules are derived philosophically through reason; through divine revelation; or through consensus, tradition, and laws enacted by human beings.

     On the other hand, schools of relativism stress freedom from all norms other than what is the practiced morality at a given time in a given place. This view is concerned not with the universal rightness or wrongness of what is chosen, but at most with what actually has been chosen and is practiced in a given culture. An extreme antinomian relativism calls for no norms whatsoever.

     In theory, situation ethics does have an absolute norm or standard(s); this approach calls for the selection or acknowledgment of an absolute, but a non-legalistic, flexible application of the standard to each individual situation. The goal is to apply the absolute as best as possible in the particular situation rather than to utilize a law that fit difference circumstances. This norm could be love, personal power, or any other principle around which one could build an interpretation of morality. Guidelines that assist in the application of the selected norm may or may not be included in a given interpretation. For example, a certain dictator views personal power as his moral absolute; if he takes a situational approach, he reflects on every situation in which he finds himself and involves himself such as to acquire personal power. He may or may not have useful guides in mind as he enters new situations.

     The uproar that occurred in religious circles in the 1960s was the result of a view interpreting Jesus as a situationist. Many Christians had understood the Old and New Testaments legalistically as containing many clear-cut moral laws. Some Christians now understand Christian ethics as situational, not legalistically. However, advocates of this position respect the ethical maxims and the wisdom that have come down from the past. As Joseph Fletcher proposed in his controversial book Situation Ethics:

The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. 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.*

     For these Christians, the only absolute is love (agape); only love is universally good. “Anything and everything is right or wrong, according to the situation,” says Fletcher, because the good is the most loving, concerned act.** Love can rightly be directed only toward a person and not toward some abstract good.

*J. Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), p. 26.

**Ibid., p. 124. See also H. Cox, ed., The Situation Ethics Debate (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968).

See Dr. Cherbonnier’s essay “Can There Be Morality Without Rules?” in the Cherbonnier subsite. He elaborates on situation ethics with everyday illustrations.