Situation Ethics


Key things you need to know for situation ethics

  • the instrumental and teleological approach
  • nothing can be intrinsically good or bad. Only love can be intrinsically good; agape love.
  • 10 principles in total: 4 working principles (3 P's 1 R) and the 6 fundamental principles.
  • the middle way of legalism and antinomianism in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher.
  • It is about doing the most loving thing in any situation
  • Even if it is classed as an immoral action but poses the most loving thing, the actioned would be justified.
  • There are no absolutes in situation ethics apart from agape love which is the only absolute.
  • came about in the time where homosexuality and abortion became legal so situation ethics is justified and was culturally relative of its time.
  • Robinson was the English view on SE and he believed we should make Christianity more relative to its time and that stories about Adam and Eve are myths.
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About Situation ethics

  • Situation ethics was founded by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s. This was when homosexuality and abortion came legal which was a fight against religion.
  • He produced this as a middle way between legalism and antinomianism. Legalism is the same as Natural law where it has fixed laws and is very traditional and antinomianism is where there are no laws or rules. They enter decision making as if each occasion is completely unique. 
  • Situation ethics is where you have to do the most loving thing in any given situation.Follows a moral law or violates it according to loves needs.
  • Situation ethics is a relativist, consequentialist theory and doesn't prescribe fixed rules as it considers the outcomes of the actions (teleological).
  • It was inspired by Jesus' gospel message of agape and Fletcher appealed to the scholar Rudolf Bultmann who said Jesus taught no ethics other than "love thy neighbour as thy self"
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More about situation ethics

Fletcher proposed the 4 working principles to situation ethics:

- Pragmatism is where the actions must achieve some realistic goal 

- Relativism is where there are no fixed rules that must be obeyed and nor is it a free for all. It is only relative to christian love 

- Positivism is where first place is given to Christian love as we reason through faith. Making a decision should be about doing the right thing.

- Personalism is where people came first and not rules or ideas as legalists puts the rules first where situationists puts the people first which is more moral than the legalist views. Humans are more important than rules.

There are no absolutes, which are fixed rules, in situation ethics as it about more agape love. Many would agree Jesus was a situationist as he broke laws to do the most loving thing as well. For example he healed a lady on sabbath day which was strictly meant for rest and no work. This demonstrated agape love. 

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More on situation ethics

  • Fletcher also proposed the 6 fundamental principles:
  • Agape love is the norm and is the main point in referring to moral actions.
  • Love overrides all other laws 
  • Justice is part of love so it is moral to break laws if they serve love.
  • Love has no favorite as it is selfless.
  • Love is the end.
  • The loving thing to do is relative to the situation.

Robinson is an english point of view on Fletchers approach. He believes we should make christianity more relative for todays time such as seeing Adam and Eve as a myth and should be more liberal christians.

Examples of most loving thing to do would be: Bonhoeffer who went back to kill Hitler as he believed it would be best for his country. Also, McCabby used to vote republican but changed as he believed sometimes you got to do the right thing given the situation. 

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Evaluation of situation ethics- strengths


- It provides an alternative Christian ethic that is consistent with the gospel representation of Jesus.

- It is flexible and practical as it takes into account the complexities of human life.

- It is able to take the least bad of two bad options and allows people to make tough decisions. 

- It avoids the conflict of duty as is it gives a way of resolving conflict through love. 

- it avoids justifying what we would consider immoral actions such as killing.

- It combines the positives of deontological thinking with consequentialist thinking to follow agape love

- It is compatible with the secular ways of thinking with ethics. Helps people make decisions without addressing the bible. 

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Evaluation of situation ethics- weaknesses

William Barclay criticised Fletcher and said his examples are too far fetched. It may be useful for extraordinary situations but doesn't justify choosing it for everyday morality. 

- It gives humans too much freedom in their moral decision making. Fletcher would say we should follow moral principles but we need to break them sometimes as agape is a guidance to help make moral decisions.

- Barclay says with no clear moral absolutes it could end up justifying any action even actions we would call immoral such as murder.

- Mankind is not rational enough yet to make independent decisions. We need clear moral guidelines to tell us what is right and wrong.

- Barclay also criticises how it is determined by the action rather than judging the action using moral standards. 

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More weaknesses

- As it is a christian system, people such as atheists could be reluctant to follow the example of Jesus.

- As it is a teleological approach, it is difficult to predict the future and the use of love is very subjective as what one person calls love, another could see it as a horrible crime. This explains how it could enable any action to be justified even if it is immoral in this world.

- Fletcher also uses extraordinary situations which are very rare cases to explain how situation ethics would work in a situation.

- It has been rejected by RC and Anglican communities as it doesn't accurately reflect the new testament views on morality.

- Could be seen as outdated as it was deeply rooted in the times of the 1960s when new laws were introduced and society was changing.

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Situation ethics extract summary page 1

First page

This page just summarises what situation ethics is about:

- Only one thing is intrinsically good and that is love as it has no absolutes.

- Love is always and universally is good and nothing can go against that.

- Fletcher says that nothing can be intrinsically good or bad apart from love. 

- There are 4 types of love and the moral love out of the 4 is agape. Eros is sexual love.

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Extract page 2 summary

Using the example of agape, it enables us to love people we dislike and follow the teachings of Jesus such as "love your enemies". This reflects an attitude of will and good moral characteristics.

However, situation ethics would pose a lot of moral disruptions as in cases such as where you can only save your father who has cancer or the doctor who found a cure for cancer, it would be hard to make a decision as it is between a family member and a person who can save the lives of many people in the future. This would pose questions towards what love is and what would love be if you don't save your family or if you don't think about the lives of others.

Which one was love? Mother strangling her baby to its death to prevent a group of people dying or mother dying with the baby to not kill them.

A criticism of this would be how Fletcher uses very extreme examples.

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Extract page 3 summary

For a situationist, the thing that is labeled as morally wrong can be seen as the only right thing to do in a certain situation eg. the rainmaker who made love to a spinster, to stop her from becoming one and live a better life. This is where a situationist would separate what's right and good.

Love and justice are the same things, where justice is love distributed.

Brunner would say that love is between two people and justice is between groups of people. Fletcher would argue against this and say love and justice are the same. Love is an absolute and working it out is what justice is. Justice is love working out its problems.

The foundation of love is justice and without justice, you won't understand what love is. Love is like making a cake.

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Extract page 4 summary

Most of this page uses an extreme situation of a family being separated in Russia and Mrs. Bergmeier was a woman in prison and got impregnated by the guard as this allows her to be released and was able to get back to her family. Is this right? Adultery or love?

A criticism of situation ethics is that is approaches are drawn from extreme situations that don't reflect mundane realism and lacks external validity. Much easier to say extreme situations need extreme measures.

Another criticism- situation ethics gives us a lot of freedom as there are no absolutes.

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Extract page 5 summary

This page is about freedom and how having too much freedom is not good.

We don't want to be completely free but we need laws in our life to maintain society and to tell humans what to do. 

Some things can never be okay and justified but SE can allow for something to happen. Right and wrong are not so easily eliminated.

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Extract page 6 summary

What one person considers what the most loving thing to do is may not be considered that in the eyes of other people. Situation ethics is a very subjective theory as it considers only what you believe. 

You sometimes need to do something abnormal for an abnormal situation.

Why does the cases have to be extreme to be applied to and maybe we need absolutes.

There is a difference between law and morality and law is what is right and wrong in a moral sense. The law is always concerned with public moral laws and not with private moral laws unless they are an offence to the public.

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Extract page 7 summary

The law has nothing to do with a mans private morals but with their public morals.

Fletcher states we must be free to decide what we should do to do the most loving thing before our actions begin to be moral.

Barclay says that we are not free and that freedom is an illusion for many of us which contradicts all of situation ethics as it is based on freedom to do the most loving thing. 

Christians would not accept the laws that are legal such as two unmarried people living together and begetting a baby.

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Extract page 8 summary

Once something is not forbidden, it may be permitted but also to be encouraged. This makes religion more secular. What the law permits would be deemed as acceptable .

It will never be right to develop yourself at the expense of others.

We should adjust the balance between freedom and law and between society and and individuals. The only solution is that man should 'love thy neighbour'

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