Key Features of Situation Ethics

1 January 2017

What are the Key features of Situation Ethics? Situation ethics is a Christian ethical theory that was principally developed in the 1960’s by a priest called Joseph Fletcher and expanded by Bishop John Robinson. It is a teleological theory, but in contrast to utilitarianism; it is based on Christian principles, and primarily the promotion of agape. The moral worth of any action is judged on its consequences, not on the action itself. The judgement is made on how much love is produced by the action.

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In the 1960’s the traditional Christian Church was going through massive change. Society was dealing from post WW2 feminism, Vietnam War, civil rights, teenager and hippy culture, sexual liberation and a rejection of traditional sources of authority, e. g church teachings. Martin Luther King’s legacy in the 1960’s set the scene for a revolution in civil rights and sexual freedom and therefore challenging the traditional legalist approach. This radical change in society underlies Situation Ethics which was part of a general move for people to have greater autonomy and freedom.

Fletcher laid down his beliefs in the book “Situation Ethics” published in 1966, he is against antinomian and legalism approaches. The Antinomian approach is where there are no set principles. The situation should tell us what is the right or wrong thing to do and if we are required to take any kind of action. We should listen for the ‘inner voice’ which many people see as being our conscience. Fletcher disagreed with this approach because he said it would lead to ‘moral anarchy’.

It was too vague and many people would disagree on which ‘inner voice’ is correct. The legalistic approach to moral issues is based on a set of absolute laws that everyone had to apply. It is said we should seek to apply these moral rules to our everyday lives and to do this there must be a large set of rules, sub rules and regulations we all must follow. e. g.

Orthodox Jews. Fletcher also disregarded this argument because he saw it as ‘unsatisfactory to apply general rules to modern moral issues. However, in the same way Fletchers was not suggesting an antinomian society with no fixed rules at all, instead he was suggesting that there needed to be a situational approach to ethics, he suggested that there should be one single, simple “boss principal” on which all decisions are based, and then maxims or guidelines which aided the decision-maker, but which were not fixed “laws”. As a Christian, Fletcher came to the conclusion that the “boss principal” should be the Christian notion of love, perhaps better described as the Greek agape love, which we understand to mean a “giving”, non-reciprocal love seeking the best interests of all.

He said that this was the only law of Situation Ethics, and that so long as the action was the most loving thing to do, it was the right thing to do, or as William Temple said “There is only one ultimate and invariable duty, and its formula is ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. ’ … this is the whole of moral duty. ” which Jesus Christ taught in the gospels of the New Testament of the Bible Fletcher and Robinson both rejected the idea of a legalist society who absolute rules and laws were the norm.

Situation ethics states that sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in situations if love is best served; as Paul Tillich once put it: ‘ Love is the ultimate Law. ’’ They both argued that no action can be described as right or wrong it is only the determination to seek another man’s happiness, no matter what the man is to you, e. g. Mrs. Bergmeier. In contrast to utilitarianism Fletcher maintained that the principle which applied to people was “ the greatest amount of love for the greatest amount of people” the situationist believes that only the command to love is categorically good.

For example, stealing from the rich for the hungry this is accepting agape love. Fletcher proposed four working principles of situation ethics. Pragmatic as it can be used practically by anyone in all situations, relativistic as it rejects such absolutes as ‘never’ or ‘always’, personal ism which demand that people should be put first and positivism which suggests that love is the most important criteria in the teachings of the bible. Fletcher emphasised that situation ethics deals with human relations and should therefore put people at the centre.

Fletcher also created The Six Fundamental principles which outline the key ideas of the theory. The first; only one thing is intrinsically good: love. The second; the ruling norm of Christian decision is love. The third: love and justice are the same. The fourth; love wills the neighbour’s good, whether we like him or not. The fifth; only the end justifies the means, nothing else. The sixth; Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. – Fletcher used some examples to help him explain – you can use the names of these rather than going into huge detail

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