Situation Ethics

This was an attempt to get away from Natural Law and the “position of the Church”.

Joseph Fletcher

He believed there were three approaches to ethics

  • The legalistic approach – bases on the rules and laws of the church
  • The lawless approach – sort of existentialism – those who break with the law.
  • the situation approach based on the law of agape – love.

Don’t ask the question “What does the church say” instead ask “What is the most loving thing to do?” In this way one may reject the rule and respond to the situation. By simply keeping the rules, one may be following the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. Fletcher suggested people should reject the rule and respond to the situation.

Beware of entering into the discussion about Deontology and Teleology with Situation Ethics. In essence it seems to be teleological because one looks at the consequences of the action. Certainly it is relative. On the other hand it could be argued that always following the principle of agape, Situation Ethics has made itself into a deontological theory. Most text books go for one and ignore the other.

Fletcher was alert to the charge that Situation Ethics might just become an ethical free for all. It could be claimed that exceptions to any rule could be found. Fletcher put forward four working principles.

  1. Pragmatism – any course of action must be workable
  2. Relativism – supporters of this philosophy should avoid using words like “always” and “never”
  3. Positivism – Reason has to be exercised within faith.
  4. Personalism – Situation Ethics puts people first. “What do the people need?” – not “what do the rules say?”

He also suggested six fundamental principles

  1. No action is right in itself. It is right if it helps human beings and bad if it hurts someone.
  2. Jesus in the New Testament went about doing good whenever it was needed, sometimes at the expense of keeping the letter of the law.
  3. Love and justice are really the same thing. Justice is simply love at work in the community.
  4. Definition of the word love is “agape” selfless love, which always gives and expects nothing in return.
  5. Only the end justifies the means. It is the consequence that matters.
  6. The decision of love must be reconsidered in each situation. In this respect it is like Act Utilitarianism.

Situation Ethics is not really part of the OCR AS syllabus but any consideration of Religious Ethics must take note of it.

There are many critics of Fletcher

  1. Obviously the Roman Catholic Church didn’t like it . Pope Pius XII condemned it.
  2. Critics have pointed out that it is incredibly difficult to predict accurately what the consequences will be.
  3. This ethical theory can be pursued by an individual as well as a group. In the former case it is quite difficult to distinguish the principle of agape from that of selfishness.
  4. Do bad actions become good because they are done out of a loving motive?
  5. It is possible that once an exception to a rule has been made even on the grounds of agape, then the flood gates will open. Example? Assisted suicide – wouldn’t it have been considerate if one High Court judge had allowed Dianne Pretty’s husband to help her commit suicide – a judgement based on agape or at least compassion? Instead of which all High Court judges upheld the law.

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