A summary of the moral decision making theory of Situation Ethics:
Situation Ethics can be described as a ‘theory of love,’ for it holds that, in a moral dilemma, the course of action that is morally right is the one which is the most love-filled. The kind of love in this context is ‘agape’ love. Agape is a Greek word signifying unconditional, non-reciprocal love. It is not emotional or passionate, but is a means of doing good to others, driven by the will. Situation Ethics was born in the 1960’s—a time of questioning and doubt for many people—and was the result of Reverend Joseph Fletcher—an American Anglican theologian—and his ideas, as presented in the book Situation Ethics, the New Morality (1966). He was not the first, however to come up with the idea of a perfect Christian ethical system, and was greatly influenced by many others in the writing of this work. Three years earlier, in 1963, the Bishop John A T Robinson wrote a book entitled Honest to God. In this he stated that “…there is no one ethical system that can claim to be Christian.” Rudolf Bultmann—another man whom Joseph Fletcher talks about in the opening chapter of his book—declared that Jesus did not put forward any moral theory except the principle that one should “…love thy neighbour as thyself.”
In his book (Situation Ethics, the New Morality), Reverend Joseph Fletcher professed that “…the morality of an action depends on the situation.” This quote can be taken as the founding principle of Situation Ethics, as it clearly states the main idea of the theory. To Mr Fletcher, the action in itself is not right or wrong, but it is the motive behind that action that may be good or evil. Therefore, as long as one takes the course of action that is the most love-filled towards others, the actions that are employed in order to fulfil it are permissible.
Fletcher explained that there are only three possible ethical approaches to the making of moral decisions. These are antinomianism, legalism, and of course, Situation Ethics. Antinomianism maintains that there should be no rules, laws, or codes of conduct whatsoever. The problem with this approach is quite clear. One can do what one wants, and, as people in this world are corrupt, much evil would result from utilising this means of determining morality. To Joseph Fletcher, this ethical approach—which literally means “anti-law”—is one extreme to be avoided. The other is legalism. A legalist is someone who follows the law, whatever happens and in every context. This absolutist view would not put the law aside in a particular circumstance, as does the Situationist, and therefore it is too rigid to be pragmatic. Finally, we have Situation Ethics—the ‘middle way’—in which the law of “love thy neighbour as thyself” is the guiding influence in every situation.
Situation Ethics as the ‘Happy Medium’ or ‘Middle Way’: Antinomianism| Situation Ethics| Legalism|
Key Books in relation to Situation Ethics:
Title:| Date:| Author:|
Honest to God| 1963| Bishop John A T Robinson|
Situation Ethics, the New Morality| 1966| Reverend Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991)| Ethics in a Permissive Society| 1980| William Barclay|
Ethics in a Christian Context| 1963| Paul Lehmann (1906-1996)|
Key Quotes in relation to Situation Ethics:
1. “…the morality of an action depends on the situation.” (Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics, the New Morality)
2. “…there is no one ethical system that can claim to be Christian.” (Bishop John A T Robinson, Honest to God)
3. Agape love is “…the steady directing of the human will towards the eternal well-being of another.” (Bishop Stephen Neill)
4. “…love is too ambiguous for solving moral problems.” (Edwin Williams)