Contrast with Legalism and antinomianism.
This is an approach to moral decision-making which applies
accepted rules to any and every situation that the moral agent or
person is faced with. The consequences and circumstances are
ignored-the rules are held to be absolute,, supreme and
unchangeable. A person’s motives are irrelevant to the morality
or otherwise of the action.
This is the rejection of any kind of force of rules.
What is right is what your conscience tells you. In its
extreme form in some Christian sects it has been
superseded by the Gospel, God’s grace makes it
impossible for a person in a state of grace to commit
any sin - they are above the law. It is rejected by the
vast majority of Christians.
‘do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the
prophets: I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil
them.’ Matthew 5:17
• The twentieth century Christian theologian
Joseph Fletcher described the system in a
book called Situation Ethics (1966).
• Fletcher wished to avoid the dangers of the
‘anything goes’ approach of complete
• But also hated “legalistic” morality which
dictates mindless rules to people
• For Fletcher, there is a middle way….
• Fletcher took as his starting point Jesus’
summary of the law in Mark 12:29-31.
• ‘The most important (commandment) is this
- hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord
is one. Love the Lord with all your body,
with all you heart, with all your soul, with
all tour mind and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbour as
yourself. There is no other commandment
greater than these.’
ONE ABSOLUTE RULE
• In making any moral decision, you do not
ask what the rules or the laws say, but how
love can best be served.
• The word for love in English often becomes
swappable with romantic, sexual love. It includes
this, but it Christian teaching it is much more than
this. C.S.Lewis describes four different aspects of
• Fletcher analyses love in terms of its three
Love that is directed
towards oneself is
egocentric. The person
wants what is best for
themselves. When this
kind of love exists in
isolation from any other
kind of love, it becomes
Love that is directed
towards self and others
is seen as a kind of
contract. People show
concern and respect for
other people because
they would like the
same in return.
Love that is directed
solely towards others.
This is love in its
described by Lewis. A
moral agent operating
with this kind of love,
does not consider the
benefits of his actions to
himself. There are no
conditions attached, and
love is purely given for
the sake of the person to
whom it is given.
In Christian theology, it is
paralleled with Jesus’ selfsacrifice as the suffering
servant Messiah, and is held
to be the highest action that a
human being is capable of.
Fletcher claims that this love
must be at the heart of any
system of morality that is
described as situationist.
• Fletcher maintained that we can either use
Position of faith
to be the
better of the
• In Ephesians 2:15 St. Paul says that Christ
destroyed the gap between God and humans
• by abolishing…., the law with it’s commandments
• a situation ethicist does not take this to mean that
Christian rules can now be ignored, but that they
can no longer have a stranglehold on people trying
to be good and godly.
• They are used for guidance, not unquestioning
Is it more moral to stick by the rules
regardless than to decide for yourself
what is moral in each case? Or vice
• Pride of place in the system of situation ethics
goes to Christian love.
• This is referred to as agape in Greek, meaning
loving - kindness, charitableness.
• All other rules are meant to compliment it.
• When ever a person is faced with a particular
situation in which he has to make an ethical
choice, the choice has to be made by considering
all the relevant factors involved in this situation,
and trying to work out how to serve love best.
• No two situations will be identical, so there cannot
always be simple straightforward answers.
• Dr. Fox had an elderly woman patient, Mary, who was
suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Mary’s joints
were so inflamed and swollen that she was totally
bedridden, and spent most of her waking hours in pain,
despite the pain relieving medication. She confided in her
two sons who regularly visited that she had had enough
and would dearly like to die. Mary had lived life to the full
and did not want to spoil it by a year or more of useless,
pain-ridden existence. She spoke to Dr. Fox, whose
training was to maintain her life, not to end it. However
her sons reinforced her wishes to the doctor, he agreed to
administer a drug that first sent Mary to sleep and then
stopped her heart. Death would be painless. Dr. Fox gave
Mary the drug. However what he did was illegal -the drug
was intended to kill her- and he was prosecuted.
Write down your reactions to the situation.
Were Dr. Fox’s actions morally right or
Give justifications for your view.
Specify and justify the opposite point of view.
• One of Fletcher’s justifications for his system was that God
did not make us like automatons- we have been given free
will to make moral choices and we must exercise that will
not hide behind the rules.
• It would be much easier just to rely on a set of external
rules - a sort of moral auto pilot - but this does not make us
grow as moral agents, which is what God wants of us.
• Instead of taking Christian morality as a ready made
package, Fletcher suggests that we should develop a moral
way of working.
• His suggested six fundamental propositions …….
The only thing that is good in
itself is love. No action is
good or bad morally within
itself - only its effects on
people are good or bad.
Love must be the
Love and justice are
inseparable. They are two
sides of the same coin.
Justice can be described as
Love is wanting
good for the other
The end justifies the
means. There is no moral
value in carrying out the
action- it is the ends or
effects aimed for that
Love sets you free to decide in
each moral situation. You
always do what is loving.
In order to understand and write about
situation ethics, it is useful to learn Fletcher’s
Summarise each principle into two words,
then devise your own mnemonic to remember
Planned or foreseen outcome is the guiding principal.
There is no action that is good or bad per se, or in itself.
•Stealing for example, it is wrong
because it usually hurts people,
including possibly the lowering of the
self esteem of the thieves themselves.
•However, if greater overall benefit
could come out of stealing than any
negative consequences, then it can be
•Robin hood was presumably a situation
ethicist, even if he was unaware of it.
A mother saw her three year old son with his foot trapped in a
railway line. She tried desperately to free him but to no avail.
To her horror, she heard an approaching train. Unable to free
her terrified son. She put her arms around him and laid down
with him on the track. She deliberately gave her life so that he
would not die feeling abandoned.
It is hard to imagine such courage, let alone achieve it.
However, looking at the situation purely from the view of moral
philosophy, one can see that it can be analysed as both right and
Analyse the ethics from A) a deontological point of view.
B)a teleological point of view.
Fletcher wrote that situation ethics ‘relativises the absolute, it does not
absolute the relative’.
Write down what he meant by this.
Situation ethics focuses on individual situations: the situationist will not
say such and such is immoral, but, ‘in a particular situation, this action
is moral or immoral. It depends on the situation concerned.’
Imagine and describe a situation when each of the following could be
justified, according to a situationist: (give your justifications)
•A doctor lying about a patient’s condition to the patient.
•A spouse lying to the other.
•Someone stealing from a supermarket.
•Write down your ideas and justifications. Discuss them with the class.