Fletcher: Situation Ethics

A) Background

Ethical dilemmas call for practical solutions even as far back as the Old Testament times. Many situations have been prescribed in complicated set of laws. (Torah) This system is known as legalism. Over the last half century, there has been an increasing dissatisfaction with the rigid application of laws and a cry for more attention to detail of the situation. The Bible is no longer revealed, as the authority on ethical issues as it would be hundred years ago. The loss of value on the ethical norms of the legislation and law of the Church (and the concept of natural law) was replaced by a move to consider moral issues in a given situation.

B) Related Schools of Thought


The central theme is existence. It promotes the existence of morally free agents or people who exercise free will. Rules and laws take away free will to a greater extent and for existentialists, makes existence superficial. The laws form a barrier to stop individuality. (R. Bultmann, P. Tillich, Jean-Paul Sartre – opposes legalism).

Contextual Ethics

This scheme of ethical thought emphasises context situations or circumstances as opposed to laws for principles. Both R. Niehbur and P. Lehmann take this point of view. Niehbur stresses the role of man as a responder in a given situation. Lehmann claims there is no universally applicable code. They both think a Christian should consider what they are doing in the world and should decide what to do in this situation in response to this. It becomes easier for Christians if it is practised.
After WWII, there was a Catholic movement, “Situations Ethik” where Pope Pius XII spoke against in 1952, claiming it attacked natural law. The influences of existentialism and antinomianism were speculated at the time. Christianity abolished the view of Old Testament Jews – Sermon on the Mount.

Joseph Fletcher – Situation Ethics (SCM 1966)

Augustine had said, “Love God and do what you will.” Fletcher was an American theologian and teacher. The book reflects the popular trend of the 60s towards anti-establishment and a breakaway from tradition. In 1963, Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich published his book, “Honest to God” in Britain. It is a comparable work and received much the same strong reaction. In the book, Fletcher described three approaches to ethical issues, They are:

  • the legalistic approach – an ethical system based on alterable laws
  • the anti-nominal approach – it is unprincipled and lawless.
  • the situational approach – no act in itself is good – he stressed that these are neither legalistic nor antinomianal, relative or hedonist.)

Situation Ethics – no act in itself is good. Only love (agape) is good in itself. It is the standard to be ahead to in any situation. Love is the only prescriptive standard though other laws require other wisdoms which are not to be considered binding, i.e. they have no ontological status.
Fletcher advocates a type of Act Utilitarianism substituting agapic love for utility. The outcome guided by love is central and overall conscience, intuition and so called God’s command.
Situation ethics accepts reason as an instrument, moral judgement, revolution as a source of the norm.
Situation ethics rejects good as “given” in the nature of things, all revealed norms/law except to love God in the neighbour, Sophocles’ concept of unwritten immutable laws of love.

C) Four Principles of Fletcher

Pragmatism – to be considered morally correct, any particular act must be feasible. It must be practical. Practical in what way? The standard to test the action against is agape.
Relativism – there can be no unambiguous laws. There is always an exception to the rule but however, the cause of action must be relative to something.
Positivism – Fletcher opts for theological positivism where faith is the supremacy of Christian love and is affirmed without rational proof. “God is love” is a faith claim and can not be proven. Theological naturalism begins with reason of human experience and leads to faith as a consequence.
Personalism – people are the centre of Fletcher’s ethics. They come before laws or principles; hence some circumstances call for the negation of law.

D) Six Fundamental Principles

  1. Love is the intrinsic good – Love is the only good thing and of itself as it promotes the well-being of humans. e.g. St. Augustine. To establish the good or bad characteristics of a person, one does not ask what he believes or hopes but what he loves.
  2. Love is the norm for Christians – Jesus and Paul corrected the standing Torah with the principle of love. A love which guarantees putting the other person first. It includes law, but only if law abides by love’s path, e.g. Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27-28 – picking corn in the fields. Fletcher even questions the authority of the Decalogue. Its laws in themselves and especially the last six. Jesus and Paul talk of agapic love. It is not conditional on the return of love. It is not phila or eros. Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, ignored his rules out of duty and was killed for plotting against Hitler. (Killing Hitler was an exception to his Categorical Imperative). Agapic love is active and requires a high level of personal responsibility.
  3. Love and justice is related – Justice is love applied to daily life and the treatment of your neighbours. Since we have many neighbours, loving activities should be used equally to all. This is where calculations are needed. Fletcher advocates the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Fletcher’s example is a doctor deciding over the last unit of blood in a hospital. Does he give it to three young children or one old alcoholic? (See criticism A1)
  4. The nature of agapic love – Fletcher defines agapic love as not a mere liking for someone. Agapic love promotes the good of others regardless of preference or sentiment. Søren Kierkegaard believed Christian love is non-preferable, a matter of attitude and not a feeling. It is theologically derived from the interpretation of how God loved all people. Even self-love can be seen as preferable if the benefits outweigh action and motivated by love for another. (See criticism C4) Fletcher’s example is of a pilot that must save himself to fly the plane and save the many passengers on board.
  5. Love justifies its own means – Fletcher points out that absolute judgements, e.g. stealing being wrong, does not make sense. Wrong and right only exist in the context of a particular situation. Fletcher’s example is of the French Resistance in WWII who stole and killed to liberate France from Germany.
  6. Love judges in context – Situation Ethics gives people responsibility and freedom from prescribed laws. This presupposes human ability to cope with such responsibility. For Fletcher, preordained responses to situations imply weaknesses. That is to say, laws imply humans are incapable of dealing with freedom.

E) Criticism of Situation Ethics

These are in three sections: Specific, Secular and Religious

A) Specific

A1 – Some scholars and ethicists have found fault with Fletcher’s examples that he uses to illustrate his argument. Examples such as the saving of one’s father or the Mona Lisa from a burning building are seen by some as silly or far-fetched.
A2 – In Fletcher’s ethical scheme, situations variably require interpretation. In any circumstances will be subject to external influences. (Such as other people, age, money, or other). Interpretation is therefore complex.
A3 – It can be argued that Situation Ethics presuppose a certain amount of intuition. Discernment or rational calculation of the consequences in a given situation. Not all humans are capable of this level of cognitive ability. The humans naturally tend to interpret subjectively rather than objectively, .i.e. from their own standpoint. Is Fletcher, therefore too optimistic about people’s ability to calculate how love should be used?
A4 – Principles and laws can not be relied upon if they merely illuminates a decision making process rather than prescribe the set cause of action. For instance, Paul Ramsey appealed to the idea of agape but claims what the line between Situation Ethics and antinomianism is blurred.
A5 – Love is not adequate as the sole guiding principle. Some scholars argue this on the ground that love can be misguided and mislead. Truth is therefore needed to keep love from suggesting the wrong solution to a problem.
A6 – Love could justify the means when the means is immortal. E.g. gambling, stealing or lying might be deemed as okay in a situation. Where do we draw the line? What are we sanctioning and what morals do we teach our children?

B) Secular

B1 – Society may need something more substantial than love as a guideline. If there had been no call for laws and regulations, why are they a common feature of almost all societies today?
B2 – It could be highly damaging to set love up against rules and laws. Some laws serve to protect people. E.g. no person should steal from another. Does Fletcher really suggest this?
B3 – Rules in laws should not be pushed aside as they may encapsulate wisdom of the past, be part of the cultural fabric of society to aid human co-operation. It is probable that more good will be achieved in general terms if all adhere to society’s rules than if all make their own standards according to love.
B4 – No action is an isolated event; most have been experienced before. The principle of universability requires that similar cases be treated similarly. Recognising the similarities require a rule.

C) Religious

C1 – The Christian tradition has never been totally legalist. There has always been interpretations and application. E.g. casuistry (appeal to theological courts) and freedom of conscience.
C2 – The application of agape as the central guiding principle is for for Christians, however, for society as a whole, it may not accept it so readily. Does Fletcher then advocate no rule for them?
C3 – O’Donovan argued against Situation Ethics in “Resurrection and moral order”. He rejected the idea that one single command with indifferent context could be applied to every kind of moral decision because it ignored pluriformity (many forms of society) of the moral field. He argued that one could not hold a love command which was so shapeless that it contributed nothing to the interpretation to the meaning of the commandment. O’Donovan thought that moral rules are a cultural form through which we communicate knowledge of the creative order. He was able to say our rules are there for us than mere procedural rules. They provide insight into what the rules are about. A response to God’s grace. O’Donovan did agree that Christianity brought freedom from the bondage to the Law of Moses. “Christian freedom, given by the Holy Spirit allows man to make moral responses creatively”. There is a danger in this for O’Donovan who would say that one can not ignore the universe as it already is. He believes that the spirit “forms and brings to expression” the appropriate responsibility. “Ethical problems in the present and the future can not be solved by an appeal to sanctions from the past.” Fletcher, in O’Donovan’s eye, remains bound by the past as he uses for his standard the rule of love. It is inconsistent with his decoration that no action should be prescribing by moral codes.
C4Peter Baelz – Fletcher’s love he claims is supposed to be agapic but it is not. Agape is giving love and seeking no reward. Agape in the New Testament is used to describe God’s love to ,an and man’s response to God and his neighbour. In these terms, love, for a Christian is a source of morality. It is love for other people independent of that of a person’s qualities, attainments or merits. You would forget yourself for the benefit of another. Agapic love can not have injustice. Justice is something that treats all humans according to their deserts. Love, according to Fletcher, is not supposed to determine what people deserve. The system of justice contradicts agapic love. We both have hearts, lungs and brain so we all need basic rights of being treated equally. When personality or things that make us different is in question, treating us differently is better. If love is to be other than liking or preference, it must recognise the claim of equality. Fletcher wants situations to be judged individually but not treating everyone the same. This means it is love but not agapic love. Justice has to recognise equality. Agapic love is about equality.
Augustine said that while doing your Christian duty, agapic love needs to be applied.