Key ideas of Situation Ethics and its development in response to societal change

Category: Ethics, Justice
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2023
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Examine the Key Ideas of Situation Ethics (21 Marks) In this essay, I am going to examine the key features of Situation Ethics. Situation Ethics is a teleological theory that resolves ethical and moral issues relative to the situation and was developed at a time when society and the church were facing drastic and permanent change. It is most commonly associated with Joseph Fletcher and J. A. T Robinson and also William Barclay.

Situation Ethics is also considered to be the method of ethical decision making that states that you must consider “noble love” (agape) in decision making and that a moral decision is correct if it is the most loving thing to do. The theory is based upon this idea of agape love which is defined by William Barclay as “unconquerable good will”. Situation Ethics developed during the 1960s and the post war generation was a great influence on this. Between the end of the Second World War and the end of the 1960s, Western Europe and North America were socially, culturally and morally transformed.

Up until the 1960s, many people still followed the “old fashioned” approach of Divine Command Ethics where by people obeyed the Bible and the teachings presented in them. People believed that by following the teachings of God as directly revealed by Him through scripture and the Church, they were doing good. However, by the 1960s all this changed. This quote was produced in 1966: “Greater independence; more money…the weakening of family bonds and religious influences; the development of earlier maturity, physically, emotionally and mentally; the impact of modern books, television and periodicals”. Sex and Morality, SCM,). This study blamed many things on the fact that many people were turning away from the Church’s rules during the 1960s and more towards abandoning rules. The world was becoming more secular and people had stopped listening to the Church and their teachings on what was ethically right. During the 1960s, society and the Church were facing drastic and permanent change. By 1966, women occupied an increasingly prominent place in the work force and there was a universal shock of the foundation of the contraceptive pill. This allowed young women to have sex whenever and with whoever they pleased.

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The sacred bonds of marriage started to break as more people saw this as a chance to have sex without having to be in a secure marriage or even a relationship. This sexual revolution of non-marital sex caused the levels of promiscuity to rise drastically as paternalism, authority, law and government were ditched. Other moral perspectives that changed the latter half of the 20th Century included fashion, music, politics and the view of religion. The drastic cultural and social changes during the 1960s caused a conflicting reaction by the Church.

The British Council of Churches ordered a Working Party on Sex, Marriage and the Family to suggest how a Christian position on sex and marriage can be communicated to the community. As a result, in 1964, the British Council of Churches, on the advice of its advisory group on Sex, Marriage and the Family, appointed a Working Party that set out to “Prepare a Statement of the Christian case for abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage and faithfulness within marriage…and to suggest means whereby the Christian position may be effectively presented to the various sections of the Community” (Sex and Morality, SCM, 1966).

J. A. T Robinson was a New Testament scholar, author and former Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, England. In 1963, he published his highly controversial book “Honest to God” which changed people’s perspective of God. As a result of this publication, it caused the Church to be thrown into disagreement. This in turn caused the traditional church to be shaken at its very roots. Robinson challenged the idea of the traditional and conservative view of God. He said that Situation Ethics was for “Man come of age”. In other words, it was for people who were moving away from having to be told what to do by God.

As a result, it was right in the middle of Antinomianism and Legalism (which I will discuss later). Robinson and Paul Tillich suggested that God could be understood as ‘the ground of our being’, of ultimate significance, but not a “dues ex machine”, a supernatural being who intervenes in the world from outside it. In other words God is part of people not this almighty being who gives instructions for us to follow. Fletcher (who I will discuss later) used examples from the Bible to show that a strict application of rules was no longer needed and was in line with what

Jesus thought too. Fletcher used quotes from the Bible as an illustration of old versus new morality. He used the example of the adulterous woman when Jesus saved her from being stoned to death even though the law permitted it. This situation is a clear example of Personalism which Fletcher used to illustrate his theory. Another example that Fletcher identified from the Bible was when Jesus confronted the Pharisees over what the Sabbath Day was intended for. In order to follow strict Jewish law absolutely nothing could be done on this day, often to the detriment of people.

Jesus wanted people to follow the spirit in which God had given the law rather than following it and acting immorally in some cases. Whilst Fletcher described agape love as the only intrinsically good thing, William Barclay defined agape love as “unconquerable good will; it is the determination to seek the other man’s highest good, no matter what he does to you…nothing but good will. It has been defined as purpose, not passion. It is an attitude to the other person. ” This kind of love is highly demanding or as Barclay suggested, “a highly intelligent thing. Situation Ethics can be applied more to the issue of divorce than the application of oral judgement that divorce is “always wrong”. Robinson questioned the conservative view of marriage that it is a supernatural unbreakable bond. This idea of marriage for Robinson was too out dated. He believed that it was time for humans to enter into their maturity and seek liberty from such supranaturalist thinking and while allowing the past experience to guide them, be ready to leave behind the restrictions of the old moral law if love was best served by doing so.

Joseph Fletcher was an American professor who founded the theory of Situation Ethics in the 1960s. He stated that “we need to educate people to the idea that the quality of life is more important than the length of life. ” Fletcher’s Situation Ethics was based on the New Testament teaching of agape. His work reflected the social change of the 1960’s and centred around the principle of “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37). Fletcher maintained that there were three different ways of making moral decisions. These three approaches to morality were Legalism, Antinomianism and Situationism.

He stated that Legalism was a conservative, rule-based morality focused on unalterable laws. Antinomianism was defined as the polar opposite to Legalism – the lawless or unprincipled approach. He also stated that Situationism was a midway between the two other positions and that the Situationalist is prepared to set aside rules if love seems better served by doing so. According to Fletcher, “The situationist follows a moral law or violates it according to the need”. Fletcher also rejects Legalism because it cannot accommodate ‘exceptions’ to the rule.

In addition to this, he also rejects Antinomianism for the reason that it provides no foundation with which to evaluate one’s morality and offers no justification as to why people should live in any other way than they want to. Fletcher proposed a key principle with which to guide moral decision-making rather than rules. This primary principle is that of acting in the most loving way. A fitting quote that is included in the Bible is that “Christ Jesus…abolished the law with its commandments and legal claims” (Ephesians 2:13-15). Fletcher proposed that we should follow the way Jesus taught us to, with unselfish love or agape.

Jesus declared that we should “…love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Fletcher also proposed four presuppositions of Situation Ethics which are the criteria by which this theory is determined and acted upon. They are Pragmatism, Relativism, Positivism and Personalism. The first presupposition is Pragmatism which demands that a proposed course of action should work and that its success or failure should be judged according to the principle.

This is practical and works because Legalism and Antinomianism do not. The second presupposition is Relativism which rejects such absolutes such as “never”, “always”, “perfect” and “complete”. The principle of love is applied relative to each situation so that an appropriate response is made. Situationism is not the same as Antinomianism because the ultimate criterion is “agapeic love”. Love is the constant in all situations, unlike laws which work for some things but not others. The third presupposition is Positivism which recognises that love is the most important criterion of all.

Situation Ethics recognises that love is the most important thing when making a moral choice and echoes the sentiments of the Bible. Therefore, the decision to act in a loving way is a choice we make beforehand based on the notion that other ways do not work, not because we have proved Situationism “works” prior to the event. The fourth presupposition is Personalism which demands that people should be put first. Fletcher emphasised the fact that ethics deals with human relations and should therefore put people at the centre.

Fletcher also believed that Legalism fails to appreciate that people exist in a social context and that any decision must be beneficial to the wider community rather than just the individual. Where Legalism fails to recognise the complexity of ethical decision-making, Antinomianism fails to recognise the responsibility ethical decision-making has to the wider community. In addition to the four presuppositions, Fletcher also detailed in explaining how agape should be understood and how it applied to the theory of Situation Ethics by using the six working principles.

The first working principle is the idea that love is always good. This states that there is no action or moral rule that is good in itself. An action is good only in so far as it brings about agape. Love is intrinsically valuable, it has inherent worth. Nothing else has intrinsic value. The second working principle is that love is the only norm or rule and therefore, love replaces the law. The law should only be obeyed in the interests of love and not for the law’s sake. Fletcher rejected Natural Law. He said “there are no [natural] universal laws held by all men everywhere at all times”.

Jesus summarised the entire Jewish law by saying “love God” and “love your neighbour”. In the third working principle, Fletcher stated how love and justice are the same. This idea was unique to Fletcher, who claimed that justice is the giving to every person what is their due, and that as the one thing due to everyone is love, then love and justice are the same. Therefore, there can be no love without justice and as a result cannot be parted. For the fourth working principle, Fletcher outlined the idea that love is not liking and that love is discerning and critical, not sentimental.

As agape was not an emotion, it did not need to include liking. The fifth working principle includes the statement that love justifies the means. Situation Ethics is a teleological theory that identifies the end outcome of an action as the means of assessing its moral worth. Therefore, as a result, it implies that anything might be done if it brings about the most loving action. Lastly, the sixth working principle of, love decides there and then describes how there are no rules about what should or shouldn’t be done, in each situation; you decide there and then what the most loving thing to do is.

Fletcher developed his theory by drawing on a wide range of cases that could not be resolved by applying fixed rules and principles. He used examples including the burning house and time to only save one person, your father or a doctor with the formulae for a cure for a killer disease in his head alone. Fletcher also drew on situations that he had experienced firsthand, but most of all he would act situationally to help people.

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Key ideas of Situation Ethics and its development in response to societal change. (2017, Feb 21). Retrieved from

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