Situation ethics


Legalism, situation ethics & antinomianism

Legalism is the view that people require fixed rules to follow. Antinomianism is the view that there are no rules or laws to follow at all. Fletcher claimed that his situation ethics was a middle ground which avoids the problems of each extreme while retaining the benefit of each. The downside of legalism is that it cannot take the situation into account, the downside of antinomianism is that it leads to moral chaos. The upside of legalism is that it has clear guidance for people to follow, the upside of antinomianism is that it takes the situation into account. Situation ethics takes the situation into account, give people clear guidance and avoids moral chaos. It does this by claiming that love is the one single absolute principle which should be applied to all situations. The action that is good is the one which has the most loving consequence in the situation you are in. 

William Barclay thought situation ethics had some validity but didn’t agree with it fully. He argues that situation ethics gives moral agents a dangerous amount of freedom. For freedom to be good, love has to be perfect. If there is no or not enough love then ‘freedom can become selfishness and even cruelty’. If everyone was a saint, then situation ethics would be perfect. John A T Robinson called situation ethics ‘the only ethic for man come of age’ – but Barclay argues mankind has not yet come of age and so ‘still needs the crutch and protection of law’.

Fletcher and Robinson argue (influenced by Bonhoeffer) that humanity has ‘come of age’, however. This means that humanity has become more mature. In medieval and ancient time, when humanity had not come of age, people in general were less educated and less self-controlling. This meant that they needed fixed ridged clear rules to follow, because they could not be trusted to understand and act on the nuances and complexities in how a rule could justifiably be bent or broken if the situation called for it. However, now people are more civilised, to the point that granting them more autonomy will increase love without risking the stability of society.

Barclay disagrees however, and thinks that although people might appear improved, if granted the freedom (and thus power) to do what they want, they won’t choose the loving thing they will choose the selfish or even the cruel thing. This is essentially the classic argument that power corrupts. It also echoes the debate about the extent to which human nature is corrupt, such as by original sin. Also relevant is psychology like the Stanford prison experiment and literature like lord of the flies. It is a well-known feature of human psychology that power is corrupting. The freedom to decide what is good or bad without external supervision of legalistic laws grants humans more power and thereby corrupts them.

Legalism has worse downsides. It may be true that some would abuse the autonomy situation ethics grants them. However, that is arguably not as bad compared with the dangers of legalistic morality, which is inflexible and outdated. Furthermore, the direction of history involves people becoming more educated and civilised and so it makes sense for Fletcher to develop a morality which reflects the fact that people can be trusted with more freedom.


The importance of Agape in Christianity is drawn from Jesus saying that the ‘greatest commandment’ is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Fletcher interprets that as suggesting all other commandments only have value insofar as they enable Agape. For example, the 10 commandments clearly state that murder is wrong. However, Fletcher gives the example of a family hiding from bandits when their baby started crying, which would reveal their hiding place. Fletcher said it’s the most loving thing to kill the baby because the situation was that they would otherwise all die anyway, including the baby.

Fletcher vs sola scriptura. Fletcher faces criticism from traditional Christian ethics that his theory cannot be considered properly Christian, since it seems to only follow the command to love, ignoring most of the teachings in the Bible. For example, Protestants, following Luther, believe that in ethical judgement we should only follow the Bible’s teachings, a view they called ‘sola scriptura’ meaning the ‘Bible alone’ is the source of moral authority, not the autonomous individual deciding the demands of agape in their situation.

Fletcher’s liberal view of the Bible. Fletcher argued that traditional views of Biblical inspiration face a dilemma of two possible approaches, each with serious downsides. Option one is to view the Bible as needing interpretation, from which rises the issue of the impossibility of deciding whose interpretation is correct. Fletcher illustrates this with the competing interpretations different theologians have made of the Sermon on the mount.

Option two is to take the Bible literally, an even worse solution, because the “headache” of interpreting what the bible meant is far less trouble compared to trying to live as a literalist. Fletcher gives the example of ‘do not resist one who is evil’ as an example.

Fletcher concludes that the Bible should not be thought of as a legalistic ‘rules book’ and that ethical teachings like even those of the sermon on the mount at most offer us ‘some paradigms or suggestions’. This makes Fletcher’s approach to the Bible an example of the liberal view of inspiration; that the Bible is not the perfect word of God. So, although the Bible states that many things (e.g. killing, homosexuality and adultery) are wrong, Fletcher doesn’t think a Christian should view those as unbreakable rules. Whatever maximises agape is allowed, no matter the action.

Richard Mouw argued that just because Jesus said agape was the greatest commandment, that doesn’t rule out the relevance of other laws. Jesus did indeed say to love your neighbour as yourself. However, he also said many other laws. They should all be followed.

However, loving your neighbour was proclaimed the ‘greatest’ commandment by Jesus. If one command is greater than another then it seems like that means it takes priority and thus the less great rule should be broken if that’s the loving thing to do.

But why would Jesus have bothered to make any other commandments if agape is the only one that is ultimately matters? If a commandment is only to be followed when it accords with agape, and should be ignored if it conflicts with agape, then agape is the only commandment you actually need. Perhaps by calling it the ‘greatest’ commandment Jesus meant something else, such as only that it was the one which would be relevant to the most number of situations.

It is difficult to figure out exactly what Jesus meant by agape being the ‘greatest’ commandment! Perhaps it is even impossible. This arguably proves Fletcher’s point about the impossibility of figuring out exactly what the Bible meant, justifying Fletcher’s liberal view of it, that we should not view it as the perfect word of God but as only guidelines. Fletcher thus simply doesn’t regard it as a problem that he ignores, or thinks it justified to overrule with agape, most of the commands in the Bible.

The subjectivity of agape is a criticism of situation ethics which claims that people have very different opinions about what counts as loving which suggests that it is subjective, meaning mind-dependent. For example, an over-protective parent might think they are being loving. Even a Nazi might think they are being loving when acting on their beliefs, because they genuinely think the world will be a better place if they do so. If it’s possible for anyone to believe that anything is loving, surely it’s too unstable a basis for ethics. This also suggests that it’s not a religious theory as if situation ethics is subjective it cannot depend on an objective ethics from God.

Fletcher could be defended by pointing out that agape doesn’t just mean love, it means Christian love, more specifically it means selfless love. It means the kind of love that Jesus recommended when he said we should love our neighbour as ourselves. The Nazi does not treat those they hate in the same way as they treat themselves and so actually Fletcher’s theory can’t be said to justify their action. A Nazi might think they act out of love, but it is not Christian self-less love of the neighbour.

However, the goodness of the command to love your neighbour as yourself depends on the goodness of the way in which you love yourself. Two Nazis might say to each other that they hope the other would kill them if it were discovered they were Jewish, because they would rather be dead than Jewish so that is genuinely what they view as loving themselves. In that case, loving your neighbour as yourself for a Nazi would involve killing your neighbour if they were Jewish.

The four working principles

Pragmatism. An action must be calibrated to the reality of the situation.

Relativism. Fletcher claimed his theory “relativizes the absolute, it does not absolutize the relative”.  Relativizing the absolute means that absolutes like “Do not kill” become relative to love. If it has a loving outcome to kill, such as euthanasia sometimes can, then that absolute is false relative to love. Not absolutizing the relative means that it is not total relativism where any moral claim could be justified. It is always relative to love which means that only moral claims which are valid when relative to love will be justified for Fletcher.

Positivism. Natural law and Kantian ethics are based on reason but Fletcher thought ethics had to begin with faith in love because Fletcher thought no rational answer can be given for why someone should love as it is a matter of faith in Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself.

Personalism. Situation ethics puts people above rules. As Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Fletcher claims this shows that Jesus knew rules could be broken if it was for the good of humanity to do so.

Natural law based Catholic argument: relativism leads to antinomianism. Catholics believe in the sanctity of life which means life has intrinsic value. This means that no matter what the pragmatic situation is, the value of life cannot be relativized, thus they would reject Fletcher’s working principles of pragmatism and relativism. They think that the stability of society is threatened by relativistic ethical theories like Fletcher’s. Mother Theresa summed up this kind of argument well during her speech upon receiving the noble peace prize. She claimed “the greatest threat to world peace is abortion. If a mother can kill her own child in her own womb, what is left to stop us from killing one another?” This Catholic argument is based on Aquinas’ natural law, which is the idea that God designed us to live a certain way which involves preserving human life, so that if we go against that then our society will break down because living contrary to God’s design is unnatural and leads to immorality and social disorder. Fletcher’s situationism thus leads to antinomianism.           

The social order argument doesn’t seem to be true. Northern Europe has the most atheistic countries where quality of life is acted on instead of sanctity of life, but those countries are nonetheless some of the most stable and happy in the world. So, it just doesn’t look like it’s true that sanctity of life is a requirement for social order.

The six fundamental principles

Only love is intrinsically good. Everything else has conditional value depending on whether it helps or hurts people, but love is always unconditionally and therefore intrinsically good.

The ruling norm of Christian decision is love; nothing else.

Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.

Love wills the neighbour’s good whether we like him or not.

Only the end justifies the means; nothing else.

Love decides there and then.