Situation Ethics


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Situation ethics was created by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s. It is a product of its time, and deliberately so. The 60s were defined by radical social movements aimed at overthrowing traditional ways of life which were seen as oppressive. Religion faces a dilemma in the face of such modernising forces; whether to adapt and reform itself or attempt to carry on as if nothing had changed. Fletcher is a classic example of adaptation. His approach embodies liberal Christianity in many ways. He rejected the traditional approach to Christian ethics of strict adherence to moral laws. Instead he attempted a reduction of Christian ethics to what many would agree is the overarching theme of Jesus’ ethics: love.

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. 


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 religious rules, principles and 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.

The four working principles

The four working principles are involved in the application of the guiding principle of agape to moral situations.

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.

The six fundamental principles

The six fundamental principles/propositions are axioms which follow from agape being at the centre of ethics.

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. Fletcher think that maximising agape is the only ethical goal. Many think that justiice is an ethical goal, so Fletcher here is explaining that justice actually reduces to love, it is merely the question of how widely and fairly love is distributed.

Love wills the neighbour’s good whether we like him or not. Jesus called on us to love our neighbour no matter who they are, which includes people we don’t like.

Only the end justifies the means; nothing else. The is Fletcher’s consequentialism. If the consequence of an action is the most loving possible then it is good, it doesn’t matter what the action is. The end of maximising agape justifies the means we use to produce it.

Love decides there and then. When we are faced with a moral choice we have to decide there and then in that situation what the right thing to do is.

Fletcher’s views on conscience

Fletcher thought that the conscience was what enabled you to figure out the requirements of agape in your situation. He said conscience was a verb not a noun, indicating he disagreed with the traditional view that conscience is an internal moral compass or mental ability to intuitively know what is right or wrong.

Whether situation ethics grants people too much freedom

Strength of situation ethics:  Situation ethics is designed for modern society. Fletcher and Robinson argue (influenced by Bonhoeffer) that humanity has ‘come of age’, meaning become more mature. In medieval and ancient times, 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.

Weakness: William Barclay disagreed. 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. Barclay argues mankind has not yet come of age and so ‘still needs the crutch and protection of law’.

Final judgement defending Situation ethics:

Barclay’s argument fails because 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.

Final judgement critiquing Situation ethics:

Barclay’s argument is successful because although people might appear improved in modern times, 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.

Fletcher vs sola scriptura

One of the strengths of situation ethics is that Fletcher founded it on a liberal approach to the Bible. He argued that traditional legalistic approaches to the bible face a dilemma. They could take the Bible literally, but no one ever can or wants to live that way. Fletcher points to the example of ‘do not resist an evil person’. They could interpret the Bible, but it is impossible to know which interpretation is correct, e.g. of the sermon on the mount.

Fletcher concludes that the Bible should not be thought of as a legalistic ‘rules book’. Ethical teachings like 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. This is part of Fletcher’s argument against legalism.

Fletcher focuses on the most prevalent ethical theme of the Bible – love. This is the approach of many liberal Christians. When you boil it down, the Bible, especially the teachings of Jesus and ethics of St Paul, are mainly focused on love and things which follow from love like forgiveness.

Weakness: Although love is central, it is not the only element of Biblical Christian ethics. Fletcher faces the criticism 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. Martin Luther’s theory of ‘sola scriptura’ argues that the ‘Bible alone’ is the source of moral authority, not the autonomous individual deciding the demands of agape in their situation. Sola scriptura protestant W. L. Craig argues that the Bible shows that God’s Justice is just as important as his love.

Fletcher has diluted Christian ethics into just loving and wanting the best for others. That is not distinctive from secular morality or just general well-wishing.

Final judgement defending situation ethics:

Craig could be right that God’s justice is equally important to love, or perhaps Fletcher is still right that justice is just love distributed.

This simply further proves Fletcher’s point about the impossibility of figuring out exactly what the Bible meant. So, should not view it as the perfect word of God but only as 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.

Final judgement critiquing situation ethics:

Fletcher’s liberal approach to the bible is no better off than the approach of trying to interpret it. The themes and paradigms of the bible are also a matter of subjective interpretation.

Fletcher has not solved the problem of how to interpret the Bible, he has merely kicked the can down the road.

Situation ethics therefore fails to provide a convincing approach to Christian ethics and ends up sliding into antinomianism due to being subjective.

Whether situation ethics fits with the ethics of Jesus

A strength of Fletcher’s situation ethics is that it fits with the approach to ethics taken by Jesus. Jesus overturned rules (like that of Moses’ eye for an eye & life for a life), allowed the breaking of rules (like the sabbath) and said that the greatest commandment was to love your neighbours as yourself.

If one command is greater than another, then it seems like that means it takes priority and thus the lesser rule should be broken if it’s the loving thing to do. Fletcher’s situation ethics is a reasonable interpretation of what Jesus said. It’s hard to see what Jesus could have meant by agape being the greatest commandment except that it was greater than the others which seem to imply taking precedence over them.

Weakness: Richard Mouw points out that it makes no sense to reduce Christian ethics to only one of Jesus’ commands when Jesus made other commands too. It makes no logical sense to follow some of Jesus’ commands but not all of them. We either regard him as a source of moral authority or we don’t.   Pope Pius XII criticised situation ethics on similar grounds. Christ himself frequently spoke of the importance of following all the commandments. (Matthew 19:17 & John 14:15).  Fletcher is therefore unwittingly attacking Christ. Fletcher claims the ends justifies the means, but Romans 3:8 condemns that.

Final judgement defending situation ethics:

Mouw and Pius XII’s arguments are unsuccessful because they beg the question regarding the validity of taking a legalistic approach.

Certainly if we take all of Jesus’ commands as individually true, it is incoherent to only follow one of them. Fletcher’s point however is that the example of Jesus himself goes against that legalistic method of ethical accounting. Jesus himself was an example of taking a progressive and situationist approach to ethical commands. Reading and following Jesus like an inflexible legalist fails to incorporate that side of his approach. A full appreciation of Jesus’ ethics involves both legalism and situationism. In that case, it cannot be viewed legalistically. Fletcher does not want to disregard rules and commandments, only the insistence on the legalistic approach to their application.

Final judgement critiquing situation ethics:

Furthermore, 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.

It seems more logical to think that 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.

The subjectivity issue 

Love seems like a strong basis for ethics. Fletcher doesn’t mean simply acting based on the feeling of love. He means doing whatever action actually promotes a loving outcome. Ethical action on his theory has the strength of being orientated towards love but without the weakness of unreliable emotion.   Furthermore, agape is an even stronger basis than love. 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.   Some argue that love is subjective and therefore too unstable a basis for ethics. The Auschwitz guard might think they are doing a loving thing, for example. However, the Nazi does not love their neighbour (jews) the same way as they love themselves. 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.

Weakness: The subjectivity of agape. Agape is defined as loving your neighbour as yourself. This is less subjective than love, because it requires symmetry in the way you love others and yourself. You can’t just go loving anyone in limitless ways, it has to be the way you love yourself, so it’s less subjective.

However, C. Hitchens pointed out that loving your neighbour as yourself is only as good if the way you love yourself is good. Furthermore, others might not want to be loved in the way you love yourself. The point we can take from Hitchens to critique situation ethics is: the way a person loves themselves is still subjective and therefore so is agape.

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. A Viking or spartan warrior might become envious of those they kill in battle, since for them a glorious death is the highest honour. Killing people in battle would in such cases be seen as loving your neighbour as you would want to be loved.

Final judgement defending situation ethics:

However, this criticism is unsuccessful because it misunderstands agape.

Agape is not merely treating your neighbour as you would like to be treated, it is loving your neighbour as you love yourself.

Nazis and Viking warriors were not really gripped by self-love when creating and accepting their ethical judgements. They may have treated others as they would want to be treated, but they did not love others as they loved themselves. Perhaps they didn’t love themselves at all.

Final judgement critiquing situation ethics:

This criticism is successful because it shows that Fletcher’s abandonment of strict laws

Fletcher has diluted Christian ethics into just doing what a person subjectively perceives to be loving, which is not distinctive from secular morality or just general well-wishing. His theory is sliding into antinomianism.   

Whether situation ethics leads to antinomianism

Strength of situation ethics: situation ethics is perpetually relevant due to its flexibility in taking the situation into account.

Fletcher’s approach to conscience also enables this flexibility. It doesn’t reveal strict rules or precepts but is simply the way that an individual figures out what has a loving outcome in their situation.

This allows Christian ethics to adapt to the new ethical situations and issues associated with modern society and technology.

Weakness: Natural law based Catholic argument: relativism leads to antinomianism. Pope Pius XII accepts there is some truth in ethics depending on the situation. However, he argued that Aquinas’ Natural law approach to conscience already sufficiently does that job. Aquinas claimed prudence was a cardinal virtue. The primary precepts are not rules, they are applied to particular situations. It could even be justified to do an action normally considered sinful if the double effect justifies it. However, that is the limit of flexibility. Fletcher goes too far.

Catholics believe in ethical absolutes such as the sanctity of life. No matter what the pragmatic situation is, the value of life cannot be relativized. Fletcher’s working principles of pragmatism and relativism are wrong. 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:

“the greatest destroyer of peace today is [abortion]. If a mother can kill her own child in her womb, what is left for you and me to kill each other?” – Mother Theresa.

Final judgement defending situation ethics:

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. 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 strict ethical principles like the sanctity of life is a requirement for social order. So, Fletcher’s situationism doesn’t lead to antinomianism.

Final judgement critiquing situation ethics:

This Catholic argument is successful because it is logical that if a culture devalues life than that could threaten social stability.

God designed us to live a certain way which involves preserving human life. 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. Moralities which focus on individual autonomy at the expense of social norms might seem to make sense in particular situations but are ultimately bad for society which needs clear fixed rules. Fletcher’s overly individualistic situationism thus leads to antinomianism.

Possible exam questions for Situation ethics

‘Situation ethics provides a helpful method of moral decision-making’ – How far do you agree?
Can judging something as right or wrong be based on the extent to which, in any given situation, agape is best served

Is Fletcher’s understanding of agape really religious?
Does Fletcher’s view of agape reduce to wanting the best for the person involved in a given situation rather than a religious view.
‘The rejection of absolute rules makes situation ethics entirely individualistic and subjective’ – Discuss.
Assess whether love should be the ruling norm in ethical decision-making.
Is love the only thing that is intrinsically good?

How successfully do Fletcher’s six propositions give rise to situation ethics?
“Fletcher’s four working principles should be applied to all moral actions” – Discuss.
Is conscience a verb or a noun?
Is Fletcher correct that conscience is a term the describes attempts to make decisions creatively?
“The laws of christian ethics cannot be relativised” – Discuss.
“Persons should be at the centre of ethics” – Discuss.

Quick links

Year 12 ethics topics:
Natural Law.
Situation ethics. Kantian ethics. Utilitarianism.
Euthanasia. Business ethics. 

Year 13 ethics topics:
Conscience. Sexual ethics. 

OCR Philosophy
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions