Situation Ethics A* grade summary notes


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Situation ethics AO1: 

  • Legalism: the traditional approach to Christian ethics of following strict rules – Fletcher rejects this for not taking the situation into account.
  • Antinomianism: having no rules to follow at all – Fletcher rejects this because it leads to moral chaos.
  • Situationism: Fletcher’s proposed middle-ground between these two ‘extremes’ – where ethics is about following one guiding principle (not a rule), the principle of agape, which has to be applied and worked out in every situation.
  • Agape – Christian love – selfless love of your neighbour (Jesus’ command)
  • four working principles – Pragmatism – actions must take situation into account. Positivism – ethics cannot be based on reason, it is  based on faith – in Jesus’ command to love. Personalism – people are more important than rules. Relativism – an action is right/wrong relative to agape.
  • six fundamental principles – 
  • Only love is intrinsically good (good in itself)
  • Love is the ruling norm of Christian moral decision making
  • Love and justice are the same – justice is just love distributed
  • Love wills the neighbours good whether we like them or not
  • Only the ends justify the means, nothing else (as long as agape is maximised, the action used is justified).
  • Love decides there and then – you have to decide in the situation and quickly what the loving thing to do is.
  • Conscience. Fletcher rejects the traditional view of conscience as a part of our mind that tells us what is right or wrong. Fletcher argues that ‘conscience’ is a verb, not a noun. So conscience is like a process or action, rather than a thing – it is the process of figuring out which action will maximise agape in the situation you are in.

Fletcher & Robinson: humanity ‘come of age’

  • They argue that humanity has ‘come of age’. This means that humanity has become more mature. 
  • In medieval times, when humanity had not come of age people were less educated and self-controlling. This meant that they needed fixed, clear rules to follow because they could not be trusted to understand and act on the differences and complexities in how a rule could be bent or broken if the situation called for it. 
  • However, now people are more civilised to the point that giving them more autonomy (a person’s ability to act on his or her own values and interests) will increase love without risking stability of society. 

Barclay counter-argument

  • William Barclay disagrees with this. He says that situations ethics gives people 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 ir even cruelty. 
  • If everyone was a saint then situation ethics would be perfect. 
  • He says that mankind has not yet come of age and still needs the protection of law. 
  • Although people may seem like they have improved in modern times, if granted freedom to do what they want they wont choose the loving thing, they will choose the selfish or cruel thing to do. 
  • This argument suggests that power corrupts. 
  • It also adds to the argument that human nature is corrupt such as by original sin. 
  • There is evidence from psychology which justifies Barclay’s argument, such as the stanford prison experiment. It showed that power has a corrupting influence when participants were given roles of authority like being a prison guard.

Fletcher vs sola scriptura

  • Traditional Christians – like those who adhere to sola scriptura – would argue that Fletcher’s theory is not genuine Christian ethics, because fletcher has ignored most of the commands in the Bible, focusing only on Agape.
  • The Bible is full of other commands – e.g. God says ‘thou shalt not kill’, so Euthanasia would be wrong – God also said thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Yet, Fletcher says killing or adultery are both fine in situations where they have a loving outcome.
  • So, Fletcher fails because he claims to be Christian yet does not follow the Bible.
  • Furthermore: Mouw’s critique. Mouw pointed out that Jesus made other commands. It makes no sense for Jesus to have only wanted us to follow the command of agape – then why would Jesus make other commands..?

Fletcher’s defence: liberal view of the Bible

  • Fletcher doesn’t think we can follow the Bible literally, but if we interpret it then we can’t tell whose interpretation is right.
  • He concludes that the only valid approach to the Bible is to follow its general themes.
  • The most consistent theme of the Bible is love – agape.
  • So, Fletcher thinks he is following the Bible actually.
  • Furthermore, Jesus did say that loving your neighbour as yourself was the ‘greatest commandment’ – the fact that it’s the ‘greatest’ supports Fletcher’s approach of thinking it takes precedence over all others. 
  • Fletcher says the Bible is not a ‘legalistic rules-book’.
  • Fletcher’s defence here is successful because he’s right that taking the Bible literally is a very bad option – but so is the chaos of everyone having their own interpretation, so the best approach to the Bible is following its general theme – and it’s beyond dispute or interpretation that the Bible recommends being loving.

The subjectivity issue

Strength of situation ethics: 

  • Situation ethics demands that we do the loving thing in each situation, which seems like a good ethical principle. It’s hard to see how acting based on love could ever be morally wrong.


  • Love is subjective – everyone has a different perspective on what love is – this makes it confusing about what the right to do is and it could even justify immoral actions if someone thinks it is loving – E.g. some nazis thought they were doing a loving thing.

Further evaluation

  • Love is subjective but Agape is not – agape means more than love – it means selfless love of your neighbour – there’s no way the nazis were engaging in selfless love of their neighbour – since Jesus was clear that everyone is your neighbour. So, agape is not as subjective or confusing as love is.

Optional final evaluation:

  • Agape actually is subjective. A Nazi might genuinely think that if they were discovered to be jewish, then they would want to be killed. So technically they are loving their neighbour the way they would want to be loved.
  • The way people love themselves is subjective, and so loving your neighbour as yourself is equally subjective.

Natural law critique that situation ethics leads to antinomianism 

  • followers of Natural law argue that liberal attempts to grant people more freedom by reducing religious laws actually leads to antinomianism. For example, if you get rid of the sanctity of life principle (as Fletcher does) then people will be more likely to kill each other, and society will fall apart. Mother Theresa said, about abortion, ‘if a mother can kill her own child in her own womb, then what is left but for us to kill each other?’ – Theresa is making this natural law critique – if you lessen the religious laws then society will fall apart. If we no longer view life as sacred, there will be negative social consequences for that – life will be considered less valuable in society and killing will become more common. Fletcher is dangerously wrong to abandon legalism, therefore.


  • The catholic natural law argument seems to be incorrect. Countries which have allowed abortion and euthanasia are not in danger of falling apart – far from it, they are actually the best, most equal, most educated societies in the world (northern europe).