Situation ethics – “The strengths of situation ethics outweigh its weaknesses.” Assess this view. (40 marks)

Colour code: 

  • Blue – Your argument  
  • Red – Argument against
  • Orange – Critical analysis
  • Purple – Scholars

Situation ethics was developed by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s during the movement of situational thinking; largely amongst liberal Protestants such as Bishop Robinson and Paul Tillich. The ethical theory states that there is only one absolute rule – agape love must be served in any given situation. This view is highly controversial with different Christian denominations due to its apparent rejection of established tradition. I will be exploring the strengths outweighing the weaknesses of situation ethics while using Bonhoeffer, Barclay, Pope Pius XII, and Aquinas within the discussion.

In defence of the statement, one of the key strengths of situation ethics is the concept of pragmatism. Pragmatism can be defined as a practical and logical approach to situations. This overcomes issues with legalistic approaches. If love is the ruling norm for moral acts and should be applied situationally, then people can avoid the arguably rigid rules dictated in passages such as The Ten Commandments. Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed that the Great Commandment “love thy neighbour as thyself” is the single most important rule for Christians to follow. This can be said to give credit to the approach Fletcher is taking on ethics.

This view can be seen as problematic. William Barclay said, “to discard rules is to discard experience.” This stipulates that there are reasons for having rules in society. For Barclay, societies should be built upon the wisdom of experienced people who know what is permissible. It can also be said to raise the issue of whether human beings, as individuals, can realistically think in a critical manner on ethical issues in every situation. Rules are there to give real guidance and to avoid the anarchism which is possible if we are to accept moral relativism. Moreover, Pope Pius XII stated that to act on individual circumstances was to reject the law of the Bible. Therefore, Fletcher’s views are arguably bad for society and also not in line with his own Christian beliefs.

However, this could be seen as a misinterpretation of the system that Fletcher is presenting. Situation ethics sees value in there being rules to follow because they keep order in society. Nevertheless, if there is a time where the rules are no longer promoting the greatest amount of love, then it is permissible to break a law to reach that end. Fletcher uses examples such as dropping nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in order to create a more loving future.

A criticism of this point is that Fletcher focuses on examples that are too extreme. Not many cases come up when rules have to be broken for the greater good and therefore it can be asserted that for every day moral decision making, situational contemplation is too difficult for people to manage. There are too many cases where predicting the outcome is not truly feasible.

A final positive of situation ethics is Fletcher’s definition of conscience as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of conscience being an innate sense of right or wrong or Newman’s proposal of the “voice of God”, Fletcher outlines conscience as the process of reasoning and committing to an action. This approach treats humans as being responsible enough to make tough choices and is consistent with a God who has allowed free-will to be at the heart of what it means to be a moral agent. The importance of free-will in Christianity is developed through St Augustine’s theodicy which postulates that evil exists because of the free actions of Adam and Eve. Fletcher understands that making decisions according to each situation is difficult, but it is what is required to be a mature person who aims to live the life of God.

Contrary to situation ethics, Thomas Aquinas would have a fundamental difference with Fletcher’s understanding of Christianity which is also shared by the majority of the Catholic Church. Aquinas believed in synderesis, a self-evident knowledge of precepts found through reasoning about the world; as well as conscientia, (the process of deriving secondary precepts and applying them). There may not be contention with the practical application, but the reflection of the natural law causes problems for Fletcher’s beliefs. Aquinas worked off the basis that humans have a purpose that must be fulfilled if we are to be reunited with God in the afterlife. His ethical theory, therefore, proposes absolute precepts that must be followed because they are a reflection of the eternal law of God. One such precept is the preservation of life and a secondary precept that could be derived from this is the banning of abortion. However, Fletcher could make a case for abortion because the most loving thing to do, if the mother’s life would be considerably worse off, could be to terminate the foetus. From the point of view of the Catholic Church, this is an unacceptable flaw of situation ethics. For liberal Christians, it is a great strength because it treats human beings as capable of living without a strict code of conduct and perhaps allows the type of human flourishing that Aquinas thought possible through his own system.

In conclusion, If the agape love of the gospels is to be taken as the core of Christian ethics, then situation ethics provides a framework for free thinking Christians to live their lives by. The modern world can and will present many different challenges and some might argue that the legalism of scripture or natural law cannot cope with the subtleties or ambiguities that situation ethics is meant to tackle.

Word count: 914

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