Situation ethics – “Fletcher’s agape means nothing more than wanting the best for the person involved.” Discuss (40 marks)

Colour code: 

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

Situation ethics is a Christian ethical theory which is established on the foundation of agape love as the only intrinsic good. Agape love is defined as an unconditional love that should be shown towards all people equally. It does not favour friends or family and must also be extended to those who are considered to be enemies. This type of unconditional love in a Christian context is what Jesus embodied. Theologians would also argue the benevolence of God is true agape. As a result, Joseph Fletcher hypothesised that if there is to be any moral guidance for Christians (or anyone else) that it should be to  the end of agape, rather than happiness or duty. Fletcher’s point of view is problematic because it is not immediately clear if it is possible to follow love, or whether the ethical system offers something uniquely Christian. I will be arguing in support of the statement, using examples from scripture and the theology of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas. 

Firstly, it can be argued that consequentialism is not completely compatible with serving agape love. One of Fletcher’s four working principles is personalism, which means that people should always be put at the centre of an ethical judgement, as opposed to objects. However, if everything is decided on a situational basis by an individual who is calculating the best outcome, there is an unclear distinction between that person picking what they think is best or if it is actually “loving”. It is dependant on the individual at hand being in true reflection of the agape love witnessed in the gospels. Despite that, it is easy to consider how agape might be overlooked when having to make quick decisions. There is also the issue of separating the bias views held by the the person acting.  These shortcomings might lead to people being treated as a means to an end, rather than as unique people made in the image of God. It is therefore, difficult to suggest that actions that arise as a result are loving.

On the other hand, Fletcher would make the claim that situation ethics is not proposing selfishness or individualism. His system addresses the problems with the legalism of natural law and scripture because it suggests that people always come before rules. This might have its problems but it connects to the empathy that many people feel when they see someone in need. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to highlight the importance of empathy. A Jewish man is left for dead by a Priest and a Levite, people who would be expected to help. It is the Samaritan who extends agape love to the Jew. Another example is when Jesus allows his disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were shocked by the violation of the law but Jesus replied, “the Sabbath was made for the good of man; man was not made for the good of the Sabbath’”. It is this type of consideration for people that Fletcher puts at the heart of situation ethics, and in regular situations, people should be trusted to be mature enough to follow the example of Jesus. The alternative for Fletcher, is to strictly follow laws at the expense of people’s well-being and that would be far less loving.

These examples show that agape love is more than just wanting the best for the person involved because it is strongly connected to the message of Jesus Christ. An issues with this argument stems from the lengths we are able to stretch agape to. One scenario which Fletcher himself uses is the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of The Second World War. The justification here is that the war would have gone on for longer, with the suffering of millions of people being prolonged, and that the best solution would be to give Japan no choice but to surrender. While practical decisions must be made, it is hard to argue that it is an entirely “loving” choice. The lives of innocent people were sacrificed; the dignity and the sanctity of their lives disregarded.

From a different Christian perspectives, situation ethics can be deemed to be non-religious and as a result, the title statement is true. For conservative protestants, ethical judgements should follow scripture as a priority. Martin Luther proposed salvation through scripture alone “Sola Scriptura”. Providing Sola Sciptura is accepted, the Bible cannot be treated in a liberal fashion, and God’s love must be treated with respects to all the biblical laws. Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas developed his theory of natural moral law with the understanding that God’s creation has set forth path for all things to follow. In Aristotelian terms, God is the efficient cause and all things have a final cause (telos). The Catholic Church would criticise situation ethics’ interpretation of agape because it does not take into consideration the telos of every individual. On these grounds situation ethics is viewed as a humanistic approach and agape is an excuse to achieve the best possible result, much like Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism.

In response, Joseph Fletcher has included positivism in his four working principles. Positivism puts faith in God as love, therefore, while it does not depend purely on scripture, it still respects it and uses the examples of Jesus as guide for Christians to use in their everyday life. Nevertheless, it can still be proposed that it’s acceptance of scripture is too narrow. Some Christians will argue that legalism is part of God’s law and that true agape comes from serving God’s will exactly how He has dictated it in scripture.

To conclude, while Fletcher would expect people to be mature enough to rationally approach moral judgements with a focus on agape; it could be corrupted by selfishness or an emphasis on results rather than people. Ultimately, some would argue it falls short of true agape because it is really a humanist system of ethics rather than Christian.

Word count: 997

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