Situation Ethics – “The rejection of absolute rules by situation ethics makes moral decision-making entirely individualistic and subjective.” (40 marks)

Colour code:

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

Situation ethics is the Christian ethic advanced by Joseph Fletcher which puts agape (unconditional) love as the teleological aim of moral decision-making. Fletcher proposed that Christianity could no longer depend upon the strict legalism established throughout Church history. Instead, to quote Bishop Robinson, man has “come of age” and we must take responsibility for our moral choices in any given situation. In this essay, I will be proposing that Situation ethics fails in its approach, leading to the subjectivity suggested in the original statement. To do this I will be referring to, Joseph Fletcher, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Firstly, when one analyses the four presuppositions of Situation ethics, it outlines that each decision should be made in a pragmatic and relativistic fashion. For example, Fletcher references a case study involving a Father who must decide whether or not to die an early death in order to allow the insurance money to provide a better future for his family. This example presents an opposition to the dogmatic stance which aims to protect life at all cost. When someone is dealing with such a dilemma it is perhaps impossible to distinguish between personal obligations/ love towards the family, versus the rational agape love Fletcher requests individuals to consider.  It is plausible to claim, in this situation, that the man is far more likely to be contemplating the former rather than the latter; confirming that it is ultimately more individualistic rather than concerned with being an impartial spectator.

Alternatively, Fletcher could argue the point as a misrepresentation. This would not be the fault of Situation ethics as a theory in itself, but rather, an error on behalf of the individual.  In not being careful enough to consider each part of the six propositions, the failure of applying true agape would be the resulting consequence. For instance, the man should have taken his own interests out of the equation, focusing purely on love as the only ruling norm. He might still come to the same conclusion but it would have been for the right reason – serving agape.

The initial problem might still remain however from an outside perspective. The epistemic constraints we have on knowing anyone’s personal intentions leave us with the possibility of scholars claiming its subjective nature. The deontological stance of Immanuel Kant would add credence to this position by demonstrating how heteronomous decision-making lacks the freedom and foresight to form categorical imperatives.

Another case in favour of the statement is provided by the Catholic tradition and Natural moral law. The Catholic Catechism is often legalistic in its approach; particularly on issues such as abortion or euthanasia. This has its foundations in biblical passages such as Jeremiah 1:5 which states: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”, or in the Book of Genesis which declares humankind was “made in His (God’s) image”. These passages provide Catholics with the belief of the Sanctity of life; demanding we protect life because it is sacred and God given.

This was reaffirmed by the 13th Century Theologian Thomas Aquinas and his ethical Natural law theory. Aquinas hypothesised the Synderesis principle; claiming that human beings have a natural habit to seek the good and avoid evil. This is further developed through primary precepts which human beings have natural inclinations towards, one of which is the preservation of life. Aquinas argued that our God given telos involves this precept and we ought to abide by it unless we have very specific reasons not to.

Both Natural law and scripture are suggesting an absolutist approach and therefore a Catholic can claim abortion or euthanasia are objectively wrong. Situation ethics, as a result, appears to be subverting the message of the Bible, reducing the many rules down to the Great Commandment. This, therefore, risks the slip into pure subjectivism as it is clearly ignoring the moral instructions set by God in nature and in scripture.

The response from Situation ethics in this case is controversial to many theologians. Joseph Fletcher seems to take the stance that Jesus’s examples are the core to what the Bible has to offer in terms of ethical teachings. The message Jesus brings, for Fletcher’s stance, is a rejection and a re-writing of the old law. This would mean that his proposals are an extension of Jesus’ mission and thus, should provide a model which cannot be purely subjective because it all aims back at God as a loving being. In the book Situation ethics, Fletcher calls for people to relativize this absolute principle.

This notion is not entirely rejected by all scholars but the fact that he implies Jesus is providing a platform which can be reduced to pragmatic relativism isn’t consistent with the gospels. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, dictates moral teachings which provide real guidelines that don’t appear to be entirely based upon agape love.

To conclude, because Fletcher is claiming to be developing a Christian ethic, it is necessary to see if it is coherent within that framework and many would deny that it is. To escape subjectivism for the Catholic Church would mean following the divine principles of God. Situation ethics, as a result, might be asking too much for the individual involved. It requires the moral agent to be thinking logically while aiming towards a teleological end which might be too hard to follow. To return to the first proposed thesis, it might just be too difficult to separate someone’s personal desires when dealing with this method of moral decision making.

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