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SITUATION ETHICS

THE METHOD OF AUTHENTIC LOVE


Overview
 
Situation ethics says that only love matters not rules. Do what is the most loving thing under the circumstances no matter what you or the other person deserves - love unconditionally.  Situation ethics bans moral agents from saying that an action must never be done, an action is complete, an action is perfect or an action is always right.
 
Love refers to the love between friends. The love a parent has for their child. Love refers to the sex-related love between a couple. Love refers to unconditional love or agape. Situation ethics is mostly about agape.
 
Joseph Fletcher who developed situation ethics suggested that there are only three basic approaches to ethics:
 
1 Legalistic - the approach that only cares about rules. For example, the Catholic teaching that abortion is wrong no matter what.

2 The lawless idea - that rules or love or nothing really matters.

3 The situation ethics approach that asserts that rules are to be discarded when they get in the way of doing the most loving thing. In this system, there should be no rules but only guidelines. It suggests that putting love first must be a voluntary exercise. It puts love for people, including yourself, first. The end justifies the means as long as the end is love. The ethics is simple which is what we need in a cruel and fast world.

 

Situation ethics is based on the principle of pragmatism - do what works not what feels best.  It is based on assessing that different situations need a different approach.  Eg adultery could sometimes be right.  It is based on the assertion that no ethic can be proven so you must choose situationism for there is good enough support for its accuracy or rightness.  It is based on a personalist approach which holds that morality is not theory but people.  To be moral is to be concerned about people not rules.

 

Fletcher used examples of hard cases to show that sometimes moral prescriptions are no good and only the command to love matters.  A woman had to kill her baby to silence it for its crying was going to get her and others killed by evil people. 

 
Situation ethics teaches that love is the only law and that circumstances make all the difference so we should not have laws for laws tend to ignore circumstances. It teaches a method for deciding what is moral. It is not a moral system and it disapproves of moral systems as constraining and limiting and blocks to love. It teaches that the value, love, is what matters not rules. It teaches that evidence comes before principles - except one principle which is love. For example, if your principle is that people should be open to new life during sex in marriage that principle should be abandoned if the evidence shows that a huge number of killer diseases are being passed on and it would be wiser to encourage people to use condoms to protect themselves. Situationism reminds the person of their huge responsibility to do the right thing. With moral systems and rules you will have, "If I am doing wrong or doing evil, its the rules fault not mine. If I as a good Catholic urge the poor to get AIDS rather than use condoms, that is not my responsibility and I am only obeying my religion's law."
 
Christians claim to also accept that love alone is the law but feel that this teaching is twisted in Situationism to allow for saying that you should commit adultery and murder and other things that other systems call evil when they have the most love in them. The Christian, Joseph Fletcher, was the philosophy’s main proponent. He realised that his philosophy of love was incompatible with Jesus's frequent tendency to lay down moral rules and he became a Humanist in 1967.
 
Situationism recognises that no two situations that seem to be the same are really the same. Each situation is different and each is complex. Situationism is not a system. For example, it will not say, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." It would say, "Decide for yourself what is the most loving thing to do recognising that no two situations are exactly the same though they make look the same." Situationism is right that no two situations are the same. This is just a fact and religion tends to oppose it and the evil Vatican in particular.

Situationism is not far from Utilitarianism, the method of trying to work for the greatest number's greatest happiness. The differences are that it can form part of a religious outlook. Utilitarianism refuses to consider God's feelings and wants so it is non-religious. Situationism says that the motive matters more than the results. Some Utilitarians would say it is good to hate and kill somebody and that doing this can lead to most people being far happier. Situationism says that persons may not be killed except if more persons will die if they live. Utilitarianism in principle is forced to deny that murder is necessarily wrong. Many Situationists condone euthanasia which brings them a step closer to Utilitarianism.
 
Utilitarianism says that anything goes as along as the greatest happiness of the greatest number is promoted. Situationism says the same thing but adds that love is a duty. It says it would be wrong to make society hate somebody even to make the most happiest. That is a small difference.
 
The problems with Situation Ethics

One major problem is that you can swear you do something out of love and be wrong or significantly wrong for evil is good at disguising itself.  Most of us try to look at the good motives we have for doing something and not look at the bad ones.  There are always several motives for everything we do.  It is said that rule based moralities protect us from our crafty and latent selfishness which may disguise itself so well that even we do not realise it is there.  And when a decision has to be made fast we don't have time to check our real motives correctly.  Now it is obvious that if we are like that we are like that and rule based moralities will not protect us.  Paul disagrees for he writes that love is the fulfilment of the law - ie that love is guided by the law and kept pure by the rules.  It supposedly addresses secret and latent selfishness.

 

Like Utilitarianism, situation ethics denies the fact that I know for sure I exist and am not as sure about the reality of other people so my needs take priority. Both Utilitarianism and Situationism both tell me not to always put myself first. The trouble is that even if an ethic tells you not to put yourself first all the time and to be willing to sacrifice yourself the sense that I alone am sure I exist and therefore everything else takes second place even God and even my baby the ethic is not going to be convincing at all. One will have to resort to intimidation and hypocrisy to cover up one's true thoughts and feelings about it.
 
It is felt that though moral situations and decisions are always different they have enough in common to justify fixed rules.  Each situation is not unique enough to justify situationism. 

 

Legalists blame rules for their obsession with rules and how they love rules and not people on rules.  So do many people who suffer at their hands or because of their philosophy.  But is it the rules or how people think of them?  It is the latter.  It is possible to be very liberal but have the legalistic mindset.  For example, liberals tend to hate people and exclude them who want more rules than, "Just be liberal", "Allow as much abortion as possible" or "Normalise pornography."  Legalism is not to be blamed on rules but on the human desire for control.  Even liberals have principles they want to force on others.  You cannot drop a good rule just because nobody treats it right or uses it right.  To drop the rule just because you want to make feelings rule is stupid.  Better to be ruled by a sensible rule than one that is driven by emotion.

 

The alarming thing about Situationism is that it authorises too much freedom. Some would say that all ethical systems have the same problem. Take the absolutist who says adultery is wrong full stop no matter what the circumstances are. The absolutist is seeking the freedom to lay down absolute laws. Is this really better than not having absolute laws? The person who lays down absolute moral laws would not be doing so in love but out of a wish to control others. He is saying his moral laws are right and the absolute rules of those who disagree with him are wrong and at least harmful if not evil. So he promotes division and suspicion and sectarianism. His ecumenism is insincere. The absolutist wants the freedom to manipulate others and control them so the absolutist is the one that seeks too much freedom. The freedom of Situationism is scary but the alternative is worse. And at least Situationism asks you to have a good heart. It is easier to live in a world that means well but makes lots of ethical mistakes than in one that does not but is not warm of heart.

 

Situationists are accused of claiming to be infallible because though you may think a particular course is loving it might lead only to trouble.  You would need to be psychic to foretell the consequences.  It is true there is, often huge, risk involved but Situationists say this risk is necessary and your motive is about love. Situationists do not claim to be infallible or fortune-tellers. They claim to be trying to do their best.

Christian are Situationists with belief in God. They urge you that it is the most loving thing to believe in God.  Thus by default adultery and murder are better than not seeing you should believe in God!  It is situationism in principle.
 
The absolutist could prolong the tortuous life of a dying person for spite and say his motive is an absolute respect for life. The Situationist might give the person morphine to kill them but even if this is wrong the Situationist is the better person for he or she means well.
 
It is not how much freedom any moral system or moral outlook such as Situationism allows but how much legitimate freedom it allows. Rational morality could allow a lot more freedom than other moral outlooks and systems. The other systems could be more constricting. But if a moral system is wrong, it is wrong regardless of how liberating or constricting it is. Its liberalism or rules do not make it better when it is is wrong in the first place.

As with the followers of Utilitarianism, it is impossible for the Situationist predict if an action will really result in the most good. The act is neither good or bad until the results are seen. And these results are often dependent on other people. What if a person throws a spanner in the works – deliberately? For example, if I work hard to throw a party for my son and his ex-friend says something to him that night that spoils the whole thing according to Utilitarianism and Situationism I have done wrong. The latter will say I meant to do right and that is what counts in this situation. But we want a morality that works and not just one that is about motives. We want to be practical.
 
Utilitarianism and Situationism would be dangerous when it is believed that human beings are more sinful than good which is a doctrine that is directly implied by belief in God (because if we are more good than bad we don't need faith in God) and bluntly stated in the Bible. They make morality into guesses and crossed fingers. If God exists he comes first and anything that falls short of that is sin meaning all we do is sin. Even our thoughts of God are inadequate for we won’t bring our whole selves to him and keep holding something back which is why we always rebel.

The examples that Fletcher gives to prove Situationism are extreme ones. He tells the story of a wrongly-imprisoned married woman who committed adultery to get pregnant so that she would be freed from a prison camp and go back to her husband and children. Fletcher approved for he saw this as serving love. It was the least evil. It is true that she probably did do right. Some would say that it was wrong but it was not immoral for she had no choice. Others would say she had a choice and so her adultery was immoral. Suppose she had a choice and the adultery was still right. This would not mean that it is right when a person makes an unimportant promise to somebody that is not important to him and then breaks it because he’d rather go to the pub than keep it for that is not as extreme a situation. Some forms of Situationism would have to say the most love and justice was in not keeping it for he would hurt himself more than the other person if he did not.  But we can agree with Situationism in the extreme cases but in the lesser cases, the maintenance of order and not love must be what is gone by. But perhaps some Situationists will say that the maintenance of order then would be love.
 
There is only one way to do what is right but many many more to do what is wrong. Chance seems to be against the consequentialist and the Situationist. But legalism is more dangerous for it ignores results.
 
In the fundamentalist Christian work Christianity for the Tough-Minded we read that Fletcher’s ethics are wrong for he was not clear in his mind on what love was (page 92). He said that it was an action, the reason for the action, an attitude, a preference for goodness and a way for relating towards others. The book's fallacy is assuming that love is one of these only. Love is all these things. Each of the elements is inseparable. Each one is love and in another sense they are all love collectively. The objection is invalid. Moreover, Christians claim that love is all these things. Clearly Christianity has to smear Fletcher's doctrine. They even condemn their own doctrine when he teaches it!
 
Here is another Christian objection to Situationism, "There are a lot of things which can never be right. This is not to say that absolutism is right for some things always have bad consequences therefore are always wrong on a consequentialist basis. Examples are committing infanticide just because the baby cries too much at night or battering the wife because the dinner was not made on time. Situationism sees rigid law as a bad thing. But whatever the law allows it encourages. So if the law made infanticide legal under all circumstances it would be encouraging it. So without the laws that Situationism hates so much there will be less love and morality and excessive freedom."
 
Fletcher believed that justice and love were one and the same thing. He believed that since justice gives a person what they deserve and since all deserve love that justice is love and love is justice. But if you hate somebody it is unintelligible to say that you deserve love. You might have to be loved for another reason but to say you deserve love is hypocritical and absurd. You might have to be loved to help you reform or because you are a person but you don’t deserve it. Love and justice are not the same thing. Fletcher could still save his doctrine that love is the law if he can prove that love is better than justice. But to love a person without regard for justice is not love at all for it has no concern for what a person deserves. Justice and love are either equally important or justice is better than love for there can be no love until it is worked for and served first.
God
 
God by definition is that which is to be totally and ultimately valued as being perfectly good. Fletcher approves of Jesus’ diabolical command to love God with all our power which is really just another way of saying we should love God only. So, real Christian Situationism is really only worried about God and forbids many things because they hurt others which hurts God – the latter being the only hurt they are concerned about.
 
Situation ethics should be about what people need not God. It is hardly loving to put a God whose existence may be in doubt before the person sitting beside you. And God is surplus to requirements and thus should not be honoured as God. God is only a waste of love.

True Situationism is irreconcilable with belief in a moral God. If God exists he does secret miracles to make what is expected to happen not happen for his unfathomable plan is all that is in his head. If Situationism or consequentialism is the true doctrine of right and wrong God tears it up for you cannot plan anything if God exists. Evil is to reign on earth if God lives and reigns forever and ever.

There is one thing that the Situationist must consider to be always wrong apart from hatred or indifference. That is not converting others to Situationism. There is always some way that can be done no matter how narrow others may be – even if it is just sending an anonymous report in disguised handwriting through the post. Situationism wants each person to do what is best for themselves in their own life and the more Situationists there are the better for goodness in the heart and good works. People who do not like anybody stealing from them will not want to give anybody a reason to defraud them or want people to be forced to take what is theirs for some overriding good. And if Situationism is right it is necessary that it be popularised for a good example for others. But people are not going to like it much. If it is the true morality, it is to be tolerated and lived with rather than celebrated.

If Situationism is bad when it is prevalent in society then Jesus who Fletcher thinks taught it must have been a fraud when he said he wanted all to be told his gospel.
 
If all we need is love, then what is God promoting religion for when he supposedly does miracles? If we have to decide for ourselves, religion is only going to get in the way for its a system of rules about behaviour and beliefs. The only good miracle would be melting cold hearts so that they reach out to all people in love. Any other miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus would only be showing off.
 
Despite the attempts to base situation ethics on God, God is only a obstacle. The worship of God is thus evil.

A defence

The problems people have with situation ethics are all built up around the notion that it is too easily abused. That makes their criticisms immoral for it is obvious that nothing can be condemned because people are not using it properly.
 
They say a person can pretend to be doing the loving thing while actually implementing an evil plan. They are saying that unscrupulous people can take advantage of the fact that it is up to them to decide what the best consequences are and pretend to care about doing what is best. It is hard to predict consequences and the unexpected often happens.
 
They say that situation ethics puts you on a slippery slope - eg it wants you to kill a person who is in terrible agony and who will never get better but if you are allowed to do that soon people will start mercykilling people for crazy reasons.
 
The problems are a worry but they do not affect the majesty of situation ethics. Blaming it and its practitioners because of abuses is hardly ethical. Any other form of ethics does just that so they are really hypocrisies and lies rather than ethics. And practitioners of other ethical systems do dip into situation ethics a lot anyway.
 
Most people live by Situationism and we are all still alive and even better off than in previous years. That shows that practice rather than reason alone may be the best argument for it.

Christians would agree with the following: "Situationism tells you that you must decide what is the most loving thing to do. As with Utilitarianism, there is the problem that people like being told what to do to a large extent for they value happiness more than freedom. A moral theory that increases misery by doing without law is no use (Ethics in a Permissive Society, Barclay, page 80). " What must we say to that?
 
Why do people want to be told what to do and have moral rules? One reason is laziness. Or they just don't have the time to think for themselves. Either way they are being manipulated by the rule makers and the religious leaders. To give people rules for they are too lazy to come up with good rules themselves is taking advantage and encouraging their vice. To give people rules because they don't have the time is also taking advantage. It is facilitating the tendency to put one's job and family before one's heart and sense of personal responsibility.
 
The people are not fond of rules in relation to drinking and sex and money. So that makes one question the force of the objection. What weakens it far more is how people pay lip service to moral rules and religion. People like to try and fit in in their communities.
 
Situationism is said to be unloving in the sense that it takes away rules from the people - rules that they want and need even if they don't like them. This is ridiculous. People want more rules one year and less rules the next and sometimes none the year after that! Also, how do we measure the benefits of having the rules against the benefits of not having them? There is no way of gauging. The balance might tip a little in favour of the rules but we cannot be that accurate at assessing this.
 
If people want rules what might they want them for?
 
-They want the rules because they are right or at least for the best.
 
-To feel safe in what they do. This is not the same as being safe. For example, women feel protected by social mores and rules banning adultery. But what if, hypothetically, adulterous men are less violent towards their wives than faithful men? The sense of safety is based on error. To want rules just because you want to feel safe is actually selfish.
 
-People who don't like the fact that situation ethics says the rules take second place and really should be guidelines and not rules are deep down hoping that others will be forced to comply with their moral rules. They do not think guidelines are enough to help the well-meaning person make a decision. Rules are about force not guidance. And if man's wellbeing is as important as a rule we are in big trouble. That is downgrading man for the sake of rules. The person who feeds you when you are starving and who does it with no regard to a rule is the best person. They do good spontaneously.
 
Some answer that the reason we must have the rules is that some things are bad in themselves no matter what the results are or how good they are. They say it is not all about the consequences. They say an evil deed is not bad because of the evil that results but that the evil results because the act is bad in the first place.
 
But no act is meant to be totally bad. If we do wrong it is because we think there is enough good in it.
 
Even if you don't agree with Situation Ethics, you get a sense of warmth and comfort from its teaching. You develop revulsion for the likes of the Pope who is its most savage opponent.

 

The sin objection

 

Sin is a religious term which means that wrongdoing is not the problem so much as it is against God. Sin worries about how God sees wrongdoing. Sin is not an ethical term. If we want morality to be about us and not religion for not all are religious then then the idea of sin needs to be excluded. The idea of sin is not necessary which opens the door to humanistic non-religious morality.  Situation ethics is fine but it needs to drop the religious connotations and thus the idea that we should love God and love others for his sake.  These ideas are saying it is a sin to disobey them.

Finally
 
No moral approach is 100% perfect and there will always be people sacrificed to whatever approach you take. We live in a brutal world. Situation ethics is the best of a bad lot.  The advantages are how it makes your judgment matter not what the Bible or any religion says.  They cannot judge for you and are not very useful.  Love and law are incompatible according to situation ethics but we must remember that sometimes law not only just opposes love but is hostile to it.  It makes each man and woman his or her own standard of love and morality.  It gives a lot of freedom as sometimes decisions have to be made very fast.  The permissive nature of situation ethics is actually a good thing for most moralists are really just imposing their sexual hang-ups on everybody else.  Jesus was firmer on sex than anything else - no other rules got clad in iron like that one and he even showed that he did not take his teaching on respect seriously when he vandalised the temple at whim.  Situation ethics teaches that an act with love has turned out as well as it can even if it ends in disaster for it is still devotion to love.
 
BOOKS CONSULTED
 
 
A HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY, VOL 6, PART II, KANT, Frederick Copleston SJ, Doubleday/Image, New York, 1964
CHRISTIANITY FOR THE TOUGH-MINDED, Ed John Warwick Montgomery, Bethany Fellowship Inc, Minneapolis, 1973
ETHICS, A C Ewing, Teach Yourself Books, English Universities Press Ltd, London, 1964
ETHICS IN A PERMISSIVE SOCIETY, William Barclay, Collins and Fontana, Glasgow, 1971
FREE TO DO RIGHT, David Field, IVP, London, 1973
MORAL PHILOSOPHY, Joseph Rickaby SJ, Stonyhurst Philosophy Series, Longmans, Green and Co, London, 1912
MORALITY, Bernard Williams, Pelican/Penguin, Middlesex, 1972
MORTAL QUESTIONS Thomas Nagel, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, London, 1979
NEW CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, The Catholic University of America and the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., Washington, District of Columbia, 1967
PRACTICAL ETHICS, Peter Singer, Cambridge University Press, England, 1994
RUNAWAY WORLD, Michael Green, IVP, London, 1974
SITUATION ETHICS, Joseph Fletcher, SCM Press, London, 1966
SUMMA THEOLOGICA OF ST THOMAS AQUINAS, Part II, Second Number, Thomas Baker, London, 1918
THE PROBLEM OF RIGHT CONDUCT, Peter Green MA, Longmans Green and Co, London, 1957

The WEB

Roman Catholic Ethics: Three Approaches by Brian Berry
www.mcgill.pvt.k12.al.us/jerryd/ligouri/berry.htm