Considering the claims of both absolutism and relativism, discuss the importance of situation ethics as a moral theory.
Situation ethics is a predominantly relativistic approach to morality as the fundamental principle of situation ethics is, “Love and do what you will…” (St. Augustine). It basically suggests that a person can do as one wishes as long as their actions involve love.
A relativistic approach is a flexible ethical system which can accommodate the wide-diversity of lifestyles found in the word today. It believes that people don’t always agree on what’s right and wrong, and that different cultures express different moral codes of conduct. Their morals are subjective to situation, culture, religion, time and place and they believe that in reality, there is no fixed objective, prohibiting the dominance of a single culture. Although this may allow more freedom for different beliefs and provide less conflict, as we would all accept each others opinions, this unfortunately is not always the case.
Relativists cannot condemn or criticise other unethical cultures which allow scandals such as wife-beating. Also, relativism does not account for destructive cultures such as the Nazis as what they did was in fact morally wrong, not “right for them.” This is why others choose to follow a set of absolute rules to prevent such occurrences, this idea is called Absolutism. This maintains that some things are right and others wrong, it involved ethical absolutes, and these are fixed for all time and all people. What is right for you, is the same for me and every other person in the world, unlike relativism the absolutist rules do not change for the situation, culture, religion, time or place. Immoral acts are intrinsically wrong, which means wrong in themselves, it isn’t made wrong by anything, it is only wrong because the act in itself breaks a moral rule.
Absolutists are deontological thinkers as they are concerned with the acts, not the consequences whereas relativists are teleological thinkers, ‘telos’ meaning end, as they are concerned with the endings, the consequences. Therefore situation ethics is a relativistic approach but it has only one absolute, and that is to do what best serves love.
Joseph Fletcher, a relativist, expands on situation ethics and the relativistic approach. His work diverges significantly from traditional Christian ethics and has criticised by tradition Christian moralists, but is more popular today than it was when it was founded in the 1966. Fletcher believed that there were times when “a man has to push his principles aside and do the right thing.”
Fletcher states that there are essentially three different ways of making moral decisions, Legalistic ethics, Antinomian ethics and Situation ethics. He rejects both Legalistic ethics and Antinomian ethics but later goes on to discuss situation ethics and why it is the best approach to life. He divides his principles into four working principles and six fundamental principles.
His four working principles are Pragmatism, which is a proposed course of action which must work towards the most loving end. Relativism, which as explained before, has no fixed rules, however it does contain one, which is to include love in all decisions. Positivism, which is an article of faith that love is the greatest good. The last is Personalism, which states that people come first and morality must be centred around people.
With these presuppositions acknowledged, Fletcher then goes on today out the main theory, the six fundamentals, actions aren’t intrinsically good or evil, they are good or evil depending on whether they promote the most loving thing. “Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at all.” -Fletcher.
His second proposition was that Jesus replaced the torah with the principle of love, as he took the decision to heal (work) on the Sabbath day which must be kept holy. Jesus broke this commandment and love replaced it. It is with examples such as these that Fletcher argues that Jesus was a situationist. Fletcher’s third proposition was that love and justice are equal and cannot be separated. The fourth is concerned with attitude of love, it isn’t sentimental or erotic but more of a desire for the good of the other person, this love introduced in the New Testament is called, Agape. It is an unconditional love which requires nothing in return.
Fletcher’s fifth proposition states that love is to be the final end, “only the love justifies the means, nothing else. This says that love is to be the final end in all moral decision making. The final proposition is that the most loving thing will depend on the situation, “Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively, making decisions individual and leaving no room for generalisations. There are many examples of situations where breaking of Christian rules has done be done in order to do the most loving action for the situation. One of them is:
A mentally unstable woman is raped in an asylum by another inmate. She denies abortion. In this case, Fletcher would argue that to have an abortion would infact be the most loving things to do, even though in Christianity it may be seen as a wrong act.
Situation ethics is flexible and can accommodate even Christian believers, as well as enabling people to be true to their emotional and rational feelings, without being subjected to absolutist codes. Not only is it individual to every person but it is a straightforward formulation, anyone can understand and act upon it. Selflessness and love are the important features of most moral codes, therefore the end results should benefit others.
Even though it can relate to Christianity, many Christians today reject the theory stating that knowing what the right thing to do in every situation is impossible. Pope Pius XII said,
“An individualistic and subjective appeal to concrete circumstances of actions to justify actions in opposition to the Natural Law or God’s revealed will…”
The idea is said to be too vague and although it means well, does it really work? In the world today people are too focussed on self benefit to follow such a theory. So although if practised world wide situation ethics could be a significant moral theory, unfortunately today the idea is idealistic and the chances of people practicing it faithfully are low.