Religion has for a long time been a source of moral rules for many people. Probably the most famous set of rules is the 10 Commandments. An alternative view of moral rules is known as Situation Ethics. Situation ethics is an idea that was first developed by Joseph Fletcher. What Fletcher attempted to do was to create a compromise between having too many rules and no rules at all. Fletcher rejected the idea that everyone should follow a whole series of rules.
Instead of a whole number of rules, Fletcher suggested that there is only one rule that everyone should follow. This rule is about love and was called ‘the law of love’. Fletcher defines what people should do in terms of love: the right course of action is to do the most loving thing. Christian love is not based on desire; it is self-giving love or agape. Agape does not depend on being loved in return. The command love calls individuals to a high level of person responsibility. There is only one ultimate and invariable duty, this is ‘Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself’. From the Bible (Leviticus 19.18)
How do we know what the most loving thing to do is? As the name situation ethics suggests, for Fletcher, it is the situation that is important for determining what should be done. There is therefore, no way of knowing beforehand what is right and wrong because each situation is different and particular circumstances will have to be taken into account. All anyone should do in any situation is to determine what the most loving course of action would be. Fletcher used the example of a woman in a prison camp that became pregnant in order to be released, therefore it may have been the right thing to do, as she wanted to see her family who loved her and missed her.
Fletcher argued that the two extremes of antinomianism and legalism cannot work, ant that he only truly capable ethical standard is the middle course of love. Each situation therefore is best assessed and acted upon in terms of the best consequences to be brought out by love and love alone. Utilitarianism is very much the antithesis of situation Ethics, for utilitarianists they evaluate the morality or otherwise of an act in terms of its consequences. Thus, if an action produces good results, it is morally acceptable, if it produces ill consequences, it is not.
Is one rule too general? It has been argued that Fletcher does not really give any real instructions about what morally ought to be done. If ethics can be reduced to one moral rule, which Fletcher believes it can, then this rule must be very general. The rule must be able to cover every eventuality.
Another criticism is what about God? The traditional Christian view is whatever God does is love and essentially humans should try to follow this. However, Fletcher goes against this idea because, for Fletcher, it is the situation that determines what love is.
Situation Ethics has been criticised on a number of important points. For example, in order to ‘do the most loving thing’ in every situation one must look to the long term consequences of one’s actions in the present moment. But this is a difficult thing to do. We do not know if our actions will lead to heartache or joy but the promotion of love for the Situationist requires us to do so if we are to avoid acting selfishly, for example if a 16 year old girl should have an abortion because it is believed she will not be a responsible mother, we do not know based on her present age and actions whether she will hold her responsibility and be a great mother to her child or struggle to take on this huge responsibility, and this is only something that time would be able to tell .
It is also possible to act selfishly, in the name of love’ without being aware of it. We also need to consider Fletcher’s claim that actions have no intrinsic moral value. Does murder, lying, cheating and stealing become ‘good acts’ just because someone commits them in the name of love? There seems to be a uncertainty here between what is morally good (motive/intention) and what is morally right (the act itself – E.g. It may be morally good for me to steal someone’s gun to stop them killing people but does that then make stealing morally right?). Finally, by what criteria is the Situationist able to make moral decisions? If there are no ultimate ethical principles then the Situationist is making subjective decisions based potentially on personal impulses.
Those concerned that Situation Ethics went too far in its desire to be free from any notion of Law have required to develop amore balanced approach through what is known as Proportionalism. Proportionalists believe there are certain moral rules which one should not let go of unless there is a proportionate reason for doing so and this would be grounded in the particular situation. In this way one could take the ‘primary precepts’ of the Natural Law (for example, killing, stealing, lying and cheating) as foundations which should be adhered to unless there are good reasons not to.
Despite accepting the Situationist’s notion of love as the highest principle Proportionalists do not accept the view that love can make a wrong action right. However Proportionalists also face the same difficulties as Situationists do in trying to determine the outcome of an action committed in the name of trying to ‘do the most loving thing’ and the possibility of making a decision based on selfish reasons.
In conclusion I think that Situation Ethics is too general a rule to follow. I think that it would be very hard to follow just one rule that is ‘To do the most loving thing’. In a situation there may be three consequences and possible out comes, two out of those out comes may be the most loving thing to do, What do you do then.
‘Ethics’ (TY Books) by Mel Thompson
‘The Puzzle of Ethics’ by Peter Vardy & Paul Grosch
‘Ethics and Religion’ by Joe Jenkins