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Situation Ethics

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A summary of the moral decision making theory of Situation Ethics:
Situation Ethics can be described as a ‘theory of love,’ for it holds that, in a moral dilemma, the course of action that is morally right is the one which is the most love-filled. The kind of love in this context is ‘agape’ love. Agape is a Greek word signifying unconditional, non-reciprocal love. It is not emotional or passionate, but is a means of doing good to others, driven by the will. Situation Ethics was born in the 1960’s—a time of questioning and doubt for many people—and was the result of Reverend Joseph Fletcher—an American Anglican theologian—and his ideas, as presented in the book Situation Ethics, the New Morality (1966). He was not the first, however to come up with the idea of a perfect Christian ethical system, and was greatly influenced by many others in the writing of this work. Three years earlier, in 1963, the Bishop John A T Robinson wrote a book entitled Honest to God. In this he stated that “…there is no one ethical system that can claim to be Christian.” Rudolf Bultmann—another man whom Joseph Fletcher talks about in the opening chapter of his book—declared that Jesus did not put forward any moral theory except the principle that one should “…love thy neighbour as thyself.”

In his book (Situation Ethics, the New Morality), Reverend Joseph Fletcher professed that “…the morality of an action depends on the situation.” This quote can be taken as the founding principle of Situation Ethics, as it clearly states the main idea of the theory. To Mr Fletcher, the action in itself is not right or wrong, but it is the motive behind that action that may be good or evil. Therefore, as long as one takes the course of action that is the most love-filled towards others, the actions that are employed in order to fulfil it are permissible.

Fletcher explained that there are only three possible ethical approaches to the making of moral decisions. These are antinomianism, legalism, and of course, Situation Ethics. Antinomianism maintains that there should be no rules, laws, or codes of conduct whatsoever. The problem with this approach is quite clear. One can do what one wants, and, as people in this world are corrupt, much evil would result from utilising this means of determining morality. To Joseph Fletcher, this ethical approach—which literally means “anti-law”—is one extreme to be avoided. The other is legalism. A legalist is someone who follows the law, whatever happens and in every context. This absolutist view would not put the law aside in a particular circumstance, as does the Situationist, and therefore it is too rigid to be pragmatic. Finally, we have Situation Ethics—the ‘middle way’—in which the law of “love thy neighbour as thyself” is the guiding influence in every situation.

Situation Ethics as the ‘Happy Medium’ or ‘Middle Way’: Antinomianism| Situation Ethics| Legalism|

Key Books in relation to Situation Ethics:
Title:| Date:| Author:|
Honest to God| 1963| Bishop John A T Robinson|
Situation Ethics, the New Morality| 1966| Reverend Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991)| Ethics in a Permissive Society| 1980| William Barclay|
Ethics in a Christian Context| 1963| Paul Lehmann (1906-1996)|

Key Quotes in relation to Situation Ethics:
1. “…the morality of an action depends on the situation.” (Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics, the New Morality)

2. “…there is no one ethical system that can claim to be Christian.” (Bishop John A T Robinson, Honest to God)

3. Agape love is “…the steady directing of the human will towards the eternal well-being of another.” (Bishop Stephen Neill)

4. “…love is too ambiguous for solving moral problems.” (Edwin Williams)

5. Situation Ethics is “…an individualistic and subjective…” moral approach. (Pope Pius 12, 1952)

6. “There is only one ultimate and invariable duty, and its formula is ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ How to do this is another question…” (William Temple, 1923)

7. “The most important…is…Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:29-31)

The Four Presumptions:
The four presumptions (also known as the four ‘working principles’) can be regarded as the four foundational blocks of the theory of Situation Ethics. Without these, the ethical theory would not be able to function. * Pragmatism

Any ethical theory must be practical. Fletcher claims that Situation Ethics is exactly this, for it is easy to apply in a moral dilemma. The Agapeistic Calculus is simple and straightforward to employ, as opposed to the Hedonic Calculus of Utilitarianism as proposed by Jeremy Bentham. The decision as to the most loving thing to do in a particular context is considered by many as fairly straightforward. * Relativism

Relativism points to the contextualism of the theory. It denies any absolutist or legalist influence in the form of set, prescribed codes of conduct or rules that determine what should be done in every situation, whatever the circumstances. Therefore, Situation Ethics holds a relativisitic approach to the making of moral decisions, and relies upon the ruling of ‘Christian’ love. * Positivism

This third presumption states that the success of Situation Ethics relies on the unified cooperation of its adherents. Christians freely choose follow the principle of love, accepting that ‘God is Love, and making agape love their ultimate priority. * Personalism

The aspect of personalism in Situation Ethics suggests that it is concerned with the individual. It searches for the most loving action towards that person by promoting their best interests. We should treat each and every human being and their needs as equal to ourselves, even if we do not get on with them at all.

Joseph Fletcher’s Six Propositions:
It is not until he is well into his book that Fletcher outlines his six propositions as listed below. These can be thought of as the supporting pillars of Situation Ethics, resting upon a foundation of the four presumptions indicated above. * 1. “Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely love: nothing else at all.”

* 2. “The ruling norm of Christian decision is love, nothing else.”

* 3. “Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.”

* 4. “Love wills the neighbour’s good, whether we like him or not.”

* 5. “Only the end justifies the means, nothing else.”

* 6. “Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.” A few key terms to know in relation to Situation Ethics:
1. The Slippery Slope Argument—The view that certain courses of action should not be taken because they might result in the action being regarded as permissible, and therefore lead to more extreme practices of the same. 2. Antinomianism—The way of making moral decisions in which any governing rules or laws are non-existent; anarchic. It is an entirely subjective moral approach. 3. Legalism—The way of making moral decisions in which rules and laws take priority. The opposite of Antinomianism. 4. Agape love—For Situationist Christians this is the unconditional, non-reciprocal love that governs their moral decisions.

A Case Study for the application of Situation Ethics to a real-life situation: Katie Thorpe:
* 15 years of age in 2008
* Was suffering from cerebral palsy and severe learning disabilities
* Could not eat, speak, move, or do anything independently
* Under the constant care of her mother
* Her mother:
* Alison Thorpe
* 45 years of age in 2008
* Katie’s full-time carer
* Asked for a hysterectomy (removal of the womb) to be performed on her daughter in order to prevent Katie from suffering the inconveniences and pain of menstruation * “For my daughter this, I think, is the right decision and a decision that we have thought long and hard about.” * The operation would prevent her from having any children * David Congdon, Mencap’s head of campaigns and policy: * “We urge the courts and doctors to consider the rights of the girl involved above anything else.”

Examples of putting Situation Ethics into practice:
* Mrs Burgmeyer (can be found in Situation Ethics, the New Morality) * The St Louis cabbie (can be found in Situation Ethics, the New Morality) * Jesus’ healings on the Sabbath (can be found in the Gospels of the Bible)

The strengths and weaknesses of Situation Ethics:
* Unconditional and non-reciprocal agape love seems a good principle upon which to base one’s ethical approach * It focuses on the needs of the individual, regarding the person and putting them before anything else (personalism) * It is easy to apply (pragmatism) using the Agapeistic Calculus * It is subjective in the way that other people do not need to be called upon in the case of a moral dilemma * It is not based on the reasoning of the conscience (which is bound to affected by the emotions in certain situations) * It follows the teaching of Jesus by regarding the phrase “love thy neighbour as thyself” as the ultimate duty of mankind * It provides its adherents with a sense of freedom in their choices * It does not generalise * It encourages the ‘lesser of two evils’|

* The true meaning of agape love is disputed and therefore not fully understood by all * Selfish motives can spoil the whole concept of true unconditional love * The world is corrupt due to man’s sinful nature * People may (and do) make mistakes when determining the consequences of their action in terms of how much love, who is affected, and whether or not ‘love’s purpose is served’ * In extreme cases: anarchy * The subjective nature of this type of decision-making theory holds all sorts of problems in itself (e.g. due to pressured circumstances, etc.) * Some Christians and non-Christians do not accept that ‘God is Love’ * For Christians:Only God has a perfect way of determining what is right and wrong|

The opposing views of Bishop John A T Robinson and William Barclay: Bishop John A T Robinson (1963):| William Barclay (1980):| * Jesus’ teachings as in the Bible are not binding laws, they are just accounts of specific situations (a liberal interpretation of the Bible) * Love is more important than a literal following of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’| * Situation Ethics is wrong in saying that nothing is ‘black and white’ in terms of morality * It is a highly dangerous idea to remove all set moral values, as this would lead us down the very slippery slope of confusion over what is good and bad

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