What is Situation Ethics?
Situation Ethics is the method of ethical decision
making that states that you must consider
“noble love” (agape) in decision making, and
that a moral decision is correct if it is the most
loving thing to do.
The Theory of Situation Ethics
Fletcher maintains that there are essentially
three different ways of making moral
• Has a set of moral rules and regulations.
• Judaism and Christianity legalistic ethical
• problems – life too complex require
additional laws. Murder, killing in self
defence, killing in war, killing unborn
human beings etc.
• This is the reverse of legalistic ethics
• It means against the law.
• A person who uses this doesn’t have an ethical system
• They enter each moral decision as if it were unique.
• Making a moral decision is a matter of impulse
• Fletcher criticises the antinomian approach because it
• Situations ethics is in the middle.
• This indicates that Fletcher appreciates the
usefulness of both legalism and
antinomianism in ethical decision making but
thinks that they are extremes.
based on 1 principle only – to do the most loving
thing - and so it is relevant to everyone,
everywhere and in any set of circumstances.
It also means that nothing is always right or
always wrong – it is situational so what may
be right in one situation, may be immoral in
But what is love??
No just any kind of love
unconditional and the sort from one human to another.
It is not based on romance, sexual attraction or any
relationship at all. It can be from one stranger to
another, as well as between people who know each
It is the love that Jesus and St Paul talked about in the
Bible - AGAPE
• To many people this was a really popular and
• To religious people it was an abomination and
flew in the face of what the Church stood for
• Situation ethics is sensitive to variety and complexity in
the individual situation.
• In order to ensure a person enacting conscience
chooses the correct decision Fletcher envisioned
principles to illuminate the situation but not direct
• Fletcher divides his principles into two categories.
• The six fundamental principles
• The four presumptions (or four working principles)
Fletcher and the 4 working principles
Fletcher came up with the 4 Working Principles
in order to help people understand how
situation ethics works and why it is a good idea.
Situation ethics is good as it is always
what works for the best.
No matter what the situation, going
with what is the most loving thing
can only lead to more good than bad
Love is the only thing that is relevant to
all situations unlike laws which work for
some things but not others. Situation
Ethics uses 1 principle so is easy to
Love is the most important principle
of all and freely chosen. Situation
Ethics recognises that love is the
most important thing when making a
moral choice and echoes the
opinions of the Bible
Situation Ethics puts human beings and
their concerns are at the centre of
morality unlike laws and rules which
often seem to be unfavourable to a
person’s wellbeing. This follows Jesus’
example “man was not made for the
Sabbath” Jesus put love in front if laws
6 Fundamental Principles of Christian love
spell out what agape relate closely to Biblical
teaching on what Christian love should be.
1. Love only is always good
Actions are only good if they
help humans (showing love
for one another) and they are
bad if they hurt people.
2. Love is the only norm
Jesus and St Paul replaced the Torah with
the principle of love, in the past Christians
have broken the 10 Commandments in
order to do the right thing e.g. Bonhoeffer
tried to kill Hitler
3. Love and justice are
the same, and love is
Love and justice can not
4. Love wills the neighbour's
good, whether we like him or
Your neighbour is anybody and
agape love goes out to everyone
5. Love is the only means
When weighing up a situation, one must
consider what you want the outcome to be
and what you need to do to get there.
Fletcher said the end must be the most
6. Love decides there
Whether something is
right or wrong depends
on the situation and can’t
So where did the idea of situation ethics
The basic idea was concerned with Christian ethics
based on the teachings of Jesus and the bible.
Arguments Jesus had about the love over law was
expressed in the bible
Examples of love over law
Jesus commented on the divorce law – He said that the
divorce law had been given as a response to man’s
“sinful nature” but now people had evolved and should
not need to be told what to do now.
The adulterous woman - Jesus prevents a woman being
stoned even though the law allowed her to be. This is
evidence of personalism too
characteristics/principles on which Situation Ethics is
• It is an attempt to link Christianity with new morality
for ‘man come of age’
• It focus’ on Jesus’ dialogue
• It is the rejection of absolute rules as it solves moral
dilemmas situationally and circumstantially
• It focus’ on positivism and personalism
the situationist approach
1. The situation is an important factor in moral
decision-making and influences whether the
rule should be set aside.
2. Reason is to be the instrument of moral
3. Moral decisions are hypothetical
4. The deciding factor is love
• The situation is an important factor in moral decision-making
and influences whether the rule should be set aside.
• Situations are important because they are all unique. No
matter what situation you are in no two situations are exactly
• Therefore a rule cannot apply to all situations.
• Each person approaches the situation with an understanding
of a set of rules. However situation ethics says that it is not
necessary that they follow them.
• In each situation you make a judgement based on the
• In each situation you are assessing the
• If the consequences of the rule produce the most
‘love’ you follow the rule.
• If the consequences require the rule be set aside
to produce the most ‘love’ you set aside the rule
and act according to what you think will produce
the most love.
• This is a teleological judgement because it is
based on consequences not action
• Situations believe that moral decisions are
• This means that they are dependent on some
other issue being so in order to be true.
• For example the statement “charity is good” is
not enough. It requires the additional ‘if’.
• It becomes “charity is good if... It produces the
• The deciding factor is love or agape.
• You must seek to maximise the most love in
• This is not romantic love or erotic love.
• It is a selfless love a Self sacrificing love with
benefits others before it benefits you.
Flexible and practical
• It considers the situation and consequences e.g. a
pregnancy as a result of rape.
• Natural law is inflexible.
• it therefore gives it a dynamism that can free up
deadlocked moral dilemmas.
• You simply step away from the law.
• Embryo research, genetic engineering, environmental
Follows the teachings of jesus
• It’s only absolute principle is agape love.
• This is a core belief of Jesus
• he did not judge prostitutes or outcasts
• He broke the Sabbath rules and put people first.
• He healed people who needed healing and fed the poor.
• Even in death he put himself before others through the
• It considers the whole situation and whilst respecting
the laws is prepared to set them aside if agape love
• Stealing is okay to save a family from starving.
• the individual situation is what matters not the
• It was described by Bishop Robinson as an ‘ethic for man
coming of age’
• which means we can be trusted to assess dilemmas and
come to our decisions using Agape rather than following
• It is an ethic for the new culture of humanity where
everyone is equal.
• Is this Idealistic?
Christianity and situation ethics
• As a priest, Joseph Fletcher claimed situational
ethics to be a true set of Christian morals that
tie in with Biblical teaching.
• However, not all people agree with him on
this, so he presented some passages of
relevant biblical scripture, and left it up to the
reader as to whether the teachings of
situational ethics are Biblical or not
Why some Christians use situation ethics
as a guide for making moral decisions
• Jesus seemed to follow situation ethics because he over-ruled what the
Old Testament said when he thought it was unloving. For example, he
healed people on the Sabbath because he said it was more important to
do good than to obey the Sabbath laws.
• They think Christians should only do what will produce good results such
as stealing the nuclear weapons and allowing the 12 year old to have an
• Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and love your
neighbour, meaning Christians should always do what will have the most
• They believe that Christianity is a religion of love and so Christians should
make their moral decisions based on love not laws.
Why some Christians think situation ethics
• They believe the Bible is God's word to Christians about how to live, so it should be
the basis for moral decision-making.
• They believe they should follow the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the
Mount rather than relying on their own ideas.
• They think the Church knows better what Christians should do than an individual
• They claim you can never be sure what the consequences might be. They use
examples such as a doctor in a remote who has one unit of blood to save the lives
of two people (an old alcoholic and a young mother). Following situation ethics he
would use it for the mother, but actually the mother was a child abuser and the
old man was about to discover a cure for cancer. So the doctor would have been
better to follow the Christian teaching and given them half each.
• Traditional Christians would believe in the rules of the old testament and would
not take into account the circumstances
Roman Catholic Church Criticism
• closely follow the instructions of the Bible
Pope banned Situation Ethics from being discussed. called
‘an individualistic and subjective appeal to the concrete
circumstances of actions to justify decisions in opposition to
the natural law or God’s revealed will’.
So in other words he said that it was wrong to break God’s laws
Situation ethics is subjective because decisions are made from
within the situation as it is perceived to be.
Situation ethics could prove unworkable because it isn’t easy to
determine all the consequences of an action.
Situation ethics seems to be prepared to accept any action at all
it fits the required criteria.
What is believed to be a loving end by some could justify actions
that many people would regard as wrong.
Another Christian criticism
9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not
steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be,
are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Love does no harm to its neighbour.
Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”
people do need to follow God’s laws in order to follow Jesus’ teaching on
how agape is spread
• This is a fusion of natural law and situation
• Created in an attempt to fuse the important
advancements of situation ethics but retain
the traditional interpretations of natural law.
• It is supposed to be a midway between the
two. proportionalismproportionalism Situation
• Situation ethics opposes natural law on several
• Natural law states that actions are intrinsically
good/bad according to the law of nature.
• Situation – whatever produced the most
• Natural law deontological
• Situation teleological
• Bernard Hoose modifies both theories.
• He comes up with the maxim
• “It is never right to go against a principle unless there is a
proportionate reason which would justify it.”
• This means that it helps deal with controversial ethical
reasons but allows the rules to take priority.
• This was thought to overcome many of the issues facing
• Example- having an abortion if the baby would not survive
in the womb
• It is not a new idea
• It can be found in Aquinas creation of the Just
war principles which makes it possible for a
church that opposes killing to justify war in
• It other words the basic rule of ‘do not kill’
usually applies, but there are certain
proportionate circumstances when it can be right
to overrule the moral principle.
• There is no guidance on when you can put aside a
• It does not help the everyday person as there is
no working definition of proportion
• There is no understanding of how it can produce
a consistent ethical theory.
• It also does not accept the supremacy of Jesus as
Fletcher originally proposed.
• The church still has ultimate authority.
– The church should make the decisions not the individual
based on love
1. No individual enough
2. To much power to the church
– The law stands unless there is a proportional reason to
1. No clear definition of proportion
2. To much power to the church
1. That it provides a clear alternative to
Christian ethics that is consistent to the Jesus
represented in the Gospels. Some would
argue that it is more in line with Jesus’
teachings than following ALL the rules in the
2. Situation ethics is flexible and practical. It
takes in to account how complex human life
is and can make tough decisions when, from
a legalistic stance, all actions seem wrong.
3. It is easy to understand: you follow a single
4. You don’t have to follow a conventional rule,
if that goes against your deepest sense of
what love requires.
5. It is based on love, which, rationally as well as
emotionally, is a key feature of all moral
6. It takes circumstances into account
1. It is subjective – we don’t always have the fact
to make a sound decision
2. It is individualistic – what is the most loving
thing to one, is not to another
3. It is prepared to accept any actions as long as
the outcome is supposed to be loving
4. It is inconsistent with some teachings in the
5. How often do we face extreme cases where it is
obvious what the most loving thing is? People
need to be practical and Fletcher’s illustrations
aren’t relevant for most people
6. People need laws and rules to spell out
behaviour in order to keep us all safe and
singing from the same song sheet
7. People would mean to do the most loving thing
but our personal preferences and wants will
always get in the way
1. What options are available in this situation?
2. Which of these options gives most consideration to
the people in the situation?
3. Pragmatically, how likely is each option to succeed?
4. Regardless of moral laws, how loving (in an
unconditional agape sense) will the outcome or
5. To what extent does each option seem to reflect a
love that supports the whole community – just love?