In Situation Ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights - each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. This is the opposite of a DEONTOLOGICAL view of right and wrong. In fact, situation ethics rejects 'prefabricated decisions and prescriptive rules'. Ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and should be taken on a case by case basis.
So a person who practises Situation Ethics approaches ethical problems with some general moral principles rather than a complete set of ethical laws and is prepared to give up even those principles if doing so will lead to a greater good. Since 'circumstances alter cases', SITUATIONISM holds that what in some times and places we call right is in other times and places wrong. For example, lying is ordinarily not in the best interest of people and relationships, but is justifiable in certain situations (such as encouraging an ageing relative to believe that all is well in your marriage).
Situation Ethics emerged in the 1960s at a time of great cultural and social change: the Women's Liberation movement was challenging the role of women in society, the anti-war movement was questioning old values of duty and patriotism and a younger generation was starting to experiment with drugs and non-marital sex. Oh, and the Beatles conquered America. Situation Ethics should be viewed in this context, as an attempt to apply a Christian moral view to a changing society. One of the main texts in Situation Ethics is John A.T. Robinson's Honest To God (1963). John Robinson was the Bishop of Woolwich and his book threw the Church into turmoil by arguing that Christianity needed to embrace the "new morality" and that the only law in ethics should be "the law of Love".
Although it was first formulated in the 1960s, Situation Ethics is based on much older ideas within Christianity. For centuries, Christianity has encouraged imitatio dei - living your life in imitation of Jesus or God. Several Christian writers in the 20th century returned to this idea as a way of cutting through ethical dilemmas:
Tillich's comment is particularly interesting, because he makes a contrast between ethics that are based on "law" (meaning rules, lists of do's and don'ts) and ethics that are based on love. This contrast goes right back to the beginnings of Christianity in the writings of St Paul.
In America, the Law of Love is often summed up in the popular phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" (or WWJD on bumper-stickers). Unfortunately, the phrase was also used by world leaders Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Concerning the war in
Situation Ethics was pioneered by Joseph Fletcher. Since his work, Situation Ethics (1966), almost every publication on contemporary ethics has referred to the model presented in Fletcher's writings. Fletcher was an Episcopal priest, but also a supporter of both euthanasia and abortion. He uses the Christian idea of Agápē which means selfless love. We act out of love for others, trying to do the best to serve their interests. Situation Ethics, according to Fletcher, states that decision-making should be based upon the circumstances of a particular situation, and not upon fixed Law. The only absolute is Love. Love should be the motive behind every decision. As long as Love is your intention, the end justifies the means. Justice is not in the letter of the Law, it is in the distribution of Love. Fletcher founded his model upon a statement found in the New Testament of the Bible that reads: "God is Love".He also used several stories from the New Testament to illustrate the Law of Love. One of the best examples is the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus appears to take a Situation Ethics approach, showing that love and compassion are the best ways of responding to human failings and exposing the weakness of using absolute law to judge individual moral cases.
Situation Ethics was originally devised in a Christian context, but it can easily be applied in a non-religious way. The elements of situation ethics were described by Joseph Fletcher like this:
Love, in this context, means desiring and acting to promote the wellbeing of people. Nothing is inherently good, except love and nothing is evil except indifference or actual malice. Whatever is most loving in a situation is right and good - not merely something to be excused as a lesser evil. Love "wills the neighbour's good" whether we like them or not. Fletcher argues that the ultimate norm of Christian decisions is love: nothing else. He adds that love and justice are the same, since justice is love distributed.
Fletcher also quoted a
Pragmatism: For a course of action to be right, it has to be practical. It must work. For example, in the case of conjoined twins Jodie and Mary, the Catholic church wanted to let both of the girls die. To kill one, saving the other, would be an evil act, they said. Fletcher would have disagreed. Letting both girls die is not pragmatic. It would be of more use, more practical, to save one girl at the expense of the other. Whilst this is not consequentialist - it is motive of love that is good, not an outcome - in practice it makes Fletcher's theory very similar indeed to Utilitarianism.
Relativism: ‘It relativizes the absolute, it does not absolutize the relative’. This means that rules (absolutes) don’t always apply, they depend on the situation. Absolutes like ‘Do not steal’ become relative to love – if love demands stealing food for the hungry, you steal, just like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. However, it doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. Fletcher doesn’t take a relative principle ‘Do whatever the situation demands’ and make it into an absolute.
Positivism: Natural Law and Utilitarianism are based on reason – reason can decide the right course of action, either from the purpose of life or the promotion of pleasure. Situation Ethics disagrees, You have to start with a positive choice: you need to want to do good. There is no rational answer to the question “Why should I love?”
Personalism: Situation Ethics puts people first. People are more important than rules. As Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, meaning that it's more important to do right by other people than to follow religious rules at the expense of people.
Love only is always good. Love is intrinsically valuable, it has inherent worth. A lie is not intrinsically wrong. It is wrong if it harms people, but may sometimes be right. For the Situationist, what makes the lie right is its loving purpose.This approach to ethics puts MOTIVES at the centre of ethical decision-making, unlike (say) Utilitarianism, which looks only at consequences.
Love is the only norm (rule). Love replaces the law. The law should only be obeyed in the interests of love, not for the law’s sake! Fletcher rejects Natural Law. He says ‘There are no [natural] universal laws held by all men everywhere at all times.’ Jesus summarised the entire Jewish Law by saying ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbour’. The problem with this is that it allows the individual to do anything in the name of love – there are no rules to say that someone has done the wrong thing.
Love and justice are the same. There can be no love without justice. Consider any injustice – a child starving, a man arrested without charge etc. These are examples of a lack of love. If love was properly shared out, there would be no injustice.
Love is not liking. "Love wills the neighbour’s good whether we like him or not." Love is discerning and critical, not sentimental. Martin Luther King described -love as a ‘creative, redemptive goodwill to all men’. He said it would be nonsense to ask people to like their violent oppressors. Agape-love is a non-selfish love of all people.
Love justifies the means. When someone said to Fletcher ‘The end doesn’t justify the means’, he replied ‘Then what on earth does?’. If an action causes harm, it is wrong. If good comes of it, it is right. Fletcher says you can’t claim to be right by following a rule (like ‘Do not lie’) knowing it will cause great harm. Only the end or outcome can justify your action. In this respect, Situation Ethics is rather like Utilitarianism, but there are important differences:
Love decides there and then. There are no rules about what should or shouldn’t be done – in each situation, you decide there and then what the most loving thing to do is.
Situation Ethics is a very appealing approach. It avoids the written-in-stone rigidity of traditional ethics and the rather judgemental, heartless positions that traditional ethics can take on many subjects. It has the flexibility of Utilitarianism, without leading to any of the strange, perverse conclusions that Utilitarians can arrive at. It's based on Christian ideas about morality and seems to embody some of the most striking and revolutionary features of Jesus' thinking about ethics. It also seems very well-suited to resolving many of the ethical dilemas facing ordinary people in the 20th and 21st centuries: abortion and divorce, racism and sexism, multiculturalism, etc.
Situation ethics is sensitive to circumstances, context and cultural traditions. Every moral decision is required to show respect for individuals and communities and the things that they regard as valuable. This avoids the logical, detached, impersonal ways of thinking that often get overemphasised in other forms of ethics. Because moral decisions are treated on a case-by-case basis, the decision is always tailored to particular situations. Situation Ethics teaches that right acts are those motivated by the wish to promote the well-being of people.
However, there have been many critics of Situation Ethics. The Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay delivered lectures called Ethics in a Permissive Society that strongly atacked Fletcher's thinking. Barclay complained that all of Fletcher's dilemmas are extreme cases that most people will never encounter in their lives. Barclay suggests that:
Barclay's more powerful objection is directed at Fletcher's assumption that human beings are free from rules to make the sort of case-by-case Agape-decisions that Situation Ethics demands. Barclay thinks this is too optimistic. People will always be influenced by personal preferences, prejudices or sheer confusion. In efect, Barclay is saying that Situation Ethics might work for Saints, but the rest of us ordinary mortals need serious guidelines about how to behave otherwise moral chaos ensues.
Other critics have pointed out that Situation Ethics does away with talk about universal moral truths and seems to remove any possibility of guaranteeing universal human rights. This makes it very hard to use Situation Ethics in government or court cases and almost impossible to apply it to international law as a useful ethical framework for human behaviour. For example, in the 1980s many countries boycotted products from the apartheid regime in South Africa because of the unjust way it treated its black population. Where would Situation Ethics stand on this? Does Agape-love demand that you buy South African oranges in order to make sure poor black farm workers get paid? Or should you boycott the products and bring down an evil regime, even if that means poverty for the farm workers? Natural Law with its emphasis on human rights or Utilitarianism with its focus on the happiness of the majority might help settle this dilemma, but Situation Ethics doesn't have a clear answer.
It's also not clear what 'love' means. Although the notion of love used in Situation Ethics seems attractive, it's pretty vague and can be interpreted in many ways. This means Situation Ethics produces a lack of consistency from one situation to the next. For example, does "loving" someone mean sparing them suffering or comforting them during their suffering? This makes a big difference if a sick relative is asking you to help them commit suicide. It seems strange if one person can "love" their grandparent by administering them a fatal drug overdose while another peson "loves" their grandparent by caring for them through years of sickness. If both of these acts are "loving" then it's tempting to conclude that we need a better word than "love" (or maybe, like the Greeks, more than one word).Finally, Situation Ethics may approve of 'evil' acts. You might think this is surprising, since Situation Ethics are supposed to follow the Law of Love, but Situation Ethics teaches that particular types of action don't have an intrinsic moral value - whether they are good or bad depends on the motive and eventual result. So it seems that Situation Ethics permits a person to carry out acts that are generally regarded as bad, such as killing and lying, if those acts are motivated by love and lead to a good result. This is an uncomfortable conclusion, but one that affects other ethical theories as well. As an obvious example, killing people is generally regarded as bad, but is viewed as acceptable in some cases of self defence. The popular TV drama 24 regularly brought up this issue with torture. The characters in the drama claimed they were justified in the (sometimes brutal) torture of suspects because the information gained in doing so saved thousands of lives. This is the so-called Ticking Bomb Problem. Some types of Utilitarianism would come to the same conclusion, although Natural Law and Divine Commend theories of ethics would be more likely to claim that torture is always wrong and cannot be justified. Back in the Middle Ages, the monks and priests working for the Inquisition tortured many people "for the good of their souls". Would someone following Situation Ethics become a torturer too in the right situation?