Sunday, July 26, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 8): The Fifth Proposition - Love Justifies its Means

“The Fifth Proposition: Only the end justifies the means; nothing else.” (Joseph Fletcher)

What Justifies a Means?

In Christian ethics, it has been generally unpopular to suggest that in living the Good Life, the end can justify the means.* For Fletcher, this is nonsense, because for him without having an end in sight means an act is simply meaningless, random, or pointless. We would literally have no reason for doing anything. Even the very notion of ‘a means’ is only meaningful in light of some end. No, we do x (means) because of y (end).

However, the question begs; what end justifies a means?** The first thing to note is that not any end will justify any means. We also cannot do anything we want (anarchy). Instead, we are to act appropriately and according to the situation. Also, a means to an end in one situation may not be the right means to an end in another. As such we are not to create universal principles out of one specific and unique act. Doing so has the potential to become dangerously legalistic.

We should also seek to act with care. We cannot do anything to achieve an end. The means we choose should be reflected in the end we are seeking to reach, meaning we will act appropriately according to what the situation requires. ‘Means’ are “proximate ends”, as Thomas Aquinas called them. They are not “ethically indifferent”. The end truly justifies the means! (For more on this see “The Four Factors” below.)

“The means used ought to fit the end, ought to be fitting. If they are, they are justified.” (Joseph Fletcher quoting H. R. Niebuhr)

Of course, the Legalist might counter that if the end justifies the means, then this can lead people to commit an evil act in the name of doing Good. Fletcher rejects this criticism on two counts:

  1. To say doing evil is good violates the rule of non-contradiction
  2. We are not to ascribe to any act the formal property of Good or Evil. In itself an act is neither intrinsically good or bad (for more on this see: Love Only is Good)

Law Entangles Itself

Fletcher believes Legalism ultimately leads people to act dubiously. For instance, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that there is never a time when telling a lie is justified. This is because telling a lie would contradict the Categorical Imperative; that one should only do those things you would wish others to do. As we normally prefer people not to lie to us, so we cannot be justified in lying to others. Also, successfully telling lies relies on the notion that most of the time people are telling the truth, meaning lies can be disguised as truth-claims. Yet if lying became the norm, then the very act of lying would be undermined. It would be logically impossible to successfully tell a lie because we would have no reason to think people are ever telling the truth. We would just assume they are lying (which they would be). Thus, Kant concedes that lying is illogical, wrong and never justified.

However in practical terms this would mean that, according to Kant’s logic, Germans hiding Jews from Nazis during the Second World War would be morally wrong to lie if asked, “Are you hiding Jews?” Yet for all one would commend the intent to never lie, one cannot help feel that answering “Yes!” to the Nazis in this situation would be morally dubious.

In the end, Legalism creates logical problems. When one is tied to the notion that value is inherent in an act, one cannot justify using a ‘Bad’ means to achieve a ‘Good’ end. If the means is deemed inherently wrong then no matter how good the end is, one cannot ever be justified in doing it. If we do then we arrive at the absurdist notion that we have committed the ‘lesser of two evils’, or in this instance maybe ‘told a white lie’. This is legalism entangling itself up. Either an act is wrong and should never be done, or an act is not wrong and can sometimes be done. We cannot say something is inherently wrong and should never be done, but then in some instances justify doing it.

“Love could justify anything. There is no justification other than love’s expedients.” (Joseph Fletcher)

The Four Factors

Situation Ethics has much in common with Utilitarianism, the most basic comparison being that they justify a means (act) in light of the positive end it achieves. In the case of Utilitarianism, it is the maximisation of pleasure (or happiness) which makes an act Good (or not). In the case of Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, it is the promotion of Love:

“There is only one end, one goal, one purpose which is not relative and contingent, always an end in itself. Love.” (Joseph Fletcher)

In Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism, he introduced a calculus as a means to examine situations in order to act appropriately. Although Fletcher does not propose using a calculus, he does consider the following four questions vital in determining the best course of action in any situation:

  1. What is the end being sought?
  2. By what means can this be achieved?
  3. What is the motive behind the act?
  4. What are the foreseeable consequences of the action?

“Legalism often takes the position that to be wrong an action need be at fault on only one of these four scores, whereas in order to be right it must be right on all four.” (Joseph Fletcher)

The important point to note here is that for Fletcher both the means and the end are contingent and relative. There are no absolutes. No act has any intrinsic value attached to it. We are to address each situation uniquely and on its own terms. The right thing to do in one situation does not justify us making a rule or law to be applied everywhere (this is Legalism). The right thing to do in one situation may be the wrong thing to do in another. Likewise, the wrong thing to do in one situation may be the right thing to do in another.

“There is only one end, one goal, one purpose which is not relative and contingent, always an end in itself. Love.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Critics of Situation Ethics are quick to point out the slippery-slope argument associated with this way of thinking: What if everyone did this? For example, in justifying euthanasia in one situation the Legalist might suggest this will lead people to kill elderly relatives when they are being inconvenienced by their failing health, or what’s the point of keeping them alive any longer and waste vital medical resources?

As persuasive as this might be, the slippery-slope argument is actually grounded on the notion that in order for an act to be moral, it must be universally applicable (a form of Kant’s Categorical Imperative). But how reasonable is this claim? For one, every act given the right context is capable of inflicting harm on others. Also, the fact that there will always be some who ‘abuse the system’ does not mean the system is bad, or that decision-making should be limited (“Abuse does not bar use”). However the truly problematic nature of universals is that they basically overlook the varieties of human life, and this is something Situation Ethics keeps at the heart of the moral question.

The cry of, “What if everyone did this?” is not a valid counter-argument, but simply a way of letting the law remain in control.

Hallowing the Means

Some final thoughts…

“However you decide your choices, the end justifies the means… the only self-validating end in the Christian situation ethic is love.” (Joseph Fletcher)

“We may always do what would be evil in some contexts if in this circumstance love gains the balance. It is love’s business to calculate the gains and losses, and to act for the sake of its success.” (Joseph Fletcher)

“We have to refuse to admit doing a preponderantly good deed just because the necessary means happens to be evil “generally” or because it entails some evil. For us, whether it is good or evil, right or wrong, is not in the deed but by its circumstances.” (Joseph Fletcher)


* “The idea that "the ends justify the means" admits that there is something inherently wrong with "the means". Indeed, it admits that "the means" are actually unjustified by themselves. The claim, then, is that although "the means" are unjustifiable in themselves, that a particular outcome that is achieved by them results in the justification of the unjustified. Christianity certainly does not have any basis for this idea, and it doesn't need any. I know of a particular religion that believes it's alright for its followers to lie in a conversation with someone of another religion if lying helps them win the argument. Christianity, however, does not need to do this, because Christianity believes that truth is on its side. That's a key point, because Truth invites questioning, whereas lies and falsehoods do not.” (Is “the ends justify the means” compatible with Christianity?. Web. July 25, 2015.

**Although Fletcher claims Christian ethics has largely rejected the notion of the end justifying the means, this is not entirely true. For the aim (end) of most Christians has been first and foremost to glorify God in their lives. So these people only do those things they believe will please God (such as following God’s commandments). However, on a lesser scale yes; Christian morality has tended towards rejecting moral tenets such as ‘working to increase pleasurable outcomes in the world’ for example, as these are largely deemed to be putting human interests before God’s.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 7): The Fourth Proposition - Love is not Liking

"The Fourth Proposition: Love wills the neighbour’s good whether we like him or not." (Joseph Fletcher)

Never sentimentalize love

Christian love is agapeic (committed to our neighbour’s well-being), as opposed to erotic (sexual) or philic (friendship). This means agape is about serving another’s needs first, not our own. It is also not doing something because we are emotionally driven to do it (i.e. because we like someone). We do something simply because it is the right thing to do. It is as Bishop Stephen Neill describes, “the steady directing of the human will towards the eternal well-being of another.” Agape is a decision, a choice! This is why agape can be commanded, and why the opposite of love is not hatred (feeling), but indifference (lack of intent).

“[Christian love] does not seek the deserving, nor is it judgemental when it makes its decisions - judgemental, that is, about the people it wants to serve.” (Joseph Fletcher [bracket mine])

“Christian love is the business of loving the unlovable, i.e., the unlikeable.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Christian love is not sentimental and recognises that fact that not everyone is likeable. There are people who are nice, and people who are not, but both deserve to be shown love equally (“Loving and liking are not the same thing”). This is why Christian love is radical because it does not seek anything in return for acts of kindness, generosity, mercy, patience etc.

“For [God] makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45, World English Bible [bracket mine])

The neighbour is anybody

Stranger-neighbour; enemy-neighbour. Christian love seeks the good of all:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48, World English Bible)

Despite the fact that all are to be treated equitably, Christians are not to lose their sense of value. To serve all in love does not mean we are obliged to like everyone, or even eradicate the distinction between good and evil. What we are talking about here is simply a command to treat everyone in the same manner.

“One cannot command that one feel love for a person but only that one deal lovingly with him.” (Martin Buber)

“But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

True Christian love is one that gives and expects nothing in return.

Self-love for the neighbour’s sake

We are naturally selfish creatures; prone to self-love before that of our neighbour. So how do we turn “self-centered self-love into self-love for the sake of others?” It is surely possible in the following steps:

  1. Love of ourself for our own sake
  2. Love of our neighbour for our own sake
  3. Love of neighbour for our neighbour’s sake
  4. Love of ourself again, but this time for the right reason (i.e. for our neighbour’s sake)

“If we love ourselves for our own sakes, that is wrong. If we love ourselves for God’s sake and the neighbour’s, then self-love is right.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Calculation is not cruel

“All of this is thoughtful love, careful as well as care-full.” (Joseph Fletcher)

In order to make sound moral choices, one needs to have good information, but also the right disposition. With this in mind we make choices carefully, and thoughtfully. In many ways we are dealing with another version of Utilitarianism, only this time we are replacing ‘maximising pleasurable outcomes’ with ‘doing the most loving thing’. As with Utilitarianism, we are also not to discriminate in seeking the best outcome. If helping our ‘enemy’ is the most loving thing to do, then we do that, but if in helping our enemy we will hurt more friends, then we do not do that. At the end of the day neither our neighbour nor our enemy has stronger claim over the other. Our friends do not deserve more of our love than our enemies, just the situation:

“Which should you save if you can carry only one from a burning building… If the choice is between your own father and a medical genius who has discovered a cure for a common fatal disease, you carry out the genius if you understand agape.” (Joseph Fletcher)

To be sentimental about love means we will be driven by feelings to do loving deeds. For instance, we might take pity on the person standing by the side of the road asking for money, and so give them something as an expression of our love for them. Agape, on the other hand, asks whether giving this person money is the most loving thing to do. Are they really in genuine need? As the Didache* states, “Let your alms sweat in your palm until you know to whom you are to give it.”

“Love’s business is not play favourites or find friends or to “fall” for some one-and-only. It plays the field, universalises its concern, has a social interest, is no respecter of persons.” (Joseph Fletcher)



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 6): The Third Proposition - Love and Justice are the same

The Third Proposition: Love and Justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else. (Joseph Fletcher)

Love is careful

One criticism of Fletcher’s Situation Ethics is that he never clearly defines love, but with the third proposition love becomes equated with Justice. Acting in love is not something done without any sense of responsibility towards others but is something which requires proper care and thought. In short, it is acting responsibly, and in this way Justice is love distributed.

Here is precisely the serious difficulty of love. How are its favors to be distributed among so many beneficiaries? We never have one neighbour at a time. (Joseph Fletcher)

We are reminded here of the Third Proposition, this being that situation ethics is positivistic; one is always making a choice to act in love towards others However, this needs to be understood in the context of the wider community. When choosing to act in love, everything and everyone must be taken into account. “No man is an island”, as the old saying goes!

As “persons” we are individuals in-community. Therefore love’s outreach is many-sided and wide-aimed, not one-directional; it is pluralist, not monist; multilateral, not unilateral. (Joseph Fletcher)

Wrongful Separation

We cannot separate love and Justice; neither one should be given priority over the other. For instance, we cannot decide to give away all our money to those in need, without also paying back those we owe money to (our creditors). To give away all our money to the poor may appear to be doing a loving thing, but if we don’t also repay what we owe, then it is actually an unjust (and, therefore, unloving) deed.

People also suffer and end up being treated badly when love and justice are separated. We cannot hold the law above persons, and neither can love be selective. All voices must be heard, and all demands considered equally. Love cannot be sentimental nor can it be concerned with just individual relationships. We should love all our neighbours (plural), not merely our neighbour.

It is often said that what is “due” to the neighbour is giving him his “rights”... [But] all alleged rights and duties are as contingent and relative as all values. The right to religious freedom, free speech, public assembly, private property, sexual liberty, life itself, the vote - all are validated only by love. (Joseph Fletcher)

Justice is nothing other than love working out its problems. (Joseph Fletcher)

Love Using its Head

Justice is love calculating and working out its duties and obligations. In terms of social policy, situation ethics appears to have much in common with UTILITARIANISM (but in this case it replaces ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ principle with love (agape)). Situation ethics also agrees with DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS, in that we should always seek to do the good (our duty), this being to, “seek the goal of the most love in every situation.”

Situation ethics is not individualistic, but makes decisions in the context of the wider community. In this way it follows Kant, by not treating others as a means to our own end:

Love does not permit us to solve our problems or sooth our wounds at the expense of innocent third parties. Our neighbours include all our neighbours. (Joseph Fletcher)

There also can be no impartial response to situations. We cannot simply throw our hands up and say, “It’s the law!”, for example. The decision to act in love is always a choice; a decision to do the most responsible thing.

Something to discuss: Talk about the actions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in the context of situation ethics. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Situationist?

Whenever or if ever any civil rights law ceases to serve love according to an enlightened grasp of love’s outreach, it should be thrown aside. (Joseph Fletcher)


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 5): The Third Proposition - Love is the Only Norm (continued)

"In its very marrow Christian ethics is a situation ethic. The new morality, the emerging contemporary Christian conscience, separates Christian conduct from rigid creeds and rigid codes." (Joseph Fletcher)

Love Has No Equals

There is a natural fear in letting go of rules and laws. For one, legalism has been the dominant worldview in most societies, and so we have become accustomed to this way of thinking about morality. But there is another fear; that if we drop the legalist approach in Christianity, then people will no longer have any reason to be committed to the faith. If humans are able to do it for themselves, what need do they have of God?

Fletcher seems unconcerned by this. For him the central and only important matter at hand, is making ethical legalism subordinate to love. In his eyes, the “man of law” fears change simply because he has known nothing else, and that is all.*

A common criticism of Fletcher’s Situation Ethics is that he does not define clearly what he means by love. In discussing the second proposition, Fletcher comes closest to defining it as agape (non-reciprocal, neighbour-regarding) love, as opposed to philia (friendship) or eros (romantic).

"Erotic and philic love are emotional, but the effective principle of Christian love is will, disposition; it is an attitude, not feeling." (Joseph Fletcher)

"What a difference it makes when love, understood agapeically, is boss; when love is the only norm. How free and therefore responsible we are!" (Joseph Fletcher)


In the final section of this chapter, Fletcher addresses some objections to his Situation Ethics:

  1. Humanity after the Fall

There are Christians who believe in a literal Fall of humanity from an original state of perfection as outlined in the first chapters of Genesis in the Bible. They believe that as a result of humans choosing to disobey God, that our moral compass has become corrupted and incapable of making choices that align with the Will of God. For them, this explains why we need God to give us laws and Commandments to live by.

Fletcher’s approach is to emphasize another aspect of Christian belief, this being the positive effect of Christ dying for our sins:

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.“ (Galatians 5:1)

Following the Apostle Paul Fletcher shifts the focus from Law to that of Grace (this being the good things that occur in one’s life as a result of being saved by Christ).

Something to think about: Do you see any problems for Fletcher’s Situation Ethics in terms of non-Christian faiths, atheists etc.?

“The Christian is called to be mature, to live by grace and freedom, to respond to life, to be responsible." (Joseph Fletcher)

  1. The centrality of freedom

In light of the Fall, some Christians believe we cannot now be trusted to make free choices. According to them were are innately disposed to act selfishly and contrary to God’s Will. In fact, they would say it was our freedom which led to us to disobey God in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3:1-24).

For the ethical legalistic the Law is all about directing and controlling people, and as such this sets limits on what we can and should do. The legalist also believes this is for our own good. For Fletcher the law inhibits our personal obligation and responsibility. Situation Ethics on the other hand maximizes personal obligation and responsibility.

Something to think about: Which do you prefer, clearly set out guidelines for how to behave, or the ability to choose to act as you see fit? Why do you prefer this?

Law may be indeed a necessary feature of community and can even be constructive. But when the motive of the law observer is to hide behind the letter of the law in order to escape the higher demands of its spirit or to escape the complexities of responsible decision, that is cheap legalism. (Joseph Fletcher)

"Decision is "a risk rooted in the courage of being" free." (Joseph Fletcher)

3. Predicting the future

A criticism Fletcher notes as being somewhat valid, is that situation ethics requires a greater degree of knowledge about a situation than legalism does. One appears to need to already know that following the Law on a particular matter will not reap the best consequences. But do we have access to such knowledge, or can we? We are in a sense making decisions based simply on assumption. In response, Fletcher counters that we are well within our remit to call upon experts to guide us, and even the Law may be a useful tool in this respect. But of course, if anything undermines our personal freedom to act in a loving manner, then it needs to be set aside for the sake of love.

In the end Fletcher directs the readers to reflect on the example of Jesus, who he says was willing to set aside the Law for the sake of the "radical decisions of love".

"If law cuts down our range of free initiative and personal responsibility, by doing our thinking for us, we are so much the less for it as persons. Situation ethics aims to widen freedom, which is the other face of responsibility." (Joseph Fletcher)



*Keep in mind that Fletcher rejects ethical legalism because (for him) it simply does not work. Despite having established universal principles for people to live by, legalists often compromise what their law demands of them (E.g. Telling “white lies”, when lying is supposed to be wrong). Fletcher's point is that a claim to possess indubitable moral precepts requires one to live in full obedience to them, not water them down or compromise them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 5): The Second Proposition - Love is the Only Norm (Part 1)

The Second Proposition: “The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else." (Joseph Fletcher)

Love Replaces Law

Jesus was once asked which of the commandments was the most important. His response surprised the people gathered around him:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

There are 613 commandments in the Torah (aka Pentateuch = First five books of the Old Testament in the Bible). The most well-known set of commandments in the Torah are the Decalogue; more commonly known as “The Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20:1- 17). As a Christian Situationist, Fletcher has to address the matter of these extensive religious and moral laws. Taken literally the question begs: Do we serve the interests of love by living according each of these commandments, or do we serve the interests of love when we put them to one side? Fletcher’s argument favours the latter response because there were times when both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were prepared to put aside the law, in order to serve the greater interests of love (see Mark 2:27-28 and 1 Corinthians 10: 23-26).

Tablets of Stone

"There can be, and often is, a conflict between love and law." (Joseph Fletcher)

If love is not served by a literal following of the Ten Commandments, then how is the Situationist to respond to their demands? Fletcher offers the following ‘revisions’:
  1. “You shall have no other gods before me” - More of a tautology than a command. If you worship Yahweh then you will (naturally) not have faith in any other gods. A fact of faith, rather than a prohibition.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an image…” - Is this to be taken literally? What about the icons used in Catholic and Eastern Christianity and the many varieties of religious art which have inspired, enhanced worship and drawn devotees closer to the Divine? Are these ALL wrong?
  3. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord” - Are we to take no oaths? What about when priests and married couples make promises in God’s name? Maybe this command is more to do with prohibiting the use of God’s name for magical purposes or for false oaths (unless love’s interests are better served by doing so).
  4. “Remember the Sabbath” - Is the “Sabbath” here referring to Saturday (Judaism) or Sunday (Christianity)? Is it even possible for this law to be kept? Are nurses, surgeons, doctors, and even the police to stop working too?

"The last six of the commandments… are more “ethical” in the ordinary non-theological sense of the word [and all] but the fifth (Honour your father and mother) are universal negatives. But situation ethics has good reason to hold it as a duty in some situations to break them, any or all of them." (Joseph Fletcher [brackets mine])

Even the prohibition “Do not kill” is regularly compromised by Christians when they eat meat, argue in favour of self-defence, support Just War, advocate capital punishment and support mercy-killings (Euthanasia). We should note that even after this prohibition was given Jews continued to offer blood sacrifices in the Temple, and even Christians argue that the death of Christ was something demanded by God as a means to forgive sin (“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” - Romans 3:25). If we are commanded not to kill, how do we explain these things?

So it seems that due to the problems and inconsistencies in trying to literally keep the all of the commandments, Fletcher advocates we accept only one Law, this being the law of love:

"There is nothing outside a situation which by going into it can prejudge it." (Joseph Fletcher)

Neither Nature Nor Scripture

"Legalism is legalism whether it rests upon nature or upon Scripture. Both kinds are quicksand." (Joseph Fletcher)

Christian ethics has historically been grounded in either Scripture or natural law. In terms of the latter, the idea here is that through a careful study of nature we can deduce a Divinely established order of things, and from this understand how we should act.*

Fletcher argues that whilst we may deduce a natural order of things from nature, this is not to say we can know how to act on the basis of this**. To suggest otherwise is to commit the Naturalist Fallacy (Is-Ought). If anything nature reveals quite opposite from that of moral certainties, for when we consider the history of humanity throughout the ages we see that there have been no universal laws held by all persons, all the time. Instead we find certain platitudes have been held, such as “Do good to all”, but no specific agreement on what “The Good” is, or how we should specifically act. Even Scripture invites a variety of responses and interpretations to the different commandments in it, and as such this undermines the notion that we should take them literally and treat them as universals to live by.



*The classic example of Christian ethics and natural law is the Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion. Without the use of any contraception, sexual intercourse can lead to pregnancy. Thus, the argument goes, God’s natural order of things is that sexual intercourse is primarily intended for procreation, and as such anything which hinders this (or prevents it from ending in the birth of a baby) is contrary to the Will of God and morally wrong.

**Fletcher cites the example of a Federal Judge in the US, who used natural law to argue in favour of racial segregation on a golf course. He suggested that segregation was justified, because in nature we observe that no birds of a different kind will rest together on the same branch of a tree.