"The reader will find a method here, but no system. It is a method of “situational” or “contextual” decision-making, but system building has no part in it." (Joseph Fletcher)
"There are times when a man has to push his principles aside and do the right thing." (Joseph Fletcher)
What is Situation Ethics?
Published in 1966, the central idea of Situation Ethics: The New Morality is that Christians should work out what is the right thing to do in each unique situation they are faced with, rather than apply, utilise, or obey without question a system of rules or Divine laws. This is because moral dilemmas are as varied as the people who encounter them, and as such it is impossible for one system of ethics to adequately deal with every moral aspect of life. Life is just too complex for this to be even remotely possible, according to Fletcher! A method is also less prescriptive than a system, and will enable us to be more responsive (and relevant) to the different situations we encounter.
Who was Joseph Fletcher?
Joseph Fletcher (1905-91) was an Anglican priest who became professor of ethics at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge Massachusetts and the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. Although Situation Ethics was written in the context of Christian belief, Fletcher went on to renounce any belief in God.
Joseph Fletcher was a pioneer in the field of medical ethics, particularly through his book “Morals and Medicine” (1954) which he labeled, ‘the first non-Catholic treatment of biomedical ethics’. Although highly controversial at the time, his ‘patient-centred’ approach to the issue of abortion ("If you knowingly bring a human being into the world with a genetic disorder or a condition, that can be likened to dropping a child out the window on its head") and euthanasia ("'Thou shalt not kill' may have its necessary and tragic exceptions, but there should be no exceptions whatsoever to Christ's admonition: 'Blessed are the merciful' "), centred around the right to choice concerning these matters. Situation Ethics has many themes from these earlier works running through it.
The theological and social landscape
"Situation Ethics rang a bell with thousands of readers. It did so because its time had come in the form of a man whose lifelong experience had prepared him for articulating it and because there was now an audience whose readiness to hear it had reached optimum size." (Harvey Cox)
Situation Ethics was shaped and formed in a theological context where personal experience and the importance of faith being expressed in practical ways were significant influences. A call to embrace the centrality of experience in matters of faith, meant discussions about anything beyond our experience or outside the physical realm were seen to be largely pointless. If we cannot (in theory) experience anything outside the physical realm, such as who or what God is; or even if God exists, then Christians need to be more concerned with exploring what it means to live a ‘Christian life’. These thoughts greatly influenced theologians such as Thomas J Altizer, and were foundational in the “Death of God” school of theology.
In terms of adopting a more practical approach to being a Christian, theologians such as Harvey Cox argued that the church should be more about demonstrating faith through action (faith in-action), rather than trying to develop and maintain ‘institutions’ (faith inaction). He also believed the church should be at forefront of social change in the world. These themes can be seen time and again in Situation Ethics, where Fletcher forgoes discussions about the theoretical nature of Goodness, in favour of simply working for the good of others:
"The hedonist cannot “prove” that pleasure is the highest good, any more than the Christian can “prove” his faith that love is… We cannot verify moral choices. They may be vindicated, but not validated." (Joseph Fletcher)
In terms of the 1960s social scene, Situation Ethics was attractive in the context of a Western society shedding itself of old moralities and attitudes. It offered the ‘free-love’ generation a new (and more attractive) approach to dealing with moral questions. For example, freed from what many regarded as the repressive social and religious attitudes of the older generation, the Sixties saw young people embracing the notion that they had the right to choose when and with whom they would (or could) engage in sexual activity with. Instead, of being told ‘this was wrong’, or ‘that was wrong’, Situation Ethics empowered young people especially to make their own decisions about what they felt was right for them to do in terms of both behaviour and beliefs, and this contributed greatly to the book’s success and widespread appeal.
The Book’s Hero!
"Ethics deals with human relations. Situation ethics puts people at the centre of concern." (Joseph Fletcher)
In the Foreword to his book, Joseph Fletcher recounts the story of a taxi driver a friend of his met in St. Louis, which he believes perfectly describes the nature and value of Situation Ethics. He writes:
"Let an anecdote set the tone. A friend of mine arrived in St. Louis just as a presidential campaign was ending, and cab driver, not being above the battle, volunteered his testimony. “I and my father and grandfather before me, and their fathers, have always been straight-ticket Republicans.” “Ah”, said my friend, who is himself a Republican, “I take it that means you will vote for Senator So-and-So.” “No,” said the driver, “there are times when a man has to push his principles aside and do the right thing.” That St. Louis cabbie is this book’s hero."