Sunday, March 1, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 2): Three Approaches to Decision-Making

"At bottom there are only three alternative routes or approaches to follow in making moral decisions: (1) the legalistic; (2) the antinomian… and (3) the situational. All three have played their part in Western morals, legalism being by far the common and most persistent." (Joseph Fletcher)

Fletcher begins Situation Ethics with a review of what he believes to be the three main approaches to decision-making.


The key idea in ethical legalism is that one has a set of laws and regulations already worked out. Religious devotees who believe in a Supreme Being will often claim that moral codes have been Divinely given/received, and as such they are to be followed without question (E.g. The Ten Commandments). As Fletcher notes, legalism has been a ‘common and persistent’ influence in the Western world, most notably through the Christian and Jewish faith traditions (and more recently Islam).

Along with ethical legalism come preset solutions to moral questions. If in doubt you can simply look them up when seeking guidance. This gives people the advantage of actually having an answer to moral questions (in contrast to the position taken by someone like G.E. Moore, who considered the nature of “Goodness” to be something beyond our knowledge, and thus left moral questions open-ended).  It also means there are moral truths and a specific understanding of right and wrong is available, which allows people to avoid making mistakes in life. This is particularly true if the ‘moral-law’ is said to have been given by an all-knowing (omniscient) and all-good (benevolent) Deity. The moral law in this case is considered Good, because it is grounded in the Goodness of the Deity.

Why Fletcher rejects Legalism

Fletcher rejects ethical legalism for two main reasons. First he considers it to be nothing more than, ‘An elaborate system of exceptions and compromise’. For example, the Church of England (Anglican Church) speaks of abortion as a ‘great moral evil’, yet at the same time admits that sometimes allowing a woman to have one may be ‘the lesser of two evils’. In this sense, the moral imperative ‘abortion is a great moral evil’ is compromised. Fletcher also hold that it is impossible for one system to address all the various moral situations a person may find themselves in.

Legalism is also ‘cold and abstract’, because it places the Law above the needs of persons. Fletcher draws attention to the story in the New Testament, where Jesus condemned the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law for the way they treated a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). In attempting to uphold the moral law, they were using this woman as bait and treating her in an inhumane manner.


The key idea in antinomianism, is that there are no rules. There is no moral system one must adhere to, nor any way of living one is obliged to follow. We are free to do whatever we choose to do.

Fletcher has been wrongly accused of being an Antinomian. Although he believes moral codes are able to be set aside for the sake of treating people in a better way, he still finds value in them. Fletcher does not want to live in a totally lawless society.

Why Fletcher rejects Antinomianism

As far as Fletcher is concerned, Antinomians have no means by which to direct any moral decision-making process. They are not only sailing on a captain-less ship, but also a rudderless one,and for him this is an unsound basis for the moral life.


The middle-way between ethical legalism, and antinomian unprincipledness.

"The Situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared to set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so." (Joseph Fletcher)

Situationism does not cast aside what has already been worked out and deemed ‘good’ insofar as community values are concerned. However, we are not to prioritise Law over persons. The Situationist begins with what a community has deemed to be the right thing to do in similar circumstances in the past, yet feel under no compulsion to respond in the same way unless it was believed to be appropriate to do so. Any moral law will be willingly bypassed, for the sake of acting in a loving way.

"Not the “good” or the “right” but the fitting." (Joseph Fletcher)

In all our actions, we should aim for ‘contextual appropriateness’. In other words, what the best thing to do in one situation, may not necessarily be the best thing to do in another. However, in all situations the intention should remain the same; this being the desire to do the best thing possible for the person, or the individuals concerned.

"The Situationist follows a moral law or violates it according to love’s need... Only the commandment to love is categorically good." (Joseph Fletcher)

Is Love the new Law?

In rejecting ethical legalism, Fletcher appears to be replacing this with the law of love. In others words, according to Situationism one has a moral obligation to always act in a loving way towards others! This seems to be somewhat paradoxical, considering Fletcher’s rejection of ‘absolutist’ and ‘normative’ approaches in moral contexts.


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