Sunday, March 1, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 3): Four Working Principles

"The heart of this explanation of situation ethics lies in its six propositions… But there are a few preliminary matters to be made plain first, in the reader’s interest, so he can know what presuppositions are at work." (Joseph Fletcher)

There are four working principles underpinning Fletcher’s Situation Ethics. These are: 
  • Pragmatism
  • Relativism
  • Positivism
  • Personalism
"The good... like the true, is whatever works." (Joseph Fletcher)

In Fletcher’s own words, Situation Ethics has been ‘consciously inspired by American Pragmatism’. Pragmatists have little interest in theoretical discussions about the nature of ‘Good’, but are very interested in what works (action/activity). Fletcher's interest in Pragmatism came about because of an increasing disillusionment with using ‘doubt’ as a basis for discovering Truth (the classic Western approach).

"Philosophy is utterly useless as a way to bridge the gap between doubt and faith." (Joseph Fletcher)

As a Pragmatist, Fletcher sees little value in theoretical discussions concerning the nature of ‘Truth’, or what the ‘Good’ is, especially if there is no practical or beneficial outcome to such a discussion. In other words, debating the nature of ‘Good’ is only worthwhile if it will make a difference. A debate for the sake of debating is a waste of time.

"Christianly speaking, as we shall see, the norm or measure by which any action is to be judged a success or failure, i.e., right or wrong, is love." (Joseph Fletcher)

Although Situation Ethics is distinctly Christian in flavour, Fletcher does not consider acting in a loving way to be something only Christians should do. All persons should be seeking to act in loving ways, all the time.


"As the strategy is pragmatic, the tactics are relativistic." (Joseph Fletcher)

One of the reasons Fletcher rejects ethical legalism, is because it does not take into account the uniqueness of different situations. In attempting to impose some carte blanche rule for all to follow, Fletcher believes Legalism ends up treating people inappropriately. Different situations require different approaches, but the intent should always remain the same; to do the most loving thing.

"The Situationist avoids words like 'never' and 'perfect' and 'always' and 'complete'... as he avoids 'absolutely'." (Joseph Fletcher)

It should be noted that Fletcher presumes from the outset that the human thought-process isn’t corrupted, and naturally inclined towards maximising love, but is this the case? Can we say that humans are naturally inclined to act lovingly towards each other? The notion that we do this is something many Christians would say runs contrary to their belief in Original Sin, and also potentially undermines the need for Salvation:

"Fletcher’s text is semi-Pelagian. It has not sufficiently considered love against the facts of sin and suffering and in light of the cross. And in it’s marvelous contempt for the inherited body of laws, commandments, principles and rules… it liberates like a demolition bomb more than it gives birth like an act of creation." (Robert E. Fitch, Taken from The Situation Ethics Debate)


"Any moral or value judgement in ethics... is a decision. It is a choice." (Joseph Fletcher)

There are always reasons why people choose to act as they do. If this were not the case, then people could never be held accountable for their actions. But it is also sometimes hard to work out a person’s motive for doing what they do, as any court of law would testify.

"We cannot verify moral choices. They may be vindicated, but not verified." (Joseph Fletcher)

As we have already noted earlier, Fletcher is uninterested in speculative theories about morality. Somewhat echoing the thoughts of G. E. Moore he writes, ‘Love like good itself is axiomatic... categorical, like blue or sour or anything else that simply is what it is, a “primary” not definable in terms of anything else.’ This is not to suggest that our actions are irrational, and lacking any moral foundation, but simply a re-directing of the debate. People believe they have ‘good’ reasons for doing what they do, not matter how much we might disagree with them. However, in terms of ‘moral choices’, Fletcher suggests we can only (and should only) evaluate what people do in terms of the consequences of their actions. Only after the event can we speak of things being good, or not.

"There are no “values” in the sense of inherent goods – value is what happens to something when it happens to be useful to love." (Joseph Fletcher)


"Treat persons as ends, never as a means to an end." (Immanuel Kant)

From the outset Fletcher wants to put aside any theoretical discussion of “The Good”, in order to focus on doing good. Central to this is doing the most loving thing for people. Ethical legalism will at times find itself negating the needs of persons in order to uphold the Law. Fletcher on the other hand is willing to put aside the Law, if love’s needs are better served. Although the Law may forbid stealing, Fletcher sees no problem with a desperate mother stealing food for her starving children, because she is acting out of love towards them.

"It is not the unbelieving who invite damnation, but the unloving." (Joseph Fletcher)

Fletcher ends with a provocative ‘swipe’ at those who believe being a Christian is all about literally following what is taught in the Bible, believing this can quickly turn into a form of Christian (ethical) Legalism. Instead he takes the view that being ‘Christian’ is not so much to do with what one believes, as what one does. Here we are reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan, which was told by Jesus to demonstrate that sometimes doing the ‘right’ thing breaks all religious, social and cultural boundaries (Luke 10:25-37). As Fletcher concludes:

"Love is not the work of the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit – working in us. [God] gives himself – to all men, to all sorts and conditions: to believers and unbelievers, high and low, dark and pale, learned and ignorant, Marxists, Christians and Hottentots." (Joseph Fletcher)

Some reflections on the matter of conscience

There have been several popular theories about what exactly our conscience is: An innate sense of right or wrong, inspiration from an external benevolent being, the internalised value systems of our culture, or simply reason making moral judgements and value choices. Fletcher is swayed by non of these entirely, preferring instead to understand conscience in a more functional and pragmatic manner:

"There is no conscience; “conscience” is merely a word for our attempts to make decisions creatively, constructively, fittingly." (Joseph Fletcher)

For Fletcher, conscience is not a thing as such. It is not a reviewer or judge of our past actions. Conscience is proactive, rather than retroactive. To speak of “conscience” is to describe the act of working out the best course of action. It directs our actions and more interested in the future, rather than what has already occurred. Thus for the Christian, moral theology is no longer to be concerned with working out the nature of ‘Good’ and then living in light of this. Life is complex. Moral precepts constructed ex situ tend to get twisted and bent to fit special-case scenarios (such as “Do not steal”, unless your children are starving). 

"There are no easy solutions. After careful consideration of all values involved, the Christian chooses what he believes to be the demands of love in the present situation." (Joseph Fletcher)


Situation Ethics (Part 4): The First Proposition - Love Only is Always Good

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