Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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

The First Proposition: “Only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love: nothing else at all.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Nominal Good

What gives something its value? Why do we deem something to be Good? This has been a much-debated topic in moral theory throughout the years. In terms of Christian ethics, the problem can be expressed in the following manner: Is something Good because God says it is Good, or does God acknowledge something to be good because it is Good in itself (or because it is inherently Good)? The former locates the source of Goodness in God, whereas the later does this largely independent of God (or irrespective of what God says).
The idea that something is Good because God says it is, is called Nominalism. This is in contrast to Realism, which holds that good things are Good because they have an inherent quality of Goodness in them.

Situation Ethics is closely aligned to the Nominalist position. Nothing is deemed to have value in and of itself, but attains value insofar as it works for the sake of others. This means something we do only becomes ‘good’ when it helps people, and ‘bad’ when it does the opposite. Also, persons (both human and Divine) can evaluate the things we say and do and determine whether they are good or not, this being based simply on whether they are beneficial to others. This is in contrast to the Realist position where value is something inherent in a thing (such as lying, which is usually deemed to be ALWAYS wrong). Inherent value also needs to be revealed to us or discovered (say by God, or a Priest). Thus Realists judge things by how much they adhere to an immutable, or unchanging (and unchangeable) standard.

"The rightness of an act, then, nearly always and perhaps always, depends on the way the act is related to circumstances." (Joseph Fletcher)

Love is a Predicate

According to Fletcher and Nominalism, there is no objectively real or independent quality in things. The only thing that is intrinsically good (as far as Fletcher is concerned), is Love. But this is not to suggest that Love is a thing or a property. Love is something we have, or something we are, or something we do:

"Our task is to act so that more good (i.e. loving-kindness) will occur than any possible alternatives." (Joseph Fletcher)

To say that Love is the only Good, is to say that acting in a loving way is the only good thing. It is to speak of Love as the regulative principle of Christian ethics.

“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘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 neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

Only in God is Love is a property. It is something God both is, and has. With humans love is something we do, and when we act in love we become like God. For when we we act in love we are not only obeying the command to love, but also imitating God. For the Christian this is also an acknowledgement that we have been created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).

Following St. Augustine, the Situationist would argue that we can know what a person is like by what they love. This is why Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had and give his money to the poor. His first love was for money, not God or other persons (Matthew 19:16-30). This man said he wanted to love God, but his life showed that he loved his money before everything else (and would continue to do so).

For the Christian obedience to God and becoming Christ-like is not about what we what we believe, but about how much we act in loving ways towards others. It is not so much to do with knowing the right thing, but doing the right thing!

"The other side of the proposition that only love is intrinsically good is, of course, that only malice is intrinsically evil. If goodwill is the only thing we are always obliged to do, then ill will is the only thing we are always forbidden to do." (Joseph Fletcher)
"The lowest point, as far as Christian ethics is concerned, is manifest in the phrase, “I couldn’t care less.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Only Extrinsic

Situation Ethics is pragmatic. It is focussed on working to increase love in the world.

"There are no universals of any kind. Only love is objectively valid, only love is universal." (Joseph Fletcher)

The concept that one might act according to the ‘Lesser of two evils’ is contrary to Situation Ethics. There is either working for the sake of love or not. If one does “The lesser of two evils” one is still doing an evil thing, not acting in a pseudo-loving manner. For example, there is no such thing as a ‘White lie’. A lie does not start out as something we shouldn’t do, only to have us try and justify our telling of a ‘White lie’ later on. What makes a lie right or wrong is the intention, or purpose. If our intention in telling a lie is to harm someone, then it is wrong. If our intention in telling a lie is to help someone, then it is good, and that is all.

"Right and wrong, good and bad, are things that happen to what we say and do." (Joseph Fletcher)

In this sense Situation Ethics is consequentialist. The “Good” things we say and do are evaluated according to the most loving outcome. There are no ‘exceptions to the rules’, just the one rule to act in Love.

There is a whole class of actions (stealing, lying, killing and adultery) that are so destructive of human relations that no difference of time or society can change their character. But this does not mean that in certain circumstances these could ever be right. [Questions related to] rape and incest. Can they ever be justified by [loving] motives, circumstances and consequences? (Henlee H Barnette, The Situation Ethics Debate, [Brackets mine])


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