"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:
- 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)
- 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.