Sunday, July 26, 2015

Situation Ethics (Part 8): The Fifth Proposition - Love Justifies its Means

“The Fifth Proposition: Only the end justifies the means; nothing else.” (Joseph Fletcher)

What Justifies a Means?

In Christian ethics, it has been generally unpopular to suggest that in living the Good Life, the end can justify the means.* For Fletcher, this is nonsense, because for him without having an end in sight means an act is simply meaningless, random, or pointless. We would literally have no reason for doing anything. Even the very notion of ‘a means’ is only meaningful in light of some end. No, we do x (means) because of y (end).

However, the question begs; what end justifies a means?** The first thing to note is that not any end will justify any means. We also cannot do anything we want (anarchy). Instead, we are to act appropriately and according to the situation. Also, a means to an end in one situation may not be the right means to an end in another. As such we are not to create universal principles out of one specific and unique act. Doing so has the potential to become dangerously legalistic.

We should also seek to act with care. We cannot do anything to achieve an end. The means we choose should be reflected in the end we are seeking to reach, meaning we will act appropriately according to what the situation requires. ‘Means’ are “proximate ends”, as Thomas Aquinas called them. They are not “ethically indifferent”. The end truly justifies the means! (For more on this see “The Four Factors” below.)

“The means used ought to fit the end, ought to be fitting. If they are, they are justified.” (Joseph Fletcher quoting H. R. Niebuhr)

Of course, the Legalist might counter that if the end justifies the means, then this can lead people to commit an evil act in the name of doing Good. Fletcher rejects this criticism on two counts:

  1. To say doing evil is good violates the rule of non-contradiction
  2. We are not to ascribe to any act the formal property of Good or Evil. In itself an act is neither intrinsically good or bad (for more on this see: Love Only is Good)

Law Entangles Itself

Fletcher believes Legalism ultimately leads people to act dubiously. For instance, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that there is never a time when telling a lie is justified. This is because telling a lie would contradict the Categorical Imperative; that one should only do those things you would wish others to do. As we normally prefer people not to lie to us, so we cannot be justified in lying to others. Also, successfully telling lies relies on the notion that most of the time people are telling the truth, meaning lies can be disguised as truth-claims. Yet if lying became the norm, then the very act of lying would be undermined. It would be logically impossible to successfully tell a lie because we would have no reason to think people are ever telling the truth. We would just assume they are lying (which they would be). Thus, Kant concedes that lying is illogical, wrong and never justified.

However in practical terms this would mean that, according to Kant’s logic, Germans hiding Jews from Nazis during the Second World War would be morally wrong to lie if asked, “Are you hiding Jews?” Yet for all one would commend the intent to never lie, one cannot help feel that answering “Yes!” to the Nazis in this situation would be morally dubious.

In the end, Legalism creates logical problems. When one is tied to the notion that value is inherent in an act, one cannot justify using a ‘Bad’ means to achieve a ‘Good’ end. If the means is deemed inherently wrong then no matter how good the end is, one cannot ever be justified in doing it. If we do then we arrive at the absurdist notion that we have committed the ‘lesser of two evils’, or in this instance maybe ‘told a white lie’. This is legalism entangling itself up. Either an act is wrong and should never be done, or an act is not wrong and can sometimes be done. We cannot say something is inherently wrong and should never be done, but then in some instances justify doing it.

“Love could justify anything. There is no justification other than love’s expedients.” (Joseph Fletcher)

The Four Factors

Situation Ethics has much in common with Utilitarianism, the most basic comparison being that they justify a means (act) in light of the positive end it achieves. In the case of Utilitarianism, it is the maximisation of pleasure (or happiness) which makes an act Good (or not). In the case of Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, it is the promotion of Love:

“There is only one end, one goal, one purpose which is not relative and contingent, always an end in itself. Love.” (Joseph Fletcher)

In Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism, he introduced a calculus as a means to examine situations in order to act appropriately. Although Fletcher does not propose using a calculus, he does consider the following four questions vital in determining the best course of action in any situation:

  1. What is the end being sought?
  2. By what means can this be achieved?
  3. What is the motive behind the act?
  4. What are the foreseeable consequences of the action?

“Legalism often takes the position that to be wrong an action need be at fault on only one of these four scores, whereas in order to be right it must be right on all four.” (Joseph Fletcher)

The important point to note here is that for Fletcher both the means and the end are contingent and relative. There are no absolutes. No act has any intrinsic value attached to it. We are to address each situation uniquely and on its own terms. The right thing to do in one situation does not justify us making a rule or law to be applied everywhere (this is Legalism). The right thing to do in one situation may be the wrong thing to do in another. Likewise, the wrong thing to do in one situation may be the right thing to do in another.

“There is only one end, one goal, one purpose which is not relative and contingent, always an end in itself. Love.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Critics of Situation Ethics are quick to point out the slippery-slope argument associated with this way of thinking: What if everyone did this? For example, in justifying euthanasia in one situation the Legalist might suggest this will lead people to kill elderly relatives when they are being inconvenienced by their failing health, or what’s the point of keeping them alive any longer and waste vital medical resources?

As persuasive as this might be, the slippery-slope argument is actually grounded on the notion that in order for an act to be moral, it must be universally applicable (a form of Kant’s Categorical Imperative). But how reasonable is this claim? For one, every act given the right context is capable of inflicting harm on others. Also, the fact that there will always be some who ‘abuse the system’ does not mean the system is bad, or that decision-making should be limited (“Abuse does not bar use”). However the truly problematic nature of universals is that they basically overlook the varieties of human life, and this is something Situation Ethics keeps at the heart of the moral question.

The cry of, “What if everyone did this?” is not a valid counter-argument, but simply a way of letting the law remain in control.

Hallowing the Means

Some final thoughts…

“However you decide your choices, the end justifies the means… the only self-validating end in the Christian situation ethic is love.” (Joseph Fletcher)

“We may always do what would be evil in some contexts if in this circumstance love gains the balance. It is love’s business to calculate the gains and losses, and to act for the sake of its success.” (Joseph Fletcher)

“We have to refuse to admit doing a preponderantly good deed just because the necessary means happens to be evil “generally” or because it entails some evil. For us, whether it is good or evil, right or wrong, is not in the deed but by its circumstances.” (Joseph Fletcher)


* “The idea that "the ends justify the means" admits that there is something inherently wrong with "the means". Indeed, it admits that "the means" are actually unjustified by themselves. The claim, then, is that although "the means" are unjustifiable in themselves, that a particular outcome that is achieved by them results in the justification of the unjustified. Christianity certainly does not have any basis for this idea, and it doesn't need any. I know of a particular religion that believes it's alright for its followers to lie in a conversation with someone of another religion if lying helps them win the argument. Christianity, however, does not need to do this, because Christianity believes that truth is on its side. That's a key point, because Truth invites questioning, whereas lies and falsehoods do not.” (Is “the ends justify the means” compatible with Christianity?. Web. July 25, 2015.

**Although Fletcher claims Christian ethics has largely rejected the notion of the end justifying the means, this is not entirely true. For the aim (end) of most Christians has been first and foremost to glorify God in their lives. So these people only do those things they believe will please God (such as following God’s commandments). However, on a lesser scale yes; Christian morality has tended towards rejecting moral tenets such as ‘working to increase pleasurable outcomes in the world’ for example, as these are largely deemed to be putting human interests before God’s.