Monday, February 8, 2016

Three Critical Responses to Fletcher's Situation Ethics (1/3)

The following notes are based on an essay by Henlee Barnette in “The Situation Ethics Debate, edited by Harvey Cox”, which is a review of literature generated around the publication of “Situation Ethics” by Joseph Fletcher.

Henlee H. Barnette - "The New Ethics: 'Love Alone'"

Henlee Barnette analysed the strengths and shortcomings of situation ethics in the following manner:


  • Situation ethics is right to focus on love, as this is a central motif in Christianity and the New Testament.

  • Christian morality cannot and should not be reduced to a set rules, which try to be applicable to all.

"Jesus laid down no rules for Christian conduct... Rather, he presented illustrations and principles of the Christian style of life.”

  • Placing people rather than principles at the forefront of morality has genuine merit.

"The Christian way of meeting the spiritual needs of men is to be redemptive, and this means to treat them as persons.”

  • Fletcher's work has opened up an important avenue of debate in modern Christian ethics, and for this reason alone it cannot be ignored.


  • There is an assumption that people innately know what “Good” is, or in Fletcher's case, there is an assumption that people know what it means to serve love’s interests.

  • What is ‘Love’? Fletcher seems to use it as a catchall term for all manner of things such as, “the intrinsically good, justice, principle, disposition, ruling norm, etc.” Love is made the priority, but never given any content.

"There is ambiguity with reference to the use… of the terms "situation" and "love." One is never certain what [Situationists] mean by these terms.” [Brackets mine]

  • In Christianity love goes beyond the law, but does not replace it. Keeping the commandments, for example, is actually a demonstration of love towards one’s neighbour.

“The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)

  • Fletcher equates moral law with ecclesiastical law. The fact that Jesus put aside religious laws for the sake of acting appropriately in a situation (Luke 6:1-11), does not mean all moral laws (religious and civil) should be set aside when one deems it fit to do so.

  • Fletcher is a Utilitarian, but in this case agape replaces pleasure (maximising love). Therefore his Situation Ethics falls foul of the same criticisms leveled against Utilitarianism.

  • As a Christian ethic Fletcher’s Situation Ethics lacks theological depth:

“Noticeably absent… is any is any serious concern for repentance, judgement, human nature and redemption.”

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Situation Ethics (Part 9): The Sixth Proposition - Love Decides There and Then

“The Sixth Proposition: Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Wanted: A System

“Too many people at heart long for an ethical system of prefabricated, pretailored morality.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Fletcher believes most Christians like to “walow or cower” in the security of the (religious) Law. They are afraid to trust their ability make independently right decisions; often seen as a painful and threatening step to take were they to do this. A lot of this hesitance may be attributed to the belief that the Fall of humanity and the collapse of the moral and natural world order were a direct result of humans choosing to assert their own will, as opposed to living a life of simple and unquestioning obedience to God’s decrees (see Genesis 3). Therefore, Situationism faces the challenge that humans have a corrupted will and are primarily selfish and self-serving, rather than God and love-seeking.

Fletcher would obviously reject any notion of the innate corruption of humanity, arguing instead that a person is capable of living free from the Law and is primarily a person of good intent. Yet in saying this he does accept that freedom comes with a price. Living free from the Law is risky and mistakes will be made. As Luther says, we “sin bravely’, but for Fletcher a life of moral adventure far outweighs one lived under Law. Of course, the objection Fletcher faces is that if a Divinely revealed moral Law offers a better chance of living well and lessens the possibility of making serious moral mistakes, then why not live according to this than our own ‘best guesses’?

The Gray Area

The penumbra: An area between darkness and light. For Fletcher, so many of life’s ethical decision fall into a ‘gray area’ where there are no clear answers. There is no certainty. We cannot rely on the past (revelation/tradition) or the future (reward/punishment) to tell us what to do, but must make the best decision in the present; the here and now.

“This is where the call to sin bravely is sharpest.” (Joseph Fletcher)

The “method” of Situation Ethics is to make the best (or most loving) decision in the context of a situation. Is leaving a man to die on a mountain a loving thing to do? Most certainly not. Furthermore, if the Law dictates that we it is wrong to “kill” someone, then leaving them is wrong and we should do all we can to save them. But if in the context of the situation we determine that a rescue attempt would jeopardise the lives of others in the party, then for the Situationist the “right” decision would be to leave them. We have not killed anyone, nor have we compromised a religious law. We have simply made the best and most appropriate decision in the moment, and that is all.

“Petty moralism is forced to come of age and to face the complicated facts of life.” (Joseph Fletcher)

The End of Ideology

“It is often and acutely described as the leap from Sunday to Monday” (Joseph Fletcher)

Trying to adhere to petty and rigid moral laws, which do not fit the facts of life, is the cause of much conflict of conscience in persons. However Legalists and Ideologists are “terrible simplifiers”. The realities of life continually demonstrate that prescribed solutions are simply not practical, or even attainable. Telling a ‘white lie’ for example is evidence that the Moral Law cannot operate according to absolutes, and that sometimes a situation requires a compromise to be made.

“For real decision-making, freedom is required, an open-ended approach to situations.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Fanatic Virtue

“Fanatic love of virtue has done more damage to men and society than all the vices put together.” (Raymond Bruckberger)

True ethics is not undertaken in abstraction, but in the context of situations. Attempting to impose a pre-prescribed morality will lead to great harm being done, whereas if our intent is to do the most loving things then it follows that our actions will always be loving.

“By faith we live in the past, by hope we live in the future, but by love we live in the present.” (Joseph Fletcher)

Legalism is wrong because it attempts to push love back into the past. It tries to impose a morality based on what has already been done, rather what should be done in the present. Loving in the present means we must consider the full range of means, motives and consequences when deciding how to act.

“Every moral action should have in view a concrete living person and not the abstract good.” (Nicolas Berdyaev)

When Rights are Bought

Although the path of love is relative, the commitment to act in love is absolute. Our actions are always contextual. However our actions also have consequences; we do not live life in a vacuum. For example, the right to say what we want (freedom of speech) maybe be held as a legal tenet, but our right to freely speak our mind is often determined by who gets hurt, and how much as a result. Where the Situationist loves the Law it is only because in that instance the Law serves the interests of love, and that is all.