“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)
- Something to do: Take a moment to read the story of David Sharp. What would a Situationist do? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sharp_(mountaineer)
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 love of virtue has done more damage to men and society than all the vices put together.” (Raymond Bruckberger)
- Something to do: Compare the different approaches to moral issues between Extremists and Situationists in the article: Why women are still being stoned to death in 2015 by Zainab Salbi
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.
- Something to do: Discuss Dan Savage’s answer to the following moral issue in the context of Legalism and Situationism (NOTE: Strong language): Savage Love Letter of the Day: Another Sexless Marriage Question. What are the pros and cons of his response?
“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.