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.”

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