Anthology Extract Commentary : Edexcel Paper 2 Extract 1: Ethics in a Permissive Society, by William Barclay (Collins 1971) Chapter 4, Situation Ethics, pp.69–91.

NOTE: Copyright issues may come into play at this point. So what you will find below are brief quotations from the extract followed by comments on them

The full extract can be found HERE.

See also HERE and HERE for course notes on Situation Ethics.

This is another example of a curious and questionable choice of passage made by whoever was responsible for putting the syllabus together. Why not use a section from Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: the New Morality as the prose both is clear and accessible?

Additionally, as we shall see, Barclay is a poor critic of Fletcher’s system. He both caricatures it and gets things wrong. Thirdly, the nature of the examination entails that ‘Clarify’ questions require the student to explain what is going on in the passage quoted, leaving no scope for an evaluation of Barclay’s own critique.

Nevertheless, an evaluation of Barclay is provided below as it may prove to be useful when it comes to the 20 mark ‘Analyse’ question that supplements ‘Clarify’ questions e.g. if a question comes up like ‘Analyse the weaknesses of Situation Ethics’, Barclay’s critique is obviously relevant but there would also be some scope for a discussion of whether his criticisms are themselves valid.

NOTE: as much of what follows is evaluative, it won’t be of much use for a ‘Clarify’ type question. However, a simple familiarity with Fletcher’s system should be sufficient for that as the candidate will probably be required to explain Barclay’s explanation of Situation Ethics.

“Fletcher’s basic principle is that there is nothing which is universally right or universally wrong; there is nothing which is intrinsically good or intrinsically


What Barclay states in the second paragraph of the extract is simply false. Fletcher actually wrote, ‘Only love is objectively valid. only love is universal.’ Oddly, Barclay seems to acknowledge this a little further along when he writes, ‘Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely love.’ But he can’t have it both ways. Either love is intrinsically good or it isn’t. So Barclay’s initial remarks are contradictory and confused.

First, we can begin with something which is a criticism not so much of situation ethics as it is of Fletcher’s presentation of it. The trouble is that by far the greater number of Fletcher’s illustrations are drawn from the abnormal, the unusual and the extraordinary. I am not very likely to be confronted with an Arab blood feud or a war situation in Eastern Germany.


Again, this statement is false. The majority of the examples cited by Fletcher in Situation Ethics: the New Morality are not unusual or extraordinary, and include discussions of cohabitation (living together), pre-marital sex, lying, adultery, teenage pregnancy, lending money, pregnancy resulting from rape, whether to continue with a pregnancy if the child is likely to be severely disabled, how to deal with parental opposition to marriage, and the breaking of unjust laws (in this instance to do with racial segregation).

“Second – and this is a much more serious matter – situation ethics presents us with a terrifying degree of freedom. There we are in front of our situation; we have no prefabricated judgment; you – just you – have to make the right decision. Brunner has said that there is nowhere you can go – not even to the Sermon on the Mount and say: ‘Now I know what to do.’ There is no such thing as a readymade decision. Of course, we know the things that experience has discovered and teaches, but we are left alone in complete freedom to apply them. Fletcher is quite right when he says that basically men do not want freedom.”


Barclay is basically saying here that Situation Ethics allows people too much freedom when it comes to moral-decision making and puts too much of an onus on them to do so. He claims that many people might prefer to be told what to do or which rules to follow (e.g. by following Biblical teachings) because they find this level of freedom scary.

Barclay is – without perhaps realising it – detecting the influence of Kant on Fletcher. Kant too leaves it up to the individual to think their way through a moral decision from start to finish and is confident that they can do so because the individual is an essentially rational creature. The mention of the Sermon on the Mount is also significant because it demonstrates that there are other ethical teachings in the Bible that provide guidance quite apart from that of love. For example, the Sermon contains teachings about lust and divorce.

However, Barclay seems to overlook the fact that a Christian might also assent to following rules and laws because they have thought about them in the context of Situation Ethics and decided that they should be observed in a specific situation.

The situationists have a kind of phobia of law, but the lesson of experience is that we need a certain amount of law, being the kind of people we


Again, this is caricature. Situation Ethics is a middle way between legalism and antinomianism. There is no indication that this approach is ‘phobic’ when it comes to the law. For example, at one point in Situation Ethics: The New Morality, Fletcher expresses his disapproval of Kant’s view that lying to a would-be murderer is morally wrong because this might – under the US legal system in the 1960’s – leave a person who tells the truth to becoming an accessory to murder. What Fletcher’s system provides scope for is the rejection of unjust laws e.g. about racial segregation and abortion (which was not legalised in the US until 1973.

“I think that there are things which can in no circumstances be right, To take but two examples, to start a young person in the name of experience on the
experiments which can lead to drug addiction can never be right. To break up a family relationship in the name of so-called love can never be right. “


It is is simply not the case that experimentation with drugs leads inevitably to addiction. Consider the following (taken from Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things) :

“ Eating ice cream will cause you to put on weight. Putting on weight will make you fat. Soon you will weigh 350 pounds. Then you will die of heart disease. Eating ice cream leads to death.”

To be fair to Barclay, he does not claim that drug experimentation inevitably leads to addiction. However, a slippery slope-type argument seems to be hovering in the background. Shermer’s example demonstrates the flaw in such arguments, namely, that the causal chain envisaged is not, as has already been indicated, inexorably deterministic in character.

Barclay’s second example is also dubious. For example, ostracising a family member who has become violent, abusive or addicted to alcohol, heroin or gambling may be both necessary and loving to protect other family members from the consequences.

“Fourth, the situationist is liable to forget two things.
(a) He is liable to forget what psychological aids can do for abnormal conditions. Fletcher took instances of cures being effected by what the Christian
would simply regard as committing adultery. He cites the instance of the man who was a danger to small girls being cured by intercourse with a mature woman. It is to be noted that such an action would by no means guarantee a cure for a man in such a condition anyway. He quotes the play The Rainmaker, in which the Rainmaker deliberately seduces the farmer’s daughter to save her, as he claimed, from being ‘spinsterised’. This completely leaves out of account the very real possibility of sublimation… There is many an unmarried woman who is very, very far from being a ‘frustrated spinster’ because she has found fullness of life in some other outlet. There is many a man who has had to do without marriage and who has sublimated his sex drive into other achievements and other service…There are cures and compensations for abnormal conditions which do not involve breaking what we have learned to call the moral law – and in point of fact these cures are far more effective.”


Here, Barclay is criticising Fletcher’s view that sex outside marriage is morally acceptable in some circumstances. ‘Sublimation’ is a term derived from Freudian psychoanalytic theory and entails channelling the sex drive or libido into some other form of activity that is typically socially useful e.g. a celibate Catholic priest might devote long hours to their vocation.

Fletcher also seems to be proposing a naive ‘cure’ for paedophilia that Barclay is surely correct to criticise.

“Fletcher writes: ‘Nothing we do is truly moral unless we are free to do otherwise. We must be free to decide what to do before any of our actions even
begin to be moral. No discipline but self-discipline has any moral significance. This applies to sex, politics or anything else. A moral act is a free act, done because we want to … Morality is meaningless apart from freedom’ (J. Fletcher, Moral Responsibility, p. 136).
On the face of it, this is true. But – and it is a very big but – who of us is, in fact, free? Our heredity, our environment, our upbringing, the traditions we have
inherited, our temperament, the cumulative effect of our previous decisions all have an effect upon us. Again it is of the first importance that freedom does not only mean that a man is free to do a thing; it must also mean that he is free not to do it– and that is exactly where our past comes in. Most of us have made ourselves such that we are not free. The whole trouble about freedom is that for many of us it is an illusion.”


This is a very strange argument for Barclay to be making as an overwhelming majority of Christians believe that God gave them free-will, otherwise how could they be judged at the end of their lives?

“We have seen that the common, one might say the orthodox, view is that the law has nothing to do with private morals, but only with public morality. Not
everyone agrees with that. So prominent a jurist as Lord Devlin did not agree with the Wolfenden Report. He said that it was wrong to talk of ‘private morality’ at all. He holds that ‘the suppression of vice is as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities

“But suppose we do accept the Christian ethic as it is in the teaching of Jesus; suppose we accept it ourselves and suppose that we are convinced that it is the
best prescription for the life of society. Are we then quite happy if the law progressively makes what we think wrong easier? Are we quite happy about the
legalising of consenting homosexuality? Are we quite happy about the easing of divorce regulations? …. The trouble is that once a thing is not forbidden, it
may be felt not only to be permitted but to be encouraged. “


Before 1967 it was not possible in England for two men to engage in sexual relations in the privacy of their own home to engage in sexual activity without a very real risk of imprisonment (note that the illegality of such actions was focused on male sexual activity). The struggle to change the law was long and hard and fought against a backdrop of profound public ignorance. For example, a Gallup Poll of the 1960’s indicated that 93% of the population considered homosexuality to be a disease, one that was commonly assumed to be contagious.

Surprisingly, back in the 1950’s, one of the first voices to support the decriminalization of homosexuality came from the Church of England, when the Church’s Moral Welfare Council published a pamphlet called The Problem of Homosexuality: an interim report proposing that homosexual behaviour should no longer be regarded as criminal and pointing out that ‘the homosexual is capable of a virtuous love as clean and as decent and as beautiful as one who is normally sexed.’

Eventually, the Home Secretary Lord Montagu set up a Departmental Committee under the chairmanship of Sir John Wolfenden to review the existing law. The Wolfenden Committee took three years to complete its work (1954 to 1957) but as its recommendations were not enacted for a further ten years, it may be regarded as belonging the the spirit of other reforms (e.g. the legalization of abortion) that also took place towards the end of the 1960’s.

The first section of the Wolfenden Report looked at female prostitution and the second part dealt with homosexuality. Having found no evidence that homosexual conduct led to the degeneracy of nation, the report declared that personal behaviour in matters of sexuality were a matter of private concern and not the business of the law. Thus, all homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should no longer remain an offence under the law.

Although well-received by the Press, the Conservative government of the day took the view that the country was simply not ready to accept the proposals and it took gradual pressure from both within and outside Parliament (most notably from an organisation called the Homosexual Law Reform Society) for the law to be eventually be changed via the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.

So it is against this backdrop that Barclay’s brief comment (that tacitly sympathises with that of Lord Devlin) should be understood. Of course, if Devlin was correct that the law should concern itself with private morality, then it could imply that adulterous acts should also be criminalized, which seems rather absurd.

Note that Jesus says precisely nothing about homosexuality in the Bible, though how much can be read into a silence or omission is debatable. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the publication of the Wolfenden Report was supportive of its proposal to make consenting homosexual conduct legal. And in the link below to some wide-ranging notes on sexual ethics there is a summary of John Boswell’s historical study of Christianity and homosexuality. Boswell demonstrated that there was a surprising level of tolerance for such conduct up until the 12th Century, so it is highly pertinent, especially because the author’s scholarship does not receive a mention in any of the current A Level textbooks for any examination board. This is neglectful because both of Boswell’s books on this issue received much attention when they were published.

There is one last point to be made (apart from noting that a slippery slope argument is deployed again by Barclay here so Shermer’s above critique applies again): the views of Devlin and Barclay may seem dated but it is worth remembering that the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were broadly in harmony with reforming attitudes even back then. See HERE for a more detailed summary of their views.