Situation Ethics Course Notes for Edexcel students

From the Edexcel syllabus:

(a) The ‘new morality’ of the mid-20th century: social, political and cultural influences on the development of Situation Ethics, concepts of agape and situationalism in ethics, the application of the theory to specific case studies, biblical examples of situationist thinking, such as illustrated in the ministry of Jesus.

 b) Strengths and weaknesses of the theory and its developments, appropriateness of its continuing application and use, assessment of relevant examples, change in the law and social attitudes vis a vis the theory, compatibility or otherwise with religious approaches.

With reference to the ideas of J A T Robinson and J Fletcher

NOTE 1: there isn’t a great deal of information to be had about Bishop John Robinson in the present A level sources and a minimal amount of information is probably sufficient. During the 1960’s, Robinson was thinking along similar lines to Fletcher and was broadly supportive of the notion of upholding love as the highest Biblically grounded ethical principle. He wrote : “Assertions about God are in the last analysis assertions about love” and that Situation Ethics was for ‘man come of age’, probably because it was better suited to a less rigid post-war climate of greater moral tolerance and flexibility.

NOTE 2: Fletcher’s view that abortion may be morally acceptable in some circumstances may have influenced the debate over abortion in the USA, leading to its eventual legalisation in 1973.

Situation Ethics is a controversial and liberal ethical theory that was most fully developed in the writing of a US Christian priest called Joseph Fletcher in the 1960’s in his book Situation EthicsThe New Morality. Fletcher’s formula for ethical decision-making can be stated very bluntly and crudely: ‘Do the most loving thing’. But as we shall see, things are rarely that simple in ethics, and situation ethics is no exception.

In the book, Fletcher begins by trying to find a middle way between what he calls ‘legalism’ and ‘antinomianism’ in ethical decision making.


Legalism or a legalistic approach to morals, is the view that there are absolute ethical principles or rules that must always be followed, regardless of the circumstances. These rules or principles are:

  • Described in the Bible e.g. the 10 Commandments.
  • Arrived at through a process of careful reasoning e.g. see Kant’s ethical system or watch how Mr Spock from Star Trek deploys what he imagines to be infallible logic to go about things.
  • Thought to be consistent with the way that nature has been created by God, according to the Natural Law theory of Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theologians. In Natural Law theory, we have all been created with the ability to reason by God because we are made in God’s ‘image’ according to the book of Genesis. And in addition to providing moral guidance through commandments found in the Bible, God has given us clues about how He wants us to behave morally in the way that He has designed and ordered the created world and especially ourselves. For example, our genitalia seem to have been designed for the purpose of procreation. Which means that heterosexual sex that includes the possibility of a pregnancy resulting from it is ‘natural’, while the use of artificial forms of contraception such as the condom and pill to prevent this is ‘unnatural’, as is homosexual activity. Natural Law theory is a theory of ethical decision making that has strongly influenced Catholic thinking on ethical issues.
  • Or considered to be true within a particular denomination of Christianity e.g. in Catholicism, abortion is almost always considered to be sinful.
  • Or simply part of the law of the land, so you could get cautioned, arrested or fined if you break this kind of law.

For Fletcher, legalism in these forms can, in some circumstances, be dangerous and wrong, and he uses different examples and arguments to show this in his book. Here are some of the key points he makes:

  1. Legalism has got things back to front. It prefers to ‘fit reality to rules rather than to fit rules to reality’.
  2. For example, Kant tried to make the reality (someone faced with a would-be murderer) fit with his rule that telling a lie is always wrong. Fletcher comments that this is wrong because if you did tell the truth in that kind of situation, then you might end up being an accessory to murder. He also criticises Kant’s rule about lying in other ways, for example when it clashes with a promise you have made to someone to keep a secret, or when you might have to lie to keep a schizophrenic calm.
  3. Fletcher also argues that a situationist (someone who believes in situation ethics) would be right to oppose unjust laws because they would be following a higher law or principle of love in doing so.
  4. Fletcher also criticises Natural Law theory on the grounds that there is no agreement about what these laws are that are meant to be worked out by looking at how the natural world works. He also shows that natural law theory can lead to wrong moral decisions, citing the example of a decision made by the US Supreme Court in 1954 which upheld the right of a city to racially segregate its golf course on the natural law grounds that birds of different kinds do not alight on the same branches of a tree.
  5. Fletcher cautions against turning the Bible into a rule book in which the laws are always meant to apply regardless of the circumstances.
  6. He argues that Jesus himself was a situationist who was ready to set aside Jewish laws about doing work on the Sabbath, as shown in the following passage from Mark Chapter 2:

“And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.24 And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? 25 And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungered, he, and they that were with him? 26 How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? 27 And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”

Having said all this, Fletcher does not argue that a legalist approach to moral decision-making is always wrong. The moral laws and principles that are part of someone’s culture can be taken into account and even followed if they lead to a loving outcome.


Fletcher thought that an antinomian approach to morals was the complete opposite of legalism. Antinomians either ignore or reject any guidance that established ethical principles or rules may have to offer about ethical decisions. In Situation Ethics, Fletcher mentions three examples of antinomianism.

1 Corinthians 6

1 Corinthians is actually a letter written by St Paul, an early Christian convert, to a Christian community in Corinth , who he criticised because they believed that their faith in Christ meant that they were already saved, and that ethical rules no longer applied to them. ‘Whoring, incest, drunkenness, and the like are what they did, therefore.’


Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge, and this early Christian sect believed themselves to be in possession of a special, intuitive knowledge of the meaning of Jesus’ teachings which meant that they would automatically know what the right thing to do would be. In other words, they would just know what to do when they needed to know.

Fletcher thought that this made their moral decisions dangerously ‘random, unpredictable’ and ‘erratic’. He also approved of St Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthians. This is because he believed that doing the most loving thing in any given situation should involve the use of reason. It must involve an attempt to things thing through, even to the extent of being ‘calculating’ in the manner of an act utilitarian using the hedonic calculus to reach a moral decision. Neither the Corinthians not the Gnostics were acting in this way.


Existentialism is a philosophical movement that can be traced back to the mid-19th Century which broadly maintains that the starting point of all philosophical thinking must be the experiences of the individual. There are basically two types of existentialism, theistic existentialism (associated mainly with the writings of Soren Kierkegaard), and atheistic existentialism, which is linked particularly with the philosophical writings, novels, plays and essays of a trio of French authors: Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as the thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Sartre, argued that in a Godless universe life has no definite pattern and human beings have no obvious purpose. Therefore, there can be no fixed moral rules that can be imposed on us from the outside. Instead, everyone must recognise their freedom and responsibility to create their own purpose in life and to make their own moral decisions. Sartre’s philosophy is one that he shared this with his partner, Simone de Beauvoir, whose own books have also become very popular and helped to inspire the feminist movement. She gave existentialism a distinctive twist by claiming that women are not born women but become women. By this she meant that women tended to accept male conceptions of what a woman is. But to be what men expect you to be is a choice. Instead, women, being free, can make up their own minds about who and what they aspire to be.

At the time Situation Ethics was published, existentialism was still very popular. So what did Joseph Fletcher make of this style of antinomianism?

Situation Ethics and Existentialism

First of all, critics of situation ethics seem to have either confused it with or lumped it into the same category as existential ethics. For example, in 1952 Pope Pius XII made the terms ‘existential’ and ‘situational’ synonymous in one of his writings and warned that such an ethic might be used to justify birth control. Four years later, discussion of situation ethics was banned from all Catholic academies and seminaries. A similar confusion of situation ethics and existential ethics appeared in Protestant and Anglican writings as well. Fletcher himself claimed that this was because situation ethics was mistakenly taken to be antinomian by these groups.

That these two types of ethic were being conflated may also be due to the fact that that there are quite a few similarities between atheistic existentialism and situation ethics. Of course, at the time he wrote his book, Fletcher was a priest and a believer in God (he eventually lost his faith). So he was never going to accept Sartre’s atheism.

But Fletcher did believe that faith was a matter of will or choice. People do not, in Fletcher’s opinion, arrive at belief in God as a result of a rational process. They do not, for example, study the arguments for the existence of God that philosophers have come up with and decide to agree with them. Instead, their faith arises from a deeply held conviction that God exists. So they start with a choice or decision that God really exists and then use reason to work out what faith in God means, and how it should affect their behaviour towards others. This is what is known as theological positivism. More will be said about this further on in this section. But for the moment, one could see faith as resulting from an existential decision to exert one’s ability to choose.

As an atheist, Sartre refused to admit to the possibility of there being any generally valid ethical principles, beliefs or values. Instead, he wrote that in every moment of moral choice or decision, ‘we have no excuses behind us and no justification before us.’ In effect, he is saying ‘you’re on your own mate’ as far as our ethical decisions are concerned. This is because, for existentialists, reality is incoherent. It doesn’t make sense because there is no meaning giver, no God to make sense of it. Contrastingly, the situationist believes that there is a God, that God is love, and that God has supplied us with a role model of how to live in a loving way through the example and teachings of Jesus. It is these beliefs that make reality coherent in a way that it never could be for an atheistic existentialist.

Nevertheless, Fletcher agrees up to a point with the existential rejection of the possibility of there being absolute moral norms and values. Legalistic rules and ideas can guide our actions but only if they make sense in the situation we find ourselves in. They should not be applied inflexibly. He also argues that people sometimes prefer to follow rules instead of thinking for themselves, and that this is a childish way of doing ethics. Like the existentialist, we should not avoid our responsibility to step up to the plate and think things through when we have an important moral choice to make. Instead of hiding behind rules or trying to make ourselves feel safe by appealing to them, we should realize that ‘decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.’ This is probably why Situation Ethics: The New Morality ends with Fletcher describing four ethical dilemmas without suggesting how they should be resolved. It is up to the reader to do this themselves, using the tools Fletcher has provided them with.

Fletcher’s language in the above quote is highly existential, and he is also keen to emphasise that for this reason ‘the situationist is always vulnerable to error in any decision-making situation’. In other words, situation ethics will not provide the person who decides to put it into practice with a method that will help them to make clear-cut decisions. It will not take away uncertainty. Here again, there are echoes of the existential ‘anguish’ that freedom and responsibility bring.

So although Situation Ethics is not antinomian as it does involve a process of having to work out what someone should do rather than not to think at all, or not to think that one even has a duty to think (like the Gnostics and Corinthians), it is not a precise mechanism for guaranteeing that the decision that will eventually be made will be the right one.

The movie Grosse Pointe Blank is an amusing exploration of existential ideas. The plot revolves around a character (Martin Blank) who becomes an assassin after leaving high school but is starting to be plagued by qualms about his chosen profession and the girl he stood up at the prom. But as a ‘blank slate’ according to existentialist philosophy, he is free to re-invent himself at any point. And the movie runs with that idea. For someone in search of an intelligent rom-com, Grosse Pointe Blank is the perfect antidote to dross like Love Actually.

Love in Situation Ethics

According to Fletcher, ‘the situationist holds that whatever is the most loving thing in the situation is the right and good thing’. Elsewhere, he wrote that love is the only norm or principle or law that followers of situation ethics have to stick to.  But what did he mean by this?

First of all, Fletcher is keen to distinguish his idea of love from friendship love (philia), romantic love (eros) and familial love (storge). All of these types of love are limited in scope and have an emotional basis to them, whereas Fletcher’s notion of love is represented by the term agape, which in the New Testament is the word used to describe selfless concern for others, whoever they might be. This type of Christian love ‘is will, disposition; it is an attitude, not [a] feeling’. In other words, it is similar to Kant’s concept of ‘good will’, which describes actions done out of a sense of duty for their own sake. For Fletcher then, agape ‘is goodwill at work in partnership with reason’,which in turn means that reason has to be used to work out the most loving thing to do in any situation.

Not surprisingly, Fletcher is defining agape according to the way this word was used in the Bible. In particular, he emphasises Jesus’ teaching about loving ‘neighbours’ and ‘enemies’ (e.g. Mark 12v33, Matthew 5v43-44), which in turn was adopted by St Paul in Galatians 5v14 (‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’) which is also echoed in Romans 13v8 (‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another’). He also quotes approvingly, the fifth century Christian philosopher and theologian St Augustine, who himself reduced the whole Christian ethic to the formula ‘Love with care, and then do what you will.’

As we have seen, Fletcher is critical of legalistic approaches to ethical decision-making and yet here seems to be upholding agape as a kind of law of love.

Primarily then, agape involves love of neighbours and enemies. In other words, it is not limited to people we like or approve of, but is all-inclusive. Fletcher thinks that this is possible because, while we may not be able to command ourselves to like another person in an emotional sense where we feel some kind of warmth towards them, we can still will ourselves to behave towards people like this in a caring, agapeic way for the sake of the God we believe in. From this it follows that while the opposite of ordinary love is hatred, the opposite of agape is indifference i.e. not caring about the well-being of others.

 At one point, Fletcher gives a controversial example of just what all this might mean, writing that ‘if the choice is between [saving] your father and a medical genius who has discovered a cure for a common fatal disease [from a fire], you carry out the genius if you understand agape. This example again shows that agape is not something emotional, as the strong feelings that we have for family members are to be set aside in an extreme situation like this. Instead, agape here involves the cool use of reason in order to direct one’s will towards the achievement of the best outcome in terms of the well-being of others.

Having said this, although love in situation ethics is primarily other-regarding, there is room for self-love in this system of ethical decision making, even though love of self may seem to be opposed to the whole idea of agape. Here though, Fletcher is only thinking of situations where love of neighbour is best served through self-love, such as when a ship’s captain or a safari master or a plane pilot might be better off keeping themselves alive when others are threatened by disaster. In other words, although it is wrong to love ourselves for our own sake, it is right to love ourselves for the sake of our neighbour and our faith in God.

Fletcher is also of the view that situation ethics might appeal to people even if they are not Christians or even non-believers. For example, even the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once commented that ‘what the world needs is Christian love, or compassion’. Having said this, at the time he wrote Situation Ethics: The New Morality Fletcher was still a Christian and had not lost his faith, as he did later on, so we should not be surprised to find him also describe agape as ‘a responsive love’ of gratitude and ‘thanksgiving to God’, in particular for what he has done for human beings through ‘the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ’, as without the doctrine of the incarnation (the teaching that God took human form in Jesus), there is nothing ‘special’ about Christian ethics. Through the example of Jesus we also have a role model who can help us to understand what love of neighbour and enemy involves. Also, since God’s love embraces all human beings, Christians must not be selective about whom they love: their agape must apply to all human beings, not just to family and friends.

Kant and Situation Ethics

We have already seen that Fletcher’s concept of agape seems to owe a lot to the Kantian idea of good will. Agape involves overcoming feelings of dislike and possibly even hatred for others and is more of a willed attitude than anything else. Similarly, Kant also felt that moral decision making should not be guided by feelings but should be directed by the will. In the case of situation ethics, this is because Fletcher thought that human beings could not be commanded to have particular feelings. They cannot be commanded. For example, you cannot usually force yourself to like someone. So agape cannot be related to emotions. Instead, it should be directed by the will in alliance with reason, which again seems a very Kantian way in which to go about things.

All this may therefore make it seem as if situation ethics has a lot in common with Kantian ethics, especially as Fletcher goes on to declare that situationists have a duty to seek the goal of the most love in any situation, and that ‘there is only one end, one goal, one purpose which is not relative and contingent, always an end in itself. Love’.

But Fletcher was actually very critical of Kantian ethics and thought that it was too legalistic and inflexible. For Fletcher, Kantian maxims cannot be successfully universalised to all situations. There need to be exceptions to Kantian duties, making it possibly right to lie in some situations. So, as with Biblical commandments and the laws of state, Kantian principles can help to guide us to the right moral decision but no more than that. And situation ethics is a relativistic moral theory which takes the situation itself as its starting point rather than the rule or law or maxim that may seem to be most relevant to it. It is also a consequentialist and teleological theory which tries to achieve the most loving outcome for all concerned, unlike Kantian ethics which is deontological in outlook. In summary, although situation ethics has more in common with consequentialist than deontological ethics, it can, up to a point, also be understood in terms of the latter.

Utilitarianism and Situation Ethics

Earlier we saw that for Fletcher, putting agape into practice involves the use of reason in conjunction with the will. As a result of this, Fletcher is keen to emphasise that love can be ‘calculating’, and that situation ethics therefore has much in common with utilitarianism in this respect. Indeed, successful moral choices usually require a cool, intelligent, rational assessment of a situation, as well as a loving attitude for the right decision to be made, and it is ‘simplistic’ to argue that love ‘cannot or ought not to calculate’, as agape matures through this very process. For example, it would be simplistic for a doctor, hurrying to the scene of a major accident, involving many people, to stop and help a single injured motorist.

In order to achieve this, situation ethics ‘…takes over from Bentham and Mill, the strategic principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number”….replacing their pleasure principle with agape. In the coalition, the hedonistic calculus becomes the agapeic calculus, the greatest amount of neighbour welfare for the largest number of neighbours possible,’ in which pleasure or happiness is achieved by ‘doing God’s will’. Utilitarians were especially concerned to create a fairer and more just society and for Fletcher, careful calculation gives love the care-fulness it needs. Love therefore does more than take justice into account; it becomes justice.

Although Fletcher does not write specifically about the features of the hedonic calculus (purity, remoteness etc.) being applied to any situation, he does discuss a number of controversial examples of the agapeic calculus in action more generally, including President Truman’s decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the choice made by British intelligence staff in World War Two to let a number of women agents return to Germany to face certain death and arrest, in order to keep secret the fact that a German communication code had been broken. Again , Fletcher emphasises that if love love does not calculate both the immediate and the remote consequences of its decisions, it turns ‘selfish’ and ‘childish’.

The Four Working Principles or Presumptions

In Chapter II of Situation Ethics: The New Morality Fletcher describes four principles or presumptions that will help situationists to make the right moral decisions in each unique situation. These are Pragmatism, Relativism, Positivism and Personalism.


Pragmatism is actually the name of an American philosophical movement represented by the philosophers William James (1842-1910), Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 to 1914) and John Dewey (1859-1952). According to the philosophy of pragmatism, what is ‘true’ in any situation is simply what works, what produces the desired outcome.

For example, suppose someone goes to the doctor suffering from some kind of illness and the doctor is unable to help. Out of desperation the patient then tries something like acupuncture or homeopathy, an alternative approach to healing for which there is no good scientific evidence. Suppose also, that the patient actually gets better. Their symptoms disappear. Are they going to care that there is no solid evidence that the approach they tried really works? I doubt it. But in getting themselves healed they could be said to have taken a pragmatic approach to their own illness. All they cared about was getting well again. And they did. So for them acupuncture or homeopathy turned out to be ‘true’ because it had the desired effect.

Similarly, in situation ethics, whatever is ‘true’ is what is most practical in that situation and leads to the most loving outcome, even when that course of action might lead the person taking it to come into conflict with dogmatic, legalistic teachings. For example, a pragmatic approach when confronted with a would-be murderer demanding to know the location of a person you are hiding would be to lie, which would fly in the face of Kant’s insistence that we should always tell the truth.


In situation ethics people are always commanded to act lovingly, but there are no other binding principles, no absolute rules as to how we should do so, because each situation is different. So even basic ethical principles, such as those condemning theft, or even killing, may sometimes need to be set aside to achieve the most loving outcome. Each person therefore has to make a decision that is relative to the circumstances they find themselves in, and what is right and loving in one situation may not be right in another. Fletcher himself described situation ethics as a form of ‘principled relativism’. What he meant by this is that rules, laws and maxims can help to shed light on a given situation but should not be allowed to always determine what the right decision should be. Meanwhile, the one guiding principle that does matter is agapeic love, which although it is a guiding principle, is flexible enough to deliver very different decisions in similar circumstances, depending on what a responsible assessment of those circumstances might be.


The explanation in bold type below (just the first paragraph) is what you should revise. Here it is:

This is the trickiest of the Four Presumptions and textbooks explain the term rather vaguely and poorly. First of all, think of something that you currently believe but cannot prove. This may be something trivial, like the fact that David Tennant was the best Doctor Who, or it may be something basic to your world view that affects how you think and behave, like the idea that there truly is life after death. Fletcher’s positivism is simply all about affirming the following three beliefs and living your life as if they really were as true as scientific or mathematical facts*: 1) God exists 2) God is love and 3) In our everyday moral decision-making, we should do the most loving thing for everyone affected by our actions. In other words, we positively affirm the truth of these three statements.  In Fletcher’s system this is called theological positivism.

The above paragraph in bold because if you understand it, you will have grasped what positivism is. There may be no time in an examination to say more than this anyway. What follows next, though, is a longer explanation of positivism to help you to see how Fletcher arrived at these conclusions.

Theological positivism is also a close relative of theistic existentialism. Theistic existentialists like Kierkegaard go a bit further than theological positivists because their decision to believe in God (famously known as a ‘leap of faith’) is made even though they find the notion of God’s existence irrational and absurd. For Kierkegaard this was because of the teaching of the Incarnation – the idea that God became man in Jesus. He thought that the idea that an infinite, eternal, unlimited God could become a finite, temporal, limited man absurd. Some scholars interpret him as meaning that the concept of a God-man is a logical contradiction, like the idea of a married bachelor or a four sided triangle. It just doesn’t make sense. Others interpret him as making the milder claim that the idea of Jesus as a God-man is a concept that defies our understanding, and is therefore offensive to reason. Either way, some of this seems to have rubbed off on Joseph Fletcher even though he never writes that belief in God is absurd.

The second aspect of positivism is to do with ethics. Just as it is not possible to prove beyond all doubt that God exists by using reason, the same goes for the idea that we should aim to produce collective pleasure or happiness in our actions (utilitarianism), act out of a sense of duty (Kant), or do the most loving thing (situation ethics).

The reason for this is as follows: ethical statements are neither analytic (verifiable by logical analysis) or empirically verifiable (meaning that we can check to see if they are true or not). It is a feature of analytic statements that they cannot be denied without contradiction. Take, for example, a nice, straightforward analytic statement like ‘all bachelors are unmarried’. It would be nonsense to deny this since bachelors are, by definition, unmarried. You’d also be contradicting yourself if you wrote that ‘a triangle has four sides’. However, there’s no contradiction involved in denying ethical statements. IF you deny that ‘you ought to tell the truth’ or that ‘sex before marriage is wrong’, you may shock some people by doing so but you won’t fall foul of the laws of logic. Therefore, ethical statements are not analytic.

Ethical statements aren’t empirically verifiable (checkable) either. Some kind of survey might reveal to you whether people are, in fact, mainly truthful in their dealings with others. But it will not reveal to you whether they ought to be so. Similarly, we cannot verify the truth of the statement, ‘sex before marriage is wrong’ by examining whether people do or do not have sex before they are married.

In philosophy, the gap which exists between an ‘Is’, a statement of fact, and an ‘Ought’, a statement with moral content, is referred to as the naturalistic fallacy (when writers fall into this trap), and it was the Scottish philosopher David Hume who first drew attention to it.

Fletcher was very much aware of this problem in his writing and actually wrote (in the section of his book on Positivism) that, ‘we simply cannot climb across the gap from descriptive to prescriptive propositions; from “is” statements to “ought statements”’.

 Just as we cannot logically prove or find indisputable evidence that God exists, we cannot put ethics on a firm footing either. There is no logical proof or evidence to show that seeking the most pleasure for everyone is the best way to go about things, as Bentham claimed, nor is it possible to demonstrate beyond all doubt that doing one’s duty is always the right thing to do. So what does this mean as far as agapeic behaviour is concerned. Here, Fletcher argues that we might as well take a ‘leap of faith’ as far as ‘doing the most loving thing’ is concerned and act as if this is true. If we do this, it will not leave us any better or worse off than a utilitarian or a supporter of Kantian ethics. So this is what a theological positivist ends up doing. For them, it is a matter of faith lived as though it were fact that God exists, that God is love, and that doing the most loving thing in any situation is the best way to do ethics. However, once they have decided this, they still use reason to help them to figure out what the most loving thing actually might be in those situations.

There is one last point: Fletcher’s positivism did not even work for him in the longer term as he ended up losing his faith. This is a weakness of his system that may be worth mentioning in an examination. However, it is important to note that it is only the first two of the three beliefs that he held positivistically that he abandoned. It might still be possible  to defend Situation Ethics as the best system of moral decision-making for atheists.


In situation ethics, people not things are what matter, and there are no moral values worth having which do not relate to human needs. Here, situation ethics again has something in common with Kantian ethics, as Kant also argued that people should always be treated as ends, and never merely as means. For Fletcher, things go wrong when people get used or exploited and things are loved more than people. A good example of this might be if someone was faced between saving the Mona Lisa or a human being at the Louvre art gallery in Paris. For Fletcher, saving the painting would be wrong (NOTE: if the choice was between saving a psychopathic terrorist or the painting, many people might start to question Fletcher’s emphasis on personalism, and Kant’s insistence that humans be treated as ends in themselves.

In Christian ethics, the central importance of persons is reinforced by the belief that God is himself is personal (you can pray to Him and have a relationship with him) and has created human beings in His own ‘image’, according to the book of Genesis.

Note that when it comes to environmental ethics, Fletcher would be taking what is known as an anthropocentric perspective. ‘Anthropos’ is the Greek word for humanity. So areas of natural beauty and rainforests are only ethically significant in terms of the pleasure that human beings might derive from having them around. They are not intrinsically significant. And the same goes for the animals that live in them. So they are not as morally significant for Fletcher as they would be for utilitarians.

The Six Fundamental Principles

For the examination you may need to be able to write a paragraph on each of these principles.

In addition to the four working principles or presumptions, Fletcher also devotes a chapter each in his book to what are known as the Six Fundamental Principles. Each of these principles explores an aspect or implication of placing love at the centre of moral decision making.

Love only is always good

‘Love is the only universal. But love is not something we have or are, it is something we do.’ P61

‘Only love is objectively valid’. P64

Explanation: the most important moral principle is love or agape. It is the only principle that is intrinsically good i.e. good in itself. In other words, it does not require us to supply further reasons why it is good.

For a situationist, it is ‘objectively valid’ in a positivistic sense (see the section on positivism above): although we cannot prove that the statement ‘love is always good’ is true in the same way that we might prove other things through logic, or by checking or doing experiments, the Christian faith of a situationist leads them to think of love in this way.

But love is not something abstract. Agape only truly reveals itself through our actions.

Love is the only norm

If love is the most important, ‘objectively valid’ and ‘universal’ moral principle, then it takes priority over all of the other commandments in the Bible, including any or all of the 10 commandments. It is therefore a ‘norm’ in the sense that it is the only moral principle in the Bible that ultimately matters.  Christianity therefore changes morality from a legalistic system of rules into a law of love. The other commandments only need to be followed if, in any particular situation, it also maximises love to do so.

Examples: Jesus’ willingness to break the Sabbath law and Paul’s willingness to eat his food whether it was kosher or not, show that agape matters more than any other Biblical commandment.

Time for an old music video to break this section up a bit.

Love and Justice are the same

Explanation: Justice is about the fair treatment of others in society. For Fletcher, there need be no conflict between love and justice as justice is nothing more than ‘love distributed’. Fletcher is critical of theologians like William Temple who have attempted to separate love and justice (Temple did this by making love about relationships between people and justice about relationships between groups within a society).

Human rights are upheld by making justice the same as love, because this then means that people have a right to anything that is loving, but no right to anything that is unloving.

But love sometimes has to be calculating. Fletcher borrows the method of performing a hedonic calculus from utilitarianism but makes it into an agapeic calculus to achieve a loving way of deciding social policy.

Examples (all of which are controversial): Fletcher uses the famous story of the Anointing at Bethany from Mark 14/Matthew 26 to claim that the disciples were right to criticise Jesus for allowing the woman in the story to use costly ointment to anoint him. Fletcher claims that a more calculating but loving outcome could have been achieved by selling the ointment and giving the money raised to the poor. President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also cited as an example of the agapeic calculus at work. Fletcher goes on to state that a situationist does not have to observe unjust laws e.g. if they promote segregation in the USA and deny black people their civil rights. Finally, in a later section of his book, Fletcher argues that an agapeic calculus would justify saving a medical genius who has discovered a cure from a common fatal disease from a fire, rather than your own father, if a choice had to be made.

Love is not liking

For Christians, ‘love is the business of loving the unlovable, i.e. the unlikeable.’ For this reason, agape (unlike eros- erotic love, storge – love of family and philia – love of friends) does not involve feelings or emotions, as it is not possible to force yourself to like people. For Fletcher, it therefore becomes a willed attitude of benevolence (which is similat to Kant’s notion of ‘good will’). This attitude can be extended to everyone.

Example: love of enemies/neighbours

Love justifies its means

What Fletcher means by this is that it may sometimes be necessary to do things that might be seen as immoral or perhaps even evil to achieve a loving outcome. So the end result justifies the method used to achieve it.

Example: Kant thought that it would be wrong to lie to a would-be murderer to save the victim’s life because he thought that people should always tell the truth in all circumstances. But Fletcher argues that for a situationist, to lie would lead to a better and more loving outcome. To tell the lie would also mean that the person telling it does not end up getting charged as an accessory to murder.

Love decides there and then

‘Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively’ p134

Situation ethics does not try to fit rules to reality as legalists do. Instead it takes into account the particular circumstances surrounding the moral decision that has to be made in each and every case. In some circumstances, following an existing moral rule might still be the most loving thing to do. But not in others.

Example:  Jesus (again controversially). Fletcher points out that he says nothing about the ethics of sex, except adultery and divorce, or about homosexuality, sterilization, artificial insemination, or abortion. He therefore suggests that moral decisions about these issues should be made situationally, and cites with approval the case of a woman who had taken thalidomide (a morning sickness drug) and feared that her baby would be born severely disabled. As the law in her state allowed abortions only when there was a risk to the pregnant woman’s life, she took the law into her own hands and went to Sweden to have an abortion.

Mnemonic for revising the six fundamental principles: ANJLMT.

Love only is Always good, Love is the only Norm, Love and Justice are the same, Love is not Liking, Love justifies its Means, Love decides There and Then.

Strengths of Situation Ethics

  • Easy to understand because it is based on the simple principle of agape : do the most selfless/loving thing
  • Based on concern for others (which is at the heart of many other ethical systems)
  • Allows individuals to work out what is most loving in each situation – flexible/relative and allows a person the freedom to differ from the decisions of others and to depart from legalistic principles if necessary.
  • This flexibility means that it can have something to say about new ethical issues e.g. stem cell research, cloning.
  • Situation Ethics may also appeal to non-Christians and atheists who may still think that it has appeal due to its combination of reason and compassion.
  • For Christians it emphasises what is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus: love of God and neighbour.

Weaknesses of Situation Ethics

  • Love is subjective – people have differing views, so its relativity could be a problem. Just as with conflicts of duty in Kant, if two people disagree about the most loving course of action, then situation ethics may not be helpful.
  • The principle of personalism in situation ethics does not seem to extend to animals and the environment. People not things are the centre of concern.
  • Perhaps some people are unloveable and should forfeit the possibility of even enemy love being extended to them e.g. paedophiles, terrorists.
  • It allows the individual to do anything in the name of love – there are no rules to say that someone has done the wrong thing. This might be dangerous.
  • As agape is not an emotion or feeling, this makes Fletcher’s system as calculating and cold-blooded as utilitarianism and Kantian ethics.
  • For many Christians, other rules and laws in the Bible may be as important as the commandment to love, and to question the binding authority of these rules (as well as the authority of the Pope and Natural Law in Catholic Christianity) is to go too far.
  • What people expect from a moral theory are clear and precise guidelines as to what is right and wrong. But Fletcher’s theory throws us in at the deep end by leaving most of the work up to us, with only the idea of agape and his working principles to point us in the right direction.
  • Situation Ethics is too demanding e.g. an agapeic calculus might require us to rescue someone who has just discovered a cure for a common fatal illness rather than our own father from a fire.
  • Also Fletcher does not adequately explain what an agapeic calculus entails. Does it involve simply substituting ‘love’ for ‘pleasure’ in Bentham’s system? Or is something more involved.
  • There seems to be a tension between Fletcher’s insistence that only love is ‘objectively valid’ and the positivistic line of thinking that this assertion cannot be proved beyond all doubt. However, this same quotation could be deployed to argue that Situation Ethics is not, as has been suggested, itself an antinomian system.

Situation Ethics: examples mentioned by Fletcher

The exam board may want you show how SE works in practice. So this section lists some of the specific examples mentioned by Fletcher in Situation Ethics: The New Morality, together with some advice as to how they might be used in your examination answers. Some have already been mentioned above.

 “A woman in Arizona, having taken thalidomide, feared that her baby would be born with severe  disabilities. So her husband took her to Sweden, where, as ‘love has more control of law”. This shows Fletcher’s opposition to legalism, which he thinks can be too inflexible. The fact that love trumps law here illustrates two of the six fundamental principles: Love only is always good, Love is the only norm.

In Fletcher’s example of a mentally ill girl, raped and made pregnant by a fellow patient in a mental institution, a moral legalist would resist abortion on the grounds that killing is absolutely wrong. The situationist, applying the law of love, would support abortion, even if there was no risk to her life, for the sake of her physical and mental health, and because ‘no unwanted and unintended baby should ever be born.’ Abortion was illegal in the USA at the time Fletcher was writing. This again shows Fletcher’s opposition to rigid legalism and illustrates the first two of the Six Fundamental Principles. But notice that last sentence. Fletcher states that love is the only ‘objective principle’ in his ethical system. But in writing ‘no unwanted and unintended baby should ever be born,’ has he just introduced another one? So you could use this example to criticise Fletcher: all he has done is to replace one example of a legalistic rule that he happens to disagree with, with another.

 “A MrsX was convicted (later cleared in appellate court) of impairing the morals of her minor daughter. She had tried to teach the child chastity but at thirteen the girl bore the first of three unwanted, neglected babies. Her mother then had said, “If you persist in acting this way, at least be sure the boy wears something!” On this evidence she was convicted and sentenced. The combined forces of “secular” law and legalistic puritanism had tried to prevent loving help to the girl, her bastardvictims, and the social agencies trying to help her. Situation ethics would have praised that woman; it would not have pilloried her.” The law in the USA at the time Fletcher was writing outlawed the mother’s behaviour – again this shows Fletcher’s opposition to rigid, legal rules. It could also help to illustrate the presumptions of Pragmatism and Relativism : in this very specific situation, Mrs X’s advice would probably have worked.

“When Kant, the grandfather of modern ethical absolutisers, wrote his essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives, he made it quite clear that in his ethics a lie to a would-be murderer, to save his victims’  life would be wrong. The situationist prefers the ethics of the civil law, in which the failure to tell the necessary lie might very well make one an accessory before the fact of the murder.” Note that the law is being followed here. Legalism is sometimes correct. This example can again be used to show that SE is not itself antinomian, and to illustrate the presumptions of pragmatism and relativism.

What is right in one case, e.g., lending cash to a father who needs it for his hungry family, may be wrong in another case, e.g., lending cash to a father with hungry children when he is known to be a compulsive gambler or alcoholic. This illustrates the fundamental principleLove decides there and then’, pragmatism and relativism.

 A resident physician on emergency, deciding whether to give the hospital’s last unit of blood plasma to a young mother of three or to an old skid row drunk, may suppose he is being forced to make a tragic choice between “disinterested” love and justice…[but] Love must make estimates ;it is preferential. To prefer the mother in that situation is the most loving decision. And therefore it is the most just decision too. This illustrates the principle Love and justice are the same and is an example of an outcome of an agapeic calculus

Jesus breaks the laws of ‘Sabbath observance’ and did ‘forbidden work’ on it. So even the 10 commandments can be broken (any or all of them) if it is the most loving thing to do in a given situation. This is anti-legalistic and shows that love only is always good and that love is the only norm.

President Truman’s decision to drop ‘A’ bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – outcome of an agapeic calculus, Love justifies its means.

Martin Luther King’s opposition to laws about racial segregation – anti-legalistic.

The French resistance resorting to murder, lies theft in their struggle against the Nazis in WW2 – love justifies its means

Depending on the situation, a single woman, unable or unwilling to marry, could be justified in choosing to become a single parent, by natural means or artificial insemination. Relativism

A priest learns at confession that an innocent man is to die for another’s crime. The priest can say nothing because of his vow of secrecy that takes precedence over the life of the innocent man on death row. Fletcher disapproves. Love only is always good, love is the only norm, anti-legalistic.

‘If people do not believe it is wrong to have sex relations outside marriage it isn’t, unless they hurt themselves, their partners or others.’ Is Fletcher going too far here?

young unmarried couple might decide, if they make their decisions Christianly, to have intercourse (e.g., by getting pregnant to force a selfish parent to relent his overbearing resistance to their marriage). But as Christians they would never merely say, “It’s all right if we like each other!” Loving concern can make it all right, but mere liking cannot. Love is not liking.

Note: for an illustration of personalism, an example from animal rights might be used : if only people matter, animals don’t. So there can be no opposition to animal cruelty. Also, as mentioned above, if there was a fire in the Louvre caused by a terrorist, and the choice was to save the terrorist or the painting of the Mona Lisa, SE demands that one should save the terrorist. It is highly likely that not sure everyone would agree with that.