Situation Ethics in practice – an overview of the content of Joseph Fletcher’s less well-known book.

This aim of this post is to provide an additional resource for both teachers and students who are studying or revising Situation Ethics and, in particular, the topic of sexual ethics (as four chapters of the above publication are devoted to aspects of it). Additionally, Fletcher discusses the Is-Ought gap, Natural Law, euthanasia, the nature of stewardship, and compares and contrasts his theory with that of Kant.

No attempt will be made to analyse and evaluate the content of this long out-of-print volume. Instead, Fletcher’s theology is presented in a chapter by chapter summary format which hopefully serves as a useful supplement to previous posts on Situation Ethics and the other areas of the syllabus mentioned above.

The book itself is one that is very much worth acquiring.

Chapter 1 – The New Look in Christian Ethics

This chapter introduces the Six Fundamental Principles but describes them as ‘Propositions’. Prior to this, Fletcher makes a Kierkegaardian observation about the Is-Ought gap (summarised HERE), arguing that a ‘leap of faith’ rather than any logical justification is required to bridge the gap between facts and values, especially when it comes to the normative imperative to love thy neighbour (understood here in the plural sense). In other words, all value propositions become faith propositions.

Chapter 2 – Love is the Only Measure

In this chapter, Fletcher is once again at pains to emphasise that his new morality is neither legalistic nor antinomian. Although situationists do take moral principles into account when making moral decisions, they are willing to set them aside if more good can be achieved by doing so.

There is also a four page section on Sexual Ethics. Here are the highlights:

‘In some situations, unmarried love could be infinitely more moral than married unlove.’

‘….Christianly speaking, sex which does not have love as its partner, its senior partner, is wrong. If there is no responsible concern for the other one, for the partner as a subject rather than a mere object, as a person and not a thing, the act is immoral.’

By way of illustration, Fletcher offers as examples of immoral acts, that of a teenage (but not underage) boy who entices a girl into bed in order to appear big in front of his friends, and that of a girl who seduces a boy in order to lure him into marriage. He considers the latter case to be a much more serious sin than fornication, even if it they then marry to make everything legal.

Note that in the USA at the time Fletcher was writing (the book was published in 1967 but the essays that make up the chapters were composed earlier), fornication (sex between people not married to each other) was illegal in many states. Punishments ran from a ten dollar fine in Rhode Island up to five hundred dollars and two years’ imprisonment in Alaska. For homosexuality, the penalties were also variable, ranging from imprisonment for one day (New York), to life imprisonment (Nevada), with many states favouring minimum/maximum jail terms of five years. Meanwhile, in Indiana, solo masturbation was an offence considered to be as serious as sodomy and was subject to punishment on the same terms, and in six states, ‘cohabitation’ (defined as consistent nonmarital intercourse with the same person) was also deemed to be criminal.

Just to update Fletcher, adultery (which he also discusses from a legal perspective) is still a crime in seventeen states, though apparently prosecutions are rare. As of March 2020, the only states in America whose law bans fornication are Idaho and Mississippi, with North Carolina having a slightly more involved but still relevant law stating, “if any man and woman, not being married to each other, shall lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed and cohabit together, they shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanour.”

Anti-sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, but according to THIS site, they are yet to be repealed in 13 states. Conservative state legislators refuse to abolish the laws and, in some cases, police occasionally still arrest people on the basis of them. In the recent past, apparently more than a dozen LGBT people have been arrested for breaching these laws, but the arrestees were subsequently freed because the prosecutors were not prepared to pursue convictions because of the 2003 ruling.

In the next section, Fletcher expresses his opposition to promiscuity on what are recognisably Kantian grounds, in that this form of sexual activity tends towards treating others as objects or things, rather than as ends in themselves. Elsewhere (in Chapter 5) he also draws attention to Paul’s teaching about promiscuity as found in 1 Corinthians 6 verses 15-20.

On the other hand, he notes that even casual sexual encounters may be morally permissible if they are infused with tenderness and caring, especially when contrasted with the loveless exercise of conjugal rights in an unhappy marriage. What matters in a marriage is care, commitment and fidelity, a point which applies just as much to couples who cohabit. He then adds that ‘There is nothing against extramarital sex as such, in this ethic, and in some cases it is good.’

Chapter 3 – Love and Justice Are the Same Thing

This chapter consists of an extended attempt to substantiate the assertion contained in its title. There is little that is new here (the issue receives a full treatment in Situation Ethics: The New Morality), though in advancing his case, Fletcher is once again at pains to emphasise that agape is not a feeling, and he highlights the theological consensus that exists on this point. Typical, in this respect, is C.H. Dodd, who in his book Gospel and Law, wrote that agape “is not primarily an emotion or an affection; it is primarily an active determination of the will.”

Just as he did in his better known work, Fletcher argues that justice is love ‘using its head’ and is ‘calculating’. In order to perform such calculations he recommends that Situation Ethics should form a coalition with utilitarianism, in order to produce “the greatest amount of agape for the greatest number of neighbours possible” when making moral decisions about who deserves what.

Chapter 4 – The Ethics of Natural Law

At the very end of this chapter, Fletcher elaborates further on a view that he introduces in the previous one, namely, that situationists may be better off deploying the term ‘justice’ instead of ‘love’ in many instances, as justice is, as we have just noted, ‘love calculating complex, pluralistic situations, using its head, distributing its services and concern.’

However, much of the content is devoted to a survey of recent (and some past) writing on Natural Law that is Christian (and often Anglican) but mostly non- Catholic, which is then compared and contrasted with situation ethics. Along the way, Fletcher quotes various theologians in order to highlight the weaknesses of Natural Law theory. These include the fact that ‘nature’ is an inherently ambiguous term about which there is little consensus, which therefore leads inevitably to equivocations and confusions in the discourses of those who have tried to make use of it as a basis for moral reasoning. The considerable latitude afforded definitions of the term has also entailed that it can be invoked ‘comfortably by Nazis and anti-Nazis, Thomists and humanists, naturalists and theists’, as well as – according to Bishop James Pike – to ‘defend anything and everything – feudalism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, both the “divine right” of kings and democracy, denial of political and religious liberty…and affirmation of the same.’

Also of interest is an observation made by Fletcher which relates Aquinas’s version of Natural Law to his thoughts about the significance of religious language:

‘…they [English Protestants] sympathized with Aquinas’s theory of analogy whereby they could assume that there is enough in common between the minds of God and man so that the latter may discern something of God’s will (eternal law) naturally and without revelation.’

This confirms that – for all its apparent shortcomings – his theory is both cognitive and realist, insofar as we deploy our God-given capacity to reason to cognize and express facts about nature that He has woven into the fabric of His creation.

Fletcher also uses the chapter as an opportunity to distance situation ethics from existentialism, as the two had been confused and conflated in the writings of both Pope Pius XII and Karl Rahner, who have therefore understood situationism to be antinomian. But as Fletcher is at pains to emphasise, unlike existentialists situationists do not reject all principles but – with the exception of neighbour love – do not regard them as necessarily binding.

Chapter 5 – A Moral Philosophy of Sex

In actual fact, the philosophy of sexual ethics that Fletcher advances in this chapter remains fairly undeveloped at this point and is more fully sketched out in subsequent ones.

Nevertheless, the following sentence is significant when it comes to setting the scene:

‘The New Testament is strikingly fragmentary in its treatment of sex problems and ethics. Jesus, for example, has nothing whatsoever to say about courtship, perversions, masturbation, sex manners, codes of reproduction and parenthood, multiple marriage, incest, birth control, artificial insemination, feticide, and the like.’

This is very much worth bearing in mind as it reveals the flimsy foundation on which much Christian theological speculation about sex is based. As Fletcher adds, all we do have are teachings about divorce, the subjective aspect of sex (Matthew 5 v28), and mercy/self-righteousness rather than extramarital sexuality when it comes to John 8 v3-11.

Fletcher’s own perspective emerges from his observation that recent advances have made sex a lot safer, so that it no longer carries the risks it formerly did as far as unwanted pregnancy and disease are concerned. He also notes that in a more secular age, it is no longer regarded as a sinful form of activity. However, he cautions that in place of religious sanctions and the fear of hell, a different kind of motivating ethic is required, and he suggests that such an ethic should be based on love rather fear or guilt. A foundation based on commitment, loyalty and devotion are what he recommends.

Chapter 6 – Sex Offences: An Ethical View

In this chapter, Fletcher surveys some of the penalties currently in place for sex offences in the USA, some of which have already been mentioned above in relation to Chapter 2. He also notes the gradual change taking place in the UK via the Wolfenden Report (see the anthology extract on Barclay) which itself followed a line already proposed by the Anglican Council for a radical minimization of the number of statutory laws applicable to both heterosexual and homosexual activities, a trajectory that was also being followed in recent drafts of the Model Penal Code as devised by the American Law Institute. As regards nonprostitutional homosexuality, Fletcher quotes the former Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher, who commented that “Some of us think that this particular evil could be more effectively dealt with pastorally if it were not regarded as criminal.”

Such was the changing climate of opinion back then. For example, the aforementioned Wolfenden Report stated the following:

‘It should not be the duty of the law to concern itself with immorality as such…it should confine itself to those activities which offend against public order and decency or expose the ordinary citizens to what is offensive or injurious.’

Against this backdrop, one which was giving increasing emphasis to a separation of public and private morality, whilst not wishing to suggest that moral judgements should no longer be made about private sexual behaviour, Fletcher ends the chapter with the following proposal of his own:

‘As to sex laws in particular, offences should be restricted to (1) acts with persons under the legal age of consent; (2) acts in situations judged to be a public nuisance or infringement of public decency; and (3) acts involving assault, violence, duress or fraud.’

Although he does not state this specifically, one obvious implication of the adoption of his proposal would be the decriminalization of consensual homosexual activity.

Chapter 7 – On Fertility Control

The chapter begins with a discussion of the problem of overpopulation (now recognised to be not as great an issue as many imagine, thanks to the research of Hans Rosling) that obviously provides its own justification for the wider availability of contraception, given that it is often the citizens of poorer parts of the world that are most in need of having it available in order to limit family size and thus be able to feed existing members more adequately.

Originally authored in 1965 (after the 1958 Lambeth Conference which recognised that there was “an ungoverned spate of unwanted births” and called for respect for the “consciences” of married couples who use birth control, but before Pope Paul VI reaffirmed traditional teachings and classified the Pill as a morally unacceptable artificial method of birth control in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae), the chapter also notes that Roman Catholic clergy in Brazil were speaking out in favour of the use of the Pill, while birth control doctors in Puerto Rico ‘meet the question whether they are opposed by Catholic doctors with a grin: “We are all Catholics.”‘ Significantly, a church party opposed to the Government’s birth control programme on the island received only 7% of the vote in a 1960 general election.

Fletcher also observed that a ‘widespread revolt’ against the rhythm method – with its 40% failure rate – was in progress in parts of the Catholic world. For example, he cites an estimate that 100.000 Catholic women were already practising contraceptive birth control in the UK, while up to six out of ten Catholic women in the US supported greater birth control freedom in the US according to Gallup polling. Additionally, he notes that in an introduction to the symposium Contraception and Holiness, the Jesuit prelate and former Archbishop of Bombay Thomas Roberts stated that ‘Thus far, I have not been persuaded by any of the natural law arguments against contraception’, with the ten contributors as a whole all taking the view that there was a need for contraception. Then there is William Birmingham, who in What Modern Catholics Think About Birth Control argued that Roman Catholics must liberate themselves from a restrictive and discredited biological view of natural law. Lastly, building on Dr John Rock’s theory of ‘ovarian repose’ (Rock is renowned for the major role he played in the development of the first birth control pill, which is somewhat ironic given that he was also a devout Catholic), Fletcher acknowledges the work-in-progress of some contemporary theologians which attempts to prove that the pill is neither a contraceptive nor a temporary sterilizer but rather just another aid to the achievement of ‘regular menstrual periodicity’, and therefore is in accord with nature’s purpose in this respect. To this extent, the use of the steroid pill therefore falls therefore within the defined parameters of control by forms of rhythmic calculation.

It is against this backdrop that Fletcher advances five quite detailed propositions or recommendations at the end of the chapter that can be summarised as follows:

It should be possible for couples make love without having be concerned about an unintended or unwanted pregnancy.

The best way to ensure this is to prevent conception, or failing that to prevent fertility itself, while the least desirable form of action would be to terminate the pregnancy. Nevertheless, all three approaches can be seen as ‘good’ provided that this good outcome more than justifies the means or method used to achieve it.

What determines whether the use of a particular method of birth control is moral is not whether it is artificial or goes against nature (as all medicine aims to thwart nature to an extent) but rather whether that method is the most appropriately loving means that is available. Given also that what is sometimes regarded as being artificial or against nature frequently serves to promote the highest good, natural law theory is therefore inherently self-contradictory, problematical, and as ‘dead as Queen Anne.’

Aside from love, all else is to be deemed moral or immoral according to the situation, and that includes abortion, sterilization and contraception.

Those who regard the latter as sinful should not try to prevent others from exercising their freedom to make use of these methods and medical procedures, especially in any pluralistic society which operates through democratic consensus and acknowledges that there is a difference between what is morally wrong and what is legally so when it comes to the laws that it enacts.

Chapter 8 – Ethics and Unmarried Sex

The focus of this chapter is on premarital sex, one in which Fletcher concurs with the opinion of Professor Leo Koch, a biologist at the University of Illinois who in 1960 lost his job for stating that, ‘With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drug store, or at least a family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics.’

In developing his argument, Fletcher cites the Kinsey report, which demonstrated that there was already a good deal of unacknowledged clandestine sexual activity already taking place before marriage, as well as changes in attitude represented by a survey undertaken among adult Christians indicating that 40% of the respondents (who were mainly ministers, professors and their spouses) did not regard premarital sex unfavourably, while 40% of the men and 35% of the women had actually engaged in it themselves. A further 40% also regarded extramarital sexual acts as morally justifiable in some circumstances.

He further notes that while previously, monogamous marriage has been held up as an ideal foundation for sexual expression and fulfilment, a natural disaster affecting the male/female ratio might easily displace this moral standard with one based on polygamy.

Furthermore, it is, he remarks, only an inference that according to the Bible, sex should only take place within marriage. In actual fact only adultery is forbidden, and there is nothing that explicitly prohibits premarital acts. Given also that situationists only absolutize neighbour love, this means that they cannot do so in the case of the Pauline teaching about marriage found in 1 Corinthians 6, which is based on henosis or becoming ‘one flesh’. Jesus, Fletcher additionally observes, was more concerned about pride and hypocrisy than sex, while among the seven deadly sins it is lust rather than sex that is condemned, and lust can be a feature of both marital and non-marital relationships. Having stated this, he acknowledges that the freedom that accompanies moral decision-making also allows scope for abstention from premarital sex as it may not suit everyone.

At the end of the chapter Fletcher poses and responds to two questions: Should premarital sex be prohibited and condemned? Should it be approved of?

His answer to the first question is ‘no’ and to the second it is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as each situation is different and therefore prone to eliciting a different ethical response. In accordance with the presumption of personalism, Fletcher invokes two principles, firstly that we ought to love people (in an agapeistic sense), and secondly that we should not necessarily love moral laws, principles or rules (in any deontological sense). Sexual acts that hurt or exploit others are, in consequence, immoral, as are premarital sex acts that are not founded on care and commitment. Ideally, even for the situationist, sex and marriage should be combined. But this may not always be possible and this ideal should not, therefore, be enshrined in any kind of law which is then imposed on others, nor should it be absolutized for all Christians. Sex is therefore ‘not always wrong outside marriage, even for Christians; as Paul said, “I know…that nothing is unclean” (Rom. 14:14).’

Chapter 9 – Euthanasia and Anti-Dysthanasia

Dysthanasia means ‘bad death’ (as opposed to ‘euthanasia’, which means ‘good death’). Fletcher uses the term ‘anti-dysthanasia’ in this chapter to express his view that it is morally wrong to refuse to prolong an ugly or painful state by withholding medical treatment. In other words, he is opposed to passive euthanasia and in favour of what he describes as the ‘direct method’ of active euthanasia. Elsewhere in this chapter he writes that ‘death control, like birth control, is a matter of human dignity. Without it, persons become puppets.’ In advancing this position, Fletcher recognises that the challenge of euthanasia is one that requires doctors to confront the incompatible duties of preserving life and relieving suffering, with the author favouring the latter course of action as being the most agapeistic. Along the way, in support of his position, he mentions Nietzsche’s observation that “in certain cases it is indecent to go on living”, and that of Pope Pius XII, who suggested that doctors may desist from their efforts in hopeless cases “to permit the patient, already virtually dead, to pass on in peace”, as well as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang, who agreed that “cases arise in which some means of shortening life may be justified.” In other words, as Fletcher himself puts it, ‘there is no absolute obligation to preserve a patient’s life simply because it is medically manageable to do so ‘ and that doctors and nurses who absolutize this principle fall into serious moral error if they invariably pursue this course of action.

The chapter concludes with Fletcher citing critics of his perspective. One American magazine referred to him as an ‘apostle of death’ and a ‘merchant of murder’, while a Soviet journal called him ‘a barbarian’ and ‘a cannibal’, as well as a promoter of ‘bourgeois morals’. In response, Fletcher simply states that ‘I must be striking home to something!’

Chapter 10 – Situation Ethics for Business Management

Business ethics is not taught as part of the Edexcel syllabus. For students and teachers of A Level courses where it does feature there are some specific situations and scenarios that are described which make the book worth acquiring. But they will not be discussed here.

At the end of the chapter, Fletcher does make the important point that a significant burden of responsibility is assumed by those who adopt his system of ethics, one that does not necessarily entail that any moral decisions made will necessarily be ‘correct‘. This is because situation ethics is an inherently relativistic ethical theory, and because it is applied by ‘finite men‘ who may not be capable of objectively anticipating all of the motives and consequences, the means and ends that are at stake in their moral choices, there are no guarantees that those choices will be the right ones. In other words, as Fletcher admits, the human margin of error is inescapable.

Chapter 11 – Wealth, Taxation and Stewardship & Chapter 12 – The Ethics of Stewardship in a Changing Economy

In these chapters, a noteworthy observation is made about about Christian stewardship, namely, that it is expression of justice rather than mercy or charity. This is because – as God is the true owner of all natural resources and wealth – when we give to a neighbour they are only receiving what is already their due, their fair share of what God has provided.

Chapter 13 – Discontent and Self-renewal

This chapter contains little that is of relevance to the current Edexcel syllabus and is mainly concerned with how the theological virtues of faith, hope and love can be deployed to combat the loss of meaning, anomie and alienation that are the depersonalising products of an increasingly specialised, technological society.

Chapter 14 – Moral Responsibility

In this final chapter, Fletcher sketches out some ideas about moral responsibility. Drawing on Martin Buber in particular but also other theologians, he argues that genuine moral responsibility is always personalistic. It is founded on relationships with others that are construed agapeistically. The chapter includes some memorable phrases that sum up the gist of his thesis:

…morality, like the Sabbath, is made for man, not man for morality.’

‘The opposite of love is not hate but indifference.’

‘The essence of moral guilt lies in the failure or refusal to respond to the needs or call of others, it does not lie in the failure to obey an abstract rule or principle!’

Fletcher also compares his system to that of Kant. While he disagrees, on metaethical grounds, with Kant’s view that morality is something instrinsic to the nature of reality, he concurs that it should not be dictated by prefabricated laws. Instead, the burden of moral decision-making resides with the action taker themselves and the exercise of their ‘good will’ (a Kantian term that Fletcher regards as akin to agape). Nevertheless, Fletcher does take issue with Kant’s emphasis on universalizing moral decisions in the abstract, arguing that someone falls into error when they do so, as each situation has to be weighed on its own merits.

Elsewhere, Fletcher applauds the ‘honest relativism’ of theologians like Bonhoeffer and philosophers like Sartre, and quotes the latter from his essay Existentialism and Humanism where he states that ‘man is always the same, that is, facing a situation which changes, and choice is always a choice in a situation.’

There is also an intriguing comparison made with Freud, one in which Fletcher asserts that antinomianism or rather ‘libertinism’ is an expression of the id, legalism that of the superego, while situationism represents responsible self-control via the ego and the possibility thereby of serving the law of love.