“Sometimes you’ve gotta put your principles to
one side and do the right thing”…
Making ethical decisions…
0 Traditional systems (Natural Law, Kantian
Ethics) focus on the action and make
ABSOLUTE rules.
0 From the 18th Century however, some
philosophers advocated
CONSEQUENTIALISM (e.g. Utilitarians),
arguing that rightness or wrongness are
RELATIVE to the results (and the situation).
Situation Ethics
0 Situationism developed from the early 20th Century and
particularly during WWII.
0 Very similar to (Act) Preference Utilitarianism.
Philosophers such as Peter Singer speak of “best interests”
rather than happiness in the  sense – so does Fletcher.
0 (In its Bonhoeffer or Temple variety) it also has a lot in
common with Proportionalism, a variety of Natural Law
which argues that sometimes it is right to do a wrong
thing in an extreme situation (e.g. Bernard Hoose)
0 Arguably living the law of agape, applying it freely to each
situation, is also consistent with Kantian Ethics – but this
depends on how you understand agape.
Christian Ethics
0 Christians have always struggled with how to
make ethical decisions.
0 Judaism focussed on ABSOLUTE LAWS and Jesus,
in Matthew’s Gospel, claimed that he had not come
to change “one jot or iota” of the law…
0 Nevertheless, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus said “the law
was made for mankind, not mankind for the law”
(Mark 2:27) and supported his disciples in
breaking the law to save lives (Luke 14:1-6), or
even in picking food when they were hungry…
The Law of Love
0 When asked what the most important commandments
were, Jesus replied “Love God… and love your neighbour
as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31)
0 Most Christians saw this as license to break the law
when your faith or humanitarian concerns showed it to
be inappropriate, e.g. to save a life.
0 Others (e.g. early Gnostics) went further and saw
Christianity as living the law of love, being guided by
conscience and having no regard for conventional
religious or civil laws.
0 However the Church saw the need to regulate and
guide Christian Ethics, to define love and its actions…
The roots of situationism…
0 On one hand, the roots of situationism lay in
existentialist moral philosophy, in the writings of
Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers and
Martin Heidegger. (Also Wittgenstein?)
0 On the other, theological antecedents included Karl
Barth and Emil Brunner, both of whom stressed a
personalistic & voluntaristic approach to ethics
which meant that there could be no necessarily
universal moral norms.
0 Both the philosophical and the theological heritages of
situationism have their roots in Kantian thought…
The Church and
Individual Moral Responsibility
Nevertheless,
evenhave
the Catholic
Theologian
Karl
0 Whilst Christians
always believed
that we
are held
Rahner
argued
the individual
retains
a “sphere
responsible
forthat
our own
sins, they also
believe
that we of
must takemorality”
responsibility
others
well. cannot
individual
overfor
which
theasChurch
exercise
direct Christianity
authority. Itbelieves
must be
upGod
to our
0 Like Judaism,
that
will judge
conscience
decidethe
when
extreme
circumstances
humanity, to
dividing
evil from
the good,
at the end of
time. an action which breaks a general moral norm –
justify
though
wejudgement
cannot expect
allowances
tohumanity
be made has
for
0 But this
can only
come once
been
and
made ready
this
by ‘cleansed’
the civil or
religious
law…for God.
0 The Church must, therefore, act to prevent people
from making bad decisions as well as encouraging
and supporting them to make good ones…
Love: whatever that means…
0 In Greek there are many words for Love…
0 Eros, philios, storge – and agape…
0 One of the chief difficulties for Christians acting
on love is to isolate which type of lovemotivation is appropriate.
“HAVING A LOVING MOTIVE” COULD MEAN
MANY THINGS…
0 A good definition of Christian Love may be
found in 1 Corinthians 13…
1 Corinthians 13:1-8
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not
have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries
and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move
mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I
possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I
may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is
patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it
is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not selfseeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of
wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the
truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes,
always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
agape
0 For Christians, acting on love must…
0 NON PREFERENTIAL
0 CONSISTENT
0 LOVE GOD WITH HEART, MIND, BODY AND
STRENGTH
0 That means that traditionally, a loving action can
take no account of the immediate situation.
0 Fletcher disagrees with this approach to agape and
seems willing to place the individual interests over
the interests of humanity.
Natural Law
0 Devises ABSOLUTE LAWS (secondary precepts) from a
definition of what it is to be fully human (primary precepts)
0 For Aquinas being fully human includes living, contributing
to society, acquiring wisdom and wealth, having children
and passing wisdom on to the next generation, praising
God.
0 Any action which contributes to one or more primary
precepts is good – any action which takes away from one or
more primary precepts is evil.
0 E.g. any action which intentionally kills a human being is
evil regardless of the situation. E.g. euthanasia is always
and intrinsically evil.
In practice,Kant
though, for Kant
euthanasia would either always be
0 Kant believed that human beings are
“pathologically
loving”evil – and given the
good
or always
0 Wemaxim
are also rational
beings
and are disposed
and the
precedent,
it isto
make decisions on the basis of what is best for
difficult
to see how to justify
humanity
as a whole
without
“over
0 Acting euthanasia
on universal principles,
treating
everybody
as ends
in themselves and always
considering
particularising
the maxim”
precedent will lead to a society which respects all
though
some (this
modern
accept
people equally…
was theKantians
origin of humanrights theory.)
doing this to some extent
Inflexible legalism…
0 An immediate criticism of Natural Law and Kantian Ethics is
It sometimes
Catholic
or the
that
they fail to takeseems
accountthat
of thethe
diversity
of situations.
Kantian
abnegate
responsibility,
following
0 murdercan
(whether
shooting
a priest or assassinating
Hitler)
the
rule to avoid having to wrestle with the
0 suicidecomplexities
(whether faced of
with
torture
or just depressed)
the
situation…
0 the assisted suicide of a terminally ill person,
0 the separation of conjoined twins where one is
Certainly
the
Jesuit
situationist
Hans
Wulf
sacrificed to save the other,
believed
that iteuthanasia
was the authoritarian
0 non-voluntary
of a coma patient,stance of
the Catholic
Church
which
to moral
0 involuntary
active
“euthanasia”
of aled
Jewish
person…
confusion
amongst
inshare
the 1930s.
they
are all equally
wrongGermans
because they
the maxim
of intentionally taking human life.
What about the situation? (1)
0 Natural Law has always accepted that some
generally wrong actions are right when they
are proportionate to the situation and the
lesser of two evils.
0 For example, Just War Theory permits killing
when these conditions are met…
0 However, the decision over when it is right to
do a wrong thing is not left to the individual
(except by proportionalists e.g. Hoose)…
What about the situation? (2)
0 For Kant it is absolutely vital to make decisions in each
situation, and not act out of habit, fear or without
specific reflection.
0 Kantian Ethics is NOT legalistic…
0 However, for Kant, taking account of personal
preferences, immediate consequences and other
pragmatic issues is NOT loving and falls short of what
we are capable of as human beings.
0 It is rational, fair and loving (agape) to treat all human
beings equally, honouring them as ends not means and
considering the consistency and precedent set by our
actions…
Are these systems adequate?
0 Throughout Christian history there have been
dissenting voices, arguing that absolute laws are not
compatible with following Jesus’ example of love.
0 From Francis Hutcheson and William Paley to
William Temple and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christians
advocated considering the situation and the
consequences rather than just the Law.
0 At the heart of the problem was the relationship
between following the law and human happiness…
0 Too often applying the law seemed unfeeling and
inhumane.
Christian Utilitarians
0 Bishop Berkeley wrote “In framing the general laws of
nature, it is granted we must be entirely guided by the
public good of mankind, but not in the ordinary moral
actions of our lives. Such a rule, if universally observed
hath, from the nature of things, a necessary fitness to
promote the general well-being of mankind: therefore it
is a law of nature. This is good reasoning. But if we should
say, such an action doth in this instance produce much
good and no harm to mankind; therefore it is lawful: this
[would be] wrong. The rule is framed with respect to the
good of mankind, but our practice must be always shaped
immediately by the rule”
William Temple
0 William Temple (1881-1944) was one of the
first acknowledged “situation ethicists” and the
subject of one of Joseph Fletcher’s early books.
0 Temple was Archbishop of York and later
Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII – actually
visiting the troops in Normandy after D day.
0 He wrote "on freedom all spiritual life depends,
and it is astonishing and terrifying that the
church has so often failed to understand this.”
[Christianity and Social Order. New York, 1977]
0 Other early situationists included Paul Tillich
“love is the ultimate law” and Dietrich
Bonhoeffer
Who was Joseph Fletcher?
0 Born 1905, New Jersey USA
0 West Virginia University,
0
0
0
0
Berkeley Divinity School (Yale),
Yale University and London
School of Economics.
Ordained into the Episcopal
Church of America (Anglican)
Wrote “The Church and
Industry” (1930)
Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral,
Cincinnati (1936-1944)
Lectured in Christian Ethics &
Business Ethics at Episcopal
Divinity School and Harvard
University (1944-1970)
0 Accused of supporting
0
0
0
0
0
communism during McCarthy
witch-hunts
Wrote “Morals and Medicine”
(1954), “William Temple”
(1963), “Situation Ethics”
(1966), “The Ethics of Genetic
Control” (1974)
Lost his faith during this period
– became a humanist…
Professor of Medical Ethics at
the University of Virginia
(1970-1983)
President of the Euthanasia
Society of America (1974-1976)
Died 1991
Situation Ethics:
The New Morality
0 Fletcher’s controversial 1966 book confronted what he saw as
the inadequacy of existing systems of Christian Ethics.
0 Fletcher was inspired by William Temple to go back to the
Gospels and develop a relevant ethic, founded in personal
freedom and love rather than authority-structures and fear.
0 Like Temple, Fletcher believed that the Church was failing to
engage with the major ethical issues of our time – industrial
relations, business ethics, sex and family planning, medical
ethics.
0 His book was a call for personal moral responsibility among
Christians.
The Law of Love
0 Fletcher started by going back to Mark 12:28-31
…“Which commandment is first of all?” Jesus
answered, “The first is this, “Hear O Israel: The
Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love
the Lord your God with all your heart and with all
your soul and with all your strength.” The second
is this “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”,
there is no other commandment greater than
these”…
Three approaches to ethics…
Fletcher
argues
thatCatholic
the Situational
1.
Legalistic
– includes
Natural Moral Law
approach
is theBiblical
only appropriate
response to
and Protestant
Literalism
real
ethical dilemmas.
It values
individual
2.
Antinomian
– includes those
who act
on
freedom,
puts or
people
first insight”
and acknowledges
the
“conscience”
“revealed
without
reference
to laws.of circumstances. It guards
genuine
diversity
against
acting
selfish
impulse
whim, and
3.
Situational
– aon
middle
way
betweenorlegalism
and
antinomian
ethics -of
applies
the Christian
principle
respects
the values
the community
(i.e.
of agape
toiseach
situation.flexible.
agape),
but
sufficiently
Principled Relativism
0 Fletcher argues that the situationist must always
uphold the law of love, which is accepted a priori
0 The situationist must also respect the laws of
his/her community, only breaking these laws if
they clearly go against the law of love in the
particular situation…
0 This is NOT absolute relativism, but encourages
individuals to reflect on laws and gives them the
option of determining their own action in specific
circumstances…
Four Working Principles
0 1.Pragmatism - This is that the course of action must be
practical and work
0 2.Relativism - All situations are always relative; situational
ethicists try to avoid such words as "never" and "always"
0 3.Positivism - The whole of situational ethics relies upon
the fact that the person freely chooses to believe in agape
love as described by Christianity.
0 4.Personalism - Whereas the legalist thinks people should
work to laws, the situational ethicist believes that laws are
for the benefit of the people.
THESE PRINCIPLES ARE THE ASSUMED BASIS OF SITUATION
ETHICS – THEY ARE NOT REALLY ARGUED FOR…
Six Fundamental Principles
1. “Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
else at all.” (pg56)
“The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else.”
(pg69)
“Love and Justice are the same, for justice is love distributed,
nothing else”. (pg87) “Justice is Christian love using its
head, calculating its duties, obligations, opportunities,
resources... Justice is love coping with situations where
distribution is called for.” (pg95)
“Love wills the neighbour's good, whether we like him or
not.” (pg103)
“Only the end justifies the means, nothing else.” (pg120)
“Love's decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.”
(pg134)
Fletcher’s examples…
1. The Mental Hospital
“An unmarried female patient with
schizophrenia is raped by another patient
and becomes pregnant. State law only
permits abortion on “therapeutic grounds”
i.e. to avoid risk to the mother’s life. Should
the patient be given an abortion?”
Fletcher’s examples…
2. The insurance problem…
“I dropped in on a patient at the hospital who explained that
he only had a set time to live. The doctors could give him some
pills (that would cost $40 every three days) that would keep
him alive for the next three years, but if he didn't take the pills,
he’d be dead within six months. Now he was insured for
$100,000, double indemnity and that was all the insurance he
had. But if he took the pills and lived past next October when
the insurance was up for renewal, they were bound to refuse
the renewal, and his insurance would be cancelled. So he told
me that he was thinking that if he didn't take the pills, then his
family would get left with some security, and asked my advice
on the situation.”
Criticisms…
0 Rejected by the Roman Catholic Church.
0 Pope Pius XII launched an aggressive attack on
Situation Ethics in 1952, arguing that it confused the
nature of the conscience, seeing it as a generative rather
than an interpretive faculty. i.e. if you think your
conscience demands that the loving action is contrary
to Natural Law it is your conscience that is faulty…
0 In 1956 the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office
banned Situation Ethics from being taught or approved
in Universities and other centres of Catholic learning or
discussed and promoted in any other manner.
0 Also rejected by the majority of the Anglican Communion.
0 Bishop John Robinson started as an enthusiastic supporter of
situation ethics, but later rejected it saying “it will just end in
moral chaos”
0 There are still plenty of Anglican situationists though, for
example Richard Holloway, previously Bishop of Edinburgh.
0 Francis Moss wrote “These are the days of Situation Theology,
Situation Ethics and theological subjectivity.…all is negotiable,
all is dispensable, nothing is actually definitive or binding at
least in the sense of being enforceable… It is unthinkable that
officially anyone should be charged with heresy in the
contemporary Church of England when it is a tenet of an
accepted school of thought that there are no fixed criteria for
the determination of theological truth and error”
0 A good evaluation (and rejection) of Situation Ethics by J.I.
Packer may be found here… http://www.thehighway.com/articleJan02.html
Essentially…
1. Situation ethics often confuses the concept of agape
2. What is loving for those immediately concerned may
have bad consequences for others not considered –
Bonhoeffer rejected consequentialism and seeing a
loving motivation as a justification because we can’t
clearly predict or define what leads to or comes out of
actions…
3. Even “Situationists” don’t agree on what Situation ethics
is! Bonhoeffer’s Ethic is very different from Fletcher’s..
4. Fletcher provides no clear definition of who should be
considered a ‘person’ – i.e. he just assumes that a foetus
is not a person, without much argument [at least in
“Situation Ethics”].
Criticisms…
4. It places too much moral responsibility on individuals,
usually at moments of extreme stress
5. In practice it is impossible for any Church or society to
permit the situationist justification – what practical use is
situationism – it only serves to undermine moral standards
and cause confusion…
6. Many situationists take things further than even Fletcher
argued for – they fail to respect the laws and principles of
their society and just follow personal inclinations.
7. There is little difference between Situation Ethics and
Utilitarianism – and most of the criticisms of the latter could
apply to the former (e.g. simplistic definition of human telos
“happiness”, problem of prediction, potential nihilism etc.)
Focus on Fletcher…
0 In particular, Fletcher assumes that his readers are all like
him!
0 Having a thorough Christian education and Christian values,
whilst also having the humanist freedom to interpret the
Bible and historical tradition liberally and dismiss any need
for an authoritarian Church…
0 As an academic discussion-point Fletcher’s 1966 book may
have raised interesting questions (though its style and
substance did not lend itself to this audience) BUT as a
populist work the book apparently gave license to people to
do what they want and still claim to be “moral” or
“Christian”…
On the other hand…
0 Looking at Fletcher’s broader contribution, it
is clear that he had a valuable perspective on
social ethics and bioethics in particular.
0 He worked tirelessly to make Christianity
engaged and relevant in a changing world.
0 He wanted individuals to take their
responsibility seriously – and couldn’t see
how they could without having the freedom
to think and act for themselves.
Situation Ethics
0 Is more use to the individual wrestling with matters of
conscience than it could ever be to policy makers or law
enforcers.
0 In particular, the lack of substantial discussion of
personhood and ontology, the potential value of suffering
and the significance of moral precedent makes the system
weaker.
0 On the other hand, the diversity within Christian
communities when it comes to opinions on issues such as
Abortion and Euthanasia can often be explained by the
enduring popularity and appeal of Situation Ethics…
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