situational ethics theory was first postulated during the 1960's
by Joseph Fletcher. It was intended to be a middle ground
position in the Christian world of ethics between antinomianism
and legalism. Antinomianism says there is no law—everything is
relative to the moment and should be decided in a spontaneous
fashion with man’s will as the source of truth. Legalism has a
set of predetermined and different laws for every
decision-making situation. Fletcher’s ethical theory is based
on only one absolute law, which when applied properly, handles
every situation. Other popular situational ethicists are Emil
Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John A.T. Robinson.
his situational absolutism with its one law for everything by
saying we must enter every situation with only one moral weapon—the
law of agape love. He says: "Only the command to
love is categorically good. We are obliged to tell the truth,
for example, only if the situation calls for it. Act responsibly
in love, and everything else without exception, all laws and
rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent,
only valid if they happen to serve love in any
situation." His theory states that "each situation is
so different from every other situation that it is questionable
whether a rule which applies to one situation can be applied to
all situations like it, since the others may not really be like
it. Only the single law of love (agape) is broad enough
to be applied to all circumstances and contexts."
Fletcher, Jesus summed up the Mosaic law and the Ten
Commandments in one word—love. Therefore, there are no
commandments which may not be broken in some situation for love’s
sake. Every law is breakable by love. As Augustine put it:
"Love with care and then what you will, do." Love is
the one universal law. When all else fades, love will abide
forever. According the Jesus, love is the earmark of His
an attitude, not an attribute. The only human thing that has
intrinsic value is love.
is the loving thing to do in any given situation is the right thing
not follow love for the law’s sake; one follows the law only for
love’s sake. Love and law sometimes conflict and when they do it
is the Christian’s obligation to put love over the law.
justice are identical. Justice means to give others their
"due," and love is their due.
Love is a
multidirectional and utilitarian principle. Calculating the remote
consequences, it strives to bring the greatest good to the greatest
number of people. Love foresees the need to use force, if necessary,
to protect the innocent; or to disobey an unjust civil law; or even
to revolt against the state, if the end consequence is for the
greater good of the majority of the people. "Only the end
justifies the means; nothing else." The loving end
justifies any means.
decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. Love does not
prescribe in advance what specific course of actions should be
taken. Love operates apart from a pretailored, prefabricated list of
moral rules. Love functions circumstantially, it does not "make
up its mind" before it sees the facts in any given situation.
or sacrificial adultery: a German mother was committed to a
Russian concentration camp. Pregnant women were considered a
liability and were released. This mother found a friendly guard who
sympathized with her situation and willingly impregnated her. She
was released and returned to her home and raised the child as part
of her reunited family. Her adultery was justified since it served
to reunite her with her children and family who needed her.
prostitution: a young mother working as a spy for the US was
asked to use her sexuality to ensnare a rival spy. When she
protested that she could not put her personal integrity on the line
by offering sex for hire, she was told: "It’s like your
brother risking his life and limb in the war to serve his country.
There is no other way." For the greater good of her country, it
was the loving thing to do.
suicide: Taking one’s own life is not morally wrong if it
is done in love for others. If a man has only two choices of taking
an expensive medication which will deplete his family’s finances
and cause his insurance to lapse, or else refusing the medicine and
living only 3 months, it is the loving thing to do to refuse the
medicine and spare his family. And, non-theoretically, a German nun
taking the place of a Jew in the gas chambers; or a soldier taking
his own life to avoid being tortured into betraying his comrades to
abortion: an unmarried schizophrenic patient become pregnant
after being raped. Her father petitioned for abortion but the
hospital refused because they said it was
"non-therapeutic" and therefore illegal. The father
maintained that it was the loving thing to do to prevent this child’s
birth. In another real situation, a Romanian Jewish doctor aborted
3000 babies of Jewish mothers in concentration camps because, if
pregnant, the mothers were to be incinerated. This means that the
doctor actually saved 3000 and prevented the murder of 6000. This
was the loving thing to do.
murder: a mother smothers her own crying baby to prevent her
group from being discovered and killed by a band of hostile Indians.
A ship’s captain orders some men thrown from an overloaded
lifeboat to prevent it from sinking and killing everyone on board ,
thus killing a "few" for the "greater good" of
the majority. Not resuscitating a monstrously deformed baby when it
is birthed is the loving thing to do both for the child, for the
parents, and family.
How do you apply situational ethics
in your own life?