Every man must decide for himself according to his own estimate of conditions and consequences…1
People like to wallow or cower in the security of the law.2
1. Situation Ethics Introduction
In the introduction to The Situation Ethics: The New Morality Joseph Fletcher (1905–1991) develops what he calls an ethical non-system. His book caused a “fire storm” amongst the public because it legitimised the general post-war dissatisfaction with authority. At the time it was written it seemed to make some radical claims such as that it is not wrong to have extramarital sex, to be homosexual, or to have an abortion. All that said, Fletcher’s work is not widely discussed nor respected in philosophical circles. It is badly argued, idiosyncratic and rehashes old ideas.
Although there is the clothing of religion in the book — Fletcher uses religious terms such as “agápe” and cites famous theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) — the central ideas do not rely on the truth of any particular religion. As he says his argument has “…nothing special to do with theological…faith”3
Fletcher calls this ethical “non-system” Situationism and a Bible story will illustrate the general point of the book. In Mark 3:1–6 we are told that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand in the Jewish Temple; an act which we would consider to demonstrate Jesus’s love for all. However, the Pharisees tell him off because he has performed this healing on the Sabbath day and the Jewish law says that no one can work on the Sabbath.
Fletcher’s work is an attempt to show how acts can be morally acceptable even if they go against so-called moral laws (if you’ve read Aristotle you might already have an answer to this). Fletcher says that Jesus’ act is morally acceptable — despite going against the Jewish law — because he acted to bring about the most love.
2. Fletcher’s Overall Framework
Fletcher says there are two unattractive views in ethics: “Legalism” and “Antinomianism”, and one attractive view which sits in between them: “Situationism”.
Someone who is following the system of Legalism is someone who “blindly” observes moral rules without being sensitive to the situation. Fletcher has in mind a simple minded deontologist who holds that actions are right and wrong irrespective of the consequences. For example, we ought to tell the truth in all situations, even if this means that, say, millions of people die.
Various Christian sects are legalistic; for instance, some might refuse medical help — such as blood transfusions — when someone in their community is ill because they think it is against God’s commands. Or consider an example of Islamic Legalism (obviously, just as in the Christian sect, these are not wholly representative of either religion). In 2002 the religious police of Saudi Arabia refused to let a group of girls escape from a burning building because they were wearing “inappropriate” clothing, which was against the will of Allah. One witness said he saw three policemen “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”.4 Fifteen girls died.
The other extreme is Antinomianism (“anti” meaning against; “nominalism” meaning law). This is the view that says that an agent can do whatever he or she wants in a situation. Fletcher calls this an “existential” view because it is one that says that people are always free to choose what they want. Any supposed laws and rules limiting the actions of people are simply a way of trying to comfort them because they are scared of absolute freedom. If Antinomianism is right and if an agent believes that something is right, then it is. Antinomianism means the moral agent is erratic and random, is unpredictable, and any decisions taken are ad hoc. There are no laws nor guiding principles, just agents and their conscience and the institutions in which they find themselves.
A Middle Ethics: Situationism
We might think that Legalism and Antinomianism exhaust the possibilities. If we reject moral laws then are not we forced into lawless moral anarchy? Fletcher thinks not.
Fletcher says that there is a moral law, and hence he rejects Antinomianism. But there is only one moral law, so he rejects Legalism. Fletcher’s one moral law is that we ought to always act so as to bring about the most love for the most people (“Agápē Calculus”). Fletcher’s Situationism is then a teleological theory. It is directed at the consequences that will determine whether an action is right or wrong.
Of course, any teleological theory will ask us to look at the details of the situation; consider Chapter 1 where we talk about Bentham and Mill’s Utilitarianism. So, Fletcher’s view is not unique. What makes his view different is the centrality of “love”, or as he calls it agápē.
Fletcher thinks that there can be moral principles but that these differ from laws. Principles are generalizations which are context-sensitive and which derive from the one law regarding maximizing love. For example, we might have a moral principle that we ought not to murder. This is a principle because we might think in that in general murder is wrong because it does not bring about the most love. However, it is not a law because for Fletcher, murder is not wrong in all situations. This then is similar to the discussion of Rule-Utilitarianism in Chapter 1.
For example, a situation might arise where the child of a terrorist would have to be murdered in order to get information to stop a nuclear attack. Fletcher would say that here is a situation where we ought not to follow the principle do not murder but rather do the most loving thing, which in this case turns out to be murder. From the universal law we can only derive principles, not other universal laws. As Fletcher puts it: “we cannot milk a universal from a universal”.5
This mean that for Fletcher it might, on occasions, be morally acceptable to break the Ten Commandments. In fact, he says something stronger, that in some situations it is our duty to break these commandments. He thinks that there are four working principles of Situationism.
3. The Four Working Principles of Situationism
Principle 1. Pragmatism
The situationalist follows a strategy which is pragmatic. What does that mean? Well it does not mean that Fletcher is a pragmatist. “Pragmatism” is a very specific and well worked-out philosophical position adopted by the likes of John Dewey (1859–1952), Charles Peirce (1839–1914) and William James (1842–1910). Fletcher does not want his theory associated with these views and rejects all the implications of this type of “Pragmatism”.
What makes his view pragmatic is very simple. It is just his attraction to moral views which do not try to work out what to do in the abstract (e.g. Kant’s Categorical Imperative (see Chapter 2)), but rather explores how moral views might play out in each real life situations.
Principle 2: Relativism
Even with his rejection of Antinomianism and his acceptance of one supreme principle of morality, Fletcher, surprisingly, still calls himself a relativist. This does not mean he is a relativist in the sense that we can simply choose what is right and wrong rather it is just an appeal for people to stop trying to “lay down the law” for all people in all contexts. If situations vary then consequences vary and what we ought to do will change accordingly. This is a very simple, unsophisticated idea, like his ideas on pragmatism, and Fletcher just means that what is right or wrong is related to the situation we are in.
Principle 3: Positivism
His use of “positivism” is not the philosophical idea with the same name but rather is where:
Any moral or value judgment in ethics, like a theologian’s faith propositions, is a decision — not a conclusion. It is a choice, not a result reached by force of logic…6
So when challenged as to how he can justify that the only law is to maximize love, Fletcher will say that he cannot. It is not a result of logic or reasoning, rather it is a decision we take, it is like the “theologian’s faith”.
Principle 4: Personalism
Love is something that is experienced by people. So Personalism is the view that if we are to maximize love we need to consider the person in a situation — the “who” of a situation. Summing up this Fletcher says:
Love is of people, by people, and for people. Things are to be used; people are to be loved… Loving actions are the only conduct permissible.7
These then are his “four working principles”: pragmatism, relativism, positivism and personalism.
4. How to Work out What to Do: Conscience as a Verb not a Noun
For Fletcher “conscience” plays a role in working out what to do. He says “conscience” is a verb and not a noun. This sounds complicated but it really is not (for complex and sophisticated discussions of conscience see Chapter 9).
First consider what he means when he says conscience “is not a noun”. Conscience is not the name of an internal faculty nor is it a sort of internal “moral compass”. This is how people typically think of conscience and it is often portrayed in cartoons with a devil and angel sitting on someone’s shoulder whispering into her ears.
Rather for Fletcher conscience is a verb. Imagine we have heard some bullies laughing because they have sent our friend some offensive texts and we are trying to decide whether or not to check his phone to delete the texts before he does. The old “noun” view of conscience would get us to think about this in the abstract, perhaps reason about it, or ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit, a guardian angel etc.
According to Fletcher this is wrong. Instead, we need to be in the situation, and experience the situation, we need to be doing (hence “verb”) the experiencing. Maybe, we might conclude that it is right to go into our friend’s phone, maybe we will not but whatever happens the outcome could not have been known beforehand. What our conscience would have us do is revealed when we live in the world and not through armchair reflection.
5. The Six Propositions of Situation Ethics
Fletcher gives six propositions (features) of his theory.
1: Only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love, nothing else at all
There is one thing which is intrinsically good, that is good irrespective of context, namely love. If love is what is good, then an action is right or wrong in as far as it brings about the most amount of love. Echoing Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus (see Chapter 1) Fletcher defends what he calls the:
agapeic calculus, the greatest amount of neighbor welfare for the largest number of neighbors possible.8
Notice that here he talks about “welfare” rather than “love”. Fletcher does this because of how he understands love which, importantly, is not about having feelings and desires. We discuss this below.
2: The ruling norm of Christian decision is love, nothing else
As we have seen in the first proposition, the only way to decide what we ought to do (the ruling norm) is to bring about love. We need to be careful though because for Fletcher “love” has a technical meaning.
By love Fletcher means “agápē” — from ancient Greek. Agápē has a very particular meaning. Initially it is easier to see what it is not. It is not the feeling we might have towards friends or family member which is better described as brotherly love (philēo). Nor is it the erotic desire we might feel towards others (érōs).
Rather agápē is an attitude and not a feeling at all, one which does not expect anything in return and does not give any special considerations to anyone. Agápē regards the enemy in the same way as the friend, brother, spouse, lover. Given our modern context and how people typically talk of “love” it is probably unhelpful to even call it “love”.
Typically people write and think about love as experiencing an intense feeling. In cartoons when a character is in love their hearts jump out of their chest, or people “in love” are portrayed as not being able to concentrate on things because they “cannot stop thinking” about someone.
This is not what love means for Fletcher. In the Christian context agápē is the type of love which is manifest in how God relates to us. Consider Christ’s love in saying that he forgave those carrying out his execution or consider a more modern example. In February 1993, Mrs Johnson’s son, Laramiun Byrd, 20, was shot in the head by 16-year-old Oshea Israel after an argument at a party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mrs Johnson subsequently forgave her son’s killer and after he had served a 17 year sentence for the crime, asked him to move in next door to her. She was not condoning his actions, nor will she ever forget the horror of those actions, but she does love her son’s killer. That love is agápē.
3: Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else
For Fletcher, practically all moral problems we encounter can be boiled down to an apparent tension between “justice” on the one hand and “love” on the other. Consider a recent story:
Trevell Coleman, better known as the rapper G Dep, was a rising star on the New York hip-hop scene and had been signed to P Diddy’s Bad Boy record label. He also had a wife, Crystal, and twin boys.
Yet Trevell, who was brought up a Catholic and always retained his faith, had a terrible secret, as an 18-year-old, he had mugged and shot a man. He never knew what happened to his victim, yet 17 years later, in 2010, he could no longer bear the guilt and went to the police — a step almost unimaginable for someone from the Hip Hop world.
A police search of their cold case files revealed the case of John Henkel — shot and killed in 1993 at exactly the same street corner in Harlem where Trevell says he committed his crime. He is now serving a jail sentence of 15 years to life for Henkel’s murder. Yet he has no regrets; “I wanted to get right with God”, he says.
Trevell’s choice was perhaps hardest to bear for his wife Crystal, who now has to bring up their teenage boys on her own.
This could be expressed as a supposed tension between “love” of family and doing the right thing — “justice”. Fletcher thinks that most other moral problems can be thought of in this way. Imagine we are trying to decide what is the best way to distribute food given to a charity, or how a triage nurse might work in a war zone. In these cases we might put the problem like this. We want to distribute fairly, but how should we do this?
Fletcher says the answer is simple. To act justly or fairly is precisely to act in love. “Love is justice, justice is love”.9
4: Love wills the neighbor’s good when we like him or not
This is self-explanatory. As we noted above, agápē is in the business of loving the unlovable. So related to our enemies:
Christian love does not ask us to lose or abandon our sense of good and evil, or even of superior and inferior; it simply insists that however we rate them, and whether we like them nor not, they are our neighbors and are to be loved.10
5: Only the ends justify the means, nothing else
In direct rejection of the deontological approaches Fletcher says that any action we take, as considered as an action independent of its consequences is literally, “meaningless and pointless”. An action, such as telling the truth, only acquires its status as a means by virtue of an end beyond itself.
6: Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively
Ethical decisions are not cut and dried most of the time and they exist in a grey area. No decision can be taken before considering the situation. Fletcher gives the example of a women in Arizona who learned that she might “bear a defective baby because she had taken thalidomide”. What should she do? The loving decision was not one given by the law which stated that all abortions are wrong. However, she travelled to Sweden where she had an abortion. Even if the embryo had not been defective according to Fletcher her actions were “brave and responsible and right” because she was acting in light of the particulars of the situation so as to bring about the most love.
6. Problems with Fletcher’s Situationism
Fletcher’s Situationism is a hopelessly confused and confusing moral theory. Fletcher’s work has the annoying tendency to present trivially true claims as if they are profound philosophical insights.
At the most general level, Fletcher commits the fallacy of appealing to authority. This is simply the mistake of thinking that an argument is strengthened by saying that someone else — normally someone in “authority”, holds it.
Fletcher uses many quotations from famous theologians and mentions famous philosophers, such as Aristotle, as a substitute for argument. Unfortunately simply appealing to others is not an argument. To see how useless this approach is consider the following: “Walker’s crisps are healthy because Gary Lineker says so”.
The other concern throughout Fletcher’s work is that he is simply unclear and inaccurate, especially when dealing with the two central ideas: “love” and “situation”.
In some places he talks about love being an “attitude”. In other places he says it is what we ought to bring about as an end point. Which is it? Is it a loving “attitude” in virtue of which we act? Or is it about bringing about certain consequences?
To see why this might be problematic, consider a case where we act out of the attitude of agápē but the consequence is one of great death and destruction. Suppose we act in good “conscience” as Fletcher calls it but our act brings about horrendously dire consequences. According to Fletcher have we done right or wrong? It is not clear.
If he does say that what we did is “wrong” then fine, agápē should not be thought of as an attitude, but rather some feature of consequences. This reading is of course in line with his agápē calculus. Ok, so then imagine the devil acting out of hatred and malice but — due to his lack of knowledge — happens to bring about a vast amount of love in the world. Has the devil acted in the morally right way? If the “agápē calculus” is used then “yes”. So, according to Fletcher has the devil done the right thing? It is not clear.
Notice it is no good saying “well we cannot decide because it depends on the situation!” Because we have just given you the details of the situation. If you need more information, just make some up and then reframe the question. So what Fletcher means by “love” is not clear. Nor is what he means by “situation”.
If you were writing a book on Situationism you would expect a clear and extended discussion of these concepts. However, there is no discussion of it in his key text and this is an important omission. To see how thorny the issue actually is consider the following. A politician stands up and says “given the current situation we need to raise taxes”. Our first response is probably going to be “what situation?” The point, simply put, is that there is no obvious way of knowing what is meant by “situation”. What we will choose to consider in any situation will depend on what is motivating us, what our dispositions are, what agendas we have.
Consider a moral example. A terminally ill patient wants to die; given the situation what ought we to do? The point is what does, and does not, get considered in “the situation”, will be dependent on what we already think is important. Do we consider his religious views, the fact that he has three cats which depend on him? What about the type of illness, the type of death, who he leaves behind, the effect it might have on the judicial system, the effect on the medical profession etc.
So then, as a way of actually working out what we ought to do, Fletcher’s prescription that we should “ask what will bring about the most love in the situation” is singularly unhelpful. It seems perfectly plausible that one person might see the situation in one way and someone else see it in another, and hence we get two different claims about what we ought to do. You might think this is OK, on Fletcher’s account. But recall he rejects Antinomianism (Relativism).
It is in fact quite easy to generate lots and lots of worries about Fletcher’s account. This is because his theory is based on a very crude form of Utilitarianism. Have a look at Chapter 1 where we suggest some problems and simply replace “happiness” with agápē. Here is one example.
Utilitarianism is accused of being counter intuitive. If we could only save our dad or five strangers from drowning, the utilitarian would argue we should save the strangers because five lots of happiness is better than one. But is not it admirable and understandable to save a loved one over strangers?
The situationalist will have exactly the same problem. We might imagine that saving five strangers would bring about more “love” than saving your dad. In which case we ought to save the strangers over your dad. But is not it admirable and understandable to save a loved one over strangers?
You can simply repeat this substitution for most of the problems we cited regarding Utilitarianism, e.g. it being “too demanding” and hence generate a whole host of problems for Fletcher.
We leave you with the following quotation from Graham Dunstan writing in the Guardian, regarding Fletcher’s book:
It is possible, though not easy, to forgive Professor Fletcher for writing his book, for he is a generous and lovable man. It is harder to forgive the SCM Press for publishing it.
Fletcher’s Situational Ethics gained a popular following as it allowed the religious believer to fit their views into the rapidly changing and nuanced moral and political landscape of the 1960s. Fletcher's position has a central commitment to God’s love — agápē. It is this central focus on agápē as the moral guide for behaviour that allows Fletcher to claim that an action might be right in one context, but wrong in a different context — depending on the level of agápē brought about. In fact, Fletcher thinks that sometimes what might be morally required of us is to break the Ten Commandments.
Despite how popular the theory was it is not philosophically sophisticated, and we soon run into problems in trying to understand it. His position is worth studying though (not just because it is on the curriculum!) because it opens up the conceptual possibility that a committed Christian/Jew/Muslim etc. may consider the answers to moral questions to depend on the diverse situations we find ourselves in.
COMMON STUDENT MISTAKES
- Mixing up Fletcher’s use of “Positivism” with Ayer’s use of “positivism”.
- Thinking that Fletcher’s is a “pragmatist”.
- Think that situation ethics allows you do to anything you want.
- Think that love is about feelings.
- Think that by “conscience” Fletcher means a “moral compass”.
ISSUES TO CONSIDER
- Why do you think Fletcher’s book was so popular at the time of publication?
- If an alien visited earth and asked “What is love?” how would you answer them?
- How does Situationism differ from “Utilitarianism” if at all?
- If we act from love, does that mean we can do anything?
- What does it mean to say that conscience is a verb rather than a noun? Do you think we have a conscience? If you do, should we think of it as a verb or a noun?
- Why does Fletcher say that his theory is: “fact-based, empirical-based, data-conscious and inquiring”?
- What do you think a Christian would make of Fletcher’s theory?
- What do you think “situation” means?
- What does Fletcher mean by “positivism”?
- What is the “fallacy of appealing to authority”? Can you give your own example?
- Pick one challenge to Utilitarianism, and reform the challenge as one towards Situationism.
Fletcher, Joseph F., Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1966).
Kirk, Kenneth E., Conscience and Its Problems: An Introduction to Casuistry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999).
‘Saudi Police “Stopped” Fire Rescue’, BBC News (15 March 2002), freely available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1874471.stm
1 K. E. Kirk, Conscience and its Problems, p. 331.
2 J. F. Fletcher, Situation Ethics.
3 Ibid., p. 15.
5 J. F. Fletcher, Situation Ethics, p. 27.
6 Ibid., p. 47.
7 Ibid., p. 51.
8 Ibid., p. 95.
9 Ibid., p. 89.
10 Ibid., p. 107.