Situation Ethics

Joseph Fletcher

In 1966 Joseph Fletcher, an American theologian, published a book, Situation Ethics, in which he outlines a new approach to Christian ethical decision making. Although his ideas were rooted  in the Bible they were new, and to some shocking!
Picture2Fletcher was a professor of Christian ethics at Harvard University and then medical ethics at Virginia University.He later became an atheist and was involved with the American Euthanasia Association and the Association for Voluntary Sterilization. Despite becoming an atheist, his theory is still seen Christian.

The Importance of Stituationism

Fletcher quoted a St Louis cab driver who said “Sometimes you’ve gotta put your principles to one side and do the right thing”.  Rules (or principles) aren’t the same thing as doing what is right.

Some ethical theories suggest legalistic rules that mustn’t be broken, This is wrong as it makes rules more important than people, and doesn’t allow exceptions.  There are antinomians who reject rules entirely.  This is wrong as it leads to complete chaos with no laws at all, and no way of choosing between two courses of action.  The situationist has respect for the laws, may often follow the laws and be informed by tradition.  However, he is free to make the right choice according to the situation.


Agape: “…goodwill at work in partnership with reason” in seeking the “neighbour’s best interest with a careful eye to all the factors in the situation”. Agape is concern for others.  Fletcher uses the term ‘best interest’, so this seems much the same as Singer’s utilitarianism.  We act out of love for others, trying to do the best to serve their interests.

The Four Presuppositions

1. Pragmatism

For a course of action to be right, it has to be practical.  It must work. For example, in the case of Jodie and Mary, conjoined twins, the Catholic church wanted to let both of the girls die. To kill one, saving the other, would be an evil or bad act, they said. Fletcher would have disagreed. Letting both girls die is not pragmatic. It would be of more use, more practical, to save one girl at the expense of the other. Whilst this is not consequentialist – it is love that is good, not an outcome – in practice it makes Fletcher’s theory very similar indeed to Singer’s utilitarianism.

2. Relativism

‘It relativizes the absolute, it does not absolutize the relative’.

This means that rules (absolutes) don’t always apply, they depend on the situation.  Absolutes like ‘Do not steal’ become relative to love – if love demands stealing food for the hungry, you steal.  However, it doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’.  He doesn’t take a relative ‘Do whatever the situation demands’ and make it into an absolute [read the quote above again to check you understand this].

3. Positivism

Kant and Natural Law are based on reason – reason can uncover the right course of action.  Situation Ethics disagrees,  You have to start with a positive choice – you need to want to do good.  There is no rational answer to the question “Why should I love?”

4. Personaliasm

Situation Ethics puts people first.  People are more important than rules.  “Man was not made for the Sabbath”.

The Six Fundamental Principles

  • Love only is always good

‘Only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love: nothing else at all’

Love is intrinsically valuable, it has inherent worth.  Love is good.  Nothing else has intrinsic value but ‘it gains or acquires its value only because it happens to help persons (thus being good) or to hurt persons (thus being bad)’.  A lie is not intrinsically wrong.  It is wrong if it harms people, but may sometimes be right.  ‘For the Situationist, what makes the lie right is its loving purpose; [they are] not hypnotised by some abstract law, ‘Thou shalt not lie’.’
  • Love is the only norm (rule)

‘The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else’

Love replaces the law.  The law should only be obeyed in the interests of love, not for the law’s sake!  Fletcher rejects Natural Law.  He says ‘There are no [natural] universal laws held by all men everywhere at all times.’  Jesus summarized the entire law by saying ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbour’.  Love is the only law.  The problem with this is that 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.
  • Love and justice are the same

“Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.”

There can be no love without justice.  Consider any injustice – a child starving, a man arrested without charge etc.  These are examples of a lack of love.  If love was properly shared out, there would be no injustice.
  • Love is not liking

“Love wills the neighbor’s good whether we like him or not.”

Love is discerning and critical, not sentimental.  Martin Luther King described Agape love as a ‘creative, redemptive goodwill to all men’.  He said it would be nonsense to ask people to like their violent oppressors.  Christian love is a non-selfish love of all people.
  • Love justifies the means

“Only the end justifies the means; nothing else,”

When someone said to Fletcher ‘The end doesn’t justify the means’, he said ‘Then what on earth does?’.  If an action causes harm, it is wrong.  If good comes of it, it is right.  Fletcher says you can’t claim to be right by following a rule (like ‘Do not lie’) knowing it will cause great harm.  Only the end or outcome can justify your action.
  • Love decides there and then
There are no rules about what should or shouldn’t be done – in each situation, you decide there and then what the most loving thing to do is.

Fletcher’s examples

Fletcher developed his theory by drawing on a wide range of cases that could not be resolved by applying fixed rules and principles. Examples include the burning house and time to save only one person; your father or a doctor with the formulae for a cure for a killer disease in his head alone; the woman who kills her crying baby to save a party from massacre by Indians on the Wilderness Trail; the military nurse who deliberately treated her patients harshly so they would be determined to get fit and able to leave the hospital; and the famous case of Mrs Bergmeier:

Mrs Bergemeir was imprisoned by the Russians at the end of the Second World War and therefore separated from her husband and three children. The only reason the Russians would release prisoners was if they were too ill for the camp’s doctor to deal with or if they were pregnant. Mrs B persuaded a guard to sleep with her; she conceived a child and was packed off home to Germany. A child was born, called Dietrich, who was loved dearly.’

What would Situation Ethics theorists say about this proposal:

Other theorists: Paul Tillich

A similar approach was taken by others. Paul Tillich (1886-1965), for example, wrote a short book in 1963 called Morality and Beyond in which he argued that if there were no rules, people would always have to work out time and again what was the right thing for them to do, and that in practical terms this would be impossible. Therefore, he accepted that there could be rules, but that they should offer guidance only. Remember that Tillich wrote this before the publication of Fletcher’s Situation Ethics.


William Barclay’s criticisms

William Barclay outlined a carefully considered critique of Situation Ethics in Ethics in a Permissive Society (1971).

  • Fletcher’s cases are extreme ones. How often are we going to make the kind of life and death choices on which he bases Situation Ethics? Rarely, if ever. As Barclay puts it: ‘It is much easier to agree that extraordinary situations need extraordinary measures than to think that there are no laws for ordinary everyday life.’
  • Fletcher overestimates the value of being free from rules and the constant decision-making process it forces us into.
  • The law has several vital functions which we would be ill-advised to do away with: preventing crime, protecting society, etc.


  • It’s simple
  • It’s flexible
  • Focuses on humans and concern for others (agape).
  • Allows people to take responsibility for their own decisions and make up their own minds about what is right and wrong. Bishop J.A.T Robinson called it ‘an ethic for humanity come of age’
  • Presents a Christian ethical message that is consistent with the gospel message. It shows Christians that it is possible to be a situationist and that biblical laws do not have to be rigidly adhered to.
  •  Situation ethics provides a proportionate reason to break ethical principles: there are some situations where this may be necessary.
  • The whole system is guided by a desirable principle: that of love.
  • It is a teleological system and is not tied to the observance of rules unlike deontological ethics. This makes it flexible and allows adaptation to different circumstances.
  • It allows us to consider a greater good.
  •  The fundamental principles do a good job of defining love and explaining what it means to be loving in practice.


  • Pope Pius XII condemned the situational approach by stating, “It is an individual and subjective appeal to the concrete circumstances of actions to justify decisions in opposition to the Natural Law or God’s revealed will.”
  • This is an absolutist criticism. Pius is claiming that situation ethics is un-Christian because it is prepared to break the laws of Christianity to do ‘the most loving thing’. But absolutist Christians believe those laws can never be broken.
  • It’s too individualistic.
  • It’s subjective. So two people might disagree about what the most ‘loving thing’ is.
  • It’s dated: rooted in 60s counter-culture, etc.
  • It’s not easy to determine the consequences/outcome of an action. Easier said than done.
  • Can love ever be unselfish?
  • ‘There is a danger of selfishness creeping in under the banner of “love,” argues ’Peter Vardy.
  • In other words, is a truly selfless act really possible? This is a real problem for situation ethics, since the entire theory depends on agape.
  • Aren’t some actions just intrinsically wrong, in and of themselves? Can murder, theft, adultery, etc. ever be justified? This is an absolutist criticism.
  • Perhaps Situation Ethics bring us to the brink of a “slippery slope”. If, say, euthanasia can be justified in some circumstances why not all?
  • Therefore, some ask to what extent is Fletcher really in tune with the ethic of Paul and Jesus?
  • In Romans (in the Bible), Paul rejects the idea that we may ‘do evil so that good may come’. In other words, Paul is saying that the ends never justify the means; but this seems to contradict Fletcher’s working principle that ‘love is the only means’.
  • “Situationism is a method, not a substantive ethic.” (Fletcher) Has Fletcher shot himself in the foot with this admission?
  • It is a religious ethical system and therefore will not appeal to all, unlike Utilitarianism, which is secular.
  • The concept of love may not be as easy to define as it seems: our ideas of love may be subjective, rather than objective.
  • This theory has been rejected by many Christians. Roman Catholics who adhere to Natural Moral Law do not see consequentialist ethics as valid. Much of Christianity appears to be deontological: Jesus said that he had not come to erase the Jewish (deontological) law.
  • Most Christians are absolutists; so they would view Situation ethics as un-Christian, since it effectively lets you break any Christian law you like provided you’re doing ‘the most loving thing’.
  • It seems to be a contradiction to say that there are no ethical principles and then allow one: ‘do the most loving thing.’
  • Some Emotivists (meta-ethics) may dispute what love is. People define love definitely. Remember: