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Situation Ethics. What is Situation Ethics?. Situation Ethics is the method of ethical decision making that states that you must consider “noble love” (agape) in decision making, and that a moral decision is correct if it is the most loving thing to do. Historical background.

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Situation Ethics

What is Situation Ethics?

Situation Ethics is the method of ethical decision making that states that you must consider “noble love” (agape) in decision making, and that a moral decision is correct if it is the most loving thing to do.

historical background
Historical background

‘Greater independence; more money in their pockets and purses; the weakening of family bonds and religious influences; the development of earlier maturity, physically, emotionally and mentally; the impact of modern books, television and periodicals’

(Sex and Morality, SCM, 1966)

The study above blamed many things on the fact that many people were turning away from the Church’s rules (legalism) and more towards antinomianism (the abandonment of any rules). The world was becoming more secular (non-religious) and people had stopped listening to the Church and their teachings on what was ethically right.

Good to quote!

so where does situation ethics fit in
So where does Situation Ethics fit in?

Fletcher and Robinson acknowledged these changes and sought an ethical solution which would bring people back towards making Christian moral decisions, but which didn’t have the doom and gloom associated with religion.

Robinson said that Situation Ethics was for “Man come of age”. In other words, it was for people who were moving away from having to be told what to do by God, and yet it still had the Christian flavour. It was slap bang in the middle of legalism and antinomianism!

Robinson and Tillich suggested that God could be understood as ‘the ground of our being’, of ultimate significance, but not a dues ex machine, a supernatural being who intervenes in the world from outside it. In other words God is part of people not this almighty being who barks instructions at us to follow.

Use this phrase

test time write down your answers then click the mouse to check them
Test time! Write down your answers then click the mouse to check them

Q: Give 2 things that made people start becoming secular

A: Vietnam war, contraception, TV/communication, greater independence

Q: What was the study which investigated what was going on called and in which year was it published?

A: Sex and Morality, 1966

Q: What did Robinson mean by “man come of age”?

A: The idea that the time had come where people were moving away from having to be told what to do by God

Q: What does deux ex machine mean?

A: God is of great significance but does not interfere with humanity anymore


Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991)



Situation Ethics is based on 1 principle only – to the most loving thing - and so it is relevant to everyone, everywhere and in any set of circumstances.

It also means that nothing is always right or always wrong – it is situational so what may be right in one situation, may be immoral in another situation.

but what is love
But what is love??

Fletcher and Robinson didn’t mean just any kind of love – it had to be unconditional and the sort from one human to another. It is not based on romance, sexual attraction or any relationship at all. It can be from one stranger to another, as well as between people who know each other.

It is the love that Jesus and St Paul talked about in the Bible - AGAPE

the result
The Result
  • The fall out of such an idea was immense. To many people this was a really popular and interesting idea.
  • To religious people it was an abomination and flew in the face of what the Church stood for – more about this later!
understanding situation ethics
Understanding Situation Ethics

Fletcher came up with the 4 Working Principles in order to help people understand how situation ethics works and why it is a good idea.

These are 4 things which are the main ideas in Situation Ethics and you should try to include at least 3 in your essay if asked about the main features/principles


Situation ethics is good as it is always what works for the best.

No matter what the situation, going with what is the most loving thing can only lead to more good than bad


Love is the only thing that is relevant to all situations unlike laws which work for some things but not others. Situation Ethics uses 1 principle so is easy to remember




Love is the most important criterion of all. Situation Ethics recognises that love is the most important thing when making a moral choice and echoes the sentiments of the Bible


Situation Ethics puts human beings and their concerns are at the centre of morality unlike laws and rules which often seem to be detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. This follows Jesus’ example

test time write down your answers then click the mouse to check them1
Test time! Write down your answers then click the mouse to check them

Q: What does agape mean?

A: Christian love for one another

Q: Name the 4 parts of the 4 Working Principles

A: Pragmatism, relativism, personalism, positivism

Q: What is Fletcher’s main quote on what Situation Ethics is about?

A: “The morality of an action depends on the situation”

Q: What is personalism?

A: The idea that people should come before rules, as demonstrated and taught by Jesus in the New Testament

so where did the idea stem from
So where did the idea stem from?

As far as Fletcher and Robinson (at first) was concerned Situation Ethics was a Christian ethic based on the teachings of Jesus.

In the Bible Jesus had many discussions with the Pharisees over old morality (the strict application of Torah law / legalism) versus new morality (Jesus’ idea of how the law should be applied).


Fletcher used the following to show that a strict application of the Bible’s rules was no longer needed and was in line with what Jesus thought too

  • The adulterous woman - Jesus prevents a woman being stoned even though the law allowed her to be. This is evidence of personalism too.
  • Jesus and the Sabbath Day – Jesus also confronted the Pharisees over what the day was intended for. In order to follow strict Jewish law absolutely nothing could be done on this day, often to the detriment of people. Jesus wanted people to follow the spirit in which God had given the law rather than following it to the letter and acting immorally in some cases
  • Jesus commented on the divorce law – He said that the divorce law had been given as a response to man’s “sinful nature” but now people had evolved and should not need to be told what to do now. This is in line with Robinson’s “man come of age” idea
also in line with jesus are the 6 fundamental principles
Also in line with Jesus are the 6 Fundamental Principles

These are 6 things which spell out what agape is and relate closely to Biblical teaching on what Christian love should be.

For the exam you only really need to use 1 or 2 of these.


2. Love is the only norm

Jesus and St Paul replaced the Torah with the principle of love, in the past Christians have broken the 10 Commandments in order to do the right thing e.g. Bonhoeffer tried to kill Hitler

1. Love only is always good

Actions are only good if they help humans (showing love for one another) and they are bad if they hurt people.

6. Love decides there and then

Whether something is right or wrong depends on the situation and can’t be pre-determined

The 6



3. Love and justice are the same, and love is justice distributed

Love and justice can not be separated.

5. Love is the only means

When weighing up a situation, one must consider what you want the outcome to be and what you need to do to get there. Fletcher said the end must be the most loving thing

4. Love wills the neighbour's good, whether we like him or not.

Your neighbour is anybody and agape love goes out to everyone

Try to use Fletcher’s examples if you can in your work, rather than your own. Don’t forget to talk about them as well, they shouldn’t just be stuck in randomly
  • Never write out the whole story, just refer to it. For example

Fletcher used the example “Sacrificial Adultery” where a POW woman debates on whether to have commit adultery in order to be released and sent back to her family.

The point Fletcher was making was that surely it was the best thing (the most loving thing) for the mother to break the Commandment “Do not commit adultery” in order to get home to her children. This has to be the most loving thing for her and all even though it breaks one of God’s commandments. Surely God would not think this immoral as this is not why he gave that particular law in the first place?

a sum up of the characteristics principles on which situation ethics is based
A sum up of the characteristics/principles on which Situation Ethics is based:
  • It is an attempt to link Christianity with new morality for ‘man come of age’
  • It focus’ on Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees about the application of legalistic rules
  • It is the rejection of absolute rules as it solves moral dilemmas situationally and circumstantially
  • It focus’ on positivism and personalism
criticisms of situation ethics
Criticisms of Situation Ethics

These come from 2 main camps:

roman catholic church criticism
Roman Catholic Church Criticism

Roman Catholics are quite traditionally in many ways and closely follow the instructions of the Bible (called Divine Command).

Pope Pius XII banned Situation Ethics from being discussed at RC seminaries.

In 1952 Pope Pius XII called situation ethics ‘an individualistic and subjective appeal to the concrete circumstances of actions to justify decisions in opposition to the natural law or God’s revealed will’.

So in other words he said that it was wrong to break God’s laws


It is individualistic because humans see things from their own perspective.

There is a danger that the ideals of unconditional love may be polluted by a selfish human tendency and people using it as an excuse for not obeying the rules. How many parents can show equal love to strangers as to their own children?

This argument made Robinson withdraw his support for Situation Ethics

Situation ethics is subjective because decisions are made from within the situation as it is perceived to be.

Situation ethics could prove unworkable because it isn’t easy to determine all the consequences of an action.

Situation ethics seems to be prepared to accept any action at all if it fits the required criteria.

What is believed to be a loving end by some could justify actions that many people would regard as wrong.

Pius XII

another christian criticism
Another Christian criticism

It wasn’t just the Roman Catholic Church who was opposed to Situation Ethics. Other Christians put forward Biblical justification of how Fletcher had got it wrong:

St. Paul continued Jesus’ mission after his death instructing new churches setting up as far as Greece. In Romans 13:9-10 he says:

9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself." 10Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”

So according to St Paul, people do need to follow God’s laws in order to follow Jesus’ teaching on how agape is distributed

william barclay s criticisms
William Barclay’s Criticisms
  • Barclay said the examples Fletcher used to illustrate situation ethics are extreme cases. He asked how often people had to make life and death decisions on which situation ethics seemed to be based? He said: “It is much easier to agree that extraordinary situations need extraordinary measures than to think that there are no laws for ordinary life.” (Ethics in a Permissive Society, 1971)
  • He said that the suggestion that laws could be abandoned if needed was too optimistic. Humans needs laws for protection etc and how would people know exactly when it was “the most loving thing” to abandon them? A circumstance to one, may not be to another.
  • He argued that it is hard for individuals to make their own moral decisions in every situations. We can be swayed by emotion or fear and persuade ourselves that we are doing the most loving thing when really we are doing the thing that suits ourselves the most.
Overall strengths

That it provides a clear alternative to Christian ethics that is consistent to the Jesus represented in the Gospels. SOme would argue that it is more in line with Jesus’ teachings than following ALL the rules in the Bible

Situation ethics is flexible and practical. It takes in to account how complex human life is and can make tough decisions when, from a legalistic stance, all actions seem wrong.

It is easy to understand: you follow a single principle

You don’t have to follow a conventional rule, if that goes against your deepest sense of what love requires.

It is based on love, which, rationally as well as emotionally, is a key feature of all moral systems.

Overall weaknesses

It is subjective – we don’t always have the fact to make a sound decision

It is individualistic – what is the most loving thing to one, is not to another

It is prepared to accept any actions as long as the outcome is supposed to be loving

It is inconsistent with some teachings in the Bible

How often do we face extreme cases where it is obvious what the most loving thing is? People need to be practical and Fletcher’s illustrations aren’t relevant for most people

People need laws and rules to spell out behaviour in order to keep us all safe and singing from the same song sheet

People would mean to do the most loving thing but our personal preferences and wants will always get in the way

test time
Test time!
  • Give 3 reasons why Situation Ethics could be seen as a Christian ethic
  • Give 1 of Fletcher’s examples of Situation Ethics and explain the point of it
  • Give 3 strengths of Situation Ethics
  • Give 3 weakness’ of Situation Ethics
  • Why did Robinson withdraw his support of Situation Ethics in the end?
past questions
Past Questions

2007: (i) Identify the distinctive characteristics of situation ethics. (21)

  • An attempt to link Christianity with new morality
  • It focus’ on Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees about the application of legalistic rules
  • Rejection of absolute rules
  • Solves moral dilemmas situationally and circumstantially
  • Focus’ on positivism and personalism

To answers refer to Fletcher and Robinson

2009 i examine the distinctive features of situation ethics
2009: (i) Examine the distinctive features of Situation Ethics.
  • Refers to the relative nature of the theory, to the rejection of absolutes,
  • the centrality of agape,
  • personalism
  • positivism,
  • the example of Jesus,
  • The attempt by Robinson and Fletcher to establish an ethic for ‘man come of age’.
  • Displays some knowledge and understanding of Situation Ethics within its social context and to show some understanding of the controversial nature of the theory and its relationship with changing theology in the mid 20th century.
  • Case studies are likely to be used with discretion, perhaps Fletcher’s own, rather than hypothetical scenarios.
(ii) Comment on the view that Situation Ethics fails to be a valuable method for moral decisionmaking.

It doesn’t fail because:

  • It was a way to unite people moving away from the Church with Christian moral principles – it worked as it did lead people back to Christianity
  • It follows one principle so is easy to remember and apply unlike other forms of ethical decision making
  • It is valuable as it counter acts problems caused by rigidly following laws – e.g. puts people first (personalism)

However, it fails because:

  • Arguably it is not valuable as it does not fully fit with Christian teaching – St. Paul said that “Love is the fulfilment of the law”
  • It allows rules to be broken if it is the most loving thing, yet who decides when that is? It is unworkable really as some people can’t follow laws to protect people so allowing no absolute rules could lead to chaos
  • As Pope Pius XII said it is not valuable as it is subjective. People can’t always make an informed decision about what the most loving thing if they don’t have the full facts which many situations don’t allow
  • Barclay would say that it is not valuable as people naturally do what is best for themselves rather than what is good for people in general.
What are the distinctive features of situation ethics? (21)
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of situation ethics (9)