STRENGTH AND WEAKNESSES OF SITUATION ETHICS PARAGRAPHS PRODUCED BY 12D (MARCH 2011) INTRODUCTION ‘Love and do what you want’ Augustine Inspired by Christian teachings on agape love, Joseph put forward Situation ethics in the 1960’s. Fletcher attempted to reconcile the strict legalist (binding rules) nature of the church with the antinomian (no rules apply) attitudes of an ever changing secular society. STRENGTHS One key strength of Situation Ethics is that it puts people before rules; personalism.
As Jesus said, ‘Sabbath was made for man not man for Sabbath’ meaning that Sabbath should be a time for man rather than just to follow strict rules. This is important as it prevents people being forced into following rules. Also the fact that people come first is something that most people would agree with and find preferential. This gives an override option for situations where rules do not seem appropriate. For example the case of the 13 year old girl in Brazil who was repeatedly abused and eventually raped by her stepfather, and she fell pregnant.
She and her family were strict Catholics, as was their doctor, however they all agreed it was best to ignore the religious principle of not having an abortion, even though it caused them to be excommunicated; they acted out of love for the young girl. One of the main strengths of Situation ethics is that it is teleological meaning that an action can change depending on the situation rather than being the same every time (as teleological refers to relative morality). Teleological is concerned with the ‘telos’ – end – of an action: its consequences.
Fletcher argues that the consequences are the most important feature of an action, seeing as it is what actually affects people. The action itself is deemed unimportant, as long as it brings about the most loving outcome. Fletcher given the example of Mrs. Bergermire, who deliberately becomes pregnant with a man who was not her husband in order that she could be released from a prisoner of war camp. The Ten Commandments teaches that adultery is wrong. However, Fletcher could justify adultery under the circumstances.
Actions such as adultery could be justified: although she committed adultery – which is against Christian teachings – she did so to be re-united with her family, an undeniably loving thing to do. Fletcher attempts to reconcile the church with society on a practical level by suggesting that – when making moral decisions - one should consult tradition, but be prepared to set it aside for the sake of agape love. He finds biblical evidence for this in Jesus’ teaching, which is the corner-stone of the Christian faith.
Jesus himself criticised the Pharisees for being too legalistic. If Jesus acted as a situationist might and Christians must follow his example, then the two can be reconciled. As well as this the fact that Situation Ethics is derived from Jesus’ teachings makes it much more compatible for religious believers as they can still follow their religion whilst making decisions. Situation ethics is applicable to both secular and religious beliefs. Fletcher based the theory on Jesus’ teachings, although the ethic requires no grounded belief in God.
The theory adheres to the fundamental principle of ‘love thy neighbour’ and many of the parables which demonstrate agape, preached by Jesus, such as the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’. It is additionally justified to state that Jesus taught similarly flexible morality, for example, he stated that ‘man was made for Sabbath, not Sabbath for man’, thus demonstrating anti-nomianism beliefs. One of the key strengths Of Situation Ethics, particularly in the ever-changing 21st century, is that it is current and up to date because of its flexibility and concern with producing the most loving outcome.
With advancements in medical science for example, procedures such as stem cell research may offer dilemmas for religious believers; they may agree that the foetuses possess sanctity of life, and shouldn’t be used even if it helps people. However, Situation Ethics would say that it is acceptable, as long as it produces a loving outcome, helping and saving people. Where elements of Natural Law and other strict laws in religion may not directly address current issues, leaving decision making difficult, Situation Ethics stays relevant as it can always be applied to an individual case, always based on the outcome of agape love.
Situation ethics can be seen as autonomous, meaning that you can make your own choices and do not have to restrict yourself to rules laid down by religious institutions which may be outdated and unsuited to today’s society- We make decisions situationally in everyday life. This is good as it means that people do not have to feel pressured to make certain decisions which they may not want to and do not feel pressured to follow Biblical teachings, and they can decide what is best according to the idea of agape love (love for humanity) therefore ensuring the best outcome according to the situation.
Also it means that it can on some levels appeal to a secular society as everyone can relate to an ethic which is based on love. One of the key strengths of Situation Ethic is the fact that it is flexible, meaning that an action can change depending on the situation of those involved even if it is the same situation. Being a flexible ethic means that people can avoid having to make hard decisions that may have an absolute rule if it was based upon absolute or deontological morality, which in turn gives people more of a chance to make the right decision and choose one that is beneficial for the majority, via love.
Flexibility is vital for many in making a decision as it can fit around people’s morals and does not restrict them from following their beliefs of what is the most loving action to take and so it makes the ethic more compatible for most of society. One of the aims of situation ethics was to be more flexible than legalism WEAKNESSES However, a weakness of situation ethics is that you cannot always predict the long term consequences of actions. Therefore whilst an action may have good intentions, it may still result in a bad outcome. This stops motivation to do good.
For example, Nina Rosenstand gives the example of the neighbour who decided to turn on the heating in his friend’s house so it would be warm when he returned from holiday, accidentally set the house on fire. His intentions were driven by love, but it failed to produce a loving outcome. It can be argued that motives should be dismissed by an ethic, due to the fact the consequences can be difficult to predict. A major adversary to Situation Ethics was the Church and its criticisms. Pope Pius criticised Situation Ethics as it opposed and disregarded God’s revealed will, Natural Moral Law.
The Church believed that strict rules like the Ten Commandments had been in place for so long that there was no need now to change them, as they contained wisdom which had been in place for thousands of years. These rules were necessary to keep order in the world, as many would argue that without rules we would descend into moral chaos. William Barclay also criticised Situation Ethics as he believed human beings couldn’t act without our emotions guiding our actions. Furthermore, Barclay said that Situation Ethics isolates the Church because it allows people to make decisions independently, rather than turning to the Church for help.
A weakness of situation ethics is that it fails to take into account prima facie human relationships and how our emotions will sway our moral judgement. It is wrong to say that a person put in a difficult moral position containing their loved ones will not choose them over a stranger, even if the most loving thing to do would be to save the stranger. Also as St Augustine said “love and do what you want,” a person cannot be expected to remove their emotions from the moral dilemma and choose the most loving thing, as they may not see it as the most loving thing due to the sway of their emotions.
This is a major weakness of the ethic as it reduces its practicality in everyday life. As situation ethics is concerned with acting for the greatest amount of love, we could say that it will always be acting for good. However, it fails to take into account each person’s individual subjective nature. For example, one person may consider acting to save the life of a loved one to be the most loving thing, whereas another may think that euthanasia could be acting for the greatest love.
This could also have the effect of justifying ‘crimes’ which one person may consider to be loving, but another might consider to be wrong. The fact that each person can make a different decision in identical circumstances to someone else, shows that there is a fundamental flaw in the ethical ideology of Situation ethics, showing it is not a practical ethic for today’s society. William Barclay said that we can be swayed by emotion, and convince ourselves we are doing the most loving thing when really we are doing what suits ourselves.
CONCLUSION A compromise of Situation Ethics is Bernard Hoose’s ‘proportionalism’. Bernard Hoose believed that Situation Ethics failed by not having any rules apart from acting out of love and many people disagreed with it such as Pope Pius; therefore he combined Situation Ethics ideas with Natural Moral Law, to make a compromise of both. This meant that it was not deontological in nature, but it gives guidance of what to do in certain situations, so does not leave each person as an isolated moral decision maker.