The situation ethics of Fletcher is most widely understood as a Christian ethic, based fundamentally
upon the principle of 'agape' — or unconditional love for the neighbour. Situation ethics on the other
hand is contextual, and the morally permissible action must be understood in terms of the situation
itself. How valid is it to criticize situation ethics as a conditional theory which rests on an unconditional
principle? Are these theoretical characteristics not incompatible and contradictory?
Fletcher's basic principle is that there is nothing which is universally prohibited, there are no rules to
tell us what to do and what not to do. However, there is something (for Fletcher one thing and one
thing only) that is intrinsically valuable and good that can prescribe action. This is agape.So long as
we act out of love we are acting morally. But it is a separate question what it is to act from the
principle of agape. Perhaps Situation ethics can be summed up in a quote, "There is only one
ultimate and invariable duty and its formula is, 'Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself'. How to do
this is another question, but this is the whole of the moral duty" (V. Temple).
This kind of structure is not uncommon in ethical theory. For example Utilitarianism has a concept of
a unconditional good, namely happiness. For the Utilitarian any action that is considered moral must
be one that promotes the greatest degree of happiness (for the greatest number). But what actually
constitutes promoting happiness, how this is to be achieved is a different issue. And will be answered
differently on different occasions. Similarly for the principle of agape. While we must always act from
and in accordance with the motive unconditional love, what concrete actions we do take will be
determined by the situation (and not just physical aspects of the situation such as time and place, but
also psychological aspects i.e. what beliefs we have and what abilities we have). In this respect
Situation ethics is no more controversial than Utilitarianism (though this does not let situation ethics of
lightly, for utilitarianism is very controversial!)
The point is that the two theoretical characteristics are not contradictory, they be even be
complementary. To see this, try to imagine either of them on it's own and see if it is successful in
generating moral behaviour:
First the fundamental principle to love your neighbour or to promote the greatest happiness. On it's
own this is empty, it tells us nothing about what to do. Second, the situation itself. Suppose I am in a
burning building which happens to contain my disabled father and a doctor with a cure for a killer
disease. What am I going to do? Nothing in the situation will tell me, perhaps even no rule based
ethic could resolve the issue, such as the rule 'Never kill any one'. What ever I do, someone will die.
But now if we put the two together we get an answer. The Utilitarian would say, save the one which
will lead to the most happiness. Fletcher would say, save the one which would be in accordance with
acting from love. I can't say which one because I am not in that situation. Which is the whole point of
situation ethics. Fletcher does not say that the structure of situation ethics is like this; "if you are in a
burning building, then this action X is the one that you should perform because X is the one that
conforms with the principle of agape".
We might find Situation ethics unsatisfactory as an account of what it is to be moral, but that is a
defect of Fletcher's arguments and assumptions in his account of what agape is, and not I think, an
inconsistency in the general structure of this type of ethical theory.
Though of course it is possible to reject this structural feature. Subjectivist and relativist ethics reject
this framework in favour of some single permissive principle such as, "Whatever the situation, do
whatever is necessary achieve what you want". Other non-consequentialist, non-subjectivist ethical
theories reject the above structure in favour of a rule, or set of rules intended to guide actions
regardless of the situation. Which one we should accept is a separate question.
Dept of Philosophy
University of Sheffield