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Situational Ethics Essay

About situation ethics

Situation ethics (contextualism)

The right thing to do depends on the situation ©

In situation ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation.

There are no universal moral rules or rights - each case is unique and deserves a unique solution.

Situation ethics rejects 'prefabricated decisions and prescriptive rules'. It teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

So a person who practices situation ethics approaches ethical problems with some general moral principles rather than a rigorous set of ethical laws and is prepared to give up even those principles if doing so will lead to a greater good.

Situation ethics was originally devised in a Christian context, but it can easily be applied in a non-religious way.

Elements of situation ethics

The elements of situation ethics were described by Joseph Fletcher, its leading modern proponent, like this:

  • Moral judgments are decisions, not conclusions
    • Decisions ought to be made situationally, not prescriptively
    • We should seek the well-being of people, rather than love principles.
  • Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love: nothing else
    • Love, in this context, means desiring and acting to promote the wellbeing of people
    • Nothing is inherently good or evil, except love (personal concern) and its opposite, indifference or actual malice
    • Nothing is good or bad except as it helps or hurts persons
    • The highest good is human welfare and happiness (but not, necessarily, pleasure)
    • Whatever is most loving in a situation is right and good--not merely something to be excused as a lesser evil
    • Moral theology seeks to work out love's strategy, and applied ethics devises love's tactics.
  • Love "wills the neighbour's good" [desires the best for our neighbour] whether we like them or not
    • The ultimate norm of Christian decisions is love: nothing else
    • The radical obligation of the Christian ethic to love even the enemy implies unmistakably that every neighbour is not a friend and that some are just the opposite.
  • Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed
    • Love and justice both require acts of will
    • Love and justice are not properties of actions, they are things that people either do or don't do
    • Love and justice are essentially the same
    • Justice is Christian love using its head--calculating its duties. The Christian love ethic, searching seriously for a social policy, forms a coalition with the utilitarian principle of the 'greatest good of the greatest number.'
  • The rightness depends on many factors
    • The rightness of an action does not reside in the act itself but in the loving configuration of the factors in the situation--in the 'elements of a human act' --i.e., its totality of end, means, motive, and foreseeable consequences.

[The text above is based on material in Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work, by Joseph Fletcher; Westminster Press, 1967]


Good and bad points

Good points of situation ethics

Situation ethics is a personal approach ©

It's personal

Situation ethics is sensitive to circumstances, context, particularity, and cultural traditions. Every moral decision is required to demonstrate respect for individuals and communities and the things that they regard as valuable.

This avoids the logical, detached, impersonal ways of thinking that some people think are overemphasised in some other forms of ethics.

It's particular

Because moral decisions are treated on a case-by-case basis, the decision is always tailored to particular situations.

It's based on doing good

Situation ethics teaches that right acts are those motivated by the wish to promote the well-being of people.

Bad points of situation ethics

It excludes most universal moral truths

By doing this it seems to remove any possibility of guaranteeing universal human rights, and satisfying human needs for a useful ethical framework for human behaviour.

It's not clear what 'love' means

Although the notion of love used in situation ethics seems attractive, it's pretty vague and can be interpreted in many ways.

It's difficult to implement

Situation ethics seems to be little more than a form of act consequentialism, in that a person can only choose the right thing to do if they consider all the consequences of their possible action, and all the people who may be affected.

It can't produce consistent results

Situation ethics produces a lack of consistency from one situation to the next.

It may be both easier, and more just and loving, to treat similar situations similarly - thus situation ethics should not be treated as a free-for-all, but should look for precedents while continuing to reject rigid ethical rules.

It may approve of 'evil' acts

Situation ethics teaches that particular types of action don't have an inherent moral value - whether they are good or bad depends on the eventual result.

So it seems that situation ethics permits a person to carry out acts that are generally regarded as bad, such as killing and lying, if those acts lead to a sufficiently good result.

This is an uncomfortable conclusion, but one that affects other ethical theories as well. Moreover, it does seem to be accepted in certain situations. As an obvious example, killing people is generally regarded as bad, but is viewed as acceptable in some cases of self defence.

The popular TV drama 24 regularly brought up this issue with regards to torture. The characters in the drama claimed they were justified in the (sometimes brutal) torture of suspects because the information gained in doing so saved thousands of lives.


A Critical Look at Situation Ethics

by Wayne Jackson

Basically, there are three schools of thought regarding human moral responsibility. First, there is nihilism. Nihilism argues that there is no God, hence anything one wishes to do is permitted. There are no rules—absolutely none—for human conduct; according to this ideology, every person is a law unto himself.

Second, there is relativism. Relativism contends that all conduct is relative to the circumstance. Thus, each individual must decide what is moral or immoral in a given situation. Ultimately, every man is his own judge of the matter.

Third, there is absolutism. This concept affirms that there is an absolute, objective standard of right and wrong (grounded in the holy nature of God himself), and this code of moral conduct is set forth in the Bible—reaching its zenith in the New Testament. Elsewhere we have discussed these ideas in greater detail (Jackson 1986, 153-160). For the present, we will address relativism, or, as it is more commonly known, situation ethics.

There are two fundamental categories of situation ethicists. There are atheistic situationists—those who totally reject the Scriptures as having any bearing on morality. Then, in addition, there are religious situationists—including those who allege that the Bible actually endorses this code of action.

Atheistic Situationism

The former category finds expression in the following statement found in Humanist Manifestos I & II:

[W]e affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction (1973, 17).

The foregoing declaration is wholly void of reason. If man is “autonomous,” i.e., he is a self-governing creature, there could never be a situation in which he could do wrong! It is an exercise in futility to attempt to construct any sort of ethical system apart from the concept that man has a soul that ultimately will be accountable to God in eternity, that Heaven has revealed that concept, and regulated human activity, through the Scriptures.

The French philosopher Pascal wrote:

It is certain that the mortality or immortality of the soul must make an entire difference to morality. And yet philosophers have constructed their ethics independently of this: they discuss to pass an hour (n.d., 79).

In his Diary of a Writer, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky observed:

Neither a man nor a nation can live without a “higher idea,” and there is only one such idea on earth, that of an immortal human soul; all the other “higher ideas” by which men live follow from that (Berdyaev 1934, 105).

No skeptic can consistently argue the case for situational morality.

Religious Situationism

Theological situationism has been popularly argued by Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher claims that situation ethics is a balance between “antinomianism” (no law) and “legalism” (bound by law). Antinomianism and legalism represent the same basic concepts referred to above as nihilism and absolutism. For Fletcher, “love” is the sole factor in making moral judgments (1966, 26).

But Fletcher’s theory is fraught with insuperable logical difficulties. First, it is self-contradictory. This view contends that there are no rules except the rule to love. But what if, in a certain situation, one decides that love is not the appropriate course of action? Again, according to the situationist, there are no absolutes—except that one absolutely must love in all situations! But what is the standard by which this mandate is defended?

Second, the situationist’s “love” is purely subjective; he decides what love is in any given context. One writer notes that Fletcher has defined “love” in no less than a dozen ways in his book, Situation Ethics.Situation ethics removes God from the throne as the moral sovereign of the universe, and substitutes man in his place. Situationism completely ignores the biblical view that mere mortals are void of sufficient wisdom to guide their earthly activity (cf. Jeremiah 10:23).

Third, this ideology assumes that “love” is some sort of ambiguous, no-rule essence that is a cure-all for moral problems. That is like suggesting that two football teams play a game in which there will be no rules except “fairness.” But, fairness according to whose judgment? The Cowboys? The Forty-niners? The referees? The spectators? The sports writers? (cf. Lutzer 1981, 33). This line of argumentation is utter nonsense. Actually, when boiled down, situationism is not substantially different from nihilism, for, as Joseph Fletcher confesses: “For the situationist there are no rules—none at all” (1966, 55).

Finally, situationism assumes a sort of infallible omniscience that is able to always precisely predict what the most “loving” course of action is. For instance, the theory contends that lying, adultery, murder, etc., could be “moral” if done within the context of love. Yet who is able to foretell the consequences of such acts, and so determine, in advance, what is the “loving” thing to do? Consider the following scenario.

A young woman, jilted by her lover, is in a state of great depression. A married man, with whom she works, decides to have an affair with her in order to comfort her. Some, like Fletcher, would argue that what he did might well have been a noble deed, for the man acted out of concern for his friend. What a perverted viewpoint! Here is the rest of the story. The man’s wife learned of his adulterous adventure, could not cope with the trauma, and eventually committed suicide. One of his sons, disillusioned by the immorality of his father and the death of his mother, began a life of crime, and finally was imprisoned for murder. Another son became a drunkard and was killed in an automobile accident that also claimed the lives of a mother and her two children. Now, who will contend that that initial act of infidelity was the “loving” thing to do?

Here is another matter for reflection. During the first century, thousands of Christians were martyred for their faith. If the rule of situation ethics is valid, why could not those saints have lied, “denying the Lord who bought them,” and thus have rationalized that circumstance by arguing that the preservation of their lives would grant them more time in which to proclaim the gospel? If this dogma is true, the martyrs died in vain!

Is Situation Ethics Biblical?

There are those who actually claim that the Bible endorses the concept of situation ethics. Some, for instance, cite the case of the Canaanite harlot, Rahab. She lied in order to save the Israelite spies; and yet, she is commended in the New Testament record (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). This, they allow, is a clear argument in defense of situation ethics.

Moreover, it is claimed that even Christ sanctioned the principle of situationism when he appealed to the circumstance of David and his men eating the showbread, normally reserved for priests only, in an emergency situation (Matthew 12:1ff). Actually, neither of these cases provides the coveted justification for the practice of situation ethics.

The case of Rahab does not bestow divine sanction upon the practice of situation ethics. First, Rahab’s lie is never condoned in the Scriptures. The fact that the episode is recorded in the Bible does not mean that it is approved. All lying is condemned (Revelation 21:8). The narrative regarding Rahab merely provides an example of where God honored a woman due to her obedient faith—in spite of her character flaw. This woman was a harlot in a pagan environment, but she had developed a budding faith in Jehovah (see Joshua 2:9ff). Accordingly, she received the Israelite spies with peace (Hebrews 11:31). Her motive was right, even though her method was wrong. There is not a word in the Scriptures that endorses the false story she told in concealing the spies, and it is utter desperation that grasps at this narrative in an attempt to justify situation ethics.

The record in Matthew 12 is very interesting. On a certain Sabbath day the Lord and his disciples were traveling through a grain field. The disciples, being hungry, began to pluck grain and to eat. Certain Pharisees saw this, and charged these men with breaking the sabbath regulation within the Mosaic law. The fact is, the disciples had violated only the uninspired traditions of the Jewish elders; they had not transgressed the law of Moses (see Edersheim 1947, 56). In order to silence their baseless objection, Christ employed an ad hominem argument (a procedure whereby an opponent’s inconsistency is exposed by an appeal to his own position).

Jesus cited the case of David (1 Samuel 21:6), who along with his men, once ate of the temple showbread, which “was not lawful for him to eat” (Matthew 12:4). The essence of the Lord’s argument is this:

You gentlemen revere David as a great king and Hebrew hero. David once clearly broke the law by an illegal consumption of food. Yet, you never condemn him! On the other hand, my disciples have violated only your human traditions, and yet you charge them with sin. How very inconsistent you are!

This incident contains not a vestige of support for situation ethics. Jesus plainly said that what David did was “not lawful.” Those who attempt to employ this narrative in defense of situationism simply have missed the force of the Master’s argument (cf. McGarvey n.d., 104).

Situation ethics is a popular belief in a world bent on departure from God. But it does not have the sanction of the Holy Scriptures, and, if persistently pursued, will ultimately result in societal chaos.

  • Berdyaev, Nicolas. 1934. Dostoevsky. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward.
  • Edersheim, Alfred. 1947. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Fletcher, Joseph. 1966. Situation Ethics. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
  • Humanist Manifestos I & II. 1973. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1986. Rules By Which Men Live. Essays in Apologetics. Vol. 2. Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press.
  • Lutzer, Erwin. 1981. The Necessity of Ethical Absolutes. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • McGarvey, J. W. n.d. Commentary on Matthew and Mark. Des Moines, IA: Gospel Broadcast.
  • Pascal, Blaise. n.d. The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal. Garden City, NY: Dolphis Books.
Scripture References

Jeremiah 10:23; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25; Matthew 12:1; Revelation 21:8; Joshua 2:9; Matthew 12; 1 Samuel 21:6; Matthew 12:4

Cite this article

Jackson, Wayne. "A Critical Look at Situation Ethics." Access date: March 13, 2018.