Saturday, 19 March 2011

Situational ethics

Situational ethics, or situation ethics, is a Christian ethical theory that was principally developed in the 1960s by the then Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher. It basically states that sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served; as Paul Tillich once put it: "Love is the ultimate law." The moral principles Fletcher is specifically referring to are the moral codes of Christianity and the type of love he is specifically referring to is 'Agape' love. Agapē is a Greek term meaning absolute, universal, unchanging and unconditional love for all people. Fletcher believed that in forming an ethical system based on love, he was best expressing the notion of "love thy neighbour," which Jesus Christ taught in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. Through situational ethics, Fletcher attempted to find a "middle road" between legalistic and antinomian ethics. Fletcher developed situational ethics in his books: The Classic Treatment and Situation Ethics..

Fletcher believed that there are no absolute laws other than the law of Agapē love and all the other laws were laid down in order to achieve the greatest amount of this love. This means that all the other laws are only guidelines to how to achieve this love, and thus they may be broken if the other course of action would result in more love.

Situational ethics is a teleological, or consequential theory, in that it is concerned with the outcome or consequences of an action; the end, as opposed to an action being intrinsically wrong such as in deontological theories. In the case of situational ethics, the ends can justify the means.

Ethical classification

Because of its consequentialism, situational ethics is often confused with utilitarianism, because utilitarianism's aim is the greatest good for the greatest number, although situational ethics focuses more on creating the greatest amount of love and it also has different origins. Having said that, however, situational ethics can also be classed under the ethical theory genre of "proportionalism" which says that "It is never right to go against a principle unless there is a proportionate reason which would justify it" (Hoose, 1987).

Fletcher's four examples

Joseph Fletcher famously gave four situations as examples in which the established moral laws might need to be put on hold in order to achieve the greater amount of love. They were all either real situations, or based upon real situations; also he never gave any final judgment for these situations, but rather made people think about the best outcomes themselves.

Here are four cases adapted from Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics:

Himself Might his Quietus Make

I dropped in on a patient at the hospital who explained that he only had a set time to live. The doctors could give him some pills (that would cost $40 every three days) that would keep him alive for the next three years, but if he didn't take the pills, he’d be dead within six months. Now he was insured for $100,000, double indemnity and that was all the insurance he had. But if he took the pills and lived past next October when the insurance was up for renewal, they were bound to refuse the renewal, and his insurance would be canceled. So he told me that he was thinking that if he didn't take the pills, then his family would get left with some security, and asked my advice on the situation.

Special Bombing Mission No. 13

When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the plane crew were silent. Captain Lewis uttered six words, "My God, what have we done?" Three days later another one fell on Nagasaki. About 152,000 were killed, many times more were wounded and burned, to die later. The next day Japan sued for peace. When deciding whether to use "the most terrible weapon ever known" the US President appointed an Interim Committee made up of distinguished and responsible people in the government. Most but not all of its military advisors favoured using it. Top-level scientists said they could find no acceptable alternative to using it, but they were opposed by equally able scientists. After lengthy discussions, the committee decided that the lives saved by ending the war swiftly by using this weapon outweighed the lives destroyed by using it and thought that the best course of action.

Christian Cloak and Dagger

I was reading Gardner's "Biblical Faith and Social Ethics" on a shuttle plane to New York. Next to me sat a young woman of about twenty-eight or so, attractive and well turned out in expensive clothes of good taste. She showed some interest in my book, and I asked if she'd like to look at it. "No", she said, "I'd rather talk." What about? "Me." That was a enggage, and I knew it meant good-bye to the reading I needed to get done. "I have a problem I can't get unconfused about. You might help me to decide", she explained... There was a war going on that her government believed could be stopped by some clever use of espionage and blackmail. However, this meant she had to seduce and sleep with an enemy spy in order to lure him into blackmail. Now this went against her morals, but if it brought the war to an end, saving thousands of lives, would it be worth breaking those moral standards? !

Sacrificial Adultery

As the Russian armies drove westward to meet the Americans and British at the Elbe, a Soviet patrol picked up a Mrs. Bergmeier foraging food for her three children. Unable even to get word to the children, she was taken off to a POW camp in Ukraine. Her husband had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge and taken to a POW camp in Wales. When he was returned to Berlin, he spent months rounding up his children, although they couldn't find their mother. She more than anything else was needed to reknit them as a family in that dire situation of hunger, chaos and fear. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Mrs. Bergmeier learned through a sympathetic commandant that her husband and family were trying to keep together and find her. But the rules allowed them to release her to Germany only if she was pregnant, in which case she would be returned as a liability. She turned things over in her mind and finally asked a friendly Volga German camp guard to impregnate her, which he did. Her condition being medically verified, she was sent back to Berlin and to her family. They welcomed her with open arms, even when she told them how she had managed it. And when the child was born, they all loved him because of what they had done for them. After the christening, they met up with their local pastor and discussed the morality of the situation.

Wartime Sacrifice

    There was a naval battle in the Solomon Islands during World War 2 in which many U.S. warships were destroyed by two Japanese destroyers. In the course of the battle, one U.S. warship refused to pick up many allied sailors in the water for fear that this ship would also be damaged by enemy gunfire.

These situations were criticised by many as being quite extreme, although Joseph Fletcher agreed that they were so, because in normal cases, the general guidelines should be applied and it is only in extreme cases that exceptions would need to be made.

Situational ethics outlined

Fletcher outlined his theory in ten principles, which he split into the four working principles and the six fundamental principles.
The four working principles

There are four presuppositions that Fletcher makes before setting out the situational ethics theory:

   1. Pragmatism - This is that the course of action must be practical and work
   2. Relativism - All situations are always relative; situational ethicists try to avoid such words as "never" and "always"
   3. Positivism - The whole of situational ethics relies upon the fact that the person freely chooses to believe in agape love as described by Christianity.
   4. Personalism - Whereas the legalist thinks people should work to laws, the situational ethicist believes that laws are for the benefit of the people.

The six fundamental principles

First proposition
    Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at all. Fletcher (1963, pg56)
Second proposition
    The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else. Fletcher (1963, pg69)
Third proposition
    Love and Justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else. Fletcher (1963, pg87)
    Justice is Christian love using its head, calculating its duties, obligations, opportunities, resources... Justice is love coping with situations where distribution is called for. Fletcher (1963, pg95)
Fourth proposition
    Love wills the neighbour's good, whether we like him or not. Fletcher (1963, pg103)
Fifth proposition
    Only the end justifies the means, nothing else. Fletcher (1963, pg120)
Sixth proposition
    Love's decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. Fletcher (1963, pg134)

Jesus in relation to The Law and The Prophets

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until Heaven and Earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of Heaven."
(Matthew 5:17-19)

The Greatest Commandment

"One of...[the Pharisees], an expert in the law, tested Him with this question: 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?' Jesus replied: ''Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.'"
(Matthew 22:35-40)

"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, 'Of all the commandments, which is the most important?' 'The most important one', answered Jesus, 'is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.' 'Well said, teacher', the man replied. 'You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.' When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God.'..."
(Mark 12:28-34)

Jesus at a Pharisees House

"One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, He was being carefully watched. There in front of Him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?' But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, He healed him and sent him away. Then He asked them, 'If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?' And they had nothing to say."

The relationship between Love and the Law

The Law by itself was unable to save anyone since no one was capable of its fulfilment. Thus the Law served (initially) only to increase sin since it posed many rules available to be broken. However, it was through the Law (rather than by the Law) that the possibility of salvation would come. One man, came and fulfilled the Law. This righteousness was imputed to some through faith, which altered their eternal destiny. Now sure of a right relationship with God, and with knowledge of God's eternal promise, they were free to enter into a genuinely loving relationship with God, and they love God by loving others.

Paul talks about freedom we have in grace

"For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love... You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"
(Galatians 5:6-14)

(All quotations are from the New International Version translation of the Bible)

Book Of Mormon Link

In 1 Nephi chapter 3&4 of the Book Of Mormon, Nephi is commanded to return to Jerusalem to retrieve plates of brass from Laban which held the record of the Jews and the genealogy of his forefathers. Nephi and his party were initially rebuffed by Laban who had no desire to part with his records, but on a second attempt Nephi found Laban drunk lying on the ground. He removed Laban's sword from its scabard, and cut off his head. It was impressed upon Nephi that " the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes, and that it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." It was no easy task for Nephi to do what he did, but after much pondering on the importance of the records, and the consequences of not retrieving them, he had no hesitation in doing what he had to do.

Criticism of situational ethics

John Robinson, an Anglican Bishop of Woolwich and Dean of Trinity College started off a firm supporter of situational ethics, saying that it was: "The only ethics for the man come of age" referring to the responsibility it gave the individual in deciding the morality of their actions. Although later he withdrew his support recognising that people couldn't take this sort of responsibility, remarking that "It will all descend into moral chaos".

Situational ethics is individualistic, which is another thing Bishop Robinson may have been referring to. The problem is that it gives people an excuse for not obeying the rules when it suits them. If someone wants to do something badly enough, they are likely to be able to justify it to themselves. Agape love is an ideal, whereas humanity is a practical species full of selfishness and other flaws.

One of the problems with teleological, consequential theories is that they are based on the future consequences, and the future is quite hard to predict in some cases. For example it may be easy to predict that if you harm someone, then it will make them and those around them sad and/or angry. However, when considering more tricky situations such as an abortion, it is impossible to tell for certain how the child's life and its mother's will turn out either way.

Some point out that although Jesus was known to break the traditions and extra laws the Pharisees had set in place, (as shown in some of the biblical references) He never broke one of the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Levitical Law found in the Bible.

One other criticism of situational ethics is that it's quite vague and doesn't help much in the way of guidance. It says that the most moral thing to do is the thing that is the most loving. But then when it outlines what the most loving thing to do is, it says that the most loving thing to do is the thing that is the most just; from where it goes round in circles.

Situational ethics is subjective, because decisions are made by the individual from within the perceived situation thus calling into question the reliability of that choice.

Situational ethics is prepared to accept any action at all as morally right and some people believe that certain actions are impossible to justify.

Upon writing Situation Ethics, Fletcher claimed that, like one of its predecessors, utilitarianism, the theory was a simple and practical one, hinging around one single principle of utility which is agape love. However, he then goes on to attempt to define agape love and in the process creates more and more principles. Some would claim this makes situational ethics more complicated and less practical than the original, hedonistic utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill.

Situational ethics also assumes that the most loving thing to do is that which saves lives, maximizes happiness, etc., whereas a virtue ethics basis would point out that love is about an internal disposition or how to be, not external actions or consequences, and that the moral law adhered to by Christians is, by human nature, that which makes a person the most loving.