Joseph Fletcher 1905 – 1991

The inventor of the ethical  theory, situation ethics, or situationism or situational ethics in the 1960s, his classic work was the book of the theory, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966, Philadelphia: Westminster Press). His theory was a radical alternative Christian ethic to the more absolutist ethical theories of conservative Christians.

Traditional Christian ethics expresses a firm morality, based on fixed principles and also fixed ideas of right and wrong. These tend to be drawn, either from the biblical norms found in the Commandments and other teachings, or based on them, or (in the case of Catholic ethical thinking) in a Natural law ethic. In both traditions, the emphasis is on a deontological ethic, one focussed on judging acts as intrinsically right or wrong depending on whether they go against the norms in the bible or human nature.

Fletcher began his work with an  ethical analysis which concluded that legalistic ethics, ethics based on fixed laws, was not in the character of Jesus. Jesus seemed to have ethics which were prepared to go beyond laws. In many cases he broke laws and flew in the face of conventions associating with undesirables. He was very unpopular with the Pharisees because of this. Fletcher argued that Jesus seemed to be motivated by the situation. It wasn’t that he was lawless, but his guiding moral principle, unconditional or agape love, worked its way out taking account of the moral situation. It was not bound by what the law said, but what love dictated to achieve the most loving outcome. In this he drew on Paul Tillich who wrote “Love is the ultimate law”.

In contrast with traditional Christian deontological ethics, situationism is teleological. It looks to the end, the most loving end rather than being locked into laws about acts. Fletcher’s thinking was accused of being individualistic and relativistic. In a sense it is both, as it is the individual who decides what do to, and what they do is relative to the situation, motivated by a desire to achieve the most loving outcome. But Fletcher argued it was not relativism because  love is not relative. Love is absolute, the absolute that has the power to go into situations and change the moral possibilities.

Fletcher took radical approaches to many medical ethical issues such as euthanasia opting for a more considerate moral approach which took account of individuals in difficult dilemmas. He gave moral authority to the individual, just as Kant did. It is the human person that decides on morality. However, while Kant argued that any moral rules had to work in all moral situations, had to be universalisable, Fletcher instead said that the only moral principle that mattered was love. One had to pursue what was required to bring it about in the particular situation. So if it is more loving to help a terminally ill patient in intolerable pain to die than anything else then that is what you should do. You should not stick to a moral law when in front of you someone suffers for the sake of that law. If the concentration camp prisoner is able to prostitute herself to the guards to save herself and her child, and so avoid death, then perhaps that is the most loving thing to do.

Fletcher’s ethics were attacked by conventional Christian thinkers and ethical traditions as being individualistic and relativistic. It certainly gives great power to the person and they take responsibility for the moral decisions they make. There is no binding rule to stop actions which some will see as immoral.

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