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Situation Ethics

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Situation Ethics

Background to ‘Situation Ethics’

  1. Christianity has been traditionally dominated by ‘natural law thinking’.
  1. In response to this thinking, Bultmann claimed that Jesus had no ethic – this meant that Jesus did not put forward any set of moral rules or theories.
  1. Paul Tillich summed up Situation Ethics with the quotation ‘The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law; it is absolute because it concerns everything concrete… the absolutism of love is its power to go into concrete solutions” – meaning that love is the only absolute law that we should consider when making moral decisions as it has the power to apply to every concrete situation.

Joseph Fletcher’s ‘Situation Ethics’

  1. Joseph Fletcher told a particularly interesting anecdote which involved a friend of his and a cab driver in the setting of St Louis during the end of a presidential campaign. The cab driver – who was clearly involved in the debate had said that his whole family, generations before him have always been ‘straight-ticket’ republicans. Fletcher’s friend automatically assumed that he would vote Republican as well, however, when questioned; the cab driver said ‘No, there are times when a man has to push his principles aside and do the right thing’. Fletcher claims that the cab driver is the hero of his book; this is because he acted upon what he thought was morally correct in the presented situation instead of following years of absolute principles and traditions. This is important because it meant that his decision was well-grounded and that he thought carefully about the situation instead of blindly trailing in his father’s principles.
  1. The ‘legalistic’ approach to ethics is where ethics are based on unalterable laws and principles. Fletcher used the example of abortion and how according to Catholic moral theology, it is immoral and should never be permissible. However, a surgical procedure may be acceptable even if the indirect result is the death of the fetus. This meant that if a pregnant woman has cancer of the uterus then it is permissible to perform a surgical procedure which may kill the unborn child. In other words, abortion is permissible if it is not the primary intention, but as an inevitable by-product of the primary purpose. The situational approach to ethics is seen as better than the legalistic approach as it takes into account the situation and circumstances to help produce a more reasonable decision. The situational approach determines which action is right or wrong by considering the consequences of an action; this denies any absolutes and makes ethics more relative.
  1. The term Relativism is the idea of denying absolutes such as ‘never’ and ‘always’ as they believe that exceptions can be made in almost all circumstances. In other words, ethics should be relative to the given situation and not based upon concrete doctrines or principles. However, this does not mean that ‘anything goes’, Fletcher expressed this through his quote ‘it relatives the absolute, it does not absolutise the relative’ pertaining to the fact that absolute such as ‘thou shall not steal’ should be made relative to love and the situation – if love demands that you steal and give to the poor then stealing should be permissible. The second part of the quote ‘it does not absolutise the relative’ means that relativism should not be made into an absolute, in other words, ‘doing what ever the situation demands’ should not be a rule and should still be relative to love.
  1. Fletcher’s fourth ‘working principle’ is ‘Personalism’, this is the principle which puts people as the priority. Christians should be committed to love people and not abstract principles or laws. Situation ethics says that morality should be ‘person-centered’ meaning morality should be dependant on how it affects the well-being of people. This makes it different to the natural law approach to ethics as they base morality on what the law says while situationists base morality on what is the best decision to help human beings.
  1. Fletcher’s ‘six fundamental principles’ describes the Christian principle of ‘love’ and how it should be always agapeistic. This means that love should be unconditional – it should not be selective or have preferences. Love which is selective is regarded as ‘self-love’ as it is making love into a feeling which is used to gain affection or gratitude. Agapeistic love contrasts with mutualistic love which is when love is shown by one only when he is loved in return. This is the kind of love which forms in friendships and relationships but it bears the consequence of it is dependant on the actions of the person loved.

Evaluating ‘Situation Ethics’

  1. In 1952, Situational ethics was condemned by Pope Pius XII as he believed that it was ‘an individualistic and subjective appeal to the concrete circumstances of the actions to justify decisions in opposition to the natural law or God’s revealed will.’ – this means that it was a biased doctrine to justify the opposition to the natural laws and principle presented to us by God’s will.
  1. Vardy and Grosch wrote that when ‘one accepts that euthanasia can be justified in certain circumstances, once may have entered dangerous and uncharted waters’ this means that when someone has made a decision that euthanasia is moral in a particular circumstance they are entering ‘dangerous and uncharted waters’ because they do not know what it is like to kill a person and they may not be able to bear the weight of the guilt as they have no idea how they will feel afterwards.
  1. Regarding the case of the euthanasia of Terri Schiavo, a Situationist would agree with Terri Schiavo’s decision to euthanatize his wife as he claims that he is making his decision based on his love for Terri. Michael said that his concern was to give his wife a ‘peaceful death with dignity’ and that his wife would not have wanted to live in her current condition. If these claims are true then it clearly shows that Michael is acting based on love and in this situation, allowing the death of a person should be permissible as it will cause less pain for the victim and her husband as Terri would have no chance of recovering. On the other hand, the Legalistic approach would be to not euthanize Terri as it is always immoral to take a life. I personally agree with the situational approach as it makes more sense to me. Based on the situation, it would be moral to take away Terri’s life as keeping her alive is bringing pain to both her and her husband. The situational approach ultimately has well-grounded reasons and logic behind its decision while the legalistic approach is dependant on principles which may not be relative to this given situation.

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