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LOVE and SITUATION ETHICS


Related or contrasting ideas may be found in the section on The Church.

With regard to Situation Ethics, you may find it useful to approach Situation Ethics as a consequentialist rule; in that case, evidence from the sections on Absolutism and Consequentialism might become relevant to your research.



Love is the standard for moral action


The basis for society is love

Adlai E. Stevenson (U.S. statesman and presidential candidate, 1900-1965), What I Think, 1955, p. 188

“The basis of any tolerable society — from the small society of the family up to the great society of the State — depends upon its members learning to love. By that I do not mean sentimentality or possessive emotion. I mean the steady recognition of others’ uniqueness and a sustained intention to seek their good.”
Love — in particular, self-love — is the singular motive for all human actions

Joseph Butler (1692-1752; English philosopher and Bishop of Durham), in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 192

“Every particular affection, even the love of our neighbor, is as really our own affection, as self-love; and the pleasure arising from its gratification is as much my own pleasure, as the pleasure self-love would have, from knowing I myself should be happy some time hence, would be my own pleasure. And if, because every particular affection is a man’s own, and the pleasure arising from its gratification his own pleasure, or pleasure to himself, such particular affection must be called self-love; according to this way of speaking, no creature whatever can possibly act but merely from self-love; and every action and every affection whatever is to be resolved up into this one principle.”
Only love can weigh all factors in a situation

John A.T. Robinson (situation ethicist and former Bishop of Woolwich), Honest to God, 1963, p. 115

“Love alone — because, as it were, it has a built-in moral compass, enabling it to ‘home’ intuitively upon the deepest need of the other — can allow itself to be directed completely by the situation.”
Love must be the driving force behind morality

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 172

“The Quakers remind us that God is known primarily as Creator, not as a maker of rules. Morality must therefore be creative, capable of rejecting all authority except for that inspired by the Holy Spirit and attested to by the witness of personal experience. What is ultimately required is an assent to a kind of inner law of love, a love which is neither prudent nor calculating, but fully giving without regard for the easy but compromising conventions of men. This is a love which is capable of risk-taking, of identification with others, and of sharing — of involvement in the lives of others even when that involvement may be costly in terms of personal suffering.”
Love is the definitive standard of goodness

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 178

“So far as Fletcher is concerned, only one thing in the universe is good, in and of itself, and that is love. It is love which motivates the good relationship and sustains it; it is love which provides the disposition to act in an ethical fashion, causes a man to prefer some values over others, and makes it possible for persons to be of good will toward one another. To do what is good is to do whatever is loving. The two are synonymous.”
God is infinitely loving, and we ought to emulate that love as best we are able

Bryan Magee (UK television documentarian, former Member of Parliament, and former philosophy lecturer or visiting fellow at Yale, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge), Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, 1997, p. 277

“God’s loving you has nothing to do with your deserving it. He loves everybody, including the most undeserving; indeed, he loves them as much as he loves you. Just as he loves the undeserving, so you also should love those who are undeserving of your love, including those who deserve it least, namely your enemies. Love is what matters, not deserving, and least of all rules. In fact, love matters above everything else. It is the ultimate reality, the true nature of existence, God. Perfect love is unconditional; and to unconditional love, deserving has ceased to matter or even have any significance.”
We must love those in our family even if they are not morally perfect

Damien Freeman (philosophy Ph.D. candidate, Magdalene College, Cambridge), “Love and the morally ambiguous,” Quadrant, April 2008, p. 82

“There comes a time when most young people discover that their parents are not paragons of virtue. In an age of high divorce rates, this time is likely to come earlier rather than later. Do we cease to love our parents when we discover their moral flaws? Is it an open question whether we should still love them? Ought we to suspend our love of them whilst we resolve our judgment of their moral ambiguities, and only afterwards decide whether to resume our loving relationship? No. What is required is the ability to continue loving them whilst we struggle with the moral ambiguities we have discovered, and ultimately to find a way to love them notwithstanding any moral judgment.”
Family love is unconditional

Damien Freeman (philosophy Ph.D. candidate, Magdalene College, Cambridge), “Love and the morally ambiguous,” Quadrant, April 2008, p. 82

“Most children have a healthy experience of the unconditional love of their parents. At some point during their childhood, they have committed some transgression which their parents have expressed disapproval of without withdrawing their parental love. In this case, young people have first-hand experience of the fact that love is not contingent upon maintaining a particular moral status. It is this that they must take into their later lives, both in terms of their relationships with other people and with entities such as nations.”
Love is not diminished if it attaches to something less than perfect

Eamonn Callan (Pigott Family Professor, School of Education, Stanford University), “Love, idolatry, and patriotism,” Social Theory and Practice, October 2006, p. 526-527

“No reproach to the one who loves is justified merely because some alternative, more worthy object than the one actually loved is available but unloved. In fact, the lover may be perfectly aware of the modest value that the beloved has in the larger scheme of things without that thought diminishing love. And so a lavish love of the merely ordinary does not in fact entail that the lover overrates the object of love. As Robert Adams notes, ‘love should have some of the character of grace, inasmuch as its preferences should not be calibrated in accordance with objective value.’ If a colleague and I become fast friends, I cannot be justly criticized merely for failing to befriend some other, more admirable colleague instead. Love is dependent on idiosyncrasies of personal history and sensibility in a way that makes the question of what is worth loving for anyone in particular altogether different from the question of what is admirable for everyone. (That is one very good reason we should be wary of those who like to moralize about what other people should love.) In fact, if I adjusted the affection I extend to my supposed friends strictly according to a calibration of their objective value, it would seem not merely that I fail to love them as I should but that I fail to love them at all. The very existence of love seems to require a certain emotional generosity toward its object independent of what any dispassionate evaluation of the object’s merits could warrant.”
Love can be specially admirable when directed at an unworthy object

Eamonn Callan (Pigott Family Professor, School of Education, Stanford University), “Love, idolatry, and patriotism,” Social Theory and Practice, October 2006, p. 529-530

“A further point is that love can be admirable when directed toward objects whose value is severely compromised and admirable then not despite but because of the compromised value. An interesting example is parental love for an adult child who has perpetrated some appalling crime. Parents whose love for their child is undermined in these circumstances can scarcely be blamed for that. Yet a steadfast love here is still something many of us will admire, perhaps because love for another human being registers with special vividness the unique value of that life, even when the life has been morally ruined, and so to sustain love against the pull of a legitimate moral repugnance is a laudable accomplishment.”
Our happiness depends — in part — in being able to sustain love with imperfect people

Damien Freeman (philosophy Ph.D. candidate, Magdalene College, Cambridge), “Love and the morally ambiguous,” Quadrant, April 2008, p. 82-83

“Despite Hollywood’s forceful claims to the contrary, we should not encourage young people to seek perfection in their personal relationships. Moral perfection is rarely a characteristic of those we encounter in life. Ultimately, our happiness depends upon our ability to forge loving relationships with people who are to one degree or another morally ambiguous. And we require the resources to sustain such love at times when the flaws become exposed. It is only in the context of the loving relationship that we can resolve how to deal with the moral ambiguities of those we love.”
Benevolence — good will — is the precondition to all other goods

Sir Anthony Kenny (former president, British Academy), “Descartes to Kant” in The Oxford History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Kenny, 1994, p. 191

“It is not in order to pursue happiness that human beings have been endowed with a will; instinct would have been far more effective for this purpose. Reason was given to us in order to produce a will that was good not as a means to some further end, but good in itself. Good will is the highest good and the condition of all other goods, including happiness.”
A good will is the only thing that cannot be turned to evil ends

Sir Anthony Kenny (former president, British Academy), “Descartes to Kant” in The Oxford History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Kenny, 1994, p. 190

“Kant’s starting-point is that the only thing which is good without qualification is a good will. Talents, character, self-control, and fortune can be used to bad ends; even happiness can be corrupting. It is not its achievements which make a good will good; good willing is good in itself alone.”
Agape is love in the form of benevolence toward others

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 179

Agape, in its most literal sense, means benevolence and radical goodwill. ‘Jesus and Paul,’ says Fletcher in his book Situation Ethics, ‘replaced the precepts of Torah with the living precepts of agape... They redeemed law from the letter that kills and brought it back to the spirit that gives it life.’ A love such as this is capable of reaching out to anyone, including those persons whom we call strangers and such others as we call our enemies. It is forgiving and it gives without expecting anything in return.” (ellipsis in original)

[Reference is to Joseph Fletcher, professor of social ethics at the Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts]


Love is the only universally valid value

Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991; prof. of social ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1944-1970) in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 407

“Unlike all other principles you might mention, love alone when well served is always good and right in every situation. Love is the only universal. But love is not something we have or are, it is something we do. Our task is to act so that more good (i.e., loving-kindness) will occur than any possible alternatives; we to be ‘optimific,’ to seek an optimum of loving-kindness. It is an attitude, a disposition, a leaning, a preference, a purpose.”
Love trumps all other values and rules

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 179

“In order to love honestly it is not necessary to please others. Indeed, there may be occasions when pleasing others would mean the death of love. Love makes judgments, and it can be angry. Love transcends even honor, duty, and justice. There are times that the only moral thing to do is to break a law that is unloving. Only in that way may justice be born, for love is the supreme value, the guide, and the consummation of human affairs. In so far as the world requires us to distribute love, justice makes it possible to do so.”
We properly tend to favor those whom we love

Bernard E. Rollin (University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Biomedical Sciences, and Professor of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University), “Reasonable Partiality and Animal Ethics,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Volume 8, No. 1-2 (2005), p. 110

“One key feature of moral psychology is partiality to those one is close to and bonded to by bonds of love, friendship and affection. This was axiomatic to thinkers like Aristotle and Hume. Indeed, this seems so ubiquitous and widespread a moral intuition, that any theory failing to acknowledge it is highly suspect.”
Love must be aware and judicious

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 181

“To the extent that we can know ourselves and trust ourselves sufficiently to love others we will act ethically, but we must keep our eyes open. We must see the world as it is, understand the place of others in it, and think through what it is we are doing. Otherwise, love will not only be blind, but deaf and dumb as well, a pitiful isolate which must one day die. A love which is not informed by the sensory data of life and guided by the rationality of considered evaluation will cease to be.”
Love is balanced by innate justice

Ralph Waldo Emerson (American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and poet, 1803-1882), “Compensation” in Essays: First Series, 1841, reprinted in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Black’s Readers Service: 1928, p. 123

“On the other hand the law holds with equal sureness for all right action. Love, and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation.”
With love as a guideline, the ends justify the means

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 181

“If someone were to object, and he well might, that Fletcher’s understanding of ethics leaves room for the notion that the end can justify the means, Fletcher would be likely to reply, ‘Of course! If the end fails to justify the means, what else can?’”

[Reference is to Joseph Fletcher, professor of social ethics at the Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is a leading exponent of situation ethics]


Love is the best hope for the human race

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 199

“All human beings are, almost by definition, egocentric, but that doesn’t mean that the circle can’t be broken. Indeed, the hope for the race rests in precisely the fact that individual man and women can be outgoing and generous, that they can be giving and self-sacrificing, that they can, in a word, love one another.”
Only through concern for others can we flourish

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 200

“Any ethical system worthy of the name must take account of the great paradox: it is only when one becomes more concerned about the well-being of others than with one’s own that one may find himself.”
Love is the ultimate moral principle

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 207

“As we have indicated, the great strength in situation ethics — as in the Quaker approach — is its capacity for reminding us of the absolute forgiveness and acceptance of love when we are faced with any particular moral dilemma. Although we do not believe that love can be the only norm in ethics, it is in our judgment the ultimate moral principle.”
Moral decisions must be reconsidered if they fail the lovingness test

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 215

“Any moral decision must be judged as to whether or not it is loving. The truth of this assertion may be demonstrated ‘empirically’ by the fact that the self prospers when it is genuinely loving, but falls ill when it cannot love.”
Love must triumph over the letter of the law

Martin Luther (1483-1546; German monk and founder of Protestantism), Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, in “The Church Postil,” Works, ed. by J.N. Lenker, 1907, Volume 5, p. 175

“Therefore, when the law impels one against love, it ceases and should no longer be a law; but where no obstacle is in the way, the keeping of the law is a proof of love, which lies hidden in the heart. Therefore you have need of the law, that love may be manifested; but if it cannot be kept without injury to the neighbor, God wants us to suspend and ignore the law.”
Love surpasses values such as justice and truth

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 215

“Love necessarily includes justice, but goes beyond it, making justice creative as well as equitable. It includes kindness, but saves it from the hazard of condescension implicit whenever somebody does something for another’s ‘own good.’ It includes truth, but tempers it with charity and a knowledge of the other’s capacity for assimilating it.”

Love fails as a standard for moral action


Love is undefined and undefinable

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 215

“But how is one to recognize love? How is it to be defined? The simplest answer is the most truthful: love cannot be adequately defined. As the ultimate principle in moral decision-making, there is no higher principle to which one may appeal for a definition. Nor is there any set of lesser principles which is adequate to the task.”
Love is an incomplete tool for moral action

Sidney Hook (1902-1989; American philosopher and prof. at New York Univ.), in Morals and Values, ed. by Marcus G. Singer, 1977, p. 308

“The approach of love is incomplete and ambiguous. It is incomplete because if love is more than a feeling of diffused sympathy but is expressed in action no man can love everyone or identify himself with every interest.”
Love is a commercial commodity

Mary Ann Case (Arnold I. Shure Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School), Pets or Meat. The University of Chicago Public Law and Legal Theory working paper series #100, August 2005. Online: The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection: http://ssrn.com/abstract_id=786644, accessed April 15, 2009. p. 1129-1130

“Two related problematic assumptions are at issue here: where love is present there is no bargaining and one must not bargain about love. Of course, we do bargain about love all the time. While laws against prostitution may say that money may not legally buy certain kinds of love, we do, well within the bounds of the law, explicitly bargain and pay for other kinds of love. One question I want to pose is why do we not think of nannies as mistresses and babysitters as hookers.”
We squander love on things that are unworthy

Eamonn Callan (Pigott Family Professor, School of Education, Stanford University), “Love, idolatry, and patriotism,” Social Theory and Practice, October 2006, p. 526

“The outer limit of that hope is magnificently expressed in a poem by Patrick Kavanagh: ‘But nothing whatever is by love debarred/The common and banal her heat can know.’ If we can sometimes exult in this possibility, as Kavanagh does, we might at other times deplore the human propensity to overrate the common and banal. And no doubt Kavanagh’s exultation will seem like crazy exuberance to anyone who is not already predisposed to think that loving lavishly is a good thing. Yet there is reason to think that the predisposition is pretty widespread, for an account of what is worth loving broadly in keeping with the enormous range of actual human loves could not impose any strenuous criteria on what is properly eligible for our most exalted passion. We unashamedly love unremarkable cats and dogs, mediocre books, trivial jobs, and ugly houses with unmemorable yards, in addition to our perfectly ordinary friends, kin, and lovers.”
Love can be a means to moral evil

Sidney Hook (1902-1989; American philosopher and prof. at New York Univ.), in Morals and Values, ed. by Marcus G. Singer, 1977, p. 308

“Empirically love has produced as much disunity as unity in the world — not only in Troy but in Jerusalem. Injustice is often born of love, not only of self-live but love of some rather than others.”
Love in an inadequate guide to conduct

Sidney Hook (1902-1989; American philosopher and prof. at New York Univ.), in Morals and Values, ed. by Marcus G. Singer, 1977, p. 308-309

“In one sense love always shows a bias which reinforces some conflicting interest; in another it gives all conflicting values its blessing without indicating any specific mode of action by which conduct can be mediated. Love may enable a person to live with the burden of guilt which he assumes when he sacrifices one right to another. But it is no guide to social conflict, as the last two thousand years have shown.”

Love drives situation ethics


Situation ethics is distinct from all other theories of ethics

Ethel M. Albert (prof. of philosophy, Northwestern Univ.), Theodore C. Denise, and Sheldon P. Peterfreund (prof. of philosophy, Syracuse Univ.), Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, 1975, p. 392-393

Situation ethics: “The novelty of this theory resides in the way it combines and uses traditional doctrines and distinctions. Thus, on the one hand, it resembles various theories: Nietzschean, since in a certain way it connects moral action to the presumed priority of man’s will; Kierkegaardian, since it rejects the moral authority of abstract world views; Augustinian, since it regards the principle of love as the ultimate ground of virtue; and Kantian, since it distinguished between sorts of imperatives. This list is far from complete. On the other hand, however, eclectic as it is, situation ethics cannot be viewed as a natural extension of any established theory.”
Situation ethics denies that there are universal moral rules

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 177

[Situation ethics] “It means first of all that nothing can be tagged as always wrong. One cannot, for instance, say that theft, or murder, or extramarital relations are always mistaken. He cannot say, before the fact, that it is always wrong to burn down houses, to worship idols, or to tell lies. Such things as divorce or sexual relations before marriage are not sinful as such. It all depends on the situation.”
Love rejects fixed principles in favor of cherishing people

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 182

“We must learn to love persons and use things. If a principle, such as the traditional notion that the end can never justify the means, is honored at the cost of loving persons it is time that we junked the principle. A principle is, after all, nothing more than an abstract thing. And things, whether they are material objects or principles, are meant to be used, not loved. Love is for persons. Immorality enters in whenever things are loved and people used.”
Laws and rules have become tools to harm people

Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991; prof. of social ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1944-1970) in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 397

“In fact, the very lack of a casuistry and its complexity, once people have committed to even the bare principle of legalistic morality or law ethics, is itself evidence of their blindness to the factors of doubt and perplexity. They have lost touch with the headaches and heartbreaks of life. What can be worse, no casuistry at all may reveal a punishing and sadistic use of law to hurt people instead of helping them.”
Situation ethics recognizes that moral rules are less important than people

Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991; prof. of social ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1944-1970) in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 406

“Love is for people, not for principles; i.e., it is personal — and therefore when the impersonal universal conflicts with the personal particular, the latter prevails in situation ethics. Because of its mediating position, prepared to act on moral laws or in spite of them, the antinomians will call situationists soft legalists, and legalists will call them crypto-antinomians.”
Situation ethics derives from love as the sole standard of moral action

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 182

“Situation ethics, then, is not a moral code. Quite the contrary! It is not even a set of principles, or an ethical guide. What situation ethics amounts to is this: Love persons above all else, consider fully the situation in which you are involved, and then make your calculation in, with, and for love. All else will follow.”
Situation ethics depends on love only because it has a Christian context

Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991; prof. of social ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1944-1970) in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 406

“In non-Christian situation ethics some other highest good or summum bonum will, of course, take love’s place as the one and only standard — such as self-realization in the ethics of Aristotle. But the Christian is neighbor-centered first and last.”
Situation ethics will not take a stand on hypothetical cases

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 187

“The situation ethicists’ emphasis on methodology to the exclusion of all general principles can lead them into some peculiar postures. It would be inconsistent with their methodology, for instance, to oppose either torture or rape on general principles. Sadism, bestiality, the love of corpses (technically known as necrophilia) are all morally neutral until a specific case is at hand. Only then can the methodology of situation ethics be applied.”
Situation ethics denies the existence of enduring, absolute values and rules

Ethel M. Albert (prof. of philosophy, Northwestern Univ.), Theodore C. Denise, and Sheldon P. Peterfreund (prof. of philosophy, Syracuse Univ.), Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, 1975, p. 394

Situation ethics: “From a logical point of view, Fletcher is denying that laws have an absolute status, but he is affirming that they do have a heuristic role. Again, he is denying that values arise spontaneously in distinctive circumstances, but he is affirming that such circumstances do provide the occasions for values to originate.”
Situation ethics recognizes the non-reality of right and wrong

Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991; prof. of social ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1944-1970) in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 406-407

“Apart from the helping or hurting of people, ethical judgments or evaluations are meaningless. Having as its supreme norm the neighbor love commanded of Christians, Christian situation ethics asserts firmly and definitely: Value, worth, ethical quality, goodness or badness, right or wrong — these things are only predicates, they are not properties. They are not ‘given’ or objectively ‘real’ or self-existent. There is only one thing that is always good and right, intrinsically good regardless of the context, and that one thing is love. Yet we should not, perhaps, call love a ‘thing.’ Neutral as it is as a word, it may tend in the reader’s mind to reify love, to suggest that it is a tangible, objective existent.”
Situation ethics refuses to condemn any act in absolute terms

Thomas Cathcart (social services worker and former philosophy teacher at Westbrook Junior College), and Daniel Klein (former philosophy student, Harvard; professional joke writer), Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, 2007, p. 93-94

“In the 1960s came all the flap about ‘situation ethics.’ Proponents claimed that the ethical thing to do in any situation is dependent on the peculiar mix of factors in that situation. Who are the people affected? What legitimate stake do they have in the outcome? How will the outcome influence future situations? And who’s asking anyhow? In a case of infidelity, for example, situation ethicists would want to know, among other things, about the status of the marriage. They might end up on different sides of the issue depending on whether the marriage was already effectively over. Opponents of situation ethics voiced their outrage, sensing that such reasoning might be used to justify anything a person wanted to do. Some of these opponents took an absolutist position: Infidelity is always wrong, regardless of the circumstances.”
Situation ethics demands intense application of moral reasoning

Richard Taylor (prof. emeritus of philosophy, Univ. of Rochester), “Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics Once Again,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1995, p. 49

“One final comment: it is widely believed that the approach of situation ethics is simplistic, or, worse, that it provides convenient and easy answers. The very opposite is true. Situation ethics is frightfully difficult because it requires one to actually think, instead of rendering moral judgments resting on time-honored principles, something that even unthinking and unreflective people find fairly easy to do. It is accordingly, the moralistic approach which rests upon little more than the mindless application of rules, that is easy — and in the long run, dreadfully destructive.”
Situation ethics is guided — but not ruled — by the community’s moral code

Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991; prof. of social ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1944-1970) in Great Traditions in Ethics, 3rd edition, edited by E.M. Albert, T.C. Denise, and S.P. Peterfreund, 1975, p. 403

“The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so.”
We need the flexibility of situationism to deal with changing circumstances

Paul Kurtz (prof. of philosophy, State Univ. of New York), “Humanist Ethics: Eating the Forbidden Fruit,” Free Inquiry, Spring 1989, p. 28

“Critical intelligence is the most reliable tool we have — it is not perfect, but nothing is when dealing with moral dilemmas. This position is often attacked by those who do not understand the nature of moral deliberation. They condemn it as ‘situation ethics’ — but the point of situational reasoning is that we often encounter new contexts in human experience unlike anything that has been faced in the past, and we need to bring to bear creative inquiry to deal with them. If there is any excellence that society should develop it is the need for pooled ethical wisdom and social intelligence.”

Situation ethics is a bad way to make moral decisions


The central term of situation ethics — human well-being — is indefinable

Richard Taylor (prof. emeritus of philosophy, Univ. of Rochester), “Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics Once Again,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1995, p. 47

“What Fletcher accomplished was the complete reorientation of ethics away from the concepts of right and wrong, substituting for these the single consideration of what is most likely (even if seldom certain) to advance human well-being. This he never defines, correctly so. It cannot be defined, nor can any rule of morality — even the utilitarian rule of promoting human well-being — be derived from it.”
The “love” or agape of situation ethics is a cold, utilitarian calculation

John Macquarrie (prof. of philosophy, Oxford Univ.), Three Issues in Ethics, 1970, p. 39

“Fletcher’s type of love, on the other hand, has a utilitarian and even calculating character. There is an astonishing passage in his book in which he goes so far as to suggest that the decision to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima can be understood as the result of a calculation in agape! The ‘love’ of which Fletcher writes is love without compassion, a calculating impersonal love that is, if I may say so, ‘as cold as charity.’”
Situation ethics too easily overlooks evil

Brooks R. Walker (graduate, Harvard Divinity School; minister to Unitarian Fellowship of Northern Westchester NY), The New Immorality, 1968, p. 206

“This is to suggest that the situationists are in error because they neglect human nature and its ever-present potential for evil as well as for goodness. Because they overemphasize love as the only norm, they ignore the evil which may be manifest in a lack of love but which is more easily discerned in sensuality, pride, the lust for power, or an undue devotion to a finite and changing good. They are guilty of what someone once called ‘the twin sins of oversimplification and overgeneralization.’ They oversimplify in their contention that love can be the measure of all things; they overgeneralize in their
Situation ethics focuses too much on motives and not enough on results

John Bennett (president, Union Theological Seminary), as quoted in The New Immorality by Brooks R. Walker, 1968, p. 190

“To use love as the great simplifier of ethics is to place too much emphasis on the motive of the one who acts and not enough on the sources of illumination concerning what is good for those who are affected by the action.”
Situation ethics places too much weight on motives rather than consequences

John Macquarrie (prof. of philosophy, Oxford Univ.), Three Issues in Ethics, 1970, p. 39

“Father Häring puts his finger on the essential weakness of Fletcher’s ethic when he says that ‘Fletcher’s concept of love is structureless.’ It is another example of the oversimplified ethic which dwells on the subjective judgment of the agent and his immediate relations to other persons involved in the situation, without having regard to the broader structures of morals and society. ‘To use love as the great simplifier of ethics,’ remarks John Bennett, ‘is to place too much emphasis on the motive of the one who acts and not enough on the sources of illumination concerning what is good for those who are affected by the action.’”
Situation ethics denies the integrity of personal experience

John Macquarrie (prof. of philosophy, Oxford Univ.), Three Issues in Ethics, 1970, p. 26

“More seriously, a situational ethic breaks up the moral life into separate acts in such a way as to deny the reality of a unitary personal self that grows and deepens through its successive experiences. For the situationist, man is simple ‘functional’ man: he is what he does, in one situation after another. But (as I have tried to show in detail elsewhere) true selfhood is attained precisely as one transcends a particular situation and brings it into a unity embracing many situations. Man is more than what he does; out of his acts he builds up the unity of a personal self.”
Situation ethics disrupts the moral community

John Macquarrie (prof. of philosophy, Oxford Univ.), Three Issues in Ethics, 1970, p. 33-34

“If radical situationism is disruptive of the unity of the personal self, it is even more subversive of any idea of a moral community. One of the most telling objections against situationism is that it is a fundamentally and incurably individualistic type of ethic. Paul Ramsey is correct in his warning that ‘no social morality was ever founded, or ever will be founded, upon a situational ethic.’ And it is because we so desperately need a social morality that I felt constrained to write above that the new morality, so far as it has been advocating the virtues of ‘situation ethics,’ ‘has been pitiably irrelevant to the major ethical problems of our time.’”
Situation ethics requires rejecting long-standing rules that promote human well-being

Richard Taylor (prof. emeritus of philosophy, Univ. of Rochester), “Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics Once Again,” Free Inquiry, Fall 1995, p. 48



Situation ethics: “It is thought to provide an excuse for ethical compromise, a means of defending actions that moral principle does not permit. Yet, it should be fairly obvious to anyone who thinks about it that the most time-honored rules of morality, such as those forbidding homicide, theft, adultery, the inflicting of injury upon one person for the benefit of another, and so on, were all invented to promote peace and safety, or in other words for the advancement of human well-being — the very thing the situationist makes central to his method.”


Prager’s LD Vault: Love (and Situation Ethics) · Revised July 2009 · © 2009 John R. Prager



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