Situation Ethics Summary

AS Religious Studies Revision: Situation Ethics

AO1: Material

What type of ethical theory is it?

How does this ethical theory tell us to act?

AO2: Critical evaluation

AO1 Material: ie ‘what goes in part a)?’

What Type of Ethical Theory is it?

  • Teleological – It aims to bring about a greater good. It looks at what your ethical action is aimed at bringing about, rather than deontological ethics which focuses on the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of actions.
  • Consequentialist – It looks at the consequences of actions, not the actions themselves. An action is deemed ‘good’ if it brings about good consequences.
  • Relative – Goodness of actions depend on the circumstances; there are no fixed moral principles (apart from ‘do the most loving thing’).
  • Religious – It is based upon the life of Jesus and the Christian principle of love.
  • Agapéistic – The Christian concept of unconditional love is the guiding principle of this theory.

How Does This Ethical Theory Tell Us to Act?

  • Devised by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s as a radical Christian ethic.
  • Based upon the life of Jesus and in particular the story of picking grain on the Sabbath in Mark 2. Jesus made an exception to the laws against work on the Sabbath in exceptional circumstances.
  • Argues that agapé is the only guiding principle in morality. This is taken from the golden rule in Christianity (love your neighbour as yourself). Agapé is different from other forms of love such as eros and filia: it is unconditional.
  • Rejects legalistic ethics (where the law comes first) and antinomian ethics (where there is no law). Ethics should be situational: based on the situation itself and what it requires at the time.
  • 4  working principles: pragmatism, relativism, positivism, personalism.
  • 6 fundamental principles.

Proportionalism

  • Situation Ethics and Natural Moral Law are relativist and deontological ethical theories respectively. A theory that comes half way between them is called Porportionalism, devised by Bernard Hoose. Proportionalism argues that we should have fixed moral rules that we have a duty to obey and that apply to all, unless we have proportionate reason for breaking those rules.
  • For example, we may have the rules ‘do not tell a lie’ and ‘do not allow harm to others.’ Someone runs into the shop where you are buying cheese and hides in the back. Shortly afterwards a man runs in carrying a gun and demands to know if anyone has just come in. You might have proportionate reason to tell a lie to prevent harm coming to the person in the back of the shop.

AO2: Critical evaluation i.e. ‘what do I put in part b)?’

Remember to read the question first before just regurgitating.

Strengths of Situation Ethics

  • Presents a Christian ethical message that is consistent with the gospel message. It shows Christians that it is possible to be a situationist and that biblical laws do not have to be rigidly adhered to.
  • Situation ethics provides a proportionate reason to break ethical principles: there are some situations where this may be necessary.
  • The whole system is guided by a desirable principle: that of love.
  • It is a consequentialist system and is not tied to the observance of rules unlike deontological ethics. This makes it flexible and allows adaptation to different circumstances.
  • It allows us to consider a greater good.
  • The fundamental principles do a good job of defining love and explaining what it means to be loving in practice.

Weaknesses of Situation Ethics

  • It is a religious ethical system and therefore will not appeal to all, unlike Utilitarianism which is secular.
  • The concept of love may not be as easy to define as it seems: our ideas of love may be subjective, rather than objective.
  • This theory does allow the commission of bad acts to bring about more ‘loving’ consequences, like Utilitarianism.
  • This theory has been rejected by many Christians. Roman Catholics who adhere to Natural Moral Law do not see consequentialist ethics as valid. Much of Christianity appears to be deontological: Jesus said that he had not come to erase the Jewish (deontological) law.
  • Some have argued that this theory is permissive (it allows things that Christians should never allow).
  • It seems to be a contradiction to say that there are no ethical principles and then allow one: ‘do the most loving thing.’
  • The theory requires us to be able to predict the future (it is consequentialist). This is impossible.

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