Situational Ethics / Joseph Fletcher

Nothing Else, only love, is unconditionally good. And therefore nothing but malice or ill will is unconditionally evil. Everything is good or bad according to the circumstances… This is theological relativism, based on the proposition that God is love and only God is unconditional and absolute.”


Joseph Fletcher
Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work. Philadelphia: Westminister Press. 1952 (page 124).

These words ring as a cluster of piercing half-steps in my musically trained ear. The more I read them, them more physically sick I become. They make me want to hurl!
Fletcher’s theory of social ethics is rooted in what he calls the only unconditional absolute truth – that “God is love.” Viz. in any given situation, we should react in a manner that might promote agape love – and when deciding a specific course of action at any given moment, we should consider that “it is only the end that justifies the means,” (Fletcher 1952, 22-23). Here is an example of a situation that Fletcher might provide his readers upon which to ponder:
A petite 11 year old girl is raped by her father, and conceives a son. To save her tiny life (the 11 year old), an abortion is performed. In this situation, the act of abortion is not wrong because it promotes “love” (toward the 11 year old girl).
Conversely, a young married couple eager to start a family of their own conceives, and learns that the child is a boy. But they really wanted a girl, so they have an abortion. In this situation, the act of abortion is wrong because it does not promote “love.”
Fletcher writes, “The best way to make love without making babies is to prevent their conception; the next best way is to prevent fertility itself; and the least desirable way is to end a pregnancy already begun. But any of these methods is good if the good to be gained is great enough to justify the means,” (Fletcher, 123).
But who makes the decision whether or not an action is morally “right” or morally “wrong?” Who decides if the “good to be gained” is “enough to justify the means?” The only logical response is that each decider must decide for himself. But wait, that means that we are capable of defining for ourselves what is morally right and morally wrong. Wouldn’t that makes us “gods” ourselves? Yes it does – on page 236, Fletcher prescribes to Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this matter… “When a deed is performed with a responsible weighing up of all the personal and objective circumstances and in the awareness that God has become man, and that it is God who has become man, then this deed is delivered up solely to God at the moment of its performance,” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ethics, ed. by Eberhard Bethge. SCM Press, 1955. Page 234).

God has become man, and man has become God? Really? If Fletcher would only have seen the blatant faults in his theory…
1. Fletcher, being a learned man in Episcopalian theology, pulls from 1 John 4:16 that “God is love.” In the quote above, he claims that man is God. So logically, Man is love – that means that the very nature of man is love, and the things he does are lovely. Hitler believed (“after weighing up all of the personal and objective circumstances”) he was justified in torturing and murdering millions of innocent Jews. John Calvin believed (“after weighing up all of the personal and objective circumstances”) that it was okay to torture Anabaptists who threatened established state religion. Need I go on?
2. “God is love.” Let’s follow this logical process:
A. God is love (1 John 4:16).
B. Jesus is God (John 1:1).
C. Jesus says, “If you love me, you’ll obey my commands” (John 14:15).
D. To act in a loving way, we must follow Jesus’ commands. – That is to say, “Loving God and not following His commands are mutually exclusive.”
3. In the rape/abortion example above mentioned, the situationist has neglected to include the issue of “perspective.” From the 11 year old mother’s perspective, love is being shown and administered, while from the unborn son’s perspective, evil is being shown and administered. And if we are to take Bonhoeffer’s advice, and “weigh up all of the personal and objective circumstances,” then the young couple who decided to abort their healthy baby boy is justified. After all, and “unwanted” pregnancy can cause enormous distress in a young couple’s life, can’t it?
With this approach – that morality is decided in the mind of each individual – any of us can justify any immoral action. There’s got to be a litmus test. Fletcher knew this, and that’s why he quoted Bonhoeffer. But if the test is to “weigh up all the personal and objective circumstances,” then we are in trouble. Our actions are shaped by our values. What we value, we will protect at all costs. If it is our money, then we can justify in our minds any otherwise immoral action that allows us to keep it. If it is fame, then we can justify any otherwise immoral action that assists us in building it. If it is our sexual freedom, then we can justify any otherwise immoral action that promotes it.
Morality is not subjective to the situation in which it finds itself.
It cannot be.
There is a standard and it does not depend on our acceptance of it. It is eternal, and has been revealed to us by the Righteous God who instituted it and perfectly exemplifies it. It is found in His eternal Word. And it is never subjective. It is true in every situation:
Psalm 119 – (v.89) “Lord, Your word is forever. It is firmly fixed in heaven.” (v.68) “You are good, and You do what is good. Teach me Your statutes.” (v.9) “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping Your word.” (v.2-3) “Happy are those who keep His decrees and seek Him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they follow His ways.”

Romans 1:26 – Because they did not think it worthwhile to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong.”
Christians should actively debunk the universalistic ignorance of situational ethics. Listen to Paul teach against this heresy:
“If by my lie God’s truth is amplified to His glory, why am I also judged as a sinner? Why not say as some people slanderously claim we say, ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!”
– Romans 3:7-8

In most instances, the application of biblical morals is easily applied by not “conforming” to the patterns of this world, but being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2). Abortion, for example… if the the child is a person at conception, then any form of abortion for any reason is murder – yes, even in the case to save the mother’s life or when the child is conceived through nonconsensual sex.
I am not so blind as not to say that there are times when the application of absolute morality is not so easy. But as Christians, we must trust that God’s Word is true in every situation, or we become “gods” ourselves. And as we have seen above, this leads not only to the devaluing of scripture, but to a society where “everyone does what is right in his own eyes,” – and that didn’t work out so well for the nation of Israel (read the book of Judges).
Grace and Peace.
Tony