Situation Ethics, Part 1

Towards a full review.  Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics was the theological justification (ad hoc, no doubt) of the Sexual Revolution during the 1960s.

Three Approaches

Situationism: the mean between legalism and antinomianism (Fletcher 26).  It has an absolute “norm” (love) and a calculating method (27).  All rules are contingent provided they serve agape-love.

What, then, is the place of rules?  Fletcher calls them “illuminators, not directors” (31).  There is an element of truth to this, as it echoes some wisdom literature.

What is its method?  Fletcher helpfully outlines (33).

  1. Only one law, agape.
  2. Sophia of the church and culture, containing “rules” which act as illuminators.
  3. Kairos: the moment of the responsible self in a situation.

Some Presuppositions

In this chapter Fletcher identifies his historical pedigree.  

  1. Pragmatism.  In short, he focuses on “satisfaction” as a criterion for truth (41ff). Of course, works toward what? This is the value problem in ethics.  Not surprisingly, Fletcher lists “love” as his value.
  2. Relativism.  To be relative means to be relative to something (44).  
  3. Positivism.  Faith propositions are posited a-rationally.  “Every moral judgment is a decision, not a conclusion” (47).
  4. Personalism.  Love people, not things (50).
    1. No such thing as value as inherent good.  A value is what happens to something when it “works.”
    2. Values are relative to persons and persons are relative to society.  (Dr Mengele, call your office).  
    3. If all he means by that is persons are persons in relationship—no, I am still uncomfortable with it.
    4. Fletcher says it is bad to “use people,” but what does he mean by “use”?  People are means in one sense–no person is to be loved for that person’s sake, but for God’s.  
  5. Conscience

Love is Always Good

First Proposition: Only love is intrinsically good (57).

Fletcher is a nominalist (57ff).  He continually asserts that love is a predicate, not a property or universal.  As a result, values are extrinsic to a person or thing.

Fletcher’s target in this chapter is Kant’s extreme deontological ethics.

What is a good action:  “whatever is the most loving thing to do” (65).  So what is the most loving thing to do?  Well, it depends on the situation.  Okay, so in Situation (S₁) what should I do?  No answer.  Probably fornicate.  

Love is the only universal (64).

Love is the Only Norm

Second Proposition: “The ruling norm of the Christian decision is love: nothing else” (69).

Fletcher now moves towards a definition of agape-love: goodwill at work in partnership with reason (69).   The essential spirit of many laws has been distilled into love. Fletcher points out that Christian love is not desire (79).

The Good in Fletcher’s Approach

*Fletcher isn’t all bad.  He exposes the false promises of historicist ethics.  Simply by noting the past one cannot anticipate the right action in the present, given the inevitable unfolding of the past.  Basically, Hegel is wrong.

*True, ethical decisions always take place in a situation and context.

*Fletcher reminds us that Victorian social mores are rarely biblical (even if he has the unfortunate habit of labeling his critics as such).  Further, though not always called out by him, most of the “horrid” puritanical legalism (in this book) derives not from church law but from secular ethics.

*Fletcher exposes some incoherent moments in Barth’s ethics (62, cf. CD III/4, p. 416-421).

*Fletcher notes some difficulties in Roman Catholic birth-control positions along with some difficulties in NFP (80).

*calls classical pacifism legalistic (83-84).  


  1. Fletcher says we can’t “milk universals from a universal” (27).  What he means is we can make principles from “the law of love,” but not rules.  But why not?  He just asserts this.  He doesn’t prove it.
  2. Although this is a minor point, it is worth noting.  Fletcher holds to the (debunked) “Biblical vs. Hellenistic” dichotomy (29). The Hebrew is “verb-minded” while the Greek is “noun-minded.”  “It doesn’t ask what is the good, but how to do good” (52).  But if I don’t know what the good is, rather just labeling it x, then how will I know if I am doing not-good?
  3. Can one really define agape-love without recourse to revelation?  Why can we privilege the term agape, itself drawn from revelation, while saying the rest of revelation is off-limits? The apostle John defined love by God’s commandments.  Fletcher wants to reject the idea of “unwritten rules from heaven” (30), but without any specific content to “love,” that is just what he has.
  4. Fletcher rejects legalism because of the bad things legalism has done.  Francis Kovach draws the following devastating conclusion:  “Human laws happen to have had certain undesirable effects; therefore, let’s do away with all human laws” (Kovach 99).
  5. When faced with the obvious question, “So what do I do in situation x,” Fletcher admits the best he can say is, “It depends” (80).  
  6. Fletcher’s arrogance is obvious.  He routinely scorns his opponents as “fundamentalists,” “literalists,” “legalists” and the like.  He ridicules those who “Believe in a Fall” (81).

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