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What are the Four Presumptions of Situation Ethics

Updated on June 7, 2013
The coiner of the term 'pragmatism': Charles Peirce
The coiner of the term 'pragmatism': Charles Peirce | Source

Question A (30 Marks)

Examine each of the four presumptions of Situation Ethics:

  1. Pragmatism
  2. Contextual relativism
  3. Positivism
  4. Personalism

The four presumptions or 'working principles' of Situation Ethics underline the key distinctions (both strengths and weaknesses) of Joseph Fletcher's unique ethical approach, which attempts to create a middle road between legalistic and antinomian ethics.
Pragmatism in Situation Ethics is the idea that the action in question must realistically work, it does not qualify as a moral action if it claims it would maximise the amount of love but seems impossible to execute. For example, the action of taking away hospital cancer care funding so that we can invest more money into a cure for cancer tomorrow is not a pragmatic decision (even though it would hypothetically bring a lot of/the most love) because as far as we know we are not around the corner from curing cancer in a short amount of time and taking away cancer care from suffering patients would not be loving. A criticism of pragmatism is that whilst although many ideas seem implausible, there are many historic examples where risky investments have paid off and helped mankind (or others) greatly (and so maximising love) e.g. the risk made by Edward Jenner (and other non-professionals) to infect people with cowpox (a seemingly unloving idea) in the hope that it would make them immune to smallpox paid off greatly, with smallpox becoming the first disease ever to be eradicated via vaccinations.
Situation Ethics' contextual relativism is essentially consequentialism, in the sense that it states any means to a given appropriate end can be justified with love. That is to say, any action (which might otherwise be perceived immoral) has the potential to be the most loving one in a given situation - actions are relative and moral absolutes cannot exist. A criticism of this is that some actions seem inherently wrong e.g. paedophilia and rape, and it seems very difficult to imagine a situation where allowing these actions would result in the most loving result. A counterargument to this however is the idea that although perhaps in most cases we can rule out certain things (like paedophilia) there might be extreme and unlikely situations where it is the best choice e.g. by not preventing a rape, MI5 is given enough time to capture and prevent a megalomaniac from detonating a nuclear bomb, saving millions of lives.
Positivism is the idea that there is no need to ask the question 'why love' or 'why should we follow love' because the answer is not based on reason but on faith. Fletcher argued that we must just accept the idea that love is the ultimate law, giving examples in the Bible where Jesus abrogated laws in the name of love i.e. healing someone on the sabbath and defending his friends for harvesting grain (also on the sabbath). Critics could argue that asking people to rule their lives on something based on 'faith' is ludicrous because people demand reason and logic to guide them. In addition, the idea that love is subjective and can be viewed as many different things make it very difficult to put our faith into it - accepting that we now follow 'love', how can we really act on this acceptance if we do not even understand its parameters?
Personalism is the idea that we should love people and not rules. It is the view that because each situation is unique it must be treated so, and consequently no rules or laws can ever be moral because they do not take into account important differences in people's situations. As Fletcher put it "no moral system can claim to be Christian" because rules in their very nature are not flexible enough to accommodate the maximisation of love in every situation. One could argue however that personalism, whilst a good idea (as it is in Act Utilitarianism) is not a practical one. Rules save time and energy and make an ethical approach viable for use in the real world ( the strength of Mill's Rule Utilitarianism over Bentham's Act), whilst a ruleless approach like Fletcher's is simply not possible - people will be stuck in a backlog of decisions that they must resolve before continuing with their lives. Equally, though, one could argue that a Situation Ethicist could realise the impracticality of Situation Ethics and decide that using strict rules from the Bible (or elsewhere) is the most loving thing to do, unless they are confronted with a problem where they assume the rules do not work best.

Section B (15 Marks)

How far can Situation Ethics be considered a Christian form of moral decision making?

Although Fletcher claimed his Situation Ethics to be a Christian approach to ethics, and even went so far as to reject most other existing forms of them by saying "no system with rules can be Christian", there are arguments to suggest that it is not a Christian form of moral decision making at all.
Fletcher cites the Bible for evidence of his approach being Christian, with Jesus breaking the laws of the sabbath by healing person of their ailments - whilst Jesus was not allowed to work on that day, he did anyway and even stated "sabbath was made for man not man for sabbath" implying that since Jesus clearly supported breaking established rules for the greater good, Situation Ethics is Christian. Another example for this is Jesus defending his friends when they harvested wheat on the sabbath (pointing out that David ate the priests' showbread).
On the other hand however, it can be argued that a Christian ethical approach should follow the main scripture of Christianity - the Bible - strictly . If the rules of the Bible were meant to be broken then they would have been called the "10 suggestions" and not the "10 commandments" - breaking clear biblical rules shows disrespect and disobedience to God, making Situation Ethics profoundly un-Christian. An argument against this view could be that since the Bible contains so much information which seemingly contradicts itself (compare the Old Testament to the New Testament), the most Christian thing to do is to apply general rules taken from the Jesus (the focal point of Christianity) which is what Fletcher has done in Situation Ethics.
Adding to the last point made, it seems that many of Fletcher's ideas in Situation Ethics correlate with the general teachings of Jesus. For example, one of Situation Ethics' 6 fundamental principles is the idea that 'love wills your neighbour's good, even if you don't like him." This equated to Jesus' general teaching 'love thy neighbour' and his reoccurring theme of helping those who do not like him (or that he should not like). Jesus' general goodwill also corresponds with Fletcher's 'justice is love shared'.


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