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AQA Religious Studies Situation Ethics Revision

Updated on June 7, 2013


  • Situation ethics is a halfway house between natural law or 'legalistic ethics' (actions are intrinsically always right or wrong) and antinomian ethics (do what you want whenever you want to).
  • It says that there is only one law we should follow: worship god and love your neighbour.
  • Catholics are a lot more legalistic whilst Protestants are a lot more relative about morality.
  • Joseph Fletcher claimed that 'there is no one ethical system that can claim to be Christian" because he believed that a system inherently means that sometimes love will be ignored to follow the rules of said system.
  • Situation ethics comes from the New Testament.
  • "The situationist follows or violates a moral law according to loves' need"

The 4 Working Principles of Situation Ethics

  1. Pragmatism - The course of an action must work. If there is an action that would work better than an action that is still within the law then it is okay to break that law in the name of love and do what works. Example: a group of people is hiding from murderers and a mother smothers her crying baby to prevent the rest of the group being caught and killed. This maximises the amount of love but would not be a legal action.
  2. Personalism - Situation loves people and not rules. People are valuable since they are in the image of God. Thus, rules can be broken if they will help people since upholding rules isn't as important as upholding people.
  3. Relativism - There are no moral absolutes because everything is relative, any action has the potential to be a moral one because it could lead to the most loving consequence.
    Criticisms: essentially consequentialism and as such has the same problems. Some actions seem too inherently wrong to ever consider them to be a 'loving act' e.g. paedophilia or rape.
  4. Positivism - Situation Ethics is based in faith so there is no reason ask 'why should we love' since the answer is not based on reason but faith. We must accept that God is love and that love is the highest good.
    Criticisms - This has no more evidence to support it than Utilitarianism's view that happiness is the highest good.

The 6 Propositions of Situation Ethics

  1. Only one thing is intrinsically good and that is love
  2. Christianity is lead by love
  3. Love and justice are the same "justice is love shared"
  4. Love wills your neighbour's good
  5. As long as the end goal is love, any means is acceptable.
  6. Situation ethics cannot create rules, because each situation is different and requires us to look at it with love in mind.


Christian Arguments For Situational Ethics

  • Based on faith in God and Agape Love - the Christian love.
  • Holy Spirit - Fletcher says that love is the Holy Spirit working within us
  • The End Justifies the Means
    - People must be put before rules: Jesus said that "Sabbath was made for man not man for Sabbath."
    - Jesus said that we must love God and love our neighbour - "all the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
  • What Would Jesus Do?
    - Jesus healed someone on the day of the sabbath, showing that it's okay to overlook rules ands laws if it's for love. He also harvested wheat for him and his friends so they could eat, another thing he was not allowed to do on the sabbath.
    - 'Love one another, as I have loved you'
    - 'Love thy neighbour' corresponds to one of Fletcher's 6 fundamental principles 'love wills your neighbour's good'
  • Situationist
    - Paul said that Christians have died to the law and "are not under law but under grace."
    - Robinson said that "the only ethics for the man come of age," stating that ethics changes as time passes.
  • Flexible
    SE is very flexible, allowing for changes with the times and the integration of new social phenomenas.
  • Allows Freedom
    - It gives people freedom to do the right thing because they are not limited to rigid rules
    - This allows people to get into the habit of acting lovingly rather than relying on rules that they might disagree with (which could lead to bad feelings of guilt or shame etc.)

Christian Arguments Against Situation Ethics

  • We're Not Angels
    William Barclay believed we can't be trusted to do the right thing because we're not angels: given the opportunity to be selfish and act out of our own interest we will. This makes situational ethics an unrealistic ideal.
  • No Standards
    - The Bible holds strict rules and principles that must be universal to be respectable. Situational ethics defies the idea that the Bible holds any authority for Christians because anything that is written can be denied on the grounds of 'love'.
    - If the Bible was not meant to be followed strictly then they would have been called "The Ten Suggestions."
  • Confused
    - Paul said that Christians should not do evil even when good might come of it: the end does not justify the means.
  • Church Intellectual Authority
    Through thousands of years of rigorous thinking from some of the greatest and holiest minds in history did the rules and traditions that are present in Christianity come about. For one individual Christian to defy all of this effort and state that he knows better is ludicrous.
  • Moral Chaos
    When the clear rules of the Bible are defied, only moral chaos can ensue: no one knows what is right or wrong anymore and some may find it too tasking to apply situational ethics to every moral dilemma they ever encounter correctly. People are likely to streamline the process, making shortcuts that will result in moral error.

Other Arguments

  • Some things are always wrong - it's very hard to argue that some things are not intrinsically immoral - paedophilia, rape, etc. are hard to justify.
  • Focussing on the motive and not the consequences leads to a very basic comprehension of what the most 'loving' thing to do is e.g. is giving to a homeless man the most loving thing to do if he spends the money will fuel his drug addiction?

Full List of Situation Ethics Past Paper Essay Questions

  • January 2010:
    (a) Examine how Situation Ethics may be applied to one ethical issue of your choice. (Do not choose abortion or euthanasia.) (30 marks)
    A Grade Answer
  • (b) How far is Situation Ethics a satisfactory approach to moral decision-making? (15 marks)
  • June 2010:
    (a) 'Situation Ethics is the middle way between legalism and antinomianism.' Explain this statement (30 marks)
    (b) 'Situation Ethics is not a practical way of moral decision-making'. Evaluate this claim. (15 marks)
  • January 2011:
    (a) Explain the importance of Christian love in Situation Ethics (30 marks)
    (b) 'If you act in a loving way, then everything you do must be right.' How far do you agree? (15 marks)
  • June 2011:
    (a) Examine the following ideas as they appear in the theory of Situation Ethics:
    -Relativism. (30 marks)
    (b) 'There are no rules in Situation Ethics.' Assess this view. (15 marks)
    A Grade Answers
  • January 2012:
    (a) Examine each of the four presumptions of Situation Ethics: pragmatism, contextual relativism, positivism and personalism. (30 marks)
    (b) How far can Situation Ethics be considered a Christian form of moral decision making? (15 marks)
  • June 2012:
    (a) Explain what Fletcher understands by 'Christian love' and its role in the moral decision-making process of Situation Ethics. (30 marks)
    (b) 'Situation Ethics is weak because it gives the decision-makers no real guidance about what they should do.' Assess this view. (15 marks)


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