By Rod Benson
In 1966 American episcopal moral theologian Joseph Fletcher
published a popular book titled, Situation Ethics: The New Morality.
In the book he advocated a ‘new’ approach to Christian ethics and moral
decision-making which occupied a middle way between the two extremes of
legalism and antinomianism.
For Fletcher, this approach, labelled ‘situationism,’ was
theologically valid and pragmatically essential to life (at least in the
West) in the twentieth century; for Bishop John A.T. Robinson, author of
the equally popular Honest to God, it was the only ethic for ‘man come
of age.’ Fletcher’s book, although not theoretically sophisticated and
despite being peppered with explanatory anecdotes and illustrations,
presents a clear and well structured account of situationism from a
liberal Christian perspective.
Although he subtitled the work “the new morality,” Fletcher was not
advocating an entirely new ethic or morality; Situation Ethics was
simply one concise and well publicised statement of a trend in Christian
ethics that had been growing for decades.
In 1928 Durant Drake had published The New Morality against
authoritarian and supernaturalist ethics in the name of pragmatic
naturalism; in 1932 Emil Brunner published his Divine Imperative and
Reinhold Niebuhr published his Moral Man and Immoral Society; in 1959
Fletcher himself published a seminal paper on situation ethics in the
Harvard Divinity Bulletin; in 1963 H. Richard Niebuhr published The
Responsible Self; in the same year Paul Lehmann’s Ethics in a Christian
Context and John Robinson’s Honest to God were published.
Each of these made significant contributions to the development of
an anti-supernaturalist Christian ethic or an ethic based on existential
situations rather than prescriptive principles. Fletcher called his
position situation ethics or situationism. Others have called this
orientation toward the situational neocasuistry, existential ethics,
consequentialism, ethical relativism and moral nihilism. The Roman
Catholic Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office described it in 1952 as
‘the new morality.’
The Christian church has approached social and personal ethics from
various perspectives through its history. Richard Longenecker provides
a useful list of four ways in which special revelation has been used by
Christian theologians and ethicists in determining ethical positions and
in making decisions on practical moral issues. Reference to these four
positions will place Fletcher’s Situation Ethics in a theological and
casuistic context and enable us to consider his propositions in a more
enlightened sense than is possible through his writing alone.
The first of Longenecker’s positions is legalistic: it takes
scripture (specifically, for him, the New Testament) “as a book of laws
or a summation of codes for human conduct. It argues that God has given
prescriptive laws in the form of commandments and ordinances . . .
(which) do not come to us as tactical suggestions.” Two problems
associated with this position are that such an approach cannot create
moral beings, and that, since society and culture are in permanent
transition, laws require accompanying interpretations to explicate and
apply them in new situations.
The second position seeks to disclose universal principles
underlying scriptural accounts of prescriptive ethical laws. Adolf
Harnack exemplified this approach at the turn of the century with his
religious humanism advocating the higher righteousness and the
commandment of love. As Longenecker says, such an approach “provides a
means for appreciating how biblical norms can be applied to changing
The preeminence of love strikes a chord with the foundation of
Christian situationism, but one must still deal with norms (unlike
Fletcher’s one law of love), the search for universal principles may
turn biblical theology into philosophy, and Christian ethics may become
a subcategory of natural law “with the moral imperative of life rooted
in man himself (sic) and human reason viewed as the main guide for moral
The third position outlined by Longenecker stresses “God’s free and
sovereign encounter through his Spirit with a person as he or she reads
scripture, and the ethical direction given for the particular moment in
such an encounter.” Flowing from a neo-orthodox understanding of
revelation, this position is epitomised by Emil Brunner:
The Christian moralist and the extreme individualist are at one in
their rejection of legalistic conduct . . . they are convinced that
conduct which is regulated by abstract principles can never be good . .
. There is no Good save obedient behaviour, save the obedient will. But
this obedience is rendered not to a law or a principle which can be
known beforehand, but only to the free, sovereign will of God. The Good
consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment.
As we shall see, this position accords rather well with Fletcher’s
entire ethical scheme, and in particular with his final proposition that
love’s decosions are made situationally (at the ‘particular moment’) and
not prescriptively. Yet Fletcher’s ethical theory privileges the
individual agent in determining what the good is, whereas Brunner
favours an existential moment in which God somehow reveals his will to
The final position outlined by Longenecker is that of Fletcher and
his compatriots: that “Christians can determine what should be done in
any particular case simply by getting the facts of the situation clearly
in view, and then asking themselves, ‘What is the loving thing to do in
this case?’ Such an approach, of course, does not rule out the
prescriptive, for it accepts love as the one great principle for life.”
Biblical exhortations are not ignored in this ethic, but they are
treated as tactical suggestions rather than prescriptive norms.
In a ‘nut-shell,’ this last position is situationism, or
consequentialism. Writing critically of it shortly after Fletcher’s
first publication on the subject, Wolfgang Schrage noted that “[m]any
believe that the totality and fulness of New Testament moral demands may
be reduced to the commandment to love, or may be concentrated therein so
that all single commandments of a concrete nature are superfluous.”
Secular ethicists and moral philosophers – who incidentally portray a
total ignorance of Fletcher’s work as well as that of most Christian
ethicists – have taken much larger leaps from the old supernaturalism to
naturalism (and, in some cases, into nihilism).
For example, William Provine holds that “no inherent moral or
ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human
society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate
meaning in life.” Similarly, prominent American moral philosopher
Joseph Margolis, “there are no moral principles . . . just as there are
no laws of nature or rules of thought . . . whatever we offer in the way
of principles or laws or rules are artifactual posits formed within a
changing praxis . . . ‘Principles’ . . . are the instruments of
Fletcher was unwilling to embrace pragmatism and relativism
wholeheartedly and without reservation; he rejected both legalism and
antinomianism, embracing ethical relativism with one condition: that one
universal, prescriptive law remained – the law of love.
Fletcher’s Situation Ethics possesses a simple structure: its
polemic is based on four working principles and six propositions. The
principles were pragmatism (after C.S. Pierce, William James and John
Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism), relativism (following Brunner and
Niebuhr), positivism (theological positivism, as opposed to theological
naturaliam, in which propositions are posited voluntaristically rather
than rationalistically), and personalism (a concern for people rather
than things, the subject rather than the object).
Fletcher’s relativism was fundamental to his assurance that there
was one moral absolute, since he held that genuine relativity
necessarily rested on an absolute norm of some kind. The six
propositions forming the framework of his ethical theory were as
- only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love: nothing else at all;
- the ruling norm of Christian decisions is love: nothing else;
- love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else;
- love wills the neighbour’s good whether we like him (sic) or not;
- only the end justifies the means, nothing else; and
- love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.
Fletcher’s first proposition, then, concerns the unitary and
intrinsic good of love, and the parallel question of whether value is
inherent or contingent. He holds that, for Christian situation ethics,
“nothing is worth anything in and of itself. It gains or acquires its
value only because it happens to help persons (thus being good) or to
hurt persons (thus being bad) . . . Apart from the helping or hurting of
people, ethical judgements or evaluations are meaningless.” On the
surface this proposition seems reasonable. However, in postulating this
proposition, Fletcher reveals the humanist and positivist framework on
which he hangs his moral theology, for he eliminates the word and will
of God from his considerations.
For Fletcher, “Good and evil are extrinsic. Right and wrong depend
on the situation.” There literally is no intrinsic good apart from
love. Here we revive the classical debate over the nature or source of
the good: given the existence of a supreme being, does God love the good
because it is good, or is it good because God loves it? Once God is
removed from the ethical equation, anything is permissible, and the
result is ethical nihilism.
Fletcher, of course, does not deny the existence of God, but in
proposing that the abstract concept of love (albeit agape love) is the
only intrinsic good, he negates the value of other prescribed commands
in the New Testament and opens the door to relativism and subjectivism
in Christian ethics. Regarding the choice of love as the sole moral
criterion, Longenecker suggests that it is “an easily adjustable norm,”
capable of easy transfer from a theological context to a humanist or
Further, Christian situationists have been accused of refusing to
allow any predefinitions of the nature and content of love, and blithely
assume that “individuals, given only encouragement, will usually act
lovingly when they understand the various facets, ramifications and
implications of the particular situation.” Thus the situationist can
say with Fletcher that an act contravening a moral principle other than
love, if done with the motive of love, is not merely excusably evil but
positively good. As John Robinson puts it,
[l]ove alone, because, as it were, it has a built-in moral compass,
enabling it to ‘home’ intuitively upon the deepest need of the other,
can allow itself to be directed completely by the situation. It alone
can afford to be utterly open to the situation, or rather to the person
in the situation, uniquely and for his (sic) own sake, without losing
its direction or unconditionality.
For Fletcher, even human life is relative; as well as ‘white lies’,
he justifies ‘white’ theft, fornication, killings, breakings of
promises. Fletcher summarises his ethical position thus: “we ought to
love people and use things … the essence of immorality is to love
things and to use people.”
One of his opponents, Montgomery, questions the ‘newness’ and the
morality of Fletcher’s ethics, draws critical attention to Fletcher’s
use of terms (such as ‘love’) and slogans. Montgomery argues that the
only ethic that could stand above human limitations and prejudices and
establish “absolute human rights” is the one that derived from the realm
of the transcendent and not from individual finite situations. He
further lists four areas in which a revelatory ethic is superior to
- where love is defined in terms of God’s nature and is justified in terms of his being;
- where absolute moral principles are explicitly stated which inform love and guide its exercise;
- where a final judgement of evil is assured ; and
- where an effect remedy is provided for the root problem in the human ethical dilemma – man’s
Fletcher’s sixth proposition is the heart of his ethical theory: he
states that, for the Christian situationist, “love’s decisions are made
situationally, not prescriptively.” He eschews a “prefabricated,
pretailored morality,” urging those who subscribe to his ethic to “sin
bravely” – to quote Luther somewhat out of context. In other words, as
long as a moral agent respects the one law of love, she or he is free to
determine their own morality in response to existential situations.
But as Max Hocutt suggests, “[t]he fundamental question of ethics
is, who makes the rules? God or men? The theistic answer is that God
makes them. The humanist answer is that man (sic) makes them. This
distinction between theism and humanism is the fundamental division in
moral theory.” In my opinion, Fletcher appears more closely aligned
with secular humanism than with orthodox Christian theology.
In addition, Fletcher seems to entertain a preoccupation with
methodology at the expense of principle. Fletcher is apparently
unconcerned at the loose way in which the term ‘love’ may be
interpreted, and there is a fascination with the manner in which
decisions are approached and ethical judgements rendered which leaves
little room for moral reflection and reference to principle and
precedent. Fletcher explains that in situational moral decision-making
the objective is always love, the purpose is for the honour of God, and
the subject is other people (one’s neighbour).
But other questions, such as ‘When’, ‘Where’, ‘Which’, and ‘How,’
can only be answered as each situation presents itself. Situation
ethics is thus fundamentally neocausuistic; its operation and outcome
depends wholly on individual cases, not on precedent or on principles.
To quote Fletcher again:
The metaphysical moralist of the classic tradition, with his
intrinsic values and moral universals and code apparatus, says in
effect, “Do what is right and let the chips fall where they may.” The
situational decision maker says right back at his metaphysical rival:
“Ha! Whether what you are doing is right or not depends precisely upon
where the chips fall.”
In this respect Fletcher is so engrossed with casuistry and
consequences of moral actions that he fails to acknowledge that motives,
as well as consequences, have value.
As far as other fields of theology are concerned, situation ethics
is of little import except for its distaste of the prescriptive and
propositional. However, Gštz points out that Fletcher’s ethical
position impacts on the Christian doctrine of atonement. If any action
may be good or bad, depending on the situation, then sin must be
situationally defined. Gštz argues that Fletcher cannot reasonably
speak of people as sinners, since for him good and evil are attributes
and not properties. By implication, people merely sin; they are not
sinful or sinners (one gets the impression that this conclusion would
not distress Fletcher).
Further, the atonement effected by Christ ultimately has no meaning
for Fletcher. This seems to be a significant blind spot of Christian
situationalism as presented by Fletcher, and flows directly from the
logic of his sixth proposition.
In his quest for an evangelical hermeneutic to discern universal
moral absolutes, Terrance Tiessen identifies five principles for their
identification. For Tiessen, universal moral absolutes are identifiable
by their basis in the moral nature of God, by their basis in the
creation order (or human nature), by transcendental factors in the
situation of their promulgation and by the lack of situational
limitation in their formulation, by their consistency throughout the
progressive revelation of God’s will, and by their consistency with the
progress of God’s redemptive program.
Certainly, love is an obvious first choice as such a moral absolute,
but it cannot be the sole intrinsic good; nor can we say from scripture
that all moral decisions based on love must be made situationally
without reference to biblical prescription. In the final analysis,
these two propositions are both inadequate and lacking in truth as
foundations for a Christian ethic. Fletcher has allowed his theology to
become clouded by pragmatic and relativistic philosophy; perhaps this is
why, although sometimes quoted today, his ethical system has not
generally been accepted by the Christian church.
Fletcher’s theory was not new; it represented a view of ethics
common to theological liberalism and acceptable to secular humanism.
Fletcher’s genius was to gather together the various threads of the
theory and state them in a popular way.
As far as evangelical theology and ethics are concerned, Fletcher’s
situationism is an inadequate recasting of biblical commands and
ordinances which appear prescriptive and not bound by time or culture.
The notion that there is only one intrinsic good, namely love, is simply
not attested by the biblical evidence. It is neither true nor adequate.
His suggestion that ethical decisions – all ethical decisions –
should be made situationally rather than prescriptively is similarly
inadequate. While many decisions may be made situationally, especially
as social and technological changes compel human society to recast its
casuistry, some decisions should be made by reference to biblical
In addition, Fletcher fails to define carefully what he means (and
does not mean) by ‘love,’ and he fails to accept that motives as well as
consequences must be considered when one attributes value to an ethical
decision or a consequence of an action.
Brunner, Emil, The Divine Imperative (trans. O. Wyon; London:
Fletcher, Joseph, Situation Ethics (London: SCM Press, 1966).
Fletcher, Joseph & John Warwick Montgomery, Situation Ethics – True
or False (Minneapolis: Dimension Books, 1972).
Fletcher, Joseph, Moral Responsibility: Situation Ethics at Work
(London: SCM Press, 1967).
Gštz, Ignacio L., ‘Is Fletcher’s situationism Christian?’ Scottish
Journal of Theology 23 (3), August 1970, 273-278.
Hocutt, Max, ‘Toward an Ethic of Mutual Accomodation.’ In Morris B.
Storer (ed.), Humanist Ethics (Buffalo: Promethus Books, 1980).
Long, Edward LeRoy, ‘The history and literature of “The New
Morality”.’ In Harvey Cox (ed.), The Situation Ethics Debate
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967) 101-116.
Longenecker, Richard N., ‘New Testament social ethics for today.’
In Brian S. Rosner (ed.), Understanding Paul’s Ethics: Twentieth Century
Approaches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 337-344.
Margolis, Joseph, Life Without Principles: Reconciling Theory and
Practice (Cambridge, Massechusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).
Plato, ‘Euthyphro.’ In Benjamin Jowett (ed.), ”The dialogues of
Plato.’ In Philip Goetz (ed.),Great Books of the Western World (60
vols; Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990) vol. 6.
Provine, William, ‘Scientists, face it! Science and religion are
incompatible.’ The Scientist, 5 September 1988.
Robinson, John A.T., Honest to God (London: SCM Press, 1963).
Schrage, Wolfgang, ‘The formal ethical interpretation of Pauline
paraenesis.’ In Brian S. Rosner (ed.), Understanding Paul’s Ethics:
Twentieth Century Approaches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 301-335.
Tiessen, Terrance, ‘Toward a hermeneutic for discerning universal
moral absolutes.’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36
(2), June 1993, 189-207.
“Truth will always be stranger than fiction, for we have made
fiction to suit ourselves” – G.K. Chesterton