Situation ethics is an ethical theory developed by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s. Fletcher (1905-1991) was an American Episcopal priest. Situation ethics is based upon the idea that the morally right action in any circumstance is that which causes the most amount of love or agapé. This makes situationism similar to utilitarianism but with unselfish Christian love (agapé) rather than ‘happiness’ being the principle of utility. It is a teleological theory because the morally right action depends on the consequences (how much agapé is served) but also has elements of deontology as many Christians feel they have a duty to try and maximise agapé in their lives.
Fletcher developed situation ethics as a middle ground between legalism and antinomianism. Legalism is the practice of strict adherence to the law with no regard to the individual situation. Fletcher believed that this didn’t always end up in the most amount of agapé being served and following situation ethics is a way to act lovingly as Jesus did. Jesus taught that the greatest commandments are that we love God and our neighbour and Fletcher believed this was not always best served by strict adherence to rules. It can be argued that Jesus himself was a situation ethicist because he disagreed with the Pharisees’ strict adherence to (what could be seen as) petty rules such as their refusal to allow healing on the Sabbath. Jesus believed that instead of rigidly following rules, Christians should act in each situation in order to bring about the most agapé.
Antinomianism as a principle teaches that all morals are relative in meaning and application rather than fixed or universal. However, most Christians (including Fletcher) do believe there are some laws, and that there are laws which serve as general rules on how to love. Situation ethicists would argue that it is acceptable to bend these laws to love as fully as possibly even if it means breaking rules occasionally. Situationism is therefore seen as a good middle ground between the rigidity of legalism and the potentially chaos inducing antinomianism.
Situationism is a very attractive moral theory for many people. It is not dependent on Church doctrines and can therefore be utilised by anybody who understands the concept of agapé and not just Christians. It is flexible in that it allows the person applying the theory to decide themselves what the right thing in any given situation is. J. Robinson says that situation ethics is ‘the only ethic for man come of age’ implying that it is a mature ethical theory.
However this adaptability could also be seen as a flaw. Critics of situationism argue that not only does it allow people to make ill conceived subjective judgments, it also allows for the temptation to try and justify what you want to happen in terms of serving agapé. The Pope has criticised situationism for threatening Catholic morality. Most situationists would also be relativists in that they either believe there are no moral absolutes or they believe that certain moral absolutes can be broken in justification of serving agapé, and this does not sit well with the Catholic absolutist position on many moral issues (although believing the right thing in every situation is always to serve agapé is an absolutist position in itself). It is impossible to predict the consequences of a situation (a flaw shared with utilitarianism) and situationism doesn’t help when deciding who to do the most loving thing to when there is a conflict of interests. It is also hard to try and calculate amounts of love.