Second (or Third) Thoughts about Situation Ethics (Part 2)
Before reading this be sure to read Part 1. (Any response to this Part 2 that indicates you have not read Part 1 will not be approved.)
So was Joseph Fletcher’s “situation ethics” a “new morality?” He even he admitted that most of what he was saying was not new; he mentioned frequently as precursors of his situational approach to Christian ethics: Saint Augustine, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Augustine famously said “Love and do as you please.” Fletcher quotes that approvingly. I can testify that Brunner, in The Divine Imperative and in Dogmatics, wrote that the Christian who has the Spirit has no need of any law. In his Ethics Bonhoeffer wrote about that “God’s commandment cannot be found and known in detachment from time and place; it can only be heard in a local and temporal context.” Part V of Ethics is entitled “What Is Meant by ‘Telling the Truth’? and there Bonhoeffer justified lying in some cases because, he argued, a person does not always deserve the truth. So, Fletcher knew and acknowledged that much of what he was saying in Situation Ethics (1966) was not entirely new. Many readers, however, chose to ignore that (or didn’t really read the whole book!) and misrepresented Fletcher as promoted a truly new morality meant to justify the 1960s sexual revolution.
Fletcher offered several nutshell summaries of his situation ethics. Here is one especially pithy one: “In the relativities of this world where conscience labors to do the right thing, we may always do what would be evil in some contexts if in this circumstance love gains the balance. It is love’s business to calculate gains and losses, and to act for the sake of its success.” (132) On the next page he declared in italics that “Only the end justifies the means: nothing else.” (133) By “end” he meant agape love and by “means” he meant almost anything. In fact, there is the first weakness of the book. Fletcher left “means” so open that virtually anything, perhaps anything, could be justified if the motive, together with careful calculation, is selfless, other-regarding love. This is what really caused the commotion surrounding his book. Let me be specific.
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For example, on page 110 Fletcher offered several examples of “agapeic” love—“selfless, calculating concern for others.” One was Father Damien on Molokai, but another was “a kamikaze pilot.” Another was “a patriot hiding in a Boston attic in 1775” and another was “a Viet Cong terrorist walking into a Saigon officers’ mess as he pulls the pin in a bomb hidden under his coat.” Then, on page 139 Fletcher stated that “Whether any form of sex (hetero, homo, or auto) is good or evil depends on whether love is fully served.” Had I the opportunity, I would have asked him about sex between an adult and a child. I’m confident he would denounce it as unloving, but it is not difficult to see how a pedophile could use that statement, as unqualified as he left it, to justify his act. And I would have asked him about incest and polygamy. Surely he would have denounced those also, but why? On what grounds?
A major stumbling block for readers of Situation Ethics was these radical claims—within the context of Fletcher’s frequent rejections of rules and principles. Nowhere in the book did he discuss levels of moral development and to what extent rules and principles are necessary in light of, say, the immaturity of adolescence and most people’s ignorance of all the details of any circumstance or situation. Throughout the book he often carefully advocated calculation of outcomes and argued that love must not act until and unless it knows the outcome of the act. This presupposed a high level of maturity, reflection, reason and foresight.
So what was Fletcher arguing against? Well, that’s not difficult to discern. Throughout the book he criticized philosopher Immanuel Kant’s deontological, absolutist ethic which drove Kant to admit that he would not lie to a murderer to save a friend’s live. Fletcher used Kant’s extreme ethical rule-absolutism as an example for every ethic but his own! He portrayed his own situationism as the only real Christian alternative to that. He admitted that Catholic casuistry inclined toward his situationism, and he even called his ethic “neo-casuistry,” but he wrote as if the only consistent alternative to his own situationism is legalism. And he offered numerous case studies of abusive legalism that punished people for doing the right thing just because it violated some rule or law.
Fletcher did discuss what is now generally known as principlism—the idea that principles can over ride rules but are necessary for a holistic Christian ethic. He engaged Paul Ramsey dismissively, reducing his principle-based ethic as another form of legalism. With regard to rules Fletcher stated flatly that “For the situationist there are no rules—none at all.” (55) and with regard to principles he wrote that “Situation ethics keeps principles sternly in their place, in the role of advisers without veto power!” (55) What about the principle of justice? Fletcher claimed that justice is simply love at work; he denied any real tension between love and justice—such as was claimed by Reinhold Niebuhr in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics.
For anyone who is still confused, here is a somewhat lengthier Fletcher description of his situation ethic: “Situation ethics has only one norm or principle or law (call it what you will) that is binding and unexceptionable, always good and right regardless of circumstances. That is ‘love’—the agape of the summary commandment to love God and the neighbor. Everything else without exception, all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love in any situation.” (30)
With the two exceptions of Fletcher’s somewhat extreme statements about rules and principles, and his assumptions about his reader’s (and those influenced by him and them) maturity, many even conservative Christian ethicists might have accepted what he said about the sole supremacy of agape love—were it not for his case studies. I have already mentioned some. The most shocking one is his description of an embryo resulting from a rape. One has to wonder about the mind and heart of someone who could say this…
On pages 38-39 Fletcher offered the case study of an unmarried, institutionalized girl ill with a “radical schizophrenic psychosis.” A fellow patient raped her and her father demanded an abortion when the girl became pregnant. The institution refused on the grounds that abortion is illegal except for therapeutic reasons—when the mother’s life is at stake. Fletcher was outraged at this refusal and here is how he described the rapist and the embryo inside the girl: “not one but two aggressors. First there is the rapist, who being insane was morally and legally innocent, and then there is the ‘innocent’ embryo which is continuing the ravisher’s original aggression! Even self-defense legalism would have allowed the girl to kill her attacker, no matter that he was innocent in the forum of conscience because of his madness. The embryo is no more innocent, no less an aggressor or unwelcome invader!”
My point is simply this: Had Fletcher omitted such emotive language and such absolutist rejections of rules and principles (except as “advisers”), many critics would not have demonized his book as harshly as they did. He virtually invited it. From what I know of Fletcher’s personality, I think he probably relished it. He probably would say that if he had omitted these his book would not have gotten as much attention as it did. Indeed. And it probably would not have led to such polarized responses—some demonizing it and others using (or misusing) it to justify all kinds of immoral actions. Is it really doubtful that the second half of the 1960s in America witnessed the “sexual revolution” partly as a result of Situation Ethics (the book)? The book made a huge splash not only among Christians but among hormone-driven young people who were sure they were just having “love-ins” during their sexual orgies.
The good ideas of Fletcher’s book were not new; one can find them in both Brunner and Bonhoeffer. They are that real love must trump rules and principles (other than love) in extreme situations. Brunner, for example, went so far as to defend polygamy in post-war situations where there were too few men to marry the surplus of women. (I don’t mean “surplus” in any negative way; I only mean many more women than men.) We could go back to Luther who said that if a woman marries a man who turns out to be unable to have children she could have sex with his brother in order to get pregnant and bear a child. Bonhoeffer defended lying in some circumstances and, of course, became involved in a plot to assassinate the head of state—even though he was a pacifist! (Yes, he did, and I have proven that here in a previous blog post where I quoted extensively from Eberhard Bethge who was privy to Bonhoeffer’s own admissions of it.) Qualified situationism that takes into account the human need for rules and principles is not all that controversial—except among hard core fundamentalists (and Kantian deontologists). It is generally known as “contextualism.” Fletcher went off the rails by denouncing rules and qualifying principles out of relevance and using language and offering case studies that undermined his cause.
Going back to my own fundamentalist upbringing (discussed in Part One of this two part series): If I had to choose between Fletcher’s situationism and the rule-absolutism of my religious upbringing I would be hard pressed to choose. I would incline toward love-situationism provided that everyone have a great deal of moral maturity and ability to calmly reflect and foresight of consequences. I know that I did not have those as an adolescent and I’m not sure many adults have them. Most of the time we need rules and principles to guide us; some of the time we have to set rules and even principles aside in order to do the right thing—to love as God loves.
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