21st Century Situational Ethics

Although the term “Situational Ethics” only seems to appear in Joseph Fletcher’s book named Situation Ethics: The New Morality in 1966, partial and similar ideas of situational ethics have been in the mind of others earlier before. Such as will be Durant Drake that published The New Morality, Emil Brunner with his published work “Divine Imperative” as well as Reinhold Niebuhr with his Moral Man and Immoral Society. During the same year where Fletcher published his book, John Robinson published his book named Honest to God. Although as equally popular as Fletcher’s book, it was Fletchers book that seemed simpler and less systematic. In 1952, The Roman Catholic Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office labeled this new principle as the new morality.

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Pros and cons of situational ethics

Similar to other ethical principles, Situational Ethics has its pros and cons as well. To make things simple, following are the pros and cons of the Fletcher’s Model of Situation Ethics that is based upon Christian Love:-


Situational Ethics is personal. Since Situational Ethics is based on the teachings that ethical decisions should be made based on flexible guidelines it demonstrates sensitivity towards circumstances, context, particularity and cultural traditions; besides, it has only a single basic principle to adhere to, ‘love’, so people can freely, easily, and creatively make their decisions in the various situations among the numerous alternatives available. Thus, this ethical theory may seem attractive to the many individualistic human beings exist in this modern era.

Situational Ethics is specific. In Situational Ethics moral decisions are made on a case-by-case basis as in there is no fixed solution to various cases. Therefore, decisions made depend on the situation one is in and the solution to each situation is unique. (why is this good? Justify more)

Situational Ethics about goodness. Love is supposed to be a good element and Situational Ethics teaches that right acts are those which are targeted to promote the well being of people (love). According to Situational Ethics, the well being of people can be promoted by maximizing human welfare and happiness that would be beneficial to individuals or a society.

“Love” is vague and abstract. Although theoretically Situational Ethics is based on Christian love, but the term ‘love’ in this principle does not have any definite meaning; every individual is unique by him or herself and every of them feels and interpret ‘love’ in very different ways which may be due to different living environments, upbringing methods, genetics, and cultures. If everyone was to practice Situational Ethics, it might lead to confusion and therefore very inconsistent outcomes. For example, two very dissimilar decisions might be made in two very similar situations by two different people because their ‘love’s are not the same.
Situational Ethics is very subjective and emotional-based. ‘Love’ is a type of emotion and not some kind of reasoning element; because emotions are very individual-based, it is impossible for two persons to feel and express love in exactly the same way. It is generally agreed by ethicists that any ethical theory should be based mainly on reasons. So how can such a subjective-based Situational Ethics be tenable then in 21st century? Definitely people will involve some kind of biasness due to personal feelings when making decisions under such ethical principle; thus, fairness or justice cannot be upheld in Situational Ethics.
“Love” by Fletcher was Self-Contradicting. According to Fletcher, he based his model upon the basic principle, “love” as interpreted in the new Testament of Bible, ‘God is Love’. This statement makes Situational Ethics reasonable at first glance, but actually in the very next chapter of the same Bible, there is another statement says so, ‘This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome’. This latter statement is encouraging its believers to follow Divine Command Laws, is it not? Due to this, it makes Fletcher together with its Situational Ethics to be less convincing.
Situational Ethics is difficult to implement. Like Act Consequentialism, Situation Ethics is not a practical ethical theory in a society as each situation is so different from another that if this system was to be implemented, then when a person faced a moral dilemma, he or she would need a considerable amount of time to consider what was the best action that could bring out the most love. Besides, it is often very difficult to determine what are the boundaries of every situation as well (like when did the situation begin and end). Furthermore, such ethical system that is so relativistic and has only one basic principle often produces very inconsistent results and thus is very challenging to be taught to the younger generations too.
Situational Ethics may be misused by some in names of ‘love’. Based on Situation Ethics, any particular action does not have an inherent moral value as its good or bad depends on the results or the consequences of the action. Therefore, it seems that situation ethics allows a person to carry out acts that are normally classified as bad, such as killing and robbing, if those acts could be justified to be the expression of love by the committer.
To summarize up, Situational Ethics is far too impractical in its own sense and possesses too many obvious flaws. In this 21st century where moral dilemmas simply become more and more complex, this ethical theory, if applied universally, will only produce more instability and disorder in this world. In short, it will definitely not be the best ethical principle to follow. To further advocate our standing, we have continued to do research and found out some problems and issues regarding Situational Ethics.
Q: What are some of the issues or problems with Situational Ethics?

Issues and Problems of Situational Ethics

Is there a proper standard of value in determining the good?

In the Fletcher model, moral agents are asked to calculate which action in a particular situation will produce the greatest amount of ‘goods’ (love) for the greatest number of people. However, this method cannot be applied without some standards of value to aid figuring out the good and bad effects and then in balancing them; without clarifying the proper standards, what good deeds ought to be done in the situation cannot be determined. Besides, Fletcher came to say that he has said enough when he identified human welfare as the standard of value. As an example, he has substituted human welfare for pleasure as the standard of evaluation of both ends and effects, impliedly stating that human welfare is the ultimate love that can be given to other people in any situation. However, it is not clear that Fletcher’s appeal to human welfare will suffice.

Will other religious people and atheists be convinced to follow Situational Ethics?

As has been mentioned before, the main source of the theory of Situational Ethics is the Christian’s holy bible. Its original basic principle, ‘love’ which has been interpreted by Fletcher was largely influenced by its own faith in Christianity. For example, Fletcher saw love as the Holy Spirit for himself. But what does Holy Spirit mean for other religious people? Do atheists even recognize the existence of Holy Spirit? Indeed, it is true that ‘love’ exists in any society and culture and so non-Christian people can actually apply this ethical theory in their life as well; however, its Christianity origin may deter part if not all of these people from trusting in this ethical theory because it does seem to have some biasness in its interpretation of ‘love’.

3. Can people always act out of love and suppress their self-interests?

This is one of the main problems that relates to the practicality of Situational Love Ethics. According to Fletcher, the ‘love’ he suggested should mean the largest possible care of the well being of others; however, is it really possible for all human beings to set their self-interests aside and be as objective as possible when analyzing each situation? As mentioned, love is a kind of emotion and everyone feels and expresses it distinctively from another. The usual loves people give out are for families and friends. So what if in the specific moral dilemma context, someone a person loves a lot is involved? Can he or she really willing to sacrifice that important person for the sake of the majority and act in the most ‘loving’ way?

4. Do ends always justify the means?

Situational Ethics is very similar to Consequentialism in the way that both emphasize the prediction of the future and the end consequences that could happen, and then only decide on the action that could bring out the most desired outcome. As such, Situational Ethics shares the very same problem with Consequentialism as well: will any mean used to achieve the end be justifiable? In many circumstances, some living beings might need to be sacrificed for the sake of the majority. For example, in order to find out the most effective medicine to cure AIDS which affects millions of people, can scientists be allowed to use the fastest way (use selected human beings to conduct experiments) to achieve that goal? These scientists might consider that as the most loving way to act because they are trying to save millions of people in the end by ‘merely’ risking a few human lives. But can this really be justifiable?

5. People prefer to have a more Secure Environment

Situational Ethics consists of only one and only absolute basic principle to guide the general population; thus, it seems to ‘abolish’ all the existing rules and laws that exist in every culture. If people were allowed to break the rigid rules and laws when they found that their actions could be justified in names of ‘love’ (or some other absolute norms), weren’t those laws and rules be unenforceable anymore? This is definitely going to be a very risky ethical theory to apply because in this 21st century, where the societies and human populations are so complex, without definite laws and rules, people will only feel confused and chaos will happen everywhere. Thus, such a relativistic moral system seems not to be a better choice if compared to some other more absolutistic ethical systems.

Best Ethical Principle/ System

Q: What do you think would be the best ethical principle for your group to follow?

A: After discussion, our group comes to agree that an ethical theory that combines the Confucius’ Virtue Ethics with the authors’ (Thiroux and Krasemann) Humanitarian Ethics will be the best for us to follow.

After discussion, our group members have reached the agreement that Confucius’ Virtue Ethics combined with the Ethics textbook’s authors’ Humanitarian Ethics will be the best moral system for our group to believe in and practice, mainly because of the fact that its main purpose is to create humans that implant good moral characters in themselves, or in short is to create virtuous human beings.

In this 21st century, many ethicists have come to believe that humans have become more morally corrupted and morality is dying or even dead. In our modern world, people have tried to build up a moral society mainly through the act of establishing various rules and laws, but sadly that has been proven to be pretty ineffective; thus, both rule consequentialism and non-consequentialism principles will not be the best ethical principle to follow. In order to resolve this problem, Virtue Ethics is suggested to be applied universally because its main aim is to construct human beings that are truly ethical and excellent from within, not relying on outside forces such as rigid rules and laws. Virtue Ethics requires its believers to act virtuously and make it a habit; they practice what they do because they realize those acts are morally right and not because they are forced to. If everyone was to follow Virtue Ethics, then the dream of creating a moral society will be more likely to be realized.

Humans are social beings who do not live in isolation; generally, they are dependent among each other. Thus, Virtue Ethics is advantageous as well in this case. Confucius’ Virtue Ethics has 4 main elements in total: “De”, “Shu”, “Li” and “Ren”, all of which are crucial to achieving social harmony. “De” means the virtue acts to be practiced by individuals so as to bring the great goodness to the people surrounding. “Shu” teaches people to reciprocate among each other, suggesting that distribution of justice is to be practiced. “Li” provides guidance to act appropriately in different contexts and to respect others, especially the higher authorities and therefore contributes to social stability. Lastly, “Ren” tries to compromise individual’s interests with that of society’s, in which enhances human interrelationships and promotes humane behavior; for example, it includes the Silver Rule (not to do to others what you do not wish to be done upon yourself), which can be used to test whether an action should be taken or not in any particular situation. In overall, as you can see, Confucius’ Virtue Ethics is very humanistic and social-based, which makes it seems very ideal in our current diversified and complex societal world. For example, if leaders in this 21st century were to follow Confucius’ Virtue Ethics, then their followers will be more likely to show loyalty to them because the leaders are doing right and are concerned about their respective followers instead of merely using coercive or tyranny methods.

One of the basic assumptions made by Thiroux and Krasemann, the authors of our Ethics textbook that any workable ethical principle should have is to be rationally based and yet does not eliminate emotion; indeed, Confucius’ Virtue Ethics is one that has this characteristic. It is an undeniable fact that many moral decisions involve emotional elements, and this ethical principle tries to achieve a balance in between reason and emotion; not only that it urges people to act virtuously, but it also wants its followers to feel good about their deeds. Besides, that, Confucius’ Virtue Ethics also fulfills other basic assumptions made and thus really seems to be a very practical ethical principle: logically consistent, has universality, and can be taught to the younger generations.

Of course, Confucius’ Virtue Ethics is not flawless. One of its main problems is how to define what virtue means and what does it constitute? Many people will have very different opinions about which acts can be considered as virtuous. To solve or lessen this problem, perhaps a group of experts can sit together and discuss about what should comprise virtuous acts and then make out a list of virtues (and vices) to guide the general population what they should (and should not) do.

Another main problem about Confucius’ Virtue Ethics is that it does not really fulfill the fifth basic assumption mentioned by textbook’s authors in which a workable moral system should have: ability to solve conflicts. Although Virtue Ethics can serve as a good guideline about what goodness comprises of, it does not provide instructions for us about how to set priorities when two goodness conflict and how to solve moral dilemmas properly. This is when our group members all think the authors’ Humanitarian Ethics with its 5 basic principles come to be useful (source: Ethics’ textbook by Thiroux and Krasemann):-

1. The Principle of Appreciating Human Life (primary)

2. The Principle of Doing Good and Avoid/Deter Doing Bad (primary)

3. The Principle of Fairness in Distribution (secondary)

4. The Principle of Honesty (secondary)

5. The Principle of Individual Freedom (secondary)

While critically analyzing and reasoning a conflicting or complicating moral situation, it is said that the first two primary principles should be given the priority first, then only consider those in the secondary category; if the conflicting principles are in the same category (for instance in the case of mercy killing), then the individual’s freedom of choice will come into play. This reasoning method is very compatible with Confucius’ Virtue Ethics because as can be noted, virtues can all actually be the goodness that are required in the second principle. Thus, in short, all the virtues taught in Confucius’ Virtue Ethics can be used by the general population as their daily-routine guidelines and when exceptional situations happen, people can use these 5 basic principles to make justifiable moral decision judgment.

Hence in conclusion, our group believes that the combination of both Confucius’ Virtue Ethics and the authors’ Humanitarian Ethics is perfect because this combined version of moral system can not only fulfill all the basic assumptions for an ethical theory to be practical, but if it is implemented well, it can also create many ethical and ‘excellent’ human beings that can live harmoniously with each other.