The Strengths and Weaknesses of Situation Ethics
Thomas Ash

Introduction

Situation Ethics is an ethical system, particularly influential in Protestant Christianity, but dating back to the early Christian era, which holds that love is the only moral criterion, and that all our actions are to be judged by it and it alone. St Augustine of Hippo Regius was one of the first to articulate this theory, claiming a basis in Jesus' teaching when telling his congregation - and troops - to "love and do what you will."

Because the protection of Hippo was a loving motive, this included killing those barbarians attacking the city at the time. This highlights one of the key strengths of situation ethics - because it sees the motive as all important, it is not vulnerable to the impossible situations unchangeable following of rules can lead to. For example, the Biblical commandments not to murder could have lead to Hippo (!) falling as it's passive soldiers and citizens stood by, refusing to kill[1] anyone. But a situation ethics approach allowed them to defend themselves.

Likewise, euthanasia could be permitted in extreme circumstances, because it would be a loving act to save an old person from an otherwise painful, undignified death in a few hours (a strict "Thou shalt not commit murder" approach would not allow this.) Or what about killing Hitler before he caused World War II and the Holocaust? The law would not have allowed this, but surely it would have been loving to save millions of lives.

Argument

Defenders of situation ethics would argue that one of its key strengths is its flexibility; it allows for pragmatic decisions to be made where rule-based ethical systems slavishly follow their own absolute commandments. It takes the circumstances into account where they ignore them, proscribing some actions 'whatever the circumstances.' As I've just shown, this can lead to all sorts of strange results. The frequent attempts to sidestep them (the doctrine of double effect prominent among them) are a tacit acknowledgment that this is the case, and can lead to some very confused situations. For example, the removal of the Fallopian tube, with it's indirect result of the death of a foetus which would otherwise cause the mother's death, is permissible, but the modern scientific technique of just removing the foetus, which has the significant advantage of letting the mother still bear children, is not.

Opponents would say that doing something like murdering Hitler brings you down to his level, and point out that it is against our consciences. But the phrase 'bringing you down to the same level' is an essentially vacuous one which disguises the fact that most people just find killing uncomfortable. This is a gut reaction, not in itself a reason for saying that killing is automatically wrong any more than the fact that some people are instinctively racist shows that racism is right. Situation ethics is not based on the idea of a conscience, and as it says that we should make love rather than divvine revelation or intuition the basis of our action, our gut reactions aren't seen as being the best moral guides.

Its advocates would also claim that situation ethics focuses on humans rather than what amounts to a worship of laws and abstract principles. These only have ultimate value to the extent that they help people. The argument is that the only basis for something being morally good can be the resultant feelings of human beings, and situationalists like Joseph Fletcher have argued that because Christianity's God is a personal one, its moral approach should be centred around human beings too.

That said, there are some powerful arguments against situation ethics. First of all, it is often very hard to define what 'love' as a motive means. On one definition, Hitler and Stalin could have classified their actions as loving, as they certainly saw what they were doing as justifiable. But the definition of love can't be too narrow, or else a number of actions which would properly be described as loving will not qualify. In practice, situation ethics can be used to take a consequentialist approach in most cases, only to abandon it (claiming 'love' as the justification) when it becomes too uncomfortable.

Also, it is often very hard for someone to individually judge what is loving, as they are bound to see things from their perspective. Some selfishness can easily creep in with no firm rules, and love can also lead to favouritism. Separately, some people worry that dangerous boundary lines could be crossed - this is the so-called 'slippery slope idea' which suggests that it's a short path from euthanasia to wanton murder, while ignoring the fact that if situation ethics holds euthanasia to be right in some circumstances, it will not see it as a 'boundary' that should not be crossed in the first place. In a sense, there are no boundaries in situation ethics. However, these are very much practical points - they don't undermine the basic argument, and it should be possible to compensate for them. On the flip side of this, the fact that love is often one of the best ways to ensure you are compassionate to others does not automatically make it the ultimate principle by which we should live our lives.

But a strong argument against situation ethics is that it tends to assume that just because an act is well motivated, it is automatically right. This is clearly not the case. Just because you wouldn't blame someone who accidentally killed two kids while trying to save his neighbour's dog, doesn't mean that his action was, with hindsight, objectively right. Likewise, Hitler and Stalin, because they were ideologically motivated, thought that their actions were appropriate, but that didn't make them right. It could be argued that their motives were not loving, but as we have seen, love is at best a nebulous concept, and could be applied to such strongly held principles.

The arguments against legalistic rule-following, then, are valid, but what situation ethics offers in its place doesn't necessarily stand up. It is fundamentally vague, resting on a very ambiguous definition of love, and could in practice be used to justify anything. It takes relativism in the sense of opposing a plethora of absolute rules to the extreme of relativism in the sense of 'anything goes, so long as the motive can be described as "loving".' If the basis of right and wrong is the way actions affect human beings - as situation ethics agrees - then surely we should just consider their consequences, and not some conception of how loving the actor's motive was. Straightforward consequentalism makes much more sense, as it applies directly rather than indirectly to where value lies.

Endnotes

1. Many people when confronted with this point out that the Bible only says that you should not murder, not that you should not kill, because the 5th commandment literally translates as "Thou shalt not commit murder" (this is true - there are two Hebrew words for killing, and the one specifically relating to murder is used.) But this is not the all-conquering reply it seems to be. If you define murder as "killing except when it's right", you are left with a useless commandment: "Thou shalt not kill except when thou shalt." And if you attach one or two provisos to it - eg. "except in wartime" - you still have an absolute rule which will sometimes lead you into a problematic situation.

© 2001

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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