Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Is Situation Ethics Another Form of Antinomianism?

by Gabriella Watson

Situation Ethics, pioneered by Professor Joseph Fletcher, is an antinomian ethic as it asserts that decision making should be based upon the circumstances of the particular situation, not upon fixed law. In Christianity, it explains that theologians are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality. However, as a form of antinomianism, Situation Ethics is a weak theory predominately because the absence of laws leads to the promotion of immoral behaviour as there are no universal, fixed guidelines and, although the theory itself is based upon Christian teachings, it does not appeal to religious absolutists.

 Firstly, the main feature of Situation Ethics lies in its lawless, flexible nature which can help lead to the promotion of moral behaviour. It is not based on absolute rules which must be strictly adhered to, unlike other ethical theories such as the deontological Divine Command Theory. It therefore places trust in individuals to assess situations independently and decide for themselves which course of action will best serve the needs of the fundamental principle of “agape love”. Consequentially, Situation Ethics promotes moral behaviour because its versatile structure, based purely on love, motivates individuals to respond to ethical dilemmas in the most compassionate way, helping to benefit the greater good of humanity without having to rely on a legalistic structure. For example, the antinomian form of Situation Ethics may support euthanasia, which is usually condemned by authoritarian ethics such as Natural Law, as the taking of a life alleviates suffering, helping to generate the most loving action. The flexible nature of Situation Ethics was supported by Anglican Bishop John Robinson who said that the absence of laws would enable ‘man to come of age’. Robinson attempted to avoid strict authority from ‘law makers’ and institutions which he deemed damaging and oppressive.

However, ethics ought to give a clear system for making moral choices enabling the individual to judge between wrong and right easily. A legalist approach to ethics gives the moral agent a much clearer set of guidelines when approaching a challenging decision.  Given that Situation Ethics is a relativistic theory that allows for flexibility and diversity when approaching moral decisions, it could therefore lead to moral anarchy. This is because the idea of “love” is subjective, and as there are no guidelines to help judge what the definition is, different people could interpret different actions to be the most loving, which in turn could lead to injustice. For example, the atrocity of the Holocaust in which 11 million individuals were murdered could be justified using the antinomian form of Situation Ethics because Hitler genuinely believed that he was acting out of love for Germany. As it is a lawless ethic, based entirely on love, it therefore shows how the different considerations of love can be dangerous and lead to immoral behaviour. Professor Graham Dunstan, a fierce critic of Situation Ethics, chastised SCM Press for publishing Fletcher’s work because he feared it would lead to moral chaos because people would be free to decide for themselves what “agape love is” due to the absence of laws.    
Secondly, many proponents of Situation Ethics would claim that it is particularly practical for moral agents with a religious belief because, although it is not based on fixed rules, the fundamental principle of “agape love” is grounded in Biblical teachings. This specific teaching is found in the New Testament from Jesus’ command to “love thy neighbour” and therefore gives theists the freedom and responsibility to respond in a loving manner to those around them without the reliance on legalistic and restricting ethics. For example, Quakers are renowned for their lack of deontological based laws and regulations as they believe that there is no one set of rules that are superior to others and therefore must be followed. In fact, Fletcher’s working and fundamental principles are reflected in the practices of Quakers as they are encouraged to live simply, peacefully and with integrity. Situation Ethicists who follow Jesus’ teachings prefer the antinomian nature of this theory as the Bible reveals that Jesus himself rejected laws in favour of agapeic love as the book of Mark states that Jesus claimed “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. This dismissal of rules proves to theists that ethical decisions do not have to be made based on a legalistic structure but instead can be made using their own moral sense, giving theists freedom and independence.
On the other hand, critics would explain that Situation Ethics does not appeal to many absolutists who follow strict guidelines of religions, such as Catholicism, and prefer to judge each circumstance using a set of rules and regulations. This is strengthened by Pope Pius XII who, in 1956, lambasted this theory of ethical decision-making because he explained that it was “contrary to moral doctrines as taught and applied by the Catholic Church.” Pope Pius XII argued that it was wrong to make judgements based on individual circumstances if these went against the teachings of the Church and the Bible. For example, the justification of self-defence by Situation Ethics, as there are no set guidelines, would be condemned by Catholicism as the act of murder violates the sixth commandment “thou shalt not kill”, regardless of the circumstances. Many Catholics look towards the teachings of the church in times of uncertainty as the inflexible biblical laws provide guidance and consistency. The Roman Catholic Church would argue that the strict and traditional teachings of Natural Law are outlined in the Magisterium and followers of Catholicism should rely heavily upon them as they require clear guidelines on how to behave.  

In conclusion, although Situation Ethics, as a form of antinomianism, allows the moral agent to assess situations independently and decide for themselves the best course of action to take without having to rely on strict guidelines, the absence of laws could lead to the promotion of immoral behaviour. This is because it gives an individual too much freedom to judge between right and wrong which has led to many atrocities, such as the infamous Holocaust. Furthermore, despite the fact that Situation Ethics is based purely on agape love instead of rules and regulations, it means that it does not appeal to religious absolutists, such as the majority of Catholics, who follow the strict guidelines of their religion whilst trying to decide what the best course of action to take would be.

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