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The situational ethics theory was first postulated during the 1960's by Joseph Fletcher. It was intended to be a middle ground position in the Christian world of ethics between antinomianism and legalism. Antinomianism says there is no law—everything is relative to the moment and should be decided in a spontaneous fashion with man’s will as the source of truth. Legalism has a set of predetermined and different laws for every decision-making situation. Fletcher’s ethical theory is based on only one absolute law, which when applied properly, handles every situation. Other popular situational ethicists are Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John A.T. Robinson.

Fletcher posits his situational absolutism with its one law for everything by saying we must enter every situation with only one moral weapon—the law of agape love. He says: "Only the command to love is categorically good. We are obliged to tell the truth, for example, only if the situation calls for it. Act responsibly in love, and 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." His theory states that "each situation is so different from every other situation that it is questionable whether a rule which applies to one situation can be applied to all situations like it, since the others may not really be like it. Only the single law of love (agape) is broad enough to be applied to all circumstances and contexts."

According to Fletcher, Jesus summed up the Mosaic law and the Ten Commandments in one word—love. Therefore, there are no commandments which may not be broken in some situation for love’s sake. Every law is breakable by love. As Augustine put it: "Love with care and then what you will, do." Love is the one universal law. When all else fades, love will abide forever. According the Jesus, love is the earmark of His disciples (John 13:35).

  1. Love is an attitude, not an attribute. The only human thing that has intrinsic value is love.

  2. Whatever is the loving thing to do in any given situation is the right thing to do.

  3. One does not follow love for the law’s sake; one follows the law only for love’s sake. Love and law sometimes conflict and when they do it is the Christian’s obligation to put love over the law.

  4. Love and justice are identical. Justice means to give others their "due," and love is their due.

  5. Love is a multidirectional and utilitarian principle. Calculating the remote consequences, it strives to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Love foresees the need to use force, if necessary, to protect the innocent; or to disobey an unjust civil law; or even to revolt against the state, if the end consequence is for the greater good of the majority of the people. "Only the end justifies the means; nothing else." The loving end justifies any means.

  6. Love decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively. Love does not prescribe in advance what specific course of actions should be taken. Love operates apart from a pretailored, prefabricated list of moral rules. Love functions circumstantially, it does not "make up its mind" before it sees the facts in any given situation.

  1. Altruistic or sacrificial adultery: a German mother was committed to a Russian concentration camp. Pregnant women were considered a liability and were released. This mother found a friendly guard who sympathized with her situation and willingly impregnated her. She was released and returned to her home and raised the child as part of her reunited family. Her adultery was justified since it served to reunite her with her children and family who needed her.

  2. Patriotic prostitution: a young mother working as a spy for the US was asked to use her sexuality to ensnare a rival spy. When she protested that she could not put her personal integrity on the line by offering sex for hire, she was told: "It’s like your brother risking his life and limb in the war to serve his country. There is no other way." For the greater good of her country, it was the loving thing to do.

  3. Sacrificial suicide: Taking one’s own life is not morally wrong if it is done in love for others. If a man has only two choices of taking an expensive medication which will deplete his family’s finances and cause his insurance to lapse, or else refusing the medicine and living only 3 months, it is the loving thing to do to refuse the medicine and spare his family. And, non-theoretically, a German nun taking the place of a Jew in the gas chambers; or a soldier taking his own life to avoid being tortured into betraying his comrades to the enemy.

  4. Acceptable abortion: an unmarried schizophrenic patient become pregnant after being raped. Her father petitioned for abortion but the hospital refused because they said it was "non-therapeutic" and therefore illegal. The father maintained that it was the loving thing to do to prevent this child’s birth. In another real situation, a Romanian Jewish doctor aborted 3000 babies of Jewish mothers in concentration camps because, if pregnant, the mothers were to be incinerated. This means that the doctor actually saved 3000 and prevented the murder of 6000. This was the loving thing to do.

  5. Merciful murder: a mother smothers her own crying baby to prevent her group from being discovered and killed by a band of hostile Indians. A ship’s captain orders some men thrown from an overloaded lifeboat to prevent it from sinking and killing everyone on board , thus killing a "few" for the "greater good" of the majority. Not resuscitating a monstrously deformed baby when it is birthed is the loving thing to do both for the child, for the parents, and family.

How do you apply situational ethics in your own life?

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