Book Review: Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher

As a personal quest to understand the field of ethics better, I picked up the book Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher at a local college library. This book seems to be the definitive guide on the matter of situation ethics as it began to infiltrate religious circles.

From everything I have been able to read about Joseph Fletcher and reading his book, I have determined that though he may have been a religious man, he certainly does not seem to have had a personal relationship with God. When he wrote this book in the late 1960s he was an Episcopal priest. He died a humanist and athiest. In the book it looks as though he believed Christianity was a good belief system around which to base one’s life, but was not necessarily something that changed his life.

book cover for Situation Ethics

The word legalist has been defined by different groups for different purposes. For Fletcher this would mean someone who holds to a set of laws and principles for moral decisions. By his definition I am a legalist. I believe that God has given us a book containing His absolute law and that there are many Bible principles we can use to guide our life and decisions.

Fletcher believes there is no law but love. He is talking about agape love. The type of love God has for mankind and that we should have for one another. The problem I have with his concept of love being the only guiding principle and that we each have to make the decision of what the most loving thing to do in any given situation is that it is completely arbitrary. Whatever you decide is the most loving thing in your situation is right according to Fletcher. In the book, and in life, he followed his beliefs to their only logical conclusion. He accepted the concept of abortion for any reason and the right to die (even committing suicide) if you decided it was the most loving thing to do. This would be morally acceptable and obligatory using the conclusions drawn in his book.

I cannot, as one who loves God and His Word, accept what Fletcher taught in Situation Ethics.

[Situation ethics] holds flatly that there is only one principle, love, without any prefabricated recipes for what it means in practice, and that all other so-called principles or maxims are relative to particular, concrete situations! If it has any rules, they are only rules of thumb. pg. 36

In other words, there are no absolutes. Nothing else in the Bible matters when a decision is being made: no laws, no commandments, no biblical principles.

Writing about the last five of the Ten Commandments he says:

But situation ethics has good reason to hold it as a duty in some situations to break them, any or all of them. We would be better advised and better off to drop the legalist’s love of law, and accept only the law of love. pg. 74

He sets forth 6 propositions that help the situationist make decisions. Look at these and see if they fit with a holy God who has given a law that brings us to an understanding of grace.

  1. Only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love: nothing else at all.
  2. The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else.
  3. Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.
  4. Love wills the neighbor’s good whether we like him or not.
  5. Only the end justifies the means; nothing else.
  6. Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.

God has given us a law to follow. That is His Word–the Bible. And the Bible does speak to the point that love should be a guiding principle. It is found in Romans 13:10 “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” In other words, love is doing what is right according to God’s laws. Fletcher says that love is doing what you personally decide is right without regard to any prescriptive laws. I must reject that.

It is unfortunate that the book is so expensive (currently $23 at Amazon). If you can get a copy at a library it would be worth reading if you are a student of ethics. Go into it with an understanding that Fletcher claimed to be a Christian at the time he wrote this book, however, he was not a Christian in the sense that he had a personal relationship with God and wanted to be obedient to the Word of God.

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