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.

Biblical Social Ethics: Wedge Principle

Social Ethics from a biblical perspective can help us make decisions on activities that the Bible does not expressly state as sin. Because the Bible was revealed for us over a long period of time, God did not create a list of rules that would dictate our actions in every possible situation. He revealed a few unchangeable rules regardless of time or place, but the rest of our decisions should be filtered through a set of biblical principles.

While I am discussing six principles in this series, there could be other principles that you can pull from scripture to help you better make decisions. I think you will find these principles will help you decide most questions you have in life.

Wedge Principle: Defined

God cautions us against anything that becomes habit forming or lends itself to further involvement which leads to sin. Of course godly habits are permitted. The caution is against activities that may not be wrong by themselves but may be formed into habits that control our lives inappropriately. A quick example of this is viewing television. Is a TV wrong or wicked? It can be, but not necessarily. What about watching TV 16 hours a day with a complete disregard for the wicked programming you may be viewing? You can see how one could lead to the other. The key is to keep the initial activity from forming a stronghold in your life so that you don’t delve into the depths of the other.

Wedge Principle: Clarifying Question

Will my involvement in this activity lead to possible sin in the future?

Man and lady holding hands.

The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 7:1 that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Does that mean that men should never have any physical contact with a lady? Obviously not. Married men and women certainly have the right to touch their spouse as you can clearly see from further down in the same chapter. Through other verses in the Bible we can conclude that Paul is talking about inappropriate physical contact. The word touch used in this verse carries the idea of “clinging to, intercourse or cohabitation” (according to Strong’s Concordance). We can conclude then that the prohibition is not on any physical contact, rather it is on contact that is obviously sensual. This is consistent with teaching found in other parts of the Bible.

Using the question, will my involvement in this activity lead to possible sin in the future? and the information above, we will consider the question of holding hands.

Is it wrong for a dating couple to hold hands? At what point is hand-holding no longer satisfying to a couple of kids? Eventually the desire will be to engage in greater physical contact. Where does it stop? I submit that, according to the Wedge Principle, you will decrease your likelihood of progressing to obvious sin by never involving yourself in holding hands to begin with.

Wedge Principle: Biblical Basis

Here are some verses that help you see the principle of avoiding things that may lead to further involvement.

Deuteronomy 12:30, Matthew 5:27-35, Romans 16:19, 1 Corinthians 6:12, Ephesians 5:12

Wedge Principle: Application

The Wedge Principle can be seen in the case of abortion. Previous to the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court in 1973 it was legal for a woman in 14 states to have abortions because of rape and/or incest. The Roe v. Wade decision established federal laws on when an abortion could be performed. The number of abortions increased dramatically following that decision. Consistently since 1988 the number of abortions performed in the US due to rape or incest has been 1%. Where there is a risk of death to either the mother or the child, abortions are performed 6% of the time (of course virtually 100% of the time the baby is killed in the abortion process). The other 93% of the time an abortion is performed because the child is unwanted or inconvenient to the life of the parents. How did we go from allowing abortions in cases of rape to having over 1,000,000 children killed every year in the US through abortion? This is an example of where we did not heed the Wedge, or sometimes called the Slippery-Slope Principle.

Other applications:

  • Is 16 years old too young to be dating?
  • Should men be alone in a car with a lady?
  • Is it permissible to play violent video games?
  • Should a Christian have Internet access?
  • Is it appropriate for a 13-year-old child to be on a social network?

I think this principle takes some spiritual maturity to know how to apply. You don’t want to go as far as to say that you will never go outside your house because it might lead to sin; however, you can also argue that you limit your risk of seeing and doing something inappropriate if you are not around other people. The application of the principle depends on the person as well. People who are not at all tempted by cigarette smoking can be a great witness to their co-workers by participating in a work related activities away from the office. However, if the temptation to smoke when hanging out with unsaved co-workers is too great for someone, they should abstain from any unnecessary contact that might tempt them into an activity they know is wrong.

Some of the biblical principles of social ethics stand on their own, but don’t forget to apply as much of God’s Word as you can to any decision you make. The Wedge Principle may not give you enough information to make a wise decision by itself. Spend time in the Bible while looking at some of the other principles for direction from the Lord.

Biblical Social Ethics: Association Principle

God has given us various principles in His Word that can be applied to help us make godly decisions in our lives. These principles should be used when the Bible does not specifically state whether an activity is right or wrong. However, you should avoid applying these principles to that which God has already prohibited or approved in His Word. Using biblical principles to justify an activity that is expressly prohibited will cause confusion.

Association Principle: Defined

God has told us to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Something might, in and of itself, not be wrong; however, we are told in the Bible that we should not even do the things that would make others think we might be doing something inappropriate.

Association Principle: Clarifying Questions

  • Will this activity require you to associate with that which is evil?
  • What is the present dominant association of the activity?
  • What does society immediately associate with the given activity?

Playing cards with moneyWhile God’s Word never changes, the associations of activities change. A simple example of this is playing cards in the United States. There was a time when cards were only associated with gambling. The dominant association of cards for both the world and the church was with an activity that has its roots in greed and laziness—both of which are sins that the Bible condemns. But there is nothing inherently wrong with pieces of paper which have numbers and pictures on them.

Today if you saw a mom, a dad and two kids playing cards there is really no association with gambling. The present dominant association with cards today is an activity that people play at family reunions where no money is involved. This is an example of where an activity and its association has changed over time. There was a time when playing cards would have been wrong for a Christian, but those days are gone (though they could come back).

Do people still gamble with cards? Absolutely. However the present dominant association with cards today is not with the activity of gambling.

Thinking a bit further through the example though, there may be a time and place where playing a game of Go Fish isn’t appropriate. If I were visiting my friends who live in Las Vegas, I would abstain from playing Go Fish (or any card game) in a public location. Playing with my family at the family reunion down by the lake is different from playing with a group of men at a coffee shop in Las Vegas.

Association Principle: Biblical Basis

A key passage on biblical decision making is 1 Corinthians 8:1 through 11:1. Paul goes into great detail on applying ethical principles when deciding what is appropriate or not. Was it wrong for Paul to eat meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8)? There was no difference in the meat before and after it was offered. If the meat was fine to eat previous to being offered, then it was fine to eat afterwards. The idol does not change the meat in any way. However, the present dominant association at the time was that eating the meat put your stamp of approval on the activity of idol worship. Eating the meat was strongly associated with the idols. Therefore, out of principle, Paul said that he would not eat the meat (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Here are some passages that help us understand the Association Principle. 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 and Ephesians 5:11, 12 talk about our associations with people. Disassociating yourself from evil things is discussed in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1; Romans 14:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:22.

Association Principle: Application

Here are some activities you can run through the filter of this principle. Using the other biblical principles in this series, you can make your own decision about these activities.

  • Should Christians go to the movies?
  • Is it OK for Christian men to have facial hair?
  • How long is too long for a man’s hair?
  • How short is too short for a lady’s dress?
  • Is it appropriate for you to play cards where you live?
  • Should a Christian go to an office Christmas party? At a bar?
  • Would you go to a restaurant that bills itself as a “Bar & Grill”?

We know that the Bible is a book of absolutes in the matters it discusses, but there are always new activities that we need to evaluate according to God’s principles. Some of the above activities would probably never change, however the present dominant association in your culture may be different than what it is in mine.

What other questions do you think the Association Principle can help answer? Do you have a question about one of the biblical principles of social ethics that you want to ask? Leave a comment below.