A Philosophical Appraisal Of Joseph Fletcher’s New Morality

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

A Philosophical Appraisal Of Joseph Fletcher’s New Morality

Chapter One


1.1 Background of the Study

Situation ethics, otherwise known as the new morality, states that in every situation each individual is responsible for reviewing the rules, norms and guidelines for action, then implementation or setting aside those rules so that love is best served. This theory exerted its greatest influence in Europe and North America in the twentieth century, although such influence waned by 1980. According to Joseph Fletcher, “It is an old posture with a new and contemporary look”.

Fletcher is a major proponent of situation ethics. In his book entitled: Situation Ethics (the new morality), he presented to us an individual freedom and individual responsibility within an ethic of love. He attempts to free man from legalism by providing a system of decision-making, which presupposes individual responsibility and states that everyman must decide for himself what is right. He tells us that moral decisions often fall into three categories: legalism, antinormianism and situationism. These categories will be elaborated upon in chapter one of this work. Perhaps, because Fletcher came from a Christian background he describes the ultimate goal of every moral decision as love, the love of which only God is capable of but which all people should strive to achieve. For the non-Christians, Fletcher suggests that love must be defined as some other highest good. With this, he came to the conclusion that situation ethics is the best course of action to follow in every moral decision making issue. To set the stage, he defines four principles namely: pragmatism, relativism, positivism and personalism as contributing to situational ethics. Together, these principles describe a method, which is about making decisions rather than looking them up in some identified source. He supported his situational ethics with six propositions that are based on love, which is set forth to show how love works in ethical decision-making.

According to G. Outka, “Situation ethics accords morally decisive weight to particular circumstances in judging whether an action is right or wrong” . We shall now see if situation ethics, otherwise known as the new morality, is an invitation to anarchy or a potent weapon in the contemporary war to free man from conformity, from fear and from crippling guilt. At this point a philosophical appraisal of Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics becomes inevitable.

1.2 Statement of Problem

The problem to be treated is about moral decision-making. How is one to act when faced with a moral decisive situation? Life presents us with situations where decisions are not so clear-cut. Saying yes to one perceived good often means saying no to another. The question “what ought I to do” in a given situation raises conflict for us. Making decisions is a part of man’s life. Man tries to make the right decisions always because a wrong decision taken can be detrimental to both an individual and the community. Hence, B. O. Eboh observes that, “It is often difficult to take a moral decision in a given situation because of the many other facts which may surround such a situation”[1]. The point is that there are many realities to be taken into consideration in moral decision-making.

At this point, one may ask: “what moral decision am I to take in a moral situation?”

1.3 Approaches to Decision Making

There are three main alternative routes or approaches to follow in making moral decisions. They are: (1) the legalistic approach, (2) the antinormian approach, the extreme opposites i.e. a lawless or unprincipled approach; and (3) the situational approach. All these three have played their part in the history of Western morals.

(A) Legalism

Legalism is the most common and persistent approach to decision making. It triumphed among the Jews after the exile and has dominated Christianity constantly from very early days. There exist a series of well-defined and absolute laws (secular, cultural and religious) that the individual must implement in every situation. Legalism sees moral rules and principles not as guides but absolute norms that must be obeyed at all costs and in all situations. With this approach, one enters into every decision-making situation armed with already-made rules and regulations. Fletcher affirms that, “legalism looks at the letter of the law and insists on its observance while ignoring the spirit of the law”.[2] However, questions arise as to whether in a particular case the law truly applies or as to which of several more or less conflicting laws is to be followed. In this case, the legalist applies casuistry.

According to Joseph Fletcher, legalism in the Christian tradition has taken two forms: In the catholic line of thought, it has been a matter of legalistic reason, based on nature or natural law. Hence he says:

These moralists have tended to adumbuarate their ethical rules by applying human reason to the facts of nature, both human and sub-human and to the lessons of historical experience. By this procedure they claim to have adduced universally agreed and therefore valid natural moral laws.[3]

In the protestant line of thought, it has also followed the same deductive catholic tactics. From this perspective, Fletcher observes:

They have taken scripture and done with it what the, Catholics do with nature. Their scriptural moral law is, they argue, based on the words and saying of the law and the prophets, the evangelist and apostles of the bible.[4]

As such, for him it is a matter of legalistic revelation in the protestant line of thought. However, both the catholic line of thought and the protestant line of thought are legalistic. Not even the fact that the catholic moralists deal also with revealed law and the protestant also have tried to use reason in interpreting the saying of the bible, Fletcher still maintains that both of them, by and large, have been committed to the doctrine of law ethics, which is legalism.

(B) Antinormianism

This is the approach with which one enters into the decision-making situation armed with no principles or maxims whatsoever. Literally, the term antinomianism means ‘against law’. Here, each individual enters the decision making process with no laws, guiding principles or maxims, believing that they will make the right decisions spontaneously in the moment, and base on the unique situation. Some antinormianists believe this ‘right decision’ information comes to them from an outside source such as the Holy Spirit or the combined wisdom of the ages under the guise of intuition. Antinormianism is a lawless and principleless approach to moral decision-making. It rejects all moral laws and principles and insist that man is free to take any decision he deems fit in any situation.

Among the Hellenistic Jew-Christians, antinormianism took the form of libertinism. They believe that by grace, by the new life in Christ and salvation by faith, laws or rules no longer apply to Christians. Their ultimate happy faith was now assured and it no longer mattered what they did. The negative result of this form of antinormianism led to an increase of legalism. Another form of antinormianism was a Gnostic claim to special knowledge so that neither principles nor rules were needed any longer even as guidelines and direction pointers. Those who go by it, claimed that they will just know what was right when thy needed to know. As such, their moral decisions are random and unpredictable. Making moral decisions is a matter of spontaneity.

(C) Situationism

The third approach to decision making is situationism. If legalism and antinormianism are the two ends of the spectrum, situationism falls between them. Here, each individual has an understanding of the general rules and guiding principles of his or her culture and theology, and uses the information to evaluate the situation and then adopts or rejects the ‘rule’ so that love or highest good can be served in the situation. Situationism accepts that there are universal moral principles but it sees them only as guides in ones decision-making. The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same way, he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so. Joseph Omoregbe observes that for the Situationists, “moral principles are not directives or absolute laws which must be obeyed at all costs.”[5] Situation ethics goes path of the way with natural law, by accepting reason as the instrument of moral judgement while rejecting the notion that the good is given in the nature of things. It also goes path of the way with scriptural law by accepting revelation as the source of the norms while rejecting all revealed laws or norms except the command to love. The decisions taken by a situationist are hypothetical and not categorical. Only the command to love is categorically good. Thus, Fletcher says, “Situation ethics aims at a contextual appropriateness- not the ‘good’ nor the ‘right’ but the fitting.”[6]

There are various names for this approach: Situationism, contextualism, occasionlism, circumstantialism or actualism. These labels indicate of course, that the core of the ethics they describe is a healthy and primary awareness that circumstances alter cases. Situationism places emphases on the situation more than anything else in determining which action is right or wrong in any given situation.

Having seen the three different approaches to decision making, it is important to point out at this early stage that there is no one of these approaches that has the absolute answer to the issue of making a moral decision. The words of Eboh explained this point better:

What needs to be highlighted is that in moral spheres, there is always a blending of colours. It is never one colour, it is always a mixture of colours each colour is a shade of human factors in moral decision making.[7]

What is being stressed here is that there is need for prudence while making any moral decision, and not to follow one of these approaches fanatically.

Chapter Four

4.0 Critical Appraisal

Fletcher’s work consists of case histories, vividly and dramatically told portraying crucial moral situations. However, in most of the cases presented by Fletcher, even hardbound legalist could solve them even as sympathetically as Fletcher. One of such cases presented by Fletcher is that of a family which was scattered during the Second World War. The man was captured and taken to a prison camp in Wales. The wife too was captured and taken to the prison camp in Ukraine and the children were all scattered. The man, however, was soon released and he came back home to Germany and after weeks of searching found his children. But neither he nor the children had any idea where his wife was and they were desperately looking for her. News gets to his wife in the prison camp in Ukraine that her family was together again and was desperately looking for her. But she could not be released because release was granted only on either of the two conditions namely: serious illness with which the camp could not cope or pregnancy in the case of a woman. This lady Mrs. Bergmeier, decided to be pregnant so that she could be released and go back to join her family. She arranged with one of the prison guards to make her pregnant and he did. Her condition was medically verified and she was sent away from the camp. She rushed back home to her family explain to her husband what she did that enabled her return home. He was very happy to see her back and entirely approved of her action. Now, Fletcher asked if her action was morally right or wrong. Traditionally, Christian ethics would have no hesitation in condemning it as adultery, an intrinsically evil action, which no situation can justify. But situation ethics approve it as a good action in view of the situation in which it was performed. The situation makes it a good action. Joseph Fletcher applies the principles of situation ethics to a number of cases, including the following: Abortion, Euthanasia, Adultery, Premarital sexual relations, Contraception, telling the truth etc.

In situation ethics, there are a lot of commendable as well as objectionable points. After a critical study of Joseph Fletcher’s new morality, otherwise known as situation ethics, I can say that it is neither an invitation to anarchy nor is it a potent weapon in the contemporary war to free man from conformity, from fear and from crippling guilt. According to G. Woods, Situational ethics are a natural response to the modern situation but as the study of Christian ethics advances, it is likely that they will be seen to have been the ethics of a transitory situation, an interim ethics50.

If situation ethics has issues, which dispose people to look with favour upon it, it has still more issues that ought to make people distrust, reject or discard it.

A. Merits of Fletcher’s New Morality.

Fletcher’s new morality, otherwise known as situation ethics, treats each situation in a unique manner. It is opposed to any uninformed or unimaginative application of a legalistic ethics to a complex contemporary situation. It gives attention to concrete human situations. It emphasizes the importance of right intention in any situation. It recognizes some of the real difficulties, which may arise from legalistic ethics and moral laws. It recognizes the true place and function of Law. Laws are but illuminating guides not authoritative commands. Laws are for people not people for law. Laws are to be respected for the wisdom they embody and the help they give, but not to be worshipped or idolized as unbreakable and unbendable absolutes. If there must be an absolute, it is love says Fletcher. Love does not command it invites. Without love even the most legalistically correct actions are immoral. With love no legalistic presumptions are needed for a full moral life. Fletcher’s new morality promotes Christian love. It gives “love” a place of pride in every human situation. It says many beautiful and agreeable things in favour of agape love. Fletcher was correct to some extent in maintaining that the same kind of action cannot remain morally the same in all situations. Bearing this in mind, one is encouraged to look critically at every situation before acting. This in turn, widens one’s sense of morality and place one in a position to make the best moral decision when faced with a moral problem. Fletcher new morality, calls for more critical intelligence, more factual information and more self-commitment to righteousness. It aims to widen human freedom, which is the other face of responsibility. In the final analysis, after all must have been said and done, one point about situation ethics still remains very vital. It has succeeded in enriching the history of man.

B. Demerits of Fletcher’s New Morality.

Fletcher went to the extreme in treating each situation as a unique case. Situation ethics do not go beyond the singular situation. As such, there is no way of intellectually organizing discrete singulars. Therefore, situation ethics, in other words the new morality, makes ethics as an organized body of knowledge impossible. Fletcher’s new morality is opposed and contradicting to Christian ethics. It is in opposition with the conception of any universal moral law. It rejects the view that the proper procedure of making moral decisions is to recognize the relevant universal moral law and to apply it to the particular case with prudence. It sees this method of making moral decisions as misleading. For the situationist, no action or thing is absolutely good or absolutely bad. However, our common sense experience proves to us beyond all reasonable doubt there are actions or things, which are absolutely good or absolutely bad. Such things include: telling lies, murder, fornication, etc. If goodness or badness is not intrinsic to a thing or an action, it follows then, that goodness and badness resides in the situation. As such, a situation can then be expressed in a general rule as good or bad. This brings us back to the same point of departure. By trying to go against this view, Fletcher is simply trying to say that there are no objectivity in ethics.

Although Fletcher emphasized the importance of right intention in his new morality, he did not emphasize the necessity of right acts. Encouragement was given to the false principle that the end justifies the means. And the sacrifice of the Christian martyrs was made to appear useless. Granted that there are real difficulties, which may arise in applying universal moral laws, such difficulties are not enough reasons for Fletcher to deny universal moral laws. A law can be both a guide and a command. By denying the commanding authority of the law, Fletcher’s new morality leads us to antinomianism. Fletcher’s new morality promotes Christian love. However, even when we endorse all the good things he said in favour of love, the question asked by Fagothey in relation to love as was treated by Fletcher, needs to be answered by the situationist. He asked: “is it clear enough to be a reliable guide? How do I know that this is the loving thing to do, and not that?”51 According to Fletcher, love is to be judged by the good it does to others. This process is a principle of utilitarianism. His principle that love is the only norm is a very weak theory, which is capable of causing disaster when applied to ethics. His concept of love is ambiguous and misleading. If “love” can justify breaking virtually every moral law, one wonders what the content of such “love” could be. While the motive of love is a noble one, it is not in the Christian tradition to present it as the exclusive motive for moral actions.

4.1 Conclusion

The controversy about the way, which Christians ought to accept or reject the situation ethics, has disclosed sharply opposed views. However, I will like to point out that Fletcher’s new morality or the situation ethics, is incompatible with Christian faith and practice. The fundamental obligations of the moral law were based upon the nature of man as such, and those of the Christian moral law were based upon the being and acts of God. I do not intend to condemn the exercise of a proper prudence and the role and treatment of love in Fletcher’s new morality. But, what I am against is the tendency to subordinate the objective moral law to some kind of subjective judgment, which Fletcher claims to be an immediate decision taken in love, in the situation. According to Fagothey, “the proponents of situationism, because of their exaggerations, must bear the blame for its ambivalent image”.52 Fletcher went to the extreme in his treatment of the new morality. He should not have made a total rejection of all moral laws. Moral laws have been acknowledged to be of great value in many ways. If there is the need for the rejection of any moral law at all, what ought to be rejected is the conception of the universal moral law to which there are no exceptions. However, the number of such exceptions should be very small indeed. The exceptions should be indeed exceptional. The matter for discussion, therefore, should be the moral justification of rare exceptions. This is to be made not through moral irresponsibility but in obedience to what is believed to be the Christian obligation of love towards God and neighbour. The whole operation of making exceptions should be very critical. There are, however, universal moral laws of action, which require no exceptions. A look at some hard cases might disclose the various ways in which the application of some universal moral laws can be unsatisfying. Despite these possible defects of some laws, one should at least, welcome their assistance as embodying many lessons drawn from centuries of practical experience.

In an age when the study of Christian ethics is somewhat retarded, and when a great deal of ethical discussion is not constructive, careful attention should be given to any movement of ethical thought which appeals to a large number of serious minded people. Situation ethics certainly deserves sympathetic investigation. It rightly emphasizes the necessity of a proper study of the facts of each moral situation. Also, it rightly indicates some of the defects and dangers of legalism in the expression and application of the moral standards.

These two points are in fact, a recovery of emphases, which have been a characteristic of a sound Christian moral tradition. The error in some situational ethics has been an inadequate analysis of the manifold forms of the moral standard, and of the fundamental structure of the human situation to which the standard applies. If there is to be Christian situation ethics, it must be worked out in the human situation as understood in the traditional Christian understanding of the world, the soul and God. However, it still requires reformation. Although situation ethics and its influences are no longer strong in the modern society, the issues that it sought to address are still relevant today. As such, I will advocate that we should not throw away situation ethics over-board entirely. It has lessons to teach us. It is a part of human history.

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