Situation Ethics Exemplar Essay

A students has kindly typed up an essay they did under timed conditions with no notes. This is revision of year 1 content for them. I initially put this as a level 6 – excellent knowledge and evaluation, but having re-read it, I think it needs a broader range of scholarly views which would give it more in depth evaluation and then views could be more fully justified. As it stands I would say a level 5 – very good points are made and well-argued, with a justified conclusion.


To what extent is it true to say that no action is wrong in every possible circumstance?

Moral absolutism, the idea that our morals cannot change situationally and morally good actions are fixed, takes ancient roots and has therefore been criticised in many ways. Normative ethically relativist theory ‘Situation Ethics’, proposes that what is morally right changes in each situation. This idea is flawed and there seem to be some actions that are wrong in every circumstance.

First proposed by Joseph Fletcher in 1966 in his book ‘Situation Ethics’, he posits that selfless love or ‘agape’ is the axiom upon which we should make our moral decisions, and we should choice whichever option is the most loving in a moral dilemma. He proposes that this is a religious theory because Jesus demonstrated agape and broke many ‘absolute’ rules of the time to show love, like working on the Sabbath.  However to say that we should base our ethics off of a form of love that, as Fletcher states ‘wills the neighbours good’ is not sufficient because it can permit terrible actions to be ‘right’. For example, if I have 5 people needing different vital organ donations and one person with a match for them all, would Fletcher permit of the one innocent for the many, in which case, any action can be permitted as long as the end justifies the means?

The Biblical texts refute moral relativisms such as that of situation ethics, specifically where St Paul writes that the ends never justify a terrible means, because people should be of central importance always. The Bible also states, in the form of the Ten Commandments, that some actions are always wrong. It is difficult to see how adultery, for example, can be at all beneficial to anyone in any given situation. Even if one was to devise a hypothetical situation where a person was told to commit adultery against their wife or their wife would die, this may be the most loving thing to do, but still not morally right, merely less immoral than murder.

However some may still argue that absolutist theories are worse than relativist theories because they do not take into account any factors in the specific situation and are often seemingly harsh. For example, there is a common criticism of Immanuel Kant’s ethics; in ‘Critique of pure reason’ that lying is always wrong because it cannot be universalised. The example is then given that if a mad axe murderer comes to your house and asks if your wife is home whilst she is in the front room, you are not permitted to lie, thus killing your wife- this does not seem very moral. However, this criticism of Kantian ethics, and more generally moral absolutism or teleological theory, can be shown to be weak because of the absurdity of the examples provided in attempt to refute it. It is highly unlikely that anything close to the above example occurs in real life, even rarer on a daily basis. This means that we can still, on the whole rely on absolute moral theories on a day-to-fay basis because they only fall down on extreme, reduction ad absurdum arguments.

Rudolf Bultman may say in support of Fletcher, that moral relativist theories are divinely inspired and are therefore the correct basis we should use when making moral decisions. He argues that the only ethical concept Jesus had was ‘love thy neighbour’ and that I he is a divine example; we should follow him in this. Bultman argues that Jesus’ work on the Sabbath and his refuting of the Pharisees customs examples his disregard for absolutisms. However this idea is obviously incorrect because the laws Jesus was breaking were almost never moral laws so these are irrelevant. Furthermore, Jesus always acted without breaking the Ten Commandments and quoted many moral absolutes both implicitly and explicitly in quotes like ‘he who is without sin, cast the first stone’ and ‘love thy neighbour’. It is therefore clear that Bultman’s argument that Jesus was a moral relativist, and that we ought to be also because of this is false. Jesus clearly had moral absolutes which, although he may not always have spoken, clearly adhered to.

It is clear that there are some advantages to moral relativism, in that it always one to be loving in the ends, however if there is no clear structure to morality, and if it changes in every situation, with no fixed moral actions, then it seems that there is not morality at all, merely one performing what one personally believes to be loving. It is clear that even if it is difficult for an action to be wrong in every circumstance, there are some actions that are wrong enough of the time for us to avoid permitting them in any given situation.




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