Situation Ethics: The New Morality is a book written by Joseph Fletcher, an American Episcopalian Moral Philosopher with a strong interest in medical ethics who lost his faith around the time the book was first published in 1964. Like many Christians, Fletcher was concerned about the decline in moral standards and the growth of radical relativism which had let to genocide during WWII and was fuelling the sexual revolution and the collapse of family values in the 1960s. Fletcher rejected such relativism for being antinomian and leading to chaos, as well as being unchristian. Fletcher was influenced by Utilitarianism, the dominant, consequentialist approach to ethical-decision-making in the 1960s. While it was a relativist ethic, decisions were made relative to an absolute, namely human happiness or pleasure. While Fletcher (like many other Moral Philosophers) was critical of basic happiness or pleasure as the only desirable end, he liked the flexibility of Utilitarianism and its focus on making decisions situationally, as well as its respect for the individual moral-agent and their ability to make decisions for themselves rather than just following rules. Fletcher was critical of the traditional, absolutist ethical systems employed by Christian Churches. As he saw it, Roman Catholic Natural Law was guilty of legalism – being too focused on the letter of the law rather than its spirit and insufficiently focused on persons – to be truly a Christian Ethic. Protestant Biblical Ethics were often similarly inflexible and based on narrow interpretations of ancient texts that neglected the most important ethical teaching in the Bible in Mark 2:28-32 – the need to love our neighbour as ourselves and therefore act out of agape, non-preferential humanitarian love. For Fletcher, Christians and non-Christians alike should move forward and adopt a “new morality” which would make persons the focus, making decisions situationally and relative to agape-love. This “new morality” is Situation Ethics. As an approach to making personal decisions about Euthanasia it is a useful guide in countries where Euthanasia is legal, but it is not very useful for religious people or in countries where Euthanasia is illegal.
Firstly, Fletcher characterises Situation Ethics as an approach which has four working principles – Pragmatism, Relativism, Positivism and Personalism. The first working principle of Situation Ethics is pragmatism or practicality, so it is undeniable that the legal status of euthanasia will impact on any assessment of the usefulness of Situation Ethics as an approach to decision-making. Where Euthanasia is illegal and where effective enforcement exists, people are not really free to make their own decisions situationally. Personalism and relativism – putting people and agape-love first – will deter anybody from deciding to help somebody end their life if such help will probably result in prosecution and punishment. Prosecution and punishment will not only affect the person convicted of course, but also their family, friends and wider society as well, so on this basis it would be difficult to argue that breaking a law against euthanasia could be situationally justified, except perhaps in the most extreme cases of suffering. Of course, Fletcher believed that “sometimes you’ve gotta put your principles to one side and do the right thing” and he rejected the use of the words “always” and “never” in moral decision-making, but still cases in which stopping the suffering of one person but with the consequence of causing pretty intense suffering to somebody else, their family, their friends as well as burdening the tax-payer with the expense of a long prison-term, will be pretty rare. Additionally, by encouraging individuals to think this through and make the decision for themselves when they are in the stress of the situation and when the law prohibits euthanasia anyway is far from helpful. In the heat of the moment, people are liable to focus on immediate consequences and the persons in the room with them and to neglect longer-term consequences and people outside the room who will also be impacted. In this way, situational decisions, however well-intentioned, are liable to be poor decisions even with respect of the agape-love they try to promote, and often result in more people suffering than would be the case if people just followed the law. Because of this, Situation Ethics is not very useful in countries where Euthanasia is illegal.
Secondly, despite the fact that Situation Ethics makes decisions relative to agape-love and takes this as an end on the grounds of theological positivism and Christian faith, rather than any rational argument or evidence, Fletcher’s “new morality” has been roundly rejected by all the major Christian Churches. Even before Fletcher wrote, Pope Pius XII condemned the idea that Christians should make decisions situationally, as individuals, in 1952. The Pope pointed out that using the individual conscience to make a decision for oneself rather than deferring to the authority of the Church and its rules risked plunging that individual into sin, with its eternal consequences. Again, in the heat of the moment people usually focus on immediate consequences and forget or downplay long-term consequences, including of course the fate of their eternal soul (and that of the person euthanatized of course). Because of this, Situation Ethics represents a real threat to Christians in tempting them to make decisions when they are likely to make poor decisions with the most severe of consequences. While St. Thomas Aquinas argued that Christians must prioritise following their consciences and so make decisions for themselves rather than mindlessly deferring to absolute rules, in practice he saw the conscience in terms of synderesis or practical reason, a faculty which needs to be trained if it is to make good decisions, perhaps especially in traumatic situations. In a way, Fletcher agreed with Aquinas; while he rejected Aquinas focus on reason as the only appropriate basis for the conscience to operate upon, Fletcher did see conscience as a decision-making faculty and process rather than as the source of moral intuition. As Fletcher wrote “there is no conscience, “conscience” is merely a word for our attempts to make decisions…” Aquinas was only too aware of the human tendency to pursue apparent goods over real goods and so to fall into error with the best of intentions. It was because of this that in 1956 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith banned Catholic institutions from teaching or even teaching about Situation Ethics. Fletcher was more positive about the individual’s ability to make good decisions situationally, through their consciences, than was either Aquinas or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but perhaps he would have been well to be more cautious given the eternal consequences poor decisions have, at least for Christians using Situation Ethics. Any suffering that people ease by making a situational decision in favour of euthanasia is after all, temporary… but for Christians the consequences probably will be eternal suffering. Because of this, Situation Ethics is not a useful approach to making decisions about euthanasia for religious believers.
Thirdly, taking the example of euthanasia, in 1994 Dr Cox decided to act situationally and help his suffering patient Lilian Boyes to die by giving her a lethal injection. As it turned out, this decision ruined his career and his life and the resultant media-storm led to a tightening of UK monitoring of physicians and enforcement procedures in cases of suspected euthanasia, making it more difficult for doctors to ease the deaths of their patients. While Dr Cox was prioritising Mrs Boyes and showing great agape-love for her and her family, he could not have predicted the consequences his decision would have for others, including himself and his own family. This is a major weakness of Situation Ethics as well as other consequentialist approaches to moral decision-making. As Peter Singer admits, all consequentialist decision making depends on our ability to predict the consequences of our actions accurately (the Problem of Prediction)… and consequences are often, even usually, unpredictable. Because of this, as a Consequentialist approach to making decisions about Euthanasia, Situation Ethics is of limited usefulness. Despite this, in countries where euthanasia is legal – such as in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and in some Australian states – Situation Ethics might still be a useful guide when people are making decisions, whether about whether to request euthanasia or whether to help somebody to die. This is because Situation Ethics encourages people to consider the persons involved in the decision ahead of their own principles and to focus on maximising agape-love rather than on the actions used to achieve this. Where doctors might not wish to get involved in euthanasia on principle, Situation Ethics encourages them to consider each situation on its own merits and to prioritise the needs and wishes of their patients rather than sticking to “always” or “never” beliefs. As Fletcher wrote “Situation Ethics keeps principles sternly in their place, in the role of advisors without veto-power…” (page 55) For Christian doctors, or for other Christians considering becoming involved in euthanasia, Situation Ethics encourages them to reflect on the two most important commandments (Mark 12:28-32) and to consider how their love for God relates to their love for neighbour and self. As William Temple said – and as Fletcher would have agreed – “on freedom all spiritual life depends, and it is astonishing and terrifying that the Church has so often failed to understand that.” Just as Jesus made decisions on the basis of persons, pragmatically and on the basis of agape-love… sometimes breaking laws, rules or norms in the process and sometimes sacrificing his own reputation to do so… so Situation Ethics encourages Christians to follow Jesus’ example and in the process helps them to develop spiritually and morally. Of course, this is not to say that situational decisions will always or even often support euthanasia. As Fletcher’s own examples show, the cases in which it is right to do something Christians would normally conceive of as wrong are rare and extreme. Situation ethics would not, as Fletcher conceives it, endorse the wide-scaled legalisation of abortion or its use as a form of contraception… but it might support a doctor in terminating the pregnancy of a mentally ill teenager who had been raped. Situation ethics would not, as Fletcher conceives it, endorse people killing themselves for no reason… but it might support a man in hastening his own inevitable death in order that his family suffers much less by his loss. Because Situation Ethics encourages Christians to become active moral agents, it might be a useful guide in countries where euthanasia is legal. However, the usefulness of Situation Ethics will depend a lot on the individual and the extent to which their conscience is developed and trained as a decision-making faculty. It is probably fair to worry about the effects of using Situation Ethics in relation to issues like Euthanasia on any Christian – or indeed any person – who is unaccustomed to independent moral-decision making.
In conclusion, as an approach to making personal decisions about Euthanasia Situation Ethics may be a useful guide in countries where Euthanasia is legal, but it is not very useful for Roman Catholics or those who believe in judgement and hell, or in countries where Euthanasia is illegal. While Fletcher’s Situation Ethics was a sincere attempt to democratise Christian Ethics, perhaps Fletcher was too optimistic about peoples’ ability to cope with the responsibility he demands of them. In relation to emotive, high-stakes issues like euthanasia most people are ill-equipped to predict consequences or weigh up consequences rationally and often make poor decisions as a result of Situation Ethics. In these issues, a rules-based approach like Natural Law is more helpful to most people.