A Critical Look at Situation Ethics

How do you determine what is right and wrong?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

Basically, there are three schools of thought regarding human moral responsibility. First, there is nihilism. Nihilism argues that there is no God, hence anything one wishes to do is permitted. There are no rules—absolutely none—for human conduct; according to this ideology, every person is a law unto himself.

Second, there is relativism. Relativism contends that all conduct is relative to the circumstance. Thus, each individual must decide what is moral or immoral in a given situation. Ultimately, every man is his own judge of the matter.

Third, there is absolutism. This concept affirms that there is an absolute, objective standard of right and wrong (grounded in the holy nature of God himself), and this code of moral conduct is set forth in the Bible—reaching its zenith in the New Testament. Elsewhere we have discussed these ideas in greater detail (Jackson 1986, 153-160). For the present, we will address relativism, or, as it is more commonly known, situation ethics.

There are two fundamental categories of situation ethicists. There are atheistic situationists—those who totally reject the Scriptures as having any bearing on morality. Then, in addition, there are religious situationists—including those who allege that the Bible actually endorses this code of action.

Atheistic Situationism

The former category finds expression in the following statement found in Humanist Manifestos I & II:

[W]e affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction (1973, 17).

The foregoing declaration is wholly void of reason. If man is “autonomous,” i.e., he is a self-governing creature, there could never be a situation in which he could do wrong! It is an exercise in futility to attempt to construct any sort of ethical system apart from the concept that man has a soul that ultimately will be accountable to God in eternity, that Heaven has revealed that concept, and regulated human activity, through the Scriptures.

The French philosopher Pascal wrote:

It is certain that the mortality or immortality of the soul must make an entire difference to morality. And yet philosophers have constructed their ethics independently of this: they discuss to pass an hour (n.d., 79).

In his Diary of a Writer, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky observed:

Neither a man nor a nation can live without a “higher idea,” and there is only one such idea on earth, that of an immortal human soul; all the other “higher ideas” by which men live follow from that (Berdyaev 1934, 105).

No skeptic can consistently argue the case for situational morality.

Religious Situationism

Theological situationism has been popularly argued by Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher claims that situation ethics is a balance between “antinomianism” (no law) and “legalism” (bound by law). Antinomianism and legalism represent the same basic concepts referred to above as nihilism and absolutism. For Fletcher, “love” is the sole factor in making moral judgments (1966, 26).

But Fletcher’s theory is fraught with insuperable logical difficulties. First, it is self-contradictory. This view contends that there are no rules except the rule to love. But what if, in a certain situation, one decides that love is not the appropriate course of action? Again, according to the situationist, there are no absolutes—except that one absolutely must love in all situations! But what is the standard by which this mandate is defended?

Second, the situationist’s “love” is purely subjective; he decides what love is in any given context. One writer notes that Fletcher has defined “love” in no less than a dozen ways in his book, Situation Ethics.Situation ethics removes God from the throne as the moral sovereign of the universe, and substitutes man in his place. Situationism completely ignores the biblical view that mere mortals are void of sufficient wisdom to guide their earthly activity (cf. Jeremiah 10:23).

Third, this ideology assumes that “love” is some sort of ambiguous, no-rule essence that is a cure-all for moral problems. That is like suggesting that two football teams play a game in which there will be no rules except “fairness.” But, fairness according to whose judgment? The Cowboys? The Forty-niners? The referees? The spectators? The sports writers? (cf. Lutzer 1981, 33). This line of argumentation is utter nonsense. Actually, when boiled down, situationism is not substantially different from nihilism, for, as Joseph Fletcher confesses: “For the situationist there are no rules—none at all” (1966, 55).

Finally, situationism assumes a sort of infallible omniscience that is able to always precisely predict what the most “loving” course of action is. For instance, the theory contends that lying, adultery, murder, etc., could be “moral” if done within the context of love. Yet who is able to foretell the consequences of such acts, and so determine, in advance, what is the “loving” thing to do? Consider the following scenario.

A young woman, jilted by her lover, is in a state of great depression. A married man, with whom she works, decides to have an affair with her in order to comfort her. Some, like Fletcher, would argue that what he did might well have been a noble deed, for the man acted out of concern for his friend. What a perverted viewpoint! Here is the rest of the story. The man’s wife learned of his adulterous adventure, could not cope with the trauma, and eventually committed suicide. One of his sons, disillusioned by the immorality of his father and the death of his mother, began a life of crime, and finally was imprisoned for murder. Another son became a drunkard and was killed in an automobile accident that also claimed the lives of a mother and her two children. Now, who will contend that that initial act of infidelity was the “loving” thing to do?

Here is another matter for reflection. During the first century, thousands of Christians were martyred for their faith. If the rule of situation ethics is valid, why could not those saints have lied, “denying the Lord who bought them,” and thus have rationalized that circumstance by arguing that the preservation of their lives would grant them more time in which to proclaim the gospel? If this dogma is true, the martyrs died in vain!

Is Situation Ethics Biblical?

There are those who actually claim that the Bible endorses the concept of situation ethics. Some, for instance, cite the case of the Canaanite harlot, Rahab. She lied in order to save the Israelite spies; and yet, she is commended in the New Testament record (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). This, they allow, is a clear argument in defense of situation ethics.

Moreover, it is claimed that even Christ sanctioned the principle of situationism when he appealed to the circumstance of David and his men eating the showbread, normally reserved for priests only, in an emergency situation (Matthew 12:1ff). Actually, neither of these cases provides the coveted justification for the practice of situation ethics.

The case of Rahab does not bestow divine sanction upon the practice of situation ethics. First, Rahab’s lie is never condoned in the Scriptures. The fact that the episode is recorded in the Bible does not mean that it is approved. All lying is condemned (Revelation 21:8). The narrative regarding Rahab merely provides an example of where God honored a woman due to her obedient faith—in spite of her character flaw. This woman was a harlot in a pagan environment, but she had developed a budding faith in Jehovah (see Joshua 2:9ff). Accordingly, she received the Israelite spies with peace (Hebrews 11:31). Her motive was right, even though her method was wrong. There is not a word in the Scriptures that endorses the false story she told in concealing the spies, and it is utter desperation that grasps at this narrative in an attempt to justify situation ethics.

The record in Matthew 12 is very interesting. On a certain Sabbath day the Lord and his disciples were traveling through a grain field. The disciples, being hungry, began to pluck grain and to eat. Certain Pharisees saw this, and charged these men with breaking the sabbath regulation within the Mosaic law. The fact is, the disciples had violated only the uninspired traditions of the Jewish elders; they had not transgressed the law of Moses (see Edersheim 1947, 56). In order to silence their baseless objection, Christ employed an ad hominem argument (a procedure whereby an opponent’s inconsistency is exposed by an appeal to his own position).

Jesus cited the case of David (1 Samuel 21:6), who along with his men, once ate of the temple showbread, which “was not lawful for him to eat” (Matthew 12:4). The essence of the Lord’s argument is this:

You gentlemen revere David as a great king and Hebrew hero. David once clearly broke the law by an illegal consumption of food. Yet, you never condemn him! On the other hand, my disciples have violated only your human traditions, and yet you charge them with sin. How very inconsistent you are!

This incident contains not a vestige of support for situation ethics. Jesus plainly said that what David did was “not lawful.” Those who attempt to employ this narrative in defense of situationism simply have missed the force of the Master’s argument (cf. McGarvey n.d., 104).

Situation ethics is a popular belief in a world bent on departure from God. But it does not have the sanction of the Holy Scriptures, and, if persistently pursued, will ultimately result in societal chaos.

  • Berdyaev, Nicolas. 1934. Dostoevsky. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward.
  • Edersheim, Alfred. 1947. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Fletcher, Joseph. 1966. Situation Ethics. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
  • Humanist Manifestos I & II. 1973. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1986. Rules By Which Men Live. Essays in Apologetics. Vol. 2. Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press.
  • Lutzer, Erwin. 1981. The Necessity of Ethical Absolutes. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • McGarvey, J. W. n.d. Commentary on Matthew and Mark. Des Moines, IA: Gospel Broadcast.
  • Pascal, Blaise. n.d. The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal. Garden City, NY: Dolphis Books.