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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”.[1]

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[2]. 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.



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”[3]. 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?”


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.


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”.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.


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.


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.”[7] 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.”[8]

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.[9]

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.

[1] J. Fletcher, Situation Ethics (London: The Westminster press, 1966) p.13

[2] G. Outka: “Situation Ethics” in E. Craig(ed), Routledge Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy, vol. 8, (England: T. J. International limited Padstow, 1998) p.798

[3] B. O. Eboh, Living Issues in Ethics (Nsukka: Afro-Orbis pub. Company, 2005) p.34

[4] J. Fletcher, op cit., p.18

[5]Ibid, p.21


[7]. J. Omoregbe, Ethics: A Systematic And Historical Approach (Lagos: Joja press, 1993) p. 257

[8] J. Fletcher op cit., p. 27 –28.

[9] B. O. Eboh, op cit., p.35

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