Also known as situation ethics, situational ethics is a religion-based theory regarding the application of ethical principles to various situations. Originally conceived by Joseph Fletcher during the 1960’s, the approach sought to qualify ethical responses in a manner that allowed the injunction found in the Christian New Testament to love all people to supersede any other moral imperatives when an apparent contradiction was present. Fletcher, an Episcopal priest, defined love in terms of the Greek word “agape” and used the literal translations of unconditional, absolute, and universal as the basis for the type of love that must be applied to all facets of human interaction.
The Christian ethical theory formulated and promoted by Fletcher was aimed at moving away from the legalistic and antinomian approaches that were found in many different Christian traditions. Situational ethics moved beyond the pale of legalistic applications of commandments and laws found within the historical Christian canon, noting that while there was a great deal of good within the laws, they could not necessarily address every possible variation of a chain of events. For example, while the Christian canon contains many injunctions censuring the killing of another human being, situational ethics might apply when the killing takes place as a matter of self-defense or preventing harm to loved ones.
Situational ethics also differs from an antinomian approach to ethics. With antinomian ethics, there is little to no recognition of pre-existing laws to serve as a basis for making ethical decisions. Instead, each situation must be considered independently of any application of ethics that has occurred to similar situations in the past. Situational ethics, by contrast, acknowledges the existence of basic laws that provide a framework for making value judgments in the course of action to take, tempered by the Golden Rule of Christianity.
To a degree, it can be claimed that situational ethics represents a middle ground between the extremes of legalistic and antinomian expressions of ethics. Unlike the legalistic application of moral codes, situational ethics allows the possibility that a particular situation may require a response that is not well defined by existing laws or commandments. At the same time, it provides more cohesion and structure to the process of defining and developing an ethical code, since there are commandments and laws that help for form a basis for determining the best response for a given situation.
The concept of situational ethics has made an impact in many Christian denominations, in that the approach makes it necessary to not rely on tradition or the literal words in the canon of Scripture to provide a precise response to modern living. Rather, it motivates individuals to understand laws and commandments in the context and historical setting from where they emerged and determine to what degree they can be aligned with the commandment of Jesus to love all people.