Situational ethics dictate that the moral path be decided by the context of the issue at hand, rather than have a textbook judgment for everything. We’ll be looking at understanding situational ethics with the help of examples.
In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.
― Mahatma Gandhi
Our ethics stem from what we call ‘our conscience’, ‘inner voice’, or even ‘our heart’. In the face of a moral dilemma, one tends to leave logic aside and turn towards the conscience for an appropriate answer.
But then, there are times when our rather straightforward ethics may seem questionable. This is because, while our morals and ethics may be based on righteousness, they may not always be right.
Situational ethics are born out of a need to consider each moral dilemma on its own accord; this is owing to the fact that ethics―however sound they may be―may not be (and should not be) applied uniformly to every situation.
Understanding Situational Ethics
It was in the 1960s that American professor Joseph Fletcher created a formal theory explaining situational ethics. He proposed that the context and circumstances leading up to an act must be considered before subjection to absolute moral standards.
Thus, an act must be evaluated by the laws of unconditional love, rather than standard ethics. Fletcher cited the concept of agape, a Greek word used to describe ‘love’ in the Bible. Agape is a kind of love that is absolutely unconditional, and it expects nothing in return of the love it gives. Several theologists endorse the concept of agape―since it is the purest form of love, and thus, is also the highest law.
Fletcher based his theory on the concept of love, citing Biblical commandments as inspiration, particularly the notion of Love thy neighbor. He went on to reason the following:
- The only principle to have intrinsic value is love. Therefore, a decision based on unconditional love is the right thing to do in any situation.
- Unconditional love is free from rigid restrictions that determine our morals. Love does not follow prescribed rules; instead, it evaluates each situation individually, avoiding blanket judgments.
- In the end, as long as love is your intention, the end justifies the means.
Examples of Situational Ethics
Fletcher put forth different scenarios to explain situational ethics. These were real-life instances which amplified the need of keeping conventional morals aside, letting love form the basis of the course of action.
1. Working for the greater good
A woman who was assumed to be a spy, was confronted with the moral dilemma of compromising her own morals to gain information from people belonging to the enemy nation which would be beneficial to the citizens of her entire nation. Putting her personal integrity aside, she chose to do anything it took to serve her country, basing her decision on the love she felt for her fellow citizens.
Here we see how personal morals can be set aside when greater things are at stake. The woman in question certainly compromised her personal ethics, but she did it as a service to her nation, which justified her actions.
2. Suicide as a sacrifice
A man who had a limited number of days to live had the option of using his insurance money to fund medication which would prolong his life by a few months. However, if he cashed in on the insurance, his family would be left with nothing following his eventual death. Thus, his decision to end his life immediately, with the insurance sum benefiting his family was stimulated by the love he felt for them.
Suicide and euthanasia tend to garner extreme reactions. In this case, we see how the man’s unconditional love for his family led him to sacrifice his life to keep them happy and comfortable.
3. Adultery as an act of altruism
A German woman was imprisoned in a Russian POW camp. She had knowledge about the fact that her husband and children were frantically trying to rescue her. However, the only way out of the camp was for the woman to get pregnant, as such women were considered a liability, and were, therefore, released. The woman worked out a deal with a guard who was sympathetic to her situation. She was indeed released following her pregnancy and was reunited with her family. Together, they raised the child as their own, as her only motivation behind committing adultery was the love for her family and the dream of being reunited with them.
Standard ethics have a partisan view of adultery―it is always an act of sin. In this situation, however, the woman had no choice but to commit adultery in order to reunite with her family. She was mindful about the ramifications of her act, but the yearning for her family ensured that she committed a sin as an act of love.
Situational ethics are applied with the cleanest of intentions, but they cannot escape scrutiny. This is because human beings, being flawed themselves, cannot be universally expected to understand and apply the concept of unconditional love. Therefore, while the intent of situational ethics is honorable, one cannot ensure that they will be applied in an equally honorable manner.