On Situation Ethics

American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler briefly discusses why situation ethics is inadequate and unsound as moral philosophy.

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Unfortunately, the exponents of “situation ethics” in all its varieties, together with its critics, seem to be totally unaware that the ethics of common sense recognizes the remoteness from action of the universal principles that can be asserted with certitude and, it fills the gap between such principles and the exigencies of action by practical policies and prudent decisions that do not have universality and are not expressions of moral certitude.

The doctrine offered by “situation ethics” is itself unsound, for it appeals to love and love alone, and worse, to a mode of love that transcends the bounds of human nature, in order to find some form of guidance for the individual in the particular case in which he must act one way or another. Not only is the doctrine offered by “situation ethics” totally unrealistic; it is, in addition, the solution of a problem that is factitious rather than genuine. It assumes that it is making a genuine contribution by finding a middle ground between the extremes of dogmatism and relativism in dealing with the problems of human life and action. It is totally ignorant of the fact that the middle ground already exists in the ethics of common sense. The problem that its point of departure is one that has been solved, and solved in a much sounder and more adequate way than by the one untenable proposal it advances.

Fletcher’s writings [ see Situation Ethics, by Joseph Fletcher] abound in such flashy falsehoods as “love is the only norm” or “love and justice are the same.” The Institute for Philosophical Research has undertaken exhaustive critical studies of the major contributions to the discussion of both love and justice (see The Idea of Justice, by Otto Bird; The Idea of Love, by Robert Hazo), and on no recognizable conception of either love or justice can it be said that love and justice are the same. As for Fletcher’s central thesis, that “nothing is prescribed except love” or that “love is the only norm,” it is necessary to distinguish between human love (i.e., the kind of love of which man is capable as a psychobiological organism) and Divine love (i.e., the kind of love of which man is capable only when he is imbued with it by God’s grace).

Augustine’s statement, “dilige et quod vis fac,” which Fletcher quotes in support of his own position, may be true in moral theology, but it is false in moral philosophy. On the theological plane, and in the context of dogmas concerning God as a supernatural being, original sin, and Divine grace as the gift to man of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, it is true to say that the saints who, through God’s grace, imitate Christ and obey his two precepts of charity, need no other norms or prescriptions in order to act rightly. They and they alone, loving with Divine love, can do as they please; or, in Fletcher’s rendition of Augustine’s maxim, what they will, they should do. On the philosophical plane, in the context of our knowledge of a man as a natural and finite being, with all the limitations and defects of an animal that is also rational, it is false to say no other guidance is needed for human conduct than the prescription that men should love their fellowmen. For one thing, human love, even when it reaches the highest degree of benevolence of which man is naturally capable, remains self-interested; for another, it extends only to a few among one’s fellowmen, never to all with whom one is associated in the communal life of a populous society.

The most serious error that Fletcher and his followers commit lies in their failure to recognize that ethics is not primarily or exclusively concerned with how men should behave toward their fellowmen, either through love or justice; it is primarily concerned with the problem of what the individual ought to do in order to make a good life for himself.

Self-love may be relevant to this problem, but fraternal love and justice toward others are not. “Situation ethics,” like the rigid ethics that its exponents criticize, makes the mistake of giving the right primacy over the good, or worse, of being concerned exclusively with the right — with duties toward others. It is therefore inadequate and unsound as moral philosophy.

If this criticism is met by the defense that it is not offered as moral philosophy, but as a “Christian ethics,” or as a form of moral theology, then its exponents must be asked whether they subscribe to the theological dogmas concerning the existence of a supernatural being and concerning the supernatural, as contrasted with the secular, plane of human life, without which the basic tenets of “situation ethics” are either meaningless or false. Since the exponents of “situation ethics” are also exponents of the so-called “new” or “radical” theology that denies the existence of a supernatural being and any distinction between the secular and religious dimensions of human life, they undermine their own position.


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