Digest of terms

situation ethics

a modern way of approaching moral decision-making developed by Christian, predominantly Protestant, thinkers, which emphasises the need to be sensitive to the immediate context. This is contrasted with what is seen as the danger of 'automatic' application of principles. Principles still matter, but 'circumstances alter cases'. Whereas, on some reckonings, the rule of law and moral precepts may be judged to be absolute and literally unalterable in their every detail, in others a degree of flexibility and discretion may be seen as the only right way to do proper justice to the particularity of human behaviour and relationships if, in line with the Sermon on the Mount and Christian ethics generally, love of neighbour is accorded supreme moral authority. (A similarly flexible approach is found in a nonreligious context in the variety of Utilitarianism known as act-utilitarianism.)

A strong argument against situation ethics is the desirability of consistency in the interest of fairness. Flexibility and discretion may too easily be prey to special pleading, if not also favouring. For justice not only to be done but to be seen to be done, the law/rule/principle must be known to apply comprehensively and equally to all. (In Utilitarianism these concerns support rule-utilitarianism) Without disagreeing with such views, many situationists might respond by saying that every person and place is different. Not to recognise and take account of this can only result in a mechanistic way of life, and subordination of a person and their needs to fetishised principle.

In practice, however, throughout the world all forms of law - local, national and international - have tended to accumulate interpretative commentaries and compendia of case law. These are then used as aids to arriving at final judgements. This process is also found in religious traditions and referred to as casuistry. Nowhere is this situationally sensitive approach able to prevent interpretations which are free from either overly severe or excessively generous applications.

A challenge for moral education is to build a capacity for discernment which both understands rules and laws and also appreciates the need for due flexibility in order to be truly sensitive to ordinary human complexities, inclinations and interests.

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