What are Situational Ethics?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

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.

Situational ethics might diminish the use of a literal interpretation of scripture.
Situational ethics might diminish the use of a literal interpretation of scripture.

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 might apply when an assault takes place as a matter of self-defense or preventing harm to loved ones.
Situational ethics might apply when an assault 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.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


It is sad that some believe that the situational ethics advocated by Joseph Fletcher were "Christian" when he was in opposition to the Bible of Christianity.


Situational ethics is applied by most of us on daily activities. Some can be related to common behaviors accepted as normal.

If you speed without regards to the consequences because "everyone does it" you have broken into this area. This applies to most car drivers. Then, when an accident happens, you fail to see how you contributed to the circumstances. I call this the zebra effect. Zebras can watch a lion chase and capture another zebra. Yet, the stand watching nearby and continue to graze.

Similarly, we go by a car crash, slow down, observe it and proceed on our way driving in a similar manner which contributed to the observed crash.

If you perhaps observe a person get out of a nice expensive car and drop, by accident, a $20 bill, you may elect to keep it. After all, he or she, can afford it. And older driver, a younger driver, a mother with kids, or an older car, may oblige you to return the money. That is situational ethics.

While Cupcake sees no gray areas, a gray area is exactly situational ethics ground.


SauteePan-I think that either you are ethical or not. I do not believe that there are situational ethics. It is really like saying there are convenient ethics.

Making the right decision is not always easy, but at least you will be able to sleep at night. I think that situational ethics really tries to bend ethical behavior that is not flexible.

There is really no such thing as a little lie or a little theft. A lie is a lie and theft is theft there is really no gray area. I know some people might disagree with me, but that is how I see things. Values are something that you grow up with and no situation can change them.


Cupcake15-I really think that an ethical business really makes honestly and integrity as the cornerstone of their business.

When these values are appreciated and encouraged corporate ethics become pretty straightforward and there are no dilemmas. It is when you blur these values and start to justify certain behavior that is not morally correct that you start to develop situation ethics examples instead of staying true to your principles.

Corporate ethics should really have a layer of transparency in order for employees to feel that there are no ethics situations to worry about. Most unethical behavior is always hidden. Ethics and business should always include transparency especially when dealing with financial transactions.


Situation ethics really means that each situation that arises has to be taken into consideration with respect to ethics.

Examples of situational ethics include withholding criticism which in a sense is being dishonest so as to not hurt the person’s feelings. However, telling a secret in order to save the person that informed you of the secret in a sense would be dishonest because you did not keep your word.

However, if the person confided that they were going to harm themselves or someone else, the ethical thing to do is to tell a member of law enforcement even if your friend will never speak to you again. These are some situational ethics examples.

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