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Situational ethics (also known as Situationism) has in recent times been seen as a significant opponent to contemporary virtue ethics. In his 2002 work Lack of Character, philosopher John Doris gives arguably the most developed statement and defense of the situationist thesis. Namely,

Situationism: Robust character traits are rare or do not exist. To a significant degree, it is not character traits but situational factors that determine our behavior (e.g. whether a person tells a lie, does not depend on if they have the character trait of "honesty." Rather, more often than not, if someone tells a lie will depend on minor situational features. For example, if they found a dime on the ground that afternoon).

To establish this thesis Doris draws upon a large number of results from experimental psychology that he interprets to show situationism true. After relying on the empirical results of psychology to establish the non-existence of character, Doris argues that the truth of situationism has two important implications:

(1) We must reform those practices in moral education, psychology, and in ordinary life that assume the existence of robust character traits.
(2) We must reject any ethical theory that holds a necessary dependency on the existence character (Doris specifically has virtue ethics in his sights here).

Furthermore, Doris draws an additional methodological implication from that fact (2) leads him to reject or reform ethical theories (e.g. virtue ethics) on the grounds of a result of empirical psychology. Specifically, Doris defends the further implication that:

(3) The is-ought prohibition in ethics is mistaken. Ethics can and should draw upon empirical results in pursuing normative knowledge.

It is this third implication, perhaps even more than the denial of character, that has garnered situationism the attention it has received. Since situationists argue against virtue ethics on empirical grounds, they violate and perhaps disprove a long-standing belief in ethics that empirical results cannot be used to prove or disprove any doctrine of ethics.

History Edit

The situational ethics theory was developed by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest, in the 1960s. The founding idea is that the only thing of intrinsic value is Love, (specifically agapē.) From there, Fletcher advocated a number of controversial courses of action.

Fletcher took situationism to claim that: the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.[1] That is, situationism was the claim that it is the actual physical, geographical, ecological and infrastructural state one is in, that determines one's actions or range of actions — green economics is at least partially based on that view.

However, situationism should not be confused with Moral relativism. For the moral relativist, there is no universal moral truth, that there are only beliefs, perspectives, ethno-centric values, none more valid than another. Fletcher's situational ethics finds the foundation of moral truth in agape; therefore it is not moral relativism. Situational ethics rejects both legalism, and antinomianism. However, like relativism, situationism is criticized for lacking a situation-neutral point of view from which to apply its standards.

See alsoEdit


  1. J. Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Westminster, Philadelphia, 1966)
  • Bowers, H. S. Situationism in psychology: An analysis and critique. Psychological Review, 1973, 80, 307-336.

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