Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Appendix G

What Then Is Wrong with Situation Ethics?

How do we distinguish a relativity in understanding the meaning of the ten commandments from a relativism where everything goes ? We saw in Chapter 1 how Jesus himself introduced a relativity in sabbath keeping. The Pharisees complained he was dumping the commandment. Similarly Paul had to answer critics who thought he had muddied the sharp lines between right and wrong. [See Romans 6:1, 15, 7:7] Joseph Fletcher's model of Situation Ethics offered one way of allowing some relativity in our interpretation of the moral law. [Note : Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality, (Philadelphia: Westmintster Press, 1966)]

He argues that there are necessary exceptions to each of the ten commandments, so we can never take them as absolutes only as general guidelines. So when we are perplexed as to whether something is right or wrong, we ask ourselves what is the most loving thing to do in this situation?

Fletcher's solution has seemed very attractive to many, but we have found ourselves more and more uneasy with it. It seems an unworkable method for teaching children what is right and wrong. How would one raise children without any absolutes such as "It's wrong to steal" or "We never tell lies about others to get them into trouble." If we have to warn them that there are exceptions in each case, how do they figure out what to do? If they have to ask "what is the most loving thing in this situation," how do they know what is the most loving thing? And when they do something irresponsible how do we engage with them in a moral discussion?

So in Chapter 1 we offered what we call absolute ethics. We recognise that the ten commandments, including the seventh commandment about adultery, have no content as given. They are categories of moral judgment which are found among all people everywhere. The easiest way to proceed, whether in the training of children, or in discussion among adults is to begin by agreeing that we will take each commandment as an absolute. In relation to our neighbour it is never right to murder, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness against another, or to be envious or covet what others have to enjoy.

When there is a discussion of what is right and wrong in any situation we first settle on the category. In a case of killing we first agree that murder is never right in any circumstances. Then we look at the situation. In the case of a shoot out, and a police officer used her gun, we then discuss whether this should be called a case of murder, or manslaughter, or necessary killing. How would one evaluate the situation if we had to ask if the police officer was doing the most loving thing in that situation?

Our distinction between situation ethics and what we call the absolute ethics of the ten commandments at first sight seems niggly, but it has huge implications for helping children to learn morality and helping adults to engage in reasonable moral discussion. In raising children it is far easier for them to learn morality by beginning with "you never steal." Then at the family table we can work on which situations are taking without becoming stealing. "Dad, you took the neighbour's ladder to fix the roof." And the answer can be "We have agreed that he can use my roller, and I can use his ladder without asking." As children approach their teens they will value discussions about the seventh commandment, and it is good to hear their parents say "Mum and I accept the fact that adultery is always wrong." A child might want to ask about her mother having a business lunch with another man. A boy will appreciate the opportunity to discuss questions of looking and lusting in the light of Chapter 6 Children can then learn to grasp the meaning of divorce among family friends, and perhaps in their own family as in Chapter 4. And that leads easily into "what kind of a person would you like to marry?" Many marriages would have been very different if the couple had first agreed together that adultery is always wrong, and had openly discussed the particular situations that could arise.

As adults we will be very unreliable in knowing what is the most loving to do, especially in sexual matters. Better take the seventh commandment as an absolute without exceptions. It is never right to commit adultery. We then have to look at the situation. As we saw in Appendix C, we ask if this is a legal marriage or a common law relationship? We can then discuss whether a certain form of behaviour comes under the category of adultery in that particular situation.

Until recently in Arabia the men viewed any medical examination by a male doctor of their wives as adultery. That is slowly changing. In the west we all know that a doctor examining a married woman in his office is not an exception an to the absolute wrongness of adultery. The same kind of examination during a week-end away with her would be adulterous.

When a couple can agree that adultery is always wrong, it is also easier to work at the difficult problems of looking and lusting in Chapter 6 and sexual fantasy in Appendix E. And when there are possibilities on the borderline it is important for a husband to discuss them with his wife, and let her decide for example whether or not she would be happy if he took a business partner to lunch. Then when the time comes she would appreciate a telephone call mentioning her name and the time and place of the engagement. An hour talking at the office could be acceptable, but an hour sitting talking on her bed in her apartment would be adulterous even if no physical intimacy took place. To say "I thought it was the most loving thing I could do for her in her distress" is extremely difficult to evaluate, and it is certainly a recipe for disaster.

Many couples find sex and sexual feelings and sexual longings very hard to share with one another. Some also find it hard to get on the wavelength of their children. So one purpose of this book has been to provide materials to open up the conversation, and that is the most important part of love and intimacy. For that purpose situation ethics does not seem to help at all. If we agree about the absolute part of each of the ten commandments, we begin with an agreed basis for creative moral discussion about their particular application in the complex problems of our lives.