Two things mainly will be offered in this short chapter. One is the opinion that situation ethics, with or without Christian presuppositions, is a significant coalescence of consequential, pragmatic and agapistic morality. The other is a view of the problem of naturalistic ethics and why G.E. Moore's criticism of it was not mistaken but trivial.


We are all familiar with the classification of ethics into three kinds, according to how normative principles are employed in moral judgments. One kind is `legalistic' or `rule following', entailing predetermined decisions--at least in the case of some, though not all, of its principles. A second kind is `impromptu' or `case-determined', to be seen in the existentialist claim that prefabricated principles and judgments are `bad faith' (foi mauvais). The third is `situational' or `contextual' or `relative' in the sense that actual circumstances rather than generalized norms `form conscience' and determine what actions ought to be taken. This is the typology I used in Situation Ethics.1

Situationists cannot find a place for either absolute or universally valid norms or for spontaneous decision-making which is indifferent to generally sound norms. They agree with J. Dewey and J. Tufts that "reflective morality demands observation of particular situations, rather than fixed adherence to a priori principles."2 They do not want a rule of thumb empiricism which too easily becomes a mere moral opportunism, or a doctrinaire moral creed which turns into a moral straightjacket.

Another way to put this is that situation ethics is willing to work with normative principles in an effort to generalize and `make sense' out of moral experiences, but it rejects any attempt to turn such generalizations into rules. It regards rule ethics, over against act or case ethics, as a form of moral idolatry.

In view of the criticism of this method of making moral decisions, chiefly by religiously oriented speakers and writers, it is important to emphasize and reiterate that situation ethics poses a methodological issue. Theists, naturalists, humanists--the major philosophical camps--do not necessarily disagree with or throw out the formal imperatives and substantive values of those in any `school' of worldview (weltanschauung). On the contrary, they share many or even most of the generalized norms and values commonly perceived.

The issue, I repeat, rises around the question of how normative principles are to be employed in moral judgments. The question is whether norms, as generalizations about desirable conduct, are to be regarded as intrinsically valid and universally obliging. Existential or `antinomian' ethics, not situationism, repudiates the authenticity of norms.

Pre-normative or meta-ethical issues arise with respect to what we call the `formal' imperative (do what is right, or seek the good, or, in another mode, we ought to do what is right or to seek the good). Having, so to speak, undertaken to be morally concerned by accepting the formal principle, the question arises for all but the strictest disciples of Moore, "What is meant by `good' or `the good'?" Humanists, Marxists, Christians, and others, answer this substantive question by saying that `good' means meeting human needs as measured by personal and social interests, i.e., human wellbeing.

Next follows the normative question. Normative principles are our attempt to generalize about the operational terms of human conduct. Lying is wrong, stealing is wrong, breaking promises is wrong. These principles having been formulated, then the fourth or final question arises, whether normative principles are to be employed as directives or only as guidelines. It is at this level of ethical analysis that situationism comes into the sharpest play, for it answers that norms are a matter of wisdom but not of fiat. Normative generalizations or principles are regarded in situation ethics as `proverbs' but not edicts. (All of this should dispel the canard that situationism or `act-agapism' is unprincipled merely because it relativizes principles at the normative level.)

Since `circumstances alter cases' situationism holds that in practice what in some times and places we call right is in other times and places wrong. Norms are contingent, have no transcendent status. This is a form of ethical relativism, but it is principled relativism, as antinomianism is not. For example, lying is ordinarily not in the best interest of interpersonal communication and social integrity, but is justifiable nevertheless in certain situations. And as with truth-telling so with chastity, promise-keeping, respect for the possessions of others, and all such norms.

Neophytes in ethics often complain that it is inconsistent to deny that norms are universally or always obliging, regardless of the situation or the consequences, yet to lay down that we ought always to act as lovingly as possible. They fail to appreciate that the relativity lies at the normative level, but that at the substantive level the overarching value, loving concern, is not relativized. Another way to put this might be to say that the overall or prime (cardinal) virtue (value) of love can sometimes be subverted if a moral agent blindly follows an ordinarily or usually pertinent normative principle. Moral norms are only relatively obliging, but love as the substantive `absolute' gives us the `fix' to which all actions are relative.

This being said, however, we still have to explain, by what means, in what way, we conceive of and desire goodness, regardless of the various ways we have of reducing it to a normative discipline? It is this meta-ethical question to which the remainder of my discussion will be directed, not to the methodological issues.


Ethical discourse throughout this century has had a common compass bearing in Moore's claim (1903) that good is an unanalyzable predicate, not reducible to component properties. Therefore, he contended, since things have to be defined in terms of something other than themselves, good is indefinable. I can find no serious objection to understanding good as formal, predicative (i.e., an adjective, grammatically), not reifiable or susceptible to empirical factoring.

This means, as I have explained at length elsewhere, that within the framework of ethics, whether theological or autonomous, the terms good and love mean the same thing. Love = good. Therefore love, as concern for the wellbeing of persons, and by the same token justice too, is unanalyzable, a predicate and not a property, an adjective, nominal and not real. The writers of the New Testament, for instance, used `love' when they meant `good'. As Augustine said later, "Ethics is ordo amoris".

Many critics have pointed out what a pity it is that Moore used the label `non-natural' for his conception of good, and that he coined the phrase `naturalistic fallacy' to denote the error of reifying good. Naturalism is the term we all use to connote an empirical basis for ethics, but naturalism as such need have no trouble agreeing with Moore that the notion of good is `simple' and, like the primary color of yellow or the taste of sour, impossible to derive from any antecedent notion. (The real fallacy of naturalists is jumping from `is' to `ought', falsely assuming that facts yield values. As we shall see, there is no error of logic if values are posited rather than objectified as a part of empirical reality.)

Furthermore, Moore was curiously contradictory in speaking of good as a `non-natural property'. On his own reckoning a property is by definition natural, phenomenal, existent, experiencable. In spite of this difficulty, whether we see it as logical or only semantic, I can imagine no strong reason to reject what he was saying. In spite of Hare's criticism, we can accept Moore's view that it is a mistake to locate `good' in the phenomenal world.3

Thus far my remarks have considerable support and should be at least familiar. What I now propose, however, has more bite and originality. I want to insist that the predicative view of good does not exclude nor preclude substantives. As I have pointed out, substantives are values posited.4 From values we draw norms, operational principles, such as "Parental care is good; therefore we ought to protect and nurture our children." Value terms such as health, relationship, ego satisfaction, goal achievement, mutual aid, aesthetic pleasure, knowledge, and the like, are totally compatible with Moore's non-naturalistic thesis. Indeed, Moore himself actually acknowledged this: "As it happens," he said, "I believe the good to be definable; and yet I still think that good itself is indefinable."5

In situation ethics, whether Christian or secular, love-itself is indefinable or intrinsic just as good-itself is. Theologically expressed, this means that good = love = God. (One recalls the emphatic Johannine thesis.) Neither good nor God (linguistically one and the same, as well as conceptually) is empirical, tangible, concrete, analyzable, or reducible. Nor is love. The Greeks spoke of such ideas as panchrestons, which explain everything in general but nothing in particular. The thrust is, in any case, that all three terms--good, God, love--signify intrinsicality and adjectivity; they fit Kant's ding-an-sich. They are all three unlike all phenomena because they, and they alone, are universals and unrelative; absolute.6 God is not objective, identifiable, definable; neither are good and love.

God is not a being but being itself. Good is not a value but value itself. And love is the same. To repeat an earlier statement of it, "Love like good itself is axiomatic, ostensive, categorical, like blue or sour or anything else that simply is what it is, a `primary' not definable in terms of something else."7

Since this point is not unimportant we should be quite clear that `good' or goodness is unanalyzable and therefore indefinable, but goods (in the plural) are analyzable and therefore definable. The same is true of `value' and values. We must not let ourselves be lured down the road of Plato's idealism, trying to make ideas real. They are nominal, not real. The idea of goodness is only an idea; it is not a property, it is only a predicate.

The idea of value, as an abstraction, corresponds with no actual existent. Only specific values (health, knowledge, fun, wealth, status, improvement)--values in the plural--are definable. Thus also love is indefinable, only a predicate, unless we are referring to specifics or particulars like `love of country' or `neighbor-love' or `love of persons' (agapé) or `love of fame', et cetera.

My main point is that, as Toulmin puts it, "to call `goodness' a `non-natural property' gets us nowhere.8 Moore's analysis was as such not mistaken but it was trivial. The category of good--once it is established as indefinable--is meaningless. That is, it must be converted into operational terms, what and how, in order to signify anything. For example, to say "good is better than evil" is meaningless. All alone and by itself the term good says nothing and does nothing; it does not help us to `do' our ethics.

To be sui generis is to be unconditioned and self-sufficient (e.g., God), dependent on no means and therefore, to be blunt about it, meaningless. It was for this reason that Moore was driven to say that `the good' (or good particulars, distinct from `good') is definable. In Christian terms, love is authentic only when it is acted out, made objectively manifest. Therein and thereby lies love's meaningfulness.

The final exposure of Moore's triviality is his own utterance. Debating at the Aristotelian Society in 1922, with A.E. Taylor and H.W.B. Joseph, Moore said, at last, of good, "I think perhaps it is definable: I do not know. But I also think that very likely it is indefinable." We may leave it right there, abandoned in his own inconsequential irresolution. As Ewing remarks, "A person who accepts Moore's view [on `non-natural good'] might as well accept a naturalistic definition of some other sense of `good', for example, instrumentally good."9

In this discussion of situation ethics what I have been saying comes down to this: that love is axiomatic; that love as the substantive canon of situation ethics (its what--what the good is) means intending the wellbeing of persons; that its norms or general principles of conduct follow logically from its substantive; and finally that these humanistic or `personistic'10 norms are ordinarily but not invariably obliging. Experience, the empirical part, plus thoughtful reflection upon it, yield generally sound guidelines for actions intending and instrumenting human wellbeing, in the service of such component values as happiness, growth, health, creativity, maturity, and the like--all being of relative but not absolute or indiscriminate obligation. In a well-known formulation, the spirit comes first, before the letter.


Sometimes scholars classify various kinds of ethics according to their theories of the source of the notion of good. This typology often comes in three groups: 1) the rationalistic, 2) the naturalistic, and 3) the approbative (as in Hume's case, or commendatory as in Stevenson's and Hare's cases).

The rationalistic kind, including both theological and secular versions, come, too close to Descartes' a priori method of deducing values from a self-evident principle. But good is not self-evident, any more than is love or, for that matter, God. Self-validating or self-sufficient these ideas may be for those who discern and embrace them, but self-evident they certainly are not. At their best they are products of reflective inquiry and considered decision; they are not by any means necessary products of reason and logic.

The naturalistic group, which turns to empirical data for their values, are caught in another fallacy, Hume's famous razor. Ought-propositions cannot be derived from is-propositions. Facts do not yield values, nor do descriptions provide prescriptions. Hare put it succinctly: "No imperative conclusion can be validly drawn from a set of premises which does not contain at least one imperative."11 In this same mode I would add that no value can be properly adduced from premises which do not contain at least one value term. (Nota bene: Hume, I think correctly, exposed a logical fallacy, but it was only that. He did not obviate values nor what Kantians call "the sense of oughtness", as we shall see.)

The pressing question is, Whence do we get values, by which we `evaluate' a thing or an action? Not from so-called `natural' sources such as scientific data or descriptive material. But if not, then from whence?

Of these three kinds of ethics the third, the approbative, is the one held in situation ethics. Situation ethics is a case or instance of `subjective' or attitudinal ethics (gesinnungsethik). Love understood in terms such as Christian agapé is usually expounded and is basically an attitude, not an emotion or feeling--authentic and pervasive though sentiment is within appropriate limits. With this agapistic fulcrum Christian ethics, like others, is at bottom what Stevenson calls a disposition, an `attitudinal' approach to good-evil and right-wrong problems.12 It also fits, for example, the interest theory of R.B. Perry.13

Approbative explanations of values and their consequent norms are subjective at least insofar as they do not grant values and norms any objective, given, or transcendent status--as is the case with natural-law or revelation-based ethics. This subjectivity seems to be the requisite nature of any ethics, which, like situationism, relativizes and contextualizes its normative principles. What is too often not perceived is that in situation ethics it is values which are primary or determinative of norms, not the other way around.


What now of my proposition that consequentialism and pragmatism coalesce with the situationist's substantive principle--agapism or loving concern? Briefly stated, this coalescence follows from the fact that, once they have substantives and norms, ethical terms such as `good' and `the loving thing to do' are supervenient. That is, they turn out to be descriptive as well as evaluative; they entail or carry with them certain characteristics that are definable.

If, as in situation ethics, love means concern for the good of people, then `the good of people' can be defined in value terms such as respect for persons (and disvalues such as contempt), as well as in the normative terms of obligations or restraints. For their validity, of course, these norms are contingent, since norms in situation ethics are subordinate to values. It is precisely here, of course, that the data of the empirical disciplines, especially anthropology and psychology, is vital to understanding how we can most wisely instrument our values.

Since the situationist's substantive principle is concern for human welfare and wellbeing, with all its consequent value components--that is, since situation ethics is agapistic, the name given it in theological rhetoric--we may validate it in a humanistic way, as John Dewey did with his instrumentalism, or we may add theistic sanctions as some do. But whatever our worldview, humanists, theists, Marxists can share the same agapistic substantive.

Says Dewey, "It is sympathy which saves consideration of consequences from degenerating into mere calculation, by rendering vivid the interests of others and urging us to give them the same weight as those which touch our own honor, purse, and power."14 The key role of sympathy, whether experienced as sentiment or attitude, is a point made by all sorts of thinkers--Russell, Kropotkin, Leslie Stephens, Bonaventure, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant--very close to the nachenfelden or `empathy' of Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey. Sympathy and agape are close kin.

Frankena, in another angle of view, once said, "Roughly speaking, where theologians talk about love, philosophers talk about beneficence and general utility."15 The substantive principle or first-order value of agapism is equivalent; `general utility' is utility for human beings; `loving concern' is for human beings too (not things). Dewey's instrumentalism can be added to the coalescence. As a pragmatist, he held that utilitarianism, as in any other person-oriented consequentialist ethics, is the best (the most humane) version of ethical theory.16

(Sometimes moral theologians object that we ought to love not only human beings but God too, to which the obvious answer by situationists is the one Luther made, that the only way finite persons can love God (an infinite person) is by loving the human neighbor, even though we might believe that God is nigh us too. That is, again, a very Johannine way for a Christian to look at the problem, and non-Christian situationists fall in with it quite readily.)

The pragmatic test and the standard of `utility' come to the same thing. Pragmatism's test question, what works or is expedient, and the utilitarian test, what is useful, coalesce. The substantive principle served by both tests is agapistic too; all three require that actions be in the best interest of human beings, and--what is more--the best interests of as many human beings as possible.

Neither pragmatic nor consequential ethics, however, can supply its own criterion or ideal standard (that is, its substantive). Pragmatism can ask whether a course of action `works' but cannot answer the question, "Works to what end, for the sake of what?" Consequentialism17 too can ask whether a particular deed or policy results in good or ill but cannot answer the question, "What are good and ill?"

Situationists often say that the question "Does the end justify the means?" is vacuous because nothing but the end in view can justify any means taken. They insist that the real question is "What justifies the end?" How are we to cope with this? How are we to discover what the `good' is? How do pragmatism and consequentialism and agapism get their common answer, namely, human wellbeing?

I offer this solution. The reason we care at all, the reason we have for being concerned with human interests, is--like belief in God--a decision and commitment, a matter of faith or trust; it is not a conclusion logically reached or reasonable; it is a matter of commitment, not something we are driven to by rational processes.

Elsewhere I have quoted John Hospers: "You can't prove the supreme norm of an ethical system by deducing it from any higher norm, for if you could, then it could not be the supreme norm."18 So with values. One's summum bonum has to be chosen, selected, decided for. It cannot be proved, quod erat demonstrandum. Hare points out that ought-sentences "can only be verified by reference to a standard or set of principles which we have by our own decision accepted and made our own."19

On this finite scope of reasoning in ethics I will give the last word to Stephen Toulmin. Looking back on his own pursuit of reason in ethics he found that the reasons for his statements have formed a finite chain. "In every case, a point was reached beyond which it was no longer possible to give reasons of the kind given until then; and eventually there came a stage beyond which it seemed no `reason' could be given."20 As an example of such meta-rational questions he cited, "Why ought one to do what is right?" Calling this a `limiting question' he quoted Wittgenstein, whose answer at that stage of ethical analysis was, "This is a terrible business--just terrible! You can at best stammer when you talk of it."21

This `stammering' is the work of commitment. Theology deals with it in one way, naturalism and humanism in other ways, emotivism in still another, and agnosticism (which in ethics is cynicism) reacts by throwing up its hands in ethical defeat, as Jules Ayer once did. In the end we all find we have to base our ethics on some chosen value as a starting point which cannot be `proved' in a strictly rational way. We might call it the ethical equivalent of Kierkegaard's `leap,' although he himself was so mired down in revolt against the dogmatic legalism of his day that he failed to see the parallel of the faith-leap and the ethical leap.

There really is no such thing as a distinctly Christian ethics, but there is a distinctively Christian meta-ethics. Neither the `what' nor the `how' of Christian norms is distinctive or peculiar; only its why (religious faith presuppositions) is different. The meta-ethics of most ethical theories, including situationism, religious ethics being excepted, is not metaphysical, as far as I can determine, yet all ethical `systems are at bottom meta-cognitive and meta-rational.

Facing the central question of meta-ethics, whether ethical statements or opinions have logical status, cognitivists stubbornly suppose that they are either true or false, but for non-cognitivists they are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. They are only approbative, on a basis of choice and commitment.


1. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966.

2. John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), pp. 365-366.

3. Moore, pp. 5-36, and R.M. Hare, The Language of Morals (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 79-93.

4. `Substantive' may not be a familiar word. A substantive is a word that functions syntactically as a noun or pronominal; it denotes something held to exist for its own sake, as in such substantives as the `rights' to liberty, property, reputation, self-defense. (Syntactics is a branch of semiotics that deals with the formal relations between words or signs and their significance. Semiotics, in turn, is the broad discipline having to do with syntactics, semantics, and `pragmatics,' i.e., the meaning of signs such as words.)

5. Moore, p. 9.

6. Situation Ethics, p. 60 ff.

7. Ibid., p. 47.

8. Stephen Toulmin, Reason in Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. 22.

9. A.C. Ewing, "Naturalistic Ethics," in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. J. Childress and J. Macquarrie (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), p. 416.

10. I use `personistic' to avoid the heavy burden of metaphysics the technical term `personalism' carries.

11. Op. cit., p. 28.

12. C.L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), and R.B. Perry, General Theory of Value (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1926, 1950).

13. Cf. Perry, p. 115.

14. Quoted in The Theory of the Moral Life, ed. Arnold Isenberg (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. 130. This statement obviously reflects the `Summary of the Law' in the synoptic gospels.

15. W.K. Frankena, "Love and Principle in Christian Ethics", in Faith and Philosophy, ed. Alvin Plantinga (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), p. 207.

16. Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), p. 189.

17. As a category consequentialism was first so named by G.E.M. Anscombe in "Modern Moral Philosophy", Philosophy 33 (1958), 10 ff. It is a category of which utilitarianism is one example, but not the only one.

18. Human Conduct (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961), p. 56 (quoted in Situation Ethics, p. 49).

19. Op. cit., p. 78.

20. Op. cit., p. 209.

21. Ibid., p. 209.