Those who believe in the depravity of human nature have not been theologically unprepared for the almost daily barrage of odious revelations connected with Watergate. Some others seem to be naively surprised that any politicians would ever stoop to break the law to achieve electoral victory.

Another group of self-styled ethicists has been curiously silent about Watergate. Those moral philosophers have been proclaiming for years that no actions are inherently right or wrong; only the situation can determine whether an act is immoral. In the face of the nation’s revulsion at the Watergate scandal, perhaps silence has seemed most expedient for the situation ethicists.

However, a statement on Watergate made by Billy Graham served to elicit a comment from the nation’s leading situationist, Joseph Fletcher. Graham’s statement read in part, “A nation confused for years by the teaching of situational ethics now finds itself dismayed by those in government who apparently practiced it.” Time magazine editorialized, “Graham is groping wildly in connecting situation ethics and the Watergate cover-up.” And Joseph Fletcher was equally eager to dissociate situationism from the Watergate stigma. His comment: “It is a misinterpretation. Those involved in Watergate weren’t conducting themselves according to situation ethics. They didn’t weigh the moral options. Their one guiding principle was to win at any price. Graham knows or ought to know better” (Time, June 10, 1974, p. 18).

Is Watergate an example of situation ethics or is it not? Who is “groping wildly”—Billy Graham or Joseph Fletcher?

In his book Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Westminster, 1966) Joseph Fletcher defends the notion that no act is inherently right or wrong; all actions should be judged only by whether or not they were done lovingly. In Fletcher’s words, “All laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love in any situation” (p. 30). Adultery, lying, murder, and vote fraud are not always wrong; in some situations they might be loving (i.e., moral) acts.

Although Fletcher gives confusing and contradictory definitions of love (eliciting James Gustafson’s remark that “love” is a word that runs through Fletcher’s book like a greased pig), the definition used most often is that a loving act is one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number (p. 95). Like the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Fletcher believes that a moral act is one that benefits the majority; an immoral act is one that helps the minority and hurts the majority. We should aim to serve as many neighbors as we can.

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Leaving aside the tantalizing question of whether any consensus could be reached regarding what is the best for the majority, let us return to Watergate. Did not Mr. Nixon’s cohorts believe that his reelection was the best for the nation as a whole? Certainly. Senator McGovern’s political stance was frightening to a large number of Americans. Nixon’s landslide victory proved that the nation agreed with the view of the President’s trusted aides: the best course for the nation was to give Nixon his coveted “four more years.”

Fletcher says that when love (i.e., the best for the greatest number) conflicts with the law, we ought to “sin bravely” and do what is best for the majority. The news from Washington during the past year has convinced us that the Watergate conspirators followed just that principle.

Along with utilitarianism, Fletcher accepts the ethical premise that the end justifies the means. “What was once charged as an accusation against the Jesuits is here frankly embraced: finis sanctificat media” (Moral Responsibility, Westminster, 1967, p. 23). Fletcher relates the story of how Lenin was becoming weary of being told that he had no ethics because he used force in foreign and civil wars. Some Tolstoyan idealists accused him of believing that the end justifies the means. Finally he shot back at them, “If the end does not justify the means, then in the name of sanity and justice, what does?” Fletcher agrees. If the end does not justify the means, then nothing else does (Situation Ethics, p. 121).

If Mr. Nixon’s reelection was a worthy end (and the majority of Americans agreed it was), why should his reelection campaign be cramped by adherence to moral codes? If—as Fletcher suggests—the only alternative to a loveless code is to have a codeless love, Nixon’s committee faced a decision: Shall we obey the law or do what is best for the majority? From the standpoint of situation ethics they should be commended for having the courage to dispense with the law in order to serve the majority. The end justifies the means.

It is odd (more accurately, inconsistent) that Fletcher should condemn the Watergate conspirators because their guiding principle was to win at any price. Situationally, there is nothing wrong with winning at any price if winning is the best for the greatest number.

But might not the Watergate conspirators have been acting selfishly, desiring political power? If their guilt or innocence depends on that question it would be difficult to prove their guilt. Who could prove they did not have the good of America in mind when they planned their strategy?

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Situationally, the ultimate question of guilt or innocence can be determined only by the results achieved. In Fletcher’s words, “Christians say that nothing is right unless it helps somebody” (Moral Responsibility, p. 40). The nation thought it was helped. President Nixon was reelected.

At this point someone might be tempted to respond: But given the fact that Watergate was uncovered, given Mr. Nixon’s present troubles, we might have been better off with McGovern! If so, the predicament of situation ethics is only highlighted. The simple fact is that we as mortals cannot predict the future. Fletcher candidly admits, “We can’t always guess the future, even though we are always being forced to try” (Situation Ethics, p. 136). In order to apply situationism we would have to calculate not merely the immediate results but all the consequences of an act throughout an indefinite future. Such a task demands omniscience.

Fletcher apparently is not concerned with calculations. He does acknowledge that “with the development of computers all sorts of analytical ethical possibilities open up” (Situation Ethics, p. 117). However, computers would have to be able not only to predict the future (so far little success has come from such attempts) but also to make some decisions as to what kind of a future should be sought. Fletcher theorizes: “It is possible that by learning how to assign numerical values to the factors at stake in problems of conscience, love’s calculations can gain accuracy in an ethical ars major” (Situation Ethics, p. 118). However, such calculations are as yet impossible. In the meantime no person can ever be sure he is making a right moral decision. Hence, the moral life is as yet impossible too.

Watergate is a striking example of applied situation ethics. Fletcher’s objection only reveals the embarrassment of those who have told us that loving concern should surpass all moral laws. It is Joseph Fletcher and not Billy Graham who is groping wildly. Apparently Fletcher feels uncomfortable when his chickens come home to roost.

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