Relative morality refers to an ethical code that is dependent upon the situation in question and peoples varied beliefs and cultures. It allows maxims that do not have to be made universally true, unlike those within absolute morality. Whilst ethical theories such as Natural Law and most Christian Ethics (and other religions derived from Judaism) are often absolute, with universal laws, Situation Ethics, and in particular Act Utilitarianism, tend more towards the relative end of the scale.
Act Utilitarianism is used to judge every situation individually and without regards to the wider view of community. Within this premise the path of action that would bring about the greatest good to the most number of people in that specific situation would be followed -allowing every action to be judged within its own circumstances and merits and thus creating a flexible ethical theory for how to deal with everyday situations.
Situation Ethics looks at what is the most loving thing to do in any given situation. It looks to the teachings of Jesus to decide what actions must be taken and states that there is no absolute moral law save for love. This love is all-deciding and is always the right course of action even if this goes against scripture or the specific laws of a culture or country. Every situation is also treated separately so that the reason of love can be applied individually.
If we apply these general rules to a situation such as voluntary euthanasia we can see how different conclusions can be drawn.
The term voluntary euthanasia refers to a form of assisted suicide where an individual asks for assistance in ending their own life, for example, when their quality of life has fallen so low (or is predicted to decline) they see death as a better option that continuing to live, but perhaps lack the physical means to perform the act themselves. They may choose instead to ask for help from a doctor or a family member. This is illegal in this country (the UK) but permitted under strict criteria in places such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. This can mean that people will travel abroad to seek help for an act that is against the law here.
Someone following Act Utilitarianism (or Situation Ethics) will look at each individual case and decide based on those key factors present within the specific case what the best course of action is to take. An Act Utilitarian will be seeking to bring about the most utility for the greatest number, so will not only take into account the happiness of the patient but also everyone else involved, including family members, friends and the doctors and other medical staff concerned. Taking this into account, the patients themselves are of little importance in the decision when following Act Utilitarianism, which is in every case, is concerned with the majority as opposed to the minority standpoint.
If, for example, a young mother with a family decided that she wished for assistance to end her life and her suffering after being diagnosed with cancer, it is very unlikely that an Act Utilitarian would permit this. Not only would her family suffer greatly in her sudden passing, but it would also put a strain on the doctors who would have to perform the euthanasia – perhaps going outside the law to perform the act. However, if it were a terminally ill old man it is likely that he would be allowed to die, as he would have fewer family members and this death would be less against the norms of nature due to his age. The hospital budget, too, would be being forced to spend a great deal on his health care – money that could help far more people if put to a better use, as well as saving medical resources for others.
Someone taking a Situation Ethics perspective will already believe that all life is sacred and a gift from God. Murder will be considered wrong in most situations, but again if it can be shown as the most loving thing to do then that is finally decided as the right decision, regardless of legality. If a patient then was in so much pain that they no longer wanted to live, the most loving thing to do would (most likely) be to allow them to die a quick and painless death rather than continue on in suffering. Similarly to utilitarianism, the views of others involved will also be taken into account, though there is much less chance of a ‘tyranny of the majority’ circumstance taking place. Overall then whereas Act Utilitarianism and Situational Ethics are both case based the focus differs in where the utility lies whether for the individual or in the majority as in Act Utilitarianism.