What do you do when it seems you have to choose between two sins? For instance, the midwives in the Old Testament, do they lie and say that the Jewish women have their babies too quickly to kill them, or do they tell them the truth and fail to protect the babies (see Exodus chapter 1)? In this case, they lied, and God commends them for it. Over time, I plan on posting three more posts on this topic. I will be discussing three ethical theories surrounding God’s moral law and absolutism. The book covers you will see in these posts are books I have read in my study of Christian ethics and have helped me in my understanding of this topic.
When studying ethics, we encounter many different theories. Such as utilitarian ethics, virtue based ethics, and deontological ethics. Utilitarian ethics bases its ethical system on some non-moral outcome such as happiness or pleasure. For instance, the way we decide what is right and wrong could be based on what will produce the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people. A couple of proponents of this view are David Hume and John Stuart Mill. This is the view that seems to be the most popular in today’s secular society. Virtue based ethics looks to character to decide what is right and wrong. In other words, we do not look to follow rules, but we look to virtues that we wish to cultivate such as courage, prudence, and temperance then we look to how we should live them out our lives. As Leslie Stephens says, “The moral law…has to be expressed in the form “be this” not in the form “do this.” Proponents of this view have been Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and, of course, Aristotle (though it is debated whether his teaching was as extreme as today’s virtue ethicists). This view has gained momentum in today’s church and has also gained acceptance by many in what used to be called the Emergent Church. It is also held by many in the Catholic church.
Both views have their flaws, for instance, utilitarian ethics would have to say that committing adultery is a good thing to do if it will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. As we know, this is contrary to scripture. Virtue based ethics has serious trouble in explaining how good character leads to doing the right thing. For example, if courage is a virtue we are trying to cultivate, how do we apply this to doing the right thing? A woman who abstains from an abortion could be said to be courageous, but so could the woman who was brave enough to have one. Which one is right? I realize if you hold to one of these two views, these simple arguments will not convince you otherwise, but my point here is not to refute these systems. Instead, I want to look at absolutism.
The first two theories mentioned, say that there is no intrinsic value in any action. The value is in either in the outcome of the action (utilitarian) or in the character of the person doing the act (Virtue). Deontological ethics, on the other hand, is a duty or obligation driven system. Deontological ethics says there is some intrinsic value in certain actions, such as not killing, or truth telling, that requires us to do them. The prima fascia understanding of scripture, and I believe the correct understanding, seems to show this view as the most accurate. There are certain actions that we are to do to be ethical. This flows from God’s moral law which is summarized in the Ten Commandments and further summarized when Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and love our neighbor. The Christian understanding of this view does not neglect the character of the person doing the act. For an action to truly be Godly, it must stem from the right attitude or character, but there is value in particular acts and not only in the heart.
A person who holds this view is usually known as a Moral Absolutist. Absolutism means that the moral laws are absolute in that they are binding on all men, at all times and in all situations. This is what most Christians hold to regarding the Ten Commandments and other moral principles found in Scripture. In this view, however, there are what we call moral dilemmas. To use the old example, what do you do when the Nazi’s are at your door looking for Jews which you are hiding? You are under two different principles which seem to be in conflict. First, you are morally obligated not to lie, and second you are morally obligated to love your neighbor and protect them. Regarding this dilemma, there are three different categories of moral absolutists, with three different answers. There is the non-conflicting absolutist, the conflicting absolutist, and the graded or hierarchical absolutist. In three future posts (which have now been posted), I will be looking at each one of these to see how they deal with the dilemma.
Other posts in this series
- Understanding Moral Dilemmas 1: Non-Conflicting Absolutism
- Understanding Moral Dilemmas 2: Conflicting Absolutism
- Understanding Moral Dilemmas 3: Graded Absolutism