Understanding Moral Dilemmas 1: Non-Conflicting Absolutism

In a recent post, I introduced Moral Absolutism in relation to God’s moral law and said that I would be posting three posts on how moral absolutists handle ethical dilemmas, here is the first post in the series.

Non-Conflicting Absolutism (NCA)

One way to deal with moral dilemmas is to argue that the so-called dilemmas only appear to be conflicts of moral laws but are not real conflicts, hence the term Non-Conflicting Absolutism. This theory is one of the most popular positions today. It has been held by many great theologians such as John Murray, Walter Kaiser, and John Frame. This view holds that God has given us absolute moral norms that cannot be altered. Any apparent conflict is due to a lack of knowledge rather than a real conflict in the commands.

Whenever there seems to be a conflict, such as in the case of the midwives in Exodus 1, where a person must choose between loving her neighbor and lying, the reason the conflict seems to exist is because of a lack of knowledge in how to handle the situation. Whatever the person must do to love her neighbor, she must do it without lying. A lie is always a lie and can never be justified by a non-conflicting absolutist. In this case, an NCA proponent would say that God honored the midwives in spite of their lying. What He was commending was their faith even though it may have been misdirected. Had they chose not to lie, they would not have been held responsible for the deaths of the children, because they would not have been the ones that would have killed them. That sin would rest upon the Egyptians soldiers.

The proponent of NCA is not ignorant of the effects of the decisions they make. Like the utilitarian, they consider the results of their actions, even if their actions are ethical. In the case of the Nazi’s at the door, it would not be unethical to tell them where the Jews are hiding if there is no other alternative even though they do not want the Jews to be found our hurt. This is because the ethical dilemma is only apparent, not actual.

What about the scenario of a pregnant mother who has a tumor that will kill her if not removed before the child is born, but removing the tumor would kill the child. In this type of situation, they would bring into play what is called the theory of double effect. What do we do in this situation? Whatever we do will have two effects, one positive and the other negative. In a case like this, an NCA proponent would say it is permissible to try to save the mother because the death of the child is not intended. The action that they are taking is ethical. They seek to save the mother, not kill the child, and since there is no real ethical conflict, the death of the child is a negative result of a positive action.

Strengths of This Position

1) It has a strong understanding of absolutes. There is never a time where lying becomes justified. In holding this position, they seem to be serious about the nature of absolutes.
2) They have a high regard for the nature of God. Since all of God’s moral laws stem from His nature, they argue that to believe in a conflict of moral laws is to believe in the possibility of conflict in God’s nature.
3) This view can also be argued quite forcibly from scripture though many Bible scholars would disagree with this view.

Weaknesses

1) In the case of the mother and the child, they seem to neglect the fact that their actions are causing the death of the child. The argument of “we didn’t intend to” seems a bit of a weak one. It appears to go back on moral absolutes and make “intent” the final arbiter of what is right and wrong.
2) What do we do about David eating the “bread of the presence” which was not lawful, but is justified by Jesus (Mark 2:26)? This is a clear violation of an absolute of the old covenant. Would intent and the theory of double effect have to play into this somehow? Does this mean that David simply avoided the sin by not intending to eat the bread, but intended to feed the starving people and himself? This seems lacking.

In the next post, we will look at Conflicting Absolutism.

D. Eaton

Other posts in this series

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