Understanding Moral Dilemmas 3: Graded Absolutism

We have been looking at how moral absolutists understand moral dilemmas. So far, we have covered an introduction to moral absolutism, non-conflicting absolutism, and conflicting absolutism. We will now, in this final post on this topic, look at a graded absolutism

Graded Absolutism (GA)

The last way to address moral dilemmas is to argue that there is a hierarchy built into God’s moral law, and at times, some laws supersede other laws which is meant to handle these conflicts. This view is called graded absolutism. It is held by theologians such as Norman Geisler, Stephen Mott, and Millard Erickson.

The graded absolutist starts out with the explanation that some laws are weightier than others (Matt 5:19), and some commands are greater than others (Matt. 23:23). This position can be explained quite simply when we think of civil disobedience. According to scripture, we are to obey the civil government, but what if that civil government commands us to worship a false god. Built into God’s absolute moral law of obeying government is the idea that we should do it only if it does not contradict God’s law. This is because obeying God is much greater command than obeying the government.

In the case of the midwives who lied in Egypt or Rahab who lied to hide the spies, the proponent of GA says that God actually deals well with them for their lying (Exodus 1:20). In these situations the greater command, to which lying must yield, is the protection of human life. GA differs from the conflicting absolutist in two ways. First, the conflicting absolutist says you must choose between the lesser of two evils, and second, when you do it you have sinned. The graded absolutist says you must choose between the greater of two goods, and when you do it, even if it involves violating a lesser good, you have done something commendable. The proponent of GA does not merely say that in a situation like this that lying is allowed in the sense that to do it is to be held innocent. They go further and say that the lie is virtuous, and to not do it would be wrong.

In the case of the mother with the tumor (see previous two posts), they would say that to try and save the mother is the greatest good because you seek to save both in spite of the minimal percentage of success in protecting the child. To attempt to save both lives even at the cost of losing one is the greater good than letting one die without any effort to save them both.

Strengths of this position

1) It has quite a bit of scriptural support for its graded view. Even the Ten Commandments seem to be listed in order of weight.
2) It sees God’s moral law in its entirety as absolute without waiver or conflict. The conflict only happens between specific commands.
3) It can answer many difficult passages in the Bible with ease, such as David eating the “bread of the presence” (see Mark 2:26)

Weaknesses

1) It wavers on the absolute nature of specific commands.
2) It can appear to be a lesser version of situational ethics.

I realize these short posts cannot answer all the questions, but I hope you have found them helpful in priming the pump when it comes to understanding moral dilemmas as a moral absolutist.

D. Eaton

Other posts in this series

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