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

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Understanding Moral Dilemmas 2: Conflicting Absolutism

So far we have covered a basic introduction to moral absolutism, and we have looked at how non-conflicting absolutism handles moral dilemmas. Today we will consider conflicting absolutism.

Conflicting Absolutism (CA)

Another way to deal with moral dilemmas is to admit that they do exist and try to deal with them head-on. This is the position of the conflicting absolutist. This position is held by theologians such as Helmut Thielicke, John Warwick Montgomery, J.I. Packer, and E.J. Carnell. This position is also known as ideal absolutism, as it believes that ideally God’s laws do not conflict, but in this fallen world there are times when they do. They also conclude that part of the conflict is due to a lack of understanding on our part. This fallen world creates ambiguity.

This position is probably the easiest to explain. When confronted with a moral dilemma, such as the midwives lying to protect the children or Rahab lying to protect the spies (see Joshua 2:1), what we must do is choose the lesser of two evils. In these two instances lying is the lesser sin than failing to protect the life of your neighbor. In these situations what we must do is admit that we had done wrong, repent, and ask God for forgiveness. In both of these situations, God praised the women, not for their lying, but for their faith and doing the best they could in such a terrible situation.

In the case of the mother with a tumor (see previous posts), it would be a greater sin to let the mother die without any attempt to save them both since we never know for certain if the child will die. Though the chance of losing the child may be 99.9%, to not attempt to save the mother would be the greater sin. If the child dies, we must then ask for forgiveness.

Strengths of this position,

1) This view makes another strong attempt to stick to absolutes.
2) It’s not afraid to face moral dilemmas head-on.

Weaknesses

1) It begins to weaken those absolutes by stating that they can be ambiguous in this fallen world.
2) What do we do with the scripture that says Jesus was tempted in every way as we are? Does this mean that Jesus was tempted in a way that He had to choose between two sins, thus making him a sinner? Or was he not tempted in this way thus making the “tempted” verse untrue.
3) This verse also seems to go against the idea of repentance. To repent is to ask God for forgiveness with the notion that we will do our best not to do it again. But in this case, we would have every intention of doing it again if faced with the same situation because it’s the best decision we can make.

It seems this is the weakest of all three positions, but I do not consider J.I. Packer a lightweight, in fact, I enjoy most of what he has to say. I have not read him on this particular issue which makes me wonder if I’ve missed something in my studies. But after reading Thielicke, this is the understanding of this position as he presents it.

In the next post on this topic, we will deal with the most controversial but probably the most logically consistent position: graded absolutism.

D. Eaton

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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

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God’s Moral Law and Absolutism: Introduction

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.

D. Eaton

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