Michael Horner's Blog

    You do not have to be a moral relativist to avoid moral dilemmas

    Written by Michael Horner

    You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”

    An area of interest that I’ve had for a long time is why it is so many people claim to be moral relativists, that is, that morality is just a matter of either individual or cultural opinion. There are so many strong arguments against moral relativism and yet such a high percentage of people in Western culture see moral relativism as the only reasonable position.

    This is not the case among academic philosophers# because they know the problems with moral relativism and many philosophers also understand that there are different ways of understanding the term absolutes.

    I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.

    For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?

    We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.

    If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable. But if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.

    If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.

    In this example truth telling and protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder are prima facie moral duties. “A prima facie duty is an objectively true, exceptionless moral duty that can be overridden by a weightier duty in a specific instance. When this occurs, the prima facie duty does not disappear, but continues to apply to the specific in­stance in question and make its presence felt. An exemption to a moral abso­lute occurs when that absolute is overridden by a weightier duty.”# In this case the absolute of truth telling is overridden by the latter weightier principle. Both are exceptionless moral absolutes and as such apply to the situation, but the former is exempted in this situation, which means that it does not disappear- it is merely overridden by a weightier duty.

    Now this is not moral relativism. Both principles are exceptionless moral absolutes; both apply to the situation but one is overridden by the other given the circumstances. Moral relativism is the view that moral values are merely a matter of opinion – either individual or cultural opinion. And it is not opinion that rules the day here. There is an objective right or wrong independent of individual or cultural opinion.

    I think there is a major misunderstanding since the late 1960s that if one allows circumstances to affect moral reasoning then it means they have slipped into moral relativism, but I think this is mistaken. I think examples like the Nazi example above clearly show that the situation does make, and should make a difference in our moral reasoning, yet one can still hold to a view of moral absolutes if one sees them as prima facie moral duties existing in a hierarchy. This view is sometimes called graded absolutism or I prefer objectivism.

    So for my reader who thinks moral relativism is the only option because for him absolutism means no exemptions, graded absolutism or objectivism should be seen as a way to hold to real exceptionless moral absolutes without being stuck in moral dilemmas or the completely inadequate position of moral relativism.

    For my Christian readers it is time we realized that we may have been tricked into holding a position that is not only unreasonable, impractical but also unbiblical. The Bible doesn’t use the term absolutes but it does seem to view moral rules as objectively true and not just a matter of opinion. The Bible also seems to take circumstances into account. The situation does make a difference. Just because Joseph Fletcher’s book in the late 1960s was entitled Situation Ethics many Christians falsely concluded that the situation has nothing to do with a proper view of morality. Consider Rahab the prostitute who circumstances were very similar to my opening illustration. She is actually listed in the ‘Faith Hall of Fame’ in Hebrews Chapter 11 precisely because she lied to protect the life of the Jewish spies. She chose the greater good in that situation which is all that God requires of us, and God seems to think she did the right thing in that moral dilemma.

    11 Responses to “You do not have to be a moral relativist to avoid moral dilemmas”

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      It is an interesting question Anani. I would have a hard time telling someone, “You must…” or declare to someone “You were wrong to…” when it comes to such tragic, inconceivable situations. And yet it would be my heart that if I were in such a moment I would look to God for His direction. I trust His promise that “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” would be true in that moment and I would have the courage to look to Him alone and walk where He would lead me.

    • Anani Elioenai says:

      “I suggest that this becomes even more difficult when the consequence is not my own torture or death but those of my loved ones, my wife or children. Here again I believe that God would never want us to deny Him as Lord. I do not presume to know, but I suspect that His mercy though would extend to even such an egregious error as denying Him in this horrible situation.”

      Interesting what about this scripture.

      Luke 14:26
      26 “If any man come to Me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.

      Aren’t we to have FAITH in Him and put Him first no matter the circumstance?

      Don’t forget that G*d tested Abraham when He told Him what to do with his son.

      And this scripture, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” Luke 17:33

    • Chris says:

      You might want to avoid the term Objectivism unless you want to invoke all of Randian philosophy, a la:

      “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
      —Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

    • Mark McEwan says:

      Yes, I have to say that I agree: denying Christ is a greater tragedy than anything else that may befall us or others–it is to be avoided at all cost.

    • Thanks for your comment Mark. I too, obviously, find this a helpful way of thinking about moral dilemmas and moral relativism. But that does not mean that it is always easy to know what the right thing to do is in every situation, and your question highlights this fact.

      For my reader who doesn’t get the connection between your question and the topic of this post, let me explain what I think you are getting at (and this is something that I have thought about). I believe that you are asking about the situation where a Christian is asked to deny Christ as Lord under some threat, say torture or death. What should they do? There is no doubt that this pushes the principles that I have put forward to their limits.

      It would seem that biblically and historically the answer would be that we are expected not to deny Christ. Certainly, the early church understood this as their duty. I suggest that this becomes even more difficult when the consequence is not my own torture or death but those of my loved ones, my wife or children. Here again I believe that God would never want us to deny Him as Lord. I do not presume to know, but I suspect that His mercy though would extend to even such an egregious error as denying Him in this horrible situation.

    • Mark McEwan says:

      I think this is a good and helpful way of thinking of these things. One question: where would refusing to deny the deity of Christ come in? Is that always a first-place priority?

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      Sorry Antony, I guess my thoughts didn’t come across clearly. What I was trying to say was to agree with you that there are so many variables to every choice that it is difficult in the extreme to know if we have done what is right. Your example of lying to a Nazi soldier about Jews hiding in the attic is very appropriate. How can I know that my lies will not jeopardize the life of the soldier or the lives of my family? I agree that the twists and turns of ethics can be a veritable minefield of uncertainties and unanticipated contingencies. That’s why my heart resonates with the writing of David that the revealed Word of God is a trustworthy guide for the path of my life (Psalm 119:105)

      Your point that there is immorality even in the lives of those who are called to be spiritual leaders, is well taken. That has been a problem that is clearly documented throughout the whole Bible–those that are spiritual leaders are not at all immune to immorality. It would be very convenient to place the blame on God saying He is unable to keep me from making mistakes but that is a misunderstanding of how God works in our lives. Every moment reveals another moment to choose to follow God or follow my own path; a follower of Jesus is not exempt from that moment by moment decision. But what a follower of Jesus does have is the Spirit of God guiding and directing their steps but they are still able to ignore that direction and choose their own path. But that immoral choice is not a failure on God’s part but rather a reflection of my choice in that moment.

    • Antony Burt says:

      Hi Jamie,

      The arguement that ‘doing the right thing’ can be a blow to relationships or reputations and thus we need to follow God’s ‘advice’ is a hollow argument.

      If by doing the right thing we suffer a blow to relationship or reputation, then we need to look at our relationships and reputations. Is our reputation or relationships based on ethical or inethical criteria. If our relationship with a thief is hampered by our volunteering on a crime watch committee, then, that is likely a good thing. It’s an opportunity to learn and adjust our lives.

      We look at the scandals emminating from the churches regarding molestation of children, and the hiding of it. I can not see how following God boasts any morality boost. Obviously, the sactuary of religion can foster immorality even under the watchful eye of God who you attribute “unlimited awarness of all the variables and all the potential outcomes”. There seems to be something missing there… Considering the damage that can happen to children who are molested, is not God, “allowing the torture of children for sport?” It just can’t be ethical for a supreme being to allow such in the ‘House of God’ or anywhere else.

    • Jamie Jamie says:

      You are right Antony, even the simplest of ethical questions can become mired in an endless array of “What if…?” How can anyone know for certain that the path they choose is the best? So often we do what seems like the right thing but then we get hit with the unexpected outcomes and suddenly the ‘right thing’ becomes a devastating blow to relationships and reputation?

      That’s why we need the help of an all-knowing, perfectly wise and good God who is intimately invested in our lives and infinitely able to lead our every choice and decision. King Solomon, the wisest man to have ever lived, advised us all to, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and don’t depend on your own understanding. Seek His will in all that you do and He will direct your path.” (Proverbs 3:5) He will help you navigate the twists and turns of personal and corporate ethics because He has an unlimited awarness of all the variables and all the potential outcomes. He also has a plan for your life and has prepared in advance good things for you to accomplish. As our Creator, He knows what is best for us and is actively involved in our lives to help us attain that best which He has purposed.

    • Sharon says:

      good article something to think about

    • Antony burt says:

      If there were such a thing as a graded absolutism, then the matrix would need to be infinitely large.

      In your example of saving a live of someone by telling a lie, in which too opposing moral ‘truths’ conflict with each other, we open the floodgates to a myriad of qualifiers that must be dealt with.

      The consequences of both the lie and the truth.

      You give a single concrete example of living to save a live. But what if the lie causes the soldier to be killed for not finding the people hiding in the attic. What if the lie causes the family to be killed, as well as their neighbours? What if the lie was not to protect people but property? What if the property being found would cause people to die? What if the property found would result in animal death, but not human? What if the animal deaths was limited to insects, not mammals? What if there were no lives at stake anywhere, but honour?

      What we have now is a failure of absolutes, and are left with some sort of evaluation of ethics with a cultural bias and acknowledgment of circumstances. No trace of absolutes is required, nor attainable.

      Morality, is an evolved construct, that humans can think of in the abstract, ponder and act on. It’s not magic, it’s just using, or misusing the brains we have. Simply going beyond our genes (which gives us a basic understanding of good and bad – just as our untrained brain gives us the ability to discern numbers 1,2 and 3).

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