Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ethical Systems and Moral Dilemmas: Part 2

Moral Dilemmas

Here is the second in the three part series on ethical systems and moral dilemmas. The citation for the section can be found at the beginning of part one. As always, I welcome your comments and discussion!

Each of the three basic positions on moral dilemmas has commendable strengths, but also significant weaknesses. After wrestling with these, I find myself in the ideal absolutism (IA) camp, acknowledging that someone observing my actions would think that I was a non-conflicting absolutist (NCA). This is because I believe situations causing true moral dilemmas are possible, but they are rare, and I am always looking for the creative third option.

In stating that true moral dilemmas exist, I am in opposition to NCA, and I side with IA and graded absolutism (GA). The strength of NCA is that it seeks to defend a very high view of God. NCA holds that all moral absolutes are just that, absolutes, allowing for no exceptions. Also, because moral absolutes are from God, and because God is “a wise, compassionate, and enabling lawgiver” (Clark, 123), NCA holds that moral absolutes will not conflict. To do so would reflect at least oddly on God’s character, if not inspire outright doubt of his character. While this is a noble position, it does not match the world as we know it, nor how scripture describes this world (Gen 6:11-12, Rom 3:23, 8:18-23). IA and GA hold that with the fall and subsequent entrance of sin into the world, moral absolutes will necessarily conflict. The NCA response to this objection is, “Were not God’s absolutes (except those commanded before the fall) given to humankind in our sinful condition, as a standard for our lives in real, not ideal, situations?” (Clark, 123) My response is to ask if moral absolutes were created at the time they were given. Because moral absolutes flow from God’s very nature, whether moral absolutes were given to humankind before or after the fall is irrelevant. If we had never fallen, there would be no need to tell us not to murder, but “do not murder” would still be a moral absolute. Also, God’s character is not besmirched by conflicting moral absolutes, because, as IA holds, the reason for the conflict stems from humankind’s sin, not from God’s design.

The other weakness I find with NCA is the appeal to exceptions or exemptions built into moral absolutes when those absolutes appear to conflict. This strikes me as a shot in the foot for this position. The beauty of NCA is that it so rigidly holds that because moral absolutes are from God, they are absolutely absolute. Rakestraw defends this exemption idea with “An exception or qualification built into the absolute itself is not an exception to the absolute (for then it could no longer qualify as an absolute), but is an integral part of the absolute.” (Clark 120) I can appreciate the point made that such exemptions are internal to the absolute, not external, but it is still hair splitting and rings hollow. When NCA makes an appeal to exemptions, I find it difficult to see the difference between NCA and GA.

In contrast to NCA, both IA and GA see moral dilemmas as possible. Their main difference is whether one incurs guilt for the unavoidable breaking of a moral absolute. This difference can be described as IA choosing between the lesser of two evils and GA choosing between the greater of two goods. In his defense of GA, Geisler appeals to logic, conventional wisdom, and biblical examples of people who were praised for their actions in moral dilemmas. Moral dilemmas by definition place two absolutes in conflict. GA holds that one is not responsible for what is impossible, and it “is impossible to take two opposite courses of action at the same time.” (Clark, 134) GA says that by obeying one absolute, God will not hold you responsible for the absolute you could not obey. This “right of way” view of moral absolutes (Clark 135) is a good guidance for application, but a bad defense of the claim that one does not sin when in a moral dilemma. God is a truly holy God and can allow no sin (1 Pet 1:14-16). Breaking a moral absolute, even if it is unavoidable, is still sin. The GA response is to ask how a merciful and loving God could allow for situations where his people must sin. My response is that God has proved his mercy and love in providing atonement in his Son for all sin, avoidable or not.

To respond briefly to Geisler’s other two defenses, conventional wisdom and biblical examples, they both are unconvincing. He says, “Clearly a person is not blameworthy for breaking a promise to meet his wife for dinner at six o’clock if he has been delayed by helping to save a life.” (Clark, 135) No, what is clear is that she will surely forgive him for being late and praise him for his heroism. Because she was understanding does not mean he was not late. This also answers the biblical examples of people “who were praised by God for following their highest duty in situations of conflict.” (Clark, 135) Because God rewarded the Hebrew midwives for their disobedience to Pharaoh, does not prove that they were not guilty. Rather, they were rewarded for choosing rightly between conflicting moral absolutes.

It is also possible to argue whether the Hebrew midwives, and other such people held up as examples, were actually in true moral dilemmas. A true moral dilemma is a situation where all of one’s options will necessarily break a moral absolute. No matter what you do, you will in some form disobey God. Looking at a situation in isolation, petri dish style, one may craft a moral dilemma for ethical consideration. Like bacteria, however, moral dilemmas are not as prolific in the real world as they are in the laboratory petri dish. Examining moral dilemmas without being in the situation, one does not have access to all the information and the overlooked other possibilities that do not break moral dilemmas, the option C’s. A Christian in the actual situation will have access to the Holy Spirit and the needed wisdom and revelation that He will give. (Eph 1:17, James 1:5) In contrast, a student reflecting on a moral dilemma in ethics class, and not in the moment, will not have such access because the need is not there. This is not to say that thinking through moral dilemmas is fruitless—quite the contrary—but the limitations should be understood. This search for option C in a classroom verses in the situation could be akin to Watson’s take on events verse Sherlock Holmes’ take. Watson is continually baffled by events, while Holmes indubitably knows what happened. In keeping with this analogy, as an IA I would hold that there are mysteries that Holmes would not be able to solve. But they are so rare, Doyle did not dwell on them. Another consideration is whether the situation is an actual moral dilemma, or instead a crisis of knowledge. (Clark 114) When we are in a situation or looking at one, we are not omniscient and do not have all the pieces. With more knowledge, either from our own research or divinely revealed by God, often what appears at first evaluation to be a moral dilemma will solve itself.

Another significant contribution of GA is its discussion of the hierarchy of moral absolutes. This idea of hierarchy is good for setting priorities when faced with a moral dilemma, but not for proving that one does not sin when in a true moral dilemma. Breaking a moral absolute is a sin, even though it is possible to demonstrate that “not all moral laws are of equal weight.” (Clark, 131) All sin is wrong, but the sense of hierarchy comes from the differing consequences for sins.

In summary, the major strength of NCA is that moral absolutes are absolute. NCA’s weakness is its refusal to allow for conflicting absolutes and resorting to exemptions. GA’s major strength is in recognizing that moral absolutes can and do conflict. The weakness of GA comes from its misguided attempt to defend God’s love and mercy by stating that the absolute not followed does not incur guilt. This unintentionally compromises on God’s holiness. I approach moral dilemmas from the IA position. IA recognizes that moral absolutes are from God, and thus absolute, but also recognizes the state of reality, that because of humankind’s sin the universe is not as God intended it, and moral dilemmas do occur. IA also affirms the holiness of God by recognizing that sin, whether unavoidable or not, is still sin and in need of forgiveness. This does not negate God’s love and mercy because God has provided for this forgiveness in Jesus. Moral absolutes can be placed in hierarchy for decision on action when in true moral dilemmas, but that does not prove that guilt is not incurred by breaking a lesser absolute. NCA’s emphasis on the existence of option C which does not break any moral absolutes is also important, but it must be admitted that, on the rare occasion, because of the fallen nature of humankind and creation, a situation will happen where there is no option C. If I ever find myself in a situation that is a true moral dilemma, I must pray and choose the lesser of two evils, then seek the forgiveness that has been provided for me.

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