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

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

Other posts in this series

The New Atheism’s Leap of Faith

The new atheism has been in the picture for about 15 years now. It came on the scene thanks to books like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, among others. Though there truly is nothing new in the atheistic belief system itself or the arguments they are presenting, since most of them are naturalists, what seems to be new, is that these preachers of atheism have become much more dogmatic in their stance. Many of them are even preaching doom and gloom if we do not eradicate religion and belief in God. Most of them focus in on one thing, and that is that they frankly want to know the truth instead of buying into myths and legends, and then they conclude, this is what everyone ought to be doing.

This idea that everyone “ought” to be doing this raises a problem. Putting aside the question for a moment of whether or not there is a God; let us look at this claim of “oughtness” from within their naturalistic worldview. As Ravi Zacharias has so aptly pointed out, “wherever one finds “oughtness,” it is always linked together with a believed purpose in life. Purpose and oughtness are inextricably bound.”

What he is getting at is that the only way we can ever say that something is not as it ought to be is if we know its purpose and proper function. For example, the only way anyone can say that a watch is not working correctly is if they know how it is supposed to work in the first place, or in other words, what it was designed to do. If the watch has no purpose or proper function assigned to it, then there is no way to say that it is functioning incorrectly.

This logical conundrum, however, is precisely the naturalist’s problem. Since naturalism cannot account for mankind’s purpose or proper function, it has no way of saying how it ought to act. Within the naturalistic worldview, mankind was not designed for any specific purpose; we are the product of a “blind watchmaker” which has no purpose in what it is doing. This lack of purpose makes any real statement of what ought to be absolutely groundless.

The new atheist, with their strong focus on reason and being logical, seem to be making a blind leap of faith from a purposeless creation to what they think ought to be. It seems like the responders are not as rational as they had hoped.

-D. Eaton