Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Christian meta-ethics

Below is a lightly edited transcript of a discussion I’ve been having with an email correspondent over Christian meta-ethics.

ADEODATUS: On your theory of ethics, I assume you are an absolutist. Now, are you a graded absolutist like a Geisler or a Murray?

In ethical dilemmas, therefore, we should do the greater of two goods (or, stated another way, the lesser of two evils). if you're not GA, where/what is the best critique of it that you know of.

STEVE: In discussions like this, "evil" is a term of art. "Evil" isn't synonymous with evildoing or wrongdoing.

So, in choosing between the lesser of two evils, we're not necessarily choosing one wrong over another wrong.

We never have the right to do wrong, but "evil" and "wrong" are not interchangeable in this context.

For example, if a man can't breathe, and the only way to restore his breathing is to puncture his esophagus and insert a straw, that's a necessary evil, but it's not a wrong (i.e. immoral). Indeed, it's the right thing to do.

All obligations are not coequal. Some duties are higher than others. When a higher duty conflicts with a lower duty, the higher duty suspends the lower duty.

This is in part because some duties have an mean-ends relation. Yes, I believe in moral absolutes, but some duties are instrumental goods rather than intrinsic goods.

In addition, we have concentric social obligations. We have a general obligation to the welfare of children, but I don't have the same (degree of) obligation for your children as I have for my own.

Up to a point, I also think that we make choices based on what options God, in his providence, has made available to us. That doesn't override all other considerations—but it is a consideration.

I could say more about all this, but that's a start.

ADEODATUS: I appreciate the "evil" and "wrongdoing" distinction.

If "we never have the right to do wrong," then are you not a graded absolutist?

And, yes, there are weightier issues, but we should obey them, *as well as* the lighter matters, right? For example, it seems to me that when Geisler (defending hierarchicalism, or, GA) says that we may break the 9th commandment and lie to Nazis looking to find and kill Jews we are hiding, he assuming that the 9th commandment says we can never ever deceive anyone in any circumstance.

But in this instance I don't think it would be a violation of the 9th commandment. It seems to me that GA allows one to *sin* if he "breaks God's law," then does it matter that he had a "tough choice to make?" And, btw, I like a lot of your ethical thinking, what/who have you read and/or profited the most from in this area?

STEVE: I read Geisler's book many years ago, so I'm fuzzy on the details. But it seems to me that the terminology of graded absolutism is confusing or confused.

1. By definition, we never have the right to defy a moral absolute.

2. Belief in moral absolutes doesn't mean that all duties are moral absolutes. Some duties are instrumental to a higher end.

3. Apropos (2), I do not regard truth-telling a moral absolute. Rather, it's an instrumental good.

3. Teleology is consistent with moral absolutes, because the absolute is the higher end to which certain means are adapted.

BTW, I don't regard teleological ethics as a freestanding ethical system. But it's a necessary element in moral valuation.

4. Unfortunately, Joseph Fletcher co-opted the word "situation" in situation ethics, which is associated with moral relativism.

This means, by invidious association, that any position which appeals to varying circumstances in moral valuation is tarred with relativism. But that's a serious overstatement.

Relativism doesn't mean that my obligation may differ in a different situation. Rather, relativism means that I could do the opposite in the very same situation.

If something is a duty in one situation, then it's a duty in an analogous situation. That doesn't mean it's also a duty in a disanalogous situation. Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.

5. In a fallen world, it's possible for a sinner to maneuver himself into a situation where he can't discharge all of his responsibilities. Suppose a man has four kids by one marriage. Suppose he has an affair, and leaves his wife for another woman. Suppose he has another four kids by the second marriage.

He doesn't have the financial wherewithal to adequately provide for the financial needs of all his kids.

Suppose he becomes a Christian. That, of itself, doesn't change his financial situation. That doesn't turn back the clock. He boxed himself in, and there's no way out of the box.

6. Frame has done a lot of good writing on ethics and meta-ethics.

Although he's Roman Catholic, Peter Geach wrote an insightful book entitled _The Virtues_.

I don't always agree with Frame, and I agree with Geach less often than I agree with Frame. But one can learn some moves from both men.

ADEODATUS: I know some graded absolutists appeal to places like Mt. 12: He answered, "Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5Or haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. 8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

They say this proves that you can violate moral absolutes for higher absolutes. If I understand you, would your take be that they didn't violate an absolute, but a moral law that was a means to an end. They were in a situation where a more important obligation - possibly even a moral absolute - took precedence over the other moral law.

STEVE: The appeal to Mt 12 as a prooftext for graded absolutism assumes that all the OT laws exemplify the moral law, and therefore are moral absolutes.

Not all OT laws are moral absolutes. Ceremonial laws aren't moral absolutes.

Moreover, a particular law may be a concrete instance of the moral law, yet it's an instance that's adapted to the socioeconomic and political conditions of the day.

The underlying principle is unconditional, but the concrete way the principle is applied may sometimes be conditioned by the timebound circumstances of that time and place.

For example, male headship is an enduring principle, but there are various ways in which that can be exemplified or implemented, and the details vary according to the cultural perceptions and historical contingencies of the immediate situation.

Furthermore, the idea of one moral absolute overruling another moral absolute is incoherent, for that's a concealed way of saying that one absolute is relative to another. So they first classify an obligation as a moral absolute, then proceed to relativize it. This is ad hoc and incoherent. They need to scrap the framework and devise something more principled and internally consistent.

ADEODATUS: So on your scheme, how do you handle moral dilemmas? Let’s take two examples:

A trolley is coming down a track, and it’s going to run over and kill five people if it continues. A person standing next to the track can flip a switch and turn the trolley onto a side track where it will kill one but save the five.

Most people think that’s morally permissible to harm one person when five are saved.

Another case is when a nurse comes up to a doctor and says, “Doctor, we’ve got five patients in critical care; each one needs an organ to survive. We do not have time to send out for organs, but a healthy person just
walked into the hospital—we can take his organs and save the five.”

Is that OK? No one says yes to that one.

Now, in both cases your action can save five while harming one, so they’re identical in that sense. So why the flip-flop? People of different ages, people of different religious backgrounds, people even with different educations
typically cannot explain why they think those cases differ." This can obviously be answered, but is there a general program, or do you take dilemmas on a case-by-case basis?

STEVE: It depends on how you define a moral dilemma. We can find ourselves in a situation where we don't know the right thing to do. We're confronted with conflicting moral intuitions.

We also need to distinguish between what is “right” in the sense of morally right, and what is “right” in the sense of correct or prudent or best.

In addition, there's also a difference between what's morally permissible and what's morally prescriptive. Take the trolley thought-experiment. Is it morally permissible to sacrifice one life in order to save five others? I'd say, yes—in this scenario.

Is it morally mandatory to do so? What if someone doesn't want to have that death weigh on his conscience? What if he doesn't feel he has the right to do that? Is it wrong for him not to intervene?

I wouldn't go so far as to say someone is obligated to take a life in that situation. After all, he's not responsible for the situation itself. He didn't create the situation. So these are forced options. He didn't choose these choices. And so I can see someone saying, in good conscience, “the outcome isn't my responsibility.”

In moral dilemmas, there may be no obligation to act one way or another. More than one course of action may be licit, without any course of action being obligatory.

I've already mentioned the distinction between ends and means as one way of harmonizing otherwise conflicting duties consistent with moral absolutism.

And I’d also invoke my prior remarks regarding the concentric character of our obligations. I have a higher obligation to God than I have to man; I have a higher obligation to my father/mother; wife/brother; son/daughter than I have to your father/mother; wife/brother; son/daughter.

Suppose my son and your son were trapped in a burning building. Suppose you can't save both of them. It would be right for you to rescue your son rather than mine. Indeed, it might even be incumbent on you to rescue your son rather than mine.

You have an obligation to try and save both if you can, but in case of conflict, the concentric nature of our social obligations supplies another harmonistic principle consistent with moral absolutes.

In principle, it ought to be possible to apply general norms to every situation. Even when we judge on a case-by-case basis, we are bringing certain general principles to bear.

However, the general and the specific cross-pollinate. For specific instances are a stimulus to moral intuition. It's hard for us to reason purely in the abstract. We need concrete examples to refine our intuitions. It isn’t all worked out in our head, in advance of the fact.

The danger is to overgeneralize. A position may seem to be intuitively compelling until someone comes up with a counterexample that didn’t occur to us.

ADEODATUS: Do you know Frame's (and Bahnsen's) breakdown of a someone doing a good act as having the right motive, goal, and standard? If someone doesn't have the right motive, say, then is that act he did, say, saving a drowning victim, not qualified as good? Was he immoral in doing it? Should people do immoral acts? Should he not have saved the life then? Does Frame take these as necessary and sufficient conditions? Is there a problem not separating acts from intentions?

STEVE: It's better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than refrain from doing the right thing.

Indeed, we have a standing obligation to do the right thing (or refrain from doing the wrong thing) whether we feel like it or not.

Something can be objectively right (according to the standard), but subjectively wrong (according to the motive).

However, the standard trumps the motive because the standard is a divine standard, whereas the motive is a human motive. There is a standing obligation to comply with a divine prescription or proscription.

If I do the right thing for the wrong reason (wrong motive or goal), then that says something bad about the subject of the action (the agent), but it doesn't say anything bad about the object of the action (the law of God).

There's a difference between a virtuous law and a virtuous agent. The law of God is good irrespective of the agent, and the law is normative regardless of the agent's incentive. Objective right takes precedence over personal righteousness. Ideally, the subjective and objective aspects of a deed ought to dovetail, but law is prior to motive or goal.

Put another way, there are actually two sets of intentions:

i) The intention of the human agent in doing or refraining from doing something;

ii) The intention of God in obliging the human agent to do something or refrain from doing something.

The law of God is objectively right according to God's standard, motive, and goal.

The human agent may be unrighteous in his intentions, but that doesn't relativize a moral absolute. He ought to do the right thing for the right reason, but absent that, he should still do the right thing, even if he does it for the wrong reason.

ADEODATUS: How do you determine which morals are absolute, and which are means/end? You said truth telling was "means end." What makes you say that? Is there are rule that can be applied that says all x's are absolutes and all y type things are means/end? Do they change? Can means/end also be absolutes in different situations, and vice versa?

STEVE: I don't think there's any rule of thumb. But we do have a revelation. That gives us some examples from which we can extrapolate. It gives us some examples of divinely sanctioned deception—as well as divinely sanctioned Sabbath-breaking. In both instances, the lying and Sabbath-breaking were sanctioned in cases where human wellbeing was a stake.

So truth-telling and Sabbath-keeping would be a means to that end—human well-being. And in situations where they actually frustrate that end, the obligation is temporarily suspended.

This is why the Puritans exempt duties of mercy and necessity (WCF 21:8; cf. Isa 58:13-14; Lk 4:16; Mt 12:1-13; Mk 3:1-5).

Frame has a good discussion of deception:



  1. Huge thanks for that post to Steve and ADEODATUS! Thanks for the Frame link as well. Ron

  2. Yes, this was quite interesting. Thanks for taking the time to post it.

  3. Great post Steve.

    I'm thinking about contributing with some thoughts pretty soon.


  4. Might as well post some quick thoughts in here:

    (This is from a correspondence with a friend thru email)

    It seems that the principle behind the Sabbath, that God is to be worshiped, is always or absolutely right. But worshiping God and keeping the Sabbath are not the same thing. One is an underlying principle and the other is an instance or institution of that principle, or as Steve would call it, an instrumental good. But, when a situation comes along with an alternative that more closely contains the principle of worshiping God, then that should be chosen over keeping the Sabbath. That doesn't mean that worshiping God is the relative principle, but that Sabbath-keeping is relative to the degree that it conduces to the worship of God above the other alternatives. The Pharisees thought that healing a man violated the Sabbath. But God would have us save a man from drowning on the Sabbath because it is more God-honoring to save a life made in God's image than to worship God by resting from work.

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