Theology for the Masses

November 15, 2006

Graded Absolutism – Christian Conflict Theory

Filed under: Ethics,Nature of God,Philosophy,Problem of Evil — Henry Imler @ 11:37 pm

Norman L. Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, presents a Christian view of how to deal with consequences in conjunction with divine command theory in his article entitled Absolutes? Absolutely!. I thought it was an interesting read inlight of my earlier post at the Unsound Argument: Ethical Relativity.

In the first part of the article, Geisler attempts to refute the various branches of ethics. He then goes on to argue for the Divine Command Theory for ethics, with the divine command coming from the Christian God, via the Bible. Critiquing this part of the article, especially his treatment of consequential or teleological ethics, is a topic for another post. What I am interested in for the sake of this post is the latter part of the article, where Geisler attempts to answer the question of what to do when two divine command conflict with each other. Under the “Conflict Situations” portion, he lists the following six ways of approaching conflicting moral absolutes:

  1. Antinomianism – Bypasses the problem by maintaining that there are no moral absolutes.
  2. Generalism – There are only general moral laws, but not absolute ones.
  3. Situationism – Only one absolute law, i.e. Love, is to be followed.
  4. Unqualified absolutism – Many absolute laws that never conflict.
  5. Conflicting absolutism – Many absolute laws that sometimes conflict and we are to do the less evil (but evil is being done.)
  6. Graded absolutism – many absolute laws that sometimes conflict and we are responsible for obeying the higher law.

Of the six approaches, only four of them hold to absolutes, which Geisler has argued for with his argument for Divine Command Theory, so we can throw the first two out. Geisler maintains that only Graded Absolutism holds up to a Christian Divine Command Theory worldview. Because the Christian Ethic demands that there are many absolutes (even though Jesus’s golden rule could indicate otherwise) Situationalism does not hold.

Nor does the idea that none of the laws conflict fly. It seems that lying is sometimes justified. It would seem that lying to save 50 lives is a moral duty. To suggest that the moral weight of not lying overrides the moral weight of 50 lives is hard to justify. Despite this difficulty, there are many Christian Divine Command Theorists that would say that you simply can say nothing when asked to lie to save 50 lives. You have a duty to reveal the information and a duty not to lie, therefore you must remain silent. While this does rid oneself of the problem in some situations, there is always the issue when the storm troopers search your house if you remain silent. In those cases, the same difficulty arises. Sometimes there is no third choice.

So at this point we are left with the last two possible choices, either we have a duty to choose the less evil path and are held responsible for it, or we have the same duty to choose the less evil path and are not held responsible for it. The first approach seems to be unjust because one can only be held responsible for the situations one finds himself in.

Giesler maintains that the only way to deal with the problem of conflicting absolutes is Graded Absolutism. Put briefly:

[Graded Absolutism] insists there are many moral absolutes and they sometimes conflict. However, some laws are higher than others, so when there is an unavoidable conflict it is our duty to follow the higher moral law. God does not blame us for what we could not avoid. Thus He exempts us from responsibility to follow the lower law in view of the overriding obligation to obey the higher law.

Which is the higher law? Giesler paints a picture of a hierarchy of values. First one is to respect the source of the law (God), then moral objects (persons) and then everything else (animals, and other non-persons).

For a more detailed discussion on the topic, see Giesler’s Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, chapter 7.



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    Evil is Sin, and Sin is Independence from God. We will always fall short of dependance, which is why Jesus taught about relationship rather than rules.
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