Sometimes we face real moral dilemmas—doing one thing we ought to do means doing something else we ought not do. What are we to do when we are in these hard spots? Last week I discussed one solution that won’t work. This week I’ll look at a second option that is better than the first, but still not a good solution. Then I’ll offer what I believe to be the best ways to solve these moral dilemmas.
Solution Two: Choose The Lesser of Two Evils
The second solution, Conflicting Absolutism, says that real moral dilemmas do occur, and so we must choose between violating one of two moral imperatives. However, in doing so, we will violate the moral code (we will sin). Yet this is sometimes unavoidable. This view sees our choice as an evil, but a “lesser evil.”
Conflicting Absolutism, in my opinion, is an improvement over Unqualified Absolutism. It preserves the best aspect of the first view: that all moral imperatives must be taken seriously. But it is realistic in a way the first view is not. It acknowledged that in our fallen world real moral conflicts do arise. When we choose we are still guilty of committing the lesser evil, but less guilty than if we had committed the greater evil.
The arguments in favor of this position begin with the fact that God’s laws (commands, imperatives) are absolute. Therefore, in a perfect world they would never come into conflict. However, in our fallen, broken world they do, and so we cannot avoid moral conflicts. Furthermore, since evil is not part of God’s intent, if we must do evil we must always do the lesser evil. Yet evil is still evil, and so choosing a lesser evil means we are still guilty of sin, even though this was the right choice to make in the situation. All we can do is ask forgiveness, and God, in his mercy, will forgive us of the lesser sin.
For example, on this view Corrie Ten Boom should have lied to the Nazi at her door to protect the Jews upstairs, and then immediately repented of her sin of lying. Or your friend should lie on her Chinese Visa application, and then immediately confess this sin and as God for His forgiveness.
Though better, I still don’t believe this is an adequate solution. First, because on this view we are obligated to sin—we have a duty to sin in some situations (albeit a lesser sin). But this can’t be right. God calls us to be holy, as He is holy (I Peter 1:16). Of course, we never fully live up to this standard. Yet this is our goal. But if Conflicting Absolutism is correct, we must plan to sin whenever we face true moral dilemmas. This is inconsistent with God’s command to not plan to sin, but rather to plan to be holy as He is.
Furthermore, if moral dilemmas are inescapable and thus “lesser sins” are unavoidable for all people, what does that imply about Jesus? He was a person just like us. So he faced moral dilemmas as we do. Yet, speaking of Jesus, the author of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) But if true moral conflicts are unavoidable, and we must choose the lesser of two evils, then Jesus, like us, would commit sins, albeit lesser sins. We know this is not the case. Nor can it be that he didn’t face the type of true moral dilemmas we face. We are told he was tempted in every way, just as we are...” This is a second serious objection to Conflicting Absolutism.
Solution Three: To Choose Is Not to Sin
The third solution—Graded Absolutism—seeks to affirm the positive aspects of the first two views, and avoid their downfalls. This view sees God’s commands as absolute and binding, but also believes some commands are weightier than others. Therefore weightier commands supersede lesser commands if in conflict. Furthermore, we can be assured there will be times when commands are in conflict, as we live in a fallen world. So our moral responsibility is to weigh the conflicting principles and choose the lesser evil/greater good. Given the reality of true conflict we are justified in doing so, and our act is not evil (it is not sin).
This seems to be the approach taken in Scripture, as hinted at above. Acts 4:13-20 indicates the proclamation of the Gospel is a weightier command than obeying the state, if the two commands are in conflict:
Then [the authorities] called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
In this case, Corrie Ten Boom did the right thing by lying to the Nazis at her door to preserve the life of the Jews upstairs. Her act was morally praiseworthy, even though it did contain what, in other circumstances without a conflict, would be a sin (lying). But in this case, given the higher imperative to protect life, she did no wrong by lying in this instance.
Similarly, given the higher value of preaching the Gospel, your friend is not sinning by lying on her visa application. And given the higher value of providing for your family, you are not sinning by lying to the shady character at your doorstep, leading him to believe you are home so he will not break in and take what is rightfully yours.
Graded Absolutism seems the most biblically sound, logically justified, and practically livable solution to solving true moral dilemmas. If...no, when you find yourself facing such a quandary, this will be of great help in deciding the best course of action, and resting assured you did the right thing.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading, see Norman Geisler, The Roots of Evil.