Here we will look at only the three most well-known forms of absolutism.
Situationism (also called contextualism) in its modern form was popularized by Joseph Fletcher in his book Situation Ethics (1966). Fletcher once served as dean of Cincinnati's St. Paul's Cathedral and later as professor of social ethics at the Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At first glance, it may seem strange to call situationism a form of moral absolutism. But according to this theory, there is at least one, and in fact only one universal, morally obligatory norm: love. In any given situation, especially when it appears that moral values are in conflict, the duty that supercedes all others is the fulfillment of love. One is obligated to do the most loving deed, even if it means violating what might otherwise be regarded as a moral duty.
Situationists often cite the classic case of the woman in a Nazi concentration camp who was told she could be released to her family if she were either terminally ill or pregnant. On the basis of her love for her husband and children and their need for her presence in the home, she asks a camp guard to impregnate her. "Situationists will argue that her illicit affair was justifiable, since love for her family motivated her act. In determining the morality of her action, the situationist views the act of adultery as irrelevant" (Rae, p. 87).
Especially problematic with this theory is the question of what constitutes love. Each individual will eventually make up his or her mind regarding what is or is not the most loving act based on other moral criteria. In practical effect, situationism is barely distinguishable from moral subjectivism. As for the Christian, the Bible makes it clear that authentic love for God is always demonstrated by a determination to keep his commandments (John 14:21).
2. The Categorical Imperative
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1803) put forth what he called the categorical imperative:
"Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
The moral rightness of an act is thus dependent on our willingness to universalize the rule of action which generates it. This means that you should never do anything that you aren't willing for everyone else to do if they were facing same or similar circumstances. Or as Grenz explains, "Always do the act that is motivated by the sincere belief that what you are doing is the right thing to do, right not merely for you but for anybody seeking to act properly in any similar situation" (31).
Thus, contrary to utilitarianism, according to which the ends justify the means, Kant would insist that the end never justifies the means. As Pojman explains, on this view “there is something [intrinsically] right about truth-telling and promise-keeping, even when such actions may bring about some harm; and there is something wrong about lying and promise-breaking, even when such actions may bring about good consequences” (131).
3. Biblical Absolutism
Biblical absolutism argues that there are many ethical actions which are intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong. The moral quality of such acts does not depend upon culture or preference or consequence. Such acts are always, universally, and everywhere either right or wrong, good or evil.
Therefore, there are eternally and universally applicable rules or principles of right and wrong that transcend culture and impose moral obligation on all people.
The source for these moral absolutes, unlike Kant's categorical imperative, is two-fold: (a) the special revelation found in Scripture, and (b) the general revelation found in creation, otherwise known as "natural law".
What happens when any two of these moral absolutes conflict? The answer to this question has led to the postulation by Christian ethicists of three alternative systems.
a. Non-conflicting Absolutism
This view (also called unqualified absolutism or third-alternative absolutism) argues that there are many ethical or moral norms, each of which is universal in nature. In other words, each norm is always, in every situation, for every individual, morally obligatory. Although one might think that situations would arise where such norms would come into conflict (i.e., where one could not perform one duty without violating another), the conflict is only apparent. The norms never produce mutually exclusive moral dilemmas.
Advocates of this view insist there is always a third option. There is always an alternative way of resolving the problem without violating either norm, or a way of fulfilling one of the duties without violating the other.
Therefore, Corrie Ten Boom was wrong when she lied to the Nazis concerning the presence of Jews hidden inside her home. According to this view, she should have told the truth and trusted God and his providence to work out a way to protect them.
How would the non-conflicting absolutist deal with Sophie’s Choice (as set forth in William Styron’s book by the same name)? Sophie (portrayed in the movie by Meryl Streep) was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. She is told by a Nazi officer that she must choose which of her two children will be executed. If she chooses one, the other will live. If she refuses to choose, he will kill them both. Was there a genuine moral conflict here? If not, what was Sophie’s third option?
b. Ideal Absolutism
This theory (also called conflicting absolutism or the lesser-evil view) asserts that there are indeed many universal, equally authoritative ethical norms which do, in certain situations, conflict. When such ethical dilemmas arise, one must invariably disobey one rule in order to obey another.
The fact that the dilemma is real and the decision inevitable does not, however, make the breaking of any rule morally right. That is to say, it is always wrong to break any rule, even if two rules inescapably conflict. One must simply choose the lesser of two evils as best one can and then seek forgiveness from God.
Corrie Ten Boom was right in lying to the Nazis in order to protect the Jews, the lie being the lesser of two evils facing her. But she should have then fallen to her knees and asked God's forgiveness for lying. [But it would then seem that, according to this view, there are occasions when we have a duty to sin.]
It would seem that the example of Jesus invalidates this theory. Assuming (contrary to the preceding theory) that there are occasions on which two universal moral norms conflict, we must conclude that Jesus himself dealt with such dilemmas. We know that he was tempted in all points as we are (Heb. 4:15). Since we often face situations in which it is impossible to perform one moral duty without violating another, it is reasonable to assume Jesus did also. And yet he never sinned. If that is so, then it must likewise be possible for us to confront such situations, fulfill one duty, and yet not sin by disobeying the other.
This view (also known as graded absolutism or qualified absolutism) contends that there are indeed many universal ethical norms. These moral laws or rules, however, are not all equal in their intrinsic importance or significance. When these norms conflict, and they will, one must determine which is the higher rule and obey it. In doing so, one does not sin by breaking the lower rule. The lower rule is good and right, but on occasion may have to be violated in order to uphold a higher good. Some rules or moral laws transcend others. In other words, there is a hierarchy of moral standards, according to which one must make ethical decisions.
For the Christian, the determination of which duties are of greater moral significance than others can only be derived from the Bible.
4. Case Studies
God is truth, and we are to be like God. Truth-telling is therefore a crucial moral duty for those in the kingdom of God (see esp. John 8:44; Acts 5:1-11; Col. 3:9; Rev. 21:27).
The question is this: "Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie?" Or are we obligated to tell the truth in every situation, no matter the consequences?
Remember: one's conduct/actions are vehicles for truth and falsehood, authenticity and deceit, no less than one's words.
So, is the Christian ever justified in communicating a falsehood? Perhaps a few examples will help focus our thoughts:
· Is it ethical to post a "Beware of the Dog" sign on your fence to deter a burglar, even when you don't own a dog?
· Is it ethical to leave the lights on in your house when you are away, again to deter a potential burglar from breaking and entering?
· Is it ethical for a woman to fake a heart attack or to pretend to faint when attacked by a rapist? Is it ethical for her to call out to her husband as if he were close by, when in fact he is not? Is it ethical for her to tell her assailant that she has a sexually-transmitted disease in order to discourage his assault?
· Were the Allies in WW II justified in deceiving Hitler concerning the location of the Normandy invasion?
· Is it ethical for a football team to send a man in motion to the left side of the formation in order to deceive the opposing team into believing that the play will be run in that direction, when in fact it will be run to the right?
· Is it ethical for the police to operate radar in unmarked cars? After all, by using unmarked cars they are deliberately deceiving us into thinking that they are civilians.
· Is it ethical for the police to conduct undercover, plain-clothes investigations which by definition demand that they deceive people concerning their identity and intent?
· Is it ethical to lie to someone about where you are taking them in order to keep the secret of a surprise birthday party that is planned in their honor?
· Is it ethical for those in the military to wear camouflage uniforms in order to mislead their enemies concerning their location?
· A woman is diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer. Recently, a pharmacist discovers a drug that might save her but is charging for it twenty times above a reasonable price. The sick woman's husband sells everything he owns and borrows as much as people will lend, but comes up short. The pharmacist refuses to extend him credit or to let him pay out the amount over time. The pharmacist says to himself: "I discovered the drug and I'm going to make from it all I can." In desperation and love for his wife, the husband is contemplating breaking into the drugstore and stealing the medicine. If he doesn't, his wife will die. Would he be wrong in doing so?
· In Columbine, Colorado, during the tragic shooting incident of April, 1999, one of the gunmen asked: “Does anyone here believe in Jesus Christ?” Were all the Christians present at that time morally obligated to identify themselves?
· Suppose you once led a homosexual lifestyle, or perhaps only indulged in that behavior on a few, isolated occasions. In recent years you have walked in sexual purity and no longer feel homosexual urges. A friend or pastor asks you: “Have you ever indulged in homosexual behavior?” Are you morally obligated to say “Yes”? Are you lying if you say “No”? Saying, “No comment” is tantamount to saying “Yes,” at least as far as the interrogator is concerned.
Consider these other examples where it appears that moral obligations conflict.
· Richard’s father lies dying and makes a request of his son: “Please promise that after I’m gone you will take care of my horses. Promise me that you will feed them, groom them, and do whatever it takes to keep them healthy.” In grief over his father’s condition and out of love, Richard gives his word. After six months, the money his father left to cover the expense of caring for the horses is gone. Richard is forced to borrow money to fulfill the promise he made to his dad. The money drain soon begins to take its toll on Richard’s wife and children. Is Richard morally obligated to continue paying for the care and upkeep of these horses while his family suffers? Is Richard’s “promise” to his father morally binding?
· Mary’s brother Alex has planted a terrorist bomb somewhere in Kansas City that will detonate in one hour. Mary is the only person who knows where it is hidden and she promised Alex that she would never tell. Although she now regrets making this promise, she is a devoted sister and refuses to disclose the bomb’s location. If we do not discover the bomb and dismantle it within the hour, thousands of innocent people will die. Suppose we can torture Mary to extract the information from her. Would it be morally permissible to do so? Whereas torture is an immoral act, do the humanitarian consequences that result from it justify our using it on Mary? The utilitarian would say Yes. What do you say, and why?
· An interesting situation is presented in the movie, Return to Paradise. Three friends are spending vacation in Malaysia. Having rented a bicycle, one of them trashes it and concludes that the owner will simply keep the deposit (which he believes is worth more than the bike). Two of the three leave the country the next day. One week later the owner of the bike comes with the police to reclaim his property. The bike is not found, but 104 grams of hashish is discovered. Anyone found with more than 100 grams is regarded as trafficking in drugs. The young man (although not the one who trashed the bike) is put in prison and sentenced to death by hanging. It isn’t until two years later, after the appeals process has been exhausted, that the man mentions to his lawyer his two friends and their complicity in purchasing the hashish. The lawyer, a lady, returns to New York City where the two are living (unaware of their friend’s plight) and tells them that if they do not return to Malaysia within eight days, their friend will be executed. The court has agreed that if they will take responsibility for their share of the drugs, they must each serve three years in prison and their friend’s life will be spared. If only one returns, he must serve six years. Are they morally obligated to return? If only one chooses to return, is the other obligated to do so as well in order to keep his friend’s sentence to three years instead of six? One of the two is engaged and has made promises to his fiance. What is his obligation to her? He says that he won’t do six years, but he’s willing to do three if the other will. Finally, they both agree to return to Malaysia. Upon their arrival, they discover that the lawyer is actually the sister of the man in prison. They realize that she has lied to them and would perhaps do anything to save her brother’s life. So how can they trust her? The agreement she struck with the Malaysian court was verbal, not written. Might not they hang as well? Might their sentence be longer than three years? She tells them she decided not to reveal her true identity, knowing that they would think she would concoct any story to persuade them to return. Does her concealment of these facts change their obligation to their friend? One of them believes so, backs down, and returns to New York City. The other decides to proceed, unwilling to let his friend die. When the court convenes, the judge discovers that the story has been leaked to the press and printed, together with a quotation from the lawyer criticizing Malaysian justice. The infuriated judge changes his mind and says the first young man must hang and his friend must still serve six years in prison. Does the judge’s decision have any impact on the morality of the third man’s decision to return to New York?
Let’s now consider two biblical examples:
· Pharaoh’s demand that the Hebrew midwives kill all new-born male babies. See Exod. 1:17-21.
· In Joshua 2:1-7, Rahab lied to protect the Israeli spies. See also Heb. 11:31; Js. 2:23. [And did you note that Joshua sent spies into the land, whose purpose is to deceive and undermine the enemy in order to gather information the enemy hopes to conceal. God had spies working for Him in the OT.]
It would appear that there are occasions when deception is ethically permissible. But note well: not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood which violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The question, therefore, is not whether it is ever morally permissible to lie. The question is, “What is a lie?” A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is the telling of an untruth to someone to whom you are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth. There are, however, certain occasions on which we are not under obligation to tell a person the truth (in times of war, criminal assault, etc.).
What about Lt. Col. Oliver North’s admitted deception of Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings? North insisted that had he disclosed the truth he would have jeopardized the lives of the hostages. He felt his highest moral obligation was to the hostages and their families, and only secondarily to Congress. He asked himself: “Am I dealing with people who in this particular instance have a moral and legal right to know the truth?” Given several past incidents of congressional leaks that North believed put lives at stake then and would do the same now, his answer was “No.” What do you think?