You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point-blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”
An area of interest that I’ve had for a long time is why so many people claim to be moral relativists, that is, that morality is just a matter of either individual or cultural opinion. There are so many strong arguments against moral relativism and yet such a high percentage of people in Western culture see moral relativism as the only reasonable position.
This is not the case among academic philosophers because they know the problems with moral relativism and many philosophers also understand that there are different ways of understanding the term absolutes.1
I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact, it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.
For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?
We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the “hiding the Jews example” the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder also applies.
If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable. But if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedence, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the lives of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.
If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all, it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth-telling above protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth-telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.
In this example, truth-telling and protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder are prima facie moral duties. “A prima facie duty is an objectively true, exceptionless moral duty that can be overridden by a weightier duty in a specific instance. When this occurs, the prima facie duty does not disappear, but continues to apply to the specific instance in question and make its presence felt. An exemption to a moral absolute occurs when that absolute is overridden by a weightier duty.”2 In this case, the absolute of truth-telling is overridden by the latter weightier principle. Both are exceptionless moral absolutes and as such apply to the situation, but the former is exempted in this situation, which means that it does not disappear — it is merely overridden by a weightier duty.
Now, this is not moral relativism. Both principles are exceptionless moral absolutes; both apply to the situation but one is overridden by the other given the circumstances. Moral relativism is the view that moral values are merely a matter of opinion — either individual or cultural opinion. And it is not opinion that rules the day here. There is an objective right or wrong independent of individual or cultural opinion.
I think there has been a major misunderstanding since the late 1960s that if we allow circumstances to affect moral reasoning then it means we have slipped into moral relativism, but I think this is mistaken. I think instances like the Nazi example above clearly show that the situation does make, and should make, a difference in our moral reasoning. Yet one can still hold to a view of moral absolutes if one sees them as prima facie moral duties existing in a hierarchy. This view is sometimes called graded absolutism, or I prefer objectivism.
So for my reader who thinks moral relativism is the only option because for him absolutism means no exemptions, graded absolutism or objectivism should be seen as a way to hold to real exceptionless moral absolutes without being stuck in moral dilemmas or the completely inadequate position of moral relativism.
For my Christian readers, it is time we realized that we may have been tricked into holding a position that is not only unreasonable and impractical, but also unbiblical. The Bible doesn’t use the term “absolutes”, but it does seem to view moral rules as objectively true and not just a matter of opinion. The Bible also seems to take circumstances into account. The situation does make a difference. Just because Joseph Fletcher’s book in the late 1960s was entitled Situation Ethics, many Christians falsely concluded that the situation has nothing to do with a proper view of morality. Consider Rahab the prostitute whose circumstances were very similar to my opening illustration. She is actually listed in the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews Chapter 11 precisely because she lied to protect the life of the Jewish spies. She chose the greater good in that situation — which is all that God requires of us, and God seems to think she did the right thing in that moral dilemma.
- Philosophers Magazine, 1999 - Nearly 50% of undergrad philosophy students believe in ethical relativism; only 33% of graduate philosophy students believe in ethical relativism; less than 20% of professional philosophy instructors believe in ethical relativism.
- Moreland, J.P. & Craig, W.L., Philosophical Foundations for a Christian WorldView, p. 419, IVP.