There are those who believe that ethical dilemmas can occur within the divine command system of ethics. This is when we face situations in which two divine commands appear to demand contradictory responses. That is, in an ethical dilemma, one divine command appears to demand one response, but at the same time this response appears to be forbidden by another applicable divine command, and which demands a contradictory action. The question is, when two divine commands appear to contradict, which one should we obey?
Here is a favorite test case or mental experiment: Suppose a person comes up to you with a deadly weapon demanding you to disclose the location of another person, whom he intends to murder. It appears that two moral duties apply in this situation. There is the duty to preserve the life of another, but if you lie to divert the man from his target, then it seems that you would be violating your duty to tell the truth. To put this negatively, on the one hand, you are forbidden to contribute to the unjust death of another person, and on the other hand, you are forbidden to lie.
A number of solutions have been proposed. Among them, a favorite one is “graded absolutism.” It affirms that there is an absolute standard of ethics, and this standard is revealed to us in God’s commandments. To transgress God’s law is to commit sin; however, some moral duties are greater than others. Then, it acknowledges that there are situations in which moral duties genuinely contradict one another. In these cases, a person must choose the “greater good,” and when he does so, he is acting in a righteous manner, and the fact that he violates the lesser commandment in order to fulfill the greater one does not count as sin.
According to graded absolutism, the duty to preserve life is somehow above the duty to uphold truth. Therefore, when applied to our test case, in order to fulfill the duty to preserve life, you would be morally obligated to lie. In fact, it would be a sin not to lie. It is amazing that many Christians consider this line of thinking a good solution to moral dilemmas. But there are several major problems with it.
First, graded absolutism is unbiblical, and permits men to sin. Although it claims to be a form of absolutism, in reality it is just a form of relativism. Moreover, it avoids sin by redefining it, and not by obeying God’s commands. Scripture acknowledges that some commandments are greater than others, but it never acknowledges that they could ever contradict one another, nor does it say that we are to follow only the greater ones when they seem to contradict. When Jesus speaks of “the more important matters of the law,” he adds, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). And when he refers to the first and second greatest commandments, it is not to make the point that they are to be obeyed instead of the lesser ones. Rather, he adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). In both cases, he acknowledges a ranking among God’s commandments only to insist that we must obey all of them.
Second, graded absolutism is unnecessary, because it deals with false dilemmas. Using the above test case as an example, there are many more options other than to lie or not to lie. By the biblical precept that permits one to defend himself and to defend others, the person faced with the decision could try to subdue the would-be murderer. Or, he could refuse to disclose the location of the intended victim and accept the consequences – whether injury, torture, or death. Depending on the situation and the many variables that are at play, a number of other options could be open to the person confronted with the decision. Of course he could even choose to lie! But instead of defining it away, let us still call it sin.
Third, graded absolutism is unbelieving, in that it doubts the wisdom of God’s revelation and providence. Many situations appear to be moral dilemmas only because we insist on usurping God’s role. This is when we judge for ourselves the best outcome and then manipulate the situation to attain it. Rather than obeying God’s commandments as they have been revealed to us, we attempt to predict the consequence of obeying each of them, judge the desirability of each outcome, rank our moral duties accordingly (that is, not according to revelation but according to the projected outcome), and then make the one on the top of our list the highest obligation, excusing ourselves from obeying the rest. This is the essence and method of graded absolutism.
There are numerous occasions in which I would give someone a set of clear instructions only to find him do something quite different because he thought that his way was better or that it produced a better outcome. Someone like this often expects to be commended for his creativity and resourcefulness, but what I see is someone who is rebellious, and who cannot follow simple instructions. What I see is someone that I cannot trust, since I can never know whether I will get what I ask for from him.
Whereas I know precisely what I want when I make the instructions, I might not tell the person everything that is on my mind. And why must I exhaustively explain every request to a person, if he could perform the task perfectly just by doing what he is told? If I ask for a kitchen knife, I do not want someone to give me a gun just because he thinks that it would make a better weapon – perhaps I just want to make dinner. And if I ask for a gun, I do not want someone to give me a nuclear bomb just because it could cause greater destruction – perhaps I just want to hunt a bear. If I ask to have my photograph taken, I do not want someone to paint my portrait just because it has more artistic value. Perhaps I do not care about artistic value – perhaps I just need the photograph to renew my passport. I could also regard this behavior as an insult. The person disregards my instructions, seemingly because he thinks he knows better as to what I need or want, and that he knows better at how to attain it for me.
A person who gets “creative” with straightforward instructions sometimes puts great effort into performing the task – his way, that is – but in reality he is useless and unreliable. He takes great pride in his work, partly because he gets creative with it and invests himself into it, but he fails to perform what has been asked of him. So he is reprimanded, but because he is thoroughly self-centered in his perception, he considers himself unjustly accused and becomes indignant.
Likewise, graded absolutism is nothing but creative rebellion. Scripture indicates which moral duties are greater and lesser, and therefore provides an objective (God’s viewpoint) way to determine moral priorities – not to excuse us from the lesser duties, but to determine the degree of guilt and the severity of the punishment deserved when we disobey. But graded absolutism always takes more than this to make a decision when confronted with what it perceives to be a moral dilemma. It relies heavily on the person’s private ability to predict the outcomes of his actions, at times far from his immediate control and involvement, then to relate these outcomes to the applicable commandments, and then to choose the appropriate actions based on the ranking of the commandments. It has no confidence in God’s wisdom in giving these commandments, and it takes his providence out of the picture. In other words, it assumes that we are smart and God is stupid, and that we are in control while God is helpless.
The correct solution is simple. Rather than predicting the outcomes of my actions and then choosing which commandments to obey on that basis, my immediate responsibility and attention is to God’s commandments, and I leave it up to the Giver of these commandments to take care of the outcomes. He knew what kind of world we live in and he knew what he was doing when he gave these commandments. It is not up to me to make things come out “right” when I might not even know what he wants out of the situation or why he wants it. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Our duty is to “follow all the words of this law,” and not to follow what we determine to be the right course of action by predicting what would happen if we indeed follow all the words of this law.
Even when we follow this biblical and straightforward principle, there will still be difficult moral decisions. However, they will be difficult not because we must resolve moral dilemmas generated by divine commands that contradict one another – that never happens. Rather, one difficulty lies in the continual effort to attain a faithful and precise understanding of God’s commandments and their implications for our thoughts and behavior. And the other difficulty is in the continual struggle against sin, exhibited in the tendency to think that we know better than God (as in graded absolutism), as well as in the tendency to refuse to do what we know is right and to insist on doing what we know is wrong. Moral decisions are often difficult not because there are so many dilemmas, but because there is so much sin and rebellion.