The Incoherency of Tragic Morality

Some commentators today assert that we must be prepared to do whatever is “necessary” to combat evil in the world.[1] Lest this be misconstrued as an uncontroversial exhortation to be courageous and resolute in resisting evil, it is further alleged that in this process we will often be forced to choose the lesser of two moral evils:

We live in a world where everything around us is stained by sin and evil. In practice, what this means is that our choices are limited. In a world of sin and evil our decisions are not always between right and wrong, good and evil, or virtue and vice. Very often we face choices that are more along the lines of choosing between the lesser or greater evil.[2]

In other words, “very often” we are compelled to commit sin. Surprising as it may seem to those who are unfamiliar with contemporary work in Christian ethics, this position is well established in the field, with one scholar defining it as follows:

A popular Christian approach to navigating moral dilemmas is conflicting absolutism, alternatively known as ideal absolutism, tragic morality, or a lesser-evil view of moral conflict. This position holds that there are many universal moral absolutes. As its name implies, this approach teaches that moral norms can and do come into real conflict both in theory and in practice. When such a clash of norms occurs, conflicting absolutism teaches that man must choose sinfully to break one of the moral norms in tension—hopefully opting for the lesser of two evils—and then repent and seek forgiveness.[3]

Christian authors who have affirmed conflicting absolutism include Helmut Thielicke, John Warwick Montgomery, J. I. Packer, and Erwin Lutzer.[4] The appeal of this position is said to be that it is “in touch with the real world of moral conflicts and borderline cases. Not every decision is neat and clean. Everything is not black or white. There are real moral conflicts.”[5] Conflicting absolutism’s “emphasis upon the fallen estate of man, the holiness of God, the unbending nature of moral absolutes, and man’s need to repent when he transgresses the law” has also been cited as part of its appeal.[6]

Whatever the supposed attractions of conflicting absolutism, it is nonetheless completely at odds with the traditional Christian conception of God. As David W. Jones observes, “Given that there is no conflict within the Godhead (cf. John 17:22), if the law reflects the moral character of God it is difficult to understand how the law could conflict with itself.”[7] The typical answer to this objection is that moral conflicts are not the fault of God or His law, but of fallen humanity. This response does not solve the problem, though:

While proponents of conflicting absolutism may appeal to the fallen estate of the created order in support of their view, the fall of man did not ontologically affect God or his law. Only man and the creation were cursed. Moreover, it is also worth noting that God formally gave his law to mankind after the fall. Therefore, in light of divine injunctions to keep the law (cf. John 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 John 5:2‒3), it seems reasonable to expect that redeemed man could in fact do so.[8]

Perhaps worse than the specter of incoherency, conflicting absolutism posits the horrific notion of a God who commands us to do moral evil. William F. Luck lays out this problem in a passage worth quoting at length:

In a case of supposed moral conflict, each of the conflicting rules is obliging moral evil as well as moral good…. It seems such is the case in every alleged instance of moral conflict. Command A obliges an action that is evil according to command B, and command B obliges an action that is evil in reference to command A. To put it bluntly, in situations of moral conflict, God is obliging one to commit moral evil. It will do no good to evade the issue by running to the condition that enabled or caused the conflict (viz., the fallen state of the world and the sinful choices of men). Nor will it do to run to the fact that each of the commands also commands moral good. Nor will it do to protest that God has made a way to resolve it all by telling us to minimize evil. The fact remains: if there is a true moral conflict, such that one command obliges action that another command prohibits, then God requires moral evil. And any God who requires moral evil is himself a devil and not the God of evangelical and biblical faith.[9]

In short, upholding an orthodox conception of God’s goodness and integrity requires us to reject the ethical approach of conflicting absolutism—any alleged moral conflicts can be navigated in a way that honors all of God’s commands. As for the question of precisely how such conflicts are to be resolved, accounts differ. Some have taught that moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy where “lower” norms are superseded by “greater” norms when they come into conflict, a position that has variously been termed “graded absolutism,” “ethical hierarchicalism, contextual absolutism, and qualified absolutism.”[10] Others maintain that all moral conflicts are only apparent, and that “there will never be a case where moral norms collide, resulting in the need to break one moral norm in order to keep another, or vice-versa.”[11] This position, known as “non-conflicting absolutism,” “unqualified absolutism, case analysis, and casuistical divinity,”[12] has been identified by David Clyde Jones as “the classical Christian approach to moral conflicts.”[13]

I will not attempt to adjudicate between these two ethical approaches at present. For now I only wish to make clear that there is never a situation in which we have no choice but to commit sin. God does not oblige us to break the very laws that are derived from His eternal Being, and those who teach otherwise, however well-intentioned, are laying a grievous millstone on the necks of their listeners.

Notes

  1. See, e.g., Kruptos, “Christian Realism and the ‘Necessity’ of Violence,” Seeking the Hidden Thing, 9 May 2022, https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity.
  2. Kruptos, “Towards a Theology of NETTR,” Seeking the Hidden Thing, 13 September 2023, https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/towards-a-theology-of-nettr.
  3. David W. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab: The Evangelical Discussion on Conflicting Moral Absolutes,” Southeastern Theological Review 7, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 25. See also William F. Luck, “Moral Conflicts and Evangelical Ethics: A Second Look at the Salvaging Operations,” Grace Theological Journal 8, no. 1 (1987): 27; John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 29‒30; David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 130; and Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 83.
  4. For a discussion of Thielicke’s views, see Geisler, Christian Ethics, 84‒86. For more on Montgomery, see Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 131, and Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 25‒26. On Packer, see Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 130‒31. On Lutzer, see Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 27. These brief, secondary-level discussions cite the following sources: Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), vol. 1; John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1970); John Warwick Montgomery, in Situation Ethics: True or False: A Dialogue between Joseph Fletcher and John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1972); J. I. Packer, “Situations and Principles,” in Law, Morality, and the Bible, ed. Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978); and Erwin Lutzer, The Morality Gap: An Evangelical Response to Situation Ethics (Chicago: Moody, 1972). It should be noted that according to Luck, “Lutzer has since, privately, abandoned this position” (Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 21n7).
  5. Geisler, Christian Ethics, 88. Compare Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 132.
  6. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 27. Compare Geisler, Christian Ethics, 88.
  7. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 28. Compare Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 28, and Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 132.
  8. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 28, italics original. Compare Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 28‒29, and Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 132.
  9. Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 29. Compare Geisler, Christian Ethics, 90.
  10. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 29. See also Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 29‒33; Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 21‒26; Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics, 30; Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 133‒36; and Geisler, Christian Ethics, 97‒115.
  11. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 34. Compare Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics, 29.
  12. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 33.
  13. Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 140. For further discussion of non-conflicting absolutism, see Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 138‒51; Geisler, Christian Ethics, 66‒82; and Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 33‒37, 41‒42.

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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