Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Moral Absolutes and Situational Ethics

Most Christians take the view:

Moral Absolutes: good

Situational Ethics: bad

But this is due, I believe, to a kind of false dichotomy. That is, it is perceived that Moral Absolutes and Situational Ethics are in conflict.

They're not. As I have written before, the bible is chock-full of situational ethics, not the most pleasant of which is: killing people is wrong, unless God commands you. I am thinking here, of course, of the conquest of Canaan. Now, I believe you can make a more than compelling case that the conquest of the Holy Land was a one-time event in God's redemptive plan and we have reason to expect that God will never command us to annihilate anyone, and we are certainly under no standing orders to take anyone's life or property, but nevertheless the point remains: it is absolutely wrong to commit murder, and yet Joshua was not sinning when he engaged in genocide.

There is no way for a Christian who holds to the simpleminded relationship: moral absolutes are the opposite of situational ethics to reconcile this tension. That is because in my opinion they misunderstand moral absolutes.

Wrong Definition of Moral Absolute: it is always wrong to commit act A. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Correct Definition of Moral Absolute: if it is wrong for one person to commit act A in situation S, then it is wrong for any person to commit act A in the same situation S.

The latter definition preserves the proper Christian aversion to moral relativism. In the same situation, it cannot be morally wrong for one person to behave in a certain manner while, for whatever reason, it is morally acceptable for another. Moral absolutism is preserved over moral relativism. At the same time, situational ethics may and indeed must be considered.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, you accept a rather common church teaching that is situational ethics par excellence: it is not permissible to work on Sunday, unless it is a work of necessity. (I'm not arguing whether or not this is the correct view of the day of rest. That's a separate topic. I'm just using it here as an example.) In these terms it would mean:

Working on Sunday is, to first order, wrong.

Working on Sunday, if is not a work of necessity, is absolutely wrong.

Working on Sunday, if it is a work of necessity, is acceptable—and it is an example of situational ethics.

Working on Sunday, even if it is not a work of necessity, is permissible for some as long as they don't feel guilty about it is an example of moral relativism, and is wrong.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi David,

    Interesting article. However, I wish to challenge you on your 'correct' definition of moral absolutes that you've offered above.

    Can you give me any mitigating circumstances, for the following absolute moral truth statement:

    "It is always wrong for anyone to torture young children purely for his or her own gratification."

    What conceivable 'situational ethics' would justify the above action?

    Am waiting for your answer.

  3. There is no conflict. Just because the definition of moral absolute must include consideration of time and circumstances, it does not follow that in all cases there exists circumstances that affect the morality of the act.

  4. Hi David,

    But now that's where you go wrong with your definition. You've just said that "the definition of moral absolute MUST include consideration of time and circumstances." So, if this is a mandatory pre-condition for your definition, please apply the definition as challenged.