Friday, April 28, 2006

The difference between moral objectivism and moral absolutism

Don't you think it's about time I start making posts again? I injured my wrist last Saturday, which has prevented me from making any bows. That has given me some time to do some reading, and reading always makes me think.

Today, I was reading a blog that Dagoods has become a member of called "Debunking Christianity." On that blog, there was a link to an entry about "Debunking Calvinism." The author, John Loftus, basically brought up the whole problem of reconciling God's sovereignty with human responsibility. He argued that if God causes John to kill Bill, then God killed Bill, not John, and God is responsible, not John. I am very axious to write a blog entry on this subject (I have wanted to for some time) because it seems like this subject comes up in almost every discussion I get into with Dagoods. We always seem to get stuck on it. I never go into detail in comment sections, so I thought I ought to spell out my arguments in a blog.

But not this blog. You see, I was thinking about this while ago, and I decided to put a pizza in the oven (I discovered Amy's pizza at the grocery store last week, and it's delicious!!!--best store bought frozen pizza I've ever had!!!) and then go to the bathroom. While walking around, my mind continued to wander. I don't know how it got there, but it got to the whole issue of moral absolutism verses moral objectivism. Usually, the two terms are used interchangeably, but Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason makes a distinction that I have found to be very helpful.

The difference, basically, is that moral absolutists don't recognize moral dilemmas, and moral objectivists do. A moral absolutist thinks that any moral imperative (like "don't lie") must be obeyed no matter what in any situation. A moral objectivist recognizes that there are situations in which two moral imperatives both apply, and one must choose the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils (it has gotten to where every time I think of "the lesser of two evils" I think of that movie, Master and Commander).

The classic example is harboring Jews during the holocaust. Should you lie to protect them? A moral objectivist would say yes, because on the one hand, sure, it's wrong to lie. But on the other hand, we also have a moral obligation to protect innocent people, not to give them over to their doom. It's better to lie to protect them than to turn them over to their doom by telling the truth.

It's interesting how moral absolutists respond to a situation like that. They don't characterize it as choosing the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods. Instead, they simply redefine their terms. Whereas a moral objectist might call something "justified lying," a moral absolutist wouldn't call it lying at all. They simply redefine the word "lie."

I'm getting this argument about absolutism from an article I read a while back by a popular Christian writer. I can't remember who it was, but I remember basically what he said. Usually, we define a lying as, "Saying something that isn't true knowingly." But this author defined lying as "Saying something that isn't true without justification." You see, he agreed with the moral objectivist that you should not tell the truth about the Jews you're protecting, but he did not consider that lying because it was justified. To him, it's only lying if it isn't justified.

I think this is just a word game, and an inappropriate one, too. It's inappropriate because words are defined by their use. When people talk about lying, they mean "Knowingly saying something that isn't true." They don't mean, "Saying something that isn't true without justification."

The absolutist could, of course, counter that it doesn't matter what English speaking people think of as "lying." What matters is what God says, or what the Bible says, and what it means. But I have yet to hear a lexical argument for defining the corresponding Greek and Hebrews words for "lying" as "Saying things that aren't true without justification."

But let's think about that for a minute. Suppose that is what lying means. If so, then to say, "It's wrong to lie," is a tautology. All morals derive from the principle of justification. To say that something is wrong is to say that you are not morally justified in doing it. To say it's not wrong or that it's right is to say that you are morally justified in doing it. That's why whenever people do something questionable, we always want to know what their reasons are. Sometimes we find their reasons justifiable, and sometimes we don't. If lying means, "Saying something that isn't true without justification," then saying, "It's wrong to lie," basically amounts to saying, "You are not justified in saying something that isn't true without justification." That's a tautology. By definition nobody is justified in doing anything that is not justified. That's why I find the absolutist's redefinition tactic to be flawed.

I was going to say more about pacifism, but my pizza is ready. That gives me good justification for stopping here.


At 5/01/2006 7:55 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

i agree with what you are saying here. I think that if a moral absolutist uses the redefinition trick they are, in effect, using the very same arguments that a moral objectivist would use in order to determine the rightness of an action, whilst trying to retain the nomenclature of absolutism. This is sophistry.
However, I think it is this rather than the tautology is the thing that is fatal to their position. This is because they could avoid tautology by restating their position in terms of injunctions. So instead of 'it is wrong to lie' they could substitute 'thou shalt not lie'. I see an analogy with killing. If we think of the term 'murder' it surely is a form of shorthand for 'intentional killing that is wrong'. People then have to tease out when it is wrong to deliberately kill. A Moral objectivist can still fall unawares into areas that are dangerously close to tautology if they say 'it is wrong to commit murder'.

At 5/01/2006 8:54 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

You have a point there.

I figured out who the absolutist was who gave the redefinition argument. It was Hadley Arkes in his book First Things. I was just reading it last night, and I stumbled on that part.

At 5/02/2006 12:40 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

I like what you wrote here, ephphatha.

As soon as you indicated “lying is saying something true without justification” my mind started to reel with the idea as to who gets to determine the justification. I see you covered that quite well.

However, I did have a question, if you can follow me. “Lying” IS an English word with a definition. Definitions are simply common usages. Over time, its definition could change from one thing to another.

I would presume (correct me if I am wrong) that regardless of what word we use, whether English, Spanish, Greek or Aborigine, and regardless of what definition we use, you would state there is some concept out there, some God mandated “thing” if you will, that in the English-speaking world we call a “lie” and we clumsily define it as best we can, perhaps incompletely. Is this “thing” immoral?

Do you hold that at it is possible for a human to be in a situation where they must violate this “thing” or violate another God mandated “thing”? A no-win situation?

For example, using the ever classical Holocaust/Jew scenerio. Is lying to the Nazis a violation of this “thing”? And is allowing the Jews to be taken away, (you are not doing the murdering) a violation of any God mandated “thing”?

Simply put, are humans ever in a situation where they will commit an immoral act of some sort? Or is there some hierarchy by which, in a conflict, the immoral act is down-graded (for lack of a better term) to a non-moral or even moral act?

Then, isn’t that at least carving out an exception to any definition of an immoral act, by adding, “….unless by committing this immoral act, one commits a greater immoral act.”

What is the interplay between a moral dilemma in your moral scheme?

At 5/02/2006 2:23 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I think I understand what you're saying, and I sympathize with the difficulty in articulating it. Why don't we call this "thing" a "principle"? That is, there are certain principles that dictate what we should and shouldn't do in whatever situation the principle applies.

And your question is, could there be a situation in which we are forced to violate a principle? Is it possible for two principles to be in conflict, putting you in a no-win situation?

No to both questions. We try to capture "principles" as best we can in language, but I think that in most cases the best we can come up with is prima facie statements about what we should or shouldn't do. With almost any moral command you can think of, you can also think of exceptions.

Part of the reason, I think, is because when we state moral imperatives, they are always statements of a moral principle applied to a real situation. For example, "Don't lie" applies the principle of love to speaking. It holds in most cases. But it doesn't mention every single possible case of speaking there could be. For a written or verbal moral command to completely cover every underlying moral principle there is, you'd have to write a long list of exceptions that would cover every possible situation a person could ever be in. That's impossible. Not even the civil law can do that.

I don't think lying to the Nazis violates any principle. The command not to lie covers our moral obligation in most circumstances.

That's why Christians sometimes make a distinction between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Behind the letters is a spirit which the letters don't perfectly capture. They letters point us in the right direction, though. The law, when taken together, captures principles that we can recognize.

Jesus seemed to recognize this, too. You can see it especially in his debates about healing on the Sabbath or picking grain on the Sabbath. Both violated the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. Jesus argued that it's better to rescue somebody on the Sabbath than to not rescue them. His method of reasoning seemed to be similar to a moral objectivists. It's wrong not to rescue somebody, but it's also wrong to work on the Sabbath. So there are two moral commands that are in conflict. Jesus chooses the lesser of two evils (or the greater of two goods). Since it's better to save life than not, it's not wrong to rescue somebody on the Sabbath.

I don't think that essentially absolutists and objectivists differ. The only way they differ is in their characterization of morality. So the difference is more in semantics than in substance. Notice how in my post I showed that both, when faced with the same situation, come to the same conclusion about what they should do. They simply characterize it differently.

I've really got to go study for my final for tomorrow, so I may not post anymore for a while here, your page, or that "debunking Christianity" page. That is unless I can't help myself.

At 4/06/2007 5:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

DagoodS, you are everywhere, my friend! I like it.

Anyway, ephphatha, let me know when you write up a response to my blog on Calvinism.

At 4/06/2007 6:09 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Hi John. Thanks for coming to my blog. I don't know if you've ever been here before or not. I only recently set my settings to where I got an email whenever somebody posts. If not for that, I would not have known you posted this time. In case there are other old posts you've commented on, I'm sorry if I never responded. I probably just never knew you posted them.

But anyway, I already wrote that post I was talking about. It doesn't directly interact with your blog; it just uses that one point you made as a springboard to launch into the subject of God's sovereinty and man's responsibility. I think it does cover the main issue you brought up, though. Anyway, I wrote it in five parts--six if you count the post I made before explaining my own conversion to Calvinism. You can read them all here.


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