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.