Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?

One reason why some people reject the existence of objective morality is because moral absolutes can conflict.

Canadian philosopher Michael Horner to explains the problem.

He writes:

You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”

[…]I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.

For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?

We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.

If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable.

So, in this case, it seems as if the moral absolutist is stuck in a dilemma. If you lie to save the innocent life, then that would be wrong. But if you tell the truth and hand the innocent person over to murderers, then that would be wrong. Does this really disprove objective moral absolutes?

This problem annoys me, because I know this is the kind of objection to objective morality that annoying philosophy lecturers like to push onto freshmen in order to convince them that morality is nonsense.  But does the moral dilemma objection really work?

More Horner:

[…][I]f moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.

If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.

But isn’t this moral relativism? After all, we are deciding what to do based on the situation! It’s relativism, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t, because there is always one right thing to do in every situation. In every situation, you always follow the weightiest moral rule. The right thing to do does not depend on your subjective state of mind. It is an objective moral duty, and it is the same for everyone, across all times and in all places. That’s what objective morality means -what is right and wrong is not determined by personal preferences or cultural conventions, which vary by time and place.

And of course, God is the ground of this hierarchy of objective moral absolutes. They existed through him before human beings even appeared, as part of his design for us, his creatures. How we ought to behave is grounded ontologically in God’s design for us.

15 thoughts on “Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?”

  1. Yeah, this one got a lot of comments before. There is an easy out: the wicked are not entitled to all information. So withholding some information from the Nazis busting in, versus out and out lying, is what the ten Boom Family did in this situation, because the Nazis are wicked and are not entitled to all information, especially information that will lead to the deaths of innocents. There is a difference between withholding information from the wicked, which we all do nearly every day of our lives, and bearing false witness.

    One of the most disturbing conversations I ever had was with a Calvinist woman who said that Corrie should have told the Nazis exactly where the Jews were and “turned them over to God.” I pointed out that she would not have been turning them over to God, but to the Nazis and Satan. But, since the Calvinist “god” is the author of evil, she should have known that.

    The Bible is filled with such examples, including with Jesus. How did Jesus escape the crowds trying to stone Him? By His “cloaking device.” Was that bearing false witness, deception, or merely not providing all information to the wicked because His time had not yet come?

    I think there is always an out that will keep us from bearing false witness at the same time as protecting innocent life. Betsie ten Boom’s solution was to remain silent. Corrie’s was to ask “what Jews?” Those both seem to be much better solutions than “There are no Jews here.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What about the “you have to shoot one person to save 10 other people” or the “you can save 3 toddlers or hundreds of human embryos from a burning fertility clinic” scenarios? I know those are stupid hypothetical situations designed to trip people up, but what IS the answer there?


      1. Yeah, so in both of those cases, the person, usually an atheist, is assuming some level of omniscience on the part of the moral relativist. You will need to be more specific on the shoot one to save ten, but if it is like somebody coming in a church and opening fire, that is clearly a case of self-defense and warranted (but not required in a situation that only involves the individual Christian) on all worldviews.

        In the burning fertility clinic example, how does anybody, but God, know that there is insufficient time to save all in there – toddlers and embryos?!? How do we know that there are insufficient fire protection devices in place for the embryos?!? (It is a sad statement of our culture that we go to far greater lengths to protect embryos in test tubes than embryos in women.) Nobody knows these insufficiencies are in place, short of God. The proper answer is to try to save them all and to encourage our culture to stop storing human beings in test tubes and murdering them by discarding them.

        But, in most cases of moral dilemma, there is an assumption of omniscience on the part of the questioner, and atheists are great at being gods unto themselves. Consider the lifeboat example of situational ethics that we were all inundated in back in the 70’s. It is always posed as “which person gets eaten to keep the others alive?” But, what if the answer is “we don’t eat ANY human beings, we treat their body with dignity, and we do not assume that we won’t be saved 5 minutes after we do the right thing of not eating another human being.”???


        1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply! The one scenario that I mentioned is a variation of “you’ve been taken hostage along with 10 other people. Your captor hands you a gun and tells you to pick one person to sacrifice and he will let the others live, if you DON’T choose then you will all die.” There are many versions, but the basic idea is whether sacrificing some to benefit the group is morally permissible. By NOT choosing you’re consigning everyone to death (because apparently the captor’s morals aren’t in question).


          1. I would immediately shoot the hostage taker when he handed me the gun or threaten to do so unless he released everyone. I believe it’s warranted under that circumstance.

            Lacking that:

            It seems to me that you have to let the hostage taker kill everyone. You don’t KNOW that he will nor do you KNOW that he will release everyone if you do kill another hostage.

            Maybe others have a better answer.


        1. Thanks for that link! Somehow I forgot the case of the officer who DID save human embryos.


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