Tag Archives: Moral Relativism

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.

Are all sins equally bad? Or are there degrees of severity for different sins?

This question came up recently so I did some digging on theology web sites to find what Bible verses applied to the question.

Here’s what Ligonier said:

It’s clear that we have different degrees of sin when we consider the warnings of Scripture. There are at least twenty-two references in the New Testament to degrees of rewards that are given to the saints in heaven. There are different levels, different rewards, and different roles in heaven. The Bible warns us against adding to the severity of our judgment. Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). Jesus measures and evaluates guilt, and with the greater guilt and greater responsibility comes the greater judgment. It’s a motif that permeates the New Testament.

The idea of gradation of sin and reward is based upon God’s justice. If I commit twice as many sins as another person, justice demands that the punishment fits the crime. If I’ve been twice as virtuous as another person, justice demands that I get more of a reward. God tells us that entrance into heaven will be only on the basis of the merit of Christ, but once we get to heaven, rewards will be dispensed according to works. Those who have been abundant in good works will receive an abundant reward. Those who have been derelict and negligent in good works will have a small reward in heaven. By the same token, those who have been grievous enemies of God will have severe torments in hell. Those who have been less hostile will have a lesser punishment at the hands of God. He is perfectly just, and when He judges, He will take into account all of the extenuating circumstances. Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).

A while back, my friend Dina sent me a sermon where that exact passage (John 19) was brought up by the pastor.

I think the correct position is that any sin is enough to separate you from God, but some sins are more severe than others in God’s objective standard of right and wrong.

OK, that was fine and good, but then I noticed a few days later that Michael Krueger had also blogged about this “all sin are equal” view, too.

Krueger says this:

First, to say all sins are the same is to confuse the effect of sin with the heinousness of sin.  While all sins are equal in their effect (they separate us from God), they are not all equally heinous.

Second, the Bible differentiates between sins. Some sins are more severe in terms of impact (1 Cor 6:18), in terms of culpability (Rom 1:21-32), and in terms of the judgment warranted (2 Pet 2:17;  Mark 9:42; James 3:1).

Even more Bible references, so we’re not on the wrong track.

So then why do some people insist that all sins are equal? It turns out that it is coming from the secular ideal of non-judgmentalism.

Krueger explains:

We should begin by observing that this phrase does not come from Scripture.  People do not use it because it appears in the Bible. Why then do they use it?

One reason, as noted above, is that some Christians use this phrase to uphold the seriousness of sin. It is viewed as a way to remind people not to be dismissive about their sin or regard it is a triviality.

Others use this phrase as way to “flatten out” all sins so that they are not distinguishable from each other.  Or, to put it another way, this phrase is used to portray all human beings as precisely the same.  If all sins are equal, and all people sin, then no one is more holy than anyone else.

In a world fascinated with “equality,” this usage of the phrase is particularly attractive to folks. It allows everyone to be lumped together into a single undifferentiated mass.

Such a move is also useful as a way to prevent particular behaviors from being condemned.  If all sins are equal, and everyone is a sinner, then you are not allowed to highlight any particular sin (or sinner).

Needless to say, this usage of the phrase has featured largely in the recent cultural debates over issues like homosexuality.  Yes, homosexuality is a sin, some Christians reluctantly concede.  But, they argue, all sins are equal in God’s sight and therefore it is no different than anything else.  Therefore, Christians ought to stop talking about homosexuality unless they are also willing to talk about impatience, anger, gluttony, and so on.

Krueger also posted this fascinating follow up post, where he looks at how the phrase is being used by people on Twitter.

Look at these tweets:

  • All sins are equal. People tend to forget that. There is no bigger or smaller sin. Being gay and lying, very equal.

  • all sins are equal in God’s eyes. whatever you’re doing, is no better than what someone else is doing.

  • If you have sex before marriage please don’t come on social media preaching about the wrongs of homosexuality. All sins are equal

  • Need people to realize that all sins are equal… don’t try to look down on me or question my faith just cuz you sin differently than I do.

  • Don’t understand why you’re so quick to judge me, when all sins are equal. So much for family..

  • if you think being gay is a sin, let me ask you something, have you not done anything wrong in your life? all sins are equal. we’re sinners

  • Nope no difference at all. All sins are equal no matter what you’re running for. The bible says do not judge lest ye be judged

  • A huge problem I have with religion is the notion that all sins are equal. Like pre-martial sex and murder are the same amount t of bad.

  • people do bad things because they believe that all sins are equal and ~god~ loves y’all equally so he’s going to forgive you naman ha ha ha

  • It a sin to condemn another sinner and their actions. All sins are equal. So what makes you better than the person you’re condemning?

  • I think so b/c having sex before marriage doesn’t make you less of a women then if you waited until marriage.. all sins are equal soo

  • friendly reminder, all sins are equal in gods eyes so you’re not better than I am in any way. please worry about your own sins before mine.

  • People don’t like when I suggest abortion as an option. This is a free country and all sins are equal so mind your business!!!

  • What I do is no worse than wat you do… all sins are equal no matter what it is… a sin is a sin

  • to god all sins are equal so you have no right to compare your sins to someone else’s bc in the end it doesn’t matter

The first thing that I noticed is that premarital sex and homosexuality are the most popular sins. I would think that divorce and abortion would be up there in the rankings, as well.

Something strange has happened in our society such that more and more people want to be led by their feelings, rather than be bounded by rules or standards. When people get caught breaking moral rules, rather than be accountable, they attack the person judging them. They would rather escape the judgment of their peers than admit fault and try to fix the mistake, and do better next time.

It’s so bad now, that the people who have morals and who make moral judgments are seen as the real bad people. The immoral people are on the offense, and even trying to ban people from being able to disagree with them. We’re seeing that with people who are being attacked for defending natural marriage against divorce and redefinition of marriage. In France, they want to make speech critical of abortion a criminal offense. And in Canada, they’ve now made speech critical of the gay agenda a criminal offense. (It’s already a human rights tribunal offense)

What is even more interesting is when the people who push the “don’t judge me” line try to justify it from the Bible. Very strange, but we seem to have forgotten the value of setting moral boundaries. Now moral boundaries are “evil”. Instead, having compassion for people who break the moral boundaries and harm themselves and others is “good”.

Robert Gagnon debates gay activist Jayne Ozanne on Bible vs homosexuality

Gay activist vandalizes pro-marriage sign
Gay activist vandalizes pro-marriage sign

I am tempted to say that this is the best podcast I have ever heard on the Unbelievable show. Do anything you have to do in order to listen to this podcast.

Details:

Prof Robert Gagnon has become a well-known voice advocating the traditional biblical view on sexuality. In a highly charged show he debates the scriptural issues on sexuality with Jayne Ozanne, the director of Accepting Evangelicals who came out as gay earlier this year.

The MP3 file is here.

If you can only listen for 15 minutes, then start at 49 minutes in and listen from there.

The following summary is rated MUP for made-up paraphrase. Reader discretion is advised.

Summary:
Intro:

  • Speaker introductions
  • Gagnon: scholars who support gay marriage agree that the Bible doesn’t support it
  • Gagnon: scholars who support gay marriage agree Jesus taught male-female marriage
  • Ozanne: I went to the hospital because I was sick from trying to suppress my gay desires
  • Ozanne: Doctors told me that I would die if I didn’t act on my gay desires
  • Ozanne: I decided to reinterpret the Bible to fit with my gay desires
  • Ozanne: According to my new interpretation, Jesus actually supports my gay desires

Segment 1: Genesis

  • Ozanne: In Genesis the Bible says that Adam needs a woman to complete him
  • Ozanne: I reinterpret this to mean that Adam needed a “complementarian human being”
  • Ozanne: Genesis doesn’t say whether Eve was complemented by Adam in that chapter
  • Ozanne: It’s not critical that men are complemented by women, a man could complement a man
  • Ozanne: Genesis 2 doesn’t talk about children, it’s all about adult needs from a relationship
  • Gagnon: Genesis 2 has never been interpreted that way in all of history
  • Gagnon: Genesis 2 language specifically implies a human being who is opposite/different
  • Gagnon: Genesis 2 language translates to complement or counterpart
  • Gagnon: Genesis as a whole teaches that the sexuality is for male and female natures
  • Gagnon: The extraction of something from the man that is given to the woman is complementarian
  • Ozanne: I think that people can be complementary outside of male-female Genesis language
  • Ozanne: I don’t want to discuss specific words and texts and Greek meanings
  • Gagnon: the text has always been read and interpreted to support male/female complementarity
  • Gagnon: the male-female nature argument is made because the two natures are complementary
  • Ozanne: the text was interpreted by patriarchal males who treated women like property, it’s biased
  • Ozanne: what is important to me is how Christ interprets Genesis (?? how does she know that?)
  • Ozanne: I am passionate about my interpretation of Scripture which supports my gay desires
  • Gagnon: just because a person is passionate about their interpretation it doesn’t make it right
  • Gagnon: I am not arguing for the male-female view based on passion, but on scholarship, evidence and history
  • Ozanne: both sides are equally passionate about their interpretations (?? so both are equally warranted?)
  • Ozanne: the real question is why God “allowed” two different interpretations of Scripture

Segment 2: Is homosexuality a sin?

  • Gagnon: Jesus affirmed traditional sexual morality, which forbids homosexuality
  • Gagnon: Jesus teaches that marriage is male-female, and limited to two people
  • Gagnon: No one in history has interpreted the Bible to say that homosexuality was not immoral
  • Ozanne: Jesus came to bring life, and that means he supports homosexuality
  • Ozanne: I was dying, and embracing my gay desires allowed me to live, so Jesus approves of me
  • Ozanne: God says “I am who I am” and that means he approves of me doing whatever I want
  • Ozanne: There is an imperative to be who I am, and that means embracing my gay desires
  • Gagnon: Jesus argued that the twoness of the sexual bond is based on the twoness of the sexes
  • Gagnon: Jesus did not come to gratify people’s innate desires, he called people to repent of sin
  • Gagnon: Jesus did reach out to sinners but he never condoned the sins they committed
  • Gagnon: Jesus’ outreach to tax collectors collecting too much and sexual sinners is the same: STOP SINNING
  • Ozanne: I don’t think that Romans 1 is talking about homosexuality
  • Ozanne: I think it’s talking about sexual addiction, not loving, committed gay relationships
  • Ozanne: Paul was condemning pederasty in Romans 1, not loving, long-term, consensual sexual relationships between gay adults
  • Gagnon: nothing in the passage limits the condemnation to pederasty
  • Gagnon: the passage was never interpreted to be limited to pederasty in history
  • Gagnon: rabbis and church fathers knew about committed two-adult same-sex relationships, and said they were wrong
  • Gagnon: the argument for marriage is based on the broad two-nature argument, with no exceptions
  • Gagnon: the condemnation is not limited to exploitative / coercive / lustful / uncommitted relationships
  • Gagnon: even pro-gay scholars agree the passage cannot be interpreted Ozanne’s way (he names two)

Segment 3: The showdown (49:00)

  • Ozanne: I don’t care how many pages people have written on this
  • Ozanne: God says that “the wisdom of the wise I will frustrate” so you can’t use scholars, even pro-gay scholars, to argue against my passionate interpretation
  • Ozanne: I am not interested in the text or history or scholarship or even pro-gay scholars who agree with you
  • Ozanne: what decides the issue for me is my mystical feelings about God’s love which makes my sexual desires moral
  • Ozanne: you are certain that this is wrong, but your view does not “give life” to people
  • Ozanne: your scholarship and historical analysis is “a message of death” that causes teenagers to commit suicide (= you are evil and a meany, Robert)
  • Ozanne: “I pray for you and your soul” (= opposing me will land you in Hell) and “I hope that listeners will listen with their hearts” (?? instead of their minds?)
  • Ozanne: you can prove anything you want with research, even two mutually exclusive conclusions, so you shouldn’t rely on scholarship and research since it could be used to prove my view as well
  • Ozanne: instead of relying on research, you should rely on your heart and your feelings about God’s love to decide what the Bible teaches about sexual morality
  • Gagnon: you are distorting the gospel in order to make your case
  • Gagnon: attacking my “certainty” is an ad hominem attack to cover your dismissmal of the scholarship and history
  • Gagnon: you distort the gospel to make it seem like Christ just wants us to get what we want, when we want it, with who we want it with
  • Gagnon: Christ calls us to take up our cross, to lose our lives and to deny ourselves
  • Gagnon: you have a notion of what “fullness of life” is, but it’s not reflective of the gospel
  • Gagnon: Paul’s life was much more troubling than yours, mine or anyone else around here
  • Gagnon: Paul was beaten, whipped, stoned, poorly sheltered, poorly clothed, poorly fed, shipwrecked, and anxious for his churches
  • Gagnon: on your view, he should have been miserable and angry with God all the time
  • Gagnon: but instead Paul was constantly thankful and rejoicing to be able to suffer with Jesus and look forward to the resurrection
  • Gagnon: I have suffered too, but the suffering we go through never provides us with a license to violate the commandments of God
  • Ozanne: “the ultimate thing is what people feel God has called them to”
  • Ozanne: My goal right now is to tell young people that homosexuality is fine so they don’t commit suicide
  • Ozanne: the view that homosexuality is wrong is “evil and misguided”
  • Gagnon: the greater rates of harm in the gay community are intrinsic to homosexual unions, not caused by external disapproval of homosexuality

Segment 4: Concluding statements

  • Gagnon: gay male relationships on average have more sex partners and more STDs
  • Gagnon: female relationships on average have shorter-length relationships and more mental issues
  • Gagnon: the greater rates of harm are because there is no complementarity / balance in the relationships
  • Gagnon: everyone has some disappointment or suffering in their lives that hurts them, and that they are tempted to break the rules to fix, but we should not break the rules in order to be happy
  • Ozanne: both sides are passionate, so no one can be right, and evidence proves nothing
  • Ozanne: only feelings about “what God is doing” can allow us to decide what counts as sin or not
  • Ozanne: the main thing that is at stake here is to make people like us, not to decide what the Bible says about sin
  • Ozanne: my message to people is to do whatever you want, and ignore mean people who don’t affirm you
  • Ozanne: we should be more opposed to mean people who make non-Christians feel unloved than about doing what the Bible says