Saturday, December 29, 2018

Morality is Hierarchical, Not Absolute (Which Isn’t As Liberal As It Sounds)

One of the most useful ways I have heard moral dilemmas framed was that morality is hierarchical, not absolute.

I got this from an old church community group leader who studied both philosophy and theology and had a lot of very well-reasoned things to say. This was no exception.

Now, this is not to deny that morality is objective. This is not to deny that there is a lawgiver (being God). This doesn't mean that morality is dependent on culture or that there is no actual right and wrong. It just means that sometimes, moral principles will conflict so that you can't follow both of them fully and properly. In these cases, you have to choose to give priority to one over the other, and in doing so, you have not sinned.

Any time that you are in any moral dilemma, this idea of hierarchical morality comes into play, whether you think of it in those terms or not. After all, the whole reason we call it a dilemma is because different moral principles conflict and cannot both be followed.

Biblical Examples

The Bible has many examples, although of the two most interesting to me, one is actually pretty mundane (on the surface, that is). Consider the following two examples:

- The Israelites were tricked into making a treaty with a nation that God had told them to destroy. We see this in Joshua 9 with the Gibeonites. The Israelites were in a moral dilemma. They were commanded not to form a treaty with the Gibeonites, but having been tricked, they certified their treaty with an oath in the name of the Lord. They could not keep their oath without breaking the Lord's command to drive out all the Canaanite nations in the land, or vice versa. Ultimately, they chose to honor their vow (thereby obeying the commandment to keep their vows) at the expense of following the commandment to drive out the Gibeonites.

- In Matthew 12:1-13, Jesus's disciples were accused of sinning because they were picking and eating grain in a field while they walked with Him on the Sabbath. Under the Mosaic Law in the Bible, working on the Sabbath was forbidden.

It was by no means the only time Pharisees got upset about Jesus or His disciples doing things on the Sabbath, and Jesus defended their actions in different ways. For example, in another instance He pointed out that doing certain things are not a sin and, as part of His argument, appealed to the fact that no one bats an eyelash at someone untying a farm animal and leading it to water on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). But here, Jesus goes a different route: He points to the hierarchical nature of morality.

In this case, Jesus brings up two instances where people were justified despite breaking the written commandment of God. The commands do not have exceptions written in, like modern legal statutes would today. The fact that Jesus would do this should therefore give us pause as believers. If we took an absolute approach to God's commands in scripture, we would have quite a problem. However, when we think of morality as being hierarchical, it isn't a big deal. All moral laws come from God, whether written or not. The written scripture of the Bible is uniquely authoritative because it is more defined and clearer (being written down in words), but all morality is from God just the same. If other moral laws are hierarchical and can at least potentially have exceptions, why would this not be the case just because a moral law is written down?

When His disciples were accused of sin by the Pharisees, the Lord reminded them of when, in the Old Testament, David and his men were in the midst of war and were given consecrated bread from the temple to eat. Although Jesus does not say so explicitly, the fact that He appealed to that instance to defend His disciples implies that they did not sin, even though it was against the Old Testament Law for anyone but priests to eat that bread (Matthew 12:3-4).

Jesus then follows up with how those working in the temple on the Sabbath, in His own words, desecrate that holy day. God commanded that no one should work on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3). But Jesus says, explicitly in this case, that they are innocent (Verse 5). They had two conflicting moral principles: follow God's command to not work on the Sabbath or fulfill the command that there be specific temple observances on the day of the Sabbath (e.g Numbers 28:9-10). An absolutist would have no choice but to say that God's law contradicts itself since both laws must always be followed no matter what (which is literally impossible to do). But just as the Jews before Jesus had no qualms about Levites working in God's sanctuary on Saturdays for over 1,000 years before Jesus came, here Jesus simply declares the innocence of those who rightly put one moral principle over another.

Other Examples

There are examples we can easily think of outside the Bible as well. Most serious Christians think sex outside of marriage is a sin, and most professing Christians (and many non-Christians) think adultery is wrong. However, most of us would say that if a married woman is threatened with a gun or a knife by a rapist and submits, she is not guilty of the sin of adultery. An absolutist would be in quite a pickle because such a woman technically had a choice. She wasn't physically bound. She could have chosen to resist and face almost certain death, rather than having sex with the rapist. She technically chose to have sex with a man other than her husband over getting killed. 

Nevertheless, no reasonable person would ever say the woman was guilty of any sin. It wouldn't even be a difficult moral determination. It is only a moral dilemma in the strictest, most literal sense of the term. We would say, without question, that she is completely innocent. But we can only say that because morality is hierarchical, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances justified her actions.

Many real-life examples are not nearly so easy and clear-cut, but the same idea applies. Whether you are deciding whether or not to lie to protect someone, whether you're not sure if you should blow the whistle on wrongdoing at work when doing so could jeopardize your job or even the whole company, whether you're unsure of whether your nonprofit should accept that donation from a questionable source, there are many times where our duties and other moral principles conflict and the right choice will necessarily mean fulfilling some and not others.

Morality Is Still Objective and Divine

Some may confuse this with morality not being objective, as though there is no true moral law. But that is not true. There is a real, objective moral lawgiver, being God. It is just that principles are somewhat broad and we have to properly apply them to specific instances. In specific instances, if we could read God’s mind, we would know exactly what to do in that specific case. In each instance, the right thing to do is absolute. The point is that with any issue, you cannot simply consider one principle and ignore the others that are relevant. Even if the decision is easy and the right action is obvious, there probably is one principle that took a back seat to an obviously more important principle in that case.

Some might say this line of thinking is situational ethics and is therefore bad. But “situational ethics” is a bit of a nebulous term. In the broadest sense, yes, ethics are situational. But in that broad sense, we have the Bible to point to as affirming that yes, circumstances do affect what course of action is morally right and what is morally wrong. And even those who raise the specter of situational ethics will, in practice, acknowledge that an act that is wrong in one situation can be right in another. Many of them, for example, would agree that killing a human being is a terrible thing to do. In most situations, it is murder, a sin and a crime that should be severely punished. However, if that human being has a gun and is about to kill innocent hostages, killing that person is made right and justified (i.e not a sin) because of the…let’s say it together…situation.

The fact is, even those who take very absolute positions on things are ultimately working within a hierarchical moral framework anyway. Some see a command in scripture and say that therefore it is (as they interpret its meaning) always to be followed absolutely, no matter what. But they are simply putting that particular command above every other command and moral principle. And when moral dilemmas do come, they can cite the moral principle or explicit scriptural command that they followed until the cows come home as if it is the only thing that matters, but they ultimately chose that principle and the corresponding course of action over other moral principles that they surely had acknowledged at some point in the past.

For example, someone who believes a Christian must never, ever kill another human being under any other circumstances and who therefore refuses to use lethal force to stop the killing of others is putting one principle (killing is bad) over another (e.g. love your neighbor as yourself, love your wife as your own body, protect the innocent, etc.). And a believer who does intervene with lethal force is putting the latter principles over the former. Whether they consciously thought about it in the moment they made their decision is not the point. The point is that there were other principles at play whether they thought about it or not.

What about situations commonly posed by Christian apologists as absolutes, such as the common claim that it is always wrong to torture a small child just for the fun of it? Such scenarios, I believe, do illustrate that there is objective morality. In no cultural context and in no situation would it ever be morally acceptable to torture a small child for the fun of it. I don’t think any reasonable person can truly say there is no such thing as objective morality in light of that scenario. Some things just simply are wicked.

However, that scenario is not a broad principle, but rather a specific application of moral principles to a specific situation. That scenario already assumes the fact that there is no moral principle in favor of torturing a small child other than the principle that people should be allowed to have fun. And while the principle that people should be allowed to have fun is an important principle, the moral principles of “children need to be loved and nurtured” and “torturing people is bad” clearly outweigh it! It is an easy decision, obviously, But it still is hierarchical.

Application Outside of Questions of Pure Morality

In much of western civilization, but especially the United States, there is a lot of discussion about people's rights. Properly understood, all rights come from God and government can neither create rights to take them away. Government is supposed to protect the rights of its people. For this reason, especially in the United States, governing national constitutions affirm certain rights that the people have over the power of the government.

This matter is not purely a moral matter, as it pertains to human institutions trying to apply what is right and wrong, as far as they have a role in it, and not what is actually right and wrong itself. But since we do have a concept of individual rights, especially in the USA where our constitution has a whole section on them, the concept of morality being hierarchical also applies to individual rights. Rights are also hierarchical.

For example, in the United States, our constitution affirms that every person has the right to follow their conscience and practice their religious beliefs apart from any non-divine government using its coercive force to interfere. The first amendment to the constitution prohibits government from infringing on the free exercise of a persons religion, with no exceptions listed. The point is not that all religions are right or good (obviously I don't think they are), but that is to be between the individual and God.

At the same time, every person also has a right to life and to not have their life taken by another person. So with that in mind, imagine if a Islamic extremist determines that following his religion (at least as he understands it) means he must kill his daughter who abandoned Islam when she went to college. It is impossible for the government to avoid infringing on his free exercise of religion and to also protect her right to life. In this case, of course, any civilized government would not permit the man to kill his daughter because her right to life clearly and obviously outweighs his right to religious freedom. But while it was an easy decision, it still was one person's rights taking precedence over another, just as moral principles sometimes do.


Honestly, I’m not even trying to make any groundbreaking points here. I just think that when you start thinking of morality being hierarchical, it allows the moral intuitions we already have to make sense. For many, especially Christians, we think of moral laws and principles as rigid principles that can never be broken - except then we do break them and cannot explain why it was the right thing to do even though we know it was. Framing morality this way, as being hierarchical, gives us an intellectual explanation for what can seem hard to explain. And it probably will allow us to better think through moral dilemmas we might come across in our lives.

So, that's I had to say there, at least for now. Happy New Year!

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