We all want to “do the right thing.” But sometimes that is much easier said than done. What do we do when choosing one right thing also means doing one wrong thing? What do we do when moral duties truly collide? There are three answers offered, but I only think one is realistic in our day-to-day lives.
Examples of Real Moral Dilemmas
Here are some examples of moral duties coming into conflict:
Your friend is considering going to China as a missionary. Over coffee she shares the ethical dilemma this raises for her. She wants to be faithful to God’s command in Romans 13:1-7 to “submit to governing authorities.” In China the governing authority will be the Chinese government, who issues her visa and allows her to enter the country. However, their requirement is that a person who is issued a visa cannot “proselytize” (share the gospel). Yet this seems to violate God’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Certainly this command includes the people of China! She asks you what you think she should do—can she obey both commands in some creative way, or should she violate one command to fulfill the other?
You just installed a new Ring Video Doorbell, allowing you to see who is at your front door on your cell phone, no matter where you are. The bell rings when you are across town having lunch with a friend. You do not recognize the person at the door, but he looks a bit shady. Not responding will indicate you are not home (and no one else happens to be home either). You can respond and say something like “I’m upstairs and can’t come to the door right now” so that he doesn’t know the house is actually vacant. But that is a lie. Is saying this OK, or is there a way to obey both moral imperatives (telling the truth and providing for your family—in this case protecting what you have worked to provide for them)?
The classic “Nazi at the door” scenario: It is 1944, Corrie Ten Boom lives in Belgium and is hiding Jews in her attic. One day a Nazi knocks on her door and asks if there are any Jews inside. She can either preserve their lives by lying, or tell the truth and have them found. Must one command be violated for her to follow the other (should she be honest or preserve life)?
These are real situations people have found themselves in—maybe even you. If not, at some point you will encounter a situation that seems to require you break one moral imperative to fulfill the other. It is helpful to think about how you will respond before you find yourself in the situation. Three solutions are offered and must be evaluated.
Solution One: No Real Conflict
The first solution is to discount the problem by saying there is only a perceived conflict of moral imperatives, but not an actual one. This view is known as Unqualified Absolutism. Those taking this view argue that because God’s law is perfect and absolute, conflicting absolutes would be a violation of his unchanging character. Therefore, any apparent dilemma is not an actual dilemma. By not violating the imperative that we are tempted to violate (for instanced, by telling the Nazi at the door the truth), God in his sovereignty will provide a way for the other imperative to be fulfilled (he may cause the Nazi to hear “no” when Corrie Ten Boom said “yes” or to not find the Jews when searching the house).
There are several problems with this approach, it seems to me. First, nowhere does God promise to exempt us from moral dilemmas, as this reasons assumes. In fact, we see such dilemmas in Scripture.
For instance, Rahab faced much the same dilemma as Corrie Ten Boom did when she was asked by the King of Jericho if she was hiding the two spies Joshua had sent. In order to preserve their lives she lied, saying they had left (Joshua 2:5). This act is then praised by the author of Hebrews as a great example of faith (Heb. 11:31).
Another example is found in Acts 5 when Jewish leaders gave the Apostles “…strict orders not to teach in [Jesus’] name…” (5:28). But the Apostles respond with, “We must obey God rather than men.” (5:29). God has commanded them to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, even if it was in (real, true, actual) conflict with another imperative—to obey the authorities.
In addition to Scripture showing us that real moral conflicts do surface from time to time, another problem with this view is that it puts the primary focus on “negative duties” rather than “positive duties.” A negative duty is a “Do not…” (e.g. Do not lie). A positive duty is a “Do…” (e.g. Do preserve life.) Usually a negative duty must be violated to fulfill a positive duty (as is the case in all the examples above.) But why prioritize the negative duty? A good case can be made that positive duties should usually, even always be prioritized (as they often promote a greater good, such as life or security or the gospel’s spread, in the cases above).
For these two reasons this first solution doesn’t seem right to me. We must continue our search for a workable solution.
There are two other approaches offered to solve real moral dilemmas. The second is better than this first solution, but still doesn’t quite work. The third solution is the best. I’ll discuss these two other approaches next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading, see Norman Geisler, The Roots of Evil.