Thursday, September 21, 2006

How To Handle Ethics in Exceptional Cases

I've been listening to Covenant Theological Serminary's course podcast on Ethics, and I've began to take an interest in a certain area of ethics specifically dealing with how one handles conflicting values (the lecture title is Resolving Moral Conflicts, by the way). The example was brought up was whether it was appropriate to use deception (forgery) and lying in order to save Jews during the Holocaust. This, essentially, is a clash of values. In such a rare situation, our values regarding being honest seem to conflict with our values regarding preserving human life.

The professor's lecture covered a number of ways that Christians try to resolve the sort of a dilema. There are many different ways that people try to find this resolution. I want to list and review a few that come to mind (a few of these were mentioned in the lecture).

1. One way which people try to find resolution is by the "tragic" metod. They believe that sometimes we are forced to do something evil/sinful due to lack of other options. In those cases, it is supposed, we must choose the lesser evil. I believe this is not an option as it goes against the grain of the Bible's message on morality, righteousness, and temptation (see I Cor 10:13 on the presence of a way of escape). For people that hold this view, there are essentially two ways to deal with culpibility. Either the person who choses the lesser evil is excused by God because He has so to speak judged that evil on a curve or he/she is held responsible for that choice even though there was no potential "righteous" course of action. Neither of those options are very attractive Biblically or philisophically.

2. Then there is the hierarcial view, which says when faced with an ethical dillema, we must chose the highest absolute. So, the theory goes, if loving ones neighbour is a higher absolute than "Thou shalt not lie", then the higher absolute would win out. From what I understand, Norman Geisler's position can essentially be boiled down to this. The problem with this view is that it seems to lack coherence. If so-called "absolutes" are placed in a hierarchy, then only one of them is truly absolute. An absolute ceases to be an absolute when it can be superceeded by any thing or condition.

These two views are views that some Christians take, although they seem to be lacking/wrong to some extent. They are not quite as bad as "the end justifies the means", but they do have the tendency to lead to a shakey ground for ethics. The lecturer makes a good point in saying that we shouldn't let exceptional cases undermine the bulk of our ethical process, but I do believe we do need to be able to resolve this dilemma of the exceptional cases somehow. What do we do when two absolute values seem to conflict? Is it even possible that we could be stuck between two ethical values? Or is this conflict just a cop-out that people use when faced with having to do with something distasteful?

Would you lie to save a life or stop an atrocity? How can that be reconcilled with obeying God's commandment? Or what about if we have made a vow to do something that is wrong. What do we do, break a vow or do some other wrong connected to fulfilling the vow? I guess this deals with whether we can add additional clauses to the law in emergency situations (ie. add the clause to "You shall not lie" which would allow for lieing in order to protect humans from murders, etc.). Can the law be superceeded in certain exceptional cases if our motivations are rightly focused on justice, mercy, and faithfulness? Perhaps an implicit part of the "absolute" of "You shall not lie" is that there may be some very exceptional cases of distress in which the law does not simply apply. God's intent of "You shall not lie" was that we be faithful in our speech, but what right does a murder have to expect faithfulness of speech when he will use true information to kill? If one can justify killing in self-defence, how can we not justify lying in order to protect a person from a murderer? These are some thoughts that were presented in the lecture. He also presented some Biblical precidents which demonstrate lying, or at least concealment of the truth in exceptional cases where there is a murdererous intent involved (God instructs Samuel to conceal information from a murderous Saul through a cover story in I Samuel, Rahab the Harlot, the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, etc.) The lecturer did mention that Augustine and John Murray (and probably other theologians) exclude the possibility of lying even in exceptional cases.

If we are to exclude exceptional cases, then which ones merit exclusion? And on what basis? That is another complication! Then there is also the matter of what other implications are tied to the lie. What if the lie involves the denial of our Jesus Christ and our relationship with him? The lecturer suggests in that case it could never be justified, as it would involve a denial of the faith.

I think I may have bit off more than I can chew in terms of coming up with a coherent and durable explanation to this.. but I'm trying to do some fresh unhindered unassuming thinking about this. I'm finding it very complicated to have any sort of flexible explanation of how to deal with exceptional cases in ethics. Are there valid exceptional cases that may evade the written form of the law, or is this just a slippery rope that leads to highly situationalised and flismy ethics?

The professor suggests that John Frame's Christian epistimology called "triperspectivalism" can be applied here. It seems pretty good, though probably doesn't resolve everything. It splits up the resolution of moral conflicts into several perspectives that each must be weighed. They are:

1. Existential perspective. Are we sincerely searching for the will of God? Make sure our hearts are right.
2. Normative perspective. The whole teaching of scripture that we bring to bear on the subject, not isolated texts. What is God's purpose, hermenutical process, etc.
3. Situational perspective. All the relevant facts to properly characterise the case. This removes many perplexities that show up in 'moral conflicts', because a great many of them are just due to misunderstandings of the situation.

Hmmm.. I need to think about this some more. But I'm very interested in this. Many other parts of the Ethics lecture seemed sort of dull to me, but this really got me thinking! Does anyone have any thoughts to share? Could you shed some light on this topic?

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Blogger Luke said...

I would say, I stand on the position of Augustine and John Murray (and probably other theologians). We are to obey the commandments of God regardless of situation, and then rest in the sovereignty of God, knowing that all things will ultimately work to His perfect Glory.

I cannot think of scripture where God ever calls the Christian to stop others from doing evil. We are called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then let the saving work rest in Christ's hands. The Sword of the Word (Truth) is our only offensive weapon.

Rather than stiving to protect the unsaved from death, let us strive to prepare the unsaved FOR death.

For to live is Christ and to die is Gain!

10:10 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Disclaimer: I'm brainstorming more than anything here and looking for clarity.


Thanks for the comments!

To some degree, I think my instinctive answer would be quite similar to what you have shared. It does raise some interesting questions and that is what I'm thinking about right now.

Would providing information that you know is highly likely to lead to the slaughter of your neighbour be classified as a breach of your duty to love and generally care for your neighbour and/or brother, particularly if a non-answer would be equivalent to answering the question?

What is your take on God's instruction to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16 and God's approval of the midwives in Exodus 1? I'm not sure they are outright lies, but at the very least they are rather misleading. And in the first case God actually commands the concealment. Would God's sovereignty plan ever include deception in certain cases? (maybe in Rahab's case?)

I don't know.. These are tough questions. I don't have any hard and fast answers here.. When it comes to my own detriment, there is no question in my mind that there could be no justification for breaking the law (ie. you shall not lie), however what about when it would be lethally detrimental to my neighbour? What is involved with loving my neighbour? What is my responsibility when I know my neighbour will be in imminent danger (through no fault of their own) and I could potentially stop it? Is it possible that in certain situations, the law may need further situational clarifications in rare occasions so that it accounts for particular exceptional cases where it may not fit with caring for general well being of a neighbour?

Either way, I think both "betraying a neighbour to a murderer in order to not lie" and "lying in order to save a neighbour" seem both troubling ethically speaking.

Granted, what I'm speaking of are extreme exceptional cases, nothing normative. But they do test our ethical resolve!!!

Thanks again for the comment and feel free to respond further to show how you deal with some of the things I've brought up in this comment.

11:52 AM  

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