Archive for January, 2012

Moral Dilemmas

January 24, 2012

Making moral decisions is not always easy.  I believe that life does, at times, present us with what I call “moral dilemmas.”  Sometimes we are forced to choose between two conflicting moral principles, or between two conflicting applications of the same moral principle

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a famous essay entitled, “What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?” gives an example of a girl whose teacher asks in front of the class whether her father is a drunkard.  The child answers, no.  Is this really a lie?  “Of course,” Bonhoeffer argues, “one could call the child’s answer a lie; all the same, this lie contains more truth – i.e., it corresponds more closely to the truth – than if the child had revealed the father’s weakness before the class.”  The child is torn between two moral principles – telling the truth and honoring her father. Either way she cannot escape doing something wrong.  So she chooses what is the lesser of the two evils and tells a “lie.”  For Bonhoeffer, this is not in any way meant to undermine the importance of telling the truth (in most cases).  It is just that sometimes circumstances are such that one is “forced” to tell a lie.

I believe Bonhoeffer has here uncovered an important moral category that Christians all too often simply try to ignore or explain away.  We need to face up to the fact that moral dilemmas do occur in life.  Sometimes it may just be right to steal in order to save a starving family.  Sometimes one has to choose between saving the life of one person at the expense of another person, e.g. abortion may be justified in the highly unusual case where the life of the mother can only be saved by taking the life of the fetus.  I believe there is a need for Christian moral philosophers to address moral dilemmas as unique moral category and work through the ethical implications that follow.

A key question here is whether acknowledging such moral dilemmas undermines the notion of universal or absolute moral principles.  It is true that moral dilemmas force the ethical absolutist to acknowledge that sometimes it is right to do what is normally wrong.  I have already suggested that with moral dilemmas we must choose the lesser of two evils.  But it is important to keep in mind that the lesser evil is still an evil.  It is just that in a situation where we are facing a moral dilemma we cannot avoid doing something evil.  And a morally sensitive person will feel badly about doing this evil, will correct the wrong later, if possible, and will bring the guilt that ensues to God who is finally greater than our conscience (I John 3:19-20).

We must also be very careful not to extend the category of “moral dilemmas” beyond what are genuine moral dilemmas.  If telling the truth causes me some embarrassment, this is not a moral dilemma.  There is no commandment that says, “You shall never be embarrassed.”  To tell a “white lie” in order to save me from embarrassment is to be immoral, pure and simple. Moral dilemmas really are few and far between.  The vast majority of decisions that we face are very straightforward.  We ought to tell the truth.  We ought not to steal.  We ought not to murder.  But, sometimes, we need to make exceptions to these general principles.

The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides us with a case study of someone who wrestled seriously with the question as to whether it might ever be right to kill someone.  Bonhoeffer was a member of the resistance against Hitler and participated in several plots to kill him. Given the horrible atrocities of Hitler, Bonhoeffer felt that the lesser evil was to kill Hitler.  Was he right?  I don’t think the question can be easily answered. For a riveting account of this moral dilemma, I would recommend Eric Metaxas” recent biography, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).  Bonhoeffer’s struggle with this moral dilemma raises for me some important questions with regard to the pacifist opposition to all war. Could war itself be justified in terms of a moral dilemma?

Acknowledging the existence of moral dilemmas also has some important implications for moral education.  There was a time when moral dilemmas were extensively used in values education in our schools.  “Values clarification ” it was called.  The problem here is that moral dilemmas are far too complex for children.  Good pedagogy demands that we start with what is simple and gradually move on to the more complex. I would suggest that the complexity of moral dilemmas makes them much more appropriate for university level ethics courses.  It is confusing and even cruel to ask children to struggle with such complex problems.

Preoccupation with moral dilemmas is also dangerous in that it gives the misleading impression that all moral choices are difficult.  In fact, in the vast majority of cases our moral obligations are obvious and clear cut.  Most often an understanding of what we ought to do does not require a long process of deliberation.  Of course, we my still find it difficult to do the right thing, but that is another problem.

The extensive use of moral dilemmas in moral education might also give the impression that moral values are relative.  As I have already argued, this does not at all follow.  Moral dilemmas are the exception rather than the rule.

We need, finally, to question the rationale behind the extensive use of moral dilemmas in moral education.  The hope is that moral dilemma exercises will stimulate students to think for themselves and to choose values not simply on the basis of tradition or authority, but on the basis of personal reflection.  The ultimate goal is moral autonomy.  The Christian, however, rejects the ideal of complete autonomy.  Even as adults we are called to bow before the authority of God and his Word.  The fear of the Lord is also the beginning of moral knowledge.

One final point.  The existence of moral dilemmas shows that ethics cannot be exhaustively defined by rules and commandments.  That is why there has been a paradigm shift to virtue ethics in the philosophical study of ethics in the last few decades.  People of good character will make wise decisions when it comes to moral dilemmas.

(This blog is adapted from an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, June 4, 1982, and is here extensively revised.)