This week I saw two articles (1, 2) by Norm Geisler (a Christian Ethicist) explaining why he is going to vote for Trump. And that reminded me that my own ethics professor, Mark Liederbach, contributed to an article explaining why he cannot vote for either Trump or Hillary. The thing that struck me the most is that having studied a little bit about the ethical systems these two men espouse, I should have been able to predict exactly how they were going to vote way back in 2005 when I first learned about their systems. In fact, this whole exercise suggests to me that the decisions we make in any given circumstance are not decided by the circumstance itself, but by the ethical systems we are already committed to when we face the circumstance.
So, the purpose of this post is to try to review the four major ethical systems (as I remember them from a class I took 11 years ago) and apply them to the current election. If I am messing this up, or misremembering portions, I hope someone will correct me.
Ethical Systems and Moral Dilemmas
First, when I am talking about ethical systems, I am really only thinking about a small part of a bigger ethical framework. The topic I am concerned with here is how to resolve moral dilemmas. That is how do I choose between two options when both options seem bad. In this election the moral dilemma is, how can I vote for Trump or Hillary when neither candidate is what I would consider a good candidate.
There are basically four options (or at least I only remember 4): Moral Relativism, Graded Absolutism, Conflicting Absolutism, and Non-Conflicting Absolutism. Let’s go through them one at a time.
Moral relativism should maintain that moral dilemmas are only an illusion. For a moral relativist decisions can’t be good or bad in a vacuum, they are only good or bad in relation to the other options. There are different versions of moral relativists, but the most common (again if my memory serves) is consequentialists. They would argue that a decision can only be judged as good or bad based on the consequences it brings, and then only in comparison to the consequences of the other options.
For instance, killing someone may or may not be a bad thing for a moral relativist. If we can show that not killing the person would have led to worse results the the killing was actually a good thing.
Moral relativism is often criticized by on two fronts. First, especially in the case of consequentialism, our ability to discern between good and bad in any given situation is dependent on our ability to predict the outcome of our decision. The problem, obviously, is that none of us can predict the future, so the best we can ever do is guess whether our decision is morally good or bad.
The second major criticism is particularly relevant for Christians. Moral relativism suggests that things that God calls evil may be good in certain contexts. While God condemns murder, divorce, pride, and greed, the moral relativist can only suggest that those things may be wrong in certain contexts. This sort of moral ambiguity seems incompatible with the moral certainty which accompanies the decrees of God.
Concerning the election, it is impossible to predict how a moral relativist will vote because it is impossible to predict how they might imagine the future. However, a good example of a consequentialist argument often favors Hillary Clinton. The argument goes something like, “Donald Trump is often reactionary and vindictive. If we elect him as president a possible consequence is that his rash nature could lead to a nuclear war. Therefore, because the potential consequences of electing Trump are so extreme, we are morally obligated to elect the safer candidate: Hillary Clinton.”
Graded absolutism is the position that Norm Geisler holds. Graded absolutism has some similarities to relativism, but it probably more helpful to start with their differences, and the biggest difference is in the word “absolutism.”
Graded absolutists, unlike relativists, do believe that there are some moral absolutes out there. Perhaps it is more accurate to say there is a single moral absolute, that is it is always right to do what God calls is right and it is always wrong to do what God calls wrong.
The problem comes when we face a moral dilemma, or we are forced us to choose between two things God calls wrong. The graded absolutist would argue that while its true that God calls thing right and wrong, it is not true that things are equally right and wrong. For instance, it is wrong to lie and it is wrong to murder, but the graded absolutist would argue that God doesn’t think of these two as equally wrong. So when faced with a moral dilemma our task is to choose the “lesser of two evils.”
Graded absolutists would argue that this is what Rahab did for the two spies. She was faced with the dilemma of reporting the two spies, which would have led to their execution, or lying to the soldiers. Rahab chose to lie and the graded absolutist would argue that she did a good thing because, though lying is wrong, its not as wrong as being party to the execution of the two spies.
Most christians, I suspect, are graded absolutists. But it is probably worth pointing out that the theory has some flaws. The most prominent flaw is that there is no objective standard that we have to discern God’s graded scale of right and wrong. God tells us that murder is a sin and that lying is a sin, but there is nowhere that the Bible tells us that murder is a more grievous sin than lying. We may assume that to be true, but we have little objective proof that our assumptions of God’s scale are reliable.
If you are a graded absolutist, your arguments regarding the election are likely to sound somewhat similar the relativist, but there may be a slight difference. Where the relativist is likely to argue from possible consequences of the election, the graded absolutist is more likely to point to perceived objective differences in the positions of the candidate. For instance, a graded absolutist is likely to say something like, “Because Donald Trump uses filthy language and appears to brag about assaulting women, he is morally wrong. Because Hillary Clinton advocates for the expansion of the genocide of roughly 1 million babies per year she is morally wrong. And because genocide is a greater offense than filthy language and sexual assault, voting for Donald Trump is the morally good thing to do.”
I don’t know if there are any living conflicting absolutists, but I believe I remember Dr. Liederbach saying that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a historical example. The conflicting absolutist rejects the idea that it may ever be morally good to choose the lesser of two evils. If we are faced with a dilemma where we are presented with only two evil choices, and we choose the lesser of two evils, we have still chosen evil and we are still morally implicated for our decision.
In Bonhoeffer’s case, he recognized that he had an opportunity to contribute in an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler. He believed on one hand that it was morally wrong to murder, but on the other hand it was morally wrong to stand idly by while Hitler massacred 6 million Jews. In the end Bonhoeffer chose the lesser of two evils and joined in an assignation attempt against Hitler. However, simply because he chose the lesser of two evils, he did not believe he chose something good. Instead, he believed his actions made him subject to God’s judgment, so he confessed his sin of attempted murder and begged for God’s forgiveness.
The argument against the conflicting absolutist position is that it assumes that we may be faced with decisions in which we have no choice but to sin. However, this is problematic for the Christian particularly because Jesus was tempted in every way as we were, yet was without sin. Thus, it seems, we must assume that it is possible to find a way out of apparent moral dilemmas without actually sinning.
If you are a non-conflicting absolutist, I assume that you will be persuaded by the same sorts of arguments as the graded absolutist. The difference won’t be in the decision you make, but in the spirit in which you make the decision. The graded absolutist will vote for their candidate believing they did something morally good. The non-conflicting absolutist will attempt to do their best to limit evil, but will do so brokenheartedly recognizing that their best efforts not only implicate the society that gave us these two options, but us as members and participants in that society.
Dr. Liederbach was a non-conflicting absolutist (NCA). NCAs believe, like relativists and graded absolutists, that there aren’t any actual moral dilemmas, only apparent ones. Yet, like conflicting absolutists, NCAs agree that the decrees of God are absolute and we incur guilt if we break them regardless of the circumstances. Thus when faced with a choice of the lesser of two evils, the NCA says we must look for a third way out in which we are able to avoid any evil and side with good.
Perhaps the most common critique against this position is that it is naive. Sometimes there is no good option, and certainly no perfect option. We are fallen people living in a fallen society, and real life means that sometime we must try to make lemonade out of lemons.
The NCA is the person who will say “Never Trump” and “Never Hillary.” Both are flawed candidates and therefore to stand behind either of them or to support either of them would cause us to share in their guilt. The NCA is most likely to either refuse to vote in this election, vote third party, or write in a candidate that they believe to be a good option.
The critique against these options, not voting or writing in a candidate, is that it is unclear that either actually achieves the moral good they are seeking. Is a person absolved from moral guilt if they don’t try to stop the greater evil simply because they didn’t want to incur the lesser evil? Bonhoeffer didn’t think so. Further, especially with regard to elections, is there ever a candidate who is morally good enough? Shouldn’t we all be writing in Mother Teresa or our Sunday School teachers?
My conclusion is that I don’t have a conclusion. I think each system has its strengths and weaknesses. I also think the clash between the systems can open our eyes to view the moral landscape of our decisions from a larger perspective. Still I think it is a fun exercise and hopefully helps us all to understand both how we do and how we should process our moral decision making.
Also, it is been a while since my ethics class so feel free to correct any mistakes.