Yesterday’s post “Is an action moral only when the motive is pure?” opened the door to discuss whether or not there is a hierarchy of morals. In the comments some began to address the following scenario (surely, one you’ve heard already):
If you lived in Nazi Germany during WWII and you had some Jews hiding in your home you would be obligated to tell the truth to some soldiers who came to your door asking if there were Jews in your home?
This question causes us to think about our views of morals. Some Christians struggle with this because it is assumed all morality comes from God. If we lie we are immoral, but it seems worse to expose someone who know will be killed unjustly. For some this will not be a problem, but can you explain why?
If you lie this is your action. If the Nazi soldiers kill the Jews it is their action. Are you vindicated or did you participate indirectly?
This is another serious matter to consider. If we say indirect participation in the immoral acts of others is still an immoral act on our part how far can we take this? If Apple or Nike abuse human rights in their factories in China and I purchase their products (this sustaining the company) do I indirectly participate in their immoral actions?
If you lie because you affirm a hierarchy of morality how did you determine that hierarchy? What makes one immoral action worse than another? If there is a hierarchy do we describe it by means of “the lesser evil” admitting we did “evil” (e.g. lying) or “the greater good” meaning that the act of exposing someone to their unjust fate causes the lie to become “good” because we did the greater action of saving a life?
So let’s address these questions:
(1) Do you affirm a hierarchy of morals or do you find all morals to have equal weight?
(2) Based on your answer how you would respond to the above hypothetical situation?
(3) If you affirm a hierarchy how to you determine what is the “lesser evil”?
A corresponding biblical example is Rahab hiding the Israelite spies, and lying about their whereabouts.
@Brian: Agreed, that example would fit as well. So did Rahab do something immoral?
Tough question. I had an OT professor who essentially said, like in the case of Rahab, that at least one part of a hierarchy was “preservation of life wins.” So in this case, Rahab did the right thing. Gotta think about this more, though.
Do morals have an equal weight? If I lie in the situation you have suggested then although I am acting immorally I am preventing someone else becoming a murderer and I also save a life. That seems an acceptable outcome. On the other hand I am behaving immorally and not allowing God to work the situation out so it becomes an issue of faith. It’s a tough one. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this true story whilst pondering your question:
In ‘The Hiding Place’ by Corrie ten Boom the scenario of having to lie to the Nazis about Jews hiding in their home was a real possibility. Corrie’s sister Nollie refused to lie. Asked by the Nazis if one of the women in her home was a Jew she said ‘Yes’. Both women were arrested. Nollie passed this message on to Corrie: ‘No harm will happen to Annaliese. …. [God] will not let her suffer because I obeyed Him.’ She was right. A few days later Annaliese escaped and eventually Nollie herself was released. She was released because a sympathetic doctor lied about her medical condition. Later Corrie herself lied to protect the Jews she was hiding.
I always wondered what I would do in such a situation and I suspect that I would lie because I lack the faith and courage to trust God completely with my life and the lives of others.
Indeed, if we base our moral reasoning on the consequence then it seems like morality is defined only by what we think will happen. This can get messy. On the other hand, if we say acts of faith are those like Corrie ten Boom than (1) what happens if God allows her to die and (2) what do we make of the aforementioned Rahab?
As Christians, I don’t really think Rahab is an example for us in actions. She wasn’t even an Israelite and therefore their moral code/laws did not bind her. I’m sure the spies didn’t care how she saved them, just that she did. She was later singled out for rescue, because she had placed herself and her family in danger for their protection. God Himself had proclaimed that those who blessed Israel would be blessed and those that cursed Israel would be cursed. She received the reward for the favor she showed the spies, her moral code of conduct was immaterial.
As Christians, I feel our moral code should come from God and it is our responsibility to get familiar enough with the word of God to hear his voice when He speaks and then follow His direction. This can be a moral dilemma in itself if you don’t believe God wants to speak, and actually will speak to you.
If God allows someone to die as a result of a moral decision – an act of faith – then that is his affair not that of the person who, in this example, refused to lie. Like I say, the reality is that we usually feel we have to play God and change the rules to suit our own view of what should happen. When we decide to abandon the moral code that we live by as Christians it is saying that we have a better understanding of how life should work out than God. Amazingly arrogant attitude really.
Rahab – she didn’t have the moral code to live by that we would recognise. She realised that the God of the Israelites was more powerful than any god she’d known before and so, sensibly, she aligned herself with Him. I don’t think morality came into it with her – more of clear headed decision to be on the winning side.
I think of Bonhoeffer here (as I do in a lot of situations.) He was conflicted as to whether God would ask him to not only do violence to another human being, but actively work against the government, both of which seem to be spoken against in the NT (Romans 12 & 13). In the end, he came to a kind of peace about it because he decided that obeying what he felt was the “will of God” for his life was more important than following a list of rules.
I guess my response would be that for those within whom the Spirit lives, He will lead them in every circumstance. And yes, that would mean that in situations like this the Spirit would show us what is most important-thus creating a kind of hierarchy of morals. Whether I would have had the courage to lie to the Nazis is one thing, but I would have known that it was the right thing to do.
Since moral apologetics is one of my areas of interest, I would also add that most people in most belief systems, given the example of lying to the Nazis to save the Jews, instinctively know “in their bones” that the preservation of life is the higher value in this situation.
I would add, though that I don’t think the preservation of life would be the highest value in all situations. I hope that I would have to courage to die for my faith because, in the end, following Jesus is the highest morality.
@Leslie. To die for your faith is one thing but to cause someone else to die for it ? I think that is what I would struggle with the most.
Yet Rahab is given to us as an example (e.g. Hebrews 11.31). Rahab’s actions were considered acts of faith. Does immoral behavior count as an act of faith? Is it simply because she recognized the correct god?
Same questions as Nancy above.
I agree that most people have an intuition that saving a life matters more than telling the truth to someone seeking to do evil. Even if lying were immoral I know I would lie because I can live with myself after telling a lie; I couldn’t live with myself if I knew I exposed innocent people to their unjust deaths.
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