Contemporary Social Ethics: Notes and Overheads

The following are notes and overhead transparencies developed by Randy Alcorn and used in his Contemporary Social Ethics class:

Ethical Philosophies and Systems

“Right and Wrong are determined by . . .”

—there is no right and wrong.

Whatever is—if something is, if it becomes possible, it is right. (Descriptive Ethics rather than Prescriptive; Sociology equals morality.)

Power—might is right.

Majority—as beliefs of the majority change, right and wrong changes.

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number—what most benefits the majority.

Current Community Mores—varies with place and time.

Beliefs and Preferences of the Individual—varies person to person. “What’s wrong for me may be right for you.”

Pragmatics—whatever is to the practical and financial advantage of the individual or community is right.

Utilitarianism—whatever brings about the desirable result is good.

The Moderate Course of Action—compromise of the extreme positions is the right position.

Pleasure and Pain—what brings pleasure is good, what brings pain is bad.

Inherent virtue—actions are right and wrong in and of themselves, without regard to consequences.

(But how can we determine the virtue of any attitude or action without an authoritative and objective standard of measurement?)

Christian Foundations for Ethics

God’s character—what is consistent with God’s character is right, what isn’t is wrong (Lev. 11:45). (Since God’s character doesn’t change, neither does right and wrong).

God’s Will—what God wants is right, what he doesn’t want is wrong.

The Conscience as a means to discern God’s character and will (Rom. 2:14-15).

God’s Word as a means to discern God’s character and will. (What is consistent with the Scriptures is right, what isn’t is wrong.)

The law of love—everything is subordinate to the two great commands to love God and love your neighbor (Luke 10:27).

Christian Ethics is duty-centered, not results-centered. God calls us not to success, but to faithfulness (1 Cor. 4:2). Nevertheless, it is necessary to weigh results (ends) to determine a righteous and wise strategy.

Major Ethical Systems

There are no moral laws.

GeneralismThere are some general laws (binding most of the time), but no absolute ones.

SituationismThere is one absolute law (usually “love”).

Unqualified absolutismThere are many absolute laws that never conflict.

Conflicting absolutismThere are many absolute norms that sometimes conflict, and we must choose the lesser evil.

Graded absolutism (Hierarchicalism)There are many absolute laws that sometimes conflict, in which cases we must choose the higher law.

Ethical Systems Applied:

Should I Lie to Save Lives?

AntinomianismLying is never wrong, since there are no moral laws.

GeneralismLying is generally wrong, but right when it achieves good results.

SituationismLying is wrong when it is unloving, and right when it is the loving thing to do.

Unqualified AbsolutismLying is always wrong. Truth-telling is an absolute moral law, and there are no exceptions. Results—even apparently desirable results such as lifesaving—must not be used as a rationale to violate the moral law.

Conflicting AbsolutismLying is always wrong, but it is forgivable when done as the lesser of evils. We should lie to save the life, then ask for forgiveness.

Graded Absolutism (Hierarchicalism)Lying is normally wrong, but sometimes right. Some laws are higher than others. When there is an unavoidable conflict, we must follow the higher law. Mercy to the innocent is a higher value than truth-telling. No reason to ask forgiveness, because lying was the right thing to do.

Analysis of the Absolutist Positions

Unqualified Absolutism

“There are many absolute laws, and they never conflict. Any apparent conflict is not a real conflict.”

AUGUSTINE: Telling the truth is an absolute which must never be violated. The Christian must first avoid his sin, not try to keep others from sinning.

KANT: A universal moral obligation is a “categorical imperative.” It is unconditional. A duty is a duty regardless of the consequences. One should always act so that he could will his action as a rule for all men.

Daniel 1 shows that God provides a “creative alternative” (Bill Gothard’s term) that allows the believer to avoid choosing between two evils.

In the cases of the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:15-16) and Rahab (Josh. 2; Heb. 11:31), God doesn’t really commend their action (lying and civil disobedience), but only their attitudes, motives and/or faith.

Problems with Unqualified Absolutism

1. Based more on logic than Scripture. e.g. Scripture says God commended Rahab’s action, not just her attitude (James 2:25).

2. Inadequate explanation of all the civil disobedience passages—requires sin on the part of midwives, Esther, the Magi and others.

3. In contrast to Dan. 1’s “creative alternative,” Dan. 3 shows God did not deliver Daniel’s friends from their moral dilemma. (What was the third alternative for the midwives, etc.?)

4. God doesn’t promise we won’t face dilemmas.

5. Shifts responsibility from us. No weighing the issues, seeking guidance and exercising wisdom.

6. Focuses on sins of commission and forgets sins of omission (James 4:17).

This view’s advocates are inconsistent—they wouldn’t lie to save a life, but they deceive burglars by leaving lights on.

Conflicting Absolutism

“Sometimes God’s absolutes conflict. We must choose the lesser evil then ask forgiveness.”

1. God’s commands are absolute and unbreakable.

2. In a fallen world conflicts between God’s commands are unavoidable.

3. There are levels of sin (John 19:11; Matt. 12:32). When moral conflicts happen we should do the lesser evil.

4. After doing the lesser evil we should confess our sin and obtain forgiveness.

Two Assumptions of Conflicting Absolutism:

* All moral conflicts come about as a result of sin in the first place.

* God expects things of us that are beyond our ability to fulfill (Matt. 5:48). He holds us responsible even if there is no right choice.

Problems with Conflicting Absolutism:

1. It leaves us with a moral obligation to do evil, which is self-contradictory.

2. It leaves God desiring us to sin and leading us into sin. (Contradicting James 1:13.)

3. It violates Kant’s dictum, “Ought implies can.” We are left resigned to moral defeat. God is left unfairly blaming us for not doing what is impossible to do. (Contradicting 2 Peter 1:3.)

4. It requires either that Jesus did not experience the moral dilemmas common to us, or that Jesus sinned by choosing the lesser of evils. Both concepts are explicitly unbiblical (Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21).

If Jesus sinned, or if he did not face the issues we faced, then we could not follow his example in dealing with life situations (1 Cor. 11:1).

It fails to recognize that many moral dilemmas come upon the innocent, and some come specifically as a result of righteousness.

Graded Absolutism (Hierarchicalism)

Primary Assumptions:

1. There are many moral principles (“absolutes”) rooted in the absolute moral character of God, and manifested in his scriptural commands.

2. Among these absolutes are higher and lower moral laws. Not all laws are of equal weight.

3. In a sinful world these moral laws sometimes come into unavoidable conflict.

4. In the case of such conflicts we are obligated to follow the higher moral law.

5. In following the higher moral law we are not guilty, in that specific case, for failing to keep the lower one. (Indeed, we may be guilty by keeping the lower one and not the higher.)

The lower laws are not unimportant or disposable. They remain obligatory in all cases except when a higher law is at stake.

Biblical Substantiation for Graded Absolutism:

1. Some moral laws and obligations are higher than others (Matt. 5:19; 10:37; 22:34-36; 23:23).

2. Some good acts are better than others, and some bad acts are worse than others. This is shown by levels of reward in heaven (1 Cor. 3:11-12), and degrees of punishment in hell (Rev. 20:12).

Some sins are essentially different than others (1 Cor. 6:18). Some sins are worse than others (Prov. 6:16-19). Some sins are worthy of public rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20), others excommunication (1 Cor. 5), others death (1 Cor. 3:11). One sin is unforgivable (Mark 3:29). This shows God puts some of his moral standards above others.

3. God specifically commends civil disobedience in a number of cases (e.g. Daniel 3 & 6, Acts 4:19-20 & 5:29). This clearly shows he puts some of his other commands higher than his commands to obey civil laws (Rom. 13:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:13-14).

4. Apart from a hierarchical understanding, God’s plan of redemption is immoral because it required the punishment of an innocent person and pardon of the guilty. (God’s love for men outweighed his commitment not to punish the innocent—Is. 53:4, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21.)

5. Jesus demonstrated a hierarchical view of moral values. e. g. submission to parents v. God (Luke 2:41-52); Sabbath regulations v. healing (Mark 2); submission to government v. God (Matt. 22:15-22); demands of justice for the innocent (Himself) v. mercy for the guilty (mankind).

6. God says that in every temptation he provides a way of escape, implying he does not put us in no-win moral situations (1 Cor. 10:13).

Human depravity and its devastating effects are real, but this does not mean sin is unavoidable for the Christian. God gives us the resources in Christ to avoid sin in any situation (2 Pet. 1:3).

Problems with Graded Absolutism

1. Apparent similarity to Utilitarianism.

ANSWER: It is duty-centered, not end centered; the value of the end in question may be given greater weight by God, but not by our preference. At stake is not simply a higher end, but a higher law.

2. Apparent similarity to Situationism.

ANSWER: Instead of one vague absolute, there are many concrete absolutes. Morality is not determined by the situation, but by God’s laws. Plus, many actual conclusions are different—e.g. premarital sex, adultery, abortion, blasphemy.


ANSWER: The principles are absolute 1) in their source, the unchanging attributes of God; 2) in their own sphere when there is no conflict; and 3) in their order of priority when there is a conflict.

4. Apparent Subjectivity.

ANSWER: The Christian does not make up his own moral principles, nor their order of priority, but discerns them from God’s revealed Word; God and his Word, not the individual, are authoritative.

What remains subjective is what is always subjective—our prayerful discernment and application of God’s expressed values.

5. Apparent relabeling of evil as “good,” violating Isaiah 5:20.

ANSWER: The choice is not of a lesser evil, but a greater good. e.g. Lying is not made good, rather it is viewed as a necessary component in the true good of lifesaving in a given case. Lying, in and of itself, remains wrong.

For example, cutting off a human leg as such is not right; doing so to save a life is. Saying amputation is right in a given case does not justify the evil of mutilation in normal cases.

Exemption v. Exception.

Exceptions undermine the moral law itself. Exemptions mean the law violated still stands and must be respected. That law is binding in every other way. (e.g. submission to parents and government, obligation to tell the truth.)

For example, God’s Law demands respect for human life, and therefore says not to kill another human being. Yet Exodus 22:2 says one may kill in self-defense and “the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” This is not an exception to the law demanding respect for human life. It is just that the innocent life (victim) is granted greater rights than the guilty life (criminal).

Problems with Exemption/Exception Concept:

1. Is the distinction actual or only semantical?

2. Potential for abuse—does recognizing rare exemptions lead to making common exceptions? Can it desensitize the conscience and lead to rationalization and self-justification? (e.g. will lying or civil disobedience become a habit?)

In Support of Graded Absolutism:

Graded absolutism maintains the concept of absolutes and avoids relativism. Yet it successfully recognizes the reality of true moral conflicts, and gives positive answers to these conflicts.

Back to Course Syllabus

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of fifty-some books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries