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Christianity and Moral Dilemmas
Posted: 15 December 2011 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
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As a bit of a pessimist myself, I believe that life is full of moral dilemmas, and a lot of this stems from my value pluralism that I’ve talked about elsewhere. The classic example would be some kind of situation where there are two people you ought to save but you can only save one of them and so you just have to choose one and let the other one die. You will feel guilty for the rest of your life about this, even though there was nothing you could have done in the circumstances. Another classic example was the one that Sartre gave about the young man having to choose between looking after his ill mother and going to fight in a war that he supported. The idea is that no matter which one you choose you will end up having some (correct/justified) feelings of regret and/or guilt later on, and that’s just the way life is. It sucks. 

Now, personally I accept this tragic view of the world, but what should the Christian say about such situations? Maybe they will say that there is a correct answer in such cases and God knows what it is, and so the apparent tragedy is just due to our lack of knowledge and insight. I have heard a lot of Christians claiming that morality really is black and white from God’s perspective, and that it only appears to have shades of gray from our limited perspective. But to me this is just absurd. They want us to believe that in a situation where a desperate mother steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving child, there is an absolute fact of the matter about her moral guilt or innocence. So presumably God is thinking, ‘Yes, she was absolutely 100% justified in doing that and there’s no problem here whatsoever’ OR ‘This despicable action belongs on the black/bad side’.

So, should Christians keep going with this idea that moral shades of gray are only apparent, or is it possible to be a Christian and still accept a view of the world that acknowledges the existence of real shades of gray and tangled/conflicting moral values?

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Posted: 15 December 2011 04:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Interesting question. Offhand I’d have thought that a Christian could just as easily embrace shades of gray as a non-Christian or atheist. The problem comes in the supposed afterlife, where God has to make a choice as to who goes up and who goes down: no shades of gray there.

Some Christians, of course, don’t believe in hell. But if they believe sinners simply disappear after death, there’s still the black-and-white problem. (How do you coherently draw the line as to which souls disappear and which go to heaven?) Others however believe that everyone gets into heaven, which if accompanied by some temporary punishment for some souls seems like it would be a potential rejoinder.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 06:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Yeah, but fundamentalist protestants tend to go for faith rather than works here. So the idea is that we’re all disgusting sinners and nothing we can do will ever impress God, and being saved is all to do with having a personal relationship with Jesus (whatever that might mean!). So on this view being saved is a separate issue and has pretty much nothing to do with morality. But these people still believe that some things are absolutely right and others absolutely wrong, and they seem to believe, as I’ve already said, that it is objectively (from God’s perspective) a yes/no - black-white type thing. So it does seem that these people want to say that things only SEEM tragic, contradictory and unfair. This is similar to the way people like Swinburne try to deal with the problem of evil. That little kid being tortured to death SEEMS horrendous, but from the eternal perspective it somehow isn’t! And so it may seem as though people often find themselves in situations where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but from the eternal perspective this is not the case.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Dom1978 - 15 December 2011 06:49 AM

Yeah, but fundamentalist protestants tend to go for faith rather than works here. So the idea is that we’re all disgusting sinners and nothing we can do will ever impress God, and being saved is all to do with having a personal relationship with Jesus (whatever that might mean!). So on this view being saved is a separate issue and has pretty much nothing to do with morality. But these people still believe that some things are absolutely right and others absolutely wrong, and they seem to believe, as I’ve already said, that it is objectively (from God’s perspective) a yes/no - black-white type thing. So it does seem that these people want to say that things only SEEM tragic, contradictory and unfair. This is similar to the way people like Swinburne try to deal with the problem of evil. That little kid being tortured to death SEEMS horrendous, but from the eternal perspective it somehow isn’t! And so it may seem as though people often find themselves in situations where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but from the eternal perspective this is not the case.

Right, well, I think you’ll agree with me that this is all apologetics and not even remotely convincing.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 08:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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One doesn’t need to be a Christian to see things black and white. Any moral realist—and there are many even among atheists—should probably feel guilty for owing more than one pair of shoes knowing that there are kids all around the world dying of hunger.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 10:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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George - 15 December 2011 08:22 AM

One doesn’t need to be a Christian to see things black and white. Any moral realist—and there are many even among atheists—should probably feel guilty for owing more than one pair of shoes knowing that there are kids all around the world dying of hunger.

Moral realism isn’t the same as having a black-and-white notion of ethics, anymore than physical realism says it’s black-and-white whether something is a river or a hill. Any sophisticated realist theory will take into account grey areas and vagueness.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 10:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I don’t know about rivers and hills, but I don’t see much of a grey area when it comes to answering what 1+1 equals. Any person who calls himself a moral realist who will try to come up with a theory explaining how it is objectively acceptable to spend $200 on our fifth pair of shoes instead of sending it to Africa to a hungry child is not a sophisticated moral realist but either a very confused person or a sophisticated bamboozler.

[ Edited: 15 December 2011 10:45 AM by George ]
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Posted: 15 December 2011 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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George - 15 December 2011 10:37 AM

I don’t know about rivers and hills, but I don’t see much of a grey area when it comes to answering what 1+1 equals. Any person who calls himself a moral realist who will try to come up with a theory explaining how it is objectively acceptable to spend $200 on our fifth pair of shoes instead of sending it to Africa to a hungry child is not a sophisticated moral realist but either a very confused person or a sophisticated bamboozler.

So as someone who’s not a moral realist, I assume what you’re saying is that it makes you very angry that people buy stuff they don’t need instead of sending it to others who need the money more. Does that make you act?

In fact I believe Peter Singer says that people should send all their surplus cash to the needy (where surplus cash is all the cash you don’t need in order to live), although he also admits that he does not follow this rule and doesn’t believe virtually anyone can. While I admit that Singer’s is an interesting claim, I don’t think it’s quite as obviously true as you. By spending money—however you spend it—you are keeping people employed and therefore less poor than they would have otherwise been, which is its own good. So long as you’re spending it on something that doesn’t directly harm someone I don’t see that it’s a problem.

You’re right to point out that there is such a thing as being overly greedy, but there’s also such a thing as being overly jealous, and both are similarly problematic. I think the correct redistribution mechanism should be generalized into the law and the tax code, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about people enjoying what’s left over to them, however they decide to do that. (Again, given that they aren’t actively harming people by doing so). If someone likes shoes and someone else likes concerts, I don’t see one as morally any different than the other. They certainly can cost the same.

I’m not sure that an ethical theory can be true which makes it fundamentally extremely difficult (given our natural human proclivities) to do right, anymore than I would think it likely that an ethical theory could be true which made it fundamentally extremely difficult to do wrong.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 12:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

So as someone who’s not a moral realist, I assume what you’re saying is that it makes you very angry that people buy stuff they don’t need instead of sending it to others who need the money more. Does that make you act?

I am not sure that I understand what you’re saying here. It can make me angry due to my evolved sense of moral judgement, but I obviously don’t believe that there are any laws that could tell me if my moral judgement is justified.

dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

In fact I believe Peter Singer says that people should send all their surplus cash to the needy (where surplus cash is all the cash you don’t need in order to live), although he also admits that he does not follow this rule and doesn’t believe virtually anyone can.

Interesting, but irrelevant. Peter Singer may say that I should and Julian Simon may say that I shouldn’t. He says, she says.

dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

By spending money—however you spend it—you are keeping people employed and therefore less poor than they would have otherwise been, which is its own good. So long as you’re spending it on something that doesn’t directly harm someone I don’t see that it’s a problem.

Well, I imagine that a person dying of hunger has a greater need for my $200 than shoemaker who may lose his job if I don’t by his shoes. I think one would prefer to lose a job before losing life. But again, I am not a moral realist so I don’t really need to know the correct answer—I obviously don’t believe there is a correct answer.

dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

I’m not sure that an ethical theory can be true which makes it fundamentally extremely difficult (given our natural human proclivities) to do right, anymore than I would think it likely that an ethical theory could be true which made it fundamentally extremely difficult to do wrong.

I don’t understand this part.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 01:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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George - 15 December 2011 12:22 PM
dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

So as someone who’s not a moral realist, I assume what you’re saying is that it makes you very angry that people buy stuff they don’t need instead of sending it to others who need the money more. Does that make you act?

I am not sure that I understand what you’re saying here. It can make me angry due to my evolved sense of moral judgement, but I obviously don’t believe that there are any laws that could tell me if my moral judgement is justified.

My point is that your dilemma is a dilemma for anyone who finds that sort of argument morally compelling, whether or not they are moral realists. For a moral subjectivist, all that moral judgment amounts to is a certain sort of feeling. If one feels that one should be giving all one’s excess money to the poor, then one is in a dilemma if one does not do that. Irrespective of one’s metaethical stance.

George - 15 December 2011 12:22 PM
dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

In fact I believe Peter Singer says that people should send all their surplus cash to the needy (where surplus cash is all the cash you don’t need in order to live), although he also admits that he does not follow this rule and doesn’t believe virtually anyone can.

Interesting, but irrelevant. Peter Singer may say that I should and Julian Simon may say that I shouldn’t. He says, she says.

I wasn’t arguing it was justified because Peter Singer said it. In fact, I was arguing it wasn’t justified, so I’m not sure I understand the force of your rejoinder. My point was that if you want to read a very worked-out version of the argument you provided (with a lot of depth that you didn’t include), you should read Singer. You might like it.

George - 15 December 2011 12:22 PM
dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

By spending money—however you spend it—you are keeping people employed and therefore less poor than they would have otherwise been, which is its own good. So long as you’re spending it on something that doesn’t directly harm someone I don’t see that it’s a problem.

Well, I imagine that a person dying of hunger has a greater need for my $200 than shoemaker who may lose his job if I don’t by his shoes. I think one would prefer to lose a job before losing life. But again, I am not a moral realist so I don’t really need to know the correct answer—I obviously don’t believe there is a correct answer.

A moral realist doesn’t need to believe there is a correct answer either, in every case. He or she only needs to believe there are correct answers in some cases.

The problem with your argument is that if it’s taken to its logical conclusion it would indeed put most all shoemakers, all artists, etc., etc., etc., out of jobs. To put it another way, in a world in which most people buy shoes, it might be good for one person not to. But in a world in which nobody pays for music, there will be a lot of hungry musicians and no professional music.

George - 15 December 2011 12:22 PM
dougsmith - 15 December 2011 11:17 AM

I’m not sure that an ethical theory can be true which makes it fundamentally extremely difficult (given our natural human proclivities) to do right, anymore than I would think it likely that an ethical theory could be true which made it fundamentally extremely difficult to do wrong.

I don’t understand this part.

Humans are hierarchical creatures who engage in dominance rituals. Humans are acquisitive creatures who like possessing things. To say that morality commands that we not engage in dominance rituals (by which I include virtually all of art, including fashion), or to say that morality commands we not possess things beyond what is absolutely necessary to survival would make virtually all of us into people who act immorally virtually all the time. It would basically say that our natural human tendencies were such as to guarantee we could hardly ever do anything moral. I think this is unlikely to be the correct ethical theory. (Though I must admit that I have not thought very deeply about it).

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Posted: 15 December 2011 02:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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dougsmith - 15 December 2011 01:25 PM

A moral realist doesn’t need to believe there is a correct answer either, in every case. He or she only needs to believe there are correct answers in some cases.

Interesting. How does a moral realist know, then, when a correct answer exists? Is there a law, in your opinion, which would decide which cases may be a subject to a universal moral law?

dougsmith - 15 December 2011 01:25 PM

Humans are hierarchical creatures who engage in dominance rituals. Humans are acquisitive creatures who like possessing things. To say that morality commands that we not engage in dominance rituals (by which I include virtually all of art, including fashion), or to say that morality commands we not possess things beyond what is absolutely necessary to survival would make virtually all of us into people who act immorally virtually all the time. It would basically say that our natural human tendencies were such as to guarantee we could hardly ever do anything moral. I think this is unlikely to be the correct ethical theory. (Though I must admit that I have not thought very deeply about it).

Yes, this is a problem. Well, it’s a problem for a moral realist. Not me.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 02:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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George - 15 December 2011 02:06 PM

Interesting. How does a moral realist know, then, when a correct answer exists? Is there a law, in your opinion, which would decide which cases may be a subject to a universal moral law?

It will depend on the moral realist’s theory of ethics. One doesn’t derive a theory of ethics simply by claiming to be a moral realist any more than one derives a theory of physics by claiming to be a physical realist.

George - 15 December 2011 02:06 PM
dougsmith - 15 December 2011 01:25 PM

Humans are hierarchical creatures who engage in dominance rituals. Humans are acquisitive creatures who like possessing things. To say that morality commands that we not engage in dominance rituals (by which I include virtually all of art, including fashion), or to say that morality commands we not possess things beyond what is absolutely necessary to survival would make virtually all of us into people who act immorally virtually all the time. It would basically say that our natural human tendencies were such as to guarantee we could hardly ever do anything moral. I think this is unlikely to be the correct ethical theory. (Though I must admit that I have not thought very deeply about it).

Yes, this is a problem. Well, it’s a problem for a moral realist. Not me.

So long as you didn’t find your original point to be persuasive it’s not, no. But if you found it persuasive and yet continue to buy shoes (or go to concerts, etc.), then it is a problem for you.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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So we’re seeing here that certain types of secular morality also want to deny the tragic. Examples would be some forms of utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. Again the idea is that once you’ve done THE right thing, that’s the end of it, and all feelings of guilt and regret are irrational and unjustifiable. Now, Bernard Williams and others have famously critiqued this kind of thing, so there’s not much I can add to that. I would just say that many different types of things are valuable, and in different ways. You have aesthetic values, friendship, family obligations, knowledge of how the universe works, happiness/pleasure and on and on. Peter Singer isn’t just a moral realist. He’s a moral extremist. He thinks that once you’ve done the right thing and given your money to Oxfam, then you should have no regrets about missing that Shakespeare play or taking your kids to the aquarium or giving the money to your best friend who did the same for you five years ago etc etc, and this for me is just a crazy position, in just the same was that it’s a crazy position if some aesthete thinks that art is the only thing that really matters in the world.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 06:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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How many times have religious people killed (murdered) other people “for the greater glory of God”? I find that incomprehensible.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 07:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Dom1978 - 15 December 2011 03:53 AM

As a bit of a pessimist myself, I believe that life is full of moral dilemmas, and a lot of this stems from my value pluralism that I’ve talked about elsewhere. The classic example would be some kind of situation where there are two people you ought to save but you can only save one of them and so you just have to choose one and let the other one die. You will feel guilty for the rest of your life about this, even though there was nothing you could have done in the circumstances. Another classic example was the one that Sartre gave about the young man having to choose between looking after his ill mother and going to fight in a war that he supported. The idea is that no matter which one you choose you will end up having some (correct/justified) feelings of regret and/or guilt later on, and that’s just the way life is. It sucks. 

Now, personally I accept this tragic view of the world, but what should the Christian say about such situations? Maybe they will say that there is a correct answer in such cases and God knows what it is, and so the apparent tragedy is just due to our lack of knowledge and insight. I have heard a lot of Christians claiming that morality really is black and white from God’s perspective, and that it only appears to have shades of gray from our limited perspective. But to me this is just absurd. They want us to believe that in a situation where a desperate mother steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving child, there is an absolute fact of the matter about her moral guilt or innocence. So presumably God is thinking, ‘Yes, she was absolutely 100% justified in doing that and there’s no problem here whatsoever’ OR ‘This despicable action belongs on the black/bad side’.

So, should Christians keep going with this idea that moral shades of gray are only apparent, or is it possible to be a Christian and still accept a view of the world that acknowledges the existence of real shades of gray and tangled/conflicting moral values?

I would have to be a Christian to really get a feel for this question, but I think it is possible, and perhaps more emotionally healthy, for a Christian to accept shades of gray.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 08:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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IMO, the simplest motto or creed of morality is that of “first, do no harm”. I believe this is used in the medical field, but seems to me it applies to life in general as a moral dictate.
Another is the “Golden Rule”.

If everyone would follow these two simple rules, the world would be a better place.

[ Edited: 15 December 2011 08:08 PM by Write4U ]
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