For my research topic in the Moral Philosophy class I am taking this semester at Southern Evangelical Seminary, I chose the topic “Moral Dilemmas Require Objective Morality”. I got the idea from a lecture I once watched by Dr. Frank Turek. In the lecture, he gives an illustration where a professor presents a moral dilemma to the class. The dilemma is a scenario in which a group of people are in a lifeboat that is sinking and in order to survive, one person must jump off, or be thrown off. The professor then has the class divide up into groups and decide what they would do. Each group has a different solution and the professor exclaims, “See! Morality is relative.”
A common argument for God is one from morality. I’ve seen William Lane Craig put it this way, or some variation of this sort:
- If God does not exist, there are no objective morals.
- There are objective morals.
- Therefore, God exists.
Now, in an attempt to undermine this argument, some (the professor) have posited moral dilemmas as an objection to objective morality. This idea intrigued me, so I researched it for class. I will offer here a brief synopsis of the paper.
Objective morality is the position that there exist moral facts. Objective morality does take into consideration the circumstances that an agent finds themselves. For example, on objective morality we might say it is wrong to murder. This doesn’t however mean that there is never a time in which one might be justified in killing, like in the case of self-defense or defense of the innocent. Objective morality is the position that these moral facts exist mind-independent. This means that the moral facts are not the product of our minds, but that they actually exist. Because of this, we can objectively say that heinous crimes against humanity, like the Holocaust, are evil. Even if Hitler had won the war and convinced the whole world that the genocide of Jews and minorities was justified, he would still be wrong because objective morality is not based on human opinion or knowledge.
A moral dilemma is a situation in which an agent finds themselves faced with two moral obligations simultaneously, but only being able to do one. Socrates famously challenged Cephalus’ definition of justice – telling the truth and repaying one’s debts – with a moral dilemma. What would Cephalus do if a friend deposited arms with him at one point and at a later point when he was not in his right mind asked for the arms back? Cephalus has an obligation to repay his friend by his own definition of justice. However, his friend is likely to harm himself, or someone else. This example, however, is not a genuine dilemma in that we can easily imagine a third option: repay this debt at a later time when the friend is in his right mind.
A more genuine dilemma would be Sophie’s Choice. Sophie finds herself at a Nazi concentration camp with her two children when a guard tells her she must choose between them – which should live and which should die. How could she possibly choose? The guard then informs her that if she fails to choose, both will die. In the book, she does choose.
In the above dilemma, we see some key characteristics of a genuine dilemma. For one, the dilemma is externally imposed. Sophie didn’t cause this dilemma, the guard did. Secondly, the dilemma is ontological, not epistemological. Sophie’s dilemma isn’t that she doesn’t know how to get out of this dilemma, but rather that there is no way out. Thirdly, the dilemma is symmetrical. The two moral obligations are equal. She has an equal obligation to both children and cannot form a hierarchy of obligations to aid her in her decision. The question is, does this show that morality is relative?
Subjective Morality and Dilemmas
The key to understanding subjective morality is that no objective morals exist, other than the ones we create. For this reason, there are no moral dilemmas on subjective morality. For one, the dilemma cannot be externally imposed, or ontological. The dilemma is purely the result of the agents choice to subject themselves to such a morality. The agent could just as easily not subject themselves to this standard of morality. How could an agent be faced with two moral obligations at the same time, if no moral obligations exist? Subjective morality has no account for genuine moral dilemmas.
An agent only finds themselves in a moral dilemma if objective morality is true. In order for there to be a dilemma, there must be two or more moral obligations existing at the same time. The dilemma is only as real as the obligations. In other words, the professor from Dr. Turek’s example must steal from objective morality in order to argue against it! If you concede that moral dilemmas are actual, you consequently concede that objective morality is actual.
Thankfully, moral dilemmas are rare. However, they do occur. The agent must use wisdom when choosing between two obligations. Is there another way out? Have I misunderstood? In the case of a genuine dilemma, like Sophie’s, God grant us the wisdom to do as best as we can. In a fallen world, where people like the guard impose their immorality on us, we will not always be able to find a suitable option. This does not however prove that morality is subjective, but rather demands that morality is objective.
12 thoughts on “Moral Dilemmas Require Objective Morality”
I enjoyed your synopsis on Morality. May the Lord bless you and give you wisdom as you complete the research topic.
Ravi Zacharias said
“In order for evil to exist, so must good, and since there is a differentiation between good and evil must also exist. And if there is a differentiation, it is a moral law. if a moral law exist, then there must be a Moral Law Giver.”
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Does objective morality (as some people think) require that we not obey immoral orders? If that is the case then Sophie would not have had a choice, she would be required not to respond to the guard’s order. This would have caused the deaths of her daughters but she would not have been complicit in the evil. And, why should she trust a guard that would pose for her such a dilemma. Why would he not be lying about his intentions and kill both daughters (and Sophie?) regardless of her answer since it was evidently in his power to do so?
I think if Sophie decided not to choose, that choice, in itself, would be a choice for both of her daughters to die. By not choosing, Sophie would have caused the death of two people. In this situation, it is choosing the lesser of the evils. Whether or not objective morality requires that we not obey immoral orders, Sophie still had a choice, and would have exercised it by choosing not to choose.
At least, that is how I see it!
You are right that Sophie not making a choice is making a choice so let’s offer her another option. Rather than deciding whether her precious angel or her snotty nosed brat should die, how about we let her offer herself for her children. This may move us away from objective morality and into Christian morality which is obviously not the same. There are no lesser evils in Christianity because all wrongs must be forgiven by God or they do not go away.
Allowing both her children to die rather than be a participant in a great moral evil seems to be a wrong choice but it may represent the highest morality.
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I agree. I was just remaining within the boundaries of the original dilemma.
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Great post. The professor in your thesis is attempting semantic gymnastics to masquerade options as choices. In his example (and that in sophie’s choice), the players involved do not have the choice to make a decision based on morals; they have to choose the lesser of two immoral options. Options are static; choices are dynamic. If you decided to buy ice cream, that means you had a choice (buy it; don’t buy it; buy it later; steal it; don’t steal it; wait for someone else to buy it (or steal it); ask to share the ice cream; don’t ask to share the ice cream, etc. Those are “choices”. They are aren’t confined within any parameters. If you chose to buy the ice cream, and the ice cream shop had 10 different toppings, you would be limited by the options offered by the shop. You would have to not add toppings (option), and if you did decide to add toppings, you would have to select from a static list of options.
Again, excellent thesis and well-developed argument.
I wote a skit that kind of goes along with your views. Would love to share it
Very interesting and thought-provoking topic! I am glad you took the time to explore it!
If I may, posit, I believe rather than moral objectivity, all questions of “right” and “wrong” may be reduced to one common denominator: FEAR. Fear, as in a word, which in the English language, begins with the 6th letter of the alphabet. Fear, fear, and more fear. The mission of man should be to limit it, by whatever means necessary, with a line as to the limit to infinity. (Postulated graphically by means of Calculus mathematickal derivation, as to illustrate.) The enemy will always want to increase the value of fear. The true “believer” will want to reduce reduce reduce.
Well, to tell the truth, it was a little deep for me. I had a hideous time with Philosophy. I did finally get a B after retaking it. I am glad to follow you and read what I can, while I try to write sermons that can be apprehended by someone with perhaps as low as a 4th grade reading ability. I am mostly concerning myself with improving conditions in the community where I live right now because it is in decay after many years physically and morally. I vowed that if I had need to have a debate, I would look up all the parts of the argument process again. So far, I am getting along pretty well. lol God bless you.
I love philosophizing. You can almost look at objective morality like this imagine a hundred years from now when electronics are even more developed. They will be so advanced that it may be difficult to trace back to the beginning of simply explaining how a satellite works. I think the social constructs of morality are so far back that it is difficult to get a clear picture of why they would be innate and not imposed by some outside force. I didn’t see a mention of objective morality being different in different cultures. I mean in the old testament some thought it was perfectly moral to sacrifice your children. Obviously god thought it was okay for Lot to sleep with his daughters, or offer them to Sodom and Gomorrah, and not moral for Lots wife to look back. God thought it was moral to kill the Egyptians first born or slaughter 3000 for worshiping the cow and sparing aaron, or killing however many thousands for whining about meat. You see morality develop and change over thousands of years. How is this not evidence that morality is subjective? There is some agreement on the basics which happens to line up with the survival of our species. Again this tells me that it is not impose by an outside force, but that we are smart enough to know what furthers our survival