March 2, 2015

Shades of Grey: 3 ways to deal with ethical dilemmas

by Clint Archer

“Knock, knock.”knocking

-“Who’s there?”

“The Nazis.”

-“The Nazis wh—” [SLAP]

“Vee vill ask de questions!”

Many a debate about ethical systems gets illustrated by the Corrie Ten Boom conundrum posed as Nazis knocking on your door to enquire whether you are hiding innocent Jews in your home. You can either tell the truth and sacrifice the lives of your refugees, or you can lie and, assuming you have the world’s most gullible Nazi at your door, spare the lives of those you have committed to protect.

This scenario captures a classic question of which sin is the greater, and it presumes that there is no other option.

There are three main ethical systems by which people try to attack the problem…

1. Graded Ethics – Shades of grey

This is the most common layman’s ethic. It holds that life is not black and white, but includes shades of grey between right and wrong. You can identify graded ethics easily from catchphrases like “lesser of two evils” or “necessary evil” and “greater good” or “white lie.”

Employing graded ethics, you don’t ask yourself “Is telling the truth right or wrong?”— but rather “Is telling the truth better or worse than selling out innocent lives?”

Or you may say “A lie is wrong, but allowing innocent people to be killed is more wrong, so that means lying is the lesser of two evils and a necessary evil to accomplish the greater good of saving lives.”

The problem with this view is it is extremely subjective. Hitler and his Nazis saw ridding the Aryan race of Jews as the right thing to do for the greater good. To me that seems crazy.

Another problem is that graded ethics holds that at times it is justifiable to sin. But just because a sin is “the lesser of two evils,” doesn’t make it any less evil than God’s holy standard.

 2. Situational Ethics – An ethic for every occasiongrey suits

This system avers that an action may be right in one situation but wrong in another. If you ask a situational ethicist (like Father Joseph Fletcher) if an act is right or wrong, he’d say “It depends.” If the result in a particular situation is clearly good, then the sin is excused as the right thing to do under the circumstances.

Lying is not always better than saving lives, it depends on the life you are saving. Lying to a Nazi in order to protect an innocent life is acceptable to God, but lying to the cops to protect the life of an escaped convict is wrong.

You can guess my objection to this view, right? It is even more subjective than the first. Every situation will have so many variables that it becomes extremely complex to determine what sins would be excusable in what situation.

Is Samson’s suicide acceptable but not Saul’s, or Robin Williams’, or a kamikaze pilot’s? How can the answer be, it depends on the situation? Doesn’t the answer depend on the perspective of different people? If you ask the suicidal person you would get a different answer than if you asked their family, or their (Philistine or Allied) victims. So how can morality be determined by the situation if the perspective of the participants also shifts the opinion of morality?

Oh, and this also says it’s okay to sin sometimes.

 3. Absolute Ethics – Black and white

You’ve heard of a conservative person’s apparent naiveté  derided as “Oh, they just see everything in black and white.” This may actually be an accurate descriptor of one who holds to absolute ethics, but it is hardly a weakness. This is the view I believe is the biblical one. I am compelled to subscribe to absolutism by logic, theology, and the direct teachings of Scripture.

black and whiteLogically, I am not responsible for the sinful action of another person, only my own. If I tell the truth and the Nazi pulls the trigger, who will get judged for murder? The Nazi, right?

Theologically, I must consider that Jesus lived in the same sin-cursed world system in which I do, and was faced with the same species of conundrums as I am, and yet managed to navigate the complexity in such a way that he never sinned. Jesus “… in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).

And biblically, I have in favor of my fuddy-duddy view, passages of Scripture which say in so many words that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor 10:13).

This means there is no situation in which I have to sin.

How do I apply this to the Nazi knock knock scenario?

I simply say “Not telling.” Or “You do not have the authority to command me to do what you are asking, so I refuse to co-operate.” Or in more bolshie terms “Over my dead body.”

Granted this would likely lead to my death and that of those I committed to hide. But that is what it is like to live on a sin-cursed planet, populated by Nazis and other sinners. My responsibility is to obey God’s will. The rest is up to God; that is the purpose of judgment day.

If you’re wondering about the Hebrew midwives’ lie, Rahab’s deception, or Peter and John’s disobedience to the authorities… tune in next week.

I’m curious to know if you agree or think I am wrong. Just bear in mind if I am absolutely wrong, then so are you!

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • HC

    Many years ago, I heard the following account of a real story, and in a recent visit it was confirmed by the Italian couple who had originally told me and knew the person in question.

    An older Bible-believing sister in the Lord had a son who joined the Italian resistance during WWII. He was home briefly when Mussolini’s secret police came to her door looking for this young man. They asked where he was and she felt before the Lord that she could not lie so she truthfully replied, “He’s in the kitchen having a cup of coffee.” They scoffed and did not believe her, then left without searching the house and he was saved.

    Certainly, the Lord can work in miraculous ways if He chooses!

    • Yup, the way of escape was to tell the truth and trust God’s sovereignty. Of course if they had come in and killed the guest, the story would have lacked anecdotal appeal as a good example of keeping a clear conscience. Makes you think…

    • 4Commencefiring4

      The Facists already knew that they had confiscated all the coffee in Italy, so they dismissed her response as fanciful. That’s the REAL story. 🙂

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Simple. Be a “God Told Me” charismatic. And then do what you believe He told you. .


  • Frank Eckenroad

    Truth to whom truth is due is the correct principle, I believe.Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise– why destroy yourself ?
    Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool– why die before your time?
    It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes] is also a good principle.

    • Solomon was known as one with pliable ethics on occasion! But a good quote nevertheless.

    • Bob_Schilling

      That’s not only a good quote Frank, it’s Scripture, and I think it’s a very relevant to the discussion. Too many want to pick and choose in Ecclesiastes as though the book is like the first half of the book of Job, though with a single, essentially schizophrenic author – Solomon giving us the best advice advice worldlings can offer. No (read Doug Jones, “Joy at the End of the Tether” or Glenn Fobert, “Everything is Mist” or Jeffrey Meyers, “A Table in the Mist”, etc.), Ecclesiastes is the Word of God and has a perfect place in the Wisdom Literature of Scripture to fill in the grey areas between the black and white law and the straightforward “Thus saith the Lord’s” of the Prophets. Good, faithful, zealous, typically young men need to be reminded by Scripture, “Do not be overly righteous or wise” – there is a way that seems so black and white righteous that misses the complexity of a difficult quandary. And life in this broken world has many quandaries.

      This doesn’t open the floodgates to situational ethics or relativism, it merely acknowledges that physicians of the soul seeking scriptural wisdom need great caution and carefulness in discerning the will of God in perplexing cases.

  • SHH

    Just curious. What do you say when your wife asks, “do I look fat?”

    • MR

      When my wife and I were being counseled before our marriage, our pastor told her, “never ask a question that you don’t want an honest answer to.” You answer truthfully and sleep on the sofa.

      • In all seriousness thought, I think a person in the long run will appreciate their spouse building a record of consistent truth telling for times when trust is essential.

    • My wife knows how committed I am to my position…so she’s never asked! But should she, I would get Postmodern and talk about how she looks to me. 🙂

    • Don Hagner

      Answer: “that outfit is not the best look for you.” Properly fit clothes cover a multitude of sins. Women & their girlfriends look at the outfit, husbands look at their wife and can be a better judge of how a garment fits and enhances her curves.

  • GinaRD

    Note to self: In case of Nazi invasion, hide out anywhere but Clint’s house. 😉

    • I know, right!? I tell my church that too: You want a pastor who is consistent, but you might not want to hide in his home when Nazi’s are in town.

  • Bob_Schilling

    I use to agree with your position Clint. The catalyst that got me rethinking this was reading the recent book, “Unbroken” about Louie Zamperini and a Netflix docu-movie about the successful escape of prisoners from a the Nazi Concentration camp, Sobibor.

    The thing that struck me was what I deemed justifiable: the STEALING of items for survival. Food for themselves and other prisoners; clothing to keep them alive, items to use in the attempt
    of escaping. Isn’t the th commandment a moral absolute! Is it OK to steal to save a life?

    • Bob_Schilling

      Or is it back and white as you say, always wrong to steal – even for a good cause. Is it still stealing when you take what is not yours?

      This caused me to go back to a favorite book on ethics, “Biblical Christian Ethics” by David Clyde Jones of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. Chapter 7, “The Resolution of Moral Conflicts” has a far richer discussion of the various approaches with an “Excursus on Truthfulness.”

      Worth noting is that though Augustine (with qualms), James H. Thornwell and John Murray would hold to the basically black-and-white moral absolutes position advocated in this blog, Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, Rushdoony and David Clyde Jones also, would hold to the Hugo Grotius position – biblical casuistry bases on the right of someone to be told the truth in an abnormal situation.

      We would justifiably kill someone to save a life – we would steal to preserve lives, but we would never bear false witness?

      This issue really is more than a simplistic black-and-white. I sympathize; it’s “epistemologically satisfying” but “ethically discomfiting.” Or, as reflective folks from the Holocaust era said, “we had no time to engage in deep debates. We had to help them – or let them die, perhaps – and in order to help them, unfortunately we had to lie.”

      I use to condemn that, as you do here – I’m now convinced that it’s not that black and white.

      • So, I’m not really condemning graded or situational ethics; I’m just showing why they seem unconvincing to me. In certain scenarios they seem to make great sense, but when a person wants to justify their sin, graded/situational ethics can supply them with the tools to do that. I just believe if Jesus lived his whole life without sinning, it must be possible to do.

    • Something we covered in our ethics class was the concept of the “wartime ethic” where both sides expect each other to use deception and subterfuge, and therefor it isn’t sin; kinda like when basket ball players “fake left and go right” but no one cries “liar liar”. The idea has merit, but doesn’t apply well to the situations that crop up in our everyday lives.

      • Bob_Schilling

        Agreed, Clint, and you could well make the point that we don’t start with the difficult perplexing cases to build a biblical system of ethics. Nevertheless, whatever ethic we defend must be applicable across the board. I would highly recommend David Clyde Jones’ discussion as noted above – he’s not defending graded absolutism, he’s exploring the reality that absolutes need to be defined. As for example, you would agree that “Thou shalt not kill” does not forbid capital punishment,
        Self defense or just war theory.

        So also we need to define “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

        Neither theology nor ethics are purely logical sciences. Moral judgements aren’t purely a matter of logical formulas like a mathematics problem. Our formulation of the teaching of Scripture has to give influence to the whole of Scripture’s teaching. This, says Jones, “removes many supposed instances of conflicting absolutes.” (142) “Clarifying the universal norms is a necessary and valuable first step in relieving the perplexed conscience.” Anyways, a helpful resource.

        • Thanks. I’ll look into that resource. I also recommend Fienberg’s Ethics for a Brave New World.

    • Still Waters

      “People do not despise a thief if he steals
      to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
      but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
      he will give all the goods of his house.” (Proverbs 6:30-31)

      • Bob_Schilling

        Great text Still, but are you then saying that POW’s that steal goods and food to survive are sinning and that they should not steal anything?

        • Still Waters

          No, just quoting a Proverb which I have often pondered and thought others would like to ponder in this discussion (I find Proverbs are mystifying and clarifying at the same time). I wouldn’t dare have the gall to pronounce judgement on the POW’s. See my post on Tamar below.

          • Bob_Schilling

            Agreed. Remember that Proverbs are “truisms” not statements of inviolable command. General rules with exceptions – so they are easier to deal with than statements of law. I think that Proverb is saying that ordinarily the poor man should seek other options than stealing – but it’s almost certainly not saying that there is no conceivable situation in which a hungry man could never steal food / take food not his own – without being subject to criminal prosecution. (Lost is the woods and come upon a remote cabin with good and you haven’t eaten in days. Is God’s will that you not eat? i.e. that you ‘not do evil that good may come’? Think of David’s men eating the “unlawful” bread of the temple)

  • Joshua Frederico

    Sounds fairly simple: play God or trust God. Option B is notably wiser if you happen to believe in judgement day…

    • Bob_Schilling

      According to Heb. 11 I think Rahab will be OK on Judgment Day, as will the Hebrew Midwives. Not merely because all believers are sinners saved by grace, but because in those very acts under discussion here, they may very well be commended, not censured.

      • Joshua Frederico

        Right, and thank you. For similar reasons, I intentionally used the word “wiser” instead of suggesting outright condemnation for this act. I didn’t want to suggest that somehow justification itself might be compromised by a person doing this.
        Also (just a thought), Hebrews 11:31 doesn’t specifically ascribe Rahab’s faith to her lie, but her survival, after her act of welcoming the spies. This appears to be consistent with the fact that not everything done by Abraham, Jacob, Moses (ect.) is praised as an act of faith. So, I still wonder, was Rahab’s lie specifically an admirable deed of faith? Would it have been less commendable for her to have been ‘honest’ or to have said something beside an outright lie? I’m definitely open to further thoughts.

        • Bob_Schilling

          I’m with you Josh, on the dilemma and I would’ve defended Clint’s side of this till recently as I mentioned above. I plan to do some more reading in Hodge, Dabney, Rushdoony, etc., Frame – I’m just saying that I’m beginning to think that just as plunging a knife into my neighbors neck to kill him is wrong, it is not wrong if I’m seeking to preserve my own life or the life of someone he may be attempting to kill. And , I find nothing morally objectionable to David and Abishi stealing Saul’s sword and water jug to make a greater point – not POW’s stealing food to live. Did David sin there while again sparing Saul’s life? Thus, I don’t think it’s all so black and white as I use to.

  • brad

    I don’t think the struggle is always between telling a lie or telling a truth. I think an important denominator is that of wisdom. There are different shades of telling the truth with wisdom (how much to tell, what details to include or exclude, what words to use based on context, etc), but speaking truth wisely is critically important.

  • Still Waters

    What about Tamar? No, not David’s daughter, but Judah’s daughter-in-law. What she did was outside the pale as regards the law; but Judah concludes that she was more righteous than he had been in denying her marriage with his youngest son. Furthermore, her son became the ancestor of David and, consequently, Christ. Is that not an indication that God, while unequivocally condemning sin, also recognizes that humans are sometimes placed in untenable situations where they respond in a wrong way, but He will still bring good out of that response? “He knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.”

    • Bob_Schilling

      That’s an interesting point. I think we’d all say that she could be “more righteous that Judah” **in Judah’s estimation** – and still be sinning, but it’s interesting. Of course the whole polygamy question is not an easy one. Again, we’d all say, as Jesus clearly thought, that from the beginning it was God’s will for a man to have only one wife, and He apparently bore with the weaknesses of even godly kings, not commending their multiplication of wives (the Law explicitly forbid it for kings particularly), so there’s no justification for it.

      But, it’s puzzling to read these words from God through Nathan to King David after his great sins with Bathsheba and Uriah. – 2 Sam. 12:7-8, “Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anointed you king over Israel and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I have you your masters house and your masters wives into your arms and have you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more…'”

      • Still Waters

        In that passage where Jesus states the original purpose of marriage – and he had to have known, being God – he explains why divorce was allowed in the Law: “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept” (Mark 10:5). That would support my tentative hypothesis that God bears with our weakness. However, Christ goes on to set a higher standard which Paul later reinforced, making it clear that Christians, who had the power of the Holy Spirit to help them, had less of an excuse than an old covenant Israelite.

  • Gary

    C’mon. Truth is not owed to everyone. In Ex 1 the midwives lie, and as a direct result of their lying God deals well with them. ‘But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives.’

  • The issue seems to one of pragmatism vs. faith. We can be like Peter sometimes. When he denied Christ he did what made sense according to worldly reasoning. His faith in the living word, took a back seat to pragmatism. In situations like the one in the article, we might have the gut reaction to lie, and then attempt to justify it, due to our lack of faith. I admit, I would probably lie to save them. It is a sin to lie, and I can’t excuse it. I know that God continues to sanctify. Maybe my answer will change in the future.

  • DD

    There’s an interesting Jewish take on this. In Judaism, almost all the commandments can be ignored in order to save life. So you are allowed to lie if lives are at stake.

    We even see this in the gospels – Mark 4:6 for example – the sabbath can be broken to heal.

    Google “pikuach nefesh” for more info.

    (The exceptions are the prohibitions on forbidden sexual relationships, idolatry, and murder, which can never be overriden)

  • Huh

    Jesus did not break the Sabbath, He didn’t adhere to the additional requirements added by the Pharisees. Had Jesus broken the Law His sacrifice would have been worthless. Also, I don’t think Mark 4:6 is what you meant.

    • Huh

      Sorry, meant to reply to DD.

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