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.