I heard this on Stand to Reason’s podcast last fall and its been eating at me off and on since then. Greg Koukl is STR’s president and host of their radio show. He has a degree in philosophy and is a popular Christian apologist. The show is usually quite good at making you think about Christian morals, values, ethics, and world view. Enough of the plug, check em out at the link above.
I think Greg got it wrong on the situation below. What do you think? The following is pretty close to an exact transcript of the monologue about an hour into the show. The bold is for my emphasis for later quoting. Anything in (( )) I added for clarity. Give him a little charity as it is a live show but I think the point is clear and he defended it with at least three callers later in the show.
Greg Koukl: Podcast title: To homeschool or not? 9/28/09
…..But I did get this question and it’s a question that was raised by someone who is not a Christian, but it’s the kind of question that could be raised by a Christian, because of (I think,) the misunderstanding that is expressed here about the difference between relativism and objectivism. Here’s the question: it’s a scenario that is supposed to be a group of the French resistance including families with infants are hiding from Nazi occupiers. One of the infants is wailing inconsolably and will more than likely alert the patrol and the Nazis. The infant’s life is terminated. (That ((is done)) probably by smothering the child so its not making noise. ) I actually saw this in a movie once.
The infant’s life is terminated to improve the group’s chances of survival but, a moral imperative (murder is wrong) has been violated. A case for utilitarianism could be made. However, is this not an example of moral relativism? And, even though it’s horrific, something that’s necessary? So I think the reason this question was asked is that it seems (to the person who asked me the question) that maybe relativism or objectivism aren’t the only alternatives because, here’s a situation in which you have to look at the circumstance and choose the best line of action considering the threat that you’re facing. And this looks like utilitarianism, the end justifies the means, that is being used. And so, isn’t that kind of relativistic? The question is asked.
Here’s my response. The first thing that I have to do is do a little philosophical kitchen work. If you’re not familiar with utilitarianism as a category of moral thinking and you don’t know kind of the ins and outs of this, this may not make a whole lot of sense. So, just give me like two minutes for those people who traffic in this and then the rest you can join me and if it doesn’t make sense its ok. And here’s my comment. I think that strictly speaking, utilitarianism, as a standard model of moral action, is relativistic. And the reason is that, those who hold to utilitarianism are always required to maximize utility. That is they have to do whatever is necessary to accomplish the end in view. But whatever specific utility one chooses to maximize, (like pleasure for example in the case of hedonistic utilitarianism) it’s completely up to the individual. In other words the end doesn’t matter. You have to use the best means to get to the end. The end always justifies the means in utilitarianism, but the end itself is not really “moral good” and therefore it doesn’t necessarily have to have an objectivist moral quality to the end. It’s like hedonistic utilitarianism’s end is pleasure. The “right” action is whatever gives you the pleasure you’re after. So since there is no ultimate moral end, utilitarianism is a relativistic system, not an objectivist system. However, this does not mean that considering the relationship of means to end is not an important part of, even an objectivist’s [system] a person who believes in objective moral values. (( I’m changing the transcript for clarity.)) [Koukl’s statement would be] Utility and means to ends are legitimate considerations for objectivists. ((End Clarification)) They actually are, so I can face this scenario, as an objectivist, and can say, well a decision has to be made and, I’m an objectivist but that doesn’t mean that I don’t take into consideration the relative circumstances and, maybe some utilitarian aspect of it. I have to do that, and that’s my next point. So whoever didn’t follow that philosophical meandering there, that’s OK because here’s the real point.
Some concept of utility may be part of an objectivist view of solving moral problems. All right? And, this illustration is a case in point. So, now onto that. What’s described here is a moral dilemma friends. A circumstance in which a group is faced with one of two choices. Note that each of these choices would be wrong to do in isolation but, in this case the circumstances forced the group to choose one or the other. There is no third option. That’s the dilemma, they’re stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, they’re between a rock and hard place, they’re on the horns, ok. Now I want you to notice something because there is a temptation to think “well if I have to take circumstances in to consideration well by golly that’s relativism.” That is, the moral answer in a given circumstance is relative to the circumstances. That is the mistake that my friend who asked the question is making and that is the mistake that many Christians make as well. Taking the circumstances into consideration in your moral assessment is not relativism. In fact, in this dilemma here (from a relativistic perspective,) there could be no moral dilemma. Even in this case because, no moral element could ever enter into the equation since there is no objective moral obligations that exist ((for a relativist.)) I mean there would be a dilemma for sure because the group would still have to make a choice between two unappealing alternatives but the dilemma wouldn’t have a moral element. It’s only because there is an objective requirement here, (and that is to protect human life,) that is in play, that the dilemma is created to begin with. If you’re a relativist, the decision in the dilemma would be made strictly on personal, non-moral grounds. So the mother she wouldn’t want her baby to die so she would risk the group for the baby (probably,) and the group wouldn’t want to risk exposures so they would sacrifice the baby to protect the safety of the group. The key here is that on relativistic terms no option would be objectively better than another and therefore there would be no moral obligation there. Some other factors are going to be the deciding factor. Maybe that the majority ruling, or the power of the majority, I guess is the better way of putting it, would decide the outcome. Circumstances like these are only moral dilemmas because there are objective moral imperatives that weigh in the balance. So, in this case … “murder is wrong” is the objective moral principle. So how do you address the dilemma? How do you deal with the dilemma, in a way that still respects the moral obligations you’re faced with. Because these kinds of things happen, by the way friends, we’ll talk about that more in a moment. In the case of a moral dilemma, like this one that’s cited, the guiding moral principle here seems to me that: (human life has transcendent value and should be protected.) You might state the moral rule half a dozen different ways but this is really what it comes down to. Human life is not the kind of thing you can take or endanger without proper justification. Now some people think that that there is justification for taking human life in fact most people do, like capital punishment, arguably our self defense or something like that. Self defense on an individual basis and maybe on a national level like in a war. So, it isn’t killing that’s wrong (even in the Bible) it is unjustified killing that’s wrong and that’s what murder applies to. So, in this situation the obligation to protect one innocent life (and it would be the baby’s) is actually in conflict with the obligation to protect the lives of all the other people in the group. And so, as an objectivist, I have to ask this question. Which decision (remember I have one of two, sacrifice the baby or sacrifice the group) which decision does the greater good? Sacrificing one life or sacrificing many. Or probably it’s better to put it another way and I think this was more accurate. Saving that one life or saving many. Now when you put it that way I think the right answer (that is the one that is morally obligatory) is obvious under this set of circumstances, silencing the baby would not be an act of murder because the action even though it’s difficult and it’s tragic would not ((only))be justified in light of the moral dilemma, it would be obligatory, in light of the moral dilemma. Because the only other choice (that is sacrificing the group) would be much worse. In fact, when you think about it this way, the baby’s life seems to be forfeit in either case since the crying child is going to expose every one in the group to destruction including herself.
Going back to the utilitarianism, notice that the utilitarian element here is a guide precisely because objectivism is true. It’s not a relativistic system. I’m looking at this broad moral obligation to protect human life and I’m trying to answer it by saying: “How can I best to keep that obligation?” In the case of a moral dilemma there is no other choice that’s the nature of a dilemma. By the way as I hinted at a moment ago, you might be interested to know that the kind of dilemma that we’re talking about here actually happens frequently particularly in wartime.
Winston Churchill, famously and controversially I might add, did not warn the citizens of Coventry (this is a city in England during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. He didn’t warn them of an imminent German air assault on the town that they knew was going to happen. How did they know that it was going to happen? They had cracked the enigma code early in the war and they could tell where the bombings were going to take place, they knew the targets. But, what would happen if they alerted the people of Coventry to the imminent bombing? Well then the Germans would realize that they had advanced information, they must’ve cracked the code, and they ((the Germans)) would’ve changed the code and changing the code that early in the war could easily have affected the outcome of that conflict. And so there is a decision that Churchill had to make and like I said it was very controversial but, he kept mum and he let Coventry be bombed and kept the secret of the broken enigma code still secret throughout the war which gave the allied forces a tremendous advantage and allowed them to defeat the Germans. So, Coventry was sacrificed for the greater good, the protection of a much greater number of human lives, by defeating the Nazis. So, here’s the final note and this is how it all comes together. The point that I’m making about the distinction between relativism and objectivism: it is not relativistic to take circumstances into consideration that includes the relationship of means to ends when you’re trying to determine how to properly apply objective moral standards. Its not relativistic. It isn’t relativistic when the circumstances help you determine the right action. It is only relativistic when it is the subject of the individual choosing who gets to willy nilly make whatever choice he wants. In objectivism the circumstances always dictate the right application of the moral rule. But what makes it not relativistic is that who ever is in exactly the same set of circumstances has exactly the same moral rule or application of the moral rule as anybody else. You can’t just make it up, so anybody can do whatever, so then every decision is just as good as any other decision. That’s relativism. Circumstances are always a factor in objectivism. Relativism (by contrast) is when the subject (that is the person deciding) is the final criterion not the circumstance. OK to your calls…….((some commercials and maybe an unrelated call then on to Jack on this issue))…
….next hour and fifteen minutes lets go to Dallas Texas, Jack
Not going to transcribe this conversation. Jack offered a couple of faulty biblical points, Greg answered them mostly and ignored his best point summarized as follows.
One of Jack’s errors was that he claimed that the Bible doesn’t give us permission to kill anyone. Koukl at one point responded along this line by asking Jack, “If the Bible doesn’t give you the right to kill anybody then why are you killing everybody in the group?“
Jack’s response: “I’m not…..the people that actually kill them are killing them. You see they‘re the ones (the Nazi’s) that are actually responsible for the deaths of those folks.” I thought that was a good response.
Now Koukl, who has been arguing against relativism says, “You know every one is going to have to make their own choice on this one.” Then he goes back to the side issue of, does the Bible justify any killing. What happened to moral objectivism?!!! Make your own choice on this one??!!!!
Jack’s phone call was lost soon after and Koukl went on. He equated Jack’s position as one that would deny us the ability to go to war because we know innocent people die in war. He then states that the intentions or the goals justify the death of the innocent. “Your goal is not your intention to kill the baby the goal is to save the group. You don’t have “hostile feelings toward the wailing child. You have a desire to save the many.” He then states that this is not utilitarianism. I agree. But the decision, though now objectivistic, seems to be based on a relative objective standard, (save the most lives.)
A bit later he states that one could say, why not just trust God with the life of the group? To this Greg Koukl responds, (paraphrased) Why trust God with the lives of the group? Why not cover the baby’s mouth and trust God with the life of the child? Either way your subjecting some one to harm and if you’re going to trust God why not trust him to protect the child while you have the mouth covered rather that trusting God to protect the whole group.
Ok, is there a Biblically moral objective answer to this dilemma? Is it a dilemma at all?
Greg: “So, in this case … “murder is wrong” is the objective moral principle. So how do you address the dilemma? How do you deal with the dilemma, in a way that still respects the moral obligations you’re faced with. Because these kinds of things happen, by the way friends, we’ll talk about that more in a moment. In the case of a moral dilemma, like this one that’s cited, the guiding moral principle here seems to me that: (human life has transcendent value and should be protected.) You might state the moral rule half a dozen different ways but this is really what it comes down to. Human life is not the kind of thing you can take or endanger without proper justification.”
Already we have two conflicting moral imperatives 1. Murder is wrong and you can’t even endanger without justification. vs. 2. human life should be protected.
Greg also stated that there was no third option, however, after his phone call with Jack he said we could also trust in God for the proper outcome. This may seem foolish to some but it certainly wasn’t to Paul. They could trust God and fight the Nazis if found. God has given greater victories to lesser people. God could quiet the baby and save them all. The notion that this is a di-lemma (only two choices) is still true as trusting God (to me) would be to not kill the baby. Therefore it seems to me that lack of faith and/or conviction and courage, has subjectively limited the choices.
Next, imperative no. 1 is not: do no murder or preserve life. Imperative no. 1 is glorify God, trust in Him, and do not sin. Refusing to kill a baby to instead fight (and possibly die) for righteousness, is certainly not a sin. Though the “odds” seem slim, trusting in God is certainly not sin. Do we only protect life when there is a good probability of success? Where in the Bible does it tell us if the odds are against us we can kill a baby to increase our chances of survival? After all they could kill the baby and still be found. Killing the baby does not ensure their success. Exactly how do we calculate those odds anyway, knowing that God is in control? Kokul does claim to believe in the sovereignty of God, btw.
As Greg seems to admit, without a Biblical imperative, this seems to reduce to relativism. “You know every one is going to have to make their own choice on this one.”
Greg said, “It is only relativistic when it is the subject of the individual choosing who gets to willy nilly make whatever choice he wants. In objectivism the circumstances always dictate the right application of the moral rule. But what makes it not relativistic is that who ever is in exactly the same set of circumstances has exactly the same moral rule or application of the moral rule as anybody else. You can’t just make it up, so anybody can do whatever, so then every decision is just as good as any other decision. That’s relativism. Circumstances are always a factor in objectivism. Relativism (by contrast) is when the subject (that is the person deciding) is the final criterion not the circumstance.”
The subject didn’t have “hostile feelings.” The subject’s goals and intentions were good.
Although I tend to agree with his larger point that utility can be used within the grounding of Biblical morality. Notice with Jack, how the theme switched from objective moral imperatives justifying to subjective feelings, goals and intentions. Which came first, the utilitarianism or the relativism? Matters not to me.
Application of these moral values.
Seems to me they would sacrifice (proper word for the situation) the baby for an uncertain hope of a better life afterword. That sounds Biblically familiar. Times are hard we need rain, profit, victory in battle, or delivery from our enemies. Hey, lets send some children through the fire to Molech ( 2Kings 23:10 ) then we’ll have a hope of a better life afterwards. Isn’t this the argument for abortion today? Now that we’ve gone down the slippery slope to relativism why not go all the way. Who says that mother won’t go on to a better life if she just gets rid of that blob of tissue. What about the dad who won’t go to med school now because he has to get a job. Maybe there was a chance he could have cured cancer and saved millions of lives if we had just sacrificed that one baby. Greg Koukl faced this issue once on a show I heard, it seems it may be ok to sacrifice a child for a probable good outcome (the subject decides what’s good and probable.) There’s no certainty of outcome in either situation. If your feelings, goals, and intentions can justify then why not abort “willy nilly.”
Greg is of course prolife. Is his position weakened by his view of the “sacrifice of the baby?”
Is their a flaw in my logic? This would be a hard choice to make, but that is no excuse for not thinking about it. One lesson learned. If ever in a situation where you could be put in that position, learn how to do a field tracheotomy before hand. You can breath through a trache tube but you can’t cry out. See there are lessons to be learned from these “what if” situations. The heat of the moment clouds minds. Careful forethought prevents error.