My first Wikipedia article: Graded absolutism

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Graded absolutism

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Graded absolutism is a theory of moral absolutism which resolves the objection to absolutism that in moral conflicts we are obligated to opposites. Moral absolutism is the ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them. Graded absolutism is moral absolutism but adds that a moral absolute, like “Do not kill,” can be greater or lesser than another moral absolute, like “Do not lie”. Graded absolutism, also called contextual absolutism or the greater good view, is an alternative to the third alternative view and the lesser evil view, both discussed below, regarding moral conflict resolution.


According to graded absolutism, in moral conflicts, the dilemma is not that we are obligated to opposites, because greater absolutes are not opposites of lesser absolutes, and evil is not the opposite of good but is instead the privation of good. Since evil is the privation of good, only the privation of the greater good counts as evil, since whenever there is a moral conflict, we are only obligated to the greater good.  The real dilemma is that we cannot perform both conflicting absolutes at the same time. ‘Which’ absolutes are in conflict depends on the context, but which conflicting absolute is ‘greater’ does not depend on the context. That is why graded absolutism is also called ‘contextual absolutism’ but is not to be confused with situational ethics. The conflict is resolved in acting according to the greater absolute. That is why graded absolutism is also called the ‘greater good view’, but is not to be confused with utilitarianism.

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[edit] The third alternative view

This is the view that there are never any real moral conflicts [1] and that there is always a third alternative. However, if there is no real dilemma, what is the need for a third alternative? And surely moral dilemmas exist which have no real third alternative. When asked by a potential murderer the location of a would-be victim, we can either consider it more important to save the potential victim’s life—or we can consider it more important to tell the truth to the victim’s would-be murderer—we cannot do both, and there is no third alternative between them.

[edit] The lesser evil view

The lesser evil view is the view that the only way out of a moral conflict is to violate one of the moral absolutes and choose the lesser evil. For example, if we disagree with Kant‘s thoughts on the categorical imperative and say that lying is a lesser evil than helping a would-be murderer, the lesser evil view would have us lie rather than help a would-be murderer. This violates the ought implies can principle and defeats itself in obligating evil.

[edit] The greater good view

Graded absolutism, or the greater good view, is the view that there are real moral conflicts between absolutes, but rather than requiring a third alternative (as in the case of the third alternative view above) or obligating evil (as in the case of the lesser evil view above), this view obligates the greater absolute, or greater good. For example, when one saves a life rather than telling the truth to a would-be murderer, one is committing the greater good of saving life, rather than violating the lesser good of telling the truth or committing the lesser (than aiding a murderer) evil of lying. Since evil is the privation of good, only the privation of the greater good counts as evil, since whenever there is a moral conflict, we are only obligated to the greater good.

[edit] Objections

  • It is often argued that graded absolutism (the greater good view) reduces to situational ethics. However, the situation is used to determine which absolutes are in conflict, not which absolute is greater or lesser.
  • Though graded absolutism is usually associated with Christian philosopher Norman Geisler [2], some [1] argue there is no Biblical basis for it. Norman Geisler responds in “Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective” [3] that the Bible has many examples of God approving rather than condemning instances when people acknowledged the higher over the lower, like when God blessed and gave families to the Hebrew midwives who “disobeyed government and lied to the king (Exodus 1:19) in order to save the male babies,” (p. 417). He points out that “Jesus spoke of ‘greater sin’ (John 19:11), ‘greater love’ (John 15:13), ‘greatest commandment’ (Matt 5:19), and ‘weightier matters’ of the law (Matt. 23:23),” (ibid, p. 424). He asserts killing in self defense (Exodus 22:2), capital punishment (Gen. 9:6), and in a just war against aggression (Gen. 14) were all greater goods (ibid, p. 418).

[edit] Works cited

  • [1] Ethics: Knowing Right from Wrong; by Stan Reeves.
  • [2] Any Absolutes? Absolutely!; by Norman Geisler.
  • [3] “Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective” by Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg; Baker Academic; 2nd edition (May 1, 1987); ISBN 0801038189.

[edit] Further reading

“Christian Ethics: Options and Issues” by Norman L. Geisler; Baker Academic; 2nd edition (1989); ISBN 9780801038324.

[edit] See also

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
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