Sunday, March 16, 2008

Moral Absolutes

A former student taking a grad course in Old Testament ethics asks this question (slightly edited):

What do you think about the idea of non-conflicting absolutes? With regards to moral laws, for example, do you think it is correct to claim that there are moral absolutes that never conflict? Do you think there may be exceptions intrinsic to the absolute, which allow for a "non conflicting scenario" to take place...?

Here's my reply:

Good questions, Jeremy. No, I don't think moral absolutes never conflict. Nor do I think there are exceptions to an absolute. Absolutes may certainly be in conflict with each other, and if there were exceptions to them they wouldn't be absolutes.

In my view there are only two moral absolutes (unless we count our duty to love God with our whole self as a moral absolute): Do justice and do compassion. These two could be conflated into a single absolute as Jesus does in Matthew 22:39, i.e. Love others, but for the sake of this discussion I think we are commanded to always do what is just and do what is compassionate. These may sometimes conflict, however, and that creates a tension. For example in the matter of war, criminal punishment, or even disciplining a child, it may be that the demands of justice and the command of compassion seem to tug us in opposite directions.

It's part of our responsibility as free and thinking Christians to find in any situation the best balance between the two. It's as if they sometimes reside at either end of a see-saw and we need to find the center of gravity at which point they're in balance. Thus, in a particular situation we may have to punish to satisfy justice, but our punishment should be tempered with compassion. We should not punish someone who tortured someone to death by doing the same thing to him. Whether the fulcrum is closer to the justice end of the see-saw or the compassion end may depend upon the details of the case.

It's a consequence of living in a fallen world that moral decisions are often not as neat and clear as we'd like them to be. There are situations in life where we have no specific rules to guide us, only the principles of compassion and justice. In those situations we must decide what to do, it is our existential burden, but our decisions must be informed by those two absolute principles and a desire to maximize both to the extent possible.


Public Opinion of the War

David Paul Kuhn has an interesting piece at on public perception of the surge:

American public support for the military effort in Iraq has reached a high point unseen since the summer of 2006, a development that promises to reshape the political landscape.

According to late February polling conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans - a slim majority - now believe "the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals" in Iraq. That figure is up from 42 percent in September 2007.

The percentage of those who believe the war in Iraq is going "very well" or "fairly well" is also up, from 30 percent in February 2007 to 48 percent today.

Views of the war in Iraq have long varied depending upon party affiliation, unlike during the Vietnam War. Although even Democratic discontent has ebbed for the first time in more than a year - 29 percent now support keeping troops in, an increase of 8 percentage points since last summer - foreign policy advisers to both candidates dispute the idea that Democrats are in the unenviable position of disagreeing with the majority of Americans over whether the war in Iraq can succeed.

There's more on this at the Politico link.

The trend lines here explain why the media has suddenly lost its voice on Iraq and why the war has almost ceased to be an issue for Democrats. The poll results are certainly good news for Republicans, especially John McCain who was an early advocate of the surge and has been a steady supporter in the Senate of the need to win both militarily and politically in Iraq.

We have argued in the past that to yield to the Democrats' call for withdrawal would be a calamty for the region, the U.S. and the whole world. Any candidate for president who says he or she would pullout of Iraq before the country has been secured demonstrates a myopia that ipso facto disqualifies him or her from the office. We give our reasons here.