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.RLC