Are There Moral Laws?
By Dan Rubio and Justin Mulwee
People often debate whether or not it is okay to break an apparent moral rule in order to prevent some greater evil. A classic example would be the following scenario: Nazis are at your door, and you have Jews hiding in your house. The Nazis ask you if there are any Jews in your house. Do you tell the truth, sending them to their death, or do you lie to save them?
For some this might be a serious dilemma, but the immediate choice for most people is lie your ass off. So it seems that, though “thou shalt not lie” is clearly a moral rule, some moral rules should be broken under some circumstances.
Lying to Nazis to save Jews seems acceptable because lying seems We intend to examine whether or not any rule should be obeyed in all circumstances. In other words, is there such a thing as an iron-clad moral law? Or is every single law breakable, depending on the situation?
First, a key distinction must be drawn: moral laws are not moral facts. A moral fact applies only to a fully specific situation, and dictates the right action in that situation. A moral fact would be “I shouldn’t steal this woman’s purse right now.” A moral law, on the other hand, is a generalizable rule that putatively governs moral facts. A moral law would be “No one should steal anything from anyone”.
We are presently concerned moral laws, not moral facts. More explicitly, our position is that there is no such thing as a moral law.
In finding moral rules to examine we need to look no further than the ten commandments. They are ancient laws, short and sweet, given by God himself, and many of our societal laws are based on them. Instead of analyzing each commandment, let’s take the simplest, most straightforward and widely agreed upon rule and attempt to break it.
A Dilemma with Chainsaws
The best candidate is “Thou shalt not kill,” or better translated “you shall not murder.” For those concerned with the original language, the word translated as kill or murder is “ratsach” which most properly means “dash to pieces.” In most contexts, it refers to the criminal act of killing a person, i.e., murder.
“Do not murder” seems as solid of a moral law as we could hope to find. Whatever we decide about this law, we can apply it with appropriate modifications to any other proposed moral law.
With that out of the way, consider the following scenario: You and your family are kidnapped by a powerful but eccentric villain. He brings you into a room where you see your family tied up, and by them are two of his thugs with chainsaws. He tells you that if you do not go out and murder someone, his thugs will cut your family’s faces off with the chainsaws until they are dead. Do you go commit the murder and save your family?
A Word On Tricky Answers
For many, the first impulse to this scenario is to find a way to escape having to solve the dilemma by giving some tricky answer. We’ll call this the nitpicking response. You could nitpick at the scenario by saying “How do I know the villain will keep his word?” For all such questions we could stipulate that an angel (or some suitably reliable agent) came and told you that the villain would keep his word, and your only two choices are indeed to murder or watch your family murdered.
The nitpicker might also turn to semantics: “Well, it’s not really murder unless I do it for no good reason, or some reason unworthy of killing someone.” In that case, she is drifting away from the realm of moral law and into that of moral fact. There are many ways we could go about describing the killing as “not really murder.” Eventually, ‘do not murder’ will not be a moral law, but a family of moral facts in which the moral course of action is to not kill.
In that case, the nitpicker has revealed something about the command “do not murder” — that the definition of murder seems to include a set of complex distinctions involving motives and consequences. In other words, the simplest and most straightforward commandment turns out to be not simple or straightforward at all. In drawing such careful, context-based distinctions, the nitpicker has come over to our side.
Tricky answers, excuses and semantics aside, you are then left with two options: murder someone or watch your family die a gruesome death.
Acting “On Principle”
If you personally refuse to commit murder to save your family, you might hope your family will understand (as their faces are forcibly removed) that you are a man of principle, and refuse to violate God’s law.
But what principle? Surely it is not the preservation of life, since more lives will be preserved if you commit the murder. Nor is it simply that people should not be murdered, because the result of your refusal to murder one person is that several people will be murdered. At some point you must admit that in allowing your family to die you would be following a rule just to follow it. In this case, that results in a horrific and entirely preventable death for the people closest to you.
But perhaps you wish to stick to your guns. “At least it’s not me committing the murder(s),” you may reply. “My conscience is clean.” Perhaps so, although it is unclear that ‘killing’ and ‘letting die’ are all that distinct. Consider someone who fails to rescue a drowning toddler: does that person have a clean conscience? If ‘killing’ and ‘letting die’ are distinct, and the moral laws allow for ‘letting die,’ then strictly speaking, yes. All that person may be charged with is a defective character, not the death of a toddler. But that seems incorrect. A distinction between ‘killing’ and ‘letting die’ then will not give the pacifist refuge.
The Lever of Death
The scenario, then, may be modified to be more analogous to the drowning toddler. Suppose that instead of the chainsaws, you are presented with a lever. The villain tells you that if you do not pull the lever within 30 seconds, your family will fall to their death on a bunch of spikes. If you do, an innocent person will.
In this case, if you pull the lever, you will commit murder. An innocent person will be dead as a result of your actions. If you fail to pull the lever, you let your family die. They will be dead as a result of your non-actions.
If you still prefer to stick to your guns, the consequences may be increased. Say it is not your family only, but a thousand people, or ten thousand, or a million, who are going to get spiked. Or perhaps they are not going to get spiked; they are instead going to be on a one way chute to the very worst level of Dante’s hell. This preempts even the pious response that ‘at least they would go to heaven.’
The nitpicker may now reappear and object: “this is an impossible scenario, so my rule need not apply.” If it makes you feel better, suppose this place is not Dante’s hell, but a place very much like it, where the villain has learned to extend life indefinitely and recreate Dante’s tortures.
What About Miracles?
The nitpicker may try one final gambit. “Perhaps this works for an atheist, “ she says, “but I am a Christian, and I believe God would prevent this from happening with a miracle.” But that assumption flies in the face of history. People have done many things more evil than this, up to and including holocausts, and miracles have not been forthcoming. Why is the nitpicker so special as to get one when so many others never did?
It looks like in this scenario–which is improbable but not impossible–the rule “do not murder” can and should be justly overruled. There are no rules because every rule can be broken. There are no moral laws without exceptions, which means that there are no real moral laws. The “laws” are sign posts, and the Christian must learn to look beyond them to the truths they represent. More on that later.