Black and white morality

I recently let slip (in front of an aunt of mine) that I’d been exploring Protestant churches, so she’s gone on a mini-crusade to get me back on that good ol’ Catholic path. Part of this mini-crusade involved passing me a little booklet to read, summarising the main beliefs of Catholicism.

This isn’t an inter-denominatory comparison, though. While looking through the booklet, somehow I’d started thinking about the issue of morality, especially in the context of Christianity. Specifically, I thought back on a lesson on the Ten Commandments I had a number of years ago – to make a long story short, they were taught in the context of absolute morality, as rules that must never be broken (or you would have sinned)! I was apparently a bit of a contrarian even back then, because I remember asking if there were exceptions to this. As an example, I brought up the hypothetical example of a crazed gunman holding hostages, threatening to execute them unless you were willing to tell lies. I suppose a more real-world scenario might be how a police officer/negotiator might state some non-truths while in the process of persuading the gunman to release the hostages. Basically, was it acceptable to break these laws in order to save lives?

My hypothetical scenario was at the time dismissed as being too extreme and impractical, and the underlying question was essentially ignored. Even in the case of the police negotiations, Christians might argue that negotiations can be conducted without any explicit lies being told. More recently though, I’ve read the novel Silence in which a similar scenario pops up. Granted that the story is a fictional one, but it was based on historical events and it isn’t too hard to imagine the events happening in real life – basically, Japanese believers were being tortured in a bid to make a foreign priest publicly renounce his faith, with the promise of the torture being halted if he were to do so.

I’m sure there are many arguments against caving in to such a demand, but it seemed to me that in agreeing to make a public display of renouncing one’s faith (even if privately that faith is still adhered to), lives would be saved. Although there are other implications at work here (e.g. the effect of a religious leader renouncing his faith), in my head the possibility of lives being saved by deviating from “God’s law” is indication enough that there cannot be a simple black and white morality, that there are always exceptions to rules, that it is impossible to come up with a definitive list of rules that one might follow in order to lead a good life.


Posted on August 19, 2008, in Faith. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. To continue in the hypothetical vein you have set, what if “conscience” and “morality” are merely accepted because they have been taught to us since the dawn of civilization?

    What if everything we know as good is actually bad? If a person was taught from birth to do the exact opposite of everything we know as good, would his conscience kick in? Would he experience an overwhelming visceral sense of guilt? Without being exposed and subject to societal norms, would consciences even exist?

    This argument of absolutism brings to mind the question asked in Fight Club; Would you rather be God’s greatest enemy, or nothing?


    • There is indeed much scope for discussion – I tried to cut it short because I realised halfway that I was starting to go into a rambling essay that no one would finish reading… (I’m rather surprised that you apparently did!) I started the argument coming from a Christian perspective – the traditional one in particular, where there exists a set of absolute laws handed down from God that people base their morals upon, concluding with the opinion that it is unlikely that those laws would have been meant to be absolute in nature, that there are exceptions depending on the situation. Even from a purely secular viewpoint, though, I do believe that there are objective standards of ‘good’ that people tend towards to. I think that many laws and moral codes (that seem to have evolved independently of one another) have so much in common indicates a universal tendency for humans to accept certain acts as generally good/bad, possibly according to how we would like other people to treat us.Your hypothetical scenario is an interesting one – I’m inclined to think that it is certainly possible for a child to be raised to have a reverse morality of sorts. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development predict that this child would question what he knows at a later stage of development, somewhat akin to being troubled by his conscience, but who knows? That theory seems pretty much rooted in the idea that laws were created to maintain social order – I’ve no idea what will happen in a society where the laws had the opposite effect.Personally, I’m inclined to think that the person would start questioning what’s right and wrong at some part of his life, but who knows, really?

      • Louis,

        Here’s something else to consider.

        Instead of a child being taught a reverse moral code, let’s hypothesise a Dystopian future where “good” is strictly defined by a fascist or totalitarian government.

        Let’s say what we know as “good” is now shunned by society and any acts of kindness or altruism are frowned upon or even punishable by law. Would a truly virtuous person persist with his moral endeavours, knowing that what he is doing is right? Or does he conform to what is expected of him in consideration of his plight? After all, aren’t we merely doing what we have been told we SHOULD do?

        I may be meandering here but really, who’s to say what we know as right is right?

        In a push comes to shove battle between Id, Ego and Superego, I am inclined to think the primitive and primal nature of the Id will win.


  2. So, basically if a solider in a war wants to just give up and give in that is ok? The reality hear is, the solider takes an oath to defend his country to the end. If he doesnt’t we would never win a war. We would not be defended. He is not there to just defend himself but to defend his oath. The only people willing to lay down their lives for a stranger or for people they do not like, is Christ and our Soliders who fight for our freedom.
    The Ten Commandments are rules set into place by God for our benifit. You know what they mean. It is a black and white issue. There is no grey. For the believer there is heaven and hell. No other choice. So give me a break. Quit trying to make there be three choices when there are not. Yes, you should be willing to die for your faith. Jesus was. It is one thing to break a commandment, God knew we would. That is why he sent Christ. But to knowingly do it and expect forgiveness just puts you in the “Black” catagory. Really you do not get to choose, God does, what is right and what is wrong. In the end we will all stand before Chirst and be accountable for every thought and every deed. Even is you are not a believer, you will be there too. The only difference is while here on earth you thought there was three choices, black, grey, and white. White is white and grey is a shade of black. In God’s kingdom there is no room for sin (Black or Grey). It is simply a choice and you get to make it and God gets to judge. What will it be.

    • Sandra,

      A soldier who refuses to give in might simply cause more suffering in the end. Take, for instance, terrorists (a.k.a. freedom fighters, depending on your viewpoint) – they haven’t given up on fighting for their people. But have Hamas’s rocket attacks made things any better for Palestine? Perhaps I am too short-sighted and do not look at things in the long run, but it seems to me that there are exceptions in these things.

      I believe it is all very well and good to want to sacrifice your own life for your religion, but is it acceptable to sacrifice others’ as well? I suppose it would be alright if they’re willing to become martyrs, but what if they aren’t?

      Finally, on black/white/grey – there were people in Jesus’s day who regarded the law as black and white, and lived their lives according to it. Yet the Pharisees, choosing to follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, were constantly reprimanded by Jesus. Jesus himself broke free of many of the Old Testament laws, showing for example that human life was more important than strict adherence to the Sabbath.

      It would be so much simpler if everything were simply black and white, but somehow I fail to see how it can be so.

      • I never want to hear “I never knew you”. We all have to make our own
        decisions. Here are a few scriptures that I hold near and dear to my heart.

        “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but
        inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do
        men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree
        bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A
        good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring
        forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn
        down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
        Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of
        heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many
        will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?
        And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful
        works? And then will I profess unto them, I NEVER KNEW YOU: depart from me,
        ye that work iniquity.” (Matt 7:15-23)

        The Letter to the Church in Sardis
        Revelations 3:16

        “To the messenger[1][a] of the church in Sardis, write:

        ‘The one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says this:

        ‘I know what you’ve been doing. You are known for being alive, but you are
        dead. 2Be alert, and strengthen the things that are left, which are about to
        die. I note that your works are incomplete before my God. 3So remember what
        you received and heard. Obey it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will
        come like a thief, and you won’t know the time when I will come to you. 4But
        you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will
        walk with me in white clothes because they are worthy. 5The person who
        conquers in this way will wear white clothes, and I will never erase his
        name from the Book of Life. I will acknowledge his name in the presence of
        my Father and his angels.

        6‘Let everyone[2][b] listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

        The Letter to the Church in Philadelphia
        7“To the messenger[3][c] of the church in Philadelphia, write:

        ‘The one who is holy, who is true,

        who has the key of David,

        who opens a door that[4][d] no one can shut,

        and who shuts a door that[5][e] no one can open,

        says this:

        8‘I know what you’ve been doing. Look! I have put in front of you an open
        door that no one can shut. You have only a little strength, but you have
        obeyed my word and have not denied my name. 9I will make those who belong to
        the synagogue of Satan—those who claim to be Jews and aren’t, but are
        lying—come and bow down at your feet. Then they will realize that I have
        loved you. 10Because you have obeyed my command to endure,[6][f] I will keep
        you from the hour of testing that is coming to the whole world to test those
        living on the earth. 11I am coming soon! Hold on to what you have so that no
        one takes your victor’s crown. 12I will make the one who conquers to become
        a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, and he will never go out of it again. I
        will write on him the name of my God, the name of the city of my God (the
        new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God), and my own new name.3

        13‘Let everyone[7][g] listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

        The Letter to the Church in Laodicea
        14“To the messenger[8][h] of the church in Laodicea, write:

        ‘The Amen, the witness who is faithful and true, the originator of God’s
        creation, says this:

        15‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were
        cold or hot. 16Since you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going
        to spit you out of my mouth. 17You say, “I am rich. I have become wealthy. I
        don’t need anything.” Yet you don’t realize that you are miserable, pitiful,
        poor, blind, and naked. 18Therefore, I advise you to buy from me gold
        purified in fire so you may be rich, white clothes to wear so your shameful
        nakedness won’t show, and ointment to put on your eyes so you may see. 19I
        correct and discipline those whom I love, so be serious and repent! 20Look!
        I am standing at the door and knocking. If anyone listens to my voice and
        opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he will
        eat[9][i] with me. 21To the one who conquers I will give a place to sit with
        me on my throne, just as I have conquered and have sat down with my Father
        on his throne.

        Matthew 7:13-14.

        Narrow and Wide Gates
        “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the
        road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the
        gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

        22‘Let everyone[10][j] listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.’”—–
        Original Message

        a.. So many people use the grey area to not hold themselves accountable.
        The scriptures are clear on many things, one of which is one day we will be
        asked to die for our faith. My question is “ What would I gain if I saved
        my life but lost an eternity?”

        Matt. 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill
        the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in

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