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Are Some Virtues More Important ?

The thorniest moral decisions we make are those that involve a conflict between two moral principles. In the novel Les Misérables, Jean Valjean becomes a criminal when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Which is the dominant principle, respect for another's property or duty to provide for one's own family? Perhaps a more typical instance is when someone asks you to divulge a secret in such a way that to refuse to answer would be to give the secret away. Which is the dominant principle, consistent truthfulness or showing loyalty to a friend by lying to keep a secret confidential?

Christians often sense a conflict between justice and compassion. For example, a Christian professor is working with a college student who has a learning disability. Despite being given double the time for completing tests and assignments that other students receive, the student still cannot meet the learning objectives of the course. The student has passed all the other courses required for graduation; only this one is lacking. Should the teacher show Christian compassion and pass the student (even though the teacher intends to fail other students with similar test grades) or should she grade totally impartially on the basis of what the student does on the tests? Which is more important, giving the student what he merits (justice) or giving the student special treatment appropriate to his needs (compassion)?

Conflicts like these suggest to many people that moral rules (for example, "Show fairness by treating everyone alike") cannot be absolute. Utilitarians maintain that situations require rules to be modified or ignored. The basic idea behind situation ethics is that we occasionally have divided ethical loyalties. One principle, such as saving a life whenever possible, may take precedence over another principle, such as always telling the truth. In that case, the moral rule is: "You may violate a moral rule if you do so for a reason that all rational persons would accept as right were they in your position."

While hypothetical crisis situations underscore the potential for ethical conflicts, most of the ethical questions Christians face daily pertain to conflicts between virtues and personal values. For example, you have twenty dollars of discretionary income to spend, do you give it to famine relief in Ethiopia or do you spend it on a movie with popcorn and cokes? Here lies a conflict between a virtue (altruistic generosity) and a value (aesthetic enjoyment of a night out). How should a Christian choose? Can a choice be avoided without self-deception or bad faith? What should be the guiding principle in making the decision?

Sometimes Christians face moral choices that involve self-interest without overt selfishness. Suppose you are a 52-year-old man with a wife who earns no income and a child who has just started college. Your boss asks you to falsify information in a bid so your company can win a contract. You realize that, at your age, it would be difficult if not impossible to find another job that would support your family. Which virtue should outweigh the other, honesty and integrity or loyalty to your family? Christians often face choices where, although life and death don't hang in the balance, serious consequences will nevertheless result.

Virtues do conflict at times. For those who believe in absolute moral rules or laws, such conflicts can create intense agony, since one good must necessarily be sacrificed to another. For those who believe in situation ethics, such conflicts represent a powerful temptation to behave in a self-serving manner. It is where virtues come into conflict that we truly recognize the limits of rules and our need for the mind of Christ.


1.Have you or someone close to you ever faced a situation where you felt your job was threatened by an ethical question? Describe the situation and how you handled it.

2.Can you find any instances in the Bible where two virtues (for example, justice and compassion) conflicted? What happened?

3.Some Christians traveling with their families will not stop to help people stranded on the highway for fear of endangering their family members. Are Christians obliged to show compassion whenever it is called for or should concern for safety take precedence over compassion? How would you handle such a situation?

4.In Judges 4:17-22, Jael lures Sisera into her tent and drives a tent peg through his temple. In the context, would you call this an example of justifiable homicide?

5.In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul compares faith, hope, and love and concludes that the greatest of these three is love. Are we to conclude from this passage that virtues can be ranked in order of importance? Why is love greater than the other two?

6.Are there limits to Christian heroism or should Christians always be ready to sacrifice everything in order to retain their moral integrity? For example, should you renege on a promise if keeping that promise meant you would lose your family's life savings?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 3, 2007 11:54 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Are Christian Ethics Relevant?.

The next post in this blog is How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part One.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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