When Duties Collide

You are living in Nazi-occupied Holland of 1942. A family of Jews is hiding in your attic. The authorities knock on the front door and ask an entirely unambiguous question: “Do you have any Jews in your house?” You have a choice: tell the truth, or tell a lie. Which will it be?

Almost every freshman will have to answer this question in an introductory ethics class. The scenario is intended to force your hand: you are expected to come down on the side of lying. After all, how could you possibly think that your duty to the truth outweighs your duty to human life?

There is more at stake here than the practical problems of living under a genocidal military regime. Having to choose among a variety of competing duties is supposed to make us see that duties cannot be absolute. Whether we tell the truth or save a life will depend on the situation. So although a system of obligations, commands, principles and duties might seem to offer a hard-and-fast guide to making moral choices, it actually burdens us with countless moral dilemmas.

The rub, of course, is that Biblical ethics is primarily an ethics of duty.[1] Undermining this ethical system turns the Ten Commandments into the Ten Suggestions. If loving God and obeying His commandments (1 John 5:2) cannot guide our life, then why trust those commandments, or the Book in which they are found, or the God Who gave them in the first place?

I hope at least a few of those freshmen will see the trap that has been set for them. Why, for instance, would the authorities take your answer at face value? If, after asking you the question, they barge in, search the house, and find the family cowering in the attic, then you are in trouble whether you lied or not. If you try to deceive through misdirection by saying, for instance, that the Jews are in the alley behind the house, and unknown to you, this is where the family rushed when the Nazi’s came to the door, then you have just sealed their fate with a lie. And besides, if you were going to hide this family, surely you could come up with something better than a lie to protect them.

The critical moral decision will not be made at the door; it would have been made when you agreed to take these fugitives into your home in the first place. In reality, many Dutch families acted either on their own initiative, or on the urging of local church leaders and other members of the community.[2] Whatever their personal motivation, they put themselves and their families at risk to help those in need.

Secularists would like us to think that the Christian life is unlivable. They imagine we are inundated by moral dilemmas on every side so that either we are incapable of making a decision, or we are constantly surrendering our principles.  And when we are not arbitrarily picking and choosing which rules we want to obey, we are acting on the same base impulses as everyone else.

Maybe some Christians are like this. I once heard a person in Bible class set 1 Tim. 5:8 against Rom. 13:1. “The man who doesn’t provide for his family is worse than an infidel,” he insisted, “and I can’t make a living if I drive at the speed limit.” But he could only bring these duties into conflict by misunderstanding and misapplying at least one of those passages.

“Love God” is the first and greatest commandment; “Love your neighbor” is next (Matt. 22:37-40). This implies a hierarchy of duties, but it would be a contradiction in terms to say that some duties are optional or negotiable. It is not the duties that come into conflict, but the will of man and the will of God.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, December 2010, p. 11.]

[1] Biblical ethics also requires the development of character or virtue. See “Can Humanists Offer the Good Life?,” http://trevormajor.com/archives/755?GTTabs=4.

[2] Bert Jan Flim, “Opportunities for Dutch Jews to hide from the Nazis, 1942-1945,” in Dutch Jews as Perceived by Themselves and by Others. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001, pp. 301-305.

© 2010 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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