rahab’s exchange: ethical theories

image courtesy of reverendmom
[Continued from rahab’s exchange: the lie]


Rahab lied to the king’s men in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  We find her faith commended in Hebrews and her actions applauded in James — though neither writer explicitly states that Rahab was correct to lie.

Is it ever right to lie? Do we ever find ourselves in situations in which we’re forced to choose between two evils?  Or between two sins?  How do we make sense of situations like these?

Now we’re firmly in the realm of ethics.  I’m no expert, but I’m going to offer the three most accepted options — and dispose of the first two:

1.  Utilitarianism

The moral value of an action is based on happiness and pleasure for the largest number of people. While vastly popular today — and the underlying theme of many an action-suspense thriller — utilitarianism denies the presence of absolute good or evil.  Rather, the nebulous “greater happiness” is considered (and often referred to as the “greater good”).

My problems with utilitarianism (aka consequentialism) are many.  In the first place, it would seem quite difficult to calculate and quantify “happiness.”  I also have serious problems with the idea that a majority is allowed to simply decide what is right and wrong based on what they happen to enjoy.  Utilitarianism also ignores the individual’s motive and intention, and places all importance on an outcome which (in most situations) could never have been known.

  • If an affair between a married woman and a single man brings the two great happiness — and only the one husband is hurt — they have done the right thing.  But if the married couple has two children, what they’ve done suddenly becomes wrong.
  • If a very large nation can grow its economy and bring great happiness to its citizens by conquering a smaller country and using its inhabitants as slaves,  this is good, fair, and right by utilitarianism.

[One note of interest, pointed out to me yesterday by Teammate Carson, is that the first example above is generally accepted to be true in modern America — even among Christians.  Then the evil done is attributed to God himself, with cries of,  “But I’m certain God wants me to be happy.”]

2. Virtue Ethics

The emphasis here is not placed on results or actions, but rather on virtues.  In virtue ethics, there are particular character traits that are viewed as inherently good or evil, and morals are determined based on “being” rather than “doing.” While I appreciate the question practitioners are forced to ask — “What kind of person should I be?” — I believe virtue ethics falls short as a complete ethical theory.

First, virtue ethics gives no clear guidance as to how to act in a specific situation.  This doesn’t seem useful to me as far as ethics go.  Is courage more important than compassion today and in this place?  What if our cultures disagree as to whether pride or humility is the higher virtue?  What about virtues that change over time within a given culture; is a woman to be reserved, submissive, and modest — or outgoing, independent, and self-assured?

More problematic, though, is that, in order for virtue ethics to be a complete ethical theory, it requires the use of another theory; it cannot stand on its own. Virtue ethics (like utilitarianism) requires that there be no absolute rules — yet there are believed to be absolute virtues.  There is no absolute rule concerning telling lies, yet honesty is revered as a virtue.  That makes no sense.

I believe virtue ethics to be useful, but only because there do exist underlying rules which are absolute.  Virtue ethics has no way of determining what are and are not virtues without an underlying theory of absolute rules. I am of the mindset that, at their core, virtue ethics and deontological ethics (see below) are quite similar — and make a useful theory when viewed side by side.  However, I would argue that “doing” is what creates “being,” and such should be acknowledged.


The ethical theory which I find most compelling is this one:

3. Deontological Ethics

There exist moral rules, and it is our duty or obligation to adhere to these rules.  There is an intrinsic good, and we are obligated to act in accordance with this good. Our motivations, then, are taken into account and are more important than the consequences themselves (which can rarely be known in full).

Deontological ethics differs from utilitarianism in that a right action might not bring happiness to the greatest number of people (happiness is not deemed to be intrinsically good, as it is possible for humanity to derive happiness from that which is actually evil — see Roman gladiator entertainment).  An action may very well be right and good because the individual acted in accordance with moral rules, fulfilling his obligation to do what was right — even if the result was lessened happiness for many.

In most deontological systems, these moral rules, duties, and obligations are determined by a higher being, and doing what is right is a matter of obedience to that being. I would argue that God has determined what is right and wrong based on his own nature.  And that, when we are obedient to him, our nature becomes more like his.

There is a strong correlation here, in my mind, between deontological ethics and virtue ethics. I might argue that God’s virtues are what we seek to embody, and that we do this based on a God-given system of moral rules.  The more obedient we are, the more virtuous we become. So I see these two theories as a sort of puzzle… of the “which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” type.

I believe the virtues came first (in the nature of God), but that these virtues are incapable of guiding our everyday decision-making processes until we actually possess them.  I am able to embody these virtues, though, through continued obedience to moral rules and by the transformation of the Holy Spirit in my life. Over time I actually become an honest person, rather than an individual who merely follows the rules of honesty.  The rules are necessary, but the importance of the ethical system begins to diminish as I am transformed to be more like God.  [One of my major problems with virtue-based ethics theories is that if I don’t possess a particular virtue, it is impossible for me to act in keeping with that virtue without first extrapolating (a) rule(s) from that virtue.]

As with any ethical theory, there are problems with deontological ethics. Many.  For instance, what do we do when we are faced with a situation such as Rahab’s?  There is a moral rule not to lie.  But it conflicts with the moral rule to revere and save lives.  Many would at that point choose the “lesser evil.”  And they would then be employing utilitarianism (or something like it) to determine what is right (or less wrong).  Also, was Jesus ever faced with a situation in which he had to choose the “lesser evil?”  And yet he remained sinless?

In my next post, I intend to divide deontological ethics into three categories. And, of course, I’ve chosen to support one of these three sub-theories.

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38 Comments

Filed under exchanges, obedience

38 responses to “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories

  1. Throwing out some long words, brother! Years ago I took a graduate course called “The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” He wrote his book on Ethics while in prison for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler–what an ethical dilemma for a Lutheran pastor.

  2. I am a person with a lot of questions. ou seem to have sorted through some things. I’m hoping you can help me in the search, so I’ve subscribed. :0)

    (Let me know if you’d like a few questions to discuss in the future.)

    • write, thanks for coming by the blog — and for subscribing. you’re quite welcome here, though i don’t know that you’ll find answers to questions here. i may “seem” to have figured out some things, but really i’m still asking lots of questions myself. yours, by the way, are welcomed. one thing my blog does have is some very intelligent readers, and they might be of help.

  3. I liked your post. The story of Rahab is one of those difficult ones to understand. I guess that’s why we have to keep studying.
    Lying is listed in some of the groups of sins that Paul talks about. Lying is a sin but why was it OK in this case?
    I have trouble with some of the stories in Judges, also.

    • holly, i also have trouble with some of the stories in judges — and many others. and i’m not positive that rahab’s lies were okay in this situation. i’ve come to believe they were, but i can’t be sure. my next post on the subject should explain, though, why i’ve landed where i have in all of this.

      thanks for coming by.

  4. Didn’t Rahab wind up in Jesus’ lineage?

  5. I’ve been thinking about this. Maybe one of the reasons this story is included in the Bible is to show us that even when we are trying to do the right thing, we are still trapped in sin and completely unable to live up to God’s perfection. And how wonderful for ALL of us that a gentile, a prostitute and a liar is in God’s lineage. There’s hope for us all.

  6. I’m sorry…I should introduce myself. I’m Jane, in Pennsylvania, USA.
    I’m a follower of Christ who thinks that God is ok with questions….so I ask ’em. :0)

  7. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism | aliens and strangers

  8. I love this question and thoughts Brett.

    too bad though, I just spent a half hour on my thoughts…..hit a wrong button, and now,
    all is lost.

    I ‘ll have to share later ;(

  9. Hi, Jane. I think God wants us to ask lots of questions. I once heard that the literal translation for “be fruitful and multiply” means go out and explore, try stuff-at least the fruitful part. The multiply part I think means have kids.
    I cannot get over how when I read a story that I have heard a million times, I still come up with a question that I’ve never thought of. Amazing! I think the Bible was written that way on purpose, so ask away-hope that’s OK, Brett. If not, you can ask questions on my blog.
    Anyway, Brett, you’re funny. I love bacon.

    • Hi Holly,
      I journal my prayers, (helps me concentrate), so my journals are full of questions, and a fair amount of answers. Sometimes I have to go looking in commentaries, but every now and then I get a thought in my head that I know is not my own. I LOVE when that happens!

    • jane and holly, questions are welcomed. even hard ones.

      but, jane, if any of your questions concern jack-the-ripper… you should indeed aim them toward’s holly’s blog. i know nothing at all about that subject.

      you two didn’t know each other before meeting on this blog? for some reason, you strike me as if you guys are friends.

  10. No, Brett, we never met before. (Or typed to each other before.) BUT..I have already been on Holly’s blog and asked about Jack. (He and I WERE friends, mwahahahahah.) Just kidding.

    • if i didn’t have an amazing sense of humor, i’d be really creeped out right now. crept out? that’s an odd past tense conundrum; which is it?

    • That’s really weird, isn’t it? By the way, I’m in Virginia-Leesburg, just a few minutes from the Maryland border.
      Brett, thanks for your comment about Jack on my blog. I was just going to start putting my notes down but this woman on LinkedIn said, “No, I think you should start with little facts and let readers digest them for a week.
      I do want to change my description of the blog but I’m not sure how. I am hoping to “plant some seeds” but also want to have things on there that aren’t biblical. Any suggestions?

      • my wife is from virginia. richmond — glen allen to be exact. nice place.

        as for suggestions on blogging, i’ve got nothing. although i do think that the fact-a-week type approach is more interesting than just a couple of pages of notes on a subject. maybe i should get some kind of fact-a-week on here…

        i suppose my thoughts, though, are that christians are the readers of christian blogs. so if you’re thinking about the blog as some kind of evangelistic tool, i definitely think you’d do best for it not to be a “christian blog.”

        as for me, my blog has no real purpose. i’ve been debating whether i ought to create one for it, but i kind of like just writing what’s on my mind. i’m sure it’s a terrible strategy for blogging success, though. oh well.

  11. Sorry…I have a weird sense of humor. It really was a joke. :0)

  12. Creeped. Crept would be tiptoeing around. (imho).

  13. So, Holly and Brett, do you two know each other? I just assumed that you do.
    I’ve really enjoyed what i’ve read on both of your blogs. I started mine because I had a little tantrum at FaceBook for selling personal info to 3rd parties and deactivated my account. I know a lot of people who are not believers and was trying to use FB as a subtle influence for Christ. A blog is probably better suited for that…if I can get people to read it. So, I put in a number of categories, one of which is God. Here’s a disparity though: I found you guys through a random tag search. So WordPress’s computers must be set up to put “God” first in the tag search, because that’s what came up for me, even though I have several categories, only 2 posts in the God category,
    and the God category is NOT the one that gets the most hits. In other words, I wonder if WordPress is thinking that most people will be interested in posts on God, so that’s what it brings up first in a random tag search, but in reality, people don’t hit that category as much as they think. Ok..I just can’t say this clearly. Is anything coherent coming through?

    • it is coherent, jane. but i’m not sure how the random tag generators work.

      and i also quit facebook before starting a blog, though it’s been over two years ago now that i quit facebook. [and nearly a year and a half of having a blog.]

  14. Brett and I have never met, at least not in this life. 🙂
    Brett, I hope it’s OK that Jane and I are having a conversation on your blog. I’ll just invite everyone I know and we’ll have a party on your blog.
    It will probably get your ratings up. 🙂
    Oh, was I not supposed to answer this?! Yikes!
    I should have let you answer, Brett. Sorry.

  15. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself | aliens and strangers

  16. I’m a blog baby…I started March 8.

  17. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying? | aliens and strangers

  18. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a story of true faith | aliens and strangers

  19. Pingback: the lie of Jesus | aliens and strangers

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