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Right thinking on choosing the lesser of two evils

Right thinking on choosing the lesser of two evils

As in 2016, the upcoming 2020 presidential election has some Christians agonizing over their vote with a portion saying they’ll abstain from voting while others claim they’ll cast their ballot for a third-party candidate. Their reasoning revolves around the idea that we, once again, are restricted to what looks like a lesser of two evils situation.  

Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

On one hand there’s Donald Trump who is unashamedly an egotist, has had questionable relationships with other women while married, and a person who struggles to present a maturity level that matches the office he won.

On the other hand, we have Joe Biden who repeatedly demonstrates a personality that matches his party’s mascot, whose history with women can be summed up by Sting’s song Don’t Stand So Close To Me, and, when it comes to creating meaningful moral legislation, couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.

The 2020 election once again raises the question of what Christians should do when faced with what appears to be a lesser of two evils situation. I’d like to flip the script a bit and suggest that instead of looking at the matter in that way, there’s a better mindset and approach to the subject.  

Options for Christian ethics

The field of ethics is critical to understand because it’s foundational to life. Whether it’s general government rule, the legal system, or our individual lives, right thinking and implementation of correct ethical frameworks produces either human flourishing or outright misery.

Categories of ethical thought are divided into either deontological or teleological camps, with the first being duty-centered and the second being end-centered. Scripture makes clear that Christian ethics are deontological and not teleological in nature.

Those two ethical categories can be subdivided into at least six systems of thought. The first three are not Christian in scope and include Antinomianism, which says there are no moral laws; Situationalism that is extreme moral relativity; and Generalism, which asserts that some general laws exist, but no absolute ones.

The three possible Christian options include Unqualified Absolutism that says we have many absolute laws that never conflict; Conflicting Absolutism, which states there are absolute laws that do conflict and when that happens we are obliged to do the lesser evil; and Graded Absolutism that also asserts we have conflicting absolute laws, but our obligation is not to the lesser evil but rather the greater good.

Clearly our fallen world presents us with situations where absolute laws conflict, so of the three possible Christian choices, we’re left with the Conflicting and Graded Absolutism options.

The greater good

The lesser of two evils concept arises from the Conflicting Absolutism position and has its roots in Greek thinking. The Greeks produced many tragedy-oriented theater dramas that revolved around heroes who faced seemingly no-win situations. The position has been more fully developed from a Christian perspective by the Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke.  

There are a number of problems with Conflicting Absolutism, with the first being that it holds we are obligated to perform what seems like a moral wrong. Many who struggle with voting for an ethically-marred political candidate wrestle with this aspect of the position.

The second issue with Conflicting Absolutism is that it states the lesser evil you choose is still a sin (because the choice still violates a moral absolute), although forgiveness is available. That being the case, unless Jesus somehow avoided all moral dilemmas in this life (and He didn’t), then He must have sinned at some point.

Getting us past these and other problems is Graded Absolutism. Graded Absolutism agrees that absolutes exist and that moral conflicts occur in our fallen world, but when they do, it is not our duty to choose the lesser evil, but rather the greater good. And when we do so, no sin is involved.  

Make no mistake, this is not word games; the difference is genuine.

Take for example the situation described in Exodus 1:15-22 where the Egyptian Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all male babies born to the Jews. The midwives disobeyed the king, let the male babies live, and then lied to the king as to why they didn’t follow his command.  

We have a clear dilemma in the passage involving moral absolutes. God commands us not to lie; in fact, it’s in His top ten, so to speak. But so is the commandment not to murder.

Conflicting Absolutism says the midwives chose the lesser evil in not murdering the male babies, but were still guilty before God of lying.

Graded Absolutism disagrees and says the midwives chose the greater good of saving the children and are not culpable to God for lying because the lower moral duty of telling the truth is superseded by the higher moral duty of saving a life. The passage in question seems to implicitly agree when it says, “So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families” (Ex. 1:20-21).

The concept of a higher moral law, such as saving a life, exempting a lower law, such as lying, when the two come into conflict is something alluded to in Scripture a number of times. For example, Jesus refers to “weightier matters of the Law” (Matt. 23:23) and commandments that are the ‘greatest’ vs. others (Matt. 22:37-40).

So rather than approach moral conflicts with a lesser of two evils mindset, our thinking should be greater good focused. With the upcoming 2020 election where every contender is morally flawed (as we all are), if one candidate legitimately supports legislation that is keeping with God’s standards (e.g. protecting unborn lives, religious liberty, etc.) and the other backs laws that are in conflict with those standards, then voting for the former, which promotes Gods ways, vs. the latter that does not should not be thought of as doing the lesser of two evils, but rather the greater good. 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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