Geisler's Three Schools of Principlized Ethics


Dennis McCallum

The following is a summary of three schools of principled ethics taken from Norman Geisler's Christian Apologetics.

Unqualified Absolutism

  1. Moral Precepts
    This view argues that all moral precepts are always absolute. Therefore, for any situation, one ought to do/not to do x. All moral conflicts are only apparent. It is always possible to do right, or to avoid doing something that is wrong. 
  2. Biblical Support
    1. The bible teaches that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). Therefore, that which he says is wrong is always wrong. The Bible may indicate that there is a hierarchy of morals, but this does not mean that we are justified in violating any of them. Jesus was repeatedly put into situations which seemed to be dilemmas, and he always found a way out.
    2. Matthew 23:23 not only says that love, justice and mercy are the weightier portions of the law. It also says that these should have been done, "without neglecting the others."
  3. Supporters
    1. Immanuel Kant
    2. John Murray
    3. Charles Hodge

Conflicting Absolutism

  1. Moral Precepts
    This view argues that there are moral dilemmas and conflicts. In these cases, one should do the lesser evil. However, the lesser evil is still wrong even though one may be doing what is "humanly" right. Doing what fulfills the highest rule in a situation could be excusable if the actor did not precipitate the moral conflict through antecedent evil acts. But it may still be wrong in that it does not fulfill every moral rule which applies to the situation. Hence tragic moral choices exist.
  2. Biblical Support
    1. Psalm 51:5 and Ephesians 2:3 teach that people are entirely in sin anyway. Therefore, we should not worry about denying this, but simply rely on the grace of God for forgiveness. It is the nature of a fallen world to produce situations where sin is unavoidable.
    2. In the case of Christ, God so arranged the situation that he was preserved from such situations. Also, he probably had no sin nature.
    3. "Ought" is not the same as "can." Man is not able to avoid sin, but he is still guilty.
    4. God is without sin, and he is immutable. He ordered us to obey our parents, and they might order us not to love God. In such a case, we would have to break the fifth commandment in order to keep the first. This does not mean that the fifth commandment no longer reflects true morality, as to do so would imply that God's character is either not moral or not immutable. The best solution is that this is a moral dilemma wherein one would have to commit sin.
    5. They claim the hierarchical model is nothing but situation ethics under a different name.
  3. Supporters
    1. Martin Luther
    2. Helmut Thielicke
    3. J. I. Packer
    4. J. W. Montgomery


  1. Moral Precepts
    In this view, one ought to do whatever fulfills the highest moral rule in a situation. When this is the case, such action is right, and the person in no way does wrong. Under this view, there are no tragic moral dilemmas. The lesser of two evils is a misnomer, it is argued, because such lesser evil is actually good.
  2. Biblical Support
    1. Matthew 12:4-7
      Christ said that the priests and David break the law, but that they are "innocent." This demonstrates that when ethical hierarchy is followed, the resulting action is not morally evil.
    2. James 2:25
      Demonstrates that Rahab was "justified" when she lied about the spies. Also, see the midwives at the time of Moses, and Peter and John disobeying the Sanhedrin in Acts 4 etc.
    3. Christ was "tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15).
      How could this be true under conflicting absolutism? Either (1) he never experienced a moral conflict, in which case he was not tempted in all ways, or (2) he did, in which case he would have to sin.
  3. Supporters
    1. John Wesley?
    2. Norman Geisler
    3. J.J. Davis (This view is also called contextual absolutism).
  4. Geisler's seven principles of ethical hierarchy
    1. Persons are more valuable than things
    2. Infinite persons are more valuable than finite persons
    3. Complete persons are more valuable than incomplete persons(!)
    4. Actual persons are more valuable than potential persons
    5. Potential persons are more valuable than actual things
    6. Many persons are more valuable than a few persons
    7. Personal acts that promote personhood are better than those which do not

Other References

Geisler, Norman. "Conflicting Absolutism." Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society 2 (1979).

Geisler, Norman. Ethics: Alternatives and Issues. (Zondervan, 1961)

Geisler, Norman. Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics. (Baker, 1981)