Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When Commands Conflict

When presented with a multiplicity of commands as we are in the Decalogue, the possibility always exists that among those commands, we will find possible cases of conflict. Consider, for instance, the commands to keep the Sabbath holy and to honor father and mother. If I were to receive a call that my mother was in the hospital on a Saturday night, should I make the 6 hour drive to see her or should I say home and attend Mass? The answers seems obvious to me; indeed I would insist that it is obvious. But that point to the side, in this example commands conflict; and if we are to decide what to do, we cannot simply rely on these commands but must turn to a more basic command/rule/obligation that will allow us to adjudicate between the two. How will the more basic command accomplish this? It will rank the goods of the two commands; it will tell us which is more important and thus which is to be pursued in this case.

Thus commands can conflict, and I wish us here to consider the seek for the command/rule/obligation that will, as it were, break the tie . (Before I do, let me make a quick aside. I do not mean to say that any command can conflict with any other. Some commands are, no doubt, but special cases of others; and when this is so, no conflict is possible. Others might be strict logical consequences of other, higher-level, commands; and when this is so, again no conflict is possible.)

When commands conflict, we must have a way to decide what we are to do, and thus we must search for basic guides to action. Moreover, there must be a most basic guide; for if there were many that were equally basic, cases would arise where they conflict and action would become arbitrary or impossible.

Christ himself seems to have given us the way to decide. He says:

An expert in the law tested Jesus with this question, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:35-40)

This is the Law of Love. It is the one ultimate command, for as Christ says all others follow from it; and since all others follow from it, it can never contradict them. Rather, when lesser commands contradict, we must look to the Law of Love to adjudicate between them. Think back again to the case of conflict I considered above, where I must decide whether to keep the Sabbath holy or honor my mother. The Law of Love seems clearly applicable. My mother would wish to see him, and I would wish to see her. She loves me, and I her; and I would display the worst sort of lovelessness if I were not to see her. Moreover, that I would not keep the Sabbath seems, from the point of view of the Law of Love, of little importance in comparison. God will not suffer if I am not in church; and I will suffer much less if I go to my mother than I would if I did not.

My conclusion is this: the Law of Love, since it is the source of all other commands, must be allowed temper them all. None are absolute expect the Law of Love. All expect the Law of Love hold at best for the most part, and the duties they prescribe are, in part at least, situation bound. Only the Law of Love admits of no exceptions. When any other command contradicts the law of love, there we have an exception to it; and when commands conflict, the Law of Love must decide between them.

Moral absolutism, if taken to concern any command expect the Law of Love (and those commands that follow with strict necessity from it, if any there be) is fundamentally unchristian. Christians must not insist that all the various particular moral rules that are found in Scripture are absolute and without exception. By simple logical necessity, they are not. The only rule on which the Christian must insist is the Law of Love.

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