Excerpts from My Search for Absolutes: Chapter 3 by Paul Tillich

The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions

 . . . [W]e must ask about the rise of moral consciousness in past history and today . . . for with each unique human being moral consciousness develops anew. Its source is the encounter of person with person, an encounter in which each person constitutes an absolute limit for the other. Each person, in being a person, makes the demand not to be used as a means. We can run ahead in the world in knowing and acting, in every direction, in every dimension. We can make use of all kinds of things in order to do this. But suddenly we encounter a person, a being who says without words, simply by being a person, "Just to this point and not beyond! Acknowledge me as a person. You cannot use me as a means." And we say the same thing to him. Both of us demand acknowledgment as persons. My demand on him is as unconditional as his demand on me. That which is only a thing, or predominantly a thing, can be used. But if one uses a person one abuses not only him but also one’s self, and it is this that creates the unconditional character of the moral imperative. If I use a person as a thing I myself lose my dignity as a person. This, of course, is a description of the norm, the validity of which we can experience. In reality it has always been trespassed, broken, violated; and we violate it continually. Here is the birthplace of the unconditional character of the moral imperative.

Now we ask: Why is this imperative unconditionally valid? The answer is: because it is our own true or essential being that confronts us in the moral command, demanding something from us in our actual being with all its problems and distortions. If we act against this command from our true being, we violate ourselves . . .

Religious ethics say that the moral command is a divine command, that it expresses "the will of God." "The will of God" is a symbolic way of speaking, and we must interpret it in order to deprive it of connotations of arbitrariness on the part of a heavenly tyrant. God’s will is given to us in the way we are created, which means it is given through our true nature, our essential being. It is not something arbitrary that falls from heaven; it is the structure of our true being that speaks to us in the moral command. If we were united with our essential being, there would be no command. We would be what we should be, and do what we should do. There would be no "ought to be," no command, "Thou shalt. . ." only simple being.

This, however, is not the case. We are separated from our true, our essential being, and therefore it stands against us, it commands and commands unconditionally. Someone may ask: "Why should I not violate myself by disobeying what my true being demands of me? Why should I not throw away my dignity as a person, even destroy myself as a person?"

This question can be answered only if we turn our thoughts toward another dimension, the dimension of the holy. From the point of view of the holy, we do not belong to ourselves but to that from which we come and to which we return -- the eternal ground of everything that is. This is the ultimate reason for the sacredness of the person and, consequently, for the unconditional character of the moral command not to destroy our essential being which is given to us and which we may disregard and destroy.

All this is the first and fundamental step toward an understanding of the absolute, present in the moral imperative. I repeat: What commands us is our own essential nature, our unique and eternally significant true being. It speaks to us and demands of us that we do not waste and destroy it.

The Relativity of Moral Contents

Now we must consider the other side of the moral imperative, the relativity of moral contents. In contrast to the unconditional character of the moral imperative as such, its contents are always changing.

There are three main reasons for this. The first and basic reason is the absolute concreteness of every situation in which a moral decision is required. The second is changes in the temporal dimension, in the flux of time. The third is differences in the spatial dimension, differences of place. Groups, cultures and religions, even when united within a single political framework, lie alongside each other and constitute a pluralistic society.

Here I must do something that seems to counteract my search for absolutes. I must try to undercut false absolutes in order to discover true ones, and I shall do this by making the false absolutes relative.

Let us look again at each of the three reasons for the relativity of moral contents. The first was concreteness of the situation in which we make a moral choice. By "moral choice" I do not mean a choice between "good" and "bad," if one knows or thinks he knows what is "good" and what is "bad." I mean a choice between different possibilities offering themselves as morally good.

The normal situation is that not many choices are given, not many decisions have to be made, and often it is possible to avoid entirely the risks involved in choosing and deciding. To avoid them seems to be safer, for they endanger the security that fixed moral laws give us.

Fixed moral laws allow us to believe that we know what is good, whether we do it or not. In this respect, there is no insecurity. We can live safely within moral traditions as they have been formulated in legal systems, in social conventions, or in theological or philosophical thought. Behind them often lie ancient sacred laws, for example, the Ten Commandments that have authority for Judaism, Christianity, and the whole Western world. These traditional moral laws have become internalized by imitation and indoctrination. They are implanted in the depths of our being by religious or social pressures, threats of punishment and offers of reward, until they have become part of us and have created a securely functioning conscience that reacts quickly and feels safe without experiencing the pain of having to decide. A conscience of this kind is like an island undisturbed by external attacks and internal conflicts. It is static, not dynamic, monistic, not pluralistic. The culture as a whole is accepted as the absolute; no individual decisions are necessary.

But such an island never existed, and certainly it is not our own reality. No moral system was ever completely safe, and the first reason for this is the uniqueness of every concrete situation. Laws -- I think again here of the Ten Commandments -- are, on the one hand, too abstract to cover any concrete situation and, on the other, not abstract enough to become general principles, but depend on the culture that produced them.

The Mosaic law -- the Decalogue -- forbids killing, but does not say which kind of killing is forbidden. Even if one translates the Hebrew word katla as "murder," the question is: How is murder to be defined as distinct from killing in general? This law does not answer, for example, questions of juridical and military killing, or of killing in self-defense. What about the Commandment to honor one’s parents? This law presupposes something like the fetal situation of complete dependence. How can we apply it to our liberal democratic situation and to our need to free ourselves from the authority of our parents?

Theologians and lawgivers always have been aware of this problem and have written innumerable commentaries on the ancient laws. At the moment, however, in which one of us comes to an absolutely concrete situation and has to make a moral decision, he hardly turns to a commentary for help! Commentaries could not provide real answers to actual problems, because none of the writers of such commentaries were in the exact situation you and I are in at this moment. A decision must be risked.

A second reason for there being no safety in any moral system is that every concrete situation is open to different laws. We call this "a conflict of duties," and it is a continuous reality in the lives of all of us. Through discussions with medical men I have come to see how heavy a burden for many of them is the choice between truth and compassion toward critically ill or dying patients. To tell these patients the truth, they feel, is cruel; not to tell it to them offends the dignity of man. There is a conflict, and no commentary can give the answer to him who as doctor confronts this unique person, his patient. He must make a decision, and his decision may be wrong.

A third relativity of the moral contents is that of the conscience. I have described the internalization of the moral command and its creation of a quickly responding conscience. Even this does not give something absolute. There can be a split conscience. A split conscience is one in which two different internalizations fight with each other, or in which our courage to dare a new step fights with our bondage to the tradition into which we were indoctrinated.

There is also the erring conscience. We saw it in some of the Nazis who committed atrocities with good consciences because "the voice of God," for them identical with the voice of Hitler, commanded them. But no excuse of outer authorities can free us from the burden of decision in the relativities of our human situation. If we hand over to an outside authority, secular or religious, this painful freedom given to us as persons, we diminish the burden of having to decide, but we also diminish our dignity as persons.

These problems are real in any culture, but they are tremendously intensified in our own, which is so thoroughly dynamic. Of course, there are dynamics even in the oldest and most static societies. Creative individuals transform the given culture slowly and almost invisibly, and there can be sudden radical changes due, for example, to political revolutions that bring about a change of ruling groups and hence of values, and there is the impact these have on laws and social conventions. New social strata become dominant, and their ideologies are imposed on the whole of society and become more and more internalized. This means that a new conscience is created.

The same things happen when there are religious and philosophical revolutions like the Reformation, Humanism, Naturalism and Existentialism. Older moral traditions are undercut and new ones are produced. Religious and philosophical revolutions often coincide with technical revolutions that change the external world, and such changes produce ethical and moral consequences that are hidden at first, then become visible. Even if ethical theory tries to follow these changes, life cannot wait for its results. Decisions must be made in every moment.

The relativism produced by temporal changes is intensified by increasing spatial interpenetration. If in one and the same political unity elements of different traditions stand beside each other, we have a pluralistic society like our own. Looking back into history, we find that a pluralism such as we have today in this country was nowhere possible before the seventeenth century. First, there had to be the Renaissance and its relativizing effects in culture, the Reformation and its relativizing effects in religion. Until about the year 1600 Western society was religiously monolithic, then some pluralism was accepted, but only slowly and painfully and under the impact of the most horrible of all wars, the Wars of Religion. Today we live in a definite pluralism. We all know this even if we do not speak of it theoretically, for we experience it politically, culturally, and religiously.

Now that I have described the main causes of our moral relativism, I want to discuss some of its consequences. They are far-reaching. Moral decisions are unavoidable for all of us. Every judgment made by the elder generation about the younger one must take into consideration our situation of living in a dynamic and pluralistic society. The younger generation in this period have a heavy burden to carry whenever they attempt to find the way that is morally right. It is a burden not of their own making, therefore we should not judge them too easily.

Of course, many of the younger generation as well as many of the elder one try to escape by remaining safely in the traditions that have formed them. Others avoid the moral problem by making shrewd calculations of what might be the most advantageous way to take. Sometimes this is successful, if only for a short time.

However, there are many -- and I know this -- who face the situation and courageously take upon themselves the burden of all the relativisms and all the alternatives. Sometimes the problem is a decision between religion and secularism in one’s life and thought. Or it is a decision between a conservative and a liberal political attitude, or between national and supranational interests. It can be a decision between affirmation and denial of one’s vital fulfillment, especially in relation to sex, or one between acceptance of bondage to paternal or maternal authority and a breakthrough to maturity. It can be a decision between unlimited competition in vocational or business life and a valuation of life in terms of meaning and inner fulfillment, without regard for external success. Or perhaps it is a decision between permanent self-sacrifice, resignation of a full life of one’s own (a daughter’s self-sacrifice for her parents, a mother’s for her children), and the duty to actualize one’s own potentialities.

Those who are faced with having to make such decisions and the innumerable others with which life can confront us ask with utter seriousness the question of the absolute in moral decisions. They know that the risks they take in every decision can lead them to the edge of self-destruction in many different senses of this word. Therefore they look for principles to guide them, stars to show the way over a limitless ocean of relativities. They have made one decision already -- not to escape decisions -- and this is the most fundamental and courageous one, if it is carried through. They have left the security of the harbor of tradition. Now they look for guiding stars.

Many of us are in this situation, although some not as radically or as consciously as others. It is the situation of day-to-day life, and it is not always dramatic. However, it often happens that through many small decisions one great decision becomes real for us even before we realize that we have already decided.

Principles of Moral Decision

Now let us look for what I have called "stars," meaning principles of moral decision that are absolutes in the relativity of ethical contents, criteria liberating us not from the necessity of deciding but from the danger of falling into willfulness and mere contingency.

The word "decision" comes from the Latin decidere, "to cut through, to cut off." Every decision necessarily is a cutting through something and a cutting off of other possibilities. But this means also that a decision can be willful, made arbitrarily without a guiding norm. Therefore we ask: Are there guiding principles by which we can distinguish genuine decisions from the compulsions of willfulness? If there are, they must be absolute on one side, relative on the other. An absolute principle for moral decisions has to be both. If it were not absolute it could not save us from drowning in the chaos of relativism. If it were not relative it could not enter into our relative situation, the ethical contents.

Our search for such principles can start with the absolute we spoke of earlier, the unconditional imperative to acknowledge every person as a person. If we ask for the contents given by this absolute, we find, first, something negative -- the command not to treat a person as a thing. This seems little, but it is much. It is the core of the principle of justice.

Justice has many facets. For Plato, it was the most embracing virtue of all the virtues. Aristotle emphasized proportionate justice that gives to each one what he deserves. The Stoics emphasized the element of equality in justice and demanded the emancipation of women, children, strangers, and slaves . . .

The principle of justice, as found in the Old Testament, has the element of righteousness. This is more than formal acknowledgment of the other person and more than proportionate justice that gives to each one what he deserves. Sedaqah can be called "creative justice," because it does something to the other person; it changes his condition. Sedaqah raises to a higher state him to whom it is given. It raises the proportion of what is due him.

In the New Testament, justice has an additional element that does not deny any of the others. This element is love, in New Testament Greek agape (and I use the Greek word here because of the great diversity of meanings of the word "love"). Agape is the fulfillment of the creative justice of the Old Testament. Its highest expression is self-sacrifice for him who is loved and with whom in this way a profound union is created. Therefore agape-love goes far beyond the acknowledgment of the other person as a person. It wants reunion with the other and with everything from which one is separated.

Love in its character of agape is the absolute moral principle, the ethical absolute for which we were searching. However, to be correctly understood it must be purged of many wrong connotations. Love as agape has the basic principle of justice within itself. If people deny justice to others but say that they love them, they miss completely the meaning of agape. They combine injustice with sentimentality and call this love. Agape also must not be confused with other qualities of love: libido, friendship, compassion, pity, eros. Certainly agape is related to and can be combined with all of them, but it also judges all of them. Its greatness is that it accepts and tolerates the other person even if he is unacceptable to us and we can barely tolerate him. Its aim is a union that is more than a union on the basis of sympathy or friendship, a union even in spite of enmity. Loving one’s enemies is not sentimentality; the enemy remains an enemy. In spite of this, he is not only acknowledged as a person; he is united with me in something that is above him and me, the ultimate ground of the being of each of us.

Agape is the absolute moral principle, the "star" above the chaos of relativism. However, we need more than one star to guide us. A second is the concrete situation to which love turns in a way I like to call "listening love." "Listening love" is a listening to and looking at the concrete situation in all its concreteness, which includes the deepest motives of the other person. Today we can understand the inner situation of another person better than people could in earlier periods. We have the help of psychological and sociological insights into the internal as well as the external conditions of an individual’s predicament. These can be of aid to agape in its listening to and looking at the concrete situation.

"Listening love" takes the place of mechanical obedience to moral commandments. Such commandments were derived from ethical insights, then became degraded to the status of moral codes. No moral code, however, can spare us from a decision and thus save us from a moral risk. It can advise but can do nothing more. This becomes clear to us when we are in the position of counseling someone. Let us suppose that a student comes to me faced with a difficult moral decision. In counseling him I don’t quote the Ten Commandments, or the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, or any other law, not even a law of general humanistic ethics. Instead, I tell him to find out what the commandment of agape in his situation is, and then decide for it even if traditions and conventions stand against his decision. However, I must add a warning as well and tell him that if he does so, he risks tragedy. Moral commandments are the wisdom of the past as it has been embodied in laws and traditions, and anyone who does not follow them risks tragedy.

This leads to a general consideration of the function of the law, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistles, the law of Islam, and the laws of other religions. These laws are not absolute, but they are consequences derived from the absolute principle of agape, love united with justice and experienced in innumerable encounters with concrete situations in human history. The lists of moral commandments, wherever they appear in history, express the moral experience of mankind. They can be called the work of Wisdom, the divine power that guided God in the creation of the world and speaks in the streets of the city. They represent the ethical wisdom of the ages, and one should not disregard them easily. Only if one recognizes the inadequacy of the law for a concrete situation can one feel justified in disobeying it.

I want to say two things about those who dare to make genuine moral decisions. In making such decisions courageously, guided by the principle of agape, looking with "listening love" into the concrete situation, helped by the wisdom of the ages, they do something not only for themselves and for those in relation to whom they decide. They actualize possibilities of spiritual life which had remained hidden until then; therefore they participate creatively in shaping the future ethical consciousness. This is the creative excitement of moral life, the possibility of which is given today especially to the younger generation. Certainly, it is a great burden. It has thrown them into an insecurity far exceeding the insecurity experienced by older generations, for whom the problem was: Do I do the good I know, or don’t I? Of course, this remains the problem for all of us, in all times. But the new generation today must ask, in addition: What is the good? Therefore they must make decisions, and moral decisions imply moral risks. However, even though a decision may be wrong and bring suffering, the creative element in every serious choice can give the courage to decide. This was the first thing I wanted to say about those who dare to make genuine moral decisions.

Now I shall say the second thing about them. The more seriously one has considered all the factors involved in a moral decision, the absolute as well as the relative factors, the more one can be certain that there is a power of acceptance in the depth of life. It is the power by which life accepts us in spite of the violation of life we may have committed by making a wrong decision.

The mixture of the absolute and the relative in moral decisions is what constitutes their danger and their greatness. It gives dignity and tragedy to man, creative joy and pain of failure. Therefore he should not try to escape into a willfulness without norms, or into a security without freedom.

A part of the "Credo Perspectives" series, planned and edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. Published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1967. This was excerpted from material that was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.