An Exercise in Relative Moral Reasoning


Let us suppose that there are two rival leaders of an empire: Jerrod and Seth. Jerrod is currently in power and Seth spends his time trying to wrest that power away from him.

Jerrod appoints his friend Dave to rule one of the countries under his dominion. Some time later, the neighboring tribes attack the province. This angers Jerrod. He instructs Dave to take a census of all those who can fight back against the enemy and report back to him with the results. Dave instructs his army commanders and Josh, his General, to carry out these orders. Josh initially refuses to carry out these orders but Dave insists and he reluctantly complies, although he secretly omits to count the fighting members of one of the regions.

When the results are available, Dave suddenly develops inexplicable feelings of remorse for having collected them. He reports back to Jerrod, saying that he believes that he has done a very foolish thing in carrying out these orders and begs Jerrod to take away his feelings of guilt.

Instead of sending him to a mental health professional, Jerrod’s response is to contact Jed, a prominent subject in Dave’s dominion and have him relay a message to Dave. Jed informs Dave that Jerrod has given him a choice of three punishments: EITHER his province will be deprived of sufficient food for 3 years OR the neighboring forces will be allowed to overrun the province for three months and wreck whatever havoc they want OR the land will be infected by a deadly three-day biological plague.

Dave could not decide between these three options, all of which would physically harm the people of his province while leaving him to suffer from the psychological pain of feeling responsible for their plight. He responded by telling Jed that he would leave the decision up to Jerod.

Jerrod promptly released a deadly batch of bacteria in the area. The resulting infection killed off seventy thousand people, including women and children. Thousands of others were left without parents, breadwinners or means of reasonable support. The henchman that Jerrod sent to the area was about to destroy the whole city but Jerrod decided enough was enough and stopped him from carrying out this additional punishment. The infection, however, did not end on the third day as Jed’s original choice suggests would be the case, but just went on killing people.

Dave felt terrible anguish over what was happening to his subjects. He begged Jerrod to stop punishing the innocent citizens of his domain and, instead, to take it out directly on himself and the members of his immediate family. There is no record of what the members of his immediate family thought about Dave’s willingness to sacrifice them in order to assuage the guilt that only he felt.

Jerrod’s response was to send a message to Jed, instructing him to tell Dave to buy one of the citizen’s farms, slaughter all of his animals and make a huge bonfire out of them. Dave did as he was told and no further cases of infection were reported.

Sam, the Secretary of State in Dave’s dominion writes up the story for the benefit of present and future generations. Some time later, Crones, a new Secretary of State, reads his predecessor’s manuscript and is rather perturbed by what he reads. He decides that the story cannot be correct because it is inconsistent with what he thinks he knows about the good character of Jerrod whom he believes would never punish one of his leaders just because he mistakenly felt guilty. He rewrites the story so that the original order to take a census of the nation was given by Jerrod’s political rival, Seth. This makes it appear that there was good reason for Dave to feel guilty and therefore reason for Jerrod to agree to punish him. Many years later, historians discover both copies of the story and decide to preserve and release them both into the common domain.

Assuming that this is a cautionary tale:

1. What is the point or moral of the story? _________________________________

2. Does this lesson apply in the modern world?  □Yes    □Maybe sometimes    □No

Assuming that this is a true story:

3. How likely is it that the version written by Sam and the version written by Crones are both equally historically correct?

(cannot be equivalent)  □A     □B     □C     □D     □E   (certainly equivalent)

(If you answered “E – certainly equivalent” then skip to Question 5.)

4. Which story is more likely to be historically correct:

□ A. the original story by Sam?
□ B. the amended story by Crones?

5. How likely is it that you could be persuaded to change your mind about the relative accuracy of these two apparently contradictory stories?
(absolutely impossible)  □A     □B     □C     □D     □E   (absolutely certain)

Assuming that Sam’s version is accurate:

6. Who do you think performed most honorably?

□A. Jerod     □B. Seth     □C. Dave     □D. Jos.     □ E. Je.     □ F. Sam     □G. Crones

7. Who do you think performed most dishonorably?

□A. Jerod     □B. Set.     □C. Dav.     □D. Josh     □ E. Jed     □F. Sam     □G. Crones

8, Re-order the following characters according to the quality of their behavior, with the worst offender at the beginning of the list and the most exemplary character at the end.

(A. Jerod.     B. Seth.     C. Dave.     D. Josh.     E. Jed.     F. Sam.     G. Crones. )

1. __________
2. __________
3. __________
4. __________
5. __________
6. __________
7. __________

9. How certain are you that nothing would change your opinions about the relative goodness of the behavior of these characters (that is, the order in which you just placed them?

(absolutely certain I would not change my mind)  □A     □B     □C     □D     □E  (I could very well change my mind)


Read the following parallel stories. Think of them as equivalent to Sam’s story and Crones story.

Story Version 1

Story Version 2

10. Order the same seven characters (substituting the names in these new stories) in order of the relative goodness of their behavior.
[If you cannot figure out who is equivalent to whom, see ## below.]

A. “Jerrod”     B. “Seth”     C. “Dave”     D. “Josh”     E. “Jed”     F. “Sam”     G. “Crones”

1. __________
2. __________
3. __________
4. __________
5. __________
6. __________
7. __________

11. Has the order of your list changed?   □ Yes     □ No

12. If so, what caused you to change the order? ________________________________

13. How does this change your answer to Question 9? ________________________________

14. If the order of your lists are significantly different, how difficult is it for you to acknowledge that your moral values are not absolute, but determined by the arbitrary pre-supposed moral value that you give to the actor before you assess their actual behavior?

(no problem)   □A     □ B     □C     □D     □E   (it’s not like that at all/you don’t understand/that isn’t fair)

15. What have you learned from completing this exercise that you could apply in future decisions about what is socially desirable and what is socially undesirable behavior? _________________________________


Jerrod = Jehovah/Lord God
Dave=King David
Josh = Joab
Jed = Gad
Sam = The author of 2 Samuel 24
Crones =The author of 1 Chronicles 21.

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