By / Feb 16

In the final three articles in this series, we’re comparing and contrasting the most dominant ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the standard of biblical ethics. In the first article we defined biblical ethics as the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and considering moral events in terms of conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why). As we’ll see, the problem with each of these other approaches is not that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are incomplete. 

A concise, though admittedly simplistic formulation, would be that deontology is concerned with the “what,” virtue ethics with the “who,” and consequentialism with the “why.” Because all three of these elements—the what, who, and why—are essential to biblical ethics, we can learn from each of these ethical systems. But while they have much to offer, we should always keep in mind that on their own they are incomplete.

What is consequentialism?

Consequentialism is a general approach to moral reasoning which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act for the person involved and/or all those directly affected by the act. If we ask, “Why should we choose a particular moral act or behavior?” the consequentialist would answer, “Because what is moral is what results in the best moral consequences.”

All ethical theories, of course, are concerned about moral consequences, and most have as their teleological emphasis (i.e., end goal) a moral outcome. But advocates of consequentialism would say that certain normative properties depend only on consequences. For them, it doesn’t matter if you are a moral person (as in virtue ethics) or followed moral rules (as in deontology), if an act has an outcome that is morally worse than an available alternative, then the action itself was immoral. Under this view, sometimes known as act consequentialism, an act is morally right when that act maximizes the good, that is, when the total amount of good-for-all minus the total amount of bad-for-all is greater than this net amount compared to the available alternatives.

Who decides whether the consequences were good or bad? Historically, consequentialists have measured the outcome based on a standard of hedonism, which holds that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. If the consequences are narrow and limited in who they affect, then it is the individual who determines the moral calculus based on their own self-interests. If the consequences are broader and can affect a larger number of individuals, then some collective group, such as society (or at least those within society who wield power) determines whether the act was moral.

The most famous form of consequentialism is classic utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism, wrote in 1789 that,

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. . . .

Bentham even proposed a mathematical model for ranking 14 pleasures and 12 pains, weighing pains by various factors to calculate the “happiness factor.” His disciple, John Stuart Mill, later refined this into “preference satisfaction,” in which what was good was having one’s desires fulfilled and what was bad was to have one’s desire frustrated.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of consequentialism?

There are many reasons consequentialism has maintained a broad appeal for the past three hundred years. A primary reason is that it is intuitively simple. It seems rather obvious that if given a choice between acts, we should choose the one that seems to provide the most moral outcome. We also do not need to rely on such metaphysical speculations as whether a divine being actually handed down rules that all humans must follow. Instead, we can rely on our own internal guidance system that tells us to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. What works for individuals must also work for society, so consequentialism promotes equality and liberty. Consequentialism is thus particularly appealing to liberal democracies, such as the United States.

The appeal of consequentialism for Americans is especially strong since we are pragmatic people who favor individual autonomy. We have a bias toward “whatever works” which emphasizes the consequences over the process. We also believe that individuals should determine for themselves what constitutes human flourishing, and so we believe we should be free to maximize our pleasures and minimize our pains.

The biggest weakness, at least for Christians, is that of the three theories under consideration, consequentialism is the least compatible with biblical ethics. In Romans 3:8, Paul clearly condemns the idea that Christians can “do evil that good may result.” Yet consequentialism proposes that we can commit any number of evil and unbiblical actions if the result leads to what we would consider a moral consequence.

Consequentialism has also resulted in the reduction of what counts as moral conduct. All sexual ethics, for instance, are reduced to consent, since anything else is determined by individual preference. When the individual becomes the primary decider of whether the consequence are justified, then we must allow for such choices as abortion or euthanasia since those may maximize the “pleasure” of the individual. It can even lead to the diminishment of the human person.

An example of an influential consequentialist is Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Singer has served as editor for prestigious philosophy journals, appeared on numerous television programs, and even penned the entry on “Ethics” for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He has argued, based on utilitarian grounds, that we have no reason not to experiment on babies or the mentaly disabled—“human infants—orphans perhaps—or retarded human beings” rather than animals since that is a form of “specieism.” (Singer has also compared the animal liberation movement to the “underground railroad” that freed human slaves in America.) He has also endorsed interspecies sex and the right of parents to kill their child not only within the womb but also up to the age of two years old.

The result of following the consequentialist logic of Singer is that it reduces the inherent dignity of human life. Rather than leading to a more moral society, pure consequentialism leads to the dystopia of an era when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) because of the lack of a coherent and transcendent foundation for ethical decision making.

In the last article in this series, we’ll consider virtue ethics, and compare and contrast it to the biblical standard.

By / Jan 26

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. The first article and future articles can be found here.

In this series, we’re looking at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), considering their strengths and weaknesses, and comparing them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” The first article explained what biblical ethics is and how we know an action is moral. In this article we’ll examine moral decision-making, including how we know which biblical rules or principles apply to a given situation and what we do when moral acts conflict.

How do we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation?

As pertains to moral decision-making, the Bible should be understood as a revelation of God’s commands, principles, and virtues. God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed in Christian virtues and examples (particularly in the example of Jesus). We should therefore prioritize commands because they help us to most clearly understand God’s standards for our conduct. They also help us determine how principles and virtues are to be applied.

Within Scripture we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts.

Narrow or specific commands relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8, which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above) there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning would be to consider the question of whether abortion is immoral. Our first step would be to ask, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this situation?” For this question, the answer is rather straightforward since the Bible has a clear command that prohibits the taking of innocent life.

The command was given by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments on two separate occasions (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). In the New Testament, we also find the commandment reconfirmed by Jesus (Matthew 5:21), and reiterated by his apostle, Paul (Romans 13:9). As pastor-theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, the sixth commandment prohibits much more than just cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed, by direct action or inaction, any legally innocent human.

An elective abortion (as opposed to a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the killing of an innocent human being. Based on scientific knowledge of human development, we know a human embryo/fetus is an actual human being and that human life begins at fertilization/conception. Several passages in the Bible also strongly suggest that human life begins at conception (cf. Job 31:13-15; Psalms 51:5; 139:13-16; Matthew 1:20). Because elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, abortion is prohibited by God under the sixth commandment.

What do we do when moral acts conflict?

There may be times when we may find that two or more moral commands or principles appear to be in conflict. An oft-used example is the “Nazi at the door” problem:

Imagine that you are living in World War II Germany and are hiding a family of Jews in your basement. A Nazi SS soldier comes to your door and asks if there are any Jews in your home. On the one hand, you know it is morally wrong to lie. On the other hand, you also know it would be morally wrong to answer in a way that would get the family killed. What should you do?

There are three ways to resolve this issue. The first is to determine whether there is an actual moral conflict. The second is to conclude that true ethical conflicts cannot exist. The third is to determine the hierarchy of commands.

Many Christians—including me—would say that in this particular situation there is no moral conflict because there is no lie being told. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. I’m convinced there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The Nazi at the door has forfeited his right to know the truth about whether you have Jews in your home because he has a nefarious intent. It would be similar to the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh when he wanted to kill all newborn male babies (Exodus 1:17–21).

If there was an actual moral conflict (because you believe failing to acknowledge the Jews hidden in your home would be lying to the Nazi), then we have to apply the second or third approaches. The second approach is called “non-conflicting absolutism.” It denies that a true ethical conflict can even exist and claims that any perceived conflict is a result of human misinterpretation. Under this view, if we have a perfect view of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ any illusion of conflict is dispelled. The problem, of course, is that we have no perfect view and so it is not clear how we would know what decision to make under this perspective. This is why the non-conflicting absolutism is rarely held by Christian ethicists.

The third approach is called “hierarchicalism” (or graded absolutism). This view holds that moral conflict can exist and that when ethical laws are in conflict a “right” choice is available through a hierarchy of principles found in Scripture. Under hierarchicalism, if one duty clearly has priority, we must choose that duty. Even if we believed that we would be lying to the Nazi and that it would be morally wrong, the duty to protect the lives of the Jewish family would take priority. According to hierarchicalism, as long as we follow the higher moral law, we are not held responsible for failing to keep the lower-level command.  Also, under hierarchicalism, if both duties appear to have equal priority, we are free to obey either duty (though we need to be certain they are indeed of equal priority).

Hierarchicalism has solid biblical support, as even Jesus prioritized some rules and commands when they appear to come into conflict (see, for example, Matthew 12:9-13). It’s important to remember that hierarchicalism is about selecting the better of two goods, not choosing the “lesser of two evils.” We are not called to choose any evil—even a lesser one. We are not called to choose an evil that good may come.

What is the process for moral decision-making?

We can put all of this together to devise a seven-step process for making moral decisions:

  • Pray for divine guidance — Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate the process and to help you act in a way that glorifies God.
  • Clarify the ethical issues or problems — Make sure you understand the relevant factors (e.g., context, facts) that help clarify or define the ethical issue or problem.
  • Gather the scriptural data on the issue — Determine what commands, principle(s), and examples are most relevant to the issue.
  • Determine how to apply the biblical instruction — Once the applicable rules are understood, decide how they should be applied.
  • Determine the hierarchy — If necessary, determine the hierarchy of commands that would need to be applied.
  • Consult the community of the faithful — There are few situations you will face in this life that are entirely novel. Consult with mature believers and those with expertise on the issue (such as Christian ethicists) about what you should do.
  • Formulate a Christian ethical position — With prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit and the community of faithful believers, make a determination about what moral position is most glorifying to God. 

This may initially seem like a labor-intensive process, and too burdensome for use in real life. But once we develop a solid grasp of God’s commands and the relevant fact patterns, the process often becomes rather straight-forward.

In the next article in this series, we’ll wrap up our focus on biblical ethics by considering the role of conscience. The remaining articles in this series will then compare and contrast other ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the biblical standard.

By / Aug 15

As Christians called to be salt and light within our culture, we must be able to analyze the ethical theories of our society in order to bring Scripture to bear upon them. Many of the decisions happening daily in our culture fall within the category of consequentialist ethics. While consequentialism is nothing new and much more extensive work has been offered on it than can be found in this article, my goal is to explain how a broad understanding of consequentialism is helpful for the Christian when parsing ethical decisions. Adding competency in consequentialism to the Christian’s tool belt will supply a ready filter useful in deconstructing an ethical decision.

Consequentialism focuses decision making upon the potential outcomes of an action; the outcome, coupled to some extent with intent, becomes the standard for morality. Situation ethics, utilitarianism, and pragmatism are examples of the larger school of ethical thought known as consequentialism. A crude, but often effective, way of characterizing consequentialism is to claim that the ends justify the means. In other words, if deemed necessary, then seemingly unethical actions can be employed ethically so long as the outcome is itself, ethical.

Initially, consequentialism seems intuitive, even natural. Don’t we always choose what we think is best? Shouldn’t we choose what we thing is best? Biblical ethics, however, seeks those actions that God deems best. Instead of seeking what we think to be the best outcome, our duty is to seek the will of God in humble obedience. God’s will may happen to coincide with the outcome that we thing is best, but it will be coincidental to the reason for the ethical decision. With this contrast between biblical ethics and consequentialism in hand, we can offer some general critiques of consequentialism.

The primary difficulty with consequentialism arises in deciding who determines the bestaction in any given situation. If the end determines the means, who determines what end ought to be sought? Various themes are offered, such as Jeremy Bentham’s utility principle or Joseph Fletcher’s love principle, but no theme can ever be considered anything but subjective. What objective feature of the universe demands that we love someone? Which universal aspect of reality points to utility as a good? Unless some objective, universal standard can be offered, any consequentialist ethic yields subjective ethics which are necessarily not binding upon others.

Secondly, if no objective standard exists, then how can one truly know which action is best? Consequentialism lacks a sufficient knowledge base from which to categorize good or bad. Unless one can see into the future, many actions must be recognized as presently ambiguous. Only a being with the attributes of God can be sure that he/she is making the proper decision.

Another way of stating this idea is that any perceived outcome is primarily dependent on one’s own experience and the best available evidence, facts, and information. Without much effort we can imagine wrong conclusions coming from good evidence, good facts, and good information that is grounded in our previous experiences. Just consider any scenario in which an individual who is actually innocent, perhaps framed by some devious nemesis, is judged guilty by a group of peers in a court of law based on evidence that does, in fact, point towards that individual’s guilt. Just as the jury in our thought exercise was technically incorrect in their decision to ascribe guilt, we too run just such a risk if our primary impetus for action is based on potential outcomes.

To show how to utilize consequentialism as a filter and to combat it biblically, consider the following scenario. Imagine a young man Joe seeking a pastor’s counsel. Joe has recently graduated from college with an economics degree and has been offered a great position in a large financial firm. Joe worked hard for his degree, his parents gave much to see him graduate, and his professors put their reputations on the line by recommending Joe for his newly acquired position. Joe tells his pastor that he has felt called as a missionary to a country hostile to the Gospel and evangelism. He worries that it would be unjust to “throw away” his parents’ sacrifices and stain his professors’ reputations. Nevertheless, he maintains that he is truly convicted to pursue this missionary opportunity. Which action is the ethical action for the Christian?

The consequentialist can give a variety of answers. If the guiding theme is self-preservation, then Joe should take the job with the financial firm because he will probably be killed in the foreign country, possibly without ever winning anyone to the gospel. Another answer could be based on the theme of utility; Joe could be of more benefit by earning a great living and donating large sums of money to organizations that contribute to struggling parts of the world than he could ever do by actually living there himself. He could even fund the sending of multitudes of missionaries to the very country in question which is surely better than his going himself. Then again, Joe could be murdered in any U.S. city just as easily as he could be murdered in a foreign country, so either decision could be the correct decision; Joe should simply do what makes him happy.

Hopefully you can see that the consequentialist has no firm basis for any of this advice. The proper biblical response would be to seek the God’s guidance through prayer, petition, and fellowship with other believers, and then to follow the conviction of the Spirit. Since Joe feels convicted concerning a specific location and the Bible teaches to make disciples of all nations, Joe should pursue his missionary calling.

John 11 offers two examples of consequentialist thinking. Mary says to Jesus in John 11:32, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” While that statement does not entail an ethical decision, it does exhibit a consequentialist mindset. We should not fault Mary for her sadness, but it is obvious that she assumes a longer life is better than a shorter life (leaving aside any sociopolitical concerns Mary may have had concerning income, etc) Why is a short life bad? We can speculate dozens of morbid, painful scenarios that Lazarus may have had to endure had he lived which would make death enviable. God’s will was to resurrect Lazarus for the glory of God, which is surely a good.

Next, the high priest Caiaphas says in John 11.50, “It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” While it is true that the Spirit intended this comment as prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion, Caiaphas certainly had no such intentions. Instead, he attempted to play a numbers game saying that an innocent man should die so that the potential for further death does not arise. Consequentialism allows for the death of an innocent if it prevents more deaths so that Caiaphas would actually be justified in making the decision to seek Jesus’ death. It should be apparent that the numbers game always leaves one in an ethical fog. How does Caiaphas know that killing Jesus won’t incite Jesus’ followers to murder every Jew they can find? How does he know that the emperor wouldn’t convert if Jesus continues teaching, which would presumably be good for the nation? The subjectivity of consequentialism and ignorance of the future are clearly seen in Caiaphas’ thinking.