Understanding Ethics: Consequentialism

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August 15, 2014

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 best action 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.

 


Paul Wilkinson
Paul Wilkinson is a PhD candidate in Philosophy of Religion at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is currently a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, TN.