Chapter 3: Calculating Consequences When Trying to Make the Right Decision

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Wayne is still wrestling with his customer’s request. Should he meet the cost of the repair? So far he has attempted to decide by asking the question, “What is the right thing to do?” – and by looking for rules or principles from the Bible to guide him in answering that question.

There is another way for Wayne to approach this. He could evaluate which option would produce the best result. In other words, if Wayne examined the potential consequences of each response and compared the likely results, he might be able to decide based on the ideal outcome.

This approach of calculating consequences and comparing the results is often known as “consequentialism” or “teleological ethics” - from the Greek word telos, meaning “end”.

Unlike the Command approach (where the best option is determined by the inherent goodness of the action) the Consequences approach is decided by the outcome. It is the end result that determines what is the most moral course of action.

However, as Wayne will discover, consequentialism raises four curly questions. They are:

  • “Good” for whom? (Who really benefits from this decision?)

  • What is “good”? (How do we define good? For example, presumably it is more than simply making the customer – or Wayne – financially better off.)

  • Can the good be calculated? (Can we fully foresee what will result and is good in any given situation?)

  • Does the end (the good) ever justify the means?

There are two main ways that the first of these questions is commonly answered.


Firstly, there are those who use self-interest as the measuring stick. They take the approach that if the decision brings about good for them, then it is the best choice to make. This school of thought is known as “ethical egoism”.

You’re not impressed with this line of thinking? Well, before you rubbish it as completely wrong, reflect further on Wayne’s dilemma. Self-interest does not always mean operating from a totally selfish perspective. Wayne could choose to repair the problem in his customer’s car as a result of self-interest. He might decide that long-term his reputation and capacity to gain new business are dependent on satisfying the customer’s expectations.

So what might seem from the outside as a selfless response, can often be driven by self-interest. And this is not always bad or wrong. It often has positive outcomes. We might say, “What’s good for me will often be good for everyone.”

Interestingly, the economist and philosopher Adam Smith (often known as the father of modern capitalism) was an ethical egoist. However, he realized that if we were left to our own devices, self-interest would quickly degenerate. So in arguing for minimalist government intervention in the economic system, he believed that there was an “invisible hand” at work to temper and restrain selfishness. To quote Smith himself, talking about the businessman:

By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.[1]

Smith’s approach was really, then, one of “enlightened self-interest”, though you may judge it to be rather optimistic and naïve. (Even the most capitalist of nations have added countless laws to protect customers and consumers.)

The Greater Good

A second and more substantial group of people advocate that consequences should determine our ethical decisions by using “the greater good” as their measuring stick. They take the approach that the best decision is the one that will bring about the greatest “good” for the greatest number of people. This is often known as utilitarianism.

What does this mean for Wayne?

Attempting to consider the consequences of his decision is actually a lot simpler for Wayne in this particular situation than in many cases. This is because, as Wayne sees it, there are really only two parties who might be affected by his decision – he and the customer. Unlike many of the other decisions he faces as a car dealer which involve indefinable consequences relating to their impact on environmental, social and community issues, this choice is rather more simple. What good will result from a decision to pay for, or at least contribute to the repair? The answer is that he will have a satisfied customer and one who may be saved from unnecessary financial hardship. This may well serve the “greater good” better than not paying, and benefiting personally as a result.

The Bible and Consequences

Because so many people think of the Bible as a rule book, and of ethics in terms of the Ten Commandments, it is perhaps surprising to discover how often the Scriptures themselves encourage readers to consider the consequences of their actions and let this influence their decision making.

The book of Proverbs does this repeatedly. It is full of warnings and promises, in pithy little sayings that spell out the likely outcomes of certain actions. For example, Proverbs 14:14 (NRSV): “The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good what their deeds deserve.”

Jesus too warns his listeners to weigh carefully the consequences of their decisions. In fact, in one sense the whole life and ministry of Jesus can be viewed as a living example of making decisions for the “greater good”.

His Beatitudes display an implicit consequential aspect – if you want to be “filled” then hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. The same applies to much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, such as (all verses NRSV):

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:16)

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. (5:25)

But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (6:3-4)

…but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (6:15)

Considering the consequences should play an important role in our decision-making. However, there are a number of potential landmines in such thinking, so we need to tread carefully.

What is “good”?

Firstly, our definition of what is “good” is critical. For most consequentialists good is defined as “happiness” or “pleasure”. In this view a decision is determined to be ethical if it produces the greatest amount of good (happiness) for the greatest number of people affected by the decision. In our culture, happiness is viewed as the primary purpose of life (and with it goes the implication that pain should in all circumstances be minimized or avoided).

However, in the Bible happiness is not considered the ultimate good. And when it is the subject of attention, it tends to be redefined in ways that are significantly different from our culture’s understanding. For example, Jesus turns our thinking upside down in his Beatitudes. He claims that the situations we might feel aggrieved or sad about can be the very ones to make us blessed or happy!

So how might we define good biblically? In the Bible, what is considered good? Undoubtedly the answer is … anything that promotes the fruit of the Spirit. (Or as Alexander Hill would probably put it … anything that imitates God’s holy-just-loving character.)

God’s primary intention is not to make us happy. It is to make us whole. The New Testament is clear that embracing suffering and pain is often the road to wholeness – whether for us ourselves, or for those whom our suffering helps. Take, for example, Paul’s attitude to suffering in his letter to the Colossians – “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake…” Colossians 1:24 (NRSV).

The choice Jesus made to submit to the way of the Cross is our model. He denied himself in order to bring liberation and life for others: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28.) The call of Jesus to follow him is made clear in such statements as “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NRSV).

Good for whom?

Secondly, we must be wary of making decisions based on the good of the majority when they have potentially negative or disastrous consequences for the minority – particularly if that minority is a marginalized and largely powerless group. Under such “end justifies the means” terms, all manner of evils have been condoned. But expediency is not a biblical principle. The classic biblical example of expedience is Caiaphas’ decision leading to the execution of Jesus. Speaking to the Jewish Council he declared, “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50 NRSV) The irony of the statement is not lost on the writer of John, nor on his readers!

The Bible consistently calls God’s people to stand up for and protect the poor and the marginalized. In fact, the Prophets regularly challenge the Jews to care for the most vulnerable, even declaring that the health of a society is measured by how they treat the “orphan, widow and alien” (three significant marginalized groups). The poor and marginalized are the ones most at risk of being calculated out of the equation under a consequences approach. Recent ethical debates such as euthanasia and abortion hinge on this.

However, let’s not suggest that the end never justifies the means. There are hard choices to be made, where no alternative is thoroughly good or right. In such cases the decision-makers are left with a choice between relative degrees of “evil”. The “just war” theory results from this sort of dilemma. It is also the kind of dilemma that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in his agony over what to do about the evil Nazi regime. Sometimes a choice brings pain for others; however unavoidable that suffering may be, the choice must be made with genuine compassion and humility.

Can the good be measured?

Thirdly, even where good can be defined in a way consistent with the Scriptures, there remains still the problem of predicting or measuring it. Consequences can be hard to quantify. Sometimes impossibly so. For a start, there are often people and environments affected that we have not taken into account. Sometimes we can’t even know about them in advance.

At a number of points the Bible helps us recognize our own finiteness and severely limited perspective. In contrast, God is all-knowing and all-wise. While humans are responsible for their actions and expected to consider carefully the consequences, humility is required, and with it a dependence on God who knows all things.

Experience bears this out. Frequently we have no real way of knowing what consequences will result from our actions, or indeed how to rate or measure the good. On these counts alone, while a consideration of the consequences is often a valuable component of our decision-making, it is not in any sense sufficient as the only ethical approach.

Understanding the Context

Another thing that needs to be understood in considering consequences is what a given action means in a particular context. Sometimes this is because actions mean different things among people of different cultures. Sometimes it is because people’s circumstances are different.

One of the best-known examples of this from the Bible is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, where he examines ethical decisions that arise from eating food offered to idols. The key issue, he points out, is how our behaviour will affect “weak believers”. In this case Paul puts love and consideration for others ahead of his own liberty to do as he feels fit. The question is not just, “Is it right?” but rather, “Is it appropriate or fitting?” What he feels free to do in one situation, he chooses not to do in another, where it might cause offence or problems. Paul is deciding on the rightness or wisdom of the action according to the consequences in this particular context.

Paul continues this argument into chapter 9 and closes with the words, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9: 22 NRSV). Again, circumstances sometimes modify what Paul normally feels free to do. According to Paul we need to be sensitive to cultural and contextual factors when we are trying to calculate the consequences of our actions, and sometimes this will cause us to modify our behaviour out of sensitivity to others. It is not just a case of what we feel is right for us.

It could be argued that Paul’s argument for women wearing head coverings (in Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians) is also contextual. That is, Paul is urging it because of the culture and circumstances in the city of Corinth and the region round about. For that reason most scholars do not interpret it as being in any way prescriptive for other contexts.[2]

So the Bible suggests that a limited relativism is legitimate, taking into consideration the context both of the people in our direct orbit, and the wider cultural setting we are a part of. [3] This is different to the full blown relativism that is such a feature of our culture, where there are no absolute standards of truth or morality. What is acceptable in one situation may be unacceptable in another.

Increasingly the society we live in is becoming more and more multicultural. We can expect to face a number of situations where the context challenges us to change our practices. For example, if you’re an employer, how do you allocate bereavement leave when several of your staff are Maori, and it is culturally appropriate for them to take several days, a number of times a year, to attend a tangi of relatives and friends?

Or, suppose you are a tent manufacturer and you decide to get your tents made in Vietnam, because of much cheaper costs. How do you decide what is appropriate payment for your Vietnamese employees?

The issue of “context” goes beyond cross-cultural matters. It’s also a factor in working out whether to treat people differently because of their circumstances. For instance, a doctor might use graduated fees for patients based on their income. A car dealer might decide what is a fair profit margin on a car by how well-off the customer is.

How do contextual concerns affect Wayne’s decision-making?

When Wayne begins thinking about ways that these particular circumstances are influencing possible courses of action, he finds himself trying to understand and anticipate a number of things.

We’ve already mentioned the question of the customer’s financial situation. If Wayne refuses to pay for the repair, or only contributes partially, what impact financially is that likely have on the customer and his family? Is it likely to create unfair stress? Wayne thinks that this is worth taking into consideration. In fact, for him it is part of the wider question of love and justice.

What if Wayne is aware that the customer is generous and liberal with his own time and money – serving others and genuinely seeking to make a difference in the world? If this is the case, Wayne may feel it is extra fitting to extend generosity towards him.

At the same time Wayne is also mindful of the financial implications for him and his family if he ends up making little or no profit on this sale.

There’s another angle. Should Wayne think carefully about the sort of precedent he is setting? If he takes a soft line will other customers also come running for assistance? Wayne smiles ruefully at the possibility. But for him personally, this is not a major issue. The other factors he has sifted through are, as far as he is concerned, of much greater importance. He doesn’t mind if he acquires a reputation as a “soft touch”, so long as he is satisfied with the appropriateness of his choice.


Fortunately for Wayne, the potential consequences and the contextual factors of this particular dilemma are fairly simple to identify. But, of course, many situations are much more complex and have many more variables. Take, for instance, the following story – based on a frequent development in the last decade or two – of an entrepreneur we shall call Trevor…

Trev is the owner/manager of a small company that specializes in distinctive rugs and mats for the retail trade. His job is to source and locate products that are of good quality in order to supply retailers around the country.

Where possible, Trev has in the past used local manufacturers. His aim was to have a minimum of 70% of his goods come from NZ manufacturers who were, on the whole, far easier to deal with than overseas suppliers, and whose goods were generally of better quality than imports. In addition, communication and shipping issues were much simpler when dealing onshore, and there was a sense of pride in helping keep his fellow countrymen and women employed.

About three years ago, things “hit the wall” as far as Trev’s NZ manufactured goods were concerned. His comfortable arrangement came crashing round his ears. The sequence of events was something like this:

End-user (that’s you and I) says to retailer: “Forget it, Bruce. I know I’ve bought from you for fifteen years, but the warehouse that’s opened up in town now has mats and rugs up to 50% cheaper than yours. Loyalty is one thing, but I have to watch my expenses too.”

Retailer says to Trev: “Sorry, Trev, I would deal with you, you know I would. But I can’t sell your products any more. If I don’t source at lower prices, I’m history. Either get me cheaper goods or I buy from someone else.”

Trev to manufacturer: “We’ve had some great years, Harold, but now I’m being hung out to dry. If you can get your costs down I’ll hold off importing more, but otherwise I’m off to India.”

Harold sees the writing on the wall and puts all his staff on contract; he stops paying overtime, and adds new time measurement systems to his factory floor. But inevitably he can’t compete with Indian pay rates.

Things settle down. Trevor now imports 85% of his product and finds he can compete reasonably well at all levels. The crisis is passed. But one day, in between sales calls, he stops to think. “That rug I just sold for $18.45 used to cost $43.20 from the NZ manufacturer. According to Harold the cost of materials was around $15.00. Okay, there’ll be some difference in material costs between NZ and India – but that still means the labour cost in India is tiny. I know NZ factory workers get paid a marginal wage, so what must it be like for the Indian workers?”

The thought nags away at Trev, so one day he hops on the phone to Raj, his Indian supplier, and asks for a breakdown of costs. Raj politely tells Trev where to get off as it’s none of his business (Raj uses a Hindi word Trev doesn’t recognize). Trev tries to insist but gets nowhere. Trev then tries four other Indian suppliers he knows. Same message. Some more Hindi words. So he calls Trade Aid. These guys are a bit short with Trev. They call him some uncomplimentary names because of what they say is his support of sweat labour, including virtual slave labour of children. The average “wage” for rugmakers in India, they say, is 200 rupees a month. That’s about $10 – except that children generally get nothing except their “board”.

Trevor doesn’t sleep easily that night. He knows that if he doesn’t buy from India, or somewhere similar, his business is doomed. But if he doesn’t import the products, his competitors will. Should he offer to pay more for the rugs? (Whose pocket would the money end up in?) Should he find another Indian supplier? And is paying impoverished people 200 rupees a month better or worse than not employing them at all?

Discuss Trevor’s dilemma:

  • In what ways might a consequential approach to Trevor’s dilemma shape his decision making?

  • What are the competing factors in determining what might be “good” and who it might be good for?

  • When it comes to determining what is good and who it is good for, in what ways has the additional information Trevor recently gained made things more complex?

  • Can you think of any further steps he might take to guide him in his choices?

  • What are some of the contextual issues that affect this situation?

  • How might they contribute to shaping an appropriate response?

  • Does it help in this situation to ask, “What is the most loving thing to do?” Whose interests would need to be considered? How would you determine who gets your priority when it comes to doing the “loving thing”? And what, in practice, might it mean to “love” them?