Chapter 5: How to Make Decisions: Putting it All Together
The past four chapters have had us leaping in and out of Wayne’s dilemma. Apart from turning his hair greyer, the exercise has made the point that where other people are involved, wise and balanced decisions do not come easily. All of us face problems in our places of work. If we are to respond to them in a way that is honouring to God, we need to understand the principles on which we base our decisions.
Commands, Consequences, and Character – three different approaches to making ethical decisions. And, as we have seen, there are plenty of variations within these streams. The truth is that in real everyday situations most people use a combination of approaches. For example, it’s hard to apply specific commands or rules without also considering the consequences of such actions. At the same time, when we weigh and compare different consequences we’ll want to identify the principles that lead to those results. And in the end, regardless of whatever we’ve decided in theory, it is actually our character that often dictates how we act.
So when it comes to making moral decisions we find ourselves involved in an ethical dance that is an interplay between these different approaches.
Approach to ethics Deontological Teleological Virtue
Key concept Commands/Rules Consequences/Results Character
Primary question Is it right? What will produce Am I becoming a good
the best result? person?
Which of these approaches do you favour in your own decision-making?
Frequently it may depend on the nature of the situation you find yourself in. For example, are you trying to solve a major moral dilemma … or is this an everyday moral choice? Let’s explain what we mean.
Sometimes major moral dilemmas require and allow for careful consideration over an extended period of time. In such cases, one way of going about this decision-making process is to:
Gather all the relevant facts.
Clarify what the key ethical issues are.
Identify rules and principles that are relevant for the case.
Consult the important sources of guidance – especially the Bible, with sensitivity to the best way of reading the Bible to address this situation. But also consult other relevant sources.
List all the alternative courses of action.
Compare the alternatives with the principles.
Calculate the likely results of each course of action, and consider the consequences.
Consider your decision prayerfully before God.
Make your decision and act on it.
As you can see, setting a course when faced with a major moral decision calls for a lot blood, sweat and tears! Especially for an organization. However, when it comes to dealing with everyday problems that we meet as individuals, the pace of life is likely to make us more streamlined…
We noted in the previous chapter that most ethical decisions in our daily lives and work are made instantly, often under pressure and without much room for forethought. They are instinctive, being the product of habits of a lifetime, as well as shaped by the culture of the places we work at, and the peer groups and faith communities we belong to.
Such decisions are influenced by the extent to which Christian virtues and character have been molded into the core of our being. This is regular Christian discipleship.
However, the importance of being as the foundation for our doing does not exclude “moral reasoning”. Within the virtuous life there is still a place for understanding rules and calculating consequences – but here the rules and consequences are subordinated to the virtues. They’re viewed as servants rather than masters.
This emphasis on virtues does not eliminate moral dilemmas. In fact, competing virtues are also capable of pulling us in different directions. Examples of this are the tensions that sometimes exist between justice and peace, or loyalty and truth, or courage and prudence.
Making good moral decisions in these cases is less about seeing one right answer (because there probably is not just one) and more about striving for a creative Christian response that recognizes all the competing priorities.
Increasingly through this book we’ve been using the terms “ethics”, “ethical” and “moral” to describe the types of decision under consideration. We realise these are not easy words to understand. What’s more, these days many people reject the area of ethics; it seems too theoretical and academic and divorced from everyday behaviour. The word “moral” is also much avoided; it is seen as carrying harsh and conservative religious overtones – usually denunciations of sexual immorality. So it’s important to explain what we mean by these terms and why and how we’ve chosen to use them.
The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos, which has two meanings in common Greek usage: (1) habit or custom, and (2) ordinance or law. The New Testament uses both these meanings. For example in Acts 25:16 the word is usually (NRSV and NIV) translated “custom” (“It is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone”), whereas in 1 Cor 15:33 it is translated “morals” (NRSV) or “character” (NIV) (“Bad company ruins good morals”).
Both words – ethics and morals – are often used interchangeably. You might say that ethics is the study of moral principles that govern or influence our conduct.
Here are a couple of definitions of ethics that put this in slightly different ways. One is Stan Grenz’s comment that “living ethically” is concerned with “ordering our steps in every situation of life according to the fundamental faith commitments we share as Christians”. Meanwhile, Dennis Hollinger explains that ethics is “the systematic study of standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice, with a view to applying those standards in the realities of our lives”. 
That last phrase of Hollinger’s definition is particularly important to us – “with a view to applying those standards to the realities of our lives.” This is the goal of Christian ethics – applying them. Putting them into practice. Theoretical “what if’s”, or simply describing various ethical approaches, is not sufficient. Our concern has to be to action our Christian insights.
During the course of any day or week, all of us are confronted with a myriad of decisions. Not all of them have an ethical component. When we go to the supermarket and buy a can of pineapple or some toilet paper, we don’t usually think of this as involving a moral choice. When we get up in the morning, the decision of which pair of socks to put on is unlikely to have ethical consequences – unless we’ve “nicked” them from our brother or sister!
However, many decisions are moral ones – or at least have an element of morality at stake. For example, suppose we learn some unpleasant facts about the company that produces the canned pineapple. We find that they pay below-subsistence wages to the workers who harvest and process the fruit, and they ruthlessly suppress any requests from the workforce for better pay and conditions. This new information introduces an element of ethics to our supermarket shopping. In what way, we ask ourselves, does buying this particular brand give implicit support to an unethical corporation?
Sadly, many Christians wouldn’t consider this of any ethical concern at all. They limit their notions of moral choice to matters of personal honesty, accumulation of wealth, and sexual morality. This “selective moralism” is very destructive. As we’ve previously noted, for an example in the Bible we need look no further than the Pharisees. They were deeply concerned with matters of personal piety and purity, but completely blind to the weightier matters of loving others, justice and mercy. And we know how much Jesus railed against them!
It’s not that issues of honesty, greed and sexual purity are unimportant; just that Christian ethics encompasses so much more. It needs to include the manner in which we relate to others (imitating God’s character), especially how we care for the poor and marginalized; it needs to take seriously stewardship of time, money and environmental resources; it needs to free itself from addictions, and to challenge any allegiance that gets in the way of our worship of God.
Ethics, then, is a big word. It encompasses a great deal (though not all) of our daily decision-making – including many of our business and workplace choices.
John Maxwell, whose approach to ethics we considered in chapter two, has written:
There’s no such thing as business ethics – there’s only ethics. People try to use one set of ethics for their professional life, another for their spiritual life, and still another at home with their family. That gets them into trouble. Ethics is ethics. If you desire to be ethical, you live by one standard across the board.
He’s right. The view that business is amoral (having little or nothing to do with morality) is still very much alive and well, though it probably is less dominant than it was several decades ago. For example, the well-known businessman John D. Rockefeller was a devout Baptist with a strong personal religious ethic, but was ruthless in business, giving kickbacks, violently suppressing labour unrest and bribing competitors’ employees.
This is what is known as “dual morality” – applying different ethical standards to different parts of our lives. However, Christian faith should make a consistent difference in every area of our lives.
So applying a dual morality is out. But does this mean that there’s no point in talking about a specifically “business” ethic? We don’t believe so. For a start, there are just too many ethical issues that are unique to the marketplace, and that aren’t faced in the rest of life. Like, for instance, setting a “fair” price or profit for the product or service you’re offering. (Which leads to the practical question we’ll consider in chapter 6: Who should determine what is considered “fair”?)
The fact is, some very complex dilemmas arise in the modern world of business. And, as we’ve already seen, looking to get nice clear, straightforward answers to them from the Bible is easier said than done.
One of the reasons for this is that the Scriptures were written to people in times very different to our own. For example, a dilemma highlighted in the Bible is whether to lease/buy the land of a neighbouring family who are no longer able to support themselves off it. Buying their land would disenfranchise them and their descendants from their future. The Levitical law treats this and related topics at considerable depth. In an agrarian-based culture, the land meant everything – economic livelihood, connection to the past, inheritance, and prospects for future generations.
Today, we face issues such as the environmental impact of industry, whether or not to import cheap products from countries where the workers manufacturing the goods might be exploited, whether to make workers redundant in order to allow the company to survive in a more competitive environment, what type of advertising to employ … and so on.
It’s true there are moral questions which are just as pressing today as in Israel under King David – how to act when, for example, a boss/master with very different values asks you to do something against your own morals. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we live in a world that is very different to the ones in which the Bible was shaped.
So for us, Christian ethics is about a framework for making decisions that honour God, follow the example of Jesus, and are responsive to the Spirit, in order to achieve outcomes that further God’s purposes in the world.
We are not suggesting that this is easy. We’re aware that many Christians live with a lot of tension as the worlds of Christianity and Capitalism collide. In fact, the rest of our book is dedicated to charting what some of these tensions look like and how they might be approached more creatively by Christians.
1. Make a list of as many ethical issues in your work situation/s as you can think of. Remember not just to limit the list to issues of honesty, integrity and sexuality.
2. How many of these issues are specific/unique to the business arena? Which ones appear to have relatively clear guidance from the Bible?
3. At the end of chapter three you discovered that Wayne is a bit of a “soft touch”! Believe it or not, he’s seriously thinking of financing at least some of the cost of repair in this car that he sold 12 months ago. Taking into account that we mostly respond in a spur-of-the-moment way…
(a) What was your first reaction to the customer’s request when you read about it back in the Introduction? (Be honest!)
(b) How do you feel about the way Wayne’s mind seems to be working? (Still being honest?) And how do you feel about your own reaction to this? (If your thinking differs from Wayne’s, then remember that God seems happy for us to have a range of personalities. There are different perspectives on life – some see the holiness perspective more sharply, some the justice angle, some the love imperative. That, by the way, is why it’s so helpful for us to develop community – allowing us to pool our insights with fellow believers.)
(c) Which of the main approaches that we’ve looked at have you most often employed when making decisions? Which one(s) do you most warm to?
(d) Now that you’ve considered the range of ways in which we move towards making a decision, if you were in Wayne’s situation – facing the same dilemma – what would you do? Or, alternatively if you’re discussing this in a group: Imagine that together the members of your group run a car dealership, and you have found yourselves faced with the very dilemma that Wayne is wrestling with. Try to reach a group consensus for action, taking into account angles that each of you finds important. Remember: a consensus means that you would all be prepared to action the decision reached. If you cannot honestly do this, make sure the group knows.
5. Can you think of a similar issue to Wayne’s scenario in your own work, where a particular ethical choice could be made for two or more quite different reasons?
6. Invent a situation (or make use of one which you know of) where you are caught between competing virtues – for example, where there is tension between loyalty to a friend or employer, and the right treatment of another person? What sort of “creative Christian response” can you think of that recognizes all the competing priorities in your dilemma?
This approach borrows from Richard Higginson, Called to Account (Guildford: Eagle, 1993), pp 224-240; David Cook, Moral Choices: A Way of Exploring Christian Ethics (London: SPCK, 2000) and Scott B. Rae Moral Choices: An Introduction To Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995); but is also typical of many others.
Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest (London: Apollos, 1997), 19.
Dennis P. Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 14.
John C. Maxwell, There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics: There’s only One Rule for Making Decisions (USA: Warner, 2003),xi.
See Alexander Hill’s article “Business Ethics” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 91.