The Consequences Approach

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Until now, Wayne has been asking, “What are the rules I should follow?” — and looking for rules or principles from the Bible.

But another way for Wayne to approach this is to 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.  In this approach, Wayne would stop looking for rules to tell him what to do at every step, but would instead simply do whatever it takes to achieve the proper 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 whether the action conforms to the applicable rules) the consequences approach is decided by the outcome. It is the end result that determines what is the most moral course of action.

The Bible and Consequences

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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: “The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good what their deeds deserve.”[19]

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:

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

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

All verses NRSV unless otherwise indicated.

Measuring the Good

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Considering the consequences should play an important role in our decision-making.  However, as Wayne will discover, consequentialism raises four curly questions. They are:

  1. What is good? (How do we define good? For example, presumably it is more than simply making the customer — or Wayne — financially better off.)
  2. Good for whom? (Who really benefits from this decision?)
  3. Can the good be calculated? (Can we fully foresee what will result and is good in any given situation?)
  4. Good in what context? (Can things that are good in one context be bad in another?)

What is Good?

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Our definition of what is good is critical. The best-known form of consequentialist thinking defines happiness or pleasure as the highest good. This particular version of consequentialist ethics is called "Utilitarianism." Whatever produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people is good. Happiness is viewed as the primary goal 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. Even when happiness is the subject of attention in the Bible, 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? The state of the world prior to the Fall in Genesis 3 is declared “good” and “very good” by God (Genesis 1:4, 9, 12, 18, 21, 25, 32 and 2:18-24). This state is restored and extended when Christ returns again and ushers in the new heaven/new earth of Revelation 21-22. The history of Israel; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and God’s provision for the Christian community all have as their primary purpose the restoration of this state. And elements of this state are described in many biblical passages, including these:

People live in joyful relationships with God and with other people. (Genesis 2:19-25)

People do work that is enjoyable and provides the necessities of life for everyone. (Genesis 2:7-9)

People have equal standing in society without discrimination by race, economic disparity or sex. (Galatians 3:23)

There is no sickness or disease. (Revelation 21:4; 22:2)

Societies live in peace and prosperity. (Micah 4:3-4)

Although happiness seems much more possible in such a world than it is in the broken world we see around us, God’s primary intention is not to make us happy. It is to make us whole, as we were originally created to be. The New Testament is clear that embracing suffering and pain is often the road to wholeness — whether for us, or for those whom our suffering helps.[1]

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). [2]

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.

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.

Good for Whom?

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An issue for consequentialist ethics is defining whose consequences are to be optimized.

Self Interest

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.”  The economist and philosopher Adam Smith (often known as the father of modern capitalism) argued something like this when he said about those in business:

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]

Today this may be judged 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 advocates that consequences should determine our ethical decisions by using the greater good as the measuring stick. This group takes the approach that the best decision is the one that will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As we have seen, Utilitarianism seeks to maximize the good (happiness, in the case of Utilitarianism) for the greatest number. A course of action is not good if it makes a few people very happy but does nothing — or makes things worse — for a large number of people. Conversely, an act can be good if it makes many people happy at the expense of a few.

But 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.[2]

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 people of God 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).

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 theory of war called "just war theory" is an example of how ethicists have tried to offer guidance in such situations.[3] Sometimes a choice brings pain for others. However unavoidable that suffering may be, the choice must be made with genuine compassion and humility.

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.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1977).

The classic biblical example 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). The irony of the statement is not lost on the writer of John, nor on his readers!

It is also the kind of dilemma that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in his agony over what to do about the evil Nazi regime.

Can the Good be Calculated?

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Consequences can be hard to measure and quantify; sometimes impossibly so. In some cases we know the consequences, but lack a way to measure them. Will you be happier if you get a job you enjoy or a job that makes you a lot of money? In other cases, we may not even recognize all the consequences of our decisions. There are often people and environments affected that we have not taken into account. Sometimes there is no way even to 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 the only One who knows all things.

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 sufficient as the only ethical approach. At the very least, both commands and consequences need to be taken into account. Commands often serve to guide us towards actions that can reasonably be expected to lead to good outcomes, in addition to being inherently good in themselves. For example, the command “Do not lie” is very likely to lead to better consequences than its opposite, especially in complex situations in which it would be hard to predict the consequences of telling a lie, even a well-intentioned “white” lie. At the same time, paying attention to the consequences often helps us determine which rules apply in which circumstances. “Do not murder” applies in all circumstances because the consequence is death, which cannot be undone by human power. But “Honor the Sabbath day” does not apply in the sense of preventing you from healing a person who is sick on the Sabbath, because the consequence of pain and suffering is antithetical to God’s restoration of the world to the state he intends for it (Luke 13:10-16, John 5:1-9).

Good in What Context?

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Context is ethically important. 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 behavior 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, “What outcomes will it lead to?” What he feels free to do in one situation, he chooses not to do in another, where it might cause offense or problems. Paul is deciding on the rightness or wisdom of the action according to the consequences in this particular context.

This is not the same as moral relativism. Recognizing that Christian values need to be translated contextually, because what is good in one situation may not be good in another, is very different to the full blown relativism that is such a feature of our culture, where there are no absolute standards of truth or morality. For example, the command not to lie is an absolute standard. Yet it applies differently in different contexts: “Did you pay for this already?” requires a different process of application of the principle than, “Does this shirt look good on me?”

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 from ethnic backgrounds where it is culturally essential for them to take several days, a number of times a year, to attend the funerals of relatives and friends?

Or suppose you are a tent manufacturer and you decide to get your tents made in a much poorer part of the world because of much cheaper costs. How do you decide what is appropriate payment for your 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 example, a doctor might use graduated fees for patients based on their income. A car dealer might take a person’s economic circumstances into account when negotiating a price, as Flow Automotive did when they realized that poor people tend to end up paying more for cars because they tend to be less practiced in negotiations.

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 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 aware of also considering what he can afford, and the 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.

This gets Wayne thinking about how his character is being shaped to make moral choices.

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