Good for Whom?

Article / Produced by TOW Project

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.