Different Approaches to EthicsArticle /
We need to locate our approach to Christian ethics within an understanding of different approaches to ethics and moral reasoning in general. Most often, three different approaches are identified. These can be simply described as command, consequences and character.
The command approach asks, “Is this action right or wrong in itself, according to the rules?” It is often called the deontological approach (from the Greek deon for duty or rule). It is based on the proposition that actions are inherently right or wrong, as defined by a set of rules or duties. This set of duties/rules may be given by divine command, natural law, rational logic or another source. In Christian ethics, we are interested in commands given by God or logically derived from God’s self-revelation in the Bible.
The consequences approach asks, “Will this action produce good or bad results?” It is often called the teleological approach (from the Greek telos for end) because it says that end results decide what is the morally correct course of action. The most moral course of action may be decided by:
- What will result in the greatest good? One well-known example of the teleological approach is called Utilitarianism, which defines the greatest good as whatever will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
- What advances one’s self interest best? For example, the system known as Ethical Egoism assumes that the most likely way to achieve what is in the best interests of all people is for each person to pursue their own best interest, within certain limits.
- What will produce the ends that are most in accord with God’s intent for his creation? This approach can focus on subordinate goals, e.g., gaining a better quality of life for a disabled person, or an ultimate goal, such as glorifying God and enjoying him forever. In the case of complicated circumstances, this approach tries to calculate which actions will maximize the balance of good over evil.
Because neither happiness nor self-interest seem to be the highest results God desires for his creation, neither Utilitarianism nor Ethical Egoism are generally considered Christian forms of ethics. But this does not mean that consequences are not ethically important to God, any more than the fact that there are unbiblical systems of rules means that ethical commands are not important to God.
This approach asks, “Is the actor a good person with good motives?” In this approach, the most moral course of action is decided by questions about character, motives and the recognition that individuals don’t act alone because they are also part of communities that shape their characters and attitudes and actions. This is often called virtue ethics. Since the beginning of the Christian era, virtues have been recognized as an essential element of Christian ethics. However, from the time of the Reformation until the late 20th century, virtue ethics — like consequential ethics — was overshadowed by command ethics in most Protestant ethical thinking.
But how do these three different approaches apply to Christian ethics?
Christians from most church traditions are agreed that the Bible plays an essential role in determining our understanding of such commands and principles. And it is not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work.
- In the first two chapters of the Bible, men and women are given work to do, both caring for and cultivating natural resources given by God (Gen. 1:26-29; Gen. 2:15; Gen. 2:18-20).
- God models a seven day pattern of work and rest (six days work, one day rest) that God’s people are called to emulate (Gen. 2:2; Ex. 20:9-11; Mark 2:27). There is also a daily pattern of work and rest (Psalm 104:19-23).
- Earning one’s living by honest work is commended (Psalm 128:2; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-10).
- The Book of Proverbs contains many exhortations to work hard and warnings against idleness (e.g., Prov. 6:6).
- Manual work is not to be despised. Even a king works with his hands (1 Samuel 11:5). Jesus did the work of an artisan (Mark 6:3).
- The prophets denounce the idle rich (e.g., Amos 6:3-6).
- Like the prophets before him (see Isa. 5:7-8; Micah 3:1-3; Amos 5:21-24), Jesus denounces those who profess faith but act unjustly (Matt. 23:23).
- The apostle Paul supported himself as a tentmaker to preserve his independence and self-respect, and to provide his converts with an example of diligence and self-reliance. Paul encouraged them to share with others in need (Eph. 4:28). He saw honest labor as a way of commending the gospel (1 Thess. 4:11). He reprimanded those enthusiasts who wanted to give up daily work to get on with what they considered more urgent gospel work, only to end up living off other people (2 Thess. 3:10 ff.).
- Work is to be approached as an act of worship (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17, 23).
The Bible also expresses concern about employment issues.
- We don’t just work to please our human bosses. We work for God (Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5-8). Work is to be approached wholeheartedly and done well (Eccl. 9:10; Col. 3:22-24).
- God intends that people should be adequately paid for the work they do and enjoy food, shelter and clothing as part of the fruit of that work (Luke 10:7; 2 Thess. 3:10; Psalm 128:1-2).
- Employers are told to treat their employees justly and fairly, knowing that they themselves also have a master that they will ultimately answer to (Col. 4:1).
- They are to recognize that “workers deserve their wages” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).
- Employees are reminded of their responsibilities towards their employers (1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9).
Beyond these injunctions, there are a multitude of other Bible verses that speak about relationship and integrity issues at work. The Businessman’s Topical Bible(and its companion Businesswoman’s version) identifies 100 common workplace problems and then uses 1550 Bible verses to point to answers. The topics include what to do when a customer is dissatisfied, when you lose a key employee, when you feel betrayed, when you feel tempted to cheat and when your employee needs motivation.
In this post from The High Calling, Ann Kroeker comments on this article here at TOW, and particularly considers Biblical principles that can be applied to our decision to take or turn down a job opportunity.
Nonetheless, the attempt to formulate a complete book of rules based on Scripture that will speak to every conceivable ethical dilemma would seem to be a hopeless quest. No set of commands can be vast enough to cover every issue that arises. And there are situations in today’s workplace that have no precedent in Biblical times. Is it ethical to award stock options based on performance? Is it ethical to advertise a product to entice people to buy more of it? Is it ethical to have hiring preferences for under-represented ethnic groups? Is it ethical to buy a competing company? None of these situations would seem to be covered by a biblical command.
Moreover, this is the problem that the scribes and Pharisees ran into as they tried to come up with a comprehensive code and ended up not only overwhelmed by trivia, but also missing the main points. Yet, at the same time, it would be foolish for us to ignore the fact that Scripture does offer clarity on many issues: stealing, lying, loving the other person including our enemies, acting justly, caring for the poor and oppressed, etc. As Chris Marshall says, “The exclusion of any normative authority for Scriptural commands, laws or principles can also threaten to undermine the distinctively Christian character of Christian ethics and allow too much place for subjective judgment.” The Bible can’t be turned into a comprehensive rule book for ethics in the modern marketplace. But that is not to say that it doesn’t contain some important and still relevant rules.
A variety of attempts have been made to reduce the multitude of biblical commands to just a few overarching commands or principles. Some examples of this emphasize the importance of the Ten Commandments of Moses, or the Beatitudes of Jesus or quotes from the book of Proverbs.
Larry Burkett’s Business by the Book, rather grandly subtitled The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for Business Men and Women, announces Six Basic Biblical Business Minimums:
Reflect Christ in your business practices.
Provide a quality product at a fair price.
Honor your creditors.
Treat your employees fairly.
Treat your customers fairly.
There are many other attempts to do something similar. Most of these include numerous useful insights, but they also often end up creating contrived schemes more than announcing fundamental biblical insights that really help to focus our attention on the heart of things.
Building on some more fundamental biblical principles, Business Through the Eyes of Faithtakes the command to love our neighbor as the primary ethical concern. Then it develops this by using Micah 6:8 as the organizing principle for determining how God would have us apply love in business: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” Thus, love, as applied through justice, kindness and faithfulness becomes the foundational ethical principle. And we find Jesus himself emphasizing the importance of these same three elements in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” This would seem to be getting closer to the heart of Christian ethics as well as transcending the gulf that often exists between personal and social ethics. If following a few fundamental commands seems to be a better approach than looking for a specific command for every issue, then the question becomes, “Is there one biblical command upon which all the others are built?”
There is an undeniable attraction in reducing all the Bible’s moral imperatives to just one overarching command. For John Maxwell, this is The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This involves only asking one question, “How would I like to be treated in this situation?”Maxwell acknowledges that putting it into practice may also require a number of other principles, including:
- Treat people better than they treat you.
- Walk the second mile.
- Help people who can’t help you.
- Do right when it’s natural to do wrong.
- Keep your promises even when it hurts.
Regrettably, this increases rather than reduces the number of fundamental commandments. It also introduces principles that are not directly from the Bible.
Joseph Fletcher, with his Situation Ethics,subjected everything to Jesus’ “love commandment”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). He then ran into a similar problem, being forced to devise a number of other principles (four presuppositions and six propositions), to clarify how the most loving thing might be determined. Maxwell is anxious to distance himself from the “moral relativism” of Situation Ethics and, unlike Fletcher, doesn’t say that the love commandment is the only absolute moral principle in a way that reduces all other moral rules to becoming only helpful “illuminators.” But Maxwell and Fletcher both demonstrate that, while the simplicity of choosing to elevate one principle is attractive and helpful in some ways, it is simplistic and deceptive in other ways.
They also demonstrate the inadequacy of utilizing only one approach to doing ethics; in their cases, the command approach. Both of these examples begin by promoting one absolute biblical command, but then quickly move to consider circumstances and consequences in order to decide which other qualifying commands are required to provide clarity. And the way they talk about love suggests that its demonstration will largely depend on the character of the actor anyway.
For Alexander Hill, “the foundation of Christian ethics in business is the changeless character of God.” The commands or principles that humans should follow are defined by the character of God. Note that although Hill starts with God’s character, his method is not considered a form of character-based ethics, as will be described a little later. This is because when it comes to determining how humans should act, Hill’s method is to develop rules and principles. Rules and principles are the hallmarks of the command approach to ethics.
The most common recurring descriptions of God’s character in the Bible are holiness, justice and love. Our laws, rules and practices should bring about holiness, justice and love. Hill maintains that Christian ethics requires that all three principles be taken into account all the time. Each, like a leg on a three-legged stool, balances the other two. Overemphasizing the importance of one at the expense of the others always leads to a distortion in ethical thinking. For example, an overemphasis on holiness can easily lead to rules that require Christians to withdraw from the world into a kind of impotent isolationism. An overemphasis on justice can easily produce excessively harsh penalties for breaking the rules. An overemphasis on love can sometimes lead to vagueness and lack of accountability.
Hill’s approach would seem to provide for a better balance than those that just focus on a single principle. It does provide some help to explore both personal and social ethical dimensions. However, the concepts of love, justice and holiness still need explaining by referring to other principles. The hope of reducing the vast mass of rules to a few master principles remains once again unfulfilled.
The fundamental question the consequentialist asks is, “Will it produce good results?” or “Which choice will produce the best result?” Unlike the command approach (where the best option is determined by rules that define 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. This involves trying to anticipate and calculate the results of different courses of action and choosing what is really good or the best result possible.
Because so many people think of ethics in terms of the Ten Commandments and of the Bible as a rule book, 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.
For example, Proverbs is full of warnings and promises — pithy sayings that spell out the likely outcomes of certain actions. For example, Proverbs 14:14 states, “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. “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16). In fact, in one sense Jesus’ whole life and ministry can be viewed as a living example of making decisions for the greater good.
His Beatitudes also display an implicit consequential aspect to them — if you want to be “filled” then hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. (Matt 5:6). So, too, does 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. (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. (Matt. 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. (Matt. 6:3-4)
If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:15)
Considering the consequences is an important biblical approach to our ethical decision-making. However, there are also a number of potential landmines in such thinking when it comes to answering, “What is good?” “Good for whom?” “Does a good end always justify the means?” “Does the context influence what is good?” Measuring the good is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Click here to join an in-depth discussion of practical applications of the consequential approach to ethics located in the narrative case study of Wayne. After reading it, you will find a link to return here. (Links to the section “Measuring the Good” of the case study.)
Rather than asking how to decide “What are the rules?” or “What will produce the best results?” in each particular situation, the virtue approach asks, “What type of person should I become?” The assumption is that if a person develops good character, he or she is more likely to do the right/good thing throughout a lifetime of situations. For this reason, it is more an ethics of becoming than of doing.
It also recognizes that knowing what the right thing is — by employing consequential or command ethics — doesn’t ensure you will actually do the right thing. Doing the right thing takes character. Character ethics is developing the habit of doing the right thing along with the ability to know the right thing. It is about how the character of God is shaping our own characters — about whether we are becoming more holy, just and loving people, to name three prominent character traits in the Bible. These are no longer just principles to guide us in our decision-making. These are character attributes that are becoming ingrained in us as default settings. There are several reasons why this is so important.
Firstly, because the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas until now suggests that we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through some complex issues towards making the right decision. And sometimes we do. But what about most of the time? Are not most of our decisions made in a split second while we are on the run? How do we relate to this person, or sort out that problem, or advise a customer, or motivate an underperforming individual or team?
Secondly, could it be that many of the ethical choices we make are already substantially decided before we make the decision? That our character automatically shapes much of what we decide to do? And because of this, our ethical decisions are largely determined by who we are (the type of character and values we’ve embodied) rather than what decision-making process we employ.
Thirdly, are we really individuals freely making personal decisions, or are our decisions largely shaped by the communities we are part of? Are character and community intertwined with our values in ways that are inseparable when it comes to talking about ethics?
David Cook argues that we rarely make conscious moral decisions. Most times we don’t think about the moral dilemma, but simply respond to it. If this is the case and our reactions are substantially instinctive, then the importance of developing Godly character is strengthened, because we are making so many of our ethical choices automatically. Good people have a greater chance of making good choices.
Just as the command and consequence approaches have to determine which commands and consequences are truly good, the character approach has to determine which virtues are good. Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. St. Ambrose (339-397) agreed that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically “theological” virtues from the Bible — faith, hope and love. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas went on to contrast these virtues with corresponding vices — the ones we know as the seven deadly sins.
Virtue ethics has remained prominent in Catholic thought, but only recently have Protestant theologians started to enthusiastically explore the character approach. Mostly they have looked to the Bible as the source of virtues. We have seen that Alexander Hill identified the biblical virtues of holiness, justice and love as God’s chief virtues. Nonetheless, even he subordinates the virtue approach to the rule approach. He doesn’t say that humans should develop virtues in themselves. Instead, he says people should develop rules in accordance with God’s virtues.
Those Protestant theologians who have tried to identify Christian virtues that humans should cultivate have tended to focus specifically on the life and teaching of Jesus. Stassen and Gushee note:
The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center. No moral issue should be addressed apart from consideration of the meaning of Jesus Christ for reflection on that issue.
For Stassen and Gushee, the obvious starting place to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to is the Sermon on the Mount and in particular the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst/hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion — these are some of the key qualities to be nurtured. For Jesus, our actions and behavior are a manifestation of much more fundamental core attitudes, motives and character qualities (Mark 7:21-22). The apostle Paul also emphasizes the importance of character development. For example, in Galatians, Paul exhorts those who belong to Jesus not to gratify the desires of “the flesh” but rather to allow the Spirit to grow “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:16-25). To the Philippians, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves….Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).
Jesus is our model. It is his example we are called to imitate. It is his character we are called to develop through the working of his Spirit. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
Click here for an in-depth discussion of practical applications of the character approach to ethics. After reading it, you will find a link to return here. (Links to the section “How does character develop and grow in our lives?” of the case study.)
As Christians, we seek to become like Jesus (1 John 3:2). So we must be acutely aware of the danger we face of “reframing” Jesus’ commandments, desired consequences and character in ways that are less challenging to our own lifestyle and worldview. Remaking Jesus in our own image is a temptation we all face. It is easy, particularly in communities of relative affluence, to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings, so that all we’re left with is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of “personal” moral issues. “What Would Jesus Do?” can easily become trivialized. Research suggests that most regular churchgoers only exhibit ethical understandings distinctive from the rest of the population as this relates to a few issues of sexual conduct, personal honesty and the accumulation of wealth. In most other respects, we are shaped more by the values of our culture than the ethics of Jesus.
The encouraging thing about this research is that it does demonstrate clearly that churchgoing does make a difference to our ethical understanding. But sadly, only in a very limited way, because those ethical concerns that are regularly addressed in church exclude most workplace and business ethics issues. Surely the fact that the CEOs of Enron and WorldCom could profess to be devout Christian men with the support of their churches suggests a few blind spots? We must work harder to address more marketplace issues in the way we tell and celebrate and explore the Christian story.
Christian character does not develop just as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured. As Benjamin Farley writes:
The New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community….It is within this nurturing context of faith, hope and love…that the Christian life, as a process, unfolds. It is never a matter of the individual alone, pitted against an alien and hostile culture, that constitutes the epicenter of Christian moral action.
We are much more likely to become people of virtue when we are committed to a community that seeks to retell, understand, embrace and live out the gospel story - especially where these communities are themselves committed to discovering a clearer picture of the character of Jesus, and asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that help us to confront our limited view of the virtuous life. When this happens, we are less likely to duplicate the many sad examples of Christians doing business in un-Christian ways.
So there we have it: Commands, Consequences and Character. Three different approaches to ethics. In reality, some combination of these approaches is often present in dealing with real, everyday situations. For example, it is hard to think about the application of specific commands or rules without also considering the consequences of such actions. While, at the same time, choosing between different anticipated consequences depends on knowing what principles we want to prioritize to define what is best. And, whatever has been decided in theory, it is character that finally dictates how a person chooses to act.
Hence, when it comes to making moral decisions, we find ourselves involved in an ethical dance that involves an interplay between these different approaches.
Summary of the Three Approaches
|Primary question||What is the applicable rule?||What will produce the best result?||Am I becoming a good person?|
In part, what we emphasize depends on the nature of the situation we find ourselves confronted with. For example, one common difference in approaches relates to whether we find ourselves trying to solve a major moral dilemma or a more everyday moral choice. Let us explore what we mean.
A lot of teaching on business ethics is built around exploring significant case studies and is developed in response to profound moral dilemmas; in particular, the challenges that come when important principles clash and seem to point towards different solutions. The attempt to address such problems tends to start with emphasizing the importance of developing a method for moral reasoning in the face of such challenges. Such a model usually emphasizes the importance of considering relevant rules and calculating likely outcomes with the aim of comparing and weighing these to discern the best option for action in that particular context. The emphasis on virtue and character in this case relates primarily to making sure that enough motivation and resolve is found to ensure that appropriate action results. This can be pictured like this:
Rules/consequences-priority (decision-action) model
Determine what is the right thing to do in each situation →
Define the applicable rules
Discern the best outcomes
Become a virtuous person by doing the right thing in situation after situation →
Do what you have determined is right (character)
The sort of method that is recommended usually looks something like this:
- Gather all the relevant facts.
- Clarify the key ethical issues.
- Identify rules and principles 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.
- Ask for help from others in your community who know you and the situation. This will help you avoid self-deception and paying too much attention to your particular biases.
- 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.
- Create systems and practices that shape the organization/society’s character, so that it tends to do what you have determined is right as a matter of course.
- Find ways to continuously practice the activities inherent in doing what is right, as you have determined.
A second model recognizes that most ethical decisions in our daily lives and work are made instantly, often under pressure and without much room for forethought. They are the product of habits of a lifetime and also shaped by the cultures of places we work and the peer groups and faith communities we belong to. They are influenced by the extent to which Christian virtues and character have been molded into the core of our beings. This is regular Christian discipleship. This is not to suggest that moral reasoning doesn’t also accompany this emphasis on the importance of being as the foundation for our doing. Within the virtuous life, there is still a place for understanding rules and calculating consequences. But in this case, it is with rules and consequences subordinated to virtues and viewed as servants rather than masters. This reverses the priority illustrated in our previous diagram:
Character-priority (ethical development) model
Become a virtuous person →
Develop a virtuous character so you will have the wisdom and fortitude to obey the rules and seek the best outcomes
Determine what is the right thing to do when the situation is unclear →
Determine the applicable rules in each situation (commands)
Discern the best outcome in each situation (consequences)
This is not to suggest that emphasis on virtues doesn’t also give rise to moral dilemmas, because we can find competing virtues themselves pulling in different directions. For example, courage and prudence can pull in different directions, or justice and peace, or loyalty and truth. Making good moral decisions in these cases is less about seeing one right answer because there is probably not just one. Making good moral decisions is more about seeing the alternatives as tensions that can provide a stimulus towards balanced Christian responses.
So far we have been talking as if we have the ability to follow God’s rules, to seek the outcomes God seeks, to become the kind of characters God wants us to become. But usually we fall far short of that ability. We may not have the power or position to do the right thing. We may lack the courage. We may be tripped up by our own ungodly desires, attitudes, fears, relationships and other factors
Sometimes we lack not only the ability, but even the knowledge needed to do right. It may not be clear what God’s rules are when it comes to warfare or bioethics, for example. We may not know which outcome God desires when the alternatives are working as a prostitute or watching your children go hungry. We may not be able to picture the kind of character Jesus wants us to be in a workplace where people seem to be either competent and mean-spirited, or inept and kindly.
In most situations in work and life, we simply can’t reach a perfect solution. Often we face a choice not between the better and the best, but between the bad and the worse. Nonetheless, God is still with us. A Christian ethical approach does not condemn us to failure if we cannot attain perfection. Instead, it gives us resources to do the best we can or at least just to do better than we would otherwise. In a corrupt system, there may be little we can do to make a real difference. Even so, the Bible gives us a picture of the way God intends things to be, even if we cannot get there any time soon. This is meant to be a cause for hope, not guilt. God chose to enter human life — in the person of Jesus — in the midst of a corrupt regime. He suffered the worst consequences of it, but emerged victorious by God’s grace. We can expect the same as Jesus’ followers. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
In the end it all comes down to grace. God’s grace may make it clear to us what the right thing is. God’s grace may make us able to do what we know is right. Even if we fail, God’s grace can forgive us and make it possible for us to try again.
The fallenness of the world is one of the most important reasons we think the character approach is so important. We may not be able to obey all God’s rules or desire all the outcomes God desires. But by God’s grace, we can practice doing something better today than we did yesterday. If we do nothing but tell the truth once today when we would have lied yesterday, our character has become slightly more like God intends. A lifetime of growing ethically better, bit by bit, makes a real difference.