Putting it All Together

Article / Produced by TOW Project
Putting it all together

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

Deontological Teleological Virtue
Key concept Commands/Rules Consequences/Results Character
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.

Solving Major Moral Dilemmas
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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:[27]

  1. Gather all the relevant facts.
  2. Clarify the key ethical issues.
  3. Identify rules and principles relevant for the case.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. List all the alternative courses of action.
  7. Compare the alternatives with the principles.
  8. Calculate the likely results of each course of action and consider the consequences.
  9. Consider your decision prayerfully before God.
  10. Make your decision and act on it.
  11. 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.
  12. Find ways to continuously practice the activities inherent in doing what is right, as you have determined.
Everyday Moral Choices
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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.

Making Ethical Decisions in a Fallen World
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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.