The Consequences Approach
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.)