Understanding the problems of consequential ethics
Another very common ethical idea in our surrounding culture is that the morality of an action can be determined by its consequences. If one’s sense of morality is primarily based on feelings, but the there are situations in which feelings are unclear then one can look at the consequences of an action to determine if it is right or wrong. In moral philosophy this way of seeing ethics is represented best by utilitarianism, but for many in the culture around us the consequential ethics they use is not as well thought through as utilitarian ethical theory. It is primarily the simpler idea that one can morally justify doing something that would otherwise be wrong if the outcome is good.
This is not a way of thinking that is compatible with biblically grounded Christian ethics. We should be concerned about the consequences of our actions, but there is a clear understanding among Christian ethicists that consequential ethics can lead to many wrong moral decisions. The value and dignity of persons in the minority or otherwise on the fringes of society can be abandoned when decisions are made on the basis of the good of the majority. It does not fit with a biblical understanding of moral truth to say that we can do what is wrong to achieve a good outcome. The ends do not justify the means. Consequential arguments are commonly false rationalizations to justify ourselves for doing something we know to be wrong. King Saul tried to justify his disobedience of God’s command to kill the livestock of the Amalekites by saying that bringing the best of the animals home with him would allow him to give them to God as sacrifices. It is not right to disobey God to try to do something for God.
I saw this type of consequential thinking being used by the students I work with a couple of years ago when some of them chose to sponsor a viewing and discussion of the Will Smith movie Seven Pounds. In the movie the lead character responds to negligently causing the death of seven people by choosing people to whom he donates parts of his body and in the end commits suicide in order to donate his heart to a woman who will die without a heart transplant. The focus of the students discussing the ethics of the film was predominantly on the outcome of saving the lives of the transplant recipients with very little consideration for whether the suicide was wrong and downplayed the other wrong things that the main character did in the process of choosing those to whom he would give his gifts. These were students who identify themselves as Christian, but they were thinking more like the surrounding culture than using biblical principles.
We need to help our students and the church as a whole understand how this type of thinking conflicts with a biblical view of how we should live and leads to wrong decisions.