Everyone is responsible for their actions, thus ultimately everyone has to decide whether an action is right or whether it is wrong. Even those who reject God must still have a system for determining whether something is right or wrong. One name for this systematic reasoning is called ethics. Ethics is simply a philosophy of determining what is morally right and what is morally wrong. There are two basic systems which people hold to in determining right and wrong.
The first kind of system is called consequential ethics. Consequential ethics determines what is right or wrong based on the outcome. According to this system of thinking, no act is inherently good or bad in and of itself. It is the result that matters. In other words, consequential ethics believes that the end justifies the means.
The underlying assumption of consequential ethics can take various forms, but ultimately proponents believe the chief good is to do what gives themselves the most happiness; or what is to the greatest benefit for others (either everyone or a select group of people). This line of reasoning is the basis by which decisions are evaluated.
The alternative ethical system is called deontological ethics. Those who hold to this system believe that actions themselves are either good or bad. In other words, the end does not justify the means. If one holds to a deontological system of ethics, then by necessity there must be a standard by which to evaluate actions and events. As Christians, we believe the Bible is the Creator’s moral governance, a moral guide by which His creators are to be instructed and to live.
The deontological system of ethics (the belief that each action is right or wrong) coincides with the belief in a Creator, and it also coincides with how the world really works. However, those who hold to a consequential system of ethics are faced with numerous problems.
Problems with Consequential Ethics
First, humans are not omniscient, so it is difficult (if not impossible) to accurately predict the consequences of actions. The knowledge of human beings is fallible. Further, many things turn out differently than intended.
Second, even if one were to properly predict the outcome of an action, there is no concrete standard for evaluating the result. In other words, five people may all come up with different evaluations because each human being is different and may evaluate differently. There is no constant standard by to unify judgment.
Although there are numerous problems with a consequential approach to ethics, it is quite popular. Consequential ethics is behind many cultural fads. Even popular phrase, “Being on the right side of history,” is built upon this presupposition. Those who take believe right and wrong is determined by popular opinion subscribe to a system of consequential ethics.
However, the problem with majority opinions is that they are not always right. Was the German slaughter of Jews morally correct? How about the horrendous slavery of African-Americans in the antebellum years up to the Civil War? Both of these had majority support behind them, yet I doubt anyone would say these were not evil. However, using a consequential system of determining right or wrong can lead one to embrace right and wrong based on popular vote.
These two categories (consequential and deontological ethics) provide the main foundation for determining right and wrong in one’s worldview. Ultimately, Christians have much to be thankful for as we have the means by which to give others meaning and guidance for living. Christians possess the Creator’s truth which includes the message of reconciliation as well as the answer to the follow-up question, “How shall we then live?”