When we adhere to a genuinely Christian ethic, we conform to God’s design for the world and for humanity. The basic aspects of that design are revealed universally to all people. We access them by paying attention to our consciences, to the design of the world around us, to the design of human beings, and to the laws of cause and effect.
In addition to the basic moral law revealed to all humanity, God has revealed further insights into his intentions for humanity. In days of old, he did so through his mighty acts, through the prophets and apostles, and supremely through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In our own era, God has also provided a written revelation—the Bible. The Bible affirms the basic moral precepts that can be “read off of” the world but goes further by prescribing for us the kind of character and conduct required by one who embraces Jesus of Nazareth as cosmic King and savior.
A Principled Ethic
The Christian ethic is a principled ethic, meaning that it views the ethical life as one that conforms to moral principles embedded in the world around us and revealed in the Bible. For that reason, Christianity’s influence on the West caused most Western ethicists and, arguably, most Westerners to assent to a principled ethic (even though no human being or society lives in perfect conformity with such an ethic).
Yet, over the past two centuries, an increasing number of Westerners have rejected Christianity’s principled ethic in favor of a consequentialist ethic. Consequentialists assign moral praise or blame based upon the outcomes of human action rather than conformity to moral principles. For consequentialists, the moral route is the one that produces the greatest amount of overall good. Human actions are not inherently good or bad; they are a means to an end.
There are different types of consequentialism, including Epicureanism (the moral path is the one that brings the most pleasure), egoism (the moral path is the one that achieves my own interests), utilitarianism (the moral path is the one that leads to the greatest good for the most people), and altruism (the moral path that leads to the greatest good for everybody except the actor).
The Failures of Consequentialism
Consequentialism is directly opposed to the Christian ethic. Although biblical Christians care very much about the results of our actions, and although we seek to achieve the greatest good for the most people, we must allow God to define right and wrong. We must live in conformity with revealed principles, even if we can’t see how our obedience will bring about the best possible outcome in a given scenario.
Given that consequentialism goes against God’s design for the ethical life, we should not be surprised to learn that it is deeply incoherent. All forms of consequential ethics fail in at least two manners.
First, consequentialism fails because it cannot properly account for human limitations. The consequentialist approach is premised upon human beings’ ability to predict accurately the consequences of a given course of action. Yet, human beings are limited in our knowledge. We cannot know for sure the effects of a given course of action. We cannot weigh with certainty the short-term or long-term consequences of our actions.
Second, consequentialism fails because it serves those persons in society who possess the most social, cultural, and political power. When consequentialism becomes socially plausible in a society, powerful people no longer need to apologize for or justify their role in redefining “good” and “evil” in ways that benefit them personally. The cultural elite gets to stack the decks so that they personally can experience maximal pleasure, achieve their own interests, or define the “greatest good” and who gets to benefit from it.
In addition to these two ways in which all consequentialist paradigms fail, individual versions of consequentialism fail in other ways. For example, egoism is almost universally morally repugnant. Even a person who ascribes to egoism is usually repulsed when other people act in their own interests at the expense of the egoist. Egoism is also personally unsatisfying, especially over the course of a person’s lifetime because often the most satisfying course of action involves sacrificing one’s self-interest to help another person in need.
Our Hearts Must Be Renewed
Therefore, in response to the consequentialism that pervades our culture, we must embody a principled ethic—the ethic revealed in creation’s design and in Christian Scripture. We may place value on the consequences of our actions but may not allow an action’s projected consequences to be the deciding factor in determining whether it is right or wrong. A principled ethic is the best for individuals as well as for a society’s cultural institutions and political parties.
Moreover, we must make clear that even the best God-centered ethical system is useless if we are not continually orienting our hearts toward God. Without the continual renewal of our hearts, we will find ourselves repeatedly breaking God’s law, obeying God’s law in letter but not spirit, or rejecting God’s law in favor of a consequentialist ethical system.