By David Hegg
I recently met a man who was the epitome of post-modern thought in that he did not believe in absolute truth. All definitions of right and wrong were, for him, merely societal constructs made up by those in power. He had determined not to play society’s game and so had developed his own system of ethics in which there was no absolute standard and, therefore, no personal accountability. Of course, he shot down his own system by dogmatically stating that all truth was relative. I guess he never took Logic 101.
Even so, he got me thinking about the way most of us determine what is right and wrong. In the study of ethics this topic often involves understanding two competing positions, that of consequentialism, and non-consequentialism.
As you can gather from the labels, they both have to do with the consequences of our actions. For a consequentialist “right and wrong” are determined on the basis of how the action taken will affect well-being. The consequences determine the moral quality of the action. An example might be a starving man who steals a loaf of bread from a baker who has them by the dozens. Since the bread will not really be missed, and will save a life, the action could be considered morally acceptable. But not so for a non-consequentialist. For these folks, “right and wrong” are determined by a previously determined law, principle, or standard. The man who steals a loaf of bread is wrong because he has broken the law, plain and simple.
We see the tug-of-war between these two systems all the time. Take the question of immigration. Non-consequentialists insist that those entering the country illegally are criminals and should be treated as such. But the consequential argument states that many who come in provide the necessary labor for industries that would be severely damaged if they had to pay the wages most American citizens demand. Further, to deport those here illegally could divide families, and end up hurting the children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in the States. This is an oversimplification, but you get the idea. There are many more arguments on both sides, but they all grow out of one of these two philosophical soils.
Another example is the abortion issue. As you can guess, the battle lines are often drawn between these two ways of determining right and wrong. Abortion advocates voice their support along the lines of the dire circumstances that many women find themselves in. To avoid negative consequences such as unwanted children, the financial burdens of such children, the shame of extramarital pregnancy and other general inconveniences, abortion is deemed morally acceptable. Yet, for non-consequentialists, ending the life is wrong simply because God, who brings all life into being, has said so.
There is no question that we all can see the point of both systems. Who among us doesn’t feel the pain of a father who, unable to provide for his family, comes across the border illegally to find work? And who doesn’t also understand that the rule of law is a necessary element in our ordered society?
But, as is always the case, choices themselves have consequences. If we choose to continue down the road of consequentialism in our country we will sooner or later become a society that believes the ends justify the means, and right and wrong will ever be evolving. We will become a people enslaved to pragmatism and at the mercy of whoever has the most power to decide which consequences will win the day.
As much as the consequential view may tug at our hearts, in our minds we know that right and wrong cannot be left to the shifting sands of consequence. Every area of human intelligence, from science and math to biology and literature, exists because there are set laws and formulas and rules that demand our adherence. And ultimately, the reason our universe, with all of its complexity, continues to exist is that there are fundamental laws that cannot be violated without great peril. Such a universe argues for a designer, and its unchangeable laws certainly argue for a supreme lawgiver. It is from this foundation that mankind has always built its understanding of right and wrong, and if we turn away from this now we will do so to our ultimate undoing as a nation.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.