Each day, people make thousands of decisions. Some people decide to get married, while others decide to get divorced. Some people decide to become doctors and save lives, while others decide to become murderers and take lives. Why do people make the decisions that they make? Of course, that question cannot be answered definitively in a brief article such as this one. But one very small facet of the question can be addressed.
Many people make decisions based on the consequences of that decision. They do not factor into the decision whether or not the action that they are taking is a just, fair, or moral action. They only ask themselves, “What will happen to me if I do this or do not do that?” This approach to making decisions, usually referred to as “situation ethics,” sometimes can lead a person to do morally right things. For instance, a person employing situation ethics might decide not to steal because he does not want to go to jail, or he may decide not to drive drunk because he does not want to lose his driver’s license or have a car wreck.
Yet, even though situation ethics could lead a person to do right on certain occasions, what happens when the consequences for doing something morally wrong are more desirable than those that would result from doing something morally right? In this instance, a person who weighs the consequences for each action, instead of the morality of the action, would decide to do the morally wrong thing.
The Bible gives the perfect picture of situation ethics in Matthew 21:23-27. In this passage, the Pharisees approached Jesus and demanded that He tell them by what authority He was doing the marvelous deeds that He did. Jesus responded by saying that He would answer their question—if they would tell Him whether the baptism of John was from heaven or from men. Matthew 21:25-27 records their reasoning and answer:
And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”
Notice how these corrupt Jewish leaders did not make their decision. They did not ask if John’s baptism actually came from heaven. Nor did they weigh the evidence which proved that it did not come from men. Their sole concern rested on the consequences of the decision as it affected them, not on the moral rightness or wrongness of their actions or statements.
In surveying the moral atmosphere of the twenty-first century, many are following the example of these situation ethicists. Some evade taxes, because they think they will not get caught. Others indulge in fornication and adultery, because they think they have little chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. But, instead of making decisions based on situation ethics, the guiding principle behind every action should be the moral rightness of the action.
In Acts 5:29, after the chief priests had threatened and beaten the apostles, they called them before the council again and reiterated their strict command that the apostles should not teach about Jesus. In reply to this injunction, Peter answered: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Indeed, the only unchanging standard upon which to base decision-making is the will of Almighty God.
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