Timothy McVeigh committed one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. This violent act killed 168 people and wounded several hundred. McVeigh was convicted and was executed by lethal injection in 2001. Many saw this execution as a “completion of justice,” while others protested because they opposed the death penalty in principle. This event raised questions surrounding the morality of capital punishment given the prohibition of murder in Scripture (Exod. 20:13). However, in understanding this difficult dilemma, we must remember not to limit moral evaluation to just one aspect.
We spend much of our time trying to justify our actions. Certainly, this can be worthwhile, since Scripture encourages us to think on things that are honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and worthy or praise (Phil. 4:8). Questions like “what should I do?” or “how should I think about the present situation?” are thus appropriate for us.
Behind our questions, though, exist a variety of theories and moral systems that shape how to answer these types of questions—whether we have thought deeply about ethical theories or not! Typically, four elements are present in moral decision-making: (1) intent, (2) agent, (3) ends or consequences, and (4) acts. This essay will focus on a variety of common ethical theories based on these four human behaviors they highlight most. Most ethical theories fail in that they tend to focus exclusively on one of these elements at the exclusion of the rest. However, sound Christian moral evaluation takes into account how all of these relate to the character and commands of God.
With regard to human behavior, intent generally refers to the motive or desire that drives a given action. Augustine once said, “The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire.” Because of sin, though, everything takes on a new dimension bending towards disorder and confusion. Our motives and desires can be misdirected.
An ethical system built solely on intent is a moral system known as emotivism. Emotivism say that “moral language about an issue merely expresses a person’s emotions about a subject.” They are simply “attitudes masquerading as facts.” This type of moral system leads to confusion. As John Frame points out, “If I like stealing and you don’t, there is nothing more to be said.” While intent, motives, and emotions are important, they aren’t the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. We should therefore be careful to guard them according to Scripture.
Human actions are always manifestations of a moral agent or person. Take the Marvel superhero, Captain America, for example. He exemplifies virtues such as courage, humility, sacrifice, and perseverance. We weigh his actions based on how well they stand up to our ideas of these virtues. An example of a moral system built around this perspective is called Virtue Ethics. This system is a person-based method highlighting the character and virtue of the agent.
Virtue ethics, which makes the person’s character and virtue its central focus, has been used long before Steve Rogers. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the New Testament Gospels, and Thomas Aquinas all emphasized the importance of developing virtues. One significant weakness of virtue ethics is that it must be lived in community with other people; it can’t be taught in isolation. In order to develop virtue, there must be a character to emulate. Believers, then, seek to imitate Christ and develop character that models Him (1 Cor. 11:1). Even our definition of specific virtues must flow from Scripture.
All human behaviors will inevitably have an end or goal. Consequentialism is a moral system emphasizing the goal or outcome of a human behavior. This system of thought claims “an act is right if it is intended to produce a greater balance of good over evil than any available alternative.” Proponents such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill have interpreted this greater balance of good over evil in terms of human flourishing.
What’s the appeal of this system? On the surface, it’s relatively simple to apply in most situations, which makes it very popular. However, morality must never be determined simply by gauging results or ends. To do this requires someone ignoring the means, which suggests that there is no inherently good or bad way to reach the goal.
Even if we were to operate under this framework, there would be no way to predict accurately the results of a given action in every decision because humans aren’t omniscient. Frame observes, “It turns out, then, that utilitarianism though advertised as a simple and practical method for evaluating courses of action, in fact requires divine omniscience.” True moral actions, then, bear the image of One Who is omniscient.
In a given situation, there are multiple decisions or acts. Deontological Ethics is a system that focuses on the act itself. It doesn’t ignore the intent or end; “they only claim that consequences are not the basis for deciding the moral rightness or wrongness of an action.” The proper moral behavior, therefore, is determined by focusing on the nature of the act or decision itself. Morality can be summarized as doing one’s duty, or obeying a moral law. The evaluation of what behavior is right or wrong is not based on what is best, good, or most effective, but what is obligatory and dutiful.
Problems arise for deontologists when they try to find some source of ethical knowledge other than God’s revelation. Because of this, two models arise: divine command theory and natural law theory. Natural law theory builds upon general revelation as a source for morality, while divine command theory builds upon special revelation.
Moral Decisions and the Whole Person
Human beings don’t make choices arbitrarily. We make moral decisions based on models, worldviews, or sources of authority. Therefore, everyone has some type of moral system within which he or she operates. Our focus should include all elements of human behavior in the decision-making process. Christians should be aware of this reality and seek to bring glory to God in every area of their life (1 Cor. 13:31). Doing this will require a focus on each element of each human behavior mentioned because moral decisions involve the whole person.
In signature work Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis focused on the importance of considering a compatibility of agent, end, and act. He writes:
There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual–when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another…think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others…The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. . . . Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for…what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.
Lewis is right to note the danger of moral decision-making based solely on one human behavior while ignoring others. Thus, morality “is not just concerned with practice but also with the person and the purpose of moral events.” The Christian, then, should focus on the intent, agent, end, and action of every moral event.
God gives principles, commands, and laws in His revealed Word. Because of this, actions are either prescribed, forbidden, and/or guided. Scripture also reveals that God desires for humans to be good people of virtue to do “what is good” (Micah 6:8). This moral system avoids relativism by giving clear commands, legalism by emphasizing Biblical wisdom in certain situations, and person-based virtues that focus on responding to the gospel.
Moral decisions involve the whole person. This can be a daunting task for believers living in the twenty-first century. Christians may need to ask whether they’re making a given decision out of love for God and love for their neighbor (intent). Christians might consider if they’re imitating the character of Christ (agent). They could ask what path would bring God the most glory (end). Ultimately, every moment of life should be seen as an opportunity to worship (act). Christian moral evaluation takes into account how all of these questions and elements relate to the character and commands of God.
 Terre Haute, “McVeigh execution: A ‘completion of justice,’” CNN.com/Law Center, June 11, 2001; http://edition.cnn.com/2001/LAW/06/11/mcveigh.02/; accessed May 18, 2017; Internet.
 Augustine, Fourth Homily of the First Epistle of John, 4.6.
 Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 81.
 See the entire explanation and critique of emotivism in John Frame, A Theology of Lordship: The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 82-84.
 David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 127.
 Frame, 99.
 John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 28.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper One, 1980), 71-72.
 David W. Jones, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 21.