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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 9–12 

Weighing Pros and Cons

Response to “Case Study” by Elmer A. Martens 18/1 (1989): 3–4.

John Derksen

Several factors/issues arise in the case. 1) Identity. By identifying himself to Gonzales as a teacher of ethics at a Christian college, Cleaver made himself more vulnerable and accountable to Gonzales. 2) Preparedness. Already at the time of purchase Cleaver knew Gonzales had evaded the state sales tax. 3) Truthfulness. Is a non-affirmation of the truth at the DMV less dishonest than an outright lie? 4) Inconvenience. A truthful answer at the DMV would delay the transaction, would cost Gonzales money, and perhaps anger him. 4) Unjust laws. Perhaps the law requiring sales tax on a vehicle every time it is sold is unjust, for most other personal belongings are not treated that way. If Cleaver had this opinion, would it justify his silence? 5) Conscience. Is one’s conscience innate, Spirit-shaped or socially conditioned?

Does he base his decision on moral law, on reason, on relationships . . . ?

The key issue to be addressed here is the basis and method of Cleaver’s ethical decision-making. Does he base his decisions on moral law, on reason, on relationships, on other bases, or on a combination of them?

If Cleaver based his decisions solely on moral law, he might conclude that honesty and truthtelling are always right, {10} no matter the cost or consequences. Despite the expected inconvenience, and despite the anger aroused in Gonzalez, the truthful and right action would be to report to the DMV that he had bought the car from Gonzalez rather than Tony Atwell, and that Gonzalez had neglected to register it.

An ethical decision based on reason might operate deontologically: what would be the result if one’s action were universalized? A universalized ethic of overlooking sales tax payments and lying to the DMV would result in moral and financial chaos everywhere, whereas a universalized ethic of truthtelling would result in trustworthiness and financial soundness everywhere. The latter would clearly be the better choice and Cleaver’s duty.

A reason-based decision might also operate teleologically: what would produce the best results for oneself or for the greatest number of people? This would involve considerable weighing of pros and cons. The main benefits of Cleaver’s silence at the DMV are that he got the vehicle of his choice, time was saved, his relationship with Gonzalez was happy, the tax evasion was a mere $143, and no one seemed to be hurt by the situation. The main drawbacks to Cleaver’s choice are his guilty conscience, the loss of some personal integrity, the state’s loss of $143, and his fear that if found out, his own and the Christian faith’s reputation might be compromised.

A decision based on relationships would prioritize Cleaver’s relationships to God, to Gonzalez, to the state, and to his other responsibilities. A healthy relationship to God might imply obedience to God’s laws—honesty, concern for the Christian reputation in the world and love for others. A healthy relationship to Gonzalez might imply friendliness, integrity, a desire to eliminate tension, and concern that Gonzalez view the Christian faith positively. A healthy relationship to the state might suggest openness, honesty, a concern that it receive its rightful due, and a concern that it act justly. A healthy relationship to Cleaver’s other responsibilities might imply ensuring time for family, work, church, and leisure.

The effort to keep all relationships healthy would involve Cleaver in some tension, for some of them seem to pull in opposite directions. For example, the relationships to God and the state call for honesty, whereas the relationships to Gonzalez and his calendar (family and work) call for minimal friction. {11}

All three of these ethical bases—moral law, reason and relationships—are evident in the Bible. The Decalogue, the many Old Testament calls to obedience, and the commands of Jesus and Paul exemplify an ethic of moral law. Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, David, Solomon, and Paul offer examples of a reasoned weighing of pros, cons and consequences. The covenants with God mediated by Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus, and Paul’s stress on faith, point to relationships underlying their ethic.

The Bible’s use of all three ethical bases suggests that none alone is wholly adequate, that each of them may rightly be used within the will of God, and that they may complement each other or may be used together in ethical decisions. Cleaver might well be advised to combine all three approaches in his effort to be true to God, Gonzalez, the state and his other responsibilities.

This does not mean that moral law, reason and relationships are easily interchangeable or always equal in value. In my view the approach most basic to God’s nature, most fundamental to the Bible, most like Jesus, and therefore most normative for ethics is that of relationships. Fundamentally the Bible is the story of God’s repeated efforts to create a people in relationship with God. The covenants with Noah and Abraham promise God’s faithfulness without laws to accompany them. The decalogue and the rest of the Mosaic Law are given after and are based on the deliverance from Egypt. The Old Testament calls to obedience are given within the larger framework of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Likewise the commands of Jesus, Paul and John in the New Testament are based on Jesus’ saving work; they presupposed a prior trust relationship of the believer with God. The larger biblical story portrays God as a relational God whose people are to respond to God and to one another as God does—with right relationships.

A relational ethic centers on two things: integrity and love. Integrity speaks of transparency, straightness, openness, a lack of duplicity; one is the same on the inside as on the outside. The repeated biblical call for righteousness is a call for integrity in covenant with God and with neighbors. Love is God’s nature. The greatest command of all is to love God supremely and to love one’s neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). Love is the greatest of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 13:13), and love fulfills the {12} entire law (Rom. 13:8-10). The bedrock of a Christian ethic is integrity and love, or right relationships. Moral law and reason offer additional guidance and balance. For Robert Cleaver in “The Pink Slip and the DMV,” while moral law and reason should not be ignored, right relationships with all parties (integrity and love) should be his starting point.

Cleaver faces at least five options: 1) He could keep silent as he did, and live with his guilty conscience. 2) He could keep silent and convince himself that his silence (since the law was unjust) was in the interest of greater justice, and therefore right. 3) He could speak the truth at the DMV, expose Gonzalez’s illegal action, and (probably) provoke the latter’s anger. These seem weak; the first two sacrifice integrity and the third sacrifices love.

4) The fourth option is to ask Gonzalez either to register the vehicle before selling it, or take it back and leave Cleaver to search for another one. This is good in that it honors relationships to God and state, and the moral law’s call for honesty. It maintains an open relationship with Gonzalez without compromising personal integrity or Christian witness. The cost here is the possible loss of the car, and the subsequent loss of time.

5) Here is a fifth option: If Gonzalez refused to register the vehicle, and if Cleaver still wanted it, he could offer to pay all or part of Gonzalez’s $143 registration cost, and then purchase the vehicle after that.

The fifth option, if Cleaver can afford it, may be the best, for the only drawback is the additional $143 expense. It honors all relationships and moral duties to all parties, maintains personal and Christian integrity at all levels, and secures the vehicle with minimal extra inconvenience. And, if Gonzalez has any moral sensitivity at all, he might feel coals of fire upon his head.


  • Chauncey, G.A. Decisions! Decisions! Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1972.
  • Gustafson, J.M. Christ and the Moral Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
  • Long, E.L., Jr. A Survey of Christian Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
John Derksen, in the graduate history program of University of Manitoba, is part-time faculty at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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