Teleological Ethics

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Theories about what is right and wrong are standardly divided into two kinds: those that are teleological and those that are not. Teleological theories are ones that first identify what is good in states of affairs and then characterize right acts entirely in terms of that good. The paradigm case of a teleological theory is therefore an impartial consequentialist theory, such as hedonistic utilitarianism; defended by John Stuart Mill (1969) and Henry Sidgwick (1907), it says the right act is always the one whose consequences contain the greatest total pleasure possible. But the category of teleological ethics is normally thought to be broader than that of consequentialism, so there can be teleological theories that are not consequentialist. This can be so, however, in several different ways.

Hedonistic utilitarianism has three principal features: First, it identifies good states of affairs independently of claims about the right, so even pleasure in a wrong act, such as a sadist's pleasure in torturing, is intrinsically good; and these goods are always consequences in the ordinary sense of acts that produce them, that is, separate states that follow after the acts. Second, in evaluating consequences, utilitarianism weighs all people's pleasures impartially, so for any person, a stranger's pleasure counts just as much as his child's or even his own. Finally, utilitarianism characterizes right acts in terms only of promoting the good and, more specifically, of maximizing it, so the right act is always the one that produces the most good possible.

Although teleological theories must identify the good independently of the right, they can recognize many goods other than pleasure. Some possible goods, such as knowledge and artistic creativity, are, like pleasure, states of individual persons. Others involve patterns of distribution across persons, such as that they enjoy equal pleasures or, on a different view, pleasures proportioned to their merit. Yet others, such as the existence of beauty or of complex ecosystems, are independent of persons. (Goods of all three types are affirmed in the ideal consequentialisms of G. E. Moore (1903) and Hastings Rashdall (1907). These initial goods are all, like pleasure, consequences in the ordinary sense of acts that produce them, but other possible goods are not. Imagine that a theory values difficult activities because they are difficult. Then engaging in a difficult activity, such as playing chess, will promote value not just by producing it as an external consequence but also by instantiating it, or by having difficulty as an intrinsic feature. The same holds if a theory values action from a virtuous motive, such as a benevolent desire for another's pleasure. Then a benevolent act will contribute to value in part through an intrinsic featureits being benevolent. This is a first way in which a theory can be teleological but not consequentialist: If consequentialism can value only the external consequences of acts, as some definitions assume, then a theory fits the broader but not the narrower concept if it values some intrinsic properties of acts. It can still evaluate acts by the total state of the world that will obtain if they are performed, but some relevant features of that state are now internal to them.

A teleological theory can also abandon the second feature of utilitarianismits impartiality about the good. Thus, a teleological theory can be egoistic, telling individual agents to promote only their own pleasure, knowledge, or other goods, or, conversely, can say that they should promote only others' good and not their own. It can also embrace what C. D. Broad (1971) called "self-referential altruism," which says that while people should give some weight to everyone's good, they should care more about that of those who are close to them, such as their family and friends. These theories can still identify the good independently of the right and say right acts maximize the good, but if it is essential to consequentialism to be impartial, as again some assume, they are teleological but not consequentialist.

These first two possibilities come together in a group of theories often categorized as teleological but not consequentialistthe eudaimonist theories of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers. They derive all moral requirements from a final end or good they call a person's eudaimonia, translated either as happiness or as flourishing. They are therefore formally egoistic since each person's final end is just that person's own eudaimonia. But they hold that a principal component of eudaimonia is moral virtue, which will express itself in virtuous acts such as helping others from benevolent motives. Eudaimonist theories can in principle yield the same substantive duties as utilitarianism, telling each person to maximize pleasure impartially. But their explanatory claims do not use the causal relation central to utilitarianism, saying, instead, that acts of helping others are required because they can instantiate moral virtue, which in turn instantiates part of eudaimonia.

Finally, a theory can abandon the third, maximizing feature of utilitarianism. This feature is extremely demanding since it implies that any time we do not do everything we can to benefit other people, which includes any time we relax or amuse ourselves, we act wrongly. One possibility, proposed by Michael Slote (1985), is to replace the maximizing principle with a satisficing one that says an act is right so long as its consequences are good enough, either in absolute terms or because they make some reasonable proportion of the greatest improvement the agent can make in the circumstances. Many writers see satisficing as consistent with consequentialism, but if it is essential to the latter to be maximizing, as some definitions imply, a satisficing principle again generates a nonconsequentialist teleology. A related possibility, proposed by Samuel Scheffler (1982), is to retain a maximizing principle but simultaneously grant agents an option to give somewhat more weight to their own good. Then, if they prefer a smaller benefit for themselves to a somewhat greater one for other people, they do not act wrongly, though if they preferred the greater good, they also would not act wrongly. The resulting view is probably not consequentialist since it does not contain only principles about promoting the good; but it arguably is teleological since its principles all do concern the good in some way.

More radical departures from maximizing may be possible. Teleological theories are commonly contrasted with deontological ones, which say an act can be wrong even if it has the best consequences. Thus, a deontological theory can say it is wrong to kill an innocent person even if that will prevent five other innocent people from being killed because doing so violates a moral constraint against killing; it can likewise contain constraints against lying, promise-breaking, and so on. A deontological theory is clearly nonconsequentialist, and it is also nonteleological if its constraints are independent of the good, say, if it contains independent, underived prohibitions of killing and lying. But some deontologists, who call their view Thomist, do connect constraints to the good. They start by identifying certain states of affairs as intrinsically good, say, pleasure, knowledge, and freedom. But they then claim that alongside a duty to promote these goods is a separate and stronger duty to respect them, which means not choosing against or intentionally destroying them. This second duty grounds constraints against killing, which destroys good human life; lying, which aims at the opposite of knowledge; and more.

But Thomists such as John Finnis (1980) call their view teleological since it is centered on goods that can and should be promoted. The same could not be said of Kantian deontologies, which ground constraints in respect for a value that is located in persons rather than in states of affairs and is not to be promoted since there is no duty to increase the number of valuable persons. But Thomist deontology shares enough assumptions with paradigmatically teleological theories that it arguably, if not uncontroversially, belongs in the category. (If so, deontological ethics contrasts with consequentialism but not necessarily with teleology.)

Teleological moral theories relate all moral duties to the goodness of states of affairs. They will therefore be rejected by those who think claims about intrinsic goodness are unintelligible or who hold, with Kant (1998), that the fundamental value is that of persons. These are minority views, however. Most philosophers accept as underived such claims as that pain is evil and knowledge good, so there is at least some moral duty to prevent the one and promote the other. The key issue about teleological ethics, then, is whether all duties can be related to the good. In addressing this issue, the many forms teleological ethics can take should be remembered. It can value not just pleasure but also, say, equal distribution and virtuous action; it can allow or even require agents to give more weight to some people's good; and it need not demand maximization of the good. But the question remains whether teleological ethics can recognize moral constraints, which can make it wrong to do what has the best effects. Strict consequentialists reject such constraints or claim that belief in them is justified only insofar as it has good consequences. But those who find constraints independently compelling will ask whether teleological ethics can accommodate constraints, as Thomist theories try to do, and, if so, whether it gives them the best explanation. If the answer to both questions is yes, then the teleological approach to ethics can capture a wide range of moral phenomena. If not, it will be unacceptable to those who think it sometimes wrong to do what will promote the most good.

See also Aristotle; Consequentialism; Deontological Ethics; Ethics, History of; Kant, Immanuel; Utilitarianism.


Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Broad, C. D. "Self and Others." In Broad's Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy, edited by David R. Cheney. London: Allen & Unwin, 1971, pp. 262282.

Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Frankena, William K. Ethics. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism (1861). In Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, edited by J. M. Robson. Vol. 10 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, pp. 203259.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1903.

Rashdall, Hastings. The Theory of Good and Evil, A Treatise on Moral Philosophy. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1907.

Scheffler, Samuel. The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. 7th ed. London: Macmillan, 1907.

Slote, Michael. Common-Sense Morality and Consequentialism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Thomas Hurka (2005)