Telos: Seeking the “good end”

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“But seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:33-34 KJV)

While many strains of philosophical and theological ethical thought lie roughly down a vector of deontology’s focus on rules and duties, another batch of ethical models lie roughly down the vector of seeking “the good end,” or in Aristotle’s Greek, the Telos.

Teleology means literally “the study of ends.” When we apply a teleological model of ethical behavior, we are trying to determine first the best possible “end,” or outcome, and then take those actions which get us there. For centuries, teleology has been expressed both in “God language” theology as well as in multiple philosophical takes, where the language is based more on logic and societal justice.

For instance, the philosophical construct of consequentialism is very close to classic teleology, although consequentialism tries to determine the best outcome from a set of possibilities, while teleology tries to achieve a “good end” regardless of the consequences.

As an example of the difference, think of the whistle-blower debating whether to “go public” with a corporate or governmental wrongdoing. The “good end” may be the exposure of the guilty parties, but it may have bad consequences in that you may lose your job.

The best-known consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, with the familiar goal of achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” This is the heart of economic rationalism, as explored by Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s and John Stuart Mill in the 1800s.

The classic example of utilitarianism is medical triage, where an emergency room doctor or battlefield medic separates patients into three categories: (1) those whose injuries are minor and can wait, (2) those whose injuries are so severe that they likely cannot be saved, and (3) those for whom prompt medical care will yield the most good. The consequence is that the greatest number of people will thrive, even though some are left to die, and others wait a long time for treatment, perhaps in pain. Good news for the many, but bad news for the few.

Teachers of ethics often invoke “lifeboat ethics” to tease the issues surrounding teleological models out of class members. Who gets tossed from a sinking lifeboat in order to save the rest of the occupants? My problem with this approach is that we too often wrongly assume we are in an economic or social lifeboat. We are then too quick to decide whom to “toss overboard,” when the better course may simply be to get everybody “bailing out the boat” collectively.

While consequentialism often gravitates to the telos of “the four F’s” (discussed in an earlier post) Jesus used teleological (as well as theological) language with a different end in mind in the Sermon on the Mount (quoted above). His subsequent actions seemed to bear out his words that he was doggedly pursuing the “good end” he called the “Kingdom of God,” even when it led to his own death. Relatively few Christians since have been willing to go that far [he writes, contemplating his 401(k) retirement fund…]

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