Examining Teleological (Consequentialist) Ethics

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Teleological ethics (also known as Consequentialism) comes from the Greek word “telos” which means goal. It argues that the moral rightness of an action is determined by the maximization of happiness. According to philosophers William Lane Craig and James Moreland, “[T]eleological ethics holds that the rightness or wrongness of an act is exclusively a function of the goodness or badness of the consequences of that act” (1).

The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the essence of this when he wrote that “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain” (2). On this view, to steal a valuable item treasured by someone else would cause the “reverse of happiness” as it would cause pain to the owner. Such behaviour would surely not support human flourishing and therefore be considered a moral wrong.

Although Teleological and Consequentialist ethics often denote the same ethical approach, there are some differences. It is thought, for example, that Consequentialism is broader than Utilitarianism because whereas the former focuses on how behaviour an decisions affect well-being the latter further includes the likes of justice, fairness, and equality in the equation. Nonetheless, the concept of eudaimonia (which can refer to “human flourishing,” “wellbeing,” or “happiness”) is central to the Teleological view of ethics (3). To the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, eudaimonia came about through happiness, pleasure, and virtuousness that assisted in human beings flourishing (4). However, the concept of eudaimonia has been criticized for its subjective nature (happiness) given that there is no external standard in hindsight of which one could judge happiness especially when people not only disagree with one another but also possess different concepts and understandings of happiness. Thus, commentators tend to use flourishing as a better term to capture the essence of eudaimonia as opposed to happiness given how subjective the latter can be (5). Moreover, although others animals and plant life can also “flourish,” eudaimonia is thought possible only for rational beings, which has too been a point of criticism (6).

There are several notable Consequentialist/Teleological theories which differ in certain respects and that at least differ enough to be somewhat distinctive. However, despite disagreement, theorists tend to agree that the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences and that results in happiness. By the term “consequence,” the theorist means to say all the things that a specific action/behaviour causes (7). Many Consequentialists suggest that moral perfection means to not only love all people but also to love others as we love ourselves. However, as we note detail below, these terms (“love” and “consequences,” among others) result in a host of questions that Consequentialist/Teleological ethicists would need to engage.

Stemming from British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism has sought to focus on the collective welfare of a population and human beings as opposed to the welfare of the individual person (8). Thus, what is deemed a morally good behaviour is that which results in the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people (also known as the “greatest happiness principle”). Despite this being an admirable end, this is also where one could criticize the theory. For instance, by negating pain, in attempt to affirm and actualize happiness, Utilitarianism can sometimes be thought to promote a fantastical, far-fetched reality. The simple fact is that pain is part and parcel of the human experience and there will never be a time in which it will disappear entirely from this world. However, it would remain that the attempt to rid the world of pain should be considered a noble effort. Moreover, although most people do not like pain for obvious reasons, pain often seems to be an important guide in the learning process because through such experiences human beings are able to mature, grow stronger, and develop capacities through which they are able to connect with others on a deeper and more intimate level. However, a world without pain, or a world with less pain than could probably be found in our current one, would likely be a world that would fail to actualize these traits, or would at least actualize them on a far lesser scale.

Another type of consequentialism is known as Egoism, and it is one that runs contrary to Utilitarianism. Egoism views the individual as being at the center and who seeks good only for himself, which, explains ethicist James Rachels, can seem to endorse selfishness (9). Thus, Egoism can be thought as a “self-centered” ethical philosophy in which individuals act out of their own self-interest. Some theorists, like the influential egoist Adam Smith, suggested that should acting out of self-interest result in positive outcomes and that if all members in society were to adhere to such a philosophy it could well lead to the betterment of society itself. Furthermore, according to Hedonism, pleasure is deemed the most important pursuit for the human being, and that maximizing one’s own pleasure should be prioritized (10). Hedonism is the opposite of Altruism, the view that the individual should act and behave in ways that have the best consequences for everyone else except for himself (11). This includes behaviour built upon the foundations of the sacrifice of one’s own self-interest, and the pursuing of the moral obligation to serve and help others.

Finally, an important distinction between Rule Consequentialism & Negative Consequentialism must be noted. Where the former is concerned, moral decisions and behaviour must follow rules, and the rules are selected depending on the consequences that their selection has (12). The latter Negative Consequentialism suggests that behaviour should focus on minimizing bad consequences as opposed to promoting good consequences (13). This theorist would consider what harm his action would cause, and whether that action would eliminate, increase, or decrease harm.

As stated, Consequentialist/Teleological ethical theories bring to the fore a number of questions. It is clear that an overarching emphasis is on the notions of love, pain, happiness, consequences, and moral action. However, each of these concepts are loaded with meaning and can therefore be understood differently by a wide range of individuals. For example, what are “consequences” and how would one differentiate between ones that are good and those that are bad? What is “love,” and what is “pain”? What constitutes a moral decision? And what is the relationship between love and pain and the individual making a moral decision? Moreover, and where I would perceive the greatest difficulty to be, how does one deal with subjective nature of these terms? Things like love, good/bad morals, and happiness will differ between individuals, cultures, and societies. So whose version should be thought correct? And who gets to decide? It is clear that Consequentialist theorists have much exploration to do in these areas.


1. Moreland, J & Craig, W. 2003. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. p. 425.

2. Mills, J. 1863. Utilitarianism. p. 10

3. Hursthouse, R. 2003. Virtue Ethics. Available.

4. Robertson, D. 2012. The Platonic Dictionary: Cardinal Virtues. Available.

5. Hursthouse, R. 2003. Ibid.

6. Hursthouse, R. 2003. Ibid.

7. Haines, W. Consequentialism. Available.

8. Driver, J. 2009. The History of Utilitarianism. Available.

9. Rachels, J. 2008. The Truth about the World: Basic Readings in Philosophy: 2nd (second) Edition. p. 534

10. Driver, J. 2009. Ibid.

11. Fieser, J. Ethics. Available.

12. Hooker, B. 2003. Rule Consequentialism. Available.

13. Arrhenius, G. & Bykvist, J. 1995. “Future Generations and Interpersonal Compensations Moral Aspects of Energy Use.” Uppsala Prints and Preprints in Philosophy, 21: p. 115


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