What is 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 J. P. 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).

By the term “consequence,” the theorist means to say all the things that a specific action/behaviour on behalf of an individual causes. The concept of eudaimonia (which refers to “human flourishing,” “wellbeing,” or “happiness”) is central to the teleological view of ethics. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that eudaimonia was attained through happiness, pleasure, and virtuousness which came together to assist in human beings flourishing. Teleological ethicists agree that the desirable end is the happiness and flourishing of human beings. For them, the morally right action is the one which has the best overall consequences and results in happiness.

There are several notable consequentialist/teleological theories which differ enough to be somewhat distinctive. Stemming from British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism attempts to focus on the collective welfare of a population of human beings as opposed to the welfare of the individual person. Mill explained 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).

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”). Anything that would result in the reverse of happiness would be wrong. For instance, to steal a valuable item treasured by someone would cause a “reverse of happiness,” because it would cause pain to the owner. Such behaviour would not support human flourishing and therefore be considered a moral wrong.

There are a few other utilitarian theories which differ to the utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham. Egoism, for example, is quite opposed to their concept as it places the individual at the center. On this view, the individual seeks his after his own self-interests and the good for himself, and is therefore a self-centered ethical philosophy. Some of its proponents, like Adam Smith, suggested that should acting out of self-interest result in positive outcomes, and should all members in society adhere to such a philosophy, it could well lead to the betterment of the overarching society itself. According to Hedonism, pleasure is deemed the most important pursuit for the human being, and that maximizing one’s own pleasure should be prioritized. This approach 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. This includes behaviour which shows a sacrifice of one’s own self-interest, and the embracing the moral obligation to serve and help others.

There is also an important distinction between rule consequentialism and negative consequentialism. 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. Negative consequentialism suggests that behaviour should focus on minimizing bad consequences as opposed to promoting good consequences.


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

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


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