Ethics (2/3) — For the ends

The second ethical system I want to talk about has the imposing name of “teleological ethics.”  The word “teleological” means “reasoning about ends or results.”  This is the style of ethics that considers, not the rules, but the consequences of actions.

We can compare teleology with deontology: where deontology says “Here are the rules” teleology says “Here are the results.”  Where deontology says “do not murder,” teleology asks “what are the consequences of murder?”

You can see where this is less iron-clad than rules, right?  I mean, you might just answer that question “Great fun and joy!” in which case stay the hell away from me, please.

So anyone espousing teleology has to answer a question: “What results justify an action?”  The earliest answer to this, probably, is the Epicurean answer of “pleasure,” but that’s not so easy as it might appear, because Epicureans were not idiots and had a very nuanced idea of what constituted pleasure, and what pleasures were more intense and worthwhile than others.

If you took a philosophy class at some point, you probably remember that you learned about the Utilitarians.  They were an influential movement in ethics arising in the late 18th century.  They suggested that the justification for action was twofold: increasing happiness, and decreasing suffering.  Notice they say happiness, and not pleasure: working-out might not cause much pleasure at first, but it increases happiness over time.  And in fact, you needed to consider the aggregate happiness, not just your own, in regards to any action.

I confess to having more sympathy for this position, even though it’s not my own.

The Wiccan rede, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt,” is a teleological statement.  Most people who criticize the rede do so not recognizing that, and thinking that it’s a deontological rule; it’s not.  It’s better and more sophisticated than that: it says, if you contemplate an action, and that action harms no one, then do it if you wish.  But if it does cause harm, it may not be a good action, and you should consider further.  It’s basically an if statement, not an iff statement.

From a magical perspective, teleology offers us a problem: how do you know how far to calculate out?  Let’s say I do magic to get a particular job.  Good!  It increases happiness for me, and probably for other people, since I’m suited for the job.  But jobs are zero-sum: if I got it, someone else didn’t.  How much did I increase that person’s suffering?  And then consider: I have a job that loads me down with more stress.  That increases my suffering.  More than my pleasure?  Wait, though, having money lets me buy things, which increases the pleasure of local businesses, and money, thank goodness, isn’t a zero-sum game (Hey, that should be a future post probably).  We could continue this forever, to my children, my children’s children, my children’s children’s children, until I’m considering whether my bagging groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly is somehow making my star-faring descendants happy or sad.

This gets compounded when we consider magic, at which point we have to draw a purely arbitrary line between what we’re willing to consider and what we’re not.

Still, as I said, I’m happier with teleology as a rule of thumb than I am deontology.  It suffers from a logical problem — infinite regression — but not a full-fledged logical contradiction.  And it has some merit in that happiness does matter, is important, and we can act to increase it over the long term instead of in the short term.


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