Forrest Cameranesi Geek of all Trades

On Teleology, Purpose, and the Objects of Morality

Teleology (from the Greek word telos, meaning "purpose") is often taken to be the study of purpose as it serves a role in descriptive, causal explanations of reality: looking at the ends to which things serve as means for an explanation of how those things came to exist, on the assumption that they were created by something to serve those ends. That is not the sense in which I mean the term here, or what this essay is about.

Less often, teleology is taken to be the study of purpose in a prescriptive, moral sense, as in the ends toward which we aim our actions, the good that we seek to bring about. In that sense, normative ethical models that concern themselves primarily with the ends or consequences brought about by actions are sometimes called teleological (though they are more often called consequentialist). That is the sense in which I mean the term here, which this essay is about.

As mentioned in my earlier note on ethics, I do not endorse such teleological models of normative ethics over other models, but I do consider the ends or consequences brought about by actions to be one important aspect of morality worth consideration, and I use the term "teleology" to denote the field studying that aspect. I reckon that subfield of ethics to be analogous to the field of ontology, and so something like the meta-ethical subfield of moral ontology; while I reckon the subfield of ethics that I call "deontology", concerned with what constitute just means, to be analogous to the field of epistemology, and so something like the meta-ethical subfield of moral epistemology.

So in this essay I will discuss first the ways that this subfield of ethics is the moral analogue of ontology, and so somewhat comparable to a moral ontology. Then, once my vision for the kinds of questions to be raised in this subfield of ethics is clear, I will detail what my answers to those questions are, harkening to the same general principles from which I earlier derived my ontological views. But bear in mind throughout the latter section that this is not my complete ethics laid out here in just this one essay: this concerns only what is a good end, but I am not saying that any means in pursuit of such ends is thereby justified, and I will go into further details on what means are just and why in a later essay.

Web of Reality

I consider this field something like moral ontology, but not literally, as I hold ontology to be entirely a descriptive matter and all moral topics to be entirely prescriptive matters, so strictly speaking, on my account, there is no ontology of anything to do with morality. But just as ontology is about the objects of reality, teleology in this sense is about the objects of morality, in the sense of the word "object" that means purpose, end, aim, or goal: it is about the states of affairs to be sought after and brought about by moral actions.

As explained in my essay on reality, I hold the fundamental constituents of reality to be what Alfred North Whitehead called occasions of experience, but I elaborate upon that concept, holding those experiences to be fundamentally interactions that can equally be seen, from a different perspective, as behaviors: the behavior of various things upon another thing constituting the experience that thing has of the various other things; each thing being defined by the function from its experiences to its behaviors, the experiences constituting the input to that function and the behaviors constituting the output.

While most of the preceding essays about reality and knowledge have concerned that experiential input to our own functions, this essay and those that follow about morality and justice instead concern the behavioral output of our functions.

As ontology is about the kinds of things that really do exist and the kinds of events that really do occur, that are the causes of our experiences, so too teleology in this sense is about the kinds of things that morally ought to exist and the kinds of events that morally ought to occur, that are the purposes of our behaviors. In this sense, purpose is the prescriptive analogue of the descriptive ontological concept of causation: cause is about how something does come to be, while purpose is about why something should come to be.

(Aristotle actually considered these two different senses of the Greek word for "cause", differentiating them as the "efficient cause" and "final cause", along with what he called "formal cause" and "material cause" which were what we would today call just "form" and "substance".)

Similarly, the prescriptive analogue of the descriptive ontological concept of substance is wealth: wealth is stuff of value. And just as in my ontology I hold real objects of substance to be constituted by the things they cause to happen (ala to be is to do), so too I hold that the value of wealth is constituted by the purpose that it serves: a thing is of value for the good that can be done with it.

This concept of wealth can be further decomposed into concepts of capital and labor, which in turn can be further decomposed to familiar ontological categories: capital is of value for the matter and space that it provides, while labor is of value for the energy and time that it provides. And just as matter is ultimately reducible to energy, so too capital is ultimately reducible to labor: capital is the distilled product of labor, worth at least the minimal time and energy it takes to obtain or create, and no more than the maximal time and energy it can save elsewhere.

Similarly, just as physical work happens when matter and energy flow through space and time, what we might call "ethical work" happens – good gets done – when wealth flows in an economy, each kind of wealth diffusing from where it is in higher concentration to where it is in lower concentration. The similarities between physical and economic systems are explored in more detail in the economic fields of thermoeconomics or more generally econophysics.

And lastly, I hold that the prescriptive analogue of the descriptive ontological concept of "mind", in the sense of "phenomenal consciousness" as elaborated in my previous essay on the mind, is a sense of "will" that will be further elaborated upon in a later essay on the will.

Proficient and Beneficent Uses

Just as in my essay on reality I distinguished between concrete existence and abstract existence, deferring discussion of abstract existence to my previous essay on logic and mathematics, so too I need to briefly distinguish between two types of goods here, which I will called "beneficent" and "proficient". By proficient goods, I mean things that are good in the sense of being good at or good for something, without any regard for whether that something is in itself an intrinsically good thing, in the usual moral sense; and by beneficent goods, in contrast, I mean things that are intrinsically good in themselves.

I do not draw a sharp division between all goods into one of these two categories, but rather hold them to overlap significantly, with the vast majority of good things being good for their proficiency at bringing about beneficence; in much the same way that, in ontology, I hold that most of the things we consider real are to some extent abstractions, that are nevertheless real inasmuch as they explain more concrete phenomena.

And just as I defer to my essay on logic and mathematics for discussion of purely abstract existence, so too I defer now back to my previous essay on rhetoric and the arts for discussion of purely proficient goods. In this essay, I am only dealing with the topic of beneficent goods, by which I mean hedonic goods, the kinds of goods that sate our experiential appetites; as well as the proficient goods that at least indirectly serve those same hedonic ends, what we might call instrumental goods.

Objectivism vs Subjectivism

As should be expected from the positions already argued for in my previous essays against transcendentalism and against relativism, and summarized in my previous essay about commensurablism, my general position on the nature of morality is hedonic moralism. That is to say, I hold that there definitely is a universal morality, as opposed to any kind of relativism, which hold that what is moral is relative to someone's intentions or desires, or else (as I consider equivalent to those) that nothing is actually moral at all.

But I also hold that the content of that morality is entirely hedonic in nature, that if something is good or bad, it is so in virtue of the pleasures and pains, suffering and flourishing, that we experience from it compared to what we would experience otherwise, and the whole of that thing's moral value lies in those hedonic differences. It is important to note here that by hedonism, I don't mean relating to intentions or to desires, but specifically to appetites, as differentiated in my previous essay on language; just as when I speak of empiricism in my essay on reality, I don't mean relating to beliefs or to perceptions, but to sensations, also called observations, as also differentiated in that previous essay on language.

In short, by hedonic moralism, I mean the view that a state of affairs is universally good, and to be aimed for by moral action, in proportion to how well it sates all the appetites of everyone, how much it brings pleasure and flourishing and relieves pain and suffering. (This focus on appetites rather than desires or intentions, and the aim to satisfy all appetites in whatever way possible even if it's not what anyone initially desired or intended, is similar to the maxims to focus on interests, not positions and to invent options for mutual gain that form a core part of the method of principled negotiation, as pioneered by Roger Fisher and William Ury).

This appeal to appetitive experience might be considered a form of what is called moral sentimentalism or moral sense theory, that being the so-called "empirical" branch of moral intuitionism (which in turn is the view that moral knowledge is not inferred from non-moral knowledge, but known directly in its own way). But whereas that position usually holds people to have an extra sense that somehow intuitively detects the morality of a situation and prompts an emotional response by which we can come to know moral facts, I hold instead that appetites are the moral analogue of senses, and that we have many different ones just as we have many different senses.

In other words, I hold that it is not the emotional responses we have to things we observe that justify opinions about morality, but rather the appetites themselves; in the same way that it is senses, not perceptions, that justify opinions about reality. And I hold that there are not properly speaking such things as moral facts, as facts are descriptive, but rather that there are universal prescriptive norms that can be justified this way, the moral analogue of universal descriptive facts justified by empirical observation through the senses.

My view is also very similar to the definition of good consequences, or utility, given by the traditional normative ethical model called utilitarianism, as promoted by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (whose ontology is likewise very similar to mine); but I am not here promoting the consequentialism that underlies traditional utilitarianism. I agree with utilitarians about what good ends are, but I do not hold that those ends flatly justify any and all means; as explained already in my earlier note on ethics, I hold means to be of equal importance to ends, and I will elaborate further on the topic of just means in my later essay on justice.

This hedonic moralism is a kind of value monism, as opposed to the position called value pluralism, promoted by philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, which holds that there are multiple equally valid scales of value between which we cannot translate measurements of value. In contrast, a value monism like mine holds that there is a single scale of value against which everything can be evaluated and compared. Yet I do still agree with many of the practical conclusions put forth by proponents of value pluralism; I simply deny that they entail that there are separate, incommensurable scales of value.

The archetypical example given by value pluralists is that for a given woman, a life as a mother and a life as a nun, while incompatible, may both be of value, neither able to be ranked as a better life than the other. I agree that in principle that may be true, for some particular women; but I contend that for other women one or the other life may be a universally better choice; and that even for those for whom one cannot be ranked above the other, that is because the two choices rank equally on the same scale of value.

Value monism as I support it does not entail any sort of absolutism, that says that certain kinds of choices are always better than other kinds of choices for all people in all circumstances. It only entails that for a particular person in some particular circumstance, it is possible in principle to weigh their options against each other, and determine either which one is better than the other, or that they are of equal value, on the same scale.

Establishing the criteria of that common scale of value against which to compare different possibilities is where the work of philosophy in this area ends, and the ethical sciences proposed in my previous note on ethics are to take over. Just as ontology, on my account, only goes so far as establishing what it means for something to be real, or the criteria by which to judge the reality of things, but says nothing at all about what in particular is real, leaving that work up to the physical sciences, so too teleology, on my account, only goes so far as establishing what it means for something to be moral, or the criteria by which to judge the morality of things, but says nothing at all about what in particular is moral, leaving that work up to the ethical sciences.

Just as it does not suffice in practice to simply say that reality is whatever satisfies all observations, even if that is strictly true, because the physical sciences still need to do the further work of actually figuring out what abstract objects postulated by what theories do satisfy all observations, so too it does not suffice in practice to simply say that morality is whatever satisfies all appetites, even if that is strictly true, because the ethical sciences still need to do the further work of actually figuring out what proficient goods employed by what strategies do satisfy all appetites.

And just as the foundational field of the physical sciences is physics itself, so too I hold that the foundational field of such ethical sciences is the proper referent of the term "ethics" itself. But just as the physical sciences cannot proceed from ontology alone, but first need also a method of knowledge, that in turn hinging on the nature of the mind and its relation to reality, so too the ethical sciences cannot proceed from teleology alone, but first need also a method of justice, that in turn hinging on the nature of the will and its relation to morality.

Continue to the next essay, On the Will, Freedom, and the Subjects of Morality.