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Teleological Ethics

A teleological ethical theory concerns the purpose, end, function and goal of an action. Teleological ethical theories are therefore, consequentalist. There are however several issues that arise from this.

  • Under such a system of ethics there can be no moral absolutes, for example murder could never be considered wrong in all circumstances.
  • Moral goodness or badness would be judged on how well it would bring about the intended results, not  whether the action was inherently right or wrong.
  • There is a difficulty in establishing what is right or wrong as it is dependant on the individuals opinion.

According to this approach actions have only instrumental value: they can help us get something we want, rather than intrinsic value, doing an action purely for its own sake.

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The Principle of Utility

Teleological ethical theories tend to rely of a principle of utility. For Utilitarianism the principle of utility is the greatest happieness for the greatest number. Making moral judgements based on a principle of utility is nototriously difficult as they are subjective. 

Hedonististic ethical theories are committed to the view that happiness can be equated with good on several possible grounds:

  • Psycological Hedonism: where pleasure is only object of desire
  • Evaluative Hedonism: where pleasure is what we ought to desire
  • Rationalising Hedonism: where pleasure is the only outcome that makes it rational to persue an end

Utilitarianism was originally associated with Psycological Hedonism

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David Hume

Before utilitarianism as an approach to maing ethical desicions was formalised by Bentham, the principle of utility was still advocated for as a moral way to make ethical choices

In 1751 David Hume analysed the various ways in which humans make judgements about character and conduct, drawing the conclusion that virtue consists of those qualities that are most useful to ourselves and others. In it's most general sense, this is what we mean by utility, that which is most useful. From there Hume argued as to why do something that is of no use to anyone, especially if it is just to make a moral point.

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Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

"Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two soverign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them to point out what we ought to do as well as what we shall do." - 1789 Principles of Morals and Leislation

Bentham's theory is one of universal ethical hedonism. If an action brings or increases pleasure, then it is right. For Bentham, society is a collection of individuals, and that which is right for society is that which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Bentham devised the Hedonic Calculus to calculate the most pleasurable action, a purely quantitave means of measuring 7 factors: Intensity, duration, certanty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent. 

This is sometimes called act utilitarianism, because it is based on actions. It makes a quantative assesment, good or bad actions can be calculated according to predicted results.

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Flaws of Bentham's Theory

Benthams Hedonic Calculus is obviously flawed. 

  • It is impossible for human goodness to be reduced to a sensation.
  • The calculus does not allow for some pleasurable actions (for some) that are considered universally wrong, e.g. ****.

Philip Pettit writes "It would forbid absolutely nothing, not ****, not torture, not even murder"

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John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

J.S. Mill was the son of Bentham's colleague James Mill and critiqued Mill's theory. Mill said that Bentham had been bought up in an extrememly comfortable lifestyle which left him with a non-realistic basis in which to assess what was actually important to humans. Mill said of Bentham "He never knew poverty or adversity".

Mill felt that Bentham had made a fundemental error in his assessment of what human beings found desirable, stating "Human beings are not governed in all their actions by their worldly interests".

He developed utitlitarianism by focusing on qualitive pleasures rather than quantative pleasures. Once basic human requirements are filled, a humans primary moral concerns should be for the higher order pleasures; "It is better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied".

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Rule Utitilitarianism (1)

Rule Utitlitarianism was developed by Mill based on the flaws of Act Utilitarianism. For Mill, the problem with Bentham's hedonic calculus was that it seemed that lower pleasures, such as violence could be justified if they were carried out by a majority on a minority. Mill believed people should be educated to seek higher pleasures whereas Bentham maintained that it was a matter for each individual to decide on what was good or bad, his principle was an egalitarian (equal) one.

Mill also proposed the Harm Principle. When referring to the pressure which a majority can impose on a minority, he argued that this ought to be limited to the prevention of harm to others. Mill said "That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civillised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Instead of a hedonic calculus, Mill proposed that general rules should be used as guidelines in descision making (hense the name Rule Utilitarianism). Rule Utilitarianism suggests that a person should follow established rules and consider the practical consequences of an action before carrying it out.

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Rule Utitilitarianism (2)

The approach of Rule Utilitarianism is sometimes divided into strong and weak Rule Utilitarianism.

  • Strong: Certain rules have universal value and should be kept, no matter what.
  • Weak: There will sometimes be circumstances in which it would be better to allow exeptions to these universal rules. Weak Rule Utitilitarianism is a situationalist approach which believes there are no absolutes or intrinsic moral commands.

More recently, R.M Hare argued for what could perhaps be called preference or motive Utilitarianism. According to this principle the descision as to what is right or wrong must take into the preferences or motives of the individual involved. Thus, the right action is the one that satisfies the preferences or motives of the majority.

Another recent formulation is negative utilitarianism, which seeks to promote the least amount of harm or pain. This focuses on avoiding pain rather than doing good, e.g. a starving community would benefit more from being sent food than being sent games.

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Taking It Further

Prima Facie Obligations: Utilitarianism relies on an impartial or impersonal view and ignores the fact that some may favour themselves, their family or others with whom they have a prima facie relationship (one that takes primary importance to us).

Rule Utilitarianism is esscentially Deontological, i.e. the moral value of an action is contained in the obedience to the rule rather than the act itself or the outcome of that action.

Utilitarianism may not always support justice or the rights of an individual or group if it is not in the interests of the majority. Bentham commented on the talk of rights as "nonsense on stilts"

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Strengths of Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarian theories support the general view that human wellbeing is intrinsically good and actions should be judged on their effect on this wellbeing.
  • The preaching of Jesus requires people to work for the wellbeing of others "do to others as you would have them do for you" (Mathew 7.12)
  • A persons motives may be good or bad but only consequences have real effect.
  • The principle encourages democracy.
  • It is an approach that does not rely on controvertial or unverifiable theological or metaphysical principles.
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Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

  • In practice, the theory needs people to predict the long-term consequences of an action but there is no guarantee the consequences will turn out as predicted.
  • The majority is not always right. There should be some considerence between majority and minority views.
  • It makes no allowance for personal prima facie relationships.
  • Religious believers may be motivated by belief rather than pleasure and happiness. This could mean they are willing to endure pain or self-sacrafice for a cause they believe to be true.
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