The ends and means are a seamless web. [GLORIA STEINEM (LOU MARINOFF)]

The ends and means are a seamless web. [GLORIA STEINEM (LOU MARINOFF)]

TELEOLOGY. This also comes from a Greek word, telos, meaning “purpose” or “end.” Teleology (or consequentialism, as it is often called) asserts that no act is right or wrong in and of itself, but that its rightness or wrongness depends on the goodness or badness of the consequences it brings.

In other words, if you get a good outcome, you did the “right” thing.

If you get a bad outcome, you did the “wrong” thing.  One of the more prevalent forms of teleology is called “act-utilitarianism.” If you had to summarize it in one sentence, it would say, “Act in such a way as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.” On this view, Robin Hood is certainly justified in stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

After all, there are so many more poor than rich! Many more people will be benefited than will be inconvenienced by Robin’s “redistribution” of wealth. According to act- utilitarianism, this is a good outcome. So Robin is right to steal.

Teleology’s main strength is its open-mindedness. It does not approve or reject any action out of hand, but awaits the outcome before pronouncing judgment.

But this is also one of its main weaknesses: almost any action, no matter how heinous, can be justified by an appeal to its consequences. For instance, act-utilitarianism could be used to justify lynching people suspected of crimes, instead of giving them fair trials. After all, the lynch mob is happy with its behavior, even if the one who gets lynched is not. If happiness is good, then lynching is an example of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and therefore justifiable by act-utilitarianism.

But using act-utilitarianism this way fails to take into account the greatest suffering of the smallest number, and therefore allows a majority to ignore the rights of a minority. When a group’s sentiments overrules an individual’s rights, injustice is rarely far behind.

Teleology has other weaknesses too. It presupposes that we know how to measure the “goodness” or “badness” of outcomes, as if they were so much meat or so many vegetables on a scale.

In fact, no one has a clue how to measure good or bad. So if there can be no universal agreement as to whether a given outcome is good or bad, there can be no agreement as to whether the act that produced it is right or wrong.

There can only be a self-justifying consensus, which could be abused to support even great evil.

So Robin needs to be careful justifying his actions with teleology.

Thinking about the consequences of one’s deeds is important, but ends are never independent of the means used to attain them.

The ends and means are a seamless web.





The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life
Lou Marinoff



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