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Consequences:  The Teleological Approach

As we have seen a deontological approach considers duty and obligation.  In contrast, the teleological approach considers the goals and consequences of an action. Teleology comes from yet another Greek word, telos, meaning "end."  More specifically, telos refers to the "goals which we seek."   Thus, a teleological approach to ethics is one that consider the results of an action as a primary way of determining what should be done. The action is good if its results are in keeping with what we perceive to be good.  In answer to the question "What should I do?" the teleological approach would ask, "What is your goal? What is the best way to achieve your goal?" 


We have already mentioned the Eightfold Path in Buddhism several times. The purpose of following the Eightfold path is to reach a certain goal. According to the Four Noble truths, the goal to which the Eightfold path leads is the end of suffering.  More specifically, that suffering is equated with existence in the the endless cycle of birth - death - and rebirth. 


To end suffering one must end the process of rebirth and reach nirvana. The Buddha had little to say about nirvana.  In his teachings, nirvana is more of an extinguishing of desire, “getting rid of craving.”  Ultimately, however, Nirvana is beyond all conception and description.  It is completely off the spectrum of our existence and understanding. Nirvana is a deathless, peaceful, ego less, unchanging state of bliss that cannot be described. Nirvana is the goal; following the Eightfold Path is the means to the goal


In many religious traditions, one can find people who see religion as a path or a road to a goal.  For some Christians, the goal is life beyond this one in heaven.  For some Muslims, the goal is life beyond this one in paradise. Specific actions are encouraged or prohibited depending upon whether they help or hinder one in reaching this goal.

One should not conclude that a teleological approach only considers some sort of "other worldly" goal.  Many would argue that the consequences of one's actions in this world determines right and wrong. In ancient Israel, one encounters the notion that one should practice justice and mercy because doing so helps to create a certain type of community in which the weak are protected and the poor are supported. 


Some of the ethics prescribed in the laws of the Hebrew scripture.  One such law is the law of gleaning in Deuteronomy 24:21 "When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan and the widow."  Here a specific action is prescribed in order to reach the goal of a community in which the needs of all are met.


Notice in this last example, that there is an element of Divine Command. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the community and providing for those in need changes the focus of the law. In other words, the law is judged good not simply because God has commanded it;  it is considered good because its results are good.  Not surprisingly, the teleological approach forces us to confront yet another difficult issue.  If we choose to do something because the doing so will result in "good," what do we mean by "good?"  In other words, the teleological approach must answer the questions, "What is good, and who decides what is good?"