teleology & ethics

The word ‘teleology’ (from Greek τελος ‘telos’ – meaning ‘goal’, ‘end’, ‘purpose’ or ‘that toward which things tend’) is not a street-level term.  However, the concept of a purpose, goal, function or ‘end’ to things most certainly is.  It’s a common as anything.  Teleology is blindingly relevant.

It’s worth noting (as I have before) that one cannot speak of anything being truly good or bad, well or poorly functioning without some kind of teleological concept.  From complaints (or amazement) about how poorly (or well) ‘designed’ the universe is (if designed at all – see this rebuttal), to the largest complaint of all – the ‘problem of evil’ (which has an often forgotten twin, the ‘problem’ of good); every kind of value-judgment we make assumes some kind of teleological concept.

Teleology, then, underlies the whole prospect of moral and ethical enquiry.  If things merely ‘function’, but do not function toward a certain end, goal or purpose, then there can be no such thing as a truly or ultimately immoral action.  Nothing can be said to ultimately or truly right or wrong with either the universe or human behaviour.

One can give an account of the ‘functioning’ of an event/thing in purely numerical, metrical or otherwise descriptive terms: human ‘a’ swings their right arm with tightly-closed digits in such a way that the digits impact the face of human ‘b’ with ‘x’ amount of force, resulting in human ‘b’ losing the state of balance and falling to the ground… etc.  This is a statistical, and purely ‘objective’ account of an event.  No ethical comment here.

The moment someone begins to say that one person should not have hit someone (or should have in the case, for example, of self-defense or protecting a helpless person being raped or otherwise harmed), they are imposing a teleological assumption onto the set of events.  They are no longer giving a merely descriptive account of the event, they are giving a prescriptive account.

As a Christian, my ethical thought (and hopefully my action too!) is shaped by my belief that creation has a telos.  Things are being brought from a state of chaos (Genesis 1 creation poem says ‘tohu vo vohu’ – wild and waste – formless and void) to a state of more and more orderedness.  Things are going somewhere – toward an ‘end’.  Things are meant to behave in a certain way and not another way.  This, in a basic sense, is what the notion of God’s “will” (desire) means.

The most tightly compacted summary of the desire of God is one word – Love.  Jesus summarised the entire ‘Law’ and ‘Prophets’ in two commands: Love God. Love Others as Self.

A summary that I’ve found helpful is the desire of God for humans to be in right relationship 1) with God, 2) with other humans, 3) with ourselves, and 4) with creation.

Christianity views humans as having a unique status (and therefore responsibility) within Creation.  This anthropocentricism is not, however, to devalue the rest of creation.  All of creation is seen to ‘reflect’ God’s beauty and creativity.  But humans as the ‘crown’ of creation, the ones with the capacity to bear God’s ‘image’ in a unique way, have a special role.  Humans are put ‘in charge’ of creation, commissioned to take care of it, and use it wisely – working to bring it to the fullest expression according to God’s will/desire.

Interestingly, no matter what one believes about God or whether or not humans reflect a God, it is manifestly obvious that humans have the greatest power to either utterly wreck things or to behave in a way which helps creation, humanity included, to flourish.  (And we note, again, in passing, that things being ‘wrecked’ or things ‘flourishing’ are meaningless concepts with no teleology.)

Christian ethics, then, are based on a Christian understanding of God’s purposes for His creation; namely to bring it to full and rich orderedness.  An orderedness characterised by not control but freedom to be all that it was made for.  And an orderedness characterised by Love.

Here are a few (quite random) examples of my out-working of this:

  • Education: Knowledge is to serve relationships.  Humans are to celebrate any/all kinds of knowledge which enrich their relationship to/with creation, each other and the creator (i.e. medical knowledge, social knowledge, scientific knowledge, relational knowledge, etc.), while not letting knowledge –or the pursuit of it– become an idol or an enslaving thing.
  • Sexuality: Sex is to be used in such a way as to bring an orderedness characterised by freedom, and not slavery.  Many forms/expressions of sexuality are characterised by human slavery to sexual desire.  Sex is for humans, not humans for sex.  Also, sex is to bring relational fullness, not relational pain.  Sex should thus be respected as the powerful thing it is, and used in ways that reflect freedom and full relationships.
  • Poultry production (one of my favourite examples): God’s desire is not for chickens to live the life of a chicken in a cage covered with it’s own feces, and to be injected with steroids and killed in a mechanical and abusive fashion, etc.  God’s desire is also not for chickens to be deified to the point where they are forbidden to be eaten.  Chickens are a part of God’s good creation, and are to be farmed, ‘egged’ (hens) and processed/eaten in a way that is characterised by order and freedom (the ‘free range’ movement is brilliant here).
  • Eating (while on the topic!): Humans (like other animals) need to eat to survive, but eating should not be treated as a merely biologically sustaining thing, but rather in a way that brings dignity to both what is eaten and who eats it.  One of the most degrading and undignified forms of eating is (we all do it) fast food.  Where speed and efficiency of production is the telos of eating.  The food is mass-produced, the food preparers have little/no relationship to the eaters, and the eating experience is rushed and shabby.  Contrast this with a community that grows and harvests their own crops, and where the cooks sit at the same table with everyone, serving each other and sharing in the creativity of food preparation and the joy of sharing the eating experiene (the culmination fo the whole process) together.
  • Work: Work is to bring freedom not slavery and enable us to bless, rather than participate in being a curse.  Laziness and greed are equally destructive things.  Slacking on the job or working 60+ hour work weeks are ways of cheating and enslaving (or being enslaved).  Industry and production should serve to bring about the flourishing of creation – including humans.  Work in fields such as education, social-work, government, police-work, food industry, transport/travel, clothing, entertainment, etc. can all be done in either a dehumanising way or a humanising way.
  • Music/Art: Art (including poetry) is a deeply human thing, and should reflect the creativity of the creator.  Art can deeply reflect reality in a way that other things cannot.  Art can be characterised by chaos and confusion with no hint of redemption or freedom, or it can speak of healing, order, justice and transformation (even while acknowleding brokenness and pain).  Sadly, much ‘Christian’ art is often cheap copies of what has been done before, and has no staying power (it is quickly forgotten).
  • Technology: All technology (from eating utensils to wireless broadband) should serve to bring order, freedom and to deepen relationships.  Sadly, we often end up being enslaved to our conveniences.  Technology allows us to have higher frequency and quantity of contact with other people – bringing the sad reality of ever-increasing numbers of ‘contacts’ and ever-shallowing depth of relationship with family and friends.  Transportation technology takes us further and faster away from home than ever before, giving us more options than we know what to do with.  Add to this, the constant reminders that our basic normal life is boring, and that we ‘deserve’ another trip to this or that resort place to ‘escape’, and we find ourselves often on a treadmill-ish pursuit of ‘happiness’, being less and less satisfied with ‘normal life’ and seeking more and more after the elusive reality we see in the advertisements.
  • Medical Activity: Medical knowledge and activity should serve to bring order to the chaos of disease and injury and freedom from blindness and pain.  It should always be used in the service of rich human life, not to destroy it.  Surgery should be about healing (even if it temporarily makes you bleeed), not about making a womans breasts look like this or that super-model or about doing away with an inconvenient developing pre-born child.
  • Violence: Violence is only justified when in the service of bringing freedom and preserving relationships – for example protecting those who cannot protect themselves from rapists, thiefs, abusers, torturers and (actual) terrorists.  The power to inflict violence (and control people by doing so) comes with great responsibility.
  • Community: Obviously, community is a place where relationships are central.  True community is characterised by freedom and whole and holistic relationships.  Community that leaves people enslaved to things, experiences or addictions, etc. is not a community characterised by love.  Also, community that controls and micro-manages people is to treat people as cogs in a system and is therefore dehumanising rather than humanising and thus not characterised by freedom.  True human-ness if found not in isolation from all others, nor in being forced into conformity with them, but in a community which values true genuine human flourishing and which is characterised by loving, patient and consistent transformation to it.
  • Money/Possessions: All possessions are to be held with gratitude, and to be not merely ‘used’ or ‘consumed’ with our comfort/survival/convenience as the telos, but rather to be shared with and passed on to others.  Life’s telos is not acquisition or status, but transformation and wholeness; and our handling of money and possessions should reflect this.
  • Clothing: Clothing is a wonderfully rich and creative human thing.  It can be used (both by wearers and producers) to enrich our freedom and relationship to others, or to enslave us.  Fashion, for example, can often serve to alienate and degrade those who are not able (for either financial or body-style reasons) to keep up with things.  This divides and dehumanises, and is not God’s desire.  Although modest dress will look differently from place to place and time to time, for each culture/place, there will be uses of clothing that either serve to enhance a person’s personality and humanness or which will serve to rob them of their person-hood, and make them into an object.  Clothing design and production can and should be a creative and body-honouring thing which encourages human relationships.


  1. That was a dense (and interesting!) post Dale :) A couple of minor thoughts:

    The moment someone begins to say that one person should not have hit someone (or should have in the case, for example, of self-defense or protecting a helpless person being raped or otherwise harmed), they are imposing a teleological assumption onto the set of events. They are no longer giving a merely descriptive account of the event, they are giving a prescriptive account.

    Could one not simply say that person is giving an opinion?

    As a Christian, my ethical thought (and hopefully my action too!) is shaped by my belief that creation has a telos.

    It it possible to objectively derive the nature of this telos?

    Things are being brought from a state of chaos to a state of more and more orderedness.

    The second law of thermodynamics begs to differ ;) (well at the universe level anyway)

    Things are going somewhere – toward an ‘end’.

    Absolute zero? ;)

    Things are meant to behave in a certain way and not another way. This, in a basic sense, is what the notion of God’s “will” (desire) means.

    Is it possible to objectively derive the nature of this “way”?

  2. Ian,
    re ‘giving an opinion’:
    Whilst people obviously give opinions on things all the time, they don’t hold opinions that they think are wrong. I think rape is wrong. My opinion on this is so strong (even with zero ‘scientific’ support for this opinion) that I’d even say I know it’s wrong. And not just ‘agreed’ to be ‘wrong’, or ‘inconsistent with how humans have constructed working and functioning societies’. I mean wrong – as in diametrically counter to the telos of the human body and human relationships (i.e. ‘the way things should be’).

    As for ‘objectively’ deriving a telos or the ‘way’ in which things are meant to behave:
    I won’t bothter with the complexities of the word ‘objective’, but would simply say a few things:

    1) We’re talking about ‘truth’ – that things ‘truly’ have a purpose and how we can derive this ‘truth’
    2) We should use both our ‘objective’ (reason, logic, etc.) and ‘subjective’ (feelings, intuitions, emotions, etc.) means to discern truth.
    3) We’ll never be finished searching for truth – never have it killed and mounted on the wall.
    4) To quote the US Preamble to the Constitution, some truths are ‘self-evident’ (frustrating as that may be to someone who want’s to know how truth is accessed!). I recognise the frustration of this, but even though there is no objectively demonstratable way to prove that the following is immoral (please tell me if you know of one), I know that it is wrong to get a woman drunk and then rape her after she passes out. You just don’t need to objectively demonstrate that. We all just agree with it – take it as given. It’s self-evident. Now, I can talk about the “also-non-objectively-demonstratable” values which that action violates, but as for some ‘objective’ or scientific reason why it’s wrong – there is none.

  3. As a metaphysical naturalist it is hard to give an account, a justification, a story, behind the obvious telos which all of us can’t help but use every day of our lives. I like to think that the account that it is so tempting to try to formulate is not the point. The end is the point! And that focussing on the justifications detract from the goal itself.

  4. Well said, Simon.
    And of course I agree with that sentiment (‘the end is the point!’), without need of any scientific validation for it. I’d say that this is but one example of what you might call ‘metaphysical truths’ which are patently ‘in-our-faces’ obvious; and also a demonstrable example of where intuition, feeling, emotion and ‘subjective assumption’ can be carriers of truth. There is a ‘resonance’, a ‘harmony’ between ‘heart’ (feeling) and ‘mind’ (reason) to these things. Things having a purpose, a telos, is profoundly both intuitive and rational.

  5. Dale,

    Yes. But I wasn’t just meaning science – my post may be more barbed than you read it to be….well, in a way: I would demand that doctrines; the crystallisations of truth, are ultimately detrimental to it. Including, obviously, christian doctrines. This is, of course, a self-contradictory position (because this very paragraph is a crystalisation of truth), but I guess I am as unashamed of this as a christian is of the trinity.

    I’m not sure that I agree that “things have a purpose” so much as I am merely trying to acknowledge the truth in morality and emotion.

  6. Simon,
    Good on you for acknowledging the inescapability of making metaphysical ‘crystalisations’. As for the trinity, yes, I find it a beautiful attempt to ‘crystalise’ the metaphysical data, so to speak. But obviously, whether or not God is a ‘unity’ or ‘tri-unity’, is not the next step.

    First, we ask the question of if it’s reasonable if there is a God.
    Next, we ask how that God might reaonably be said to relate to the world (pantheism, deism, theism, etc.).
    and so on…
    And of course, for me, (and the writers of the New Testament) the picture of God is brought into clear(er) focus in the human-and-divine person, Jesus Christ. But that’s a long conversation, aye? :)

  7. Mmmn. Yes, I was a christian, and though I admit a rather large gap in my knowledge of other religions I think that Jesus is probably the best ‘person’ to try to emulate.

    Anti-religious person: “But, Simon, most of what we know about Jesus is probably fabricated!”

    Me: “Exactly!”

    The religious icon ‘Jesus’ is a prime example of exactly what this thread is about, I think. There certainly does appear to be a real and relatively objective and un-deriveable morality, and this truth inspires people to crystallise instantiations of that thruth.

  8. There certainly does appear to be a real and relatively objective and un-deriveable morality…

    well said :)

    …and this truth inspires people to crystallise instantiations of that thruth.

    Yes, John’s gospel would say that this truth (‘word’) became flesh in the person of Jesus. What if it’s true?

  9. I am strongly resisting the urge to tackle this objective morality stuff since that is a long long discussion. Unfortunately all my other responses in this post rest on my strong doubt that anything like objective morals actually exist so I’ll respectfully bow out of this thread :)

  10. Ian, I agree that under investigation objective morality is probably absurd, But nonetheless I’m sure that both you and I are very strongly drawn to a certain way of behaving towards each other; a behaviour which we cannot justify.

  11. Simon,
    What if Jesus’ embodiment of truth doesn’t automatically render every single scrap of any/all other traditions as all malicious lies?

    In this sense, it’s not so much that there is one official, rubber-stamped ‘true’ religious organisation, but rather than Jesus himself embodies the truth.

  12. Dammit, I can’t resist just one tiny little comment lol.

    But nonetheless I’m sure that both you and I are very strongly drawn to a certain way of behaving towards each other; a behaviour which we cannot justify.

    Surely it is not too hard to justify not murdering or raping?

  13. Dale,
    Yes I do understand this point. I would even agree that Jesus of the gospels does embody the truth better than most religions. But the direction you would take would still demand that christianity is the only metaphysically true religion, no? Metaphysical entities which I think it absurd to believe in.

  14. Ian,

    I thought you were the doubter of objective morality? If there is none, then there can be no valid justification to not murder and rape!

  15. Ahhh the ol if it ain’t absolute it ain’t anything chestnut. Pretty compelling, I guess I should become a Christian eh?

  16. Eh? I sincerely hope that you don’t!

    I don’t understand. You suggest in post 13 that it is possible to justify not murdering and raping. But in post 9 you eschew that justification by claiming there is no such thing as objective morality.

  17. Ian,

    Surely it is not too hard to justify not murdering or raping?

    I’d love to see how you ‘objectively’ do so – give it a crack, aye? Ohh… and remember to be nice and objective and empirical when doing so. Good luck! :) My guess is that you’ll have to appeal to an assumed value-judgment. One that I’d no doubt agree with, but assumed nonetheless.

    I would even agree that Jesus of the gospels does embody the truth better than most religions. But the direction you would take would still demand that christianity is the only metaphysically true religion, no? Metaphysical entities which I think it absurd to believe in.

    Re: Most ‘metaphysically true’ religion: If it’s truth we’re talking about, then Jesus being the embodiment of truth would leave plenty of room for there to be aspects/reflections of truth in other religions.
    Interestingly, the Biblical tradition records plenty a character who had to come to a fuller realisation of truth (i.e. Abram amongst a firstborn-sacrificing culture came to a fuller realisation of what God (‘the gods’) was like – namely that God not only didn’t require, but was opposed to child sacrifice, which is how Jews have understood that story for milennia)…

  18. Dale,

    This tradition of characters coming to a greater realization of truth; I think that Jesus was merely the next in line to do this. The difference between you and I is that you believe that God actually talked to Abram and that Jesus was actually god but that god didn’t actually talk to people in other religions. This is the metaphysical baggage that you, as a christian, have to adhere to which I, thankfully, do not.

  19. Simon,
    Actually, the picture of God in the Bible is that God doesn’t just ‘talk’ to Jews (or Christians). So I’ll not be carrying that metaphysical baggage you’ve laid at my feet :)

    And, of course, Jesus is unique from all other religious figures in various ways, most of all his Resurrection.

  20. Okay. So god spoke to Mohammed. Glad we agree. :)

    Horus? Osirus?
    Every character is “unique in many ways”. That’s what makes them a different character. It is obvious to me that Jesus inherited much from both the roman pagan culture and the Jewish culture.

  21. On God ‘speaking’ to individuals:
    All I’m saying is that if Jesus embodies Truth, this would in no way contradict what I take to be two biblical and rational ideas, namely a) that some/much content/teaching of various religions are harmonious with one another, whilst b) some content is irreconcilable.

    I heartily recommend actually thinking about and comparing religions. For example, my thinking/comparing has led me to believe that monotheism (in some form, initially) is infinitely more rational than all polytheistic/pantheistic belief systems. Whilst still leaving room for respect/appreciation for things/concepts/teachings/etc. within other non-monotheistic religions, that narrows things down to a handful of ‘religions’; of which three (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are related by the persons Abra(ha)m and Moses. Then you compare those… etc., and so on. It can be done, and it’s all an on-going process.

    Jesus being influenced by Jewish ‘culture’ is not exactly controversial, and as for Roman/pagan influence, would you care to demonstrate what specific points of influence are so ‘obvious’ to you?

  22. No, I have to say I think you are completely wrong. Can you not see that you are a product of your environment? Do you think that people of other religions would come to the same conclusions as you in your narrowing down method? Of course not! They would exactly mirror your reasoning and conclude their own religion best. :0 It is simply not possible to compare religions for our choices are hugely determined by our experiences, culture, upbringing.
    What I believe I do know is that people make their decisions about religion for very good reasons. Not very good in the ‘logical’ sense, but in the sense that there is a reason for their choices. And those reasons are the very abstract but undeniable Truth to which you and I have refered. That there is disagreement between religions is merely a result of differing frameworks, different constructions*, gifferent languages with which this Truth is expressed.
    That is my opinion.

    I believe that virgin birth, water to wine, stars endowing his birth with import(astrology) are common themes that were attributed to Jesus which are (I believe) not Jewish and probably pagan.

  23. Simon,
    Maybe you’re just a product of an environment which has conditioned you to think that environments have an unbreakable hold on people’s minds! :)
    Experience, culture and upbringing certainly influence us, but they do not (nor could they) make it impossible to compare religions based on what we know. I find your notion that religions cannot be compared to be simply bizarre. People compare and/or change religion/beliefs all the time.

    And I don’t follow what you mean at all when you say that the other-than-logically-‘good’ reason(s?) people make their decisions about religion is(are?) the abstract but undeniable truth we discussed… ((It sounds like something you’d hear from someone who is taking their bizarre notion that “religions cannot be compared” far too seriously, perhaps because they can’t be bothered doing it?)) :)

  24. Honestly, which do you think is more reasonable, polytheism (many gods, raising the ‘who made these gods’ question, etc.) or monotheism (an un-created maker of all things)? You can do it! :)

  25. Dale,

    A large majority of people stay with the religion they were born into. So, which is more sensible to believe? That souls who can think straight are mostly born into christian homes and so stay with christianity, and souls that can’t are born into other religions? Or that most people judge the veracity of their religion in non-objective ways? No contest.

    Hahaha. No, sorry, just because christians claim that god is “un-created” does not mean that “un-created” has any meaning, much less that the concept is somehow inaccessable to polytheism.

  26. Simon,
    Obviously, people will be less likely to compare (i.e.) their parents beliefs with other beliefs if they’ve never even heard about other beliefs. But once they do hear about other beliefs, other worldviews, other understandings, etc. they can then think about them.

    Once the emotion-sceptical uber-rationalist hears a compelling case that emotions/intuitions might be carriers of truth, she might begin to question whether or not she agrees. Once the emotionalistic, anti-rational mystic hears about how logic and reason can enrich and sharpen things, he can then begin to apply that reason/logic to his beliefs, perhaps even seeking out other reason-ers to reason with, etc.

    And as for an un-created monotheistic God, we don’t just ‘claim’ it, but rather reason that if everything is not 1) an illusion, 2) eternal, then it is 3) created (either self-created or ‘other’-created); and that an ‘other’ who could create all created things must obviously, logically be ‘un-created’.

  27. Yes, certainly they’d think about them. But I think the fact that most people stay with their birth religion is a datum demonstrating that religious choice is anything but objective. The problem is exactly that “hear[ing] about other beliefs” is simply not as simple a matter as you portray, because what one makes of what one hears is very skewed by constructivism.
    Certainly, I agree, that some people DO change religion. They hear of christianity or buddhism or islam and it strikes a chord and they convert. But the vast majority do not.

    I started out, so to speak, with an objectivist worldview. I thought that a spade was a spade and logic and all that. My not-so-minor revelation occured in eventually realising the truth in constructivism and that people do what they do for a reason. This has helped me have much more empathy for people because I realise that if I was in their position, I’d be doing and thinking the same thing. This certainly doesn’t mean that there is no good or bad doings or thinkings, just that these doings and thinkings are more understandable and controllable. This has changed me from a person who saw no good in religion or in, say, people who commit crimes, to understanding well what motivates religious adherence, and in seeing the point in rehabilitation and the path to reduction in crime.

    The uncreated argument is the same as we had in the other thread.


  28. Sorry for the hiatus, Simon,
    I’ll have to leave any meaningful engagement on this for another week or so (last assignment etc.!).

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