Teleology v Deontology and Kant.

Teleology v Deontology.

No, this is not a legal case.  These are two philosophies of ethics which one might consider in the daily conduct of your business.

The names are Greek, and just as we have a saying in England, “It’s all Greek to me”.  These names aside from being Greek anyway are ‘all Greek to’ most English people who hear them.  We can see straight away that they are suffixed by ‘ology’ which is the suffix we use for sciences.  Not wholly helpful as science is generally thought of in the west as being the detailed techniques of analysis developed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Of course science goes back a lot further than that even if scientific methodology was less structured.  The contributions made to science by monks and Arab scholars and the ancient Greeks were legendary.  Largely these were considered to be philosophy and before the term science was coined in recent centuries even the use of modern categorisation, record taking, and measurement in the search for proofs of hypotheses was known as natural philosophy.

It was around 600BC that Thales, who is considered by many to be the father of natural philosophy and hence science, was said to have been the first to propose non supernatural causes for natural events.  At this point the suffix would have begun its progression towards its modern use in terms such as biology, sociology, psychology and other words related to the study of natural phenomena.  If we go back through this evolution we regress from science through natural philosophy to pure philosophy which is of course where Teleology and Deontology reside.

The prefixes describe exactly what philosophies these are, but even with an understanding of their meaning it is still not clear.  A modern western   reader might think that teleology was the philosophy of televisions or telescopes.  This is not correct but it is heading in the right direction; the tele prefix talks about distance.  With a telescope you see things at a distance; with a television you see things at a distance and with teleology you make your ethical decisions based upon the eventual results that may occur at a distance in time far ahead of your action.

‘Deon’ is a not uncommon name but is fair less common as a prefix.  In the case of deontology it refers to duty.  If you follow a deontological concept of philosophy then you do not consider the ultimate results of your actions but simply is it the ethically correct thing to do at this immediate stage.  For instance a deontological thinker might consider murder to be a terrible thing to do and the murder of a little baby would be even more heinous.  However a teleological thinker might consider that knowing what he knows know perhaps it would have been a good idea to have killed a baby Adolf Hitler and thus prevent World War II and the holocaust and the genocide of six million Jews.  However, if you are considering things in a teleological perspective how far forward should you look?  How far forward is it possible to look?

Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books, the Foundation series.  The central premise of the Foundation series was that a mathematician, Hari Seldon, had managed to calculate the events of the next thousand years.  This was obviously quite difficult for him to do and as the decades and centuries went past his probabilities would get thrown out further and further.  So how can a teleological thinker know that when he considers his ultimate intention in acting that his ultimate result will be positive?

Taking the example of baby Hitler; if you travel forwards half a century from Hitler’s birth without having killed him then perhaps preventing the holocaust seems like a no brainer.  What happens if you travel a full century forward from Hitler’s birth?  Maybe you will then find that there has been such a backlash against his actions that the whole of Europe have joined together in solidarity and pledged to prevent another war of that nature amongst their nations.  Maybe you will find that their laws are undergoing a process of unification and a treaty on human rights has been created which is leading to greater acceptance of people of all races.  Discrimination is outlawed and disappearing.  Liberal democracies aim to promote the greatest happiness and peace that they can.  The United Nations is formed and plans to try and prevent such disasters worldwide.  The Jewish people after having been outcasts for centuries are accepted by the West and have been given their own homeland.  All sounds pretty good maybe the teleological well-wishers shouldn’t desire his death.

Go forward a hundred and fifty years from the death of baby Hitler.  Maybe land disputes around the new Jewish homeland will have caused terrible conflicts that have been going on for decades.  The equality demands of human rights legislation may have led to an influx of immigration into European countries leading to the bigoted minority gaining sympathy and backing.  Maybe there will be an increase in racially inspired murders and riots.  Equality demands will also lead to a duty to see that the poor are given opportunities and people will realise that they don’t need to work so hard to have all they need in life.  Unemployment will rise and positions will be taken by foreign visitors much to the chagrin of the unemployed working classes who don’t want to be poorer than everyone else, they just want equality.  Equality between them and the rich who do not need to work in factories and shops yet still have all their desires.  The riots get worse and the burdens of the welfare state threaten the exchequer.  The economy collapses and the cities burn.  Perhaps it was a good idea to kill the baby Hitler.

What if we go forward another fifty years again.  What is happening to the world now?  The cities were destroyed.  The collapse of the economy has seen a retreat from capitalism and people have grown used to all the different coloured people living around them.  They have all spent all their life surrounded by people with all sorts of different coloured skins.  These are the people who have helped their families rebuild their destroyed homes after the cataclysm of the 2050s.  Everyone is happy to accept the friendship of everyone else.  They don’t even know why their grandparents behaved the way they did.  The philosophies of sustainability have developed as more people have needed to farm the land to provide food due to the failures of shipping during the cataclysm.  People have therefore started living largely on a diet of healthy vegetables that they work for themselves and so are far healthier and enjoy plentiful time outside with their friends and neighbours.  Of course the big factories couldn’t be sustained when the power infrastructure of the country went down but the knowledge and the skills live on.  Electricity is generated locally with the aid of the huge advances in technology that had been made in the decades since the old power system was created.  The internet still exists as it no longer needs a direct physical connection and can be transmitted through the air.  Everyone is brimming with knowledge of philosophy, science, art, music and languages.  Everyone is full of energy and happy as they work to try and improve the world around them.  So perhaps it all turns out alright in the end.

I decline to look further by another hundred years as I think this is a good ending point and I don’t want to see what happens next.

The point is that unless you can see the holistic picture of what a teleological approach to philosophy is then that approach is fundamentally flawed.  You cannot say that you are justified in your actions by your ultimate aim because your ultimate aim is only an idea within your own head.  It is only the ultimate result that should be considered as a worthy consideration on which to base a teleological approach.  The problem is that no man can predict what the results of his actions are.  Even Hari Seldon couldn’t predict with accuracy the thousand years he aimed for with the aid of the skills and knowledge and resources that the committee of public safety bestow upon him.  What chance does the average person have?  Many husbands can’t even work out how to achieve the aim of their wife being happy at the end of the evening.

The deontological approach of course is the approach of doing ones ‘deon’ – duty.  One of the most famous philosophers to be accused of taking a deontological approach to philosophy was Immanuel Kant.  Kant spoke of what he called the categorical imperative.  According to the categorical imperative everyone should do as their will demanded of them.  It was an imperative to do so.  Much as the imperious curse in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling forces its victim to behave as the sorcerer wishes so the categorical imperative forces the actor to do as it demands.

The idea contrasts with teleology in that rather than focussing on the ends and taking the attitude that the ends justify the means one should instead focus on the means.  It is correct motive that is the element pertinent to judging whether the action is ethical or not, the ultimate consequence of the action is not part of the conscious decision.  There are those who belong to the school of absolutist deontology who believe that right actions should always be taken no matter what the consequences.  It is in this group that I first heard of Kant.  I like to think of this as being the ‘la la la I can’t hear you’ school of philosophy as thinking in such a way can allow terrible consequences to occur as long as the actions of the thinker himself are good by deontological standards.

The first time I heard of Kant was in a lecture by Michael Sandel, who I am saddened to report misinformed me as to the true nature of Kant.   It is probable that the absolutists have grown up with Kant’s ideas and distorted them just as the followers of religious figures often distort their understanding of their leader’s words.  Luckily I don’t think the believers of Kant have yet launched any crusades or jihads;  I am fairly certain they are precluded from doing so by their deontology.

The story I seem to remember Sandel told was of a plane flying towards a tower block.  In the wake of 9/11 this was an image to which many people could relate.  As the plane is flying there are two options.  One is to allow the plane to hit the tower block.  If this were to happen the result would be that everybody on the plane, say 500 people, would die and the tower would collapse killing the thousand people at work in the tower and the several hundred who are around the base of the tower.  The second option is to shoot the plane down while it is over empty land.  The 500 people in the plane would die but the people in and around the tower would live so the death count would be far lower.

What do you do?


Now if you chose to shoot the plane down you are taking the teleological approach.  This is the approach that Jeremy Bentham would have approved of.  His utilitarian philosophy stated that actions should be taken to ensure that the maximum wellbeing and happiness for the maximum number of people should be the aim of action even if it resulted in unhappiness and misery for a minority.  It was a value judgement necessary to make the world a better place overall.  The deontological view would be to leave the plane to fly as shooting the plane down would be wrong.  It cannot be justified to kill people because that is murder.  It may end up with a greater number of deaths overall and a greater amount of misery in the world but it is the stain that will be created on your soul that is where the moral weight lays, not in the external event that results in the world.

Sandel  used the example of Kant as a deontologist and according to Gary Banham, the Editor of the Palgrove Macmillan series Renewing Philosophy[1] I am quite right to consider this to be an unfair example of Kant’s views.  I won’t give you too many details about what Banham says as you can read his blog yourself.  Given the quality I have come to expect from Palgrove Macmillan I would be very surprised if his views weren’t of extremely high validity.  Banham gave the impression that Sandel, despite being very good at what he does, had manipulated the impression he wished the audience to draw from his lecture.

Sandel spoke to two people regarding the airplane dilemma; one expert on utilitarianism and a journalist who had some knowledge of philosophy but was not an expert on Kant.  Perhaps it is due to Sandel’s influence or perhaps it goes back a lot further in time but when I speak to anyone on the subject of Kant they do not respect his views and think that he was inflicted with the kind of blindness that lets certain Christian scientists do such ridiculous things as let their children have painful deaths because they believe the power of prayer to be better than an operation.

Kant’s thinking was not along these lines though.  My understanding is that Kant believed that people should act the way they thought everyone should act.  This is tied in with an idea of maxims which must be followed in choosing a path of action.  Each maxim must be such that the actor would wish it to become a universally accepted maxim that everyone must follow.  I think that rather than seeing immovable maxims these must be regarded as precedents such as are in courts of law.   Until an unusual situation arises how is one to design a maxim to cover it.  Maxims may cover situations like IF A = B THEN H, IF A = C THEN I, IF A = D THEN J, etc, but if eventually a situation comes up when actually A = B-1 THEN what?  Until a situation occurs it is not always possible to create a maxim to cover that situation.  This is the issue with the creation of legislation.  Not every situation can be covered by legislation, hence the need for the system of precedent.  I can guarantee that Kant never imagined the situation of an airplane flying into the side of a skyscraper so Kant never developed a maxim that would have explained his choice of action in that instance.

Kant’s self-training was much like the education of a lawyer.  A lawyer does not know how every case is going to end because every case is different.  This does not mean the lawyer clams up.  He makes his prediction of how the case will end and leaps into action accordingly to save his client as much trouble as he can.  Kant’s self-training regime was about teaching his mind how to understand the ethical way in which to take each step that came before him.  His philosophy would not have permitted thinking about it; if you think about it then you consider the consequences and then you are looking at the situation teleologically.  Kant trained his mind to make these decisions based upon what the correct thing to do was.  Was the correct thing to do to shoot down the plane or was the correct thing to do to let it crash into the building.  I could give you my choice.  I cannot give you Kant’s choice.

According to Kant’s philosophy everyone must follow their own will.  Not everyone’s will is the same.  Everyone creates their own laws to live by, these laws are judged by them to be worthy of living by if they pass the test of acceptability for a universal rule but everyone’s universal rules will be different.  It cannot be said that Kant’s view is that the plane should be allowed to continue because Kant’s view is that everyone should do what they believe to be right.  Not that one person should make a rule that he believes to be right and then imposes it on everyone who should ever follow his philosophy.  Everyone is different and everyone must follow their own will.  Ultimately Kant wanted us all to be happy.  We cannot be happy by following rules we do not accept as legitimate.  They would fill us with guilt and remorse, not happiness.  Kantian ethics would not permit us to follow the laws laid down by Nazi Germany.  Certainly Kant thinks that we should follow rules but these rules are the rules of natural law rather than positive law.  Where the two coincide there is no conflict.  The important thing is that you follow your imperative.  You must follow your will.  You must do what you have to do.  The process of thinking and studying and understanding that he proscribes trains our subconscious ability to understand our will and do as we will.

Kant would have been against laziness for instance, in that a lazy man would have been living by a maxim that stated it was ok to be lazy but as the maxim had to be made universal then he would have to accept that everyone should then also be able to live by the maxim that everyone could be lazy.  Kant’s objection to this is that the lazy man would then have to rely on other people to get him food and they could only do that if they were not being lazy.  The maxim could therefore not be universal; it had to be personal to only that man otherwise he would starve.  Of course the way around this is if the lazy man is quite happy starving and doesn’t mind no-one bringing him food.  Perhaps he is happy to pick the weeds from the ground and is quite happy for this to also be a universal maxim.  In this case the man will be behaving in an ethical way.

Of course most of us aren’t like this.  Most of us like people to do things from which we can benefit and in truth when we look into our hearts we like to do things ourselves.  With proper knowledge these maxims develop naturally.  If we know that a sedentary lifestyle is going to cause our arteries to stiffen up then our subconscious minds will force us to be active.  If we know that eating too much food is going to make us feel bloated an uncomfortable then we will hold off from eating too much food.  I choose these two examples because these are things that we constantly do.  We cannot stop ourselves eating too much food.  We have difficulty getting it together to exercise.  This is because we do not fully understand the harm in our lifestyle choices.  If we had the full appreciation of the harm then we would make the change.

These two examples are simple everyday things but they could apply to so many parts of life.  Most people do stuff because they want to.  People work for charity because they want to.  People pick up litter because they want to.  People volunteer as community policemen because they want to.  All these people have different rules they live by.  These are their universal maxims.  If scriptures are to be believed then once every couple of thousand years or so a person will be born who will embody the correct universal maxims but for the most part we do our best.  We can only know if we are following our maxims if we are following our will.  If we are happy to be doing what we are doing then we are following our maxims.

A lot of people are not happy these days, they think they are doing what is making them happy yet they are not happy.  These people should learn what it is that makes them happy and then they should do it; that is the message from Kant.  An almost universally accepted idea one can hear in any number of places is that happiness comes from helping people.  This is a part of what Kant was trying to teach.  If that were to be put into a maxim though then you would be bound to help people who tried to commit suicide when their spouse left them.  This is plainly nonsensical.  When your mind has trained itself through correct thought then you will know what your will is.  We have all grown up in different circumstances and had different experiences; different pleasures and different pains, personal will may well be different for everyone.  Someone who loves mountain biking may go mountain biking every day.  It may be one of his maxims; he may wish that everyone could experience that joy universally but the fat man who drives his car everywhere would be unlikely to wish mountain biking on the universe.  Everyone is different and everyone can be a good person by following their own path.  What is important is that, a) you do what makes you truly happy, you follow your will, your imperative; and b) you would be just as happy if everyone else in the world did things the same way you did.  That is what I understand Kant to be saying.


About harrymonmouth

Full of grace and fair regard, a true lover of the holy church. The courses of his youth promised it not but his body has become a paradise enveloping and containing celestial spirits. He has a sudden scholar become after reformation, in a flood, with heady currance scoured his faults and unseated his Hydra-headed wilfulness. Hear him but reason in divinity, and all-admiring with an inward wish you would desire he were made a prelate: Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs, You would say it hath been all in all his study: List his discourse of war, and you shall hear a fearful battle render'd you in music: Turn him to any cause of policy, the Gordian knot of it he will unloose, familiar as his garter: that, when he speaks, the air, a charter'd libertine, is still, and the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears, to steal his sweet and honey'd sentences; so that the art and practic part of life must be the mistress to this theoric: Which is a wonder how he should glean it, since his addiction was to courses vain, his companies unletter'd, rude and shallow, his hours fill'd up with riots, banquets, sports, and never noted in him any study, any retirement, any sequestration from open haunts and popularity.

Posted on June 12, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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