A teleological approach to ethics is based on the concept of seeking a “telos” in ethical decision-making. Telos is a Greek word meaning “end” or “goal”; thus, teleological ethics is concerned with how choices will affect a particular desired moral outcome. Generally, we can speak of two main teleological moral philosophie: utilitarianism/consequentialism, and the virtue ethics espoused by ancient and medieval moral philosophers.
In the case of utilitarianism/consequentialism, the goal is generally conceived of in terms of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Decisions are based on how much final “good” or “happiness” they will produce for the greatest number of people. This system can justify actions that might be considered morally wrong, so long as those actions bring about an overall better outcome. An example of this would be torturing someone to find the location of a ticking time bomb. While torture for its own sake would be wrong, because it is being done for the greater good and to save lives, it can be understood to be the ethical thing to do.
Considering virtue ethics, we see that the end point being sought is not necessarily the same as in utilitarianism/consequentialism. While virtue ethics does indeed seek to maximize “happiness,” it sees this happiness in a much more personal way, and as being fundamentally tied to the cultivation and practicing of key virtues. Tracing its origins to Aristotle, this ethical theory argues that the goal is the development of the human mind, spirit and body to the fullest potential possible. This is done by practicing virtues such as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
As you practice these virtues in your life, they become internalized within your everyday decision-making until most of what you do tilts toward what Aristotle called the “golden mean,” that sweet spot of human existence where everything is perfectly balanced in such a way as to allow a person to thrive. We can contrast this with utilitarianism/consequentialism in one important way: While the former essentially argues that the ends justify the means, the latter points out that the means are what let you reach the proper end in the first place. It does no good under virtue ethics to save your life if that life is devoid of virtue and thus unable to access the upper echelons of your human potential. On the other hand, utilitarianism/consequentialism might be satisfied with a lower overall moral standard and happiness, so long as it represents the greatest good possible at the time.
Differences with other ethical approaches
As mentioned, these two teleological ethical systems fundamentally differ in their perceived goals and ends. However, they both share an overarching concern with how moral choices can affect our lives and the lives of others. Decisions are thus justified based on factors somewhat outside of the particular course of action itself. This is in contrast to other ethical systems, such as the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant, in which the concern is with the rightness or wrongness of the action itself. In deontological ethics, if killing is determined to be wrong on the basis of reason, then it can never be justified, even if it is in the defense of another’s life. Therefore, teleological ethics can be said to be more flexible in its approach to morality than strict rule-based morality such as deontological ethics.