Posted by: Becoming Gaia | Jun 9, 2010

A Gentle Introduction to the Telos of Morality, Part I

Like Sam Harris, I’ve been trying not to use technical terms and jargon in order to make this blog more accessible to everyone.  Unfortunately, sometimes it is the case where the “correct” technical term and the large body of knowledge marshalled behind it just can’t be denied.  More unfortunately, sometimes it is also the case that the technical term has been “dumbed down” enough, ostensibly for non-experts, that those same non-experts can clearly see the fallacies in the “dumbed down” version (or they use those fallacies to disprove something that is actually provably true — like using entropy to disprove the validity of evolution).  And, most unfortunately, the philosophical terms “telos” and “teleology” are spectacular examples of this — with many armchair philosophers *totally* missing the point behind them.

I’ve been flailing around on this blog trying to explain *why* morality is what I propose that it is.  Arguments about the “purpose” of morality are blocked by claims like “Science can find no telos — purpose — built into anything. This observation should severely caution anyone who wishes to entrust society to science.”  In order to disprove claims like this, I need to go back and explain exactly which particular meaning of purpose it is that telos entails and exactly why science *does* find telos built into some natural things.

The dictionary defines telos as follows:

te·los [tel-os, tee-los]
–noun, plural te·loi
the end term of a goal-directed process; esp., the Aristotelian final cause.

Wikipedia expands upon this by saying:

Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something.  Aristotle, who defined the term, explicitly argued that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence in general.  For example (and according to Aristotle), a seed has the eventual adult plant as its final cause (i.e., as its telos) iff the seed would become the adult plant under normal circumstances.

Aristotle also specifically notes that not all phenomena have a final cause in the first place (“For though even the residua are occasionally used by nature for some useful purpose, yet we must not in all cases expect to find such a final cause…”) — yet, virtually all of the debate over teleology is caused by its detractors assuming that teleology requires that everything *does* have a final cause (an argument more properly attributed to theists who *really* do believe that everything does have a purpose derived from the deliberation/consciousness/intelligence of G*D).  For example, Wikipedia notes “As a school of thought, teleology is often contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as having no design or purpose.”  Thus, while I am generally sympathetic to metaphysical naturalism, the undeniable telos of a seed proves that nature *does*, upon occasion, have a “purpose”.

Aristotle’s point is that the “purpose” or “design” of a seed is to produce the eventual adult plant.  Yet, this is also the proximate cause of the seed because if the seed did not produce the eventual plant then the plant that produced the seed would have not evolved to produce it and the seed never would have existed.  Or, as Wikipedia succintly puts it “Teleology is a recurring issue in evolutionary biology.”  Evolutionary writings are replete with teleological sentences — some appropriate, some obvious nonsense (minerals are “designed” to be used by plants which are in turn “designed” to be used by animals -or- prey is “designed” to feed the predator).  John Reiss has even gone so far as to argue that evolutionary biology should be purged of all such teleology including rejecting the analogy of natural selection as a watchmaker as advanced from it’s religious origins by Richard Dawkins in his 1987 book.

Wikipedia also does a good job of conveying the contrary point of view saying:

Other authors are more skeptical. James Lennox has argued that Darwin was a purposeful teleologist,[12] and biologist philosopher Francisco Ayala has argued that all statements about processes can be translated into teleological statements, and vice versa, but that teleological statements are more explanatory and cannot be disposed of.[13] Karen Neander has argued that the modern concept of biological ‘function’ is dependent upon selection. So, for example, it is not possible to say that anything that simply winks into existence without going through a process of selection has functions. We decide whether an appendage has a function by analysing the process of selection that led to it. Therefore, any talk of functions requires natural selection and selection cannot be reduced in the manner advocated by Reiss.[14]

A clear example of this is that an eye has the function of “seeing” because seeing increases the “fitness” of possessing entities.  This “function” (or “purpose”) directly led to it being evolved (i.e. it’s very existence).  My (hopefully by now obvious — but not overly belabored) point is that the “purpose” or “design” or “function” (or telos) of morality as currently implemented by evolution is to increase the “fitness” of practicing entities.  Exactly like a seed or an eye, if morality didn’t increase fitness, it wouldn’t have evolved.  However, as demonstrated by the human eye and its “blind spot” caused by suboptimal nerve placement, evolution can frequently be improved upon once a desired functionality (or purpose) is identified.

Part II will get a bit wilder as I attempt to cover the requirements for telos, chaos and complexity theory, attractors, emergence, life, consciousness, panpsychism, dualism, free will, and more.



  1. Thanks for the kickoff quote referencing my old notes re telos. I feel so famous now. LOL. But I would not like to be known so much for the raw aphorism itself (which is almost 30 years old), but rather for where it leads. I do not object to your analysis of it. But the nature of the aphorism is “severe caution” which points to a problem that must be solved in a scientific culture, if that culture is to be/remain ethical and “grow” morally.

    It is part of my criticism of 20th century philosophy, especially the large part of it that comes down to us from Hume (informing logical positivism and Ayer in particular) that Hume’s empiricism (and what then followed) severely damaged (and nearly killed) the concept of telos as traditionally used in moral theory. Without using the word itself (nor apparently recognizing that he was shooting telos in the foot), Hume “killed” telos with the is/ought objection, combined with his rigorous empiricism, in this way:

    After having quite reasonably insisted upon a strictly materialist view of nature, in which only observable objects could count as “real,” Hume (again reasonably) rejected anything supernatural — by which he actually meant to kill any notion of a disembodied conscious “soul” which can survive the body, maintain its own understanding of “reality,” and perceive objects events beyond the physical (such as God or heaven, for instance). In the arguments for that “elimination of the soul” as it might be called, which are quite strong and have withstood the test of time, Hume managed accidentally to gut the idea of “human purpose” which traditionally (since Plato) had defined the human being as partly divine. The “standard definition” of our rationality had been (and this was reinforced by religious thinking) that humans contain a spark of other-worldliness which defines our nature and leads us to our higher aspirations. In short, the human soul was the classical definition/explanation of consciousness and by extension was seen as our pathway to knowledge not only of facts, but of moral facts. Our telos, or purpose, as human beings was thus definable (differently in the details for various authors, but still within the paradigm) as a moral purpose. Simplified: if a writer claimed it is peculiarly human to be virtuous, our purpose (or goal) could be claimed to be virtue; if we are naturally good, our purpose is goodness, therefore we ought to be good (etc). “Naturally good” is an IS statement. telos was implied and “ought to be good” was a direct deduction. Classically our so-called telos depended, however, on this concept of a soul or higher intelligence within us. Hume managed to toss out the telos previously assumed in countless moral arguments by tossing out the soul that had always made that telos intelligible. He didn’t quite see he was doing it.

    And we are still reconstructing telos today.

  2. A friend of mine once observed a perspectivist view on morality, and I like it. It states that it is good to not cut off potentially valuable possibilities irrecoverably. What counts is the breadth of life in front of us. We choose the world we live in, because the reality can enter our existence only in the shape our perception permits, and we become our choices. What might have been a gift, can become a curse. What was merely a light guiding to explore a component to a meaningful life, becomes a pinnacle of pleasure — so boring!
    (End Of Ramble)

  3. Becoming Gaia commits the folly from : “let the should flow”.

    • EDIT: / by saying: “

      • Umm. Could you repeat your comment and maybe clarify it by adding some more detail? Eliezer only uses the term folly once in his post and I don’t think that that instance was what you meant . . . .

    • >>> Becoming Gaia commits the folly from by saying: “let the should flow”.

      This comment was not meant literally in full seriousness (i.e. it is kind of a joke.) It means: Becoming Gaia provides what that post calls a folly: an argument for “right or wrong” that unfolds over the infinite history without resting on terminal values. The supposed argument says “maximize the flow of shouldness” (as introduced by the post) but over all entities.

  4. Becoming Gaia commits the folly from : “let the should flow”

    I followed the link but still do not see what “folly” that comment refers to. Until that comment is clearly explained, I have to treat that as a non-sequitur. And frankly I found the article at the link itself … umm … improvable. It’s interesting and I “get it” (mostly) … but it needs to be written better. Bluntly speaking. And with all due respect of course. Clarity!

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