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Teleology vs. Deontology

Teleology and deontology are both ethical theories that deal with the moral basis of an action, a behavior, or a decision.

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  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Teleology vs. Deontology


The word teleology is derived from the Greek word telos, which means the goal or the end, and logos, which mean science. 

Teleology is a results-oriented ethical theory which was first introduced by Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher. He believed that the object of all laws should be to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest amount of people.  

Teleology is called a consequential theory because it teaches that an act can be considered right or ethical depending on its end, its consequence, or its outcome. It focuses on the purpose, intention, or meaning underlying each action. The moral goodness of an action is defined by the goodness that the action creates.
A teleologist is a person who defines the meaning of an action by weighting its consequences. If an action produces positive results, a teleologist considers it a positive action. If an action produces negative results, it would be considered a negative action. 

An example of a teleological approach in action:

You have received a gift from your friend. You do not like the gift. Your friend wants to know whether you like the present. 

If you use a teleologist approach, you will lie to your friend, telling him or her that you like the gift, because you would not want to hurt her feelings. 

In this case, this lie to your friend is considered morally right because it made your friend happy and his or her life was improved because of it. Likewise, this lie to your friend would be considered morally wrong if it had made your friend unhappy or if his or her life had been diminished as a consequence of the lie.

That is, teleology believes that the consequences are primary and the basic concept of right and wrong takes a secondary position. 

This example shows the inherent weakness in this theory because, in practice, we do not know how to read the future. It is not easy to predict the potential consequences of an action, and we cannot know whether we will be choosing an option that makes people happier or whether we are choosing an option that will have negative results in the future.


The word deontology was first used in the early 19th century: from Greek word deont, which means obligation, duty, being needed or necessary (from dei ‘it is necessary’) plus logos which means science. 

Deontology is a rule-based ethical theory which was first introduced by Immanuel Kant. He believed that there is an objective universal value system that forms the basis of each person’s set of behaviors and decisions. 

Deontology is called a non-consequential theory. This theory focuses on the right or wrong essence of action rather than on the consequences of the action itself. It is an approach that examines whether the motives that underlie actions are wrong or right. 

Deontology is defined as a duty-based theory because the actions of individuals are based on their sense of duty to one another. This sense of duty is based on values and morals, and it teaches to be fair and considerate and kind. The approach includes an even broader obligation toward all living beings and the greater environment. 

The Ten Commandments exemplify a deontological approach. These Commandments tell us how to behave and make decisions, and they provide a basis for our actions. They are the moral system that has molded us, teaching us to treat each other with fairness and respect, just as we ourselves want to be treated.

An example of a deontological approach in action:

You have received a gift from your friend. You do not like the gift. Your friend wants to know whether you like the present. 

If you use a deontological approach, you will not lie to your friend. You believe that lying is inherently bad, regardless of the consequences. You tell your friend the truth, even though it hurts his or her feelings. 

That is, deontology believes that the consequences are secondary to the basic concept of what is right or wrong. 

This example illustrates an inherent weakness in the deontological approach, showing it to be potentially rigid and objective, and perhaps insensitive to real life situations and to real life objectives and consequences. 


Both teleology and deontology are ethical theories. Ethics is the part of philosophy that proposes principles and standards describing what is right and what is wrong.

Teleology is called a consequentialist theory whereas deontology is called a non- consequentialist theory. That is, the primary focus of teleology is on the consequences of an action whereas the primary focus of deontology is on the action, itself.

Teleology tells us that the end justifies the means whereas deontology believes that an end does not justify its means. 

Both teleology and deontology have weaknesses. Because it is not always possible to predict the consequences of an action, the teleological approach does not always result in a positive outcome. Because life often happens in the gray as well as in black and white, the deontological approach does not always result in a positive outcome, either.

Teleology is often connected to the Greatest Happiness Principle, which teaches us to examine present events in the light of past occurrences, comparing the amount of happiness derived in the present with the amount of pain and unhappiness. If there is more happiness, the event is considered ethically good. 

Deontology is often connected to the Golden Rule, which teaches us to treat others the way that we want to be treated, regardless of the potential consequences. 


We can examine our own moral approach through the lenses of teleology and deontology. 

We can ask ourselves:

Can you be counted on to be honest and straight forward?

Do you tell the brutal truth, even when feelings are hurt, and friends are alienated?

Do you strive toward a happy outcome by telling small lies of omission?

Will you avoid the whole truth to avoid a confrontation?

With awareness and examination, we can choose to live our best moral life.

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