Teleological Ethics or Consequentialism

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : November 8th, 2020

Teleological Ethics or Consequentialism is one branch of Normative ethics. In this article, we will be discussing Teleological ethics, which is very helpful for preparing for UPSC IAS Ethics paper including case studies.

Teleological Ethics / Consequentialism (Utilitarianism, Altruism & Egoism)

  • The Greek word Telos means ‘end’ or consequence.
  • The theory looks at the consequences of an action to decide whether it is right or wrong.
  • Theological thinkers are called Consequentialists. For consequentialists, ends justify the means, i.e. they judge actions by the result it produces.
  • This is contrary to the Deontology philosophy or ethics, which judges action by itself whether it follows moral law or not, but not by the consequences.

Major Consequentialism theories include Utilitarianism, Altruism and Egoism.



British philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were the main proponents of this theory.

According to Utilitarianism, an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are considered to be positive or favourable to everyone.

This theory focuses on collective welfare or universal happiness and it identifies goodness (moral worth of action) with the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people: the 'greatest happiness principle'.

Hence maximising benefits or happiness for the greatest number of people requires net assessments of benefit: utility is the net result of costs and benefits.

The worth of an action is in its utility to produce pleasure or avoid pain.

Utilitarianism has three essential elements:

  1. Whether an action is right or wrong is judged solely by its consequences.
  2. The value of the consequences of an action is evaluated in terms of the amount of happiness or well-being caused.
  3. In assessing the total happiness caused to a number of people, equal amounts of happiness are to have equal value, no single person's happiness having greater value than that of another's.

Jeremy Bentham

John Stuart Mill

According to him, an action is right, if it produces pleasure.


Actions are right if they promote pleasure.

He believes all pleasures are same

He believes all pleasures are not same

Pleasures have only quantitative differences- more pleasure or less pleasure.

Pleasures are different: There are

Quantitative differences and Qualitative differences.

Reading a book or eating your favourite dish gives more or less the same pleasure.

Intellectual Pleasures: Qualitative/ Noble/ Higher pleasures. Achievement: studying hard to secure top rank gives higher pleasure.

Sensuous Pleasures: eating your favourite dish does not give higher pleasure.

Mill believes actions that produce higher pleasures are morally right.


 Benefits and Defects of Utilitarianism


  • Universal concept: It applies to every culture and society. We live in groups or in society, which promotes collective wellbeing.
  • Supports democratic decision making: The fair way to make a public policy or enact a law is to balance the differing interest of people through a majority vote. In Parliament only if the majority say ‘YES’, a bill can be passed.
  • Objective process: Utilitarian uses an objective process for decision making. It is through cost-benefit analysis so as Utilitarianism defines morality.
  • Distributive Justice: It ensures taxing rich for distributing wealth to the poor.



  • Suppression of Minority: It justifies the act of forceful evacuation of local communities from their habitats for the construction of a dam, which benefits millions of people.
  • Validates orthodox views: For instance, practising Child marriage, Sati sahagamanam was acceptable to everyone (majority) in the society in the olden days. Utilitarianism validates these practices as ethical.
  • Happiness is subjective: You watch cricket when India wins you feel happy; when loses, you feel frustrated.
  • Happiness is not the only worth on which we make our decisions. For example, society and people consider love, freedom, creating value to society etc.
  • Consequences are unpredictable: It means nothing beyond the present moment is guaranteed.



The benefits and defects of Utilitarianism prove that happiness cannot be the only basis upon which we make decisions. There are occasions, where the morally right decision is the one which only you are willing to make. Humanity would lose its integrity if it decided to follow this way of life, though there are some notable benefits to consider. Because Utilitarianism ignores the virtue of the agent and the path or means of the action while judging the morally right action.

An action can be morally correct, only when its agent and both the means and ends are good and constructive.

It is clear that strengths are clearly outweighed by the weaknesses of this theory.


Ethical Altruism

  • Altruism was derived from the Latin word ‘alteri’, meaning "other people".
  • Altruism means the principle and moral practise of concern for the happiness of other human beings or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual.
  • This was advocated by August Comte. He coined the word Altruism. It means “Live for others”.
  • According to this theory, an action is ethical or morally right, if the consequences of that action are more beneficial or positive or favourable to everyone except the moral agent (person).
  • It claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others.


  • As Gandhi also proposes “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.
  • Simply, it means Selflessness, which is an important foundational principle of public life recommended by the Nolan Committee.
  • The public officials must be selfless in the service of people.


Ethical Egoism

  • The word Ego means “self”.
  • This is opposite of Ethical Altruism.
  • According to this theory, an action is ethical or morally right, if the consequences of that action are more beneficial or positive or favourable only to the moral agent.
  • Hence, the consequences for the individual agent are considered more than any other result.


  • Egoism, to a certain extent, also promotes the general welfare of society. For instance, a businessman, out of his self-interest, invested money to exploit natural resources like iron ore mining etc., it would create employment and promote development in the region. This also called Trickle down.


  • It supports and promotes capitalism. It justifies the exploitation of labour for the self-interest of a corporate company. It divides society into the Rich elite and poor masses.
  • Self-interest often leads to indiscriminate exploitation of the environment, thereby harms the environment and sustainable living.
  • Self-interest justifies profit-making at cost of quality- adultery, pollution and poor service delivery.
  • It justifies materialism, corruption and giving and taking bribe etc.

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