Ethical Orientations: Teleology

In contrast to the deontological approach, the teleology ethical orientation emphasizes outcomes over the process. It is a results-oriented approach that defines ethical behavior by good or bad consequences. Ethical decisions are those that create the greatest good. The most common teleology approach is utilitarianism, which stresses the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals. Jeremy Bentham, an influential proponent of utilitarianism, believed a good or moral act would result in the “greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.”

In the 2002 Spiderman blockbuster film, Spiderman faces an utilitarian ethical quandary when the Green Goblin forces him to choose between saving a cable car full of young children or his girlfriend Mary Jane. The teleology ethicist believes Spiderman should save the children. After all, the tram car is full of children whose lives are in jeopardy. Unable to save both, the greater good of saving the children justifies the means of sacrificing Mary Jane. Of course, in Hollywood reality, Spiderman manages to save both, but public relations professionals rarely have “save both” as an option. In reality, it is often unclear which outcome will be good or bad prior to the action. Public relations practitioners are left to their best guess on the nature of the outcome.

Teleology’s focus on outcomes is further problematic as unethical behavior could be justified if the result is good. To offset utilitarianism’s shortcomings, John Stuart Mill suggested that both the quality of good and the long-term consequences of an outcome should be considered. He defined good as including “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Higher pleasures were positive and included intelligence, mental pleasure, and health while lower pleasures were negative and included ignorance, stupidity, selfishness, and physical pleasures. Later friendship, loyalty, and fairness were believed to have positive, intrinsic worth. Mill believed that a person must consider all potential consequences of a particular action. The risks and benefits of an action must be weighed in order to maximize benefit and minimize harm. In the opening example, the benefit of increased goodwill among patients, staff, news media, and fans would be a positive outcome that might outweigh the harm, or the means, of using children’s sickness and football stars’ notoriety as a platform for the activity.

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