Teleological and Deontological Conceptions of Civilization

7 September 2014


global civilization

Teleology and Deontology

In moral theory we distinguish between teleological ethical systems and deontological ethical systems. Teleological ethics (also called consequentialism, in reference to consequences) focus on the end of an action, i.e., that actual result, as that which makes an action praiseworthy or blameworthy. The word “teleological” comes from the Greek telos (τέλος), which means end, goal, or purpose. Deontological ethics focus on the motivation for undertaking an action, and is sometimes referred to as “duty-based” ethics; the word “deontological” derives from the Greek deon (δέον), meaning “duty.”

John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian moral philosopher, and, by extension, teleologist.

John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian moral philosopher, and, by extension, teleologist.

The philosophical literature on teleology and deontology is vast. From this vast literature the history of moral philosophy gives us several well known examples of both teleological and deontological ethics. Utilitarianism is often cited as a paradigmatic example of teleological ethics, as utilitarianism (in one of its many forms) holds that an action is to be judged by its ability to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons (also known as the greatest happiness principle). Kantian ethics is usually cited as the paradigmatic case of deontological ethics; Kant placed great emphasis upon duty, and held that nothing is good in itself except the good will. These philosophical expressions of the ideas of teleology and deontology also have vernacular expressions that largely coincide with them, as, for example, when teleological views are expressed as, “the ends justify the means,” or when deontological views are expressed as “justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of all deontological ethics.

Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of all deontological ethics.

The vast literature on deontology and teleological also points to many examples that show these categories of ethical thought to be overly schematic and, in some cases, to cut across each other. For example, if we characterize teleological ethics in terms of the aim to be achieved by an action, a distinction can be made between the actual consequences of an action and the intended consequences of an action. The intended consequences of an action may be understood deontologically as the motivation for undertaking an action. Part of this problem can be addressed by tightening up the terminology and the logic of the argument, but, as has been noted, the literature is vast and many sophisticated arguments have been advanced to demonstrate the interpenetration of teleological and deontological conceptions. We must, then, regard this distinction as a rough-and-ready classification that admits of exceptions.

Teleology and Deontology in a Social Context

We can take these ideas of teleological and deontological ethics and apply them not only to individual action but to social action, and thus speak of the actions of social groups of human beings in teleological or deontological terms, i.e., we can speak in terms of the coordinated actions of a group being undertaken primarily in order to achieve some end, or actions undertaken as ends-in-themselves. This suggests the extrapolation of teleological and deontological conceptions to the largest social formations, and the largest social formation known to us is civilization. Can a civilizaiton entire be teleological or deontological in its outlook? Does a civilization have a moral outlook?

I will assume, without arguing in detail, that a civilization can have a moral outlook, understanding that this is a generalization that holds across a civilization, and that the generalization admits of numerous important exceptions. Elsewhere I have noted the Darwinian perspective that any social group of animals that lives together in sufficient density for a sufficient period of time will evolve social customs for interaction. (This is a position that has been further explored in our time by Frans de Waal and Soshichi Uchii.) The lifeway of a particular people is coextensive with social conventions necessary for a social species to live together in a reasonable degree of harmony; what distinguishes regional permutations of lifeways are the climate and available domesticates. Both ethics and civilization grow from this common root, hence the xenophobia of traditionalist civilizations that unproblematically equate the peculiarities of a particular regional civilization with the good in and of itself.

Can this synthesis of lifeways and ethos that marks out a regional civilization (and which is consolidated in the process of axialization) be characterized as overall teleological or deontological orientation in some particular cases? This is a more difficult question, and rather than tackling it directly, I will discuss the question from various perspectives drawn from an overview of the history of civilization.

Teleology and Deontology in Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization

The emergence of settled agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization presents us with an archaeological horizon that appears globally in widely dispersed locations but at approximately the same time. (An archaeological horizon is “a widely disseminated level of common art and artifacts.” Wikipedia) Prior to an actual horizon, there are a great many suggestive sites that imply both domestication and semi-settled lifeways, but at a certain level (between 9 and 11 thousand years before present) the traces of large scale settlement and domestication of plants and animals becomes common. This is the horizon of civilization (or, more narrowly, the horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).

The horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization exhibits global characteristics that eventually culminate in the Axial Age, when regional civilizations are given definitive expression in mythological terms. Through separately emergent, these civilizations exhibit common features of settlement, division of labor, social hierarchy, a conception of the world, of human nature, and of the relation between the two that are expressed in mythological form, which in being made systematic (an early manifestation of the human condition made rigorous) become the central organizing idea of the civilizations that followed. This period represents the bulk of human civilization history to date, a period lasting almost ten thousand years.

Recently on my other blog I undertook a series on religious experiences and religious observances from hunter-gatherer nomadism through contemporary industrial-technological civilization and on into the future — cf. Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience, Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization, Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, and Responding to the World we Find — and thinking of religious observances emergent from human religious experience it is difficult to say whether these ritual observances are performed in the spirit of teleology or deontology, i.e., whether it is the consequences of the ritual that matters, or if the ritual has intrinsic value and ought to be conducted regardless of consequences. This may be one of the many cases in which teleological and deontological categories cut across each other. Agrarian-eccleasiastical civilization at times seems to formulate its central organizing principle of religious observance in terms of the intrinsic value of the observance, and in times in terms of the efficacious consequences of these observances.

We can understand religion (by which I mean the central organizing principle of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations) as an existential risk mitigation strategy for pre-technological peoples, who have no method to address personal mortality or the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations (i.e., civilizational mortality) other than the propitiation of gods; once the transition is made from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization, the methods of procedural rationality that are the organizing principle of the latter can be brought to bear on existential questions, and it finally becomes possible for existential threats to be assessed and addressed on the level of naturalistic human action. It would not have been possible to conceptualize existential risk in terms of naturalistic human action prior to the technological expansion of effective human action.

Teleology and Deontology in Global Industrial-Technological Civilization

Civilization is an historical reality that exhibits change and development over time. The particular change in civilization that we see at the present time is a transition from regional civilizations, reflecting the coevolution of human beings and domesticates (both plant and animal) ecologically suited to a particular geographical region, to a global industrial-technological civilization that is largely indifferent to local and regional ecological and climatological conditions, because a global trade network provides goods and services from any region to any other region, which means that the maintenance of civilization is no longer dependent upon local or regional constraints.

This development of global industrial-technological civilization is likely to dominate civilization until civilization either fails (i.e., civilization experiences extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, or subsequent ruination) or expands beyond Earth and a self-sustaining center of civilization emerges in space or on another planetary body. In order for the latter to occur, human travel in space must move beyond exploratory forays and become commonplace, that is to say, we would have to see a horizon of space travel. I have called the horizon of human space travel extraterrestrialization. Until that time, civilization remains bound by the finite surface of Earth, and this means that our civilization is growing intensively rather than extensively. The intensive growth of regional civilizations exhaustively covering the surface of Earth means the closer integration of these civilizations (sometimes called globalization), and it is this process that is pushing regional civilizations (e.g., Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, European civilization, etc.) toward integration into a single global industrial-technological civilization.

The spatial constraint of the Earth’s surface together with the expansion and consolidation of settled industrial-technological civilization forces these civilizations into integration, even if only at the margins where their borders meet. Is this de facto constraint upon planetary civilization a mere contingency pushing civilization in a particular direction (which in evolutionary terms could be called civilizational directional selection), or may be think of these constraints in non-contingent terms as a “destiny” of planetary civilization? We find both conceptions represented in contemporary thought.

To think of civilization in terms of destiny is to think in teleological terms. If civilization has a destiny apart from the purposes of individuals and societies, that destiny is the telos of that civilization. But we would not likely refer to an historical accident that selects civilization as “destiny,” even if it shapes our civilization decisively. If we reject the idea of a contingent destiny forced upon us by de facto constraints upon growth and development, then we are implicitly thinking of civilization in terms of practices pursued for their own ends, which is an deontological conception of civilization.

The contemporary idea of a transition to a sustainable civilization — the transition from an industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to an industrial infrastructure based on sustainable and renewable sources of fuel — is clearly a deontological conception of the development of civilization, i.e., that such a transition needs to take place for its own sake, but this deontological ideal of a civilization that lives within its means also implies for many who hold this idea a vision of future civilization that has been revamped to avoid the morally catastrophic mistakes of the past, and in this sense the conception is clearly teleological.

The Historico-Temporal Structure of Human Life

One of the most distinctive features of human consciousness is its time consciousness that extends into an explicit understanding of the future and its relationship to present action, and which developed and iterated becomes historical consciousness, in which the individual and the social group understands himself or itself to stand in relation to a past that preceded the present, and a future that will follow from the present. This historico-temporal structure of human life, both individual and communal, means that human beings plan ahead and make provision for the future in a much more systematic way than any other terrestrial species. This consideration alone suggests that the primary ethical category for understanding human action must be teleological. But this presents us with certain problems.

Civilization itself, and the great processes of civilization such as the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, urbanization, and industrialization, were unplanned developments that just happened. No one planned to build a civilization, and no one planned for regional civilizations to run into planetary constraints and thus to begin to integrate into a global civilization. So although human beings have the ability to plan and the carry out long term projects, many of the historical human realities that are among the most significant in shaping our lives both individually and collectively were not planned. In the future we may be able to plan a civilization or civilizational process and bring this plan to a successful conclusion, but nothing like this has yet been accomplished in the history of civilization. The closest we have come to this is to build planned communities or cities, and this falls far short of the construction of an entire civilization. Until we can do more, we are subject to a limited teleological civilizational ethos at most.

Teleological and Deontological Sources of Civilization

While agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization tends to organize around an eschtological destiny, and is therefore profoundly teleological in outlook, and industrial-technological civilization tends to organize around procedural rationality, and is therefore profoundly deontological in outlook, we can think of a prehistoric past that is the source of both of these paradigms of civilization as either essentially teleological or deontological.

The basic historico-temporal properties of human life noted above, iterated, extended, and eventually made systematic culminate in an organized and communal way of life for a social species, and this telos of human activity is civilization. Civilization on this view is inherent in human nature. This can be expressed in non-naturalistic, eschatological terms, and this probably the form in which this conception is most familiar to us, but it can also be expressed in scientific terms. Here is Carl Sagan’s expression of this idea:

The cerebral cortex, where matter is transformed into consciousness, is the point of embarkation for all our cosmic voyages. Comprising more than two-thirds of the brain mass, it is the realm of both intuition and critical analysis. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations, here that we read and write, here that we do mathematics and compose music. The cortex regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XI, “The Persistence of Memory”

In my post 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2 I mentioned the presentation of William Katerberg, in which he characterized ideas of inevitability and impossibility as forms of teleology in scientific historiography. While Sagan may not be asserting the inevitability of civilization emerging from the cerebral cortex, all of these conceptions belong under the overarching umbrella of teleology, whether weakly teleological or strongly teleological.

When we consider the highest expressions of the human mind in intellectual and aesthetic production, it is not at all clear if these monuments of human thought are undertaken for their intrinsic value as ends in themselves, or if they have been pursued with an eye to some end beyond the construction of the monument. Consider the pyramids: are these monuments to glorify the Pharaoh, and thus by extension to glorify Egyptian civilization as an end in itself, or are these monuments to secure the eternal reign of the Pharaoh in the afterlife? Many of the mysterious monuments that remain from past civilizations — Stonehenge, Carnac, Göbekli Tepe, the Moai of Easter Island, and the Sphinx, inter alia — have this ambiguous character.

We can imagine a civilization of the prehistorical past essentially called into being by the great effort to create one of these monoliths. The site of Göbekli Tepe is one of the more recent and interesting discoveries from the Neolithic, and some archaeologists that suggested that the site points to civilization coming into being for the purpose of constructing and maintaining this ritual site (something I mentioned in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion).

Teleology, Deontology, and a Philosophy of History

Teleology has been subject to much abuse in the history of human thought, as I have noted on many occasions. There is a strong desire to believe in meaning and purpose that transcends the individual, if not the entire species. The essentially incoherent desire for an meaning or purpose coming from outside the world entire, entering into the world from outside and giving a purpose to mundane actions that these actions cannot derive from any source within the world, is an imperfectly expressed theme of almost all religious thought. Logically, this is the desire for a constructive foundation for meaning and purpose; finding meaning or purpose for the world from within the world is an inherently non-constructive conception that leaves a vaguely dissatisfied feeling rarely brought to logical clarification.

The first great work in western philosophy of history, Saint Augustine’s City of God, is a thoroughly teleological conception of history culminating in the -. Perhaps the next most influential philosophy of history after Augustine was that of Hegel, and, again, Hegel’s philosophy of history is pervasively teleological in spirit. A particular philosophical effort is required to conceive of human history (and human civilization) in non-Augustinian, non-Hegelian terms.

Does there even exist, in the Western philosophical tradition, a deontological philosophy of civilization? In light of the discussion above, I have to examine my own efforts in the philosophy of history, as I realize now that some of my formulations could be interpreted as implying that civilization is the telos of human history. Does human history culminate in human civilization? Is civilization the destiny of humanity? If so, this should be made explicit. If not, a more careful formulation of the relationship of civilization to human history is in order.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “Teleological and Deontological Conceptions of Civilization”

  1. guest said

    Amazingly explained! Thanks.

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