Telos as a concept is limited.

Telos as a concept is limited. It is a very good concept, don’t get me wrong–but it’s limited in much the same ways that other philosophies of frequently-lauded dead white me have been limited. It’s by-and-large never been questioned. At least I never read something that questioned it in my study of Aristotle while majoring in Philosophy at Yale, so I can assume that questioning, if it exists, is not part of the basic canon of education. But telos is limited. And it’s very important that it’s limited. And here’s why:

Telos means “the aim of a thing”. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is to heal people (or keep them healthy). That parenthetical is the point. The fact is the telos of a physician is somewhat more complicated than the telos of a knife. A knife is obviously for cutting. But what about two knives put together—scizzors[1]: what are they for? Are they for cutting, too? What about slicing? What about unscrewing a screw when you have a pair of scizzors and a screw that they would fit and no screwdriver? Scizzors have many uses, as does a knife, as does a physician. And most problems are scizzor problems, not knife problems. Here’s why:

There is physics and there is culture. Physics (okay, math) is the root of the universe. It’s what exists and how they interact. (Chemistry, biology, existing metaphysics—these are under that category of “physics” too). Everything else is created by humans. It’s culture. It’s rules we made up. And by gum, most of the time we’re living in that second world. Most of the time—almost every second of every day we’re thinking about a topic that has nothing to do with the limitations of the physical world and everything to do with what that person thinks of us. With whether that person did something unacceptable… not unacceptable physically, but unacceptable socially. See: we made the rules.

We made the rules… and they’re restrictive. Because when you operate from a Telos-centric place, you see solutions to problems. You don’t see existence. You see a physician and you think “a healer”, but you don’t see that she’s also a mother and an exhausted human being and a republican and a dog-lover. You don’t see that she’s made of organ tissue herself that is deteriorating over time and will one day die.[2] You just see a tool with the purpose “to heal”.

And yes, if she’s not a competent physician, she shouldn’t act as a physician. But that’s the point: being a physician is acting. It’s pretending. It’s putting on a role, and that role is your telos.

We use “telos” to communicate the specific solution of a specific problem. But humans and experiences are so much more. We’re vastly complicated organisms wandering around incredibly intricate social structures, and seeing other people as specific teloses is bad. It’s damaging. It’s dangerous. It’s unethical.

I would quote Kant here but I hate Kant because he was generally wrong (at least his most famous things), but there’s a Kant quote here, and a Jesus quote here and a quote that we teach kids that would apply here too. There’s an explanation for some of the cruelty of slavery and why we use the word “dehumanizing” in some of our most terrible ethical contexts. Because people are people, not tools. And animals are animals, not tools, too. So when we treat them as though they have a specific telos, with little regard for the other aspects of them, it’s cruel. And megalomaniacal. And paternalistic. And harmful. You can’t know the utility of another person, nor can you know their utility function (what makes them happy/sad/fulfilled/etc.) And that cruelty/megalomania/paternalism is something we’re seeing manifest in our lives these days. And it’s sad. And painful. And sad. And inaccurate, which is the worst of all of those issues because it’s the inaccuracy that causes all those issues. 

So what do we do? We try to take a wider approach. One of the correct Buddhist teachings (i.e. an accurate statement about the world) is that you’d probably benefit from metacognating. From noticing your thoughts and how they move. From seeing how the world actually *is* more frequently, and seeing the world how you *imagine it to be* less frequently.

So try it. See people as hammers. Notice while you do. Notice what it’s like to see that barista as a coffee-maker. Feel what it feels like. Ask yourself how much you like it and whether it makes the world closer to the sort of world you want to live in.

And then take the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it is grassy and wanting wear… and that will make all the difference.

(Tl;dr: Use telos for objects, don’t use it for people. And when you use it for objects, start with the goal in mind, then see what’s around you. Or better yet, hold your goals very gently as you go enjoyably slowly through the world.)

[1] I spell this word the way it should be spelled.

[2] Proofreader’s comment: “This is why I think everyone of sound mental capacities should do a cadaver lab.”

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