Telos

I’ve been thinking a lot about telos recently. It means something like purpose or endpoint. I see it as a kind of superstructure in our system of beliefs: when things are working well, everything else fits into the telos. We know what it is that we are up to in the world, and it’s coherent and makes sense. That’s the most straightforward version; there’s a more theistic or perhaps new-age version in which what we are up to in the world aligns (or not) with a sense of grander, beyond-individual purpose.

Lots of studies attest to people with these sorts of theistic teleological beliefs being happier than non-religious people. I’m sure much of this is due to the sociological characteristics of being religious: you’re more likely to be part of a close-knit community, rather than atomised and lonely, for example. Some of the constraints of religious ideologies, such as duty to others, charitable giving and ceremonial observance probably make people happier too; some constraints, such as those relating to gender and sexuality, will also make some people utterly miserable.

I wonder if one of the factors in the relative happiness of religious people is a telos issue, though. Religion gives you a ready-made one, with an expectation of commitment that is being low-level policed by people around you. This might sound pretty sinister but the expectations of others are a major source of motivation; think about all of the stuff that slides in lockdown, and at least some of it (I’d argue probably most) is desirable stuff that we would prefer to be doing, like eating healthily and sleeping at regular times.

Being part of a community is like adding a whole additional layer of executive function on top of our own capacity for self-regulation, in which we are able to see the benefits of presenting ourselves nicely and therefore more likely to behave nicely, and actually be nice. It makes us more able to meet various desirable endpoints by imposing accountability on us when we don’t.

Religion does this for bigger things than getting out of our pyjamas in time for work. It imposes principles for how to live which are translated into day-to-day expectations of our behaviour, and how that fits into how to live. This alignment of our behaviour and our bigger goals, or telos, is, I think, psychologically healthy, even if I disagree with many elements of many religious ideologies. It enables us to motivate ourselves to behave in ways desirable for our or other’s long-term gain, even if it comes at short-term cost.

The problem with using religion or any dogmatic ideology as a readymade telos is that your telos is to some degree dependent on stuff outside of your own agency, and to some degree dogmatic: you are going to be stuck with aligning to some demands that may or may not dovetail neatly with the context in which you live your life. But this is still better than having no telos at all. When we don’t have telos, life can feel fragmented and formless. This can be because what it is we are trying to do isn’t working, or because we’ve lost faith in it, or because we haven’t ever really thought about it, or because it has the wrong focus.

I think it’s possible to be a goal-oriented person and to entirely lack any sort of overarching telos. A telos imposes constraints on us: if my big life goal is to be successful at work and make lots of money to improve my social standing, there are constraints on my behaving in ways that might undermine my success at work, entail earning less money or diminish my social standing. This might mean that I am inclined to stab colleagues and friends in the back, which might mean that everyone starts to dislike me, which means that over time I actually lose my social standing and feel increasingly lonely and rejected. If this is a telos, it’s a lousy one.

We need a telos whose constraints makes us happier human beings; because humans are social animals and it’s good to be esteemed by others and belong, it will probably have some pro-social element. The constraints of a pro-social telos, where the goal is something like to try to leave the world around me in a slightly better state than I found it, should disincentivise stabbing colleagues and friends in the back, which should mean the social ecology around me is a bit nicer and have the happy side-effect of said colleagues and friends not hating me. (I might be a deranged utopian activist who sees stabbing people in the back as minor collateral in making the world a better place, but let’s pretend otherwise for now.)

In REBT, a lot of negative emotions, such as anger or shame, arise out of a perception of ideological transgression. I am angry because you stole my life savings; I am ashamed because everyone knows I stole your life saving: those are quite straightforward. What about I am angry because she got together with my ex; I am guilty because I enjoy sex, or eating meat, or money; I am ashamed of having gained weight? If we are going to interrogate the musts and shoulds of those rules, we are going to touch on how they fit into the way we want to live. And that entails thinking about telos.

You can still have telos without taking on a readymade religion or ideology. In fact, I’d argue that it’s even more important to have it, so that you have that frame in which to organise your motivations.

REBT, as the R for Rational implies, operates within an assumption of liberal humanism, which is a pretty new-fangled worldview in the grand scheme of things. Liberal humanism is a quirk of WEIRD populations and I’m sceptical as to how long it’ll stick around as a normative worldview, even in the West. It’s also the least worst way of thinking about the world and other people, and responsible for some lengthy outbreaks of peace and prosperity, and therefore worth preserving.

Rationality claims that reason is the best guide to navigating situations. If we need to appeal to reason when determining the best way forward, we need to understand the overarching propositions that shape what ‘forward’ looks like. And that, again, is something like telos.