This article is written by Akshita Rohatgi, from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. It talks about Aristotle’s concept of teleological reasoning, links it to contemporary cases and finally, highlights the various criticisms posed.


In 1992, Cheryl Hopwood filed a case in the US Supreme Court claiming that she was being discriminated against because she was white. She argued that black applicants with the same test scores as hers got accepted into the University of Texas Law School. The only reason she did not was her race. Thus, she ‘deserved’ to get in too.

Hopwood’s case stands in stark contrast to a 1950s case involving the same University. In this case, the university was sued for not allowing in any Black applicant. Instead, it had established a separate and inferior university for people of colour.

In both of these cases, it was argued that the applicants had no “right” to be accepted to their institution. Instead, their candidature was accepted based on which candidate would best fulfil their objectives. In the first case, the University opposed Hopwood’s contention, arguing that 40% of Texas was made of African-Americans. The mission of its Law School was to produce future leaders across various fields- be it social, political or legal. Different perspectives are essential to obtain that end, and diversity brings these varying perspectives to the table. Thus, affirmative action benefits the entire student body.

In the second case too, the University invoked the argument of its ultimate ‘mission’. It claimed that this mission was to promote professionals for the Texas bar and law firms. Since law firms at the time did not welcome black people, it was impractical for them to have people from the community. 

The dichotomy between these two cases gives rise to various questions. What is the distinction between these cases? Can institutions arbitrarily decide their objective? What should their objective be? What do these institutions ‘owe’ applicants? And what do the applicants ‘deserve’?

Aristotle’s Theory

Aristotle is one of the most widely-known thinkers in the world. He is credited with being ‘the father of political science’. Aristotle’s theory of justice is built around a central supposition- justice means giving people what they deserve. 

A person’s rightful due is determined by their worth. This worth, in turn, is determined by the roles that people play in society.

The acceptable way to choose what roles one must play in society is determined by the virtues of the people. Aristotle defined virtue as a situation and a state, whether good or bad, that a person chooses against their actions and reactions. Virtue is ‘a state or monarch’, i.e. the reason that causes a man and his actions to be good.

Those who hold the virtues necessary for a role are best adept at the role. So, they are bound to play it. This was called teleological reasoning. This way of life is the path towards a ‘good life’ for individuals as well as the collective society. 

Teleological reasoning

In Ancient Greece, the word ‘telos’ was understood to mean the aim or purpose. Teleological reasoning is based on the ‘end’ that the particular institution wants to achieve. Aristotle works back from this end to connect it with the people who are most likely to achieve them.

For instance, the object of a Bar exam preparation centre should be who is most likely to clear the test. Those who have the most influence or can pay the maximum amount should not be favoured over another who can get more marks in the test. 

What people deserve

Equals should be treated equally

Aristotelian ‘Equality’ does not align with the modern understanding of the term. It is instead determine⁄d based on what is being given. He opines that equals should be treated equally. Thus, equals should be assigned equal things. 

Aristotle argues that giving people their due and thus justice, involves discrimination. The basis of discrimination must, however, be fair. According to this reasoning, promoting an activist who wants to make legal aid more accessible should not be preferred over another who simply wants to gain money. One of them might encourage the ‘greater good’ for the entire society. However, this greater good is not the object of the centre. The sole consideration must be the ability of candidates to clear the exam. 

Thus, it looks only at the proximate object of any institution or practice. Here, this object is candidates clearing the test. Seat allocation is based on who can perform best simply because that’s what the exam centre is for. Better lawyers may be a by-product, but that shouldn’t be the central criterion for decision making.

Against arbitrariness

Denial of honours or rewards to a person must be based only on the object of an institution, not arbitrary factors. To illustrate, take the case of Manjunath Gouli v. Union of India and Others (2021). Here, the petitioner challenged the respondent’s denial of a gallantry award to him. He claimed others from his team from a Naxalite encounter were considered for the award, while he wasn’t. However, he had played an integral role in an encounter and thus, deserved the award. On further inquiry, it was stated that the petitioner’s gallantry in the encounter was not up to the level of an award. 

The Court rejected the petitioner’s contention, holding that he had no ‘legal right’ to the award and was only entitled to be considered for it. It stated that in case of irregularity in decision making, the court could intervene. However, there was no irregularity here. 

This aligns with Aristotle’s conception of justice. The object of the award was to honour bravery in the field, not the result of the act, i.e., taking out high profile targets. Aristotle would disapprove of the award being denied for reasons that did not have a causal connection with the object of the award. Some of these arbitrary factors are social status, unpopularity or corruption. Denial of the award because the level of gallantry is not up to par is the only reasonable ground. Any other reason for not honouring the petitioner would violate his theory. 

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The ‘good life’

Politics to obtain the good life

The ultimate objective of politics is a good life for the people. To obtain this good life, cultivating good character and virtue is essential. So, politics form social institutions to that end. Social institutions connect people to the roles they would best perform and pave the way for a good life.

Those with the greatest contribution to political institutions should be rewarded with greater power and influence. This is because they can contribute best to the objective of politics, the reason that politics exists. If all social institutions work together with the people most adept at performing their functions, the end of ‘good life’ would be realised.

Social institutions act as intermediaries

All social institutions are simply means to obtain a good life. Institutions like religion, politics and personal relationships exist to connect people to the roles that they ‘fit’ in.  

However, finding one’s role and developing virtues is not easy. Thus, we have to practice virtues by doing. This is why social systems that encourage virtues are integral to Aristotle’s setup. Once individuals find the virtues they excel at and can contribute best towards, they have found their place in society. 

Social institutions then perform the role of giving due credit to selected virtues for those who perform them well. As an incentive, excelling at their chosen roles on account of virtue, merit or simply for the effort put in allows them credit, honour and influence. Those who have the best human virtues hold the highest offices. This is because of two main reasons-

  • They can contribute best to the end of the institution.
  • They must be honoured for their contribution.

Thus, all social institutions work together to help people obtain a ‘good life’.

Positive role of law

According to Aristotle’s view, the law shouldn’t just be something that secures the rights of people against each other. It shouldn’t just stop injustice. It should also have a positive role. 

Interaction in a social and political community is the best way to the full realisation of our potential and for a good life. So, the law should take a proactive part in human life and facilitate this interaction. This view invariably supports legislation on morals for better interaction between people.


Not utilitarianism

Several theorists criticise Aristotle claiming that his theory resembles utilitarianism. The theory of utilitarianism advocates maximising pleasure for the majority, at the cost of the pain of a minority. They hold the view that Aristotle argues for connecting people with their virtues and performing the best role for the collective good of the entire community. Just like utilitarianism, it focuses on the pleasure of the maximum number of people. The greatest good of the collective community takes precedence over everything else, even if the cost is the pain of a minority. 

For instance, utilitarians would prefer hospitals to choose a cardiologist based on who would maximise pleasure for the maximum number. This is because it would be most beneficial for the maximum number of patients. Critiques of Aristotle claim that he would support this too. However, this critique is fallacious. It misunderstands Aristotle’s ideas. 

Aristotle does not argue for the best people to perform the role most suited to them for the good of the collective society. He argues that they should simply because that is what the role is for. The hospital would not choose a cardiologist who takes big risks that are usually successful; someone who saves most lives but makes others a lot worse. It would not choose one who has the best lives saved to lives lost ratio. 

The hospital would instead choose the cardiologist who is best equipped at treating and providing care to patients. T The hospital would choose the cardiologist who would try their best to treat people without taking big risks, in favour of trying to save as many as they can. The hospital would choose the second doctor even if their lives saved to lives lost ratio is much worse. Having good doctors and treating patients is the purpose of the hospital. So, hospitals must focus on mitigating the pain and treating all patients to the best of their ability. They should not save most and forsake others. This is the difference between Aristotle and utilitarians.

The natural world

Aristotle limits the application of teleological reasoning to social interactions and institutions. He reasoned that the natural order was a well thought out one. Everything in it was the way it is ‘supposed’ to be. The people were tasked with identifying and understanding the objective behind all these natural practises and finding where they fit in them. 

However, modern science has given us a better understanding of nature. The ‘natural’ order is deeply coloured by the lens of what the powerful in an ancient society constructed. For instance, the caste system was upheld because elites in ancient times felt lower castes were ‘naturally born’ for manual jobs. As science and logical reasoning spread in the world, people realised that these ideals were irrational. No certain class of people, here- lower castes, had any ‘hereditary disposition’ towards menial jobs. This distinction wasn’t made by nature, but by society.

Regardless, this has led many to criticise that Aristotle’s views are not relevant today. They found favour with an ancient society that was deeply involved with nature and had simplistic ideas of the world, disregarding its real complexity. Contemporary society has a better understanding of the diversity and intricacies of the world.

Defence of slavery

Aristotle has been widely criticized for promoting slavery as necessary to society.  He holds that some people are “meant to be ruled”. They can’t reason for themselves, only be reasoned with. So, they are meant to work as slaves and being enslaved is the right role for them. Moreover, to allow more virtuous people to be free from menial, manual work and pursue their true virtues, other people need to do that. Thus, the institution of slavery was just.

Nonetheless, Aristotle conceded that the Athenian practice of slavery was not just. In ancient Athen, those who were losers in war were forced to be slaves. Aristotle conceded that the act of forcing them to be slaves shows that those coerced were not be meant to be slaves. They simply had the misfortune of being losers in a war. 

He was not against coercing people to be slaves. Forcing them was simply an indication that they were not naturally fit for that role. If they had to be coerced into the role, it wasn’t their true calling. Thus, they should not be forced into it.


Prejudices attached to the natural world

The justification of slavery brings us to a broader critique of Aristotle. In the ancient world, some people and communities were considered to be ‘naturally fit’ or ‘born’ for some roles. Those with light skins were considered rulers and those with darker ones were meant to ‘be ruled’. These prejudices were based on ill-reasoned justifications like dark skin being meant for work in the sun. 

Ancient and mediaeval society was rife with such practises that were justified by pseudo-scientific reasoning. For instance, women were placed under the subjugation of men. The reason attributed was that most ancient societies considered biological women as weak because of the ability to menstruate and bear children. Aristotle seems to have not only supported but laid down the groundwork for these discriminatory practices.

Whether or not these arbitrary discriminatory practices are justified by Aristotle’s theory of justice though, is a matter of contentious debate. Modern supporters of Aristotle may argue that there isn’t enough of a causal connection between childbirth and menstruation and treating biological women as weaker. Conversely, the ability to withstand pain may prove they’re strong. This disagreement brings forth another criticism.

Differing views on the object

Aristotle argues that all institutions have a specific object or end. Yet, today’s world is awash with multitudes of opinions. Take the example of affirmative action. Some hold that it is an apology for past wrongs. Others opine that it is meant for the economic upliftment of the historically marginalised. Still, others argue that it is a means of social mobility instead of economic. Agreeing about the ‘intrinsic object’ of any practice or institution often feels like an unwinnable battle. This highlights the practical difficulty in implementing teleological reasoning.

This disagreement isn’t limited to public policy or the law, but also the social arena.  People have different views of the objectives of various social institutions. For some, family is a means to understand and learn to navigate the world as a child; less involved in later stages. For another, it is a lifelong companion to guide them throughout life. Both of these views resonate in some cases and are inapplicable in others.

The intrinsic worth of individuals

A major criticism of Aristotle comes from individual rights theorists who believe in the intrinsic worth of individual people. Teleological reasoning ends up treating people based on what the collective society needs from them, instead of acknowledging their worth independent from what they can give to others.  

For instance, a judge who works 10 hours a day might prefer to have more personal time for leisure activities. Yet, Aristotle’s theory encourages them to perform their role as a judge over taking time off. It exploits people by seeing them primarily as means to an end, not as an end in themselves.

Liberal critique

Liberals place the highest weight on the freedom of choice and dignity of all individuals. Liberal democracy, the most popular form of government in today’s world, supports this idea. It promotes the idea of intrinsic human worth and freedom to pursue one’s perception of a good life. 

On one hand, liberals claim that people must be given the freedom to choose their life. If someone exceptional at science enjoys art better, they must have the choice to pursue that. In contrast, Aristotle’s theory of justice pushes people to do what they would do best, disregarding individual choice. Someone who has the qualities to be a great scientist must be one. 

Equality of opportunity

According to equal rights theorists, awarding the result of the virtues is in itself, a fallacious idea. The question is that if people aren’t given equal opportunity to prove themselves, how they will be rewarded based on what they are due? If a poor person has the virtues to be a great chess player but was never allowed to learn that, how do we give him his real due? 

This critique is a misinterpretation of Aristotle’s theory. The theory holds that social institutions must function towards connecting people to their true role, not inhibiting that. He advocates for allowing everyone the right to pursue the role they are best at, without arbitrary discrimination.  

Social institutions must work to ensure the poor kid has the option to pursue his best virtues too. Equality of opportunity being denied because of arbitrary factors like familial wealth violates his equality since it does not let people realise their best and true virtues. 

Genetic lottery

This critique works in tangent with using people as means to an end. People are chosen based on the skills society wants from them. They win honours, titles and roles due to no effort of their own. Their skills just happen to be valued by society at that particular time. 

For instance, at one point in time, manual labour might be valued. Later, they might be replaced by machines. So, those with physical strength, dubbed ‘virtuous’ here, are just those who lucked out in a genetic lottery. By luck of chance, their skill coincided with the one valued by their society.

Supporters of Aristotle, however, argue that people put in the effort to inculcate the skills they think society needs. Therefore, they deserve credit for it. The truth lies somewhere in between. The virtuous are rewarded for both, their genetic and familial privileges as well as the effort they put in. Aristotle does not separate the two, simply focuses on the result.

Contemporary relevance

In our everyday social, political and personal life, we face questions on ‘why’ we are doing a particular thing- be it creative writing college classes, interacting at a boring dinner or even reading this article. Teleological reasoning helps us look at our self-perceived end to why we perform an act and work our way back to see if we fit in it. It can help us make causal decisions like what shirt to buy for work; or life-altering ones, like a student choosing what course to pursue at college.

On the social level too, there are discussions on the object of any law or policy. Newsroom debates are full of people arguing in support of or against various policies. Take the debate on labour laws. Some hold that they are essential to the dignity of people. Others contend they will lead to a well-rested, more productive workforce. Sceptics maintain that they would interfere with the demand and supply of labour and create unemployment. 

In such cases, it is useful to identify the telos the practice serves, and then work backwards from it. Teleological reasoning can act as a useful means to avoid logical fallacies and make better-reasoned decisions.


Despite the spread of liberalism, freedom of choice and ideas of the enlightenment today, it would be a fallacy to deny any contemporary relevance of Aristotle’s views. After all, this article started with a discussion trying to find the ‘mission’ or end of Texas Law School. With an idea of the working of teleological reasoning, we are now better equipped to settle this debate. 

According to the Aristotelian view, law schools like other social institutions connect people to the roles and virtues they excel at. Thus, the object of the Texas Law School was to take the people who would best utilise this knowledge of the law to perform their role in society. 

In the 1950s, the University of Texas aimed at getting their students through the bar or into law firms. A few decades later, this shifted to promoting future leaders. The difference in the two cases lies in reasonable and arbitrary factors. 

In the first case, the mission is defined as promoting future leaders in varying fields. This is a reasonable conception of the end of this institution. Various empirical studies have proven that inclusion, diversity and affirmative action better social welfare. Thus, affirmative action is a reasonable means to that end.

In the second case, the objective of law schools was defined in an unreasonably narrow manner. Law schools aren’t just for producing lawyers, but also miscellaneous leaders. The law school must be open to anyone who would use their knowledge of the law in a useful manner- be it as a solicitor, social activist or president. There was prejudice attached to black people based on arbitrary factors to systematically exclude them. Intelligible differentia or a reasonable basis of the difference is absent here. Thus, it falls afoul of Aristotle’s reasoning.

Moreover, the US Court observed that the law is an intensely practical profession. Law school is a ground for legal learning and practice. It cannot be effective in isolation from the people and institutions with which the law interacts. No one who has practised law would choose to study in an academic vacuum, removed from society. Flowing from this logic, the existing student body would not be able to exchange ideas with around 15% of the population of the state. Thus, the object of giving students a practical legal education would fail.

However, there is still considerable debate about these cases. This is by virtue of different conceptions of the object of a law school, what they should teach and which virtues they should inculcate. 

Here, it becomes important to note that these theories are to form perfect principles for an imperfect society. What people deserve, what they get and what society needs are subjective considerations. They are shaped by a multitude of factors including personal experiences, ideas and vision of a good life. It is difficult to lay down as universal principles for people because humans are all different and diverse. Teleological reasoning and Aristotle’s theory of justice can help us choose a path out for ourselves. However, we must be the ones to choose it.


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