Ever since Aristotle, the terms that are translated ‘end’ (e.g. the Greek word telos and the Latin finis) have played a starring role in ethical theory. But in fact there are three crucially different things that can be meant by speaking of the “end for the sake of which” an agent is acting.
- In one sense, this “end” is the ultimate goal or end result that the agent is trying or intending to bring about.
- In a second sense, this “end” is the object of the fundamental wish or desire that motivated the action.
- In a third sense, this “end” is a state of affairs that the agent believes to be good, such that the agent believes the goodness of this state of affairs to explain what is good about the action.
In the first sense (1), to say that the action is done “for the sake of” this “end” is to say something about the structure of the plan or intention that the agent is executing in performing the action. This end is what guides your execution of the plan: carrying out the plan involves monitoring what is going on around you, and continually adjusting your behaviour in such a way that that this ultimate goal is achieved.
In the second sense (2), to say that the action is done “for the sake of” this “end” is to say something about what motivated the agent to adopt this plan or intention in the first place. What “motivated” the agent to adopt this plan is what plays a certain role in explaining why the agent adopted the plan; it corresponds to the agent’s motivating reasons for adopting the plan.
In the third sense (3), to say that the action is done “for the sake of” this “end” is to say something about what in the agent’s view justifies or counts as a normative reason in favour of the action.
It should be clear that these three things can come apart.
E.g. suppose that you decide to go for a run. You believe that this is a good thing to do because you think that it is a good way to keep fit. So your “end” in sense (3) – the state of affairs whose goodness you take to justify your action – is your keeping fit.
Suppose, however, that you are not actually motivated by any desire to keep fit; you are motivated solely by a desire to impress some of your fitness-loving friends. So your “end” in sense (2) – the object of the desire or wish that fundamentally motivates your action – is your impressing your friends.
Suppose, finally, that you know that there is only a low chance that your friends will even notice you going for a run, and so it would not be true to say that you intend to impress your friends. However, you do form a specific plan for the run – say, to run clockwise around Christ Church Meadow without stopping. So your end in sense (1) – the ultimate goal or end result that you are trying or intending to bring about, i.e. the goal that guides your behaviour – is simply your running clockwise all the way around Christ Church Meadow without stopping.
In fact, I believe that some of the arguments that Aristotle gives in the Nicomachean Ethics (e.g. in Book X, chap. 7) are vitiated by a failure to draw these distinctions as clearly as he could have done. But that is another story. The main point that I wanted to make here is simply that there are at least these three senses of the term ‘end’.