Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics, and Objectivist Ethical Egoism

The purpose of this article is to explain different ethical theories and compare and contrast them in a way that’s clear and easy for students to understand. There are three major categories of ethical systems that students typically learn about in philosophy classes: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. I will describe all of them briefly, then describe each one of them in more detail, pointing out their defining features and major variants. I’ll then discuss the nature of Objectivist Ethical Egoism and how it compares and contrasts with each of these types of ethics.

The Ethical Theories: Brief Summary

Consequentialism names a type of ethical theory that judges human practices, like actions or rules, based on their consequences. Human practices that produce good consequences are morally right, while ones that produce bad consequences are morally wrong. Roughly speaking, a consequentialist says that you should do certain things, because those actions produce good consequences. By far the most common historical variant of consequentialism is Classic Utilitarianism. Classic Utilitarianism was advocated by such philosophers as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Deontology names a type of ethical theory that judges human practices based on whether they are consistent with certain duties that the theory holds as intrinsically moral. Consequences are irrelevant to a fully deontological theory. Deontological theories tend to focus on the motives of actions, and whether a given action was motivated by duty or something else. In many deontological theories, motivation by moral duty itself–rather than other factors, like self-interest–is essential to an action’s being morally right. An advocate of deontology says that you should do certain things, just because those things are the right things to do, (they “align with duty.”) The originator of deontology as a formal theoretical framework was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Later advocates have included W.D. Ross, Robert Nozick and Christine Korsgaard.

Virtue ethics names a type of ethical theory that takes virtues of character, rather than individual actions or rules, as the most fundamental ethical concepts. Moral virtues like honesty, courage, integrity, temperance and generosity are taken to be inherently good first, then actions are evaluated based on whether they express those virtues. That is, do the actions match what a virtuous person would do in those circumstances? Basically, a virtue ethicist says that you should do certain things, because they are examples of good character. Modern virtue ethics takes inspiration from the moral theories of Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, (especially Aristotle.) Prominent advocates include Christine Swanton, Rosalind Hursthouse and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Objectivist Ethical Egoism, unlike the other terms here, names one specific theory. It takes human life as the abstract or general standard of moral evaluation. Roughly speaking, that which promotes human life is the good, that which damages or destroys it is the bad. Because Objectivism, the whole philosophy from which this ethics springs, views human life as fundamentally individual–needing to be lived, maintained and enhanced by each individual through his own action–Objectivist Ethical Egoism (OEE) takes each individual’s own life as his own effective standard of value. That which promotes the individual’s own life overall is the good for him, that which damages or destroys his own life is the bad for him.

But OEE does not simply say that actions that end up promoting your life are moral, and actions that end up damaging it are immoral. Objectivism holds that the fundamental job of morality is to guide human choices in the context in which they are made. Objectivism accepts the obvious truth that humans are not omniscient, and so cannot predict all the exact consequences of their actions in advance. It says that the way humans gain general or conditional knowledge–knowledge that can be applied to predict future consequences–is by forming rational principles from empirical observation and experience. In the field of morality, this means deriving rational moral principles from experience. These principles are general statements of fact that are then applied to particular situations to determine a proper course of action. Thus, OEE says that a chosen action is moral, if and only if it represents a proper application of a life-promoting moral principle to the acting individual’s current circumstances.

Among the principles that OEE holds as true are the idea that the rational self-interests of individuals do not conflict, and that initiating force against others (murder, slavery, theft, etc.) is destructive not only to the victims’ lives, but also to the perpetrator’s.

Basically, Objectivist Ethical Egoism says that you should do certain things, because those things actually support and/or enrich your own life. OEE is Ayn Rand’s highly distinctive theory that is widely misinterpreted by academic philosophers and the general public. It has been advocated and explained by such philosophers as Leonard Peikoff, Tara Smith, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri. I will discuss OEE’s relationship with the three ethical categories, and whether it can be considered a member of any of them, when I discuss it in more detail later in this essay.

Consequentialism

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Consequentialism is a category that includes those ethical theories that judge human practices as morally right or wrong based on their consequences. (“Practice” here is used very broadly to include a specific action, a rule guiding actions, a motive guiding actions, or a virtue of character.) Consequentialist theories say that morally right practices are those that tend to increase or maximize whatever is inherently morally good. (1) If a practice tends to produce more moral goodness than any alternative practice would have, then it is a morally right practice. Consequentialist philosophers differ on whether practices that tend to increase that which is morally good, but increase it less than an available alternative practice, can be called morally right. Are practices that produce less goodness wrong practices, or merely sub-optimal but permissible right practices? In any case, for a pure consequentialist, the practice that tends to maximize moral goodness is the morally best practice.

There are many different types of consequentialism that people can adopt. Consequentialist theories can be divided into types in three major ways. The first way is in what exactly it is about human practices that is being morally evaluated. A theory can evaluate individual actions–this is called act consequentialism. Or a theory can evaluate the rules by which someone acts–this is called rule consequentialism. Or a theory can evaluate the motives by which someone acts–this is called motive consequentialism. Or a theory can evaluate the character traits one demonstrates when one acts–this is called virtue consequentialism.

The second major way consequentialist theories can be divided is by “whose consequences” count as morally relevant. That is, what beings are directly morally relevant in evaluating the consequences of a practice. Is it all conscious creatures? Is it all humans? Is it a subgroup of humans? Is it only the agent? Or is it all humans except the agent? Respectively, these choices among “beneficiaries” can be called “broad consequentialism,” “human-centered consequentialism,” “group chauvinism,” “consequentialist egoism,” and “consequentialist altruism.” (2)

The third major way of dividing consequentialist theories, as far as I can tell, only makes sense when applied to act consequentialism. Act consequentialist theories can be divided by the sort of consequences that are relevant to the evaluation of an act. Are actual consequences the relevant factor? Or is it the consequences that analysis would show are most probable at the time of the decision to act? Or is it the consequences that the acting person (the agent) actually foresaw at the time he acted? Or is it the consequences that were reasonably foreseeable by the agent? Or is it the consequences that the agent intended to occur? (These different sorts of consequences could be called different “epistemic statuses.”)

The reason philosophers may want to consider the alternatives to actual consequences as the relevant type, is that people are not omniscient and can’t predict the future consequences of actions perfectly. So it doesn’t necessarily seem right to morally judge a decision, that was made at a given time and with a limited state of knowledge, by all of the actual consequences that followed. It would seem that one is saying that a person whose action produced bad consequences due to factors outside his possible knowledge was acting immorally. So, with “actual consequentialism,” people will sometimes be judged as acting immorally because they are not infallible predictors of the future. This tends to go against common-sense ideas of what morality demands.

Once we select an option from each of the three above lists, we have a pretty good idea of what sort of consequentialist theory we’re discussing. But we still haven’t narrowed our selection down to a single theory. For that we need a separate theory of moral goodness, more technically called a “value theory” or “axiology.”

The ethical approach of consequentialism depends on the notion of producing morally good consequences. But the consequentialist approach, by itself, does not answer the question of what the moral good is. So specific consequentialist theories are partly defined by what they believe to be morally good.

Moral goodness may be identified with pleasure, preference satisfaction, justice, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, honor, peace, etc. Or, in the case of what is called “negative consequentialism,” moral goodness may be associated with the lack of something. This could be pain, injustice, ugliness, etc.

Historically, the most common version of consequentialism was Classic Utilitarianism. Classic Utilitarianism (CU) defines moral goodness as pleasure–specifically, the aggregate pleasure of all sentient creatures. This pleasure is also called subjective “happiness.” So a common statement encapsulating utilitarianism is that it advocates for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” In this theory, pain is held to be a negation of pleasure, so it would be counted as subtracting from aggregate pleasure. This function of pleasure minus pain is generally called “utility.”

Classic Utilitarianism is a form of act consequentialism, so it is a person’s individual actions that are judged morally as good or bad, according to whether their consequences tend to increase or decrease utility. CU also takes the actual consequences for net utility as the morally relevant kind, rather than probable, foreseen, or intended consequences at the time of the action. And it clearly takes universal consequences as the relevant kind, since it evaluates actions according to their effects on aggregate human and animal utility.

Classic utilitarianism was advocated–with some variations–by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick. (It should be noted that the distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism was not well defined at the time these philosophers were active. So they were not explicit nor necessarily perfectly consistent about choosing one over the other.)

If we alter one parameter of CU, we can get a different theory. Instead of aggregate utility of all sentient creatures, we could count only the utility of the agent as morally relevant. This would generate a theory we could call “Classic Utility Egoism.” (As we’ll see in more detail, this form of egoism is very different from Objectivist Ethical Egoism.)

If we also switch act consequentialism for virtue consequentialism, we get a category we could call “Virtue Utility Egoism.” The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus would fit into this category rather nicely, since he regarded the pleasure of the agent as the good, and virtue as instrumental to that pleasure.

If we switch Classic Utilitarianism from act consequentialism to rule consequentialism, while keeping its other categories and its axiology, we get a theory that could be referred to as “Classic Rule Utilitarianism.”

Finally, if we take CU and only change its axiology, we get a different theory. If we no longer consider classic utility (“pleasure minus pain”) to be morally good, but instead consider the satisfaction of the preferences of conscious organisms to be good, we get an approximation of Peter Singer’s contemporary “preference utilitarianism.” (Peter Singer is a well-known Australian moral philosopher who teaches at Princeton University. It should be noted that he was a “preference utilitarian” prior to 2014, when he announced that he had switched to Classic Utilitarianism. See Footnote (3).)

It should be noted that different forms of consequentialism can be categorized and distinguished based on other criteria that I have not mentioned here. Most of these criteria can be considered part of the theories’ axiologies–their varying explanations of what is morally good. There are “pluralistic” theories, that hold that moral goodness cannot be reduced to one factor, like utility, but that it consists of more than one irreducible component. And there are also theories that attempt to hybridize different types of consequentialism with each other, or hybridize consequentialism with other types of ethical theories. For more detail on the various forms of consequentialism, you can see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on “Consequentialism”.

Deontology

Portrait of Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher and writer of the Critique of Pure Reason, whose philosophy is under discussion.

Immanuel Kant

A deontological theory judges human practices as morally right or wrong based on whether they are consistent with certain duties that the theory holds as intrinsically moral.

As a class of formal ethical theories, deontology has its origins in the ethical approach of the 18th-Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant described two types of ethical rules or imperatives: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives are rules that you follow in order to attain some goal. For example, if you always tell the truth to good people in order to have authentic, healthy, win-win relationships with them, this would be a hypothetical imperative: a policy for the sake of a goal. On the other hand, a categorical imperative is a rule that’s followed for the sake of no other goal. It is followed just because a “moral law” commands it. For example, if you never lie to anyone, simply because it’s “the right thing to do,” regardless of any consequences–good or bad–that might follow, then you would be acting on a categorical imperative.

Kant believed that only categorical imperatives could properly be considered part of morality. And he argued that there was one and only one such imperative that could be rationally justified, which, in Kant’s philosophy, is called “the Categorical Imperative.” Kant first stated this rule as: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This moral law, according to Kant, was supposed to prohibit murder, theft, lying to others, cheating, suicide, etc. Those acts that could be seen to violate the Categorical Imperative were morally prohibited, regardless of any good consequences that might be gained from committing them, or any bad consequences that might be avoided by committing them. (4) Kant held that, in order to have “moral worth”–that is, to be good and praiseworthy from a moral standpoint–actions must be motivated by obedience to the moral law, (“duty.”) If someone does something in accordance with the moral law–say telling the truth–but is motivated by the desire to have good relationships or to avoid being convicted of fraud, the action is not a morally right action. The action must be performed not merely according to duty, but from duty.

Some early followers of Kant, such as Friedrich Schiller, as well as many later critics up through the mid-20th Century, interpreted Kant as holding that actions must be motivated purely by duty to be unambiguously morally worthy or right. Most commentators found this requirement implausible and overly austere.  Starting around 1980, the dominant interpretation shifted, following an influential paper by Barbara Herman. It is more typical now to interpret Kant as saying that an action having other motives can have moral worth, if the person’s motive of duty would be sufficient in itself to produce the proper action, and thus stands ready to override all other motives when they would produce an action not in accordance with the Categorical Imperative.

Theorists of deontology since Kant have taken his basic approach–i.e. treating categorical moral duties as fundamental to normative ethics–and adapted it to formulate their own moral theories. In the early-to-mid-20th Century, W.D. Ross developed a moral theory that, instead of appealing to one categorical imperative, appealed to five irreducible deontic principles that were supposed to govern a person’s obligations. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, these are:

…a duty of fidelity, that is, a duty to keep our promises; a duty of reparation or a duty to act to right a previous wrong we have done; a duty of gratitude, or a duty to return services to those from whom we have in the past accepted benefits; a duty to promote a maximum of aggregate good; and finally a duty of non-maleficence, or a duty not to harm others.

Ross supplemented his duty to “promote a maximum of aggregate good” with statements of what he considered to be intrinsic goods: virtue, knowledge, justice, and the pleasure of others, (not of oneself.) So this makes his ethical system a sort of combination of deontology and consequentialism: deontology at the base, with consequentialism added on as one of the duties.

Since Kant’s deontology includes only one irreducible categorical imperative, it can be called “monist.” Ross’s deontology, in contrast, has more than one irreducible (basic) categorical imperative, so it can be called “pluralist.” (5)

Kant’s and Ross’s ethical theories are both deontological theories that focus on the general obligations of the agent as a moral agent. (This means that individuals have duties to themselves based on their own “agency.”) These are called “agent-centered” deontological theories. On the other hand, some philosophers have theorized that human rights can be based on deontological imperatives. They see an agent’s rights as irreducible moral constraints on the actions of others toward that agent. (So this means that individuals have duties to others based on the “agency” of those others.) These sorts of theories are called “patient-centered” deontology. This sort of deontology is most often discussed and advocated by academic libertarians, both right and left. Notable sources include Robert Nozick, Eric Mack, Michael Otsuka, and Hillel Steiner.

Deontology Table

On the level of particular duties, both “agent-centered” and “patient-centered” duties–duties based on one’s own agency and duties based on the agency of others–are generally understood as being in the Kantian tradition, and are often contained together in deontological theories. The difference between the two types of theories lies in where the overall focus of the theory is: duties to self or duties to others. Typically, agent-centered theories like Kant’s include patient-centered duties, while patient-centered theories like Nozick’s often don’t include agent-centered duties.

Virtue Ethics

Aristotle

Aristotle

Instead of focusing primarily on the consequences of actions or duty fulfillment, virtue ethics takes virtues–qualities of moral character–as fundamental to the ethical life.

Modern virtue ethics got its start when Elizabeth Anscombe wrote her article, “Modern Moral Philosophy” in 1958. In this article, Anscombe expressed dissatisfaction with the utilitarian and deontological ethical theories of her day. She suggested that the ethical theories of the Ancient Greeks, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, could be the most plausible and satisfactory ones, once they were more theoretically developed.

In the academic revival of virtue ethics that followed, Aristotle’s ethics became the most popular model for the basic concerns of the virtue ethicists. So to understand modern virtue ethics, it will help tremendously to understand Aristotle’s ethical views.

For Aristotle, a virtue is an excellence of a person’s functioning in a certain area of life. It is a stable character trait that governs a person’s actions in some respect. It is not a superficial habit or routine, but permeates every aspect of a person’s character, including his emotions, desires and intuitions. The Greek term for such a virtue or excellence of character is arete, and this term is still sometimes used by virtue ethicists today.

Aristotle holds that every virtue is a mean–an average or middle ground–between two extremes which are both vices. So, for example, Aristotle believed that courage was a virtue and was a mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. The virtue of courage consists of having the “proper” amount of the quality of confidence in one’s character. Too little confidence, and the person is a coward. Too much confidence, and he is rash and foolish. In the practice of indulging in pleasures, temperance is the “right amount” of indulgence, where licentiousness is “too much” and insensibility is “too little.” Other qualities that Aristotle considers virtues, include truthfulness, magnanimity, modesty, and pride. (Pride means actually being deserving of great things and knowing that one is, not unjustified arrogance.)

So how does one know the boundaries between “too much” or “too little” and “the right amount”? Well, Aristotle didn’t think that ethics was an exact science, so he didn’t think ethics could answer this directly. Aristotle thought that, in order to act within the boundaries of arete, a person needs “practical wisdom.” The Greek term for this faculty is phronesis. (6)

A person who achieves virtue or arete in all the various areas of life, arrives at a condition often called “happiness” or “flourishing.” The Greek term for this condition is eudaimonia. Though eudaimonia is sometimes translated as “happiness,” it does not merely denote an emotional state or subjective feeling. A person in a state of eudaimonia is, according to Aristotle, living in a way that fulfills his natural potential as a human being. He is living in harmony with his essential nature as a “rational animal.” Thus, eudaimonia is supposed to be a holistic condition of a person, potentially observable by others. (That is, eudaimonia is supposed to be an objective condition that encompasses both mind and body.)

Virtue ethicists today generally take this basic approach to ethics and make modifications. For virtue ethicists, eudaimonia is not a logically distinct consequence of being virtuous, but in fact consists of being virtuous. Anyone who thought eudaimonia could be treated as a distinct consequence of arete, would not be a true virtue ethicist, but a virtue consequentialist, with eudaimonia as the moral good. So when a true virtue ethicist is asked what eudaimonia is, their full answer must include their favored virtues as being at least partially constitutive of it. This makes eudaimonia a “moralized” or “value-laden” concept, according to virtue ethicists, which must be derived from the virtues. Here, the virtues cannot be derived as the causal means to eudaimonia, because eudaimonia just is the exercise of all the virtues, (perhaps with other conditions added.)

Virtue Ethics Table

Virtue ethical theories can be divided into those that are universalist and those that are culturally contextualist. Universalist theories see virtues as applicable in the same basic form to all human beings, regardless of culture. These theories are like Aristotle’s in this respect. Proponents of universalist theories include Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse. Cultural contextualist theories see virtues as taking different forms depending on cultural tradition. Even if the virtues in different cultural contexts have the same name, like “honesty” or “justice,” they may well be different in their essential content. The main proponent of this sort of theory has been Alasdair MacIntyre. (7)

There are various different views within virtue ethics about what the exact nature and meaning of the virtues is, and there are some theorists who take inspiration for their theories from Plato and other ancients. Modern virtue ethics is a relatively young movement in the modern academic world. So it hasn’t been explored, labeled and categorized to the degree that consequentialism and deontology have.

Objectivist Ethical Egoism

A Companion to Ayn Rand, (Blackwell) edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory SalmieriObjectivist Ethical Egoism (OEE) holds that human life is the abstract standard of value in morality. For each individual, who is making moral decisions and acting, this means his own life is his own standard of right and wrong.

OEE was developed by Ayn Rand, and further explicated by philosophers such as Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, Tara Smith, Darryl Wright, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri.

OEE arises in the context of the whole fundamental philosophy that is Objectivism: that is, the Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology. OEE is the application of Objectivist epistemology to the fundamental problem of how to live as a human being in reality as it is.

Principles, Human Nature, and Morality

Objectivist epistemology holds that, in order to successfully predict the future (not exactly, but within certain parameters) human beings must observe the world with their senses and develop principles by reasoning on the basis of those observations. This holds whether the prediction is made in the field of the natural sciences, the humanities, or morality.

Rational principles are not mere rules. They are general statements of fact that, when combined with a situation and a goal, yield a normative guideline. So, for example, if I have a person on the surface of the Earth, the Newtonian principle of gravity tells me that I can put that person into a circular Earth orbit by launching him to a certain height at a certain speed and in a certain direction. If my goal is to do this, then I have my basic normative guideline: I should launch him at that height, speed and direction.

If you recall the section on deontology, you should recognize this sort of normative guideline as a hypothetical imperative, in Kant’s terminology: a normative guideline followed for the sake of a goal. According to Objectivism, all genuinely normative guidelines–that is, all normative guidelines based in reality–are hypothetical. This holds whether the normative guideline is in morality or some other field. Objectivism rejects categorical imperatives altogether as baseless.

As with physics and space flight, principles of chemistry normatively guide individuals’ action for successful chemical synthesis and characterization, principles of psychology guide action in the pursuit of mental health, principles of electronics guide action in the making of televisions and computers, etc. So what do principles of morality guide action in achieving? According to Objectivism, principles of morality guide action in the maintenance and promotion of one’s own life, as a human being.

I hasten to add that “life,” as it is used here, is not equivalent to “being biologically living by having a beating heart,” and “promoting my life” does not mean striving to maximize the length of time my heart is beating. Being comatose or in a vegetative state until one dies is not “life” in the relevant sense, and it cannot be sustained beyond a few days without the intervention of other humans, who are actually living and sustaining themselves as humans. The life as a human being for which moral principles are required, is a life of conscious value pursuit: that is, it is the deliberate choosing and thoughtful pursuit of goals that sustain oneself.

Humans can’t survive like plants do, by rooting themselves into the ground and drawing nutrients from the soil. Nor can they survive by sheer emotions, drives and instincts, like other animals do. To survive for any significant length of time, humans have to think, plan, and obtain what they need using their minds. At the most rudimentary level, this can mean making tools and weapons, hunting animals and gathering fruit and vegetables. Or, at increasingly advanced stages, it can mean subsistence farming, or producing and trading artisanal goods, meat and farm produce, or it can mean a modern industrial society with a division of labor between industrial farmers, steel producers, car manufacturers, transportation services, etc.

Humans survive by pursuing and achieving objective values. “Objective” here does not mean “mind-independent” or “agent-independent.” It means “based on facts of reality” and “not a matter of faith, personal whim or arbitrary convention.” Objectivism understands that values are relational to each individual, but also that the relationship is a matter of fact, not a matter of faith or whims.

So, as a simple example, food is valuable to the person who is hungry. It only directly supports his life if he is the one to eat it. Food is not “valuable in itself,” apart from the needs of the hungry person. Yet it is not a matter of faith, whims, or convention that people need to eat to live; it is a matter of fact. (See Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective for a more detailed explanation of this point.)

The characteristic and necessary mode of human survival, which is self-sustaining action (i.e. pursuit of objective values) on the basis of thought, is the foundation of an objective account of human happiness, in Objectivism. This happiness is not merely a subjective assessment of one’s own psychological state, but a state of consciousness that is the psychological aspect of living one’s life as a human being. It is the experience of living well as a human being which can be called “flourishing” or, using Aristotle’s terminology, eudaimonia.

So here we see that Objectivism identifies eudaimonia with successful and sustainable life. It provides a solid theoretical foundation for Aristotle’s ultimate good. It clearly explains what eudaimonia means and gives it content in a way that is not dependent on assorted virtues of character as its irreducible foundation. It thus avoids the logical circle of: “What are the virtues? The character traits that combine under auspicious conditions to produce eudaimonia. What is eudaimonia? The state that is the combination of the virtues under auspicious conditions.” For Objectivism, happiness is the mental experience of eudaimonia, which is surviving as a human, par excellence. It is the mental experience of engaging–to the fullest of one’s capacity–in the sorts of actions that enable humans to survive and be healthy in the long term.

At this point, let’s take a moment to observe an important issue: Earlier, I said that principles of morality guide action in the maintenance and promotion of one’s own life. Yet all true principles can potentially be helpful in supporting and enhancing an individual’s life. Principles of physics and electronics can enable the development of life-saving medical technology, the deployment of satellites for instant long-distance communication, etc. Principles of chemistry can enable the development of life-saving and life-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Principles of psychology can be used to improve a person’s psychological health and help them lead a more fulfilled life. Etc.

So what actually differentiates moral principles from the principles of other fields? The Objectivist answer is first to note that moral principles are one subcategory of philosophical principles. Then we say that what differentiates philosophical principles is that, unlike the principles of other fields, the principles of philosophy must be utilized in some capacity by every human being, in the course of living a full human life. Morality is the branch of philosophy that deals with all freely chosen human actions. Basic moral principles apply to every free choice of action any person might make. So while principles of physics may be inapplicable and useless for a psychologist treating a patient, and principles of chemistry may be inapplicable for a student studying music, moral principles are applicable for everyone in virtually every waking moment, in every aspect of life where they are not being coerced by others. (8)

Moral principles are the principles that apply to all freely chosen actions as such, not just actions in the particular field of applied physics, or of music composition, or of applied psychology. Notice here that I’m saying that normative morality is analogous to the applied fields of knowledge: applied physics, applied music theory, and applied psychology, but on a broader scale of application in one’s life. So what is the field of knowledge that morality applies? The field of knowledge is fundamental human nature, which, in Objectivism, is understood to be a branch of metaphysics. In Objectivism, morality is applied metaphysics. It is the application of metaphysics to the chosen goal of living one’s own flourishing, happy life. (9)

It was principles of fundamental human nature–metaphysics–that I was discussing when I was explaining the concept of life and how humans can’t survive like plants or other animals, but must use their minds to live.

So now that we have a general idea of the nature of morality, in the Objectivist view, and morality’s connection to Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, lets discuss the content of Objectivist Ethical Egoism in more detail.

The Cardinal Values

So what does an individual need in order to engage in the sorts of actions that enable survival as a human in the long-term? Objectivism holds that three cardinal values are needed by everyone in every waking moment: reason, purpose and self-esteem. The fundamental need of reason should be clear from what was discussed earlier about human nature. It is the most basic value required for human life. One should do things that improve one’s ability to reason, such as gaining knowledge and learning how to think. One should not do things that destroy one’s ability to reason, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, or accepting things on sheer blind faith. One should avoid contradictions in one’s thinking, since holding contradictory beliefs is the violation of reason.

Purpose is an aspect of reason, properly conceived. Holding it as a value emphasizes the need to treat reasoning as a means to goals, and not merely as an end in itself. “Reasoning” that is purely idle contemplation, with no further life-serving goal in view, is a detriment to life. (Please note here that intellectual goals can serve one’s life in very indirect ways, as in many cases of increasing one’s knowledge of highly abstract, theoretical topics.) In the Objectivist view, reasoning must be directed toward the production of knowledge that is ultimately used in reality in some fashion, in order to be worthwhile and genuine. All human thought and actions must be organized around some sort of reality-based purpose.

Self-esteem is the judgment of one’s own life and self as valuable. On the most basic level, humans need some amount of self-esteem for purposeful, life-sustaining action. This self-esteem is acquired through the judgment–explicit or implicit–that one is capable of achieving happiness, and the knowledge that one fully intends to pursue that goal. A fuller self-esteem is gained as one actually achieves rational goals and develops good character.

The Objectivist Virtues

According to Objectivism, these values are the fundamental goals one should pursue. They encompass many particular careers, hobbies, relationships and lifestyles. The fundamental means by which an individual pursues these goals are virtues. According to Objectivism, virtues are not fundamentally traits of character, (as virtue ethicists hold.) They are intellectual principles guiding action. If an individual consistently applies these principles in his life, then they can be “automatized” and can be said to form a basic part of the individual’s character.

There is one fundamental virtue, according to Objectivism: rationality. Rationality is acting in accordance with one’s reasoning to the best of one’s ability. Being rational does not mean that an individual will be infallible. A fully rational individual may make mistakes in regard to facts, as well as in regard to methods of thinking (logic.) (10) An irrational person is one who doesn’t consistently strive to be correct in every issue significant to his life. Irrationality is willfully turning away from facts and logic as one’s guides to action. This may be done openly, through an appeal to something other than reason as a guide, such as faith, sheer intuition, emotion, or instinct, or it may be hidden by rationalizations, (thinking processes corrupted by emotionalism and/or dogma.)

The virtue of rationality, on its own, is very general, and so doesn’t give people a lot of guidance in how to live moral lives. Thus, Objectivism breaks rationality down into six component virtues: honesty, independence, productiveness, integrity, justice and pride. Ayn Rand described each of these virtues as the recognition of certain fundamental facts about reality, human consciousness, and one’s own nature as a human being:

Independence is your recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it–that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life…

Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud–that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee…

Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence–that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions…

Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature…

Productiveness is…your recognition of the fact that you choose to live–that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose…

Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man’s values, it has to be earned…

(Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, (50th Anniversary Ed.) p. 932-934)

Of course, when Rand says “you cannot fake…” she does not mean that it’s impossible to attempt to fake. She means that you cannot fake and hope to live fully as a human being. Faking puts you on a path to self-destruction. The applicability of the virtues, as with all of morality, depends on an individual making the choice to live, in some form, explicit or implicit. The alternative to the choice to live, according to Objectivism, is to slip into self-destruction. Such self-destruction may be very slow, very fast, or somewhere in between, but if one does not choose to live–that is, to pursue self-sustaining values rationally, keeping one’s own life as the ultimate goal of one’s actions–the decay toward death is inevitable:

Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.

(Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 23)

Let’s look at a hypothetical example to see how the Objectivist virtues are necessary means to the achievement of values. Let’s say there’s a young woman who has studied Objectivism and who wants to become an architect. She attends college at an architectural school.

She is honest and doesn’t cheat, since this would undermine her competence as an architect and expose her to the risk of being caught and discredited and/or punished. She studies diligently to follow through with her plans, so she exhibits integrity. She is working toward a self-supporting life as an architect, so she exemplifies productiveness. She’s ambitious in her coursework, she doesn’t try to skate by with the minimum, and she doesn’t apologize for her excellence to others who may resent her for “making them look bad.” So she demonstrates pride. She doesn’t try to muddle through by imitating or copying others, or by relying on them to do all the work in group projects. So she shows independence. She selects her study partners according to their ambition and ability in the class, rather than their need for help. To the extent she can, she selects her instructors according to her best judgment of their teaching abilities. So she acts on justice.

Now if we contrast this woman with one who exhibits the opposite qualities, it should be fairly apparent who will tend to become an architect in a sustainable way, (what we would typically call a “successful” architect.) Someone who lacks the above virtues may be granted the temporary illusion of success by making “friends” and going along with a certain social crowd. But regardless of any false esteem granted by others, the reality will be that a continually dishonest, lazy and unambitious person will not actually be a successful architect.

The Harmony of Rational Interests

Objectivism holds that there are no conflicts of interests among rational individuals. The interests of rational individuals do not consist of short-range, out-of-context desires (whims.) Rather, they consist of goals that are the result of careful thought and planning. This means that rational interests cannot be served by pursuing self-contradictory goals, or effects without the requisite causes.

Two people competing for the same job in a free market don’t have a conflict of rational interests, because a rational interest in the job entails the acceptance of what makes the job possible: a company with a specific budget to pay employees, free to select among potential employees who offer to work there. In a competitive market, the continued existence of the company depends on the good, self-interested choices of the company’s management. This good judgment will lead the company management to choose the applicant who’s the best fit for the job. Thus, it is in the rational interests of each applicant that the company choose the best fit for the job, even if that applicant is not himself.

A rational person holds his basic goals in the form of abstractions. So he understands that failing to be selected for one particular job does not destroy his ability to pursue his goal of a certain type of career. In a free market, there are always other routes to the pursuit of the individual’s abstract goals.

Ayn Rand discusses the considerations involved in rational interests, and this example specifically, in more detail in her essay, “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

I’d like to focus here on a fact of the human condition that underlies the harmony of rational interests: that objective human values are not zero-sum, because value is created and sustained by individual effort and so is not gained at the expense of others. In the realm of wealth, (goods and services) we can observe that the total quantity of wealth in the world has risen dramatically in the past 300 years, vastly outstripping the growth in population. Thus the average quantity of wealth per person has risen dramatically. This is wealth creation in action. We can also see that wealth is not created by one individual at the expense of others. Observe that the real wages of US factory workers quadrupled during the 1800s and sextupled during the 1900s. Observe also that the rate of absolute poverty in the world (~$1 per day or less) dropped by 80% between 1970 and 2006. All of those who are willing and able to produce and trade at any level have benefited from the rising tide of wealth.

When people create wealth–alone or in companies–and trade with others in mutual self-interest, all involved parties directly benefit. The creation of wealth by one individual or company benefits uninvolved individuals indirectly, because it creates new ideas and opportunities that make creating wealth easier for them.

It may superficially appear as though the productivity of one set of people is a threat to the interests of another set of people, through “dog-eat-dog” competition between businesses. But while the success of one company may “harm” another company and put it out of business, it is not fundamentally companies that have interests, only individuals. So it is the individuals that matter, and it is in the long-term, rational interests of all the individuals to have highly productive company structures. Individuals are better off in the long term when very unproductive companies are shut down, while highly effective companies prevail, grow, and hire them. Competition for profit in the market is how the lion’s share of progress has been made in methods and technology of production. (11)

Like the more concrete and material values we call wealth, values of character are created by thought and rational action. Values of character are the Objectivist virtues incorporated into one’s character as traits. In Ayn Rand’s terminology, values of character are virtues that are “automatized” to become a part of an individual’s everyday functioning. These values of character–being honest, just, productive, etc, in one’s essence–are developed by deliberate thinking and continual effort. Their development does not require the suffering or immorality of anyone else, so they are not developed at anyone else’s expense. (12)

According to Rand, a rational egoist values other people not only or primarily for the material values they produce. Rather, he values the spiritual qualities that they have or have the potential to develop. Valuing other people in this way is an extension of his self-esteem: he recognizes that they share (or can come to share) the characteristics that he values in himself.

(Allan Gotthelf, A Companion to Ayn Rand, p. 88)

Relationships between people are the products of the characters they develop, as well as the effort that they put into communication, interactions and mutual familiarity. For any two rational people, the relationships that they have with other people do not destroy the relationship they have with each other. The experience of love for one person does not destroy love for another.

As with material wealth, rational interests in relationships involve acceptance of causality and the preconditions that make such relationships possible. Inherent in human life is the fact that time is limited. To have healthy relationships, individuals need to be free to select whom to spend their time with, according to their values. So if two men love the same woman, it is in both of their rational interests that she spend more time with her better match. If she tried to spend equal time with both, when she is better matched with one, she would be committing a self-sacrifice, causing herself to suffer deep frustration. She would be driven to resent the existence of the man who was the worse match for her. This would degrade his relationship with her beneath what it would be if she rationally pursued her own happiness.

The Evil of the Initiation of Force

The harmony of rational interests is a feature of a life of reason, persuasion and voluntary trade. But there is another way that people can deal with each other: physical force. Physical force is a physical attack by one person on the body or rightful property of another, whether to harm or physically restrain. (Also included in the same category here is the threat of such an attack.)

Objectivism holds that the initiation of physical force is a choice that is destructive to human life in principle, and thus evil in principle. (Note that using force in retaliation for other force, like police do to a criminal, is fundamentally different from initiation.) The basic argument for the evil of force, according to Objectivism, goes like this: Reason (or the individual mind) is man’s basic means of survival–it is required for human life. The initiation of force destroys reason (stops the individual mind from working.) Therefore, force undercuts and destroys man’s means of survival–preventing man from living. This, Objectivism holds, applies to both the victim and the perpetrator of force, and it applies to the extent that force is initiated. This can be called the Non-Initiation of Force Principle.

The victim of force is the one who suffers most directly and obviously from it. The political prisoner in a Soviet gulag or Nazi concentration camp is the victim of a very large degree of force and he is unable to use his mind to further his life. Every major aspect of his existence is dictated by the force of agents of the government.

The victim of a mugger who gives up fifty dollars is subjected to a relatively small degree of force. The impact on the victim’s mind and life is much less, but still present. The victim’s judgment about who owns the money, and his plans on what to do with it, have been violated. His thinking with respect to that money has been rendered impotent by the force of the robber.

Intermediate in degree between these two examples, you have cases like the minimum wage, where the government bans working for pay below a certain amount. Such a ban victimizes both employers and potential employees. It forcibly prevents both employers and potential employees from acting on their judgment. If someone wants to work, but doesn’t have the skills to justify a wage at or above the minimum, then the government prevents them from accepting a job at a wage an employer will pay. Both the worker and employer are prevented from making a deal in their mutual self-interest, according to their respective judgments. Thus their judgments become impotent in this respect and they are both worse off.

On the other side, the initiator of force may suffer less obviously and immediately, but he still suffers. He subverts his own life by making it parasitic on the lives and minds of others, while simultaneously destroying their ability to act rationally and maintain their lives. To the extent that an individual attempts to gain values by force, he generates an inherent conflict within his chosen means of survival, making it self-undermining.

Imagine a man and a woman live separately on a large, fertile island, with no other humans around. They both develop shelters, gardens and tools, then the man decides to kill the woman, in order to loot her creations. The man faces an unnecessary risk in attempting to kill her, since she may be prepared for the attempt and kill him instead. But let’s say he’s cunning and succeeds in killing her. For a one-time gain of her material products, the man has sacrificed the countless benefits that he could have had if she remained alive. He is now alone on the island, and his life will be much harder and more precarious for it. He no longer has another producer to trade with, cooperate with, have companionship with. He will not be able to gain any knowledge from her. If he’s injured, he will have no one to help him recover.

In trying to kill and loot the woman, the man was trying to gain value from her mind. Yet he destroyed her mind in the process, eliminating the source of the benefits. The real way to benefit from someone else’s mind in the long term is to leave their mind intact and to trade and cooperate with them voluntarily.

But what of slavery? Can’t the man keep the woman alive and extract value from her that way? No, slavery introduces the same basic conflict as murder: reliance on the lives and minds of others for survival, coupled with the destruction of those lives and minds, in this case in a more drawn-out fashion.

The brute alone on a large island with a captive slave, whom he has cowed into submission by sheer force, has diverted his mind from the task of survival to the task of controlling the slave’s mind through fear. The “master” has made the slave his mortal enemy. He must always stay on guard against the slave, lest the slave take the slightest opportunity to kill him. The master expects the slave to produce for both of them, while giving the slave good reason to divert time and mental resources from production and survival, to means of escaping or killing him. The slave will always be looking for ways to deceive the master without getting caught, and to subvert the master’s position of control.

Had the “master” not enslaved the other person, both individuals could have focused exclusively on long-term survival–that is, on making their own lives richer and more robust. Their total combined production would have been greater. They could have cooperated, traded goods, developed a friendly relationship and shared knowledge, with both men better off for having done so. But instead, the master has locked them in a hateful relationship as enemies, with the slave being progressively worn down and demotivated to produce and go on with life, and the master one slip-up away from death. And if the slave dies for whatever reason, the former “master” is very poorly equipped to survive on his own. He has been functioning mostly as a parasite. His efforts and plans have largely been put into controlling and exploiting the slave, rather than developing knowledge, skills and techniques to survive on his own. He felt entitled to enslave someone to do his work, so he resents and curses the task of surviving on his own, rather than taking pride in his ability to support himself. Overall, the “master” is worse off for having enslaved the other person than he would have been just producing for himself.

Many of the destructive consequences for the “master” in the above scenario also apply to some extent to those who initiate force in a society. The major difference is that in a society, a single individual can’t openly dominate others by intimidation. Others will always be able to use superior numbers to overpower one individual. Thus, any individual who wants to initiate force will need to attempt to manipulate the beliefs of others so that they do not all attack him, as their rational interests would dictate. There are two major ways that a force initiator can do this: the way of deception and the way of ideology.

The way of deception is the way of the criminal. He wants to initiate force in a society, and he counts on others’ ignorance of his coercive actions to enable him to continue doing it. He hides the truth of his actions; he poses as a law-abiding citizen when he is not; he tries to keep honest people at a distance, lest they discover the truth about his crimes. His crimes don’t happen in a vacuum; they have consequences that propagate out into reality and leave evidence well into the future. So the more perceptive, intelligent and knowledgeable the people are around him, the more likely they are to piece together the evidence of his crimes and end his freedom.

In order to throw other people off his trail, the criminal must encourage ignorance and delusion. He must devote his time and mental energy to lying and keeping track of his lies. He exists precariously on a razor’s edge: One slip-up could be the end of his freedom or his life. As he commits more and more crimes, the consequences pile up and the growing evidence makes it harder and harder for him to maintain the ruse. More and more, his time is spent on maintaining lies in others’ minds and in fear of being caught, rather than on pursuing and achieving real values for himself.

To the extent someone engages in criminal activity, he makes his life precariously dependent on the ignorance of others. To that extent, he replaces his life–his pursuit of self-sustaining values by his own rational judgment–with a self-destructive activity: the acquiring of the unearned by the maintenance of falsehoods in the minds of others. That way lies a dead end.

Bernie Madoff is a classic example of a desperately anxious and unhappy criminal. He said that he was miserable while committing his crimes, and that he’s happier in jail.

The way of ideology is the way of the dictator, the warlord, and the power-hungry politician. The dictator uses false ideas to justify his initiations of force, so that people will accept roles as cronies and/or victims, rather than fighting back. Like the criminal, the political power-luster devotes time to maintaining falsehoods in the minds of others. In this case, it is mostly overt ideological propaganda, rather than covert deception. The dictator uses his position to parasitically leech off of the productive people in his society. Productivity is a result of rationality, so he makes his life dependent on his victims’ rationality. Yet his power depends on his victims continuing to maintain false beliefs over a long period of time. Thus he depends on his victims’ irrationality to stay in power, and not be imprisoned or killed. So he has a fundamental conflict: He must encourage irrationality in his victims to maintain his power, yet he needs them to be rational to produce wealth for him to take. (13)

The dictator cannot control the whole country by himself. So by the nature of his position, the dictator must surround himself with fellow power-lusters. They have an emotion-driven interest in killing him, if they think they can get away with it and grab greater power for themselves. So he must constantly fight to keep their interests in check and keep them loyal. He must spend his time keeping them off-balance and unsure of themselves, through “purges” and other political tactics. Every moment the dictator spends pursuing his own interests or leisure, apart from his political machinations, is a moment his subordinates could use to depose and kill him. So he can’t really enjoy the material comforts he has acquired. He’s filled with fear, paranoia and hatred for those around him.

The dictator views individual human beings as rightless creatures that can be sacrificed for the “good of society,” or at his whims. He has the power to have people executed at his word. Thus, he can’t have authentic relationships with other people as respected equals. All of his relationships with others are tainted with fear and mistrust by his fundamental relationship with them: master and slave.

The dictator ends up faking in virtually every aspect of life. He has to keep up appearances for himself, his close associates, the public of his nation, and international observers. He has a desperate need to convince everyone around him that he’s special and that no one else could rule the country as he can, because he needs to prevent others from gaining support to replace him. So he is driven to build up a personal mythology that paints him as superhuman and infallible, heedless of the actual facts of his life. Rather than focusing on real achievements, he ends up faking achievements. Rather than openly and confidently pursuing genuinely good relationships, he ends up faking the “perfect” family life. Rather than spending free time pursuing genuinely enjoyable recreation, he ends up putting on a show of what people want to see. In place of genuine confidence, healthy ego and control of his life, he puts on a false air of confidence, a fake ego (megalomania) and he covers up his insecurity with belligerence.

We see these traits–paranoia, fakery and megalomania–when we look at dictators in history, like Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il. They are not genuinely happy or fulfilled people, but paranoid, fear-ridden, and increasingly detached from reality.

This pattern resulting from parasitism on the minds of others can be seen to a lesser degree in the power-hungry politicians that come to dominate the mixed-economies and welfare states, so prevalent today.

Whatever the form of initiatory force, the perpetrator radically breaks the harmony of rational interests, turning the whole rest of mankind into his enemies. If he’s in a society, he must then engage in an increasingly desperate struggle to obscure the truth and prevent others from realizing that he’s their enemy. So long as he has any contact with others, the initiator of force must turn his mind away from the task of understanding the world firsthand and toward the task of manipulating the mental processes of others.

This contrasts sharply with Ayn Rand’s understanding of the rational egoist as the independent-minded producer of values. Such an egoist produces genuine benefits–for himself, as his goal–and for others, as a side-product of his pursuit of his goal. He does not destroy or harm others long-term, and he has no need to manipulate them into falsehoods. The truth is the friend of the egoist, and he need never fear it.

The independent egoist genuinely pursues his self-interest. The initiator of force must pursue the opposite of self-interest: a growing obsession with the minds and lives of others.

Individual Rights

A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.

(Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 93)

Objectivism holds that rights are moral-political principles that apply to individuals. Indefinite groups or classes of people don’t have rights. Fundamentally, only individuals have rights, and any definite collections of individuals derive their rights from the rights of the individuals composing the collection. Thus an organization or corporation can have rights insofar as its individual owners have rights.

Rights are the moral principles that it is proper for governments to enforce. Objectivism holds that rights can only be violated by an initiation of force, (direct or indirect.) Thus, rights are the principles by which a government enforces adherence to the Non-Initiation of Force Principle in its jurisdiction. They give more specific content to the Non-Initiation of Force Principle in the context of a society, in much the same way that the specific virtues give more specific content to the basic virtue of rationality in everyday life.

Objectivism holds that the governmental protection of rights–as Ayn Rand described them–is necessary for the flourishing of human life in a society. This is due to the particularly destructive nature of force to the lives of individuals other than the perpetrator. Whereas other sorts of immorality primarily harm the immoral agent, leaving others basically free to function, initiations of force attack the root of the victims’ survival by subverting their ability to act rationally.

We can observe that societies where rights are systematically violated are poorer, more stagnant and generally worse off than those where rights are more protected. The slave-holding South was stagnant and poor compared to the free North just before the American Civil War. East Germany was stagnant and impoverished compared to West Germany in the mid-20th Century. North Korea is much poorer and more stagnant than South Korea. Venezuela is far worse off than Chile.

Those in a “privileged” position in a slave society suffer some of the same sort of damage that a dictator does, as described in the previous section. They rely on the production of the slaves for survival and comfort, while destroying the slaves’ ability to innovate and produce at the level they otherwise could. In order to keep the slaves in line, the society must inculcate a false ideology that says that some humans are superior by birth to others: some have rights, while others do not. As “property of the superior people,” the slaves are not responsible for their own lives. They are to be taken care of–or disposed of–by their “owners.” This makes the slaves very bad and unreliable workers, and it is why the slaves of the antebellum South were notorious for being irresponsible and unmotivated. Slavery destroyed their ability to take care of themselves, so they lost the motivation to act in a way consistent with self-responsibility.

At the same time, the plantation owners became lazy dandies, with little self-esteem, and little or no drive to innovate. Their “successes” were not earned by their own effort and voluntary trade with others, but only made possible by the forced labor and destruction of other humans like themselves. So they couldn’t earn genuine self-esteem. They had to guard against slaves pursuing their own rational interests, and were forever in fear of slave escapes and rebellions. So they were discouraged from doing anything that might disrupt the precarious status quo. And, given their slaves’ general fecklessness, they couldn’t rely on them to adapt to new ways of doing things, anyway. Thus, the Southern plantation owners of the antebellum period locked themselves into a stagnant, fearful, antagonistic relationship with their slaves, making their own lives dull, dreary and, at the same time, anxiety-ridden.

This also crippled the Southern economy relative to what it would have been without slavery, and led to a great deal of unnecessary human suffering. So when the American Civil War erupted, the North was much more morally and economically healthy than the South.

It is good for everyone in a society when the government protects everyone’s rights equally.

What Sort of Ethical Theory is Objectivist Ethical Egoism?

Is Objectivist Ethical Egoism a form of deontology? Hopefully, it should be pretty clear by now that it’s not. OEE accepts no categorical imperatives; all of its principles of action are founded on their contribution to the achievement of values (goals) in the lives of individuals. Ayn Rand explicitly rejected categorical imperatives and stated that all proper moral principles are hypothetical in nature: “If you wish to achieve X, then you should do Y.”

While Objectivism defends the idea of rights, these rights are not deontological in nature. They are regarded as moral-political principles because they serve the goal of human life.

Is OEE a type of virtue ethics? Recall from the start of the section on the Objectivist virtues that Objectivism doesn’t conceive the idea of virtue in the same way that virtue ethicists generally do. Objectivist virtues are not fundamentally character traits, but principles of action grasped by reason. Moreover, even as principles of action, virtues are not the most fundamental starting points of OEE. Principles of action are regarded as virtues because of their impact on individuals’ achievement of values. So OEE can’t be considered a virtue ethical theory.

Is Objectivist Ethical Egoism a type of consequentialism? One might think that it is, prima facie, (i.e. superficially, based on first impression.) OEE is aimed at the goal of the life of the individual agent. This life would seem to fill the role of the consequentialist’s moral good, with the moral virtues as the means to it. This would make OEE a distinct, egoist form of “principle consequentialism.” It would be related to “Classic Utility Egoism,” but would be “principle consequentialism” instead of “act consequentialism,” and it would have a different axiology, or theory of the good.

To understand why this is not the case–why OEE is not a form of consequentialism at all–we have to look at the nature of consequentialism and the specific nature of the “good” that OEE aims at: the agent’s own life. Consequentialism splits normative ethics into two independent parts: a theory of the good, and a theory of right action. You have a goal of ethical action, and the actions themselves that are means to that goal. The goal is some state of the world, or some state of human minds, that does not itself involve human actions. So, for example, “Classic Utility Egoism” takes the agent’s own pleasure as the good. Right action is the means to maximizing this mental state in the agent. A “moral life” means the agent acts to maximize his own pleasure, gets pleasure, then acts again, gets more pleasure, and continually repeats the cycle. The “good” which is the pleasure, is conceptually distinct from the agent’s actions.

In the Objectivist understanding, life is not like a consequentialist “good.” Life is not distinct from the agent’s actions. The agent does not act to maximize his life, “get life,” then act again, “get more life,” and so on. Life is an active process. Life consists largely of acting toward goals. So, for Objectivism, the result and reward of moral action–the good–involves more action. In OEE, the agent acts at one point in time to create capacities, favorable circumstances and opportunities for other actions at later points in time. This cycle builds on itself and is repeated in a progressive, escalating fashion. This continually enriches the process that is the agent’s life and makes it more robust and less prone to disruption.

Let’s recall the example of the young woman studying architecture. She has chosen becoming an architect as her goal. Since this is a rational goal, consistent with her nature as a human being, Objectivist morality takes on the role of helping her reach that goal in reality. But once she becomes an architect, Objectivist morality does not follow the consequentialist pattern and tell her, “Okay, you’ve become an architect and gotten some life. Now go find some other random thing to do that also gives you life.” In order for becoming an architect to contribute to her life, she must act in a way that builds on that achievement: She must actually practice architecture. So the good of becoming an architect is dependent on her continued actions as an architect.

This pattern of progression and building applies even to goals that are not traditionally regarded as “instrumental” to any other actionable goal, such as listening to music, contemplating art, and non-reproductive sexual activity. In the case of such recreational activities, the progression is not focused in a certain, delimited sphere of life. It encompasses the individual’s life as a whole. Good recreation provides what Ayn Rand called “spiritual fuel”: It helps provide one with the psychological motivation to continue pursuing values in general. Recreational activities that damage or destroy an individual’s ability to pursue other, greater values in her life are considered immoral in Objectivism. Thus, future action is still involved in the evaluation of recreational activities as morally good or bad.

So Objectivist Ethical Egoism falls into none of the three major categories discussed in this essay. It’s in its own category, as an ethics based on the active pursuit of values that sustains, builds, and constitutes one’s own life. In A Companion to Ayn Rand, Allan Gotthelf suggests that, in contradistinction to “virtue ethics,” OEE should be called a “value ethics.” (p. 92)

Conclusion

So we’ve looked at three major classes of normative ethical theories: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. We saw that consequentialism divides ethics into a theory of good consequences and a theory of right action, with right action taken as the means to the good consequences. Deontology takes duties or categorical imperatives, not consequences, as the foundation for ethics. Virtue ethics eschews both consequences and simple duties as the fundamental basis of ethics, in favor of the development of inherently “moral” character traits.

Objectivist Ethical Egoism is a particular ethical theory that defies all three of these categorizations. It is the application of the principles of Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology to the task of maintaining and enriching the active process that is one’s own life. It takes “life” and “value” as the fundamental ethical concepts. It takes action on the basis of true principles as the human means to the achievement of values. The values, once achieved, open opportunities and become the basis for further action toward further values. This self-sustaining action toward values, building on previous values, is life as a human being. When major values are achieved in this way and the process is sustainable and going well, the concomitant psychological state is happiness.

Immorality, for Objectivism, consists in choosing not to pursue objective, life-sustaining values in accordance with rational principles of action, (deliberately or by default) while still wishing to remain alive. The result of this course, according to Ayn Rand, is pain, fear, suffering, “living death,” and a loss of control over one’s life that risks premature, literal death.

If you’re interested in learning more about Objectivism from an academic perspective, I highly recommend reading Blackwell’s A Companion to Ayn Rand, alongside the works of Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff. It was edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, and is available, at least in electronic form, in the vast majority of academic libraries. Also very helpful in making the case for her philosophy would be Metaethics, Egoism and Virtue, as well as Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge. Both of these were published by the Ayn Rand Society, an affiliate of the American Philosophical Association.

There’s a wealth of resources on Objectivism listed on my Books and Links page, as well as at the ARI eStore.

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(1) Note here that my specification of “morally good” is somewhat atypical in how it describes consequentialism. The usual description is simply that consequentialism advocates acting to produce “the good.” However, consequentialists can hold that there is more than one type of “good,” and that some of these types are not relevant to morality. By “morally good,” I mean what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Value Theory” calls “good simpliciter.” This is the sort of goodness that’s regarded as relevant to morality.

(2) It’s worth noting here that the idea of altruism as a moral ideal is most definitely not restricted to those who advocate the formal theory of consequentialist altruism. It’s a very important moral idea in the realm of conventional or “common-sense” morality, as well as in the practice of other formal theories, such as utilitarianism. (The classic utilitarian, J.S. Mill, enthusiastically endorsed Auguste Comte’s idea that altruism–“living for others”–was central to personal morality. (J.S. Mill, “Later Speculations of Auguste Comte,” The Westerner Review, July 1865, as quoted by Gregory Salmieri in A Companion to Ayn Rand, p. 140))

(3) I’d like to note here that I don’t consider the term “preference utilitarianism” a good name for Singers’ pre-2014 view. Utilitarianism is based on “utility” as the good, and I think “utility” should be held to its original meaning of “pleasure minus pain,” to avoid confusion. People can have preferences for the physical pain of self and others (masochism and sadism), as well as the emotional pain of self and others (self-sacrifice and hatred/schadenfreude.) So I think “preference utilitarianism” should be called “preference consequentialism,” to avoid confusion. Of course, people can even have preferences to live by non-consequentialist moral theories, as well as to force others to do the same. Since preferences are admitted by Singer to be inherently subjective, I see no plausible way to objectively adjudicate between conflicting preferences. So, in my view, preference consequentialism is not only self-effacing as a decision procedure, but ultimately empty and incoherent.

(4) So, as Kant himself admitted, this would mean that if a criminal comes to your door, holds a knife to your throat and asks you where your daughter is so he can kidnap and rape her, you would be obligated to either tell him the truth or remain silent.

(5) It should be noted here that Kant offered multiple different formulations of the Categorical Imperative in his philosophical system. He claimed that his various formulations were equivalent to each other, at least in a practical sense. This equivalence has been disputed, and if one doesn’t think that the formulations are equivalent–or logically entailed by each other–then one would see Kant as a deontological pluralist, rather than a monist. I personally think that his second formulation of the CI is not equivalent to, or logically entailed by, his first. But for the purposes of this essay, I’m classifying his theory as he regarded it himself.

(6) Phronesis is one of Aristotle’s intellectual virtues/excellences. These virtues are distinct from the excellences of character called “arete.” Other intellectual virtues include intelligence (nous), theoretical wisdom (sophia), understanding (synesis), and good sense (gnome).

(7) MacIntyre insists that his theory does not entail sheer moral relativism, since he thinks that there is a way to evaluate rival traditions as, in some sense, superior or inferior to each other.

(8) Coercion, in the Objectivist usage, specifically means physical force or the threat of physical force by one or more persons. It is physical attack on, or restraint of, one’s body or rightful property, or the credible threat to do so, without the victim’s consent. Coercion should not be taken to include psychological pressure, social ostracism, or the refusal to do business with someone. (Fraud is an indirect form of physical force/coercion.) See the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on Physical Force for more.

(9) Note also that earlier, in starting my discussion of principles, I said that Objectivist Ethical Egoism was “the application of Objectivist epistemology to the fundamental problem of how to live as a human in reality as it is.” This remains true. OEE is the application of both Objectivist epistemology and Objectivist metaphysics to living one’s life. To know how to live as the kind of organism one is, one must know both how to acquire knowledge, and what sort of organism one is.

(10) Thus, falling into logical fallacies and so-called cognitive biases does not necessarily constitute irrationality. Irrationality occurs when someone fails to take appropriate action to correct errors, once they are aware–or should be aware–of their errors.

(11) University and military research has also made significant contributions to technological progress. In the most advanced countries, like the US, a lot of military research is done by private companies contracted with the government. Discoveries in universities that show promise for real world applications are often spun off as for-profit companies, since universities generally aren’t equipped and funded for highly specialized R&D and mass production methods. Compared to the sheer amount of innovation that has taken place in the private sector, from J.D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford to Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, public sector contributions are relatively small. (Research, of course, is not the sole or primary purpose of universities, whether public or private. So if we wanted an oranges-to-oranges comparison of government and private research, it would perhaps be instructive to compare the advancements (per capita) in agricultural technology originating in the Soviet Union and in the US, between 1920 and 1990. In the US, agricultural research was almost completely private, in the Soviet Union, it was almost all governmental.)

(12) Using a comparative standard between oneself and others is not a rational way of evaluating oneself. If you earn 2 units of value, the fact that someone else earned 4 does not erase the fact of your 2. There is no justification for dividing yours by his to come up with 0.5 units for yourself, relative to his 1. The value that you have earned is yours, the value that he has earned is his. They are separate and independent.

This ultimately holds true, even if your career is in a competitive sport. The basic value in question is skill at the sport. You may be striving to win, but, at the end of the day, you developed whatever skills you developed, and losing can’t erase that. The only rational comparative standard is the comparison between the level you started at and the level you later achieved.

(13) This can be achieved to a small extent by compartmentalization on the part of the victims: They largely operate based on facts in the sphere of production, while accepting faith and feelings in the realm of morality and politics. But compartmentalization itself is not rational, and the artificial distinction between the “spheres” breaks down more and more over time. People stop innovating in production, they lose motivation and productivity, and end up in a lazy drift, seeking any chance to escape from their miserable lives. This can be seen in the lack of productive innovation and the drunkenness rampant in the later years of the Soviet Union.

[Edited: 4-28-17: Added last quote in “The Harmony of Rational Interests.” Added last four paragraphs of “Individual Rights.” Added images of philosophers.

7-6-17: Added italicized summation sentences to the introductions of the theories.]

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Related Posts:

Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

A Refutation of G.E. Moore’s Critique of Ethical Egoism: A Dialogue

A Dialogue on Metaethics, Moral Realism and Platonism from an Objectivist Perspective

Socialism and Welfare vs. Justice: Why Inalienable Private Property Rights are Required for Justice

4 thoughts on “Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics, and Objectivist Ethical Egoism

  1. Hi,
    I am writing a paper using the article above and would like to reference you correctly, however, I cannot find your name. Who should I put down as the author of this article?

    Thanks!

  2. Hi can you kindly send the references for your work above.
    I’m working on an assignment and I’d really appreciate if you shared some references.
    Thank you!

    • The direct sources for the first three approaches are mostly in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As implied in the essay, the SEP entry on Consequentialism is a major source for that section, as well as The History of Utilitarianism, and the articles for major utilitarian and consequentialist thinkers, like Bentham and Mill. The tables and their specific organization are my contribution.

      For deontology, look up the relevant thinkers, like Kant, Ross and Nozick, as well as the entry on Deontological Ethics.

      For virtue ethics, look up the SEP entries on Virtue Ethics, Aristotle’s Ethics, etc.

      For Objectivist Ethical Egoism, I gave several good references at the end. If you want even more, look at my Books and Links page.

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