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. 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. 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? 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.

Objectivist Ethical Egoism 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.

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How Christian Morality Promotes Despotism Over Liberty

The Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty needs moral theory for support.Many Christians, especially conservatives in the US, will tell you that Christianity is compatible with liberty. Some will even say that it’s the foundation of liberty. After all, isn’t one of the Biblical Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal”? So the people in government have no business stealing through coercive taxation. And didn’t Jesus practice non-violence and admonish followers to give to the poor themselves, rather than forcibly taking money from others to donate? What business do the people in government have doing this, if they’re going by Christian morality?

Yet the countries of Europe have a long history of dictatorial rulers, while seeming to be very heavily Christian. In the Middle Ages, feudal lords ruled over their subjects–especially serfs–with near-absolute power. Kings and popes strove to maximize their authority over their subjects, to rule as Christian monarchs. In the 17th Century, the Christian king of France, Louis XIV, was especially successful at becoming an absolute monarch. The pope was extremely powerful, often like a monarch in his own right. This continued, even as priests and noblemen knew about the Roman Republic of antiquity.

Woman being burned at the stake

Burning at the stake was one of the punishments for heresy or witchcraft. It was used as punishment for these “crimes” up to 1,300 years after Christianity first dominated Europe.

During the Middle Ages, and even into the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church put people on trial for “heresies,” (differences of religious belief) and if they were convicted, they were handed over to civil authorities to be imprisoned, hanged, or burned at the stake.

Persecution for heresy was not even limited to official acts carried out by the civil/religious authorities. Ordinary people–commoners and peasants–sometimes formed mobs and burned alleged heretics themselves, without trial.

Popes sanctioned wars of conquest, like Charlemagne’s wars to conquer Saxony and Lombardy, the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and multiple crusades to conquer the Holy Land.

Even after the Protestant Reformation, there were Protestant despots like King Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell of Britain, and Charles IX of Sweden who were cruel and tyrannical, and who violated the religious freedoms of their subjects. Religious wars continued to rage across Europe, such as the Thirty Years’ War.

Martin Luther portrait

Martin Luther supported the death penalty for anyone guilty of blasphemy.

All of this occurred during a deeply religious and almost universally Christian era in Europe’s history. By virtually every measure, people during the 1,300 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, were far more religious than in the past 300 years. They went to church more often, prayed more often, relied on the Bible more, were less concerned about earthly life and more concerned about whether they were headed for heaven or hell. They became passionate and even violent over religious disputes, and most of them had no tolerance for heresies, paganism, or atheism. (Atheism was basically unheard-of.)

Was all of the oppression and war some bizarre, inexplicable, 1,300-year fluke of history? Did a crazy corruption of Christianity somehow reign for 1,300 years, amid widespread and profound religiosity?

In the rest of this essay, I will argue that these 1,300 years were no fluke and no corruption of the fundamental ideas of Christianity. What may seem like a corruption to some superficial, modern interpretations of Christian ideas, is in fact a logical consequence of the deeper ideas of Christian morality. Christian morality ultimately supports statism and oppression of the individual, not liberty and individual rights.

The two major moral tenets that support statism are: self-sacrifice for others, and faith.

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What BioShock Gets Wrong About Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

The bust of Andrew Ryan at the start of BioShock: "No gods or kings. Only Man."The original BioShock was a game released in 2007 by 2K Games. The main antagonist was Andrew Ryan, a “business magnate” who founded an underwater city, called Rapture. He was supposed to be guided by the same philosophy that Ayn Rand advocated in her novels and non-fiction books. Ayn Rand called this philosophy “Objectivism.”

I have played through the original BioShock and found all the recordings in the game that tell the backstory. I have also studied Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism for over 15 years, so I’m well qualified to comment on how accurately the game represents the philosophy.

The remastered version of the BioShock series was recently released, so I decided to take this moment to comment.

I find that BioShock seriously misrepresents Objectivism. One way it gets Objectivism wrong is in Andrew Ryan’s attitude toward morality. In his introductory speech in the game, Andrew Ryan says,

I chose… Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor; where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small!

Here Ryan dismisses morality as petty and insignificant. This was most definitely not Ayn Rand’s attitude toward morality. She was very concerned with morality, and morality is a central part of Objectivism as a philosophy. Any person who seriously agrees with her philosophy also takes morality very seriously, because it’s an extremely important guide to life. Objectivism has a whole code of values and virtues that it says people need to follow to achieve a good life and genuine happiness. (You can find out more about Ayn Rand’s ethics starting here and here.)

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Why Moral Theory is Needed in the Fight for Liberty, Not Just Economics and the Non-Aggression Principle

The Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty needs moral theory for support.Many libertarians will tell you that moral theories have relatively little to do with their advocacy of libertarianism. They think that liberty is morally neutral. Their thinking for why this is so is basically that liberty enables people to live by all sorts of different moral ideas. It doesn’t favor any morality over others, they think, so liberty itself must be morally neutral.

To the extent that some libertarians think that morality is involved, it’s usually just conventional ideas that you shouldn’t harm others, steal from others, etc. So they think that all one has to do in arguing for liberty is to talk about something like the Golden Rule or the Non-Aggression Principle, and show that liberty has good economic consequences.

Or, if they’re doctrinaire students of Austrian economics, they may think that the need of liberty can effectively be derived from praxeology–a “purely descriptive discipline” studying human action–without any need to resort to moral ideas.

But in this essay, I will argue that a controversial moral theory is deeply involved in any advocacy of freedom, and that in order to be persuasive on a cultural scale and achieve a lasting victory, advocates of liberty must make a deliberate break with today’s conventional morality. They must advocate for a full moral theory based on reasoning, not just the “conventional wisdom” that’s widely accepted without thought.

Statists are Guided by Moral Ideas, not Economic Ones

The argument from “good economics” is a very common one among libertarians: Free market policies lead to economic prosperity, and therefore we should enact those policies.

But what if the people you’re arguing with don’t really value economic prosperity? What if they value other things above prosperity? Whatever lip service the political left gives to economics and prosperity, the fact is that they don’t value it–not really. What they actually value are things like “fairness,” “equality,” and “social justice.” To see evidence of this, pay attention to what they talk about first, what they get passionate and angry about. Watch virtually any Bernie Sanders campaign speech, and you’ll find that his main focus is on wealth inequality and “social justice.” In virtually every speech, he will say that large wealth inequality is wrong, immoral, and not what America should be about. He links inequality to economic problems, but his economic arguments are shaky. They don’t really support the use of the government to “equalize” wealth, and most of them have been refuted. (See Equal is Unfair for details on how the arguments against wealth inequality fail.)

Bernie Sanders and many other leftists keep pushing for a higher minimum wage, even though it is very well known among economists that it is bad economic policy and will cause unemployment among the very people it’s supposed to help. (Paul Krugman is an economist who used to know better, yet he has flip-flopped to say that minimum wages should be raised.) Leftists keep trying to implement greater degrees of socialism, even though socialism has been tried countless different ways and has failed to produce economic prosperity again and again. There’s a clear correlation between economic freedom (with property rights protection) and economic prosperity, and the Left has been working against economic freedom and property rights for centuries.

Leftists–for the most part–are not complete idiots, and they’re not insane. So there’s one conclusion left as to why they have kept pushing for policies that destroy economic prosperity: they’re not really after economic prosperity. What are they really after? Take Bernie Sanders’ speeches as a clue: a more “moral” governmental system.

And what about social conservatives who want to legislate against “sins” and what you can do with your body in private? Well of course, this is even more obviously guided by morality.

Libertarians’ Political Ideas Depend on Controversial Moral Ideas

So deep down, statists, both left and right, are focused on morality. But should we be, as advocates of liberty? Should we try to get statists to forget about morality and focus on economics? Well, it turns out that ideas about “good economics”–as well as every other governmental policy capitalists might advocate–ultimately presuppose and depend on moral ideas, whether people are aware of it or not. So moral issues cannot be escaped in political advocacy.

Case in point: What do capitalists mean when we advocate “good economic policies?” Do we mean policies that encourage suffering and famine like in Soviet Russia? No, we mean the policies that will enable people to achieve economic prosperity. And what do we mean by “economic prosperity?” We mean the material conditions that lead to the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world.

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Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights

This essay is Part 1 of a three-part series on socialism:

Socialism-raised fists-black on red backgroundSocialism has become more popular in the US recently, at least as a term people use for their political beliefs. Bernie Sanders and many of his young followers claim to be socialists. But what is socialism, really, and is it a moral system or an immoral one? Is it practical or impractical?

In this essay, I will give the definition of socialism as dictionaries and its most committed advocates understand it. Then I will take socialism in its “purest,” most “noble,” most economically reasonable form–which many socialists claim has not been refuted by history–and show you why it is both immoral and impractical.

The Common Definition of Socialism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as:

A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

If we are talking about full socialism, as its serious advocates mean it, the “regulated” here is redundant and should be taken to mean complete regulation and control, which is effectively the same as ownership. In a fully socialist society, “capitalists”–those who own “the means of production, distribution and exchange,” like factories and grocery stores–are abolished. Everyone in the society is a “laborer” or “worker,” in the broad sense of “someone who works for wages,” (what I’ll sometimes call a “wage-worker,” as opposed to someone who earns profits from private ownership.)

The “community as a whole” exercises control through some form of governmental institution. In different socialist theories, this may take the form of anything from local direct democracies, to national or worldwide governments of central planners, allegedly representing the collective will of the “working class” (proletariat.)

(In light of this, I will say up front that Bernie Sanders is not a socialist in the full sense of the term: he doesn’t advocate the outright abolition of capitalists. I will have more to say about what he actually is, in Part 3 of this series.)

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Why Fairness Does Not Mean Justice: Some Further Argument

Equal is Unfair: America's Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, book coverOver three years ago, I wrote an essay discussing the proper meaning of the concepts of “fairness” and “justice,” as I understand them: On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same.

My major points in this essay were 1) that the concept of “fairness” presupposes that one is talking about a zero-sum game: a situation devised by a purposeful intelligence to measure people’s attributes, where one person winning requires that another person loses; 2) that life in society and in general does not meet this criterion for “fairness” to apply: people “win” by creating valuable things, and do not need to deprive others of these things to have them; and 3) that societal justice requires the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, and that it consists in each individual generally being rewarded in proportion to his mental effort and virtuous actions.

In this previous essay, I explained my view of “fairness” and illustrated it with examples, but I did not argue extensively for my conception of that term–why my conception of fairness is correct. I have been prompted to provide further argument by the upcoming release of a book called “Equal is Unfair,” and one of the co-authors’ (Yaron Brook’s) reply to me regarding “fairness”:

I have great respect for Dr. Brook, and am looking forward to his latest book, but I think he’s wrong here: fairness does not mean justice. And the purpose of this post is to argue my case. I encourage those who have not read my previous essay to read it before proceeding on in this one, since it will help set the context for my arguments: On Fairness and Justice.

One of the first things that should spring to mind when someone mentions the word, “fairness,” is the realm of sports and competitions: Is it fair when women are put in competition with men? Is it fair when one team learns the other team’s plays through spying? Is a race where one athlete has artificial legs fair? Is a weightlifting competition fair when steroids are secretly taken, or openly allowed? Is it fair when the Patriots let air out of the football?

Does justice have the same intimate connection with such competitive sports? Is that one of the first things you think of when you think of justice? Probably not. This is our first clue that fairness and justice are different concepts: they seem to be associated with different realms of life.

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

G. E. Moore He thought ethical egoism was self-contradictory.

G. E. Moore

In a post on Reddit, a user called /u/Regtik quoted the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Egoism, which features G.E. Moore’s criticism that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. What follows is my discussion with Regtik. (Another user, called “parolang” also makes an appearance.) My comments explore the status of “good”–including “moral good”–as inherently relational to a living creature, versus the mistaken notion of “intrinsic goods,” as well as the reason that the rational self-interests of individuals generally do not conflict.

I am “Sword_of_Apollo” in this discussion and, as usual, I am arguing from an Objectivist perspective, (which advocates a normative ethics of rational egoism):

Regtik: Ethical Egoism is an internally inconsistent morality.

From the [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]:

“G. E. Moore argued that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. If I am an egoist, I hold that I ought to maximize my good. I deny that others ought to maximize my good (they should maximize their own goods). But to say that x is “my good” is just to say that my possessing x is good. (I cannot possess the goodness.) If my possession of x is good, then I must hold that others ought to maximize my possession of it. I both deny and am committed to affirming that others ought to maximize my good. (Sometimes Moore suggests instead that “my good” be glossed as “x is good and x is mine.” This does not yield the contradiction above, since it does not claim that my possession of x is good. But it yields a different contradiction: if x is good, everyone ought to maximize it wherever it appears; egoists hold that I ought to maximize x only when it appears in me.)”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

This is a good example of why ethical egoism fails. Ethical Egoism fails to reap the full benefits of human cooperation because it holds the stance that cooperation is only useful when it benefits yourself. …

Sword_of_Apollo: This is not a sound argument. The actual, rational basis of the concept of “good” involves a relation. Something is good for something else, (a living creature.) Plato and Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, this includes moral goods.

Moral goods are those goods that are freely chosen by humans, (potentially rational animals) that are good for all humans in all–or almost all–circumstances. (This universality means that they are very much abstract goods. Note here that when I say “good for all humans,” I mean that the goal or object of each moral act is always good for the agent acting; not that the actions of each agent are necessarily good for all humans.)

To claim that egoism is self-contradictory as G.E. Moore did is absurd. It’s like saying that the concept of “destructive” is self-contradictory, because something can be destructive to one object, but not to others: A bomb that destroys one building is destructive, because it destroyed that building; but it is also not destructive, because it left many others standing. So the bomb is both destructive and not destructive at the same time. Since we (allegedly) have a contradiction, the concept of “destructive” can only apply to things that destroy everything, and is otherwise nonsensical. That’s absurd. Something that is destructive is destructive to something else, just as something that is good is good for something else.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

This is a good example of why ethical egoism fails. Ethical Egoism fails to reap the full benefits of human cooperation because it holds the stance that cooperation is only useful when it benefits yourself.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Prisoner’s Dilemma is an artificially restricted situation that is not a good model for real life.

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