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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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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Gary Johnson: Better than Clinton and Trump in 2016

Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump-Gary Johnson-2016 Election-Third Pary

The Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, former governor Gary Johnson, is definitely not a perfect candidate from an Objectivist perspective. But he has been doing well in the polls, and I think he’s a much better alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. You can take a look at his website at GaryJohnson2016.com and watch his interviews on YouTube to get a sense of his qualifications and policies.

By and large, libertarians advocate limited government and property rights in a way that approximates the founding principles of the United States, and the Objectivist political viewpoint. But they are not Objectivists and they lack a good, consistent philosophical foundation for their political ideas. Thus they don’t provide the best arguments for liberty and often advocate certain political ideas that are at odds with Objectivist politics. The lack of a consistent, reality-based philosophy also means that libertarians will not be able to sustain liberty in the US in the long term.

I don’t consider the Libertarian Party the “party of the future,” in the sense of being a political expression of a future ideal society. That would be something like the nascent American Capitalist Party. But I do think that the movement away from the corrupt, decaying, proto-fascist Democrats and Republicans, toward a libertarian third party is a step forward. It at least brings the critically important issue of personal liberty versus authoritarianism of all sorts, into the foreground of debate. Instead of just two parties bickering over whether to regulate people’s economic lives more, or personal lives more, you will have a major third party calling into question the need to heavily regulate either sphere. You will have a major party standing up for personal choice and against government coercion in all major areas of life.

I’m continually amazed at people’s capacity to hold inconsistent philosophical ideas for long periods. American conservatives have voted on a mixture of religious faith–which logically leads to authoritarianism–and a semblance of economic freedom for over a hundred years. American leftists have voted on a mixture of Marxist economic totalitarianism and personal freedom of lifestyle for just as long. Libertarians too are a mixture: political liberty in general (mostly) and a moral outlook largely composed of altruism and subjectivist emotionalism. This mixture is at least closer to what the US had culturally in the early 1800s. So from an Objectivist perspective, the Libertarian Party is not a long-term fix to US politics and culture. But what it represents–in its better forms–is a partial turning back of the cultural clock.

Ayn Rand was born too late to stop the American slide into the present collectivist-altruist-statist cultural milieu.  But she influenced the libertarians politically, and libertarianism has been growing. If libertarianism becomes dominant, Objectivism gets a second chance to transform the culture to one of reason, individualism and egoism. I would much rather be arguing with a culture of libertarians that their political ideas require Ayn Rand’s philosophy to be properly grounded, than desperately fighting for my right to speak against Marxists or religious zealots.

Even if libertarianism doesn’t become dominant, but only more culturally significant, that should have a positive impact on how many people read Ayn Rand’s works and how seriously they take them. And it is Ayn Rand’s works that truly point the way forward, to a future of lasting freedom and prosperity.

Let’s get Gary Johnson seriously noticed this election! Feel free to share the image above.

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Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

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

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

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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“Bill Nye: The Tyrant Guy,” by Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D.

American leftism/progressivism is the established way of thinking. It did not win by reason or persuasion; merely by default, or in the absence of any principled, rational alternative. The leftist agenda of a weak defense; unsustainable national debt; fostering dependence …

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Source: Bill Nye: The Tyrant Guy | Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D. | Living Resources Center

Faith vs. Trust and Science vs. Religion

"Then a Miracle Occurs" cartoon - "I think you should be more explicit here in step two." Science vs ReligionWhat is faith, and how does it relate to trust? Are the two terms different? Does one need to have faith to engage in science or benefit from it? What is trust and what is its role in reasoning? These are the questions I will discuss and answer here.

First, we’ll consider the meaning of “faith.” The most prominent use of the term “faith” is in regard to religion, so let’s look at what it means in that sphere and apply that understanding more generally.

For Christians, the model of faith is presented in the Bible. In Matthew 18, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:3-4, NIV) And again, in Mark 10, Jesus says: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15, ESV)

The reason that Jesus holds children up as models to emulate is that they tend to be “intellectually humble” (i.e. naive) and will often accept religious teachings simply, without challenging the adults by asking too many difficult questions. Ask virtually any religious 6-year-old why he believes in God, and you won’t get anything resembling rational, philosophical arguments. He accepts God because that is what his parents and minister have told him. This is faith, and this is Jesus’s ideal model.

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The Primacy of Existence Principle in Objectivist Thought: Some Clarification

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.In a recent reddit comment, I offered some clarification of how the Primacy of Existence Principle flows directly from Ayn Rand’s axioms. A reddit acquaintance found the principle, as expressed in Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, confusing and seemingly unjustified from the axioms. He wondered whether it was potentially possible for some non-human consciousness (“God”) to contradict the Primacy of Existence and have control over physical reality, or for the nature of certain things to be such as to obey consciousness in ways that would contradict the Primacy of Existence. So I made the following comment in response:

I think there are two senses in which one can talk about “consciousness”: what I’ll call “fundamental” and “expanded.” In the fundamental sense, consciousness means strictly the faculty of perceiving or grasping that which exists. In this sense, emotions, wishes, acts of will, the control of one’s body are not part of consciousness. Speaking in the expanded sense, consciousness includes perception of reality and all of those other things, like emotions, will, and bodily control.

My understanding of the Consciousness Axiom, “Consciousness perceives existence,” is that it uses consciousness in the fundamental sense. It is axiomatic that the fundamental function of consciousness is the grasping of existence; i.e. the awareness of some object. If it does not perceive some object, it is not consciousness.

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