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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A List of Voluntary Ways to Fund a Government

US Capitol Building. Represents politics and government.Here’s a list of possible ways I’ve thought of or heard to fund government, without the government initiating force to collect taxes:

  1. Fees for government enforcement of contracts. This was Ayn Rand’s idea.
  2. A lottery.
  3. If a court finds a party at fault in a civil judgment, it collects a small fee from that party to help pay court costs.
  4. Courts impose fines on those who are convicted of misdemeanors and felonies.
  5. Imprisoned convicts work and help maintain prisons in order to receive food and luxuries above a bare minimum to keep them alive. The best-behaved might work on/maintain other government buildings.
  6. A small annual fee might be required for someone to maintain citizenship. Non-citizens would still be protected by the government in its jurisdiction, but would not be able to vote for government officials, and wouldn’t receive US government protection when traveling internationally.

These are, of course, in addition to any straight donations, which Yaron Brook discusses in this video:

Feel free to leave any other ideas in the comments.

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Related Posts:

How to Show That Taxation is Robbery

Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

An Objectivist Refutation of Anarcho-Capitalism (Market Anarchy)

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

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

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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How Economic Regulation Causes Cronyism and “Regulatory Capture”

Kronies action figures - They're Konnected!I’m very much pro-capitalism. However, I agree with Bernie Sanders and many of his allies on the American Left about something. I agree that cronyism is a serious problem in the US. Businesses should not get special favors and money from the government that they didn’t earn. But where Bernie and friends seem to think the solution to cronyism is more government regulation and control, I think cronyism is a symptom of too much government regulation and control. I think the solution is purer capitalism, which means freer markets. In this essay, I’ll explain why I think this, and how I think government regulation of the economy causes cronyism, lobbying and “regulatory capture.”

Let’s start by observing a correlation: Cronyism and lobbying tend to show up in the most regulated industries, not the least regulated. Finance in the US is heavily regulated–by no fewer than eight federal agencies–and the government protects and bails out big banks. Pharmaceuticals are controlled by the FDA, and the FDA often keeps smaller competitors out of the market. Whether a sports team can build a stadium is practically controlled by the city government, and team owners typically get a bonanza of special deals and subsidies from the city. Cronyism was virtually non-existent in the less-regulated tech sector, until the government pursued the anti-trust case against Microsoft. Now, Microsoft has a division in Washington D.C. for lobbying purposes. (Apple and Google now both lobby, too.) In general, retail stores are not very heavily regulated, and there’s not a significant issue of cronyism in that field.

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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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What I’d Like to See Gary Johnson Say to Bernie Sanders Supporters

Gary Johnson - Let Gary Debate - #letgarydebateWhat I want to see presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, say to those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary:

So Bernie Sanders and I mostly agree on what are generally called “social issues.” We both support gay marriage, drug decriminalization, the right of a woman to choose abortion, etc. Where we differ is in what is generally called “economic policy.” Bernie wants more taxes and regulations on “millionaires and billionaires.” He says that large gaps in income and wealth are “wrong, immoral, and not what America should be about.” But why? When someone makes more money than I do, and he does it honestly, without stealing and without government favoritism, I say “Good for him” or “Good for her,” not “How dare that person be rich; I’m gonna cut that bastard down to size with taxes and regulations.”

But high inequality is inherently bad economically, you say? It contributes to stagnation? There’s no good reason to think so.

Studies that supposedly show that higher inequality reduces growth generally find tentative results that are very susceptible to the authors’ biases. They generally tend to ignore the fact that there are different kinds of economic inequality that there is strong theoretical reason to believe have very different impacts on growth. For example, there is the sort of inequality that results from government favoritism, as in the Saudi royal family and the Russian “oligarchs,” and the sort of inequality that results from free and voluntary trade, as in the case of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

When we look at the big picture, we find that many countries that have high wealth inequality also have high GDP per capita and high economic growth. If we look at West Germany and East Germany in the 1970s and ’80s, we see two very culturally and geographically similar societies. West Germany was a relatively free market with relatively high wealth inequality, while East Germany was a society where the government tried to enforce wealth equality. West Germany was clearly better off than East Germany, economically.

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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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