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 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.)”

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.

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

Plato points upward in Raphael's fresco, "The School of Athens." Plato was a Platonic "moral realist." He believed that a "Form of The Good" resided in extra-mental reality.

Plato in The School of Athens

What is the basis for an objective morality in under 1000 words? Where does mainstream Moral Realism go wrong? What error did Plato make that has negatively affected philosophers’ ethical assumptions even into the 21st Century? What is the meaning of modern, moral “error theory?”

If you are interested in any of these questions, I think you’ll want to see the answers given in the dialogue contained in this post.

First, a bit of context: I posted this article on the philosophy section of reddit: Answering Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”. The first comment below is responding to and quoting that posted article. I respond to that comment, and another poster responds to me, starting the dialogue. I am “Sword_of_Apollo” in this dialogue:


Some of these facts may be apparent, animals certainly seem to prefer warm, comfy shelter and food to the cold, and starvation, but others seem to be fairly dramatic assertions, that would be much more convincing with argumentation.

For instance

“The basic problem with all variants of utilitarianism, including Harris’s, is that there is no reason to act for the well-being of other conscious creatures, apart from how doing so redounds on one’s own well-being.”

This is a bold assertion. I don’t see this as being obvious in the slightest. Indeed, I’d say there’s no reason to only value my own well-being, when I have every reason to believe that I’m the same sort of being as other humans*. If my well-being is important, then why shouldn’t their’s be as well?

*also, don’t animals deserve moral consideration, at least to some degree? I mean, you don’t have to be vegan or whatever, but kicking a puppy doesn’t really seem morally neutral.

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QuickPoint 4: It Is Not Racist to Judge One Culture Superior to Another

A culture is a set of ideas and practices that constitute a general way of thinking about the world and a typical way of life. Ideas can be correct or incorrect. Practices based on those ideas can be conducive to human life, or destructive of it. In short, ideas and practices can be objectively good or bad for people.

The judgment of certain cultures (ideas and practices) as better than other cultures is entirely separate from the phenomenon of racism. Racism, broadly, is the idea that one’s race, genetics, or ancestry is a determining factor in the content of his or her consciousness. Consequently, it is the idea that one can determine something about what someone believes by studying his genetic or ancestral lineage. This often takes the form of moral value judgments based on race or ethnicity.

There are some cultures that have historically been associated with large numbers of people in certain genetic groups, such as “Jewish culture” and “American Black culture.” But there is no necessary connection between genetics and culture. Anyone can be a part of any culture, according to his education and personal choices. Thus, a judgment of “American Black culture” as inferior to “Chinese-American culture” is not a judgment of an African lineage as inferior to a Chinese lineage. It is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that the cultural ideas and practices that have traditionally been accepted by large numbers of African-Americans are less conducive to human well-being than those that have traditionally been accepted by large numbers of Chinese-Americans. (It is this difference that is reflected in vastly different crime rates between the two groups.)

The irony here is that it is actually racist to consider a person’s culture to be determined by his genetics. Thus, it is actually racist to consider the evaluative ranking of cultures “racist.”


Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

Why Morality is Not “Evolved,” But Defined and Chosen

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

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

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

ayn_rands_normative_ethics_the_virtuous_egoist_300Note: I recommend reading the entire article, but if you really need just a summary, scroll down to the bottom of the post and see the “Summary” section. Also, the image on the right is not meant to imply that this article is from Dr. Smith’s book. This is my essay.

Many people today–especially in the atheist/skeptic/naturalist subculture–think of ethics as a set of rules that applies only to interactions with other people. They don’t think that primarily personal decisions can be considered immoral, but only actions that harm (or don’t help) others.

One will find, however, that a great many historical philosophers considered ethics to encompass a complete way of life; both the personal and the social aspects. Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand all regarded ethics as defining the proper way to live. Indeed, the dictionary definition of ethics as “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of actions and the goodness and badness of motives and ends,” does not specify that “goodness and badness” must be “social.”

Were all these philosophers wrong in their idea of the basic place of ethics in human life? Were they fundamentally misguided in their whole approach to ethical questions? Is the dictionary definition of ethics wrong? Here I will examine the facts of the case for morality as a set of principles that provide guidance for a complete way of life, versus morality as a set of rules for promoting “proper” social interaction. Continue reading

A Philosophy Professor Discusses Ayn Rand in his Ethics Class

Dr. Gregory Sadler of Marist College recently discussed Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness in his Spring 2013 Ethics class and posted the video to YouTube:

Dr. Sadler is not an Objectivist, but he gives what is, in my view, a good introductory presentation on Rand’s ethics. I encourage anyone interested in the broader study of Rand in academia, to watch this video (at least in part) and leave polite comments on the YouTube video page.

My main critiques of Dr. Sadler’s presentation have already been voiced in the page comments. They are the following:

Overall, this is a very good presentation of Rand’s ethics. Thank you, Dr. Sadler.

Just a few points: Contrary to 52:48, Rand wouldn’t say the choice of friends is arbitrary, but ought to depend on their objective virtues/values. Vicious people harm one’s own life when you’re involved with them; virtuous people typically benefit one’s own life.

Also worth emphasizing: Man *creates* wealth/values (material and spiritual) by acting on proper reasoning. There isn’t a fixed “pie.”

Also, Rand regards virtues as eminently practical. A breach of integrity has very real, self-destructive consequences in the long-term. There is no gap between morally principled action and practical action. (Practical for achieving long-term flourishing.)

Finally, “Ayn” rhymes with “mine.” : )


Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

After a brief introduction to Atlas Shrugged, this essay provides a very good overview of the alternative between altruism and egoism. While not a work of technical philosophy, it is substantial: it quotes philosophers and textbooks that explain the meaning of altruism and clearly differentiates what rational egoism means for one’s life, versus what altruism means. It also generally outlines Ayn Rand’s argument for life as the standard of value and for rational egoism.

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism by Craig Biddle

The book-length version can be found here: Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle

Recommended technical works are here: Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith