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.

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What is Individualism? What is Collectivism?

German man refusing Nazi saluteModern political debates, from the 18th Century up until today, are full of appeals to the ideas of individualism and collectivism, whether open or merely implied. People speak of “the common good” or “public goods” or “obligations to society” on one hand, and of “individual rights” or “individual freedom” on the other.

The late novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known today for being an arch individualist who was very opposed to any form of collectivism. But what does it really mean to be an individualist or collectivist? Are the two views mutually exclusive? Is one or the other right, or is the reality a mixture of both? Here I will discuss what individualism and collectivism mean, which one or mixture represents the truth, and what the major implications of each of the views are for today’s moral and political debates.

Life is the Active Pursuit of Self-Sustaining Goals

The issue of individualism versus collectivism does not arise out of thin air. It arises out of the observation–whether explicitly stated or implicitly understood–that life consists of organisms that pursue goals that keep them alive. Lions find watering holes and hunt gazelles, eagles catch rabbits or fish, termites dig and build mounds for shelter, etc. The ultimate goal of this activity for any given organism is its continued life as the type of organism it is. (The origin of organisms in evolution has ensured that reproduction is a natural part of the life-pattern of each nonhuman species–i.e. reproductive behavior is part of an individual organism being the type of organism it is.)

The question of individualism versus collectivism is the question of what the living unit is for human beings–that is, what is the human organism that acts toward self-sustaining goals: is it the individual, or some group?

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Student suspended for questioning CT Governor on Gun Legislation

First, government officials come after your Second Amendment rights. Then, when you peacefully question them about it and tell them that they’re destroying your business, government officials violate your First Amendment rights to shut you up! (Note that Asnuntuck Community College is a public/government institution.) All hail the coming police state!

Two Heads are Better Than One


Shut up

If you’re one of the many folks upset about Connecticut’s new gun laws, that state’s governor has a message for you: Shut Up.

Courtesy of the Daily Caller:

“…student Nicholas Saucier tried to get (Democratic Governor Dannel ) Malloy to answer questions about his support for gun control legislation, which has put Saucier’s ammunition manufacturing business in jeopardy. Saucier followed Malloy to his car after the governor finished speaking at a public forum at Asnuntuck Community College.

The exchange took place in October of last year, and was captured on video…” 

Sounds relatively harmless so far, right?

Now here’s the video:

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Yaron Brook Interview on The Heartland Institute Daily Podcast: The Philosophy of Liberty

What’s the difference between “equality,” as the US Founding Fathers meant it and “equality,” as those in today’s political Left mean it? The Founders created the freest and most prosperous nation on earth. Yet did you know that the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia were motivated by “equality” in the deliberate murder of millions of people?

In this interview with Jim Lakely of the Heartland Daily Podcast, Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, discusses equality, morality and general philosophy, and their connection to liberty:

Here is Part 1.

I had some trouble with the player stopping in the middle. If anyone has this problem, the direct link to the file is here:

http://heartland.org/sites/default/files/yaronbrook-part1.mp3

Here is Part 2.

And the direct link to the file:

http://heartland.org/sites/default/files/fire-yaronbrook-part2.mp3

If you found the interview enlightening or persuasive, please share this post with as many people as you can. Yaron Brook has a very important message, and is an excellent speaker. Here is a particularly good example of his many lectures:

Finally, I recommend the book Yaron Brook coauthored with Don Watkins: Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government

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Mainstream Radio Talks About Atlas MD

atlasIn this segment of his morning radio show, Bill Handel talks about the benefits of the concierge doctor service, Atlas MD. It’s a glimpse into the quality and efficiency of free-market healthcare. The only thing that’s missing is an unregulated, unsubsidized health insurance industry that mostly provides benefits for large/catastrophic medical expenses, rather than everyday expenses. This segment really is great to hear.

Bill Handel on Atlas MD

Why “Anarcho-Capitalism” is Wrongheaded

Anti-Anarchy-symbol

Objectivism rejects anarchism for very good reason.

In the following link, Dr. Harry Binswanger explains why an officially established (“monopolistic”) government is necessary for a free society, and why the “anarcho-capitalists'” objections to it are baseless:

Anarchism vs. Objectivism

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