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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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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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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VanDamme Academy: The Amazing School the World Needs to Know About

VanDamme AcademyThere’s a little school in California’s Orange County that not too many people know about. But this school should be the talk of the education world, because it’s an amazingly good school. This is VanDamme Academy, a small K-8 school in Aliso Viejo, California.

Imagine a school where you have whole classes of students, not sitting in bored silence as the teacher tries in vain to prod them into participation, but engaged, eagerly raising their hands, visibly excited about what they’re being taught–even in math class. Virtually everyone who visits the school comes away amazed and inspired, the parents gush about how wonderful the school is for their children, the students tell you that they love going to the school, that they are deeply grateful for having been able to attend the school, and that it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Students come out of the school with a love of learning and much better prepared for high school than average–and all of this in a school whose tuition is close to the average spending per student in American public schools–all of this in a school that doesn’t give students homework.

This school may sound too good to be true. But it is not a fantasy. It is real. It is VanDamme Academy.

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Socialism is Not “Worker Control of the Means of Production”

"There is only one way to shorten and ease the convulsions of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new - revolutionary terror." --Karl Marx

Karl Marx – The man who has influenced the thinking of socialists around the world more than any other.

I often hear socialists say that socialism is “democratic worker control of the means of production.” But is it really? In this essay, I’ll explain why it’s not, and why the issue of socialism vs. capitalism is a moral and political issue of property rights, rather than an economic issue of “modes of production.” Obfuscation and confusion aside, this ultimately holds true whether the socialism under consideration is classic Marxist socialism, “libertarian socialism,” or whatever other sort of socialism you want to name.

In a mostly capitalist country, like the US in the 1880s, there are many different kinds of business organizations: There are for-profit corporations, non-profit corporations, sole proprietorships, partnerships, credit unions, retailers’ cooperatives, consumers’ cooperatives, and employee cooperatives. That’s right, worker cooperatives can and do exist in what Karl Marx would call a “capitalist society.” Examples of consumers’ cooperatives include REI in the US and “The Co-op” in the UK. Examples of employee cooperatives include the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, California, the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, and the Citybikes Workers’ Cooperative in Portland, Oregon. These latter three are companies where employees own and control the means of production in their company, democratically.

If “socialism” meant “worker control of the means of production,” as in a co-op, then people are perfectly free to have “socialist companies” under a laissez-faire capitalist government that protects private property rights.

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New Book Out Today! Equal is Unfair, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins

Equal is Unfair: America's Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, book coverIt seems like virtually everyone on the political left is talking about income inequality, or inequality of wealth. From Paul Krugman, to Rachel Maddow, to Elizabeth Warren, to Bernie Sanders, to President Obama. They all condemn high levels of income or wealth inequality as unfair and economically destructive.

But what if they’re wrong? What if high income inequality is a good thing for prosperity? What if it’s necessary for the greatest improvement in the lives of the poor? What if the campaign against inequality is actually immoral?

There’s an important new book on income inequality that was just released today. It’s called, Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality. Here are some videos from the authors on the issue of income inequality. The first chapter of the book is also linked below.

The videos:

Bernie Sanders and the Inequality Gimmick:

Who Cares About Inequality?

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The Role of Profits in Free-Market Capitalism, and Why High Profits are Good for a Company’s Workers

Underpants Gnomes Meme - Phase 1: Physical Labor Phase 2: ? Phase 3: ProfitWhether people like it or not, it is a fact that the production of valuable things requires more than physical labor. (I’m looking at you, Karl Marx, with your Labor Theory of Value and “profit as exploitation.”) This is especially true when it comes to industrial-scale mass production. To successfully deliver products at a reasonable price and quality, a company must be organized in certain ways that are effective; there must be communication and coordination between the various departments; there must be management to make sure things keep running smoothly together and that timetables are kept; there must be wealth invested for buildings, machinery and raw materials in the right amounts; any machinery and facilities must be continually maintained; there must be management of sales and distribution of the product; etc.

A collection of factory workers without power tools, without specific roles and without management direction will produce very little and very inefficiently. In any line of business, there is a tremendous amount of strategy, business planning, technical planning, management, and industry knowledge that goes into making a company productive and successful.

As I discussed in my essay, “How Business Executives and Investors Create Wealth and Earn Large Incomes,” a company’s chief executive officer (CEO) carries tremendous responsibility: he is crucial in making large-scale decisions for the company, implementing and coordinating major changes, planning long-term for the future market and technology the company will face, formulating and holding onto a large-scale vision of where the company should go, etc.

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