The purpose of this article is to explain different ethical theories and compare and contrast them in a way thats 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. Ill 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 variantof 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 practicesbased 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 itselfrather than other factors, like self-interestis essential to an actions 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 fundamentalethical concepts. Moral virtues like honesty, courage, integrity, temperance and generosity are takento 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 individualneeding to be lived, maintained and enhanced by each individual through his own actionObjectivist Ethical Egoism (OEE) takes each individuals own life as his own effective standard of value. That which promotes the individuals 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 aremade. 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 knowledgeknowledge thatcan be applied to predict future consequencesis by forming rational principles from empirical observation and experience. In the field of morality, this means derivingrational moral principles from experience. These principles are general statementsof 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 individuals 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 perpetrators.
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 Rands 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 OEEs relationship with the three ethical categories, and whether it can be considered a memberof any of them, when I discuss it in more detail later in this essay.
Consequentialism is a category that includes those ethical theories that judge human practices as morally right or wrong based on their consequences. (Practice here is used very broadly to includea specific action, a rule guiding actions, a motive guiding actions, or a virtue of character.) Consequentialist theories say that morally right practicesare those that tend to increase or maximize whatever is inherentlymorally good. (1) If apractice tends to produce more moral goodness than any alternative practicewould have, then it is a morally right practice. Consequentialist philosophers differ on whether practices that tend to increase that which is morally good, but increase it less than an available alternative practice, can be called morally right. Are practices that produce less goodness wrongpractices, or merely sub-optimal but permissible rightpractices? In any case, for a pure consequentialist, the practice that tends to maximize moral goodness is the morally best practice.
There are many different types of consequentialism that people can adopt. Consequentialist theories can be divided into types in threemajorways. The first way is in what exactly it is about human practices that is being morally evaluated. A theory can evaluate individual actionsthis is called act consequentialism. Or a theory can evaluate the rules by which someone actsthis is called rule consequentialism. Or a theory can evaluate the motives by which someone actsthis is called motive consequentialism. Or a theory can evaluate the character traitsone demonstrates when one actsthis is called virtue consequentialism.
The secondmajor way consequentialist theories can be divided is by whose consequences count as morally relevant. That is, what beings are directly morally relevant in evaluating the consequences of a practice.Is it all conscious creatures? Is it all humans? Is it a subgroup of humans? Is it only the agent? Or is it all humans except the agent? Respectively, these choices among beneficiaries can be called broad consequentialism, human-centered consequentialism, group chauvinism, consequentialist egoism, and consequentialist altruism. (2)
The thirdmajor way of dividing consequentialist theories, as far as I can tell, only makes sense when applied to act consequentialism. Act consequentialist theories can be dividedby the sort of consequences that are relevant to the evaluation of an act. Are actual consequences the relevant factor? Or is it the consequences that analysis would show are most probable at the time of the decision to act?Or is it the consequences that the acting person (the agent) actuallyforesaw at the time he acted? Or is it the consequences that were reasonably foreseeable by the agent? Or is it the consequences that the agent intended to occur? (These different sorts of consequences could be called different epistemic statuses.)
The reason philosophers may want to consider the alternatives to actual consequences as the relevant type, is that people are not omniscient and cant predict the future consequences of actions perfectly. So it doesnt necessarily seem right to morally judge a decision, that was made at a given time and with a limited state of knowledge, by all of the actual consequences that followed. It would seem that one is saying that a person whose action produced bad consequences due to factors outside his possible knowledge was acting immorally. So, with actual consequentialism, people will sometimes be judged as acting immorally because they are not infalliblepredictors of the future. This tends to go against common-sense ideas of what morality demands.
Once we select an option from each of the three above lists, we have a pretty good idea of what sort of consequentialist theory were discussing. But we still havent narrowed our selection down to a single theory. For that we need a separate theory of moral goodness, more technically called a value theory or axiology.
The ethical approachof consequentialism depends on the notion of producing morally good consequences. But the consequentialist approach, by itself, does not answer the question of what the moral good is. So specificconsequentialist theories are partly defined by what they believe to be morally good.
Moral goodness may be identified with pleasure, preference satisfaction, justice, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, honor, peace, etc. Or, in the case of what is called negative consequentialism, moral goodness may be associated with the lack of something. This could be pain, injustice, ugliness, etc.
Historically, the most common version of consequentialism wasClassic Utilitarianism. Classic Utilitarianism (CU) defines moral goodness as pleasurespecifically, the aggregate pleasure of all sentient creatures. This pleasure is also called subjective happiness. So a common statement encapsulating utilitarianism is that it advocates for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In this theory, pain is held to be a negation of pleasure, so it would be counted as subtracting fromaggregate pleasure. This function of pleasure minus pain is generally called utility.
Classic Utilitarianism is a form of act consequentialism, soit is a persons individual actions that are judged morally as good or bad, according to whether their consequences tend toincrease or decrease utility. CU also takes the actual consequences for net utility as the morally relevant kind, rather than probable, foreseen, or intended consequences at the time of the action. And it clearly takes universal consequences as the relevant kind, since it evaluates actions according to their effects on aggregate human and animalutility.
Classic utilitarianism was advocatedwith some variationsby philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick. (It should be noted that the distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism was not well defined at the time these philosophers were active. So they were not explicit nor necessarily perfectly consistent about choosing one over the other.)
Act Consequentialism Table
Rule Consequentialism Table
Virtue Consequentialism Table
Motive Consequentialism Table
If we alter one parameter of CU, we can get a different theory. Instead of aggregate utility of all sentient creatures, we could count only the utility of the agent as morally relevant. This would generate a theory we could call Classic Utility Egoism.(As well see in more detail, this form of egoism is very different from Objectivist Ethical Egoism.)
If we also switch act consequentialism for virtue consequentialism, we get a category we could call Virtue Utility Egoism. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus would fit into this category rather nicely, since he regarded the pleasure of the agent as the good, and virtue as instrumental to that pleasure.
If we switch Classic Utilitarianism from act consequentialism to ruleconsequentialism, while keeping its other categories and its axiology, we get a theory that could be referred to as Classic RuleUtilitarianism.
Finally, if we take CU and only change its axiology, we get a different theory. If we no longer consider classic utility (pleasure minus pain) to be morally good, but instead consider the satisfaction of the preferences of conscious organisms to be good,we get an approximation of Peter Singers contemporary preference utilitarianism. (Peter Singer is a well-known Australian moral philosopher who teaches at Princeton University. It should be noted that he was a preference utilitarian prior to 2014, when he announced that he had switched to Classic Utilitarianism. See Footnote (3).)
It should be noted that different forms of consequentialism can be categorized and distinguished based on other criteria that I have not mentioned here. Most of these criteria can be considered part of the theories axiologiestheir varying explanations of what ismorally good. There are pluralistic theories, that hold that moral goodness cannot be reduced to one factor, like utility, but that it consists of more than one irreducible component. And there are also theories that attempt to hybridize different types of consequentialism with each other, or hybridize consequentialism with other types of ethical theories. For more detail on the various forms of consequentialism, you can see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on Consequentialism.
A deontological theory judges human practices as morally right or wrong based on whether they are consistent with certain duties that the theory holds as intrinsically moral.
As a classof formal ethical theories, deontology has its origins in the ethical approach of the 18th-Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant described two types of ethical rules or imperatives: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives are rules that you follow in order to attain some goal. For example, if you always tell the truth to good people in order to have authentic, healthy, win-win relationships with them, this would be a hypothetical imperative: a policy for the sake of a goal. On the other hand, a categorical imperative is a rule thats followed for the sake of no other goal. It is followed just because a moral law commands it. For example, if you never lie to anyone, simply because its the right thing to do, regardless of any consequencesgood or badthat might follow, then you would be acting on a categorical imperative.
Kant believed that only categorical imperatives could properly be considered part of morality. And he argued that there was one and only one such imperative that could be rationally justified, which, in Kants philosophy, is called the Categorical Imperative. Kant first stated this rule as: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. This moral law, according to Kant, was supposed to prohibit murder, theft, lying to others, cheating, suicide, etc. Those acts that could be seen to violate the Categorical Imperative were morally prohibited, regardless of any good consequences that might be gained from committing them, or any bad consequences that might be avoided by committing them. (4) Kant held that, in order to have moral worththat is, to be good and praiseworthy from a moral standpointactions must be motivated by obedience to the moral law, (duty.) If someone does something in accordance with the moral lawsay telling the truthbut is motivated by the desire to have good relationships or to avoid being convicted of fraud, the action is not a morally rightaction. The action must be performed not merely according to duty, but from duty.
Some early followers of Kant, such as Friedrich Schiller, as well as many later critics up through the mid-20th Century, interpreted Kant as holding that actions must be motivated purely by duty to be unambiguously morally worthy or right. Most commentatorsfound this requirement implausible and overly austere. Starting around 1980, the dominant interpretation shifted, following an influential paperby Barbara Herman. It is more typical now to interpret Kant as saying that an action having other motives can have moral worth, if the persons motive of duty would be sufficient in itself to produce the proper action, and thus stands ready to override all other motives when they would produce an action not in accordance with the Categorical Imperative.
Theorists of deontology since Kant have taken his basic approachi.e. treating categorical moral duties as fundamental to normative ethicsand adaptedit to formulate their ownmoral theories. In the early-to-mid-20th Century, W.D. Ross developed a moral theory that, instead of appealing to one categorical imperative, appealed to five irreducibledeontic principlesthat were supposed to govern a persons obligations. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, these are:
a duty of fidelity, that is, a duty to keep our promises; a duty of reparation or a duty to act to right a previous wrong we have done; a duty of gratitude, or a duty to return services to those from whom we have in the past accepted benefits; a duty to promote a maximum of aggregate good; and finally a duty of non-maleficence, or a duty not to harm others.
Ross supplemented his duty to promote a maximum of aggregate good with statements of what he considered to be intrinsic goods:virtue, knowledge, justice, and the pleasure of others, (not of oneself.) So this makes his ethical system a sort of combination of deontology and consequentialism: deontology at the base, with consequentialism added on as one of the duties.
SinceKants deontology includes only one irreducible categorical imperative, it can be called monist. Rosss deontology, in contrast, has more than one irreducible (basic) categorical imperative, so it can be called pluralist. (5)
Kants and Rosss ethical theories are both deontological theories that focus on the general obligations of the agent as a moral agent. (This means that individuals have duties to themselves based ontheir own agency.) These are called agent-centered deontological theories. On the other hand, some philosophers have theorized that human rights can be based on deontological imperatives. They see an agents rights as irreducible moral constraints on the actions of others toward that agent. (So this means thatindividuals have duties to others based on the agency of those others.) These sorts of theories are called patient-centered deontology.This sort of deontology is most oftendiscussedand advocated by academic libertarians, both right and left. Notable sourcesincludeRobert Nozick, Eric Mack,Michael Otsuka, and Hillel Steiner.
On the level of particular duties, bothagent-centered and patient-centered dutiesduties based on ones own agencyand duties based on the agency of othersare generally understood as being in the Kantian tradition, and are oftencontained together in deontologicaltheories. The difference between the two types of theories lies in where the overallfocus of the theory is: duties to self or duties to others. Typically, agent-centered theories like Kants include patient-centered duties, while patient-centered theories like Nozicks often dont include agent-centered duties.
Instead of focusing primarily on the consequences of actions or duty fulfillment, virtue ethics takes virtuesqualities of moral characteras fundamental to the ethical life.
Modern virtue ethics got its start when Elizabeth Anscombe wrote her article, Modern Moral Philosophy in 1958. In this article, Anscombe expressed dissatisfaction with the utilitarian and deontological ethical theories of her day. She suggested that the ethical theories of the Ancient Greeks, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, could bethe most plausible and satisfactory ones, once they were more theoretically developed.
In the academic revival of virtue ethics that followed, Aristotles ethics became the most popular model for the basic concerns of the virtue ethicists. So to understand modern virtue ethics, it will help tremendously to understand Aristotles ethical views.
For Aristotle, a virtue is an excellence of a persons functioning in a certain area of life. It is a stable character trait that governs a persons actions in some respect. It is not a superficial habit or routine, but permeates every aspect of a persons character, including his emotions, desires and intuitions. The Greek term for such a virtue or excellence of character is arete, and this term is still sometimes used by virtue ethicists today.
Aristotle holds that every virtue is a meanan average or middle groundbetween two extremes which are both vices. So, for example, Aristotle believed that courage was a virtue and was a mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. The virtue of courage consists of having the proper amount of the quality of confidence in ones character. Too little confidence, and the person is a coward. Too much confidence, and he is rash and foolish. In the practice of indulging in pleasures, temperance is the right amount of indulgence, where licentiousness is too much and insensibility is too little. Other qualities that Aristotle considers virtues, include truthfulness, magnanimity, modesty, and pride. (Pride meansactually being deserving of great things and knowing that one is, not unjustified arrogance.)
So how does one know the boundaries between too much or too little and the right amount? Well, Aristotle didnt think that ethics was an exact science, so he didnt think ethics could answer this directly. Aristotle thought that, in order to act within the boundaries of arete, a personneeds practical wisdom. The Greek term for this faculty isphronesis. (6)
A person who achieves virtue orarete in all the various areas of life, arrives at a condition often called happiness or flourishing. The Greek term for this condition is eudaimonia. Though eudaimonia is sometimes translated as happiness, it does not merely denote an emotional state or subjective feeling.A person in a state of eudaimonia is, according to Aristotle, living in a way that fulfills his natural potentialas a human being. He is living in harmony with his essential nature as a rational animal. Thus, eudaimonia is supposed to be a holistic condition of a person, potentially observable by others. (That is, eudaimonia is supposed to be an objective condition that encompasses both mindand body.)
Virtue ethicists today generally take this basic approach to ethics and make modifications. For virtue ethicists, eudaimonia is not a logically distinct consequence of being virtuous, but in fact consists of being virtuous. Anyone who thought eudaimonia could be treated as a distinct consequence ofarete, would not be a true virtue ethicist, but a virtue consequentialist, with eudaimonia as the moral good. So when a true virtue ethicist is asked what eudaimonia is, their full answer must include their favoredvirtues as being at least partially constitutive of it. This makes eudaimonia a moralized or value-laden concept, according to virtue ethicists, which must be derived from the virtues. Here, the virtues cannot be derived as the causal means toeudaimonia, because eudaimoniajust is the exercise of all the virtues, (perhaps with other conditionsadded.)
Virtue ethical theories can be divided into those thatare universalist and those thatare culturally contextualist. Universalist theories see virtues as applicable in the same basic form to all human beings, regardless of culture. These theories are like Aristotles in this respect. Proponents of universalist theories include Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse. Cultural contextualist theories see virtues as taking different forms depending oncultural tradition. Even if the virtues in different cultural contexts have the same name, like honesty or justice, they may well be different in theiressential content. The main proponent of this sort of theory has been Alasdair MacIntyre. (7)
There are various different views within virtue ethics about what the exact nature and meaningof the virtues is, and there are sometheorists whotakeinspiration for their theories from Plato and other ancients. Modern virtue ethics is a relatively young movement in the modern academic world. So it hasnt been explored, labeled and categorized to the degree that consequentialism and deontology have.
Objectivist Ethical Egoism
Objectivist Ethical Egoism (OEE) holds that human life is the abstract standard of value in morality. For each individual, who is making moral decisions and acting, this means his own life is his own standard of right and wrong.
OEE was developed by Ayn Rand, and further explicated by philosophers such as Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, Tara Smith, Darryl Wright, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri.
OEE arises in the context of the whole fundamental philosophy that is Objectivism: that is, the Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology. OEE is the application of Objectivist epistemology to the fundamental problem of how to live as a human being in reality as it is.
Principles, Human Nature, and Morality
Objectivist epistemology holds that, in order to successfully predict the future (not exactly, but within certain parameters) human beings must observe the world with their senses and develop principles by reasoning on the basis of those observations. This holds whether the prediction is made in the fieldof the natural sciences, the humanities, or morality.
Rational principles are not mere rules. They are general statements of fact that, when combined with a situation and a goal, yield a normative guideline. So, for example, if I have a person on the surface of theEarth, the Newtonian principle of gravity tells me that I can put that person into a circular Earth orbit by launching him to a certain height at a certain speed and in a certain direction. If my goal is to do this, then I have my basic normative guideline: I should launch him at that height, speed and direction.
If you recall the section on deontology, you should recognize this sort of normative guideline as a hypothetical imperative, in Kants terminology: a normative guideline followed for the sake of a goal. According to Objectivism, all genuinely normative guidelinesthat is, all normative guidelines based in realityare hypothetical. This holds whether the normative guideline is in morality or some other field. Objectivism rejects categorical imperatives altogether as baseless.
As with physics and space flight, principles of chemistry normatively guide individuals action for successful chemical synthesis and characterization, principles of psychology guide action in the pursuit of mental health, principles of electronics guide action in the making of televisions and computers, etc. So what do principles of morality guide action in achieving? According to Objectivism, principles of morality guide action in the maintenance and promotion of ones own life, as a human being.
I hasten to addthat life, as it is used here, is not equivalent to being biologically living by having a beating heart, and promoting my life does not mean striving to maximize the length of time myheart is beating. Being comatose or in a vegetative state until one dies is not life in the relevant sense, and it cannot be sustained beyond a few days without the intervention of other humans, who are actually living and sustaining themselves as humans. The life as a human being for which moral principles are required, is a life of conscious value pursuit: that is, it is the deliberate choosing and thoughtful pursuit of goals that sustain oneself.
Humans cant survive like plants do, by rooting themselves into the ground and drawing nutrients from the soil. Nor can they survive by sheer emotions, drives and instincts, like other animals do. To survive for any significant length of time, humans have to think, plan, and obtain what they need using their minds. At the most rudimentary level, this can mean making tools and weapons, hunting animals and gathering fruit and vegetables. Or, atincreasingly advanced stages, it can mean subsistence farming, or producing and trading artisanal goods, meat and farm produce, or it can mean a modern industrial society with a division of labor between industrial farmers, steel producers, car manufacturers, transportation services, etc.
Humans survive by pursuing and achievingobjective values. Objective here does not mean mind-independent or agent-independent. It means based on facts of reality and not a matter of faith, personal whim or arbitrary convention. Objectivism understands that values are relational to each individual, but also that the relationship is a matter of fact, not a matter of faith or whims.
So, as a simple example, food is valuable to the person who is hungry. It only directly supports his life if he is the one to eat it. Food is not valuable in itself, apart from the needs of the hungry person. Yet it is not a matter of faith, whims, or convention that people need to eat to live; it is a matter of fact. (SeeValues Are Relational, But Not Subjective for a more detailed explanation of this point.)
The characteristic and necessary mode of human survival, which is self-sustaining action (i.e. pursuit of objective values) on the basis of thought, is the foundation of an objective account of human happiness, in Objectivism. This happiness is not merely a subjective assessment of ones own psychological state, but a state of consciousnessthat is the psychological aspectof living ones life as a human being. It is the experience of living well as a human being which can be called flourishing or, using Aristotles terminology, eudaimonia.
So here we see that Objectivism identifies eudaimonia with successful and sustainable life. It provides a solid theoretical foundation for Aristotles ultimate good. It clearly explains what eudaimonia means and gives it content in a way that is not dependent on assorted virtues of character as its irreducible foundation. It thus avoids the logical circle of: What are the virtues? The character traits that combine under auspiciousconditions to produce eudaimonia. What is eudaimonia? The state that is the combination of the virtues under auspicious conditions. For Objectivism, happiness is the mental experience of eudaimonia, which is surviving as a human, par excellence. It is the mental experience of engagingto the fullest of ones capacityin the sorts of actions that enable humans to survive and be healthy in the long term.
At this point, lets take a moment to observe an important issue:Earlier, I said that principles of morality guide action in the maintenance and promotion of ones own life. Yet all true principles can potentially be helpful in supporting and enhancing an individuals life. Principles of physics and electronics can enable the development of life-saving medical technology, the deployment of satellites for instant long-distance communication, etc. Principles of chemistry can enable the development of life-saving and life-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Principles of psychology can be used to improvea persons psychological health and help them lead a more fulfilled life. Etc.
So what actually differentiates moral principles from the principles of other fields? The Objectivist answer is first to note that moral principles are one subcategoryofphilosophical principles. Then we say that what differentiates philosophical principles is that, unlike the principles of other fields, the principles of philosophymust be utilized in some capacity by every human being, in the course of living a full human life. Morality is the branch of philosophy that deals withall freely chosen human actions. Basic moral principles apply to every free choice of action any person might make. So while principles of physics may be inapplicable and useless for a psychologist treating a patient, and principles of chemistry may be inapplicable for a student studying music, moral principles are applicable for everyone in virtually every waking moment, in every aspect of life where they are not being coercedby others. (8)
Moral principles are the principles that apply to all freely chosen actions as such, not just actions in the particular field of applied physics, or of music composition, or of applied psychology. Notice here that Im saying that normative morality is analogous to the applied fields of knowledge: applied physics, applied music theory, and applied psychology, but on a broader scale of application in ones life. So what is the field of knowledge that morality applies? The field of knowledge is fundamental human nature, which, in Objectivism, is understood to be a branch of metaphysics. In Objectivism, morality is applied metaphysics. It is the application of metaphysics to the chosengoal of living ones own flourishing, happy life. (9)
It was principles of fundamental human naturemetaphysicsthat I was discussing when I was explaining the concept of life and how humans cant survivelike plants or other animals, but must use their minds to live.
So now that we have a general idea of the nature of morality, in the Objectivist view, and moralitysconnection to Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, lets discuss the content of Objectivist Ethical Egoism in more detail.
The Cardinal Values
So what does an individual need in order to engage in the sorts of actions that enable survival as a human in thelong-term? Objectivism holds that three cardinal values are needed by everyone in every waking moment: reason, purpose and self-esteem. The fundamental need of reason should be clear from what wasdiscussed earlier about human nature. It is the most basic value required for human life. One should do things that improve ones ability to reason, such as gaining knowledge and learning how to think. One should not do things that destroy ones ability to reason, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, or accepting things on sheer blind faith. One should avoid contradictions in ones thinking, since holding contradictory beliefs is the violation of reason.
Purpose is an aspect of reason, properly conceived. Holding it as a value emphasizes the need to treat reasoning as a means to goals, and not merely as an end in itself. Reasoning that is purely idle contemplation, with no further life-serving goal in view, is a detriment to life. (Please note here that intellectual goals can serve ones life in very indirect ways, as in many cases of increasing ones knowledge of highly abstract, theoretical topics.) In the Objectivist view, reasoning must be directed toward the production of knowledge that is ultimately used in reality in some fashion, in order to be worthwhile and genuine. All human thought and actions must be organized around some sort of reality-based purpose.
Self-esteem is the judgmentof ones own life and self as valuable. On the most basic level, humans need some amount of self-esteem for purposeful, life-sustaining action. This self-esteem is acquired through the judgmentexplicit or implicitthat one is capable of achieving happiness, and the knowledge that one fully intends to pursue that goal. A fuller self-esteem is gained as one actually achievesrational goalsand develops good character.
The Objectivist Virtues
According to Objectivism, these values are the fundamental goals one should pursue. They encompass many particular careers, hobbies, relationships and lifestyles. The fundamental means by which an individual pursues these goals are virtues. According to Objectivism, virtues are not fundamentally traits of character, (as virtue ethicists hold.) They are intellectual principles guiding action. If an individual consistently applies these principles in his life, then they can be automatized and can be said to form a basic part of the individuals character.
There is one fundamental virtue, according to Objectivism: rationality. Rationality is acting in accordance with ones reasoning to the best of ones ability. Being rational does not mean that an individual will be infallible. A fully rational individual may make mistakes in regard to facts, as well as in regard to methods of thinking (logic.) (10) An irrational person is one who doesnt consistently strive to be correct in every issue significant to his life. Irrationality is willfully turning away from facts and logic as ones guides to action. This may be done openly, through an appeal to something other than reason as a guide, such as faith, sheer intuition, emotion, or instinct, or it may be hidden by rationalizations, (thinking processes corrupted by emotionalism and/or dogma.)
The virtue of rationality, on its own, is very general, and so doesnt give people a lot of guidance in how to live moral lives. Thus, Objectivism breaks rationality down into six component virtues: honesty, independence, productiveness, integrity, justice and pride. Ayn Rand described each of these virtues as the recognition of certain fundamental facts about reality, human consciousness, and ones own nature as a human being:
Independence is your recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape itthat no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life
Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraudthat an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee
Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existencethat man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions
Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature
Productiveness isyour recognition of the fact that you choose to livethat productive work is the process by which mans consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit ones purpose
Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of mans values, it has to be earned
(Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, (50th Anniversary Ed.) p. 932-934)
Of course, when Rand says you cannot fake she does not mean that its impossible to attempt to fake. She means that you cannot fake and hope to live fully as a human being. Faking puts you on a path to self-destruction. The applicability of the virtues, as with all of morality, depends on an individual making the choice to live, in some form, explicit or implicit. The alternative to the choice to live, according to Objectivism, is to slip into self-destruction. Such self-destruction may be very slow, very fast, or somewhere in between, but if one does not choose to livethat is, to pursue self-sustaining values rationally, keeping ones own life as the ultimate goal of ones actionsthe decay toward death is inevitable:
Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choiceand the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be manby choice; he has to hold his life as a valueby choice; he has to learn to sustain itby choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtuesby choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.
(Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 23)
Lets look at a hypothetical example to see how the Objectivist virtues are necessary means tothe achievement of values.Lets say theres a young woman who has studied Objectivism and who wants to become an architect. She attends college atanarchitectural school.
She is honest and doesnt cheat, since this would undermine her competence as an architect and expose her to the risk of being caught and discredited and/or punished. Shestudies diligently to follow through with her plans, so she exhibits integrity. She is working toward a self-supporting life as an architect, so she exemplifies productiveness.Shes ambitious in her coursework, she doesnt try to skate by with the minimum, and she doesnt apologize for her excellence to others who may resent her for making them look bad. So she demonstratespride. She doesnt try to muddle throughby imitating or copying others, or by relying on them to do all the work in group projects. So she shows independence. She selects her study partners according to their ambition and ability in the class, rather than their need for help. To the extent she can, she selects her instructors according to her best judgment of their teaching abilities. So she acts onjustice.
Now if we contrast this woman with one who exhibits the opposite qualities, it should be fairly apparent who will tend to become an architect in a sustainable way, (what we would typically call a successful architect.) Someone who lacks the above virtues may be granted the temporary illusion of success by making friends and going along with a certain social crowd. But regardless of any false esteem granted by others, the reality will be that a continually dishonest, lazy and unambitious person will not actually be a successful architect.
The Harmony of Rational Interests
Objectivism holds that there are no conflicts of interests among rational individuals. The interests of rational individuals do not consist of short-range, out-of-context desires (whims.) Rather, they consist of goals that are the result of careful thought and planning. This means that rational interests cannot be served by pursuing self-contradictory goals, or effects without the requisite causes.
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Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained: Consequentialism ...