Modern and Classical Ethical Theories

Everyone has and uses a philosophy. The lens through which they see the world, it colors every perception, biases every alleged “outrage.” People use philosophy to analyze potential knowledge and make all morally significant decisions. Sadly, few people can even correctly identify their own political philosophy, much less the method through which they examine apolitical issues. Most simply practice—nominally at least—the religion of their parents, making slight modifications where they feel the need to, and relegating moral decisions to the teachings of their church (“What Would Jesus Do?”). At the very least, people ought to understand the basic schools of thought in various philosophies so that they may appropriately choose among them. Although apparently daunting at first, most can be classified into a few broad categories. Different philosophies use different criteria for determining ethics and, as such, overlapping between classes cannot be avoided. The basic criteria, however, can be classified and each contains principally two dichotomous positions and often many “compromises” between the two.

Objectivist philosophies promote the existence of universally valid moral codes. Subjectivism contends that everyone makes their own equally valid code of ethics and as long as they do not violate their own code, they cannot be deemed immoral. Under this premise, Hitler ought to be judged moral since he had no qualms with genocide. With such a system, laws cannot exist, as no action may be judged by an objective standard. Moreover, moral codes would contradict. A thief and his victim may both espouse their moral righteousness but no one may judge leaving only one standard: physical force. Subjectivism ultimately supports the contention that “might makes right.” In an attempt at a less detestable system, Conventionalism arose. It holds that the standards of a culture determine morality. Unfortunately, people do not live in one single culture but rather a hodgepodge of various subcultures. Issues such as abortion cannot be resolved without a consensus that clearly fails to exist in America. Valid cultures such as the Nazis may not be judged under Conventionalism by other cultures. By what right could the Jews complain? The Nazis acted according to their own cultural standards. Subjectivist philosophies lack a proper standard for objective judgment.

Deontological and teleological comprise the two major classical schools of thought. Deontology focuses on the moral nature of the act itself irrespective of the consequence. Teleologists determine the morality of an act solely by its consequences. Teleologists posit that “ the ends justifies the means”; viz.: violating the rights of a person is moral if the consequences are good. Each theory has a major movement behind it. Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative reigns as the dominant deontological system. In it, one tries to universalize a maxim to determine the morality of an act. When universalized, maxims that still make sense are deemed moral while ones that obviously would not work are dismissed. Teleologists rally behind their most popular philosophy, Utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Utilitarians care little for the act itself or who it harms as long as more people benefit. Some would try to justify the sacrificial murder of an innocent person if his or her organs save the life of several other people.

Egoists come in two variations: individual and universal. Individual ethical egoists define morality as whatever is good for them even if it violates the rights of others. Universal ethical egoists promote selfishness for each person while respecting individual rights. Individual egoists such as Friedrich Nietzsche technically fall under Subjectivism since an action’s morality varies between people. Universal egoists such as Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes promote objectivist philosophies; Rand actually named her philosophy Objectivism. The economist Adam Smith made a fundamentally utilitarian argument for universal egoism by pointing out that, as though led by an “invisible hand,” rational, long-term self-interest leads paradoxically to the betterment of all. Though unambiguously true, Rand abhorred this justification, instead arguing that Capitalism is the only moral system because it recognizes individual rights and uses justice as its ruling principle. Hobbes argued that egoism should be practiced simply because we are naturally egoistic and it does not make sense to concern ourselves with the well being of total strangers. Altruism does not come naturally but instead propagates through indoctrination leading few people to even question the seemingly axiomatic righteousness of selflessness.

A careful and rational analysis of various ethical theories is essential to making the proper choices in life. Most philosophies adopt characteristics from multiple branches, integrating the positions into a hopefully logical ethical theory.