Three Ethical Theories

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is associated with the writings of the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, though many would say that it was first defended much earlier by Plato and by the Epicureans. It is an action-guide that springs from a single basic imperitive: a person ought to act only to promote for himself or herself the greatest balance of good over bad results. Ethical egoists may differ over what they hold as objective standards of goodness or badness and therefore over the specific practical implications of their basic principle. Some, for example, have held that goodness and pleasure are identical (hedonism), while others have argued for much richer, less "materialistic" views about the good life. The essential point is that for egoists, self-interest provides the sole touchstone for thinking about right and wrong. Thus someone who held that each person should pursue self-interest in order that the common good be served would not be an egoist; but someone who held that each person should, only for the sake of self-interest, care about others would be an egoist.

Philosophical arguments for and against ethical egoism have been spirited. Proponents insist that it is the only normative ethical framework that does justice to the realities of human motivation. Opponents point out that this implies two questionable propositions: (1) that the realities of human motivation are decisive for understanding the realities of human obligation, and (2) that the realities of human motivation are, as the egoist asserts, purely selfish.

The plausibility of proposition (1) depends heavily on our view of the relationship between facts and values, specifically the facts of psychology and the values to which those facts seem to point. Extreme views on this subject range from the contention that any inference to values from facts is fallacious to the contention that the desirable and the desired are one and the same. More moderate views affirm the importance of grounding ethics in an account of human nature but deny that contemporary biology and/or psychology have provided the data.

The term psychological egoism refers to the generalization expressed in proposition (2) in order to disentangle it form the normative principle of the ethical egoist. Few scientific observers of human behavior today would subscribe to psychological egoism, though most would acknowledge the importance of self-interest in our motivational repertoire. The burden of proof seems to rest on the egoist then, to show (for individuals, organizations, or larger systems) that the influence of self-interest predominates.

There are other difficulties with ethical egoism. How, it has been asked, can such a framework achieve anything like real-life currency if its practitioners are candid? Could egoism ever be taught or taken seriously by someone in search of moral advice? Though not conclusive, these challenges produce an atmosphere of paradox around ethical egoism that permits and even invites the exploration of alternative frameworks.


Utilitarianism in the modern period was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in England, where its best known proponents were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In the 20th century, it has been defended by may sophisticated philosophers and economists. Although different formulations with subtle differences abound, the basic "principle of utility" can be stated: persons (or organizations or systems) ought to act only to promote the maximum net expectable utility for the widest community affected by their actions. Or, popularly: "Seek the greatest good for the greatest number."

Proponents of utilitarianism argue that it is the most accurate and realistic expression of the fundamental sentiment behind the moral point of view: benevolence. They are quick to point out that there is room in the framework for our conventional moral rules (e.g., against lying, stealing, promise breaking, etc.), but add that these rules get their authority only from their tendency to maximize utility over the long term. Departures from them are justified accordingly.

Opponents have offered both internal and external criticisms. Internally, they cite serious difficulties with the definition and measurement of essential concepts like "utility," "alternatives," and "results." They also question whether utilitarianism, if really practised, would lead to the maximum utility that its basic principle demands.

Externally, critics have focused on what they believe are counterintuitive moral implications of the utilitarian framework. Examples, actual or hypothetical, are put forward to show that our deepest moral convictions and utilitarianism lead in opposite directions. The most forceful of such examples involves situations in which the greatest good for some majority seems to dictate the unjust treatment of an innocent victim or minority.

Replies to these critics typically either deny the accuracy of their assumptions or refine the utility principle to meet specific objections. A different kind of reply challenges the critics to do better than or do without some version of the utility principle in their own normative frameworks. Any ethical framework that takes benevolence seriously, it is argued, and that also seeks to be operational, must in the end incorporate a form of utilitarianism.

Kantís Ethics --- Another Dualism

There is probably no one in the modern period whose views have influenced ethical reflection more than those of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. At the center of Kantís framework are two concepts: the free will of the rational decision maker and the need for universalizing that will.

Kant formulates his "supreme principle" in a number of different ways, all of which he claims to be equivalent. The two best-known formulations are:

  1. Act only according to that maxim by which you can at te same time will that it should become a universal law.
  2. Act so that you treat humanity , whether in your own person or in that of another, always as and end and never as a means only.

Motives behind rules or policies that satisfy such criteria are said by Kant to be categorical in their force. "Gut feelings" of any sort, as well as rules or policies based on accepted practice, are unreliable and unacceptable indicators of right and wrong. They are at best provisional, i.e., they tell us what to do only subject to the vindication of the motives that underlie them.

A manager who refused to dump toxic waste outside his plant out of fear of being fined or even out of the desire to promote good community relations, would not be acting out of a true sense of duty. He might "do the right thing" in terms of results, of course, but this would be (ethically) beside the point, according to Kant. What would be (ethically) to the point would be for the manager to ask himself/herself (a) whether he/she could support such dumping as a universal practice, or (b) whether in using the local community as a "sink" he/she was treating its citizens as mere means. Only if an action or a policy survives this kind of scrutiny can its motive claim to be morally adequate.

Kant thought it was possible to discern in any proposed action or policy an implicit orientation which, when universalized, would show itself to be either permissible or self-defeating. He believed that somehow there was a basic harmony between the idea of personal authenticity and communal fairness. In his words, "The dignity of humanity consists just in this capacity of being universally legislative, though with the condition that it is itself subject to this same legislation."

Critics of Kant have objected that his basic principles, even if consistent, rule out both too much and too little. They have suggested that actions most people think permissible (such as lying to protect an innocent victim) might fail Kantís test, while actions most people think questionable (such as refusing to help the poor) might pass the test. Defenders of Kant have denied these implications.