Ayn Rand’s insights into mind-body dichotomy, DIM Hypothesis by Dr. Peikoff, and my understanding of the differences between Aristotelian and Platonic Philosophy are applied here. The purpose is to survey ethical ideas in current culture, infer right ethical principles, and also understand the social reality of our time.
Whether it’s in supermarket, or career selection, or falling in love — every decision and corresponding actions have consequences. Actions that lead to a good life are right. A good life is a life that is healthy — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
However, it’s not automatically clear which decisions are right or wrong. Some thinking and judgment are required to check correctness. This thinking and judgment are guided by the subject of Ethics. Further, intensity of thinking and impact of consequences range from very small to extreme. For example, career selection and love-related decisions are impactful, and decisions in the supermarket have relatively less impact.
Purpose of Ethics is three-fold. First is to help an individual identify values. Second is to enable an individual to prioritize identified values. And third is to guide the individual, as he acts to achieve or maintain the identified values.
The three criteria of ethics, identification, prioritization, and action on values will be used here to understand and judge different Ethical Systems.
So here are various Ethical Systems:
Altruism: Historically and widely popular, it calls a decision or action right if it involves intention to sacrifice values. This sacrifice may involve values owned by self, or values owned by others. Examples can be charitable actions of Bill Gates for sacrificing values of self. Or actions of socialist leaders in Venezuela and elsewhere, for sacrificing values owned by fellow men in society.
So it’s clear that in Altruism, the main criteria for right and wrong is action aspect of Ethics. That is, a person is judged good by this Ethics if he or she sacrifices values. Identification and Prioritization of values is subservient to the decision to sacrifice. For example, Mother Teresa mostly just made death easy for the sick and homeless. But because she sacrificed her own life for others, she was given high moral credit, driven by the Ethics of Altruism.
Further, in Altruism, the focus is on other people rather than self.
Predatory Egoism: Like Altruism, Predatory Egoism also has sacrifice as the standard of right and wrong. Further however, it classifies an action or decision as right if the beneficiary of the sacrifice is the person making the decision. Examples can be Donald Trump maligning Amazon and Jeff Bezos, trying to sacrifice their reputation and therefore market, to appeal to his political followers; or many industrialists like Gang of Four in American Railways around 19th Century, pushing government regulations that harm competitors and therefore benefit themselves through coercive (forceful) monopolies.
Here, too, focus is on other people rather than self.
Hedonism: The most visible image of a Hedonist is a drug addict or a raging alcoholic. However, since hedonism refers to those who make decisions solely based on what they feel is right, often based on their mood, so hedonism should also include those who make career and love decisions primarily from their feelings, even if they are not using drugs or alcohol.
Ethics of Eudaimonia:Eudaimonia is a Greek origin word which means human flourishing and prosperity. According to this system of Ethics, human happiness realized due to flourishing is the standard of right and wrong. (As against hedonistic happiness). However, when we go into specific principles of Eudaimonia, there is resistance to facts as the basis of Ethics. That is, whenever there is a conflict between the judgment / intuition / feelings about what is valuable, and facts that might have been basis of those values, then practitioners of Eudaimonia prefer intuition over facts. And therefore sometimes, Eudaimonia implicitly promotes altruistic thinking like charity as very important or helping colleagues over personal career etc.
Rational Egoism:Like Eudaimonia, Rational Egoism also has life and well-being of the valuer as a standard. Unlike Eudaimonia however, here relevant facts are given primacy when in conflict with intuitive guidelines. Example of relevant facts is production as a fundamental element in human survival and flourishing, creating values like e-Commerce and factories from ideas, that is.
Further, there is hierarchy or definite order in which the Ethical code is identified and then applied. Virtues or guides for obtaining values for flourishing are derived from flourishing life as standard, and after that organization of facts relevant for flourishing life. For example in this Ethics, we have virtues or guidelines that involve evaluation of individuals based on how they contribute to one’s productive purpose, or seeking of knowledge for purpose etc.
Production rather than sacrifice as the focus of pursuit is the foundation for purposeful action in Rational Egoism. This is the fundamental difference between Rational Egoism and Predatory Egoism.
Since the nature of valuer, wants of the valuer, and socio-ecological environment of the valuer is used for identifying the Central Motivation of his or her life, therefore Egoism or the view of self is a key element in this ethics. Further, since purpose is derived from facts, and executed based on Ethical Principles derived from facts, so Rationality is also the key element here.
Actions of Steve Jobs, whether being able to visualize future benefits from technology, or praising good Computer Engineers, are examples of Rational Egoism. Overall, this is the only Ethical System, whichconsistently considers identification of values as primary. Eudaimonia being the system which inconsistently considers identification and prioritization of values as primary.
Pragmatism: Discarding principles of any kind is the essence of Pragmatism. Whether principles are value-generating or value-destroying, Pragmatism holds that as long as an individual reaches out to principles for creating or protecting values, he is acting on a wrong premise. An example is a statement such as an idea may be good in theory, but is bad in practice. So rather than question specifics of theories or principles, the school of ethics rejects the need for principled and abstract thinking itself. So here too, like Altruism, identification and prioritization of values is secondary, compared to actions in pursuit of values.
Categorical Imperative: Converse of Pragmatism is this school, where the need for Principle to be practically validated is completely discarded. So if any principle is raised to the Ethical level, then the school says it is wrong to attempt to consider its practical implications. For example, the school says charity or socialism as good should not be validated with facts of reality. Or even ideas like will of majority is always true, should not be validated.
Further, the Ethical Principles that Rational Egoism or Eudaimonia correctly derive as right, are often misrepresented by the school of Categorical Imperative while executing. For example, earning more money is a right thing, as long as it improves flourishing life and does not involve coercion, overall, supporting the Central Purpose of the individual’s life. However, since Categorical Imperative disconnects this principle from practical aspects like flourishing, so this can lead to an unhealthy or irrational obsession with wealth. Therefore through the Ethics of Categorical Imperative, wealth becomes a distraction rather than the means to promote rational purpose and happiness.
Therefore Categorical Imperative also falls in the same category as Altruism and Pragmatism, only more extreme. It completely discards identification and prioritization in favor of action. Divorcing What from How, that is.
Nihilism: In Predatory Egoism, sacrifice of other people and their efforts for benefit of self rather than mutual benefit is considered. Nihilism goes one step further. Here the action or the decision is considered right, if it involves sacrifice, or more precisely destruction of values. (Destruction being the motive, with sacrifice as the straw man or the rationalization.) Unlike Predatory Egoism, here there is no intention to gain from sacrifice or destruction. Destruction is an end in itself. Example can be socialized medicine destroying medical institutions, without providing any tangible gain to anybody.
Skeptical School of Ethics: This school focuses mostly on maintaining already achieved values, and not on creating new values. The examples of this school are nutritionists, environmentalists, Libertarians etc. (There is an element of nihilism also in this school.) The best of environmentalists focus on the negative impact human activity has on the environment, which in turn impacts humans back. The solution they offer is abstinence from progress itself. The worst of the environmentalists consider environment as an end in itself. And like Altruists, such environmentalists also want individuals to sacrifice for the environment, irrespective of whether the sacrifice provides overall benefit to the individual or not. Similarly, Libertarians focus on negative aspects of government only, some of them advocating anarchy rather than specific reforms.
Since Production or Creation of values is low on the agenda of skeptics, they end up stalling the flourishing. (Values for flourishing being not just products but also methods, processes, guidelines like law and Constitution etc.). Flourishing refers to activities that make humans more capable of surviving. And therefore skeptics turn into nihilists by implication.
Conclusion: Survey of various Ethical schools brings out a few types in decision-making: a type that is focused on sacrifice and destruction of Values; a type like Libertarians and Environmentalists, who look only at the negative aspects of Production; a type that considers flourishing life as the standard of values, but is reluctant to question sacrificial or Altruistic actions; a type that discards principled thinking and puts emotions over fact-based principles; a type that disconnects principles from facts and implications, making them out of context absolute. And finally a Rational Egoist, deriving decisions from facts about self and own environment, and using fact-based rational principles to execute these decisions.
Of course, many subscribe to mixtures of these schools. For example, Altruism leading to a sense of entitlement and therefore Predatory Egoism. Or Pragmatism leading to Hedonism.
At an even wider level, there are schools of Ethics that give primacy to actions on values. Here content of values involving identification and prioritization is mostly an afterthought. Rational Egoism and Eudaimonia, on the other hand, promote identification and prioritization of values before any decision related to action is taken. These give importance to What over How, Content over Form, and therefore are from the Aristotelian Philosophy. Remaining schools are different versions of Platonic Philosophy.