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Three Ethical Standards to Live By: A Hard Choice, but One You Need To Make

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Fred Arnold

What Are the Top Three Ethical Standards?

Source:, Psychology

Source:, Psychology

There are many Ethical Theories out there in the world. As a person grows up and joins society it is important to take on a way of life that helps guide them to proper decision making. This is very objective because it differs from person to person, and because of this difference it is important to make sure the theory adopted is one that resonates and accentuates a person’s strong points.

The three theories that will be discussed in this article are theories that have long been apart of societies all around the world. The three theories are:

  • Egoism
  • Virtue Ethics
  • Utilitarianism

The Egoist


Egoism is a consequential theory. Consequential theorists base their decisions off of the outcome rather than the actual decision. To put this into perspective, a consequential theorist confronted with an ethical dilemma on abortion might say if it is in the best interest of the individual then the abortion is justified. Egoism takes a self-centered stance on the decision making process. These self-interested decisions usually have to do with the long term. To be an egoist one must accept the idea that humans do not possess altruistic tendencies. Altruism is the ability of a human to act unselfishly. Two very prominent philosophers who were egoists are Friedrich Nietzsche and Niccolo Machiavelli.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Egoism


In Friedrich Nietzsche’s egoism it is important to note that he believed in the ideals of altruism, but does not believe in its worth. When it came to the mass population, altruism was something to strive for. This meant that altruistic ideals were real by association. Nietzsche believed that since altruistic ideas were inherent in society that a person can use it for their own personal gain. Someone who had this ability fulfilled their lust for power. This lust for power, Nietzsche believed, was a part of the human characteristic. Positions that seemed altruistic in nature (teachers, rabbis, public servants) were able to exploit the masses and obtain influence and power. Think of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (Manias, 121)

  • “The unchangeable character is influenced in its expressions by its environment and education-not in its essence. A popular ethics therefore wants to suppress bad expressions as far as possible, for the sake of general welfare-an undertaking that is strikingly similar to the police.”
    (Nietzsche, 30)
  • “What the philosophers call character is an incurable disease. An imperative ethics is one that deals with the symptoms of the disease having faith, while it fights them, that it is getting rid of the real origin, the basic evil. Anyone who would base practical ethics on aesthetics would be like a physician who would fight only those symptoms which are ugly and offend good taste.” (Nietzsche, 31)

These quotes show Nietzsche’s criticism of the then “modern” form of ethics in society. He believed that ethical thinking above self-interest is pointless because it is illogical and goes against human nature.

Machiavelli’s Egoism


Machiavelli’s ideals are echoed in many prominent philosophers when it comes to politics. One of note is Thomas Hobbes and his “Leviathan.” Machiavelli believed that men were psychologically and ethically egoist. He made his assumption based off of his time in Italy as a diplomat and the ways corrupted people and families worked. The state was a creation by the people for self-interested goals. People who had the ambition were able to pull themselves into power. This juxtaposes Nietzsche’s ideas on the lust for power. Nietzsche and Machiavelli differ on the ways a person uses to obtain that power. Nietzsche believed in a subtle approach where Machiavelli believed in pure ruthlessness. Manias, 121)

A Shaky Theory

Egoism is not a terrible theory as it often can come across. Mainly people have trouble with the idea of an un altruistic society. People feel that it is negative to be self-centered and try to branch out and help others.

If one takes the stance that helping others is in their best interest, as well as everyone in societies best interest, then egoism takes on a new shape.

The Beginning of Virtue Ethics, The Big Two

Virtue ethics is a theory based on the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (The Big Three) Their teachings on ethics pointed to the character of the individual and the ability to act “right” in various situations. This differed from the teachings of the church and state of the time where authority and superstition ruled ethical thought. Socrates was known for his unorthodox conversations he would have in the city of Athens. He never recorded any of his conversations or writings so his ideals can only be speculated on. To go further into virtue ethics one must look into the teachings of the other two who documented plenty of their rationalizations on ethics.

Plato’s Ethics


Plato was a very practical person. When it came to questioning the roots of happiness he believed that observing those who are happy is the best route. Plato’s “happiness” is not a shallow short term definition. He was looking for an actualized state of being that can bring contented fulfillment over a period of time. Plato, while observing people who were content and happy, came to the conclusion that these people were morally mature. Once he had the answer to what constitutes a happy person he had to figure out what made those people happy? What about their characters stood out from the rest? He rationalized that there were four character traits that one needs to find ultimate happiness:

  • Self Control
  • Courage
  • Wisdom
  • Justice

Plato believed that these virtues were necessary for a contented soul and that those who gain this revelation can instill into others how to achieve the goal. This will ultimately trickle through society until society is peaceful and happy.

Aristotle’s Ethics

Aristotle took Plato’s ideas on ethics and expanded them to a whole new level. First, Aristotle did not just believe in those four main virtue. He believed that there were many moral and intellectual virtues that made up peoples character. Moral virtues are the virtues needed to live within society properly, while intellectual virtues are those based off of logic and reasoning.

Aristotle believed in the idea of teleology. That is that everything in the world has a purpose. Plants are there to produce oxygen, bees are there to pollinate those plants, and the Sun is there to drive the plants photosynthesis. To Aristotle, something that promotes its teleology (fulfilling it’s purpose) is good and is something to strive for, and the purpose of a specific beings is considered its nature. Aristotle used reason to justify the higher ability of humans to fulfill their nature. He stated that humans were the only animal that had the ability of rational expression. Through reason, one can achieve the ideal of eudaimonia, or “living well and being well.”

As stated above, Plato rationalized the four virtues that someone should have to live a content life. Plato believed that knowing the virtues by definition was enough to lead someone to a virtuous life. Aristotle disagreed and believed that someone must consistently act virtuous till their being encompasses that virtue. In essence, in Aristotle’s ethics, the person becomes courageous by doing, not knowing.

Aristotle goes further with his ideas on the “Golden Mean.” This idea is the all too known “not too much, not too little” theory. Aristotle felt that a virtue used in excess leads to a troubled life. Take for instance courage. Having too much courage can lead to foolhardiness, while too little leads to cowardice. Finding the appropriate amount of courage will depend on a person’s ability to reason in any given situation. (Manias, 152-160)

Virtue Ethics is used extensively today. In fact most public schools in modern societies use virtue ethics in their curriculum. Virtue ethics offers many a simple explanation for modern problems and promotes a middle ground lifestyle. It also promotes self-reflection which is important for anyone trying to figure out who, what, and why they are who they are.

Utilitarianism and the Greatest Possible Good

Utilitarianism is a consequential ethical theory that is used extensively in modern society in a broader scope. That is a government official will likely use this format to produce the greatest happiness for their constituents rather then trying to make each individual happy. So, to put it simply, utilitarianism is a moral decision based upon the outcome that will produce the greatest possible good for all stakeholders involved. When dealing with this theory it is important to take a look at Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill.

Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism


Bentham believed that there was an extreme amount of unhappiness in society. To fix the issue the people in charge had to change the law based on what will make the greatest number of people happy. With this in mind he created Act Utilitarianism that uses his Utility Principle for decision making. This utility principle is based off of a mathematical scale that determines the extend of the pain or pleasure exhibited by a person. This scale is calculated on a uniform measurement. For example: Getting ice cream would be a 7 on the pleasure scale and a 0 on the pain scale. Basically one will add up the points for pleasure then subtract the points from pain. Whatever is left is the net utility. If the outcome has the greatest net utility out of all options then that is the decision one makes. He called this method of calculating pleasure/pain hedonistic calculus. Bentham used six factors to determine the pleasure/pain ratio:

  • The intensity of the pleasure.
  • The duration of the pleasure.
  • Its likelihood of occurring.
  • The immediacy or delay in experiencing the pleasure.
  • The potential of the act to produce pain.
  • The number of people who experience the pleasure or pain.

Act Utilitarian is a process that takes rules and laws into consideration as only guidelines and not something that will ultimately define the decision. The Utility Principle, regardless of laws or rules, defines the decision for Act Utilitarians. This is an important factor because it is the distinguishing factor between Act and Rule Utilitarians.

Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism


Mill believed that there were issues with the Act Utilitarian model so he devised the Rule Utilitarian model. The problems with the Act Utilitarian model is that no actions can ever be absolutely right or wrong. Also, he believed that pleasure and pain is objective to the person. For Mill, rules and laws are a defining part of society and must be taken seriously. This is because rules and laws are such an important part to a smooth flowing society. To Mill, having rules and laws made a society happier then one without such rules or laws.

So, to the Rule Utilitarian, the rules and laws are what should be adhered to because they promote the greatest amount of happiness in a society. Mill knew that rules and laws can often be negative, but he also knew that those rules and laws must be logically justified.

A logically justified rule must be weighed against Bentham’s Utility Principle. If the rule brings the greatest number of happiness then it is justified, if it does not, it is unjustified.

Mill also believed adding in the absolutes of rules and laws fixed some of the issues of Act Utilitarian. (Manias, 126-137) Act and Rule Utilitarian ideals are utilized mostly in government, business, and larger social settings due to their nature to address the greatest happiness for all. This does not count it out for individual use. Remember, every decision made by a person affects others on some level. The smallest decision can have the biggest consequences. Utilizing each of these theories can show a person all options and consequences involved, as well as a clear idea on how the decisions affect others involved.


How to Apply Each Ethical Principle


  • Consider all options.
  • Determine the consequences for each option.
  • Choose the decision that is in the person’s best interest.

Virtue Ethics:

  • Determine which virtues are needed in the situation.
  • Use the Golden Mean to make sure that those specific virtues are utilized properly.
  • Choose the wisest course of action.

Act and Rule Utilitarian:


  • Identify all ethical options.
  • Consider all other options.
  • Consider all stakeholders involved.
  • Determine net utility.
  • Choose the decision that has the greatest please.


  • List the rules or laws that will be relevant in the situation.
  • Determine justifiability for each rule or law based on net utility.
  • Choose whichever has the highest net utility.
  • Apply the rule to the problem at hand.

(Manias, 111-163)

Sources Cited:

1. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Kaufmann. “On Ethics.” The portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. . Print.

2. Manias, Nicholas. “Consequential Ethical Theories, Non Consequential Theories.” Ethics Applied. : Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013. . Print.

3. “Friedrich Nietzsche.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.

4. “Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.

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