Major Ethical Systems

This chapter outlines the three broad categories of ethical systems normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta-ethics. Use the navigation arrows on the right and left side of the page to move forward through the eleven sections in this chapter. By the end of this reading, you will be able to define the three broad ethical systems and describe several approaches to ethics. Be sure you have a good understanding of the important approaches for Unit 1: deontology, consequentialism, and natural law.


Unlike other theories that prescribe how we ought to behave, egoism is a descriptive principle that does not tell us necessarily how we ought to behave, but rather why we behave the way we do. It infers that the person who acts in an egotistical manner does so because it is natural to act in this way, and therefore it is a moral action unto itself.

According to the tenets of egoism, the core reason that someone does any action is self-serving by bringing happiness or some other benefit to him- or herself. If someone performs an action that appears to be altruistic, the action was likely performed to give the actor gratification in some way. This may come in many forms; for example in the form of positive media attention, or just feeling good about oneself.

The following example may illustrate how a heroic act by law enforcement officers may be viewed differently through the lens of egoism. On June 10, 2014, Vancouver police detectives witnessed a shooting on the seawall in Yaletown. A gunfight ensued in which the suspect was able to escape via bicycle. Armed and reloaded, the suspect pedalled away and was followed by one of the detectives. The suspect fired at the pursuing detective, narrowly missing her. The detective pursued the suspect while being shot at until other police officers arrived who shot the suspect in an exchange of gunfire.

Most people would look at this case and believe that the detective was selflessly trying to apprehend a dangerous suspect before anyone else was shot. While this may be true, proponents of egoism would suggest that the detective acted in her own self-interest because capturing the suspect would satisfy her happiness, that she wanted media attention, or that she thought her actions would look good to her colleagues, thereby making her happy. This is a cynical view of her actions, but may help us understand why some people act in a way that puts them in danger.

Another way to demonstrate egoism is to place yourself in a situation in which you see someone who requires help. Suppose you decide that not assisting would cause you to feel guilty, thereby troubling you. As a response, you assist the person. From an outsider's perspective, you were acting selflessly and in the interest of the person who was requiring assistance. The end result of your actions, though, was twofold:

  1. Your actions assisted the person in need.
  2. Your actions made you feel good, allowing you to rid yourself of that troubling feeling resulting from guilt.

Q. How can egoism assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Egoism does not suggest that police officers should act in their own self-interest; certainly this would not be appropriate for law enforcement personnel. Where egoism may help is to better understand why people do things that may appear selfish. This may help us develop empathy for the suspects that appear to be selfish and allow us to better understand that their actions are driven by egoism. Egoism may also assist us in understanding the motives of others, allowing us to look at these motives with more skeptically than we would otherwise.

Egoism can also provide explanations of misconduct among law enforcement officers. Officers who abuse the trust placed on them by society and abuse their authority could be said to be acting in an egoistic state. In this sense, law enforcement officers are  acting in their own self-interest and not in the interest of their agency, the individual citizen who was the target of and officer, and society in general. Ultimately, the end result of bad behaviour by law enforcement personnel, according to Souryal, is "arguably feeding one's ego".

In a broader sense, ethical egoists may also view everything we do as an extension of a desire to live at peace in a society that respects all; every positive action we take is actually selfish activity, so that we can make a better society to live in. In this way, egoists can be positive in their actions making what are apparent good and ethical decisions. However proponents of the egoist theory would suggest that the decisions are at their root self-serving, and therefore egoist in nature.

Criticisms of Egoism

Egoism is an attempt at explaining how we naturally behave with our own interests as a central focus, and that we ought to behave in this way. However, it is an overly cynical perspective on how humans behave. There are plenty of examples of selfless acts that are committed every day and go without notice. While it is true that many donations are made and good deeds done with the expectation that positive publicity will be generated for the giver, this does not necessarily mean that the giver's sole purpose is to gain publicity. It is possible that publicity is a by-product of giving. Furthermore, while it is in the interests of people to make decisions that will better society, there is no evidence that everyone makes these decisions based on self-interest. If these decisions were universalized, then the world would be a markedly poorer place to live in.