This article was originally published at the Students For Liberty blog. 

All too often there are only two general camps present in discussions between libertarians regarding their philosophical foundations. The question of the ethical grounding within a belief in liberty is presented as though these are the only two options and you must pick one. That is, ethics only comes in two, distinct flavors. The two camps are deontology and consequentialism.

  1. The deontologists ground their commitment to liberty in what duties people owe to themselves and/or others. For, the deontologist, consequences don’t play a role in determining what is right and wrong. Much of the time, deontological arguments are based on people’s supposed natural rights. The arguments set forth by John Locke and Murray Rothbard are in this camp.
  2. The consequentialists ground their commitment to liberty in the good consequences that liberty tends to promote. For the consequentialist, people don’t have inherent or natural duties or rights. Rather, these kinds of arguments are based on the idea of the maximization of pleasure or happiness.  The arguments set forth by Ludwig von Mises and David Friedman are in this camp.

Both of these ethical theories face some serious problems. For the deontologist, respecting rights is morally obligatory even in the face of disastrous consequences. For example, you couldn’t scratch me even if it meant saving someone’s life. For the consequentialist, people have no rights so action that achieves what is considered good consequences is obligatory regardless of affronts to human autonomy. For example, a doctor would be obligated to kill an innocent person, if he could make it seem like an accident, in order to harvest their organs and save five of the doctor’s patients. But these both seem like absurd conclusions.

You couldn’t tell from many public debates, but these aren’t the only two options. The deontology/consequentialism choice is a false dichotomy. Someone entering the realm of ethics and philosophical foundations presented with only these choices would be like someone trying to order pizza without reading the menu and trying to decide between two toppings. Little do they know, they can get both.

When I order pizza, I call Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics Pizzeria. Some guy named Aristotle runs the joint. I tell him I want my pizza with good consequences and rights respecting behavior. As usual, Aristotle delivers.

Aristotle argued all action must aim at some good or end. For human beings, that end is happiness or flourishing (the Greek term is eudaimonia) – the good life. Eudaimonia isn’t a feeling or mental state. It isn’t found in a given moment. It’s a cumulative process found when looking at the course of a person’s entire life. Did they achieve eudaimonia? Did they live the good life?

So instead of asking, “what is the right action?” like the deontologists or the consequentialist, the virtue ethicist is asking, “what is a good person?” A good person is one that achieves their purpose, or ultimate end: eudaimonia. But what does eudaimonia consist of?

The good life won’t just be any kind of life. It must be one that is in accordance with our nature. Aristotle called humans “the rational animal” since we have the distinctly human trait of the ability to reason. That is, the capacity to understand abstract ideas and concepts, to apply means to desired ends, and to communicate and cooperate with others. Since we are rational creatures, our good is the perfection of rational nature.

In addition to things like wealth, family, friends, and love that are pretty obviously part of any good life, there are the virtues. The perfection of rational nature is acting virtuously. The virtues, as the right kind of habitually developed character dispositions that guide our thoughts and actions, are essential to the good life.

But the virtues are not independent of each other. There is a unity of virtue where all of the virtues determine each other in a process of mutual adjustment. To determine how to act justly in a given situation we must know what being courageous looks like, and what being prudent looks like, and so on. It’s impossible to fully separate any virtue from the others.

In this way virtue ethics accounts for both deontological and consequential considerations. The consequences play a role in determining the content and application of the virtues, since our actions are ultimately taken aimed at a certain consequence: the good life. But since acting virtuously is a constitutive part of the good life, and not just a means to the good life, acting virtuously for its own sake (the deontological aspect) also plays a role.

These two concerns work in mutual adjustment to determine just what flourishing looks like and what being a good person means. Rather than choosing a single topping, Aristotelian virtue ethics is the pizza topped with the deliciousness of consequential and deontological concerns.