Theresa O’Connor

The Moral, the Optimal, the Practical, and the Expident

I’ve been thinking about ethics a lot lately, and have had some great discussions on the topic with friends (Bill in particular). This is me putting my thoughts on the matter into writing for the first time. :)

Ethics arises because of the human need to make choices. We have to figure out what to do. Every moment of our lives, we’re faced with the necessity of deciding what comes next. Whatever we choose has some effect on the options presented to us in the next round.

So ethics is the science that enables us to effectively make better choices. That’s the name of the game. Ideally, we want to make the best choice.

Now the Objectivist meta-ethics applies Aristotelian causality to determine the standard of the good. What a thing is determines what it ought to do, so by understanding ourselves and our nature as human beings, we can determine what it is that we should be doing.1 Our purpose in life is to be happy. So how do we most effectively achieve happiness? By understanding who and what we are, and what kind of world we live in, and acting accordingly. Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.

Objectivism is a philosophy for living on this earth. The attainment of values is the chief focus of the Objectivist ethics. If we know of a good way to get values, then we’re better off. We’d be even better off if we found a better way to get values. It is in this sense that I view the decision-making process as one in which we should try to constantly improve on our method.

So, getting back to what I was saying before, ethics arises because of the human need to make choices. We have to figure out what to do, which option to choose out of the plethora available to us.

Each of these options has myriad consequences, some good, some bad. Many of the options will have good consequences in some respects and bad consequences in other respects. The game of effective moral decision-making is to utilize principles which help you to quickly zoom in on a subset of the possible options which are demonstrably better than the rest.

At this point, it is entirely possible that you still have multiple options. Before, you were comparing good and bad options. Now, you have to decide between good options and better options. The end goal is to make the best decision possible, but to do so given limited time.

Keep in mind that you don’t have all day, not-so-metaphorically speaking. Each decision that you have to make has to be made at some point. Some decisions, such as choosing a college or university to attend, allow for a longer decision-making process. Others, such as one may encounter in hectic day-trading on Wall Street or in many other situations, require a lightning-fast apprasial of the situation.

When Ayn Rand stated that “the moral is the practical,” she meant it. Her use of the word “practical” here may be confusing to many people. The most practical action would be the one that is most conducive to living on this earth, the one with the optimal achievement of value given inputs. The common usage of the word “practical,” perhaps influenced by the incongruence of other ethical systems to the real world, is a sort of pragmatic, expident choice, i.e. the easy way out. This is most emphatically not what is meant by “practical” when I use the word.

You can now see why I named this “the moral, the optimal, the practical, and the expident.” These four concepts play key roles in our understanding of our ethical position(s), and having a good grasp of their interplay with one another enables us to more effectively argue for egoistic consequatialism.


  1. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, p. 18