Atlas Shrugged is a story about a future world in which the entire globe, with the exception of America, has fallen under the rule of various “People’s States” or dictatorships. America, the only country that is not yet fully socialized, is sliding rapidly in that direction, as it increasingly accepts the ideas that lead to dictatorship, ideas such as self-sacrifice is noble, self-interest is evil, and greedy producers and businessmen have a moral obligation to serve the “greater good” of society.
Given this cultural climate, the economy becomes increasingly regulated by the government, and the country slides further and further into economic chaos: Factories shut down, trains stop running, businesses close their doors, people starve—just what you would expect if the U.S. government started acting like the government of the USSR.
But then, something strange starts happening. America’s top producers—various scientists, inventors, businessmen, and artists—start to disappear. One by one, they simply vanish. And no one knows where they’ve gone or why.
Consequently, the supply of goods and services—from scientific discoveries to copper to wheat to automobiles to oil to medicine to entertainment—reduces to a trickle and eventually comes to a halt. Life as Americans once knew it ceases to exist. The country is in ruins.
Where did the producers go and why? Were they killed? Were they kidnapped? Do they return? How is this resolved?
Read the book. You’ll be riveted.
As I said, I don’t want to give away the story, but I will mention its theme. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in man’s existence. The novel dramatizes the fact that the reasoning mind is the basic source of the values on which human life depends. And this is not only the theme of Atlas; it is also the essence of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism: Reason—the faculty that operates by means of observation, concepts, and logic—is the source of all knowledge, values, and prosperity.
In this same vein, the theme of my talk tonight is the role of the mind—specifically your mind—in understanding, evaluating, and embracing a moral code.
Suppose you are offered two moral codes from which to choose—and whichever one you choose, you have to live by it for the rest of your life. The first code tells you that your life is supremely important—that it is properly the single most important thing in the world to you. This code says that you should live a wonderful, joy-filled life, and it provides an abundance of guidance about how to do so: how to make your life great; how to choose your goals, organize your values, and prioritize the things that are important to you; how to succeed in school, in friendships, and in romance; how to choose a career that you’ll love and how to succeed in it. And so on. In short, this first moral code provides you guidance for achieving a lifetime of happiness and prosperity.
The second moral code offers an entirely different kind of guidance. It tells you not that you should live a wonderful life, not that you should pursue and achieve your goals and values—but, rather, that your life is unimportant, that you should sacrifice your values, that you should give them up for the “sake” of others, that you should abandon the pursuit of personal happiness and accept the kind of “life” that results from doing so. That’s it. That’s the guidance provided by the second code.
All else being equal, which moral code would you choose—and why?
I suspect that, on serious reflection, you would choose the first code. I further suspect that your reasoning would be something on the order of: “We’re talking about my life here. If it’s true that embracing the first code will make my life wonderful, and embracing the second will make it miserable, then this is a no-brainer.”
I think that’s good reasoning. Let’s see if it holds up under scrutiny as we flesh out the respective natures and implications of these two codes.
The first code is Rand’s morality of rational egoism, which lies at the heart of Atlas Shrugged and is the centerpiece of Objectivism. The second code is the traditional ethics of altruism—which is the cause of all the trouble in Atlas Shrugged and is the ethics on which we all were raised. In order to be clear about what Rand’s egoism is, I want to compare and contrast it with altruism. This will serve to highlight the value of Rand’s ideas and help to dispel potential misconceptions about her views. It will also show how destructive altruism is and why we desperately need to replace it with rational egoism—both personally and culturally. (I will be using the terms “egoism” and “rational egoism” interchangeably for reasons that will become clear as we proceed.)
Let me stress that I cannot present the whole of Rand’s morality in one evening—that would be impossible. What I’m going to do is just indicate its essence, by discussing a few of its key principles. My aim is to show you that there is something enormously important here—something important to your life and happiness—and to inspire you to look further into the subject on your own.
To begin, observe that each of you brought a morality with you tonight. It is right there in your head—whether you are conscious of it or not. Each of you has a set of ideas about what is good and bad, right and wrong—about what you should and shouldn’t do. And you refer to these ideas, implicitly or explicitly, when making choices and taking actions in your daily life. Should I study for the test, or cheat on it, or not worry about it? What career should I choose—and how should I choose it? Is environmentalism a good movement or a bad one? What should I do this weekend? How should I spend my time? Whom should I befriend? Whom can I trust? Is homosexuality wrong? Does a fetus have rights? What is the proper way to deal with terrorists?
The answers one gives to such questions depend on one’s morality. This is what a morality is: a set of ideas and principles to guide one’s choices, evaluations, and actions.
Because as human beings we have to make choices—because we have free will—a morality of some kind is unavoidable to us. Morality is truly inescapable. Our only choice in this regard is whether we acquire our morality through conscious deliberation—or by default, through social osmosis.
If we acquire our morality by default, we will most likely accept the dominant morality in the culture today: altruism—the idea that being moral consists in being selfless. “Don’t be selfish!”—“Put others first!”—“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”—“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”—“Volunteer to serve in your community.”—“Sacrifice for the greater good.” And so on.
This is the morality that surrounded all of us growing up—and that still surrounds us today. It is the morality taught in church, synagogue, and school—offered in books, movies, and on TV—and encouraged by most parents.
Interestingly, however, although our culture is steeped in this morality, the actual meaning of altruism, in the minds of most people, is quite vague. Is a doctor acting altruistically when he cares for his patients? Or is he seeking to gain from doing so? Are parents being altruistic when they pay for their children’s education? Or is it in their best interest to do so? Are American soldiers acting altruistically when they defend our freedom? Or is defending our freedom in their self-interest? Are you acting altruistically when you throw a birthday party for your best friend? Or do you do so because he or she is a great value to you—and thus, something is in it for you?
What exactly is the difference between self-less action and self-interested action? What is the difference between altruism and egoism?
To understand how each differs from the other, we need to understand the basic theory of each code and what each calls for in practice. To begin clarifying this issue, let us turn first to altruism.
Altruism is the morality that holds self-sacrificial service as the standard of moral value and as the sole justification for one’s existence. Here, in the words of altruistic philosopher W. G. Maclagan, is the basic principle: According to altruism, “the moral importance of being alive lies in its constituting the condition of our ability to serve ends that are not reducible to our personal satisfactions.”2 This means that the moral importance of your life corresponds to your acts of selflessness—acts that do not satisfy your personal needs. Insofar as you do not act selflessly, your life has no moral significance. Quoting Maclagan again, altruism holds that we have “a duty to relieve the stress and promote the happiness of our fellows. . . . [We] should discount altogether [our] own pleasure or happiness as such when . . . deciding what course of action to pursue. . . . [Our] own happiness is, as such, a matter of no moral concern to [us] whatsoever.”3
Ayn Rand was not exaggerating when she said, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.”4 That is the theoretical meaning of altruism. And the altruistic philosophers know it—and state it forthrightly. (We’ll hear from more of them a little later.)
Now, what does altruism mean in practice? Suppose a person accepts altruism as true and strives to practice it consistently. What will become of his life?
A widely-used college philosophy text gives us a good indication. As I read this passage, bear in mind that this is not someone speaking for or against altruism. This is just a textbook writer’s depiction of what altruism means in practice.
A pure altruist doesn’t consider her own welfare at all but only that of others. If she had a choice between an action that would produce a great benefit for herself (such as enabling her to go to college) and an action that would produce no benefit for herself but a small benefit for someone else (such as enabling him to go to a concert this evening), she should do the second. She should be selfless, considering herself not at all: she should face death rather than subject another person to a minor discomfort. She is committed to serving others only and to pass up any benefits to herself.5
That illustrates the practical meaning of altruism—and indicates why no one practices it consistently.
Observe, however, that whether practiced consistently or inconsistently, the basic principle of altruism remains the same: The only moral justification of your existence is self-sacrificial service to others. That some people subscribe to altruism but fail to uphold it consistently does not make their moral code different in kind from that of a person who practices it consistently; the difference is only one of degree. The consistent altruist is acting with a bizarre form of “integrity”—the kind of integrity that leads to his suffering and death. The inconsistent altruist is acting with plain-old hypocrisy—albeit a necessary hypocrisy given his moral code.
And not only is the altruist’s morality the same in kind; the consequences of accepting it are the same in kind, too. To the extent that a person acts selflessly, he thereby thwarts his life and happiness. He might not die because of it, but he certainly will not live fully; he will not make the most of his life; he will not achieve the kind of happiness that is possible to him.
Have you accepted the principle of altruism? If so, how is it affecting your life?
Have you ever done something for the sake of others—at the expense of what you really thought was best for your own life? For instance: Have you ever accepted an invitation to dine with someone whose company you do not enjoy—because you didn’t want to hurt his or her feelings? Have you ever skipped an event—such as a ski trip or a weekend at the beach with your friends—in order to spend time with family members you’d really rather not see? Have you ever remained in a relationship that you know is not in your best interest—because you think that he or she couldn’t handle the breakup?
Conversely, have you ever felt guilty for not sacrificing for others? Have you ever felt ashamed for doing something that was in your own best interest? For instance, have you felt guilty for not giving change to a beggar on a street corner? Or guilty for pursuing a degree in business or art or something you love—rather than doing something allegedly “noble,” such as joining the Peace Corps?
These are just some of the consequences of accepting the morality of altruism.
Altruism is not good for your life: If you practice it consistently, it leads to death. That’s what Jesus did. If you accept it and practice it inconsistently, it retards your life and leads to guilt. This is what most altruists do.
Rational egoism, as the name suggests, and as we will see, is good for your life. It says that you should pursue your life-serving values and should not sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. Practiced consistently, it leads to a life of happiness. Practiced inconsistently—well, why be inconsistent here? Why not live a life of happiness? Why sacrifice at all? What reason is there to do so? (We will address the profound lack of an answer to this question later.)
At this point, we can begin to see why Rand called altruism “The Morality of Death.” To fully grasp why it is the morality of death, however, we must understand that the essence of altruism is not “serving others” but self-sacrifice. So I want to reiterate this point with emphasis.
Altruism does not call merely for “serving others”; it calls for self-sacrificially serving others. Otherwise, Michael Dell would have to be considered more altruistic than Mother Teresa. Why? Because Michael Dell serves millions more people than Mother Teresa ever did.
There is a difference, of course, in the way he serves people. Whereas Mother Teresa “served” people by exchanging her time and effort for nothing, Michael Dell serves people by trading with them—by exchanging value for value to mutual advantage—an exchange in which both sides gain.
Trading value for value is not the same thing as giving up values for nothing. There is a black-and-white difference between pursuing values and giving them up—between achieving values and relinquishing them—between exchanging a lesser value for a greater one—and vice versa.
In an effort to make their creed seem more palatable, pushers of altruism will try to blur this distinction in your mind. It is important not to let them get away with it. Don’t be duped!
Altruists claim, for instance, that parents “sacrifice” when they pay for their children to attend college. But this is ridiculous: Presumably, parents value their children’s education more than they value the money they spend on it. If so, then the sacrifice would be for them to forgo their children’s education and spend the money on a lesser value—such as a Ferrari.
Altruists also claim that romantic love requires “sacrifices.” But this is ridiculous, too: “Honey, I’d really rather be with another woman, but here I am sacrificially spending my time with you.” Or: “I’d really rather have spent this money on a new set of golf clubs, but instead I sacrificially bought you this necklace for your birthday.” Or: “It’s our anniversary—so I’m fixing you your favorite dish for a candlelit dinner—even though I’d rather be playing poker with the guys.”
Is that love? Only if love is sacrificial.
Altruists also claim that American soldiers sacrifice by serving in the military. Not so. Our non-drafted soldiers serve for a number of self-interested reasons. Here are three: (1) They serve for the same reason that the Founding Fathers formed this country—because they value liberty, because they realize that liberty is a requirement of human life, which is the reason why Patrick Henry ended his famous speech with “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” His was not an ode to sacrifice; it was an ode to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (2) Our soldiers serve in exchange for payment and education—which are clearly in their self-interest. (3) They serve because they are fascinated by military science and want to make a career of it—another selfish motive.
Do some of these soldiers die in battle? Unfortunately, yes. Theirs is a dangerous job. But American soldiers don’t willfully give up their lives: They don’t walk out on the battlefield and say, “Shoot me!” Nor do they strap bombs to their bodies and detonate themselves in enemy camps. On the contrary, they do everything they can to beat the enemy, win the war, and remain alive—even when the Bush and Obama administrations tie their hands with altruistic restrictions on how they can fight.
The point is that a sacrifice is not “any choice or action that precludes some other choice or action.” A sacrifice is not “any old exchange.” A sacrifice is, as Rand put it, “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.”6
Whether or not one is committing a sacrifice depends on what is more important and what is less important to one’s life. To make this determination, of course, one must know the relative importance of one’s values in regard to one’s life. But if one does establish this hierarchy, one can proceed non-sacrificially—and consistently so.
For example, if you know that your education is more important to your life than is, say, a night on the town with your friends, then if you stay home in order to study for a crucial exam—rather than going out with your buddies—that is not a sacrifice. The sacrifice would be to hit the town and botch the exam.
Life requires that we regularly forgo lesser values for the sake of greater ones. But these are gains, not sacrifices. A sacrifice consists in giving up something that is more important for the sake of something that is less important; thus, it results in a net loss.
Altruism, the morality of self-sacrifice, is the morality of personal loss—and it does not countenance personal gain. This is not a caricature of altruism; it is the essence of the morality. As arch-altruist Peter Singer (the famed utilitarian philosopher at Princeton University) explains, “to the extent that [people] are motivated by the prospect of obtaining a reward or avoiding a punishment, they are not acting altruistically. . . .”7 Arch-altruist Thomas Nagel (a philosophy professor at New York University) concurs: Altruism entails “a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives”—“ulterior motives” meaning, of course, personal gains.8
To understand the difference between egoistic action and altruistic action, we must grasp the difference between a trade and a sacrifice—between a gain and a loss—and we must not allow altruists to blur this distinction in our mind. Egoism, as we will see, calls for personal gains. Altruism, as we have seen, calls for personal losses.
Now, despite its destructive nature, altruism is accepted to some extent by almost everyone today. Of course, no one upholds it consistently—at least not for long. Rather, most people accept it as true—and then cheat on it.
All the major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—advocate altruism; their holy books demand it. All so-called “secular humanist” philosophies—utilitarianism, postmodernism, egalitarianism—call for altruism as well. (Note that “secular humanists” do not call themselves “secular egoists” or “secular individualists.”)
“Alter” is Latin for “other”; “altruism” means “other-ism”; it holds that you should sacrifice for others. From the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim points of view, the significant “others” are “God” and “the poor”; in the Old Testament, for instance, God says: “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). From the utilitarian point of view, the “other” is “everyone in general”; the utilitarian principle is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” From the postmodern and egalitarian points of view, the “other” is anyone with less wealth or opportunity than you have; in other words, the better off you are, the more you should sacrifice for others—the worse off you are, the more others should sacrifice for you.
Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Everyone believes it is the moral thing to do. And no philosopher has been willing to challenge this idea.
Except Ayn Rand:
[T]here is one word—a single word—which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand—the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it—and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.9
On examination, this is true. No reason has ever been given as to why people should sacrifice for others. Of course, alleged reasons have been given, but not legitimate ones. So let’s consider the alleged reasons—of which there are approximately six—each of which involves a logical fallacy.
1. “You should sacrifice because God (or some other voice from another dimension) says so.” This is not a reason—certainly not an earthly one. At best, it is an appeal to authority—that is, to the “authorities” who claim to speak for God. Just because a preacher or a book makes a claim does not mean the claim is true. The Bible claims, among other things, that a bush spoke. More fundamentally, this non-reason is an arbitrary claim because there is no evidence for the existence of a god. But even those who believe in a god can recognize the fallacy of appealing to an authority.
2. “You should sacrifice because that’s the general consensus.” This is not a reason but an appeal to the masses. Matters of truth and morality are not determined by consensus. That slavery should be legal used to be the general consensus in America, and is still the consensus in parts of Africa. That did not and does not make it so. Nor does consensus legitimize the notion that you or anyone else should sacrifice or be sacrificed.
3. “You should sacrifice because other people need the benefit of your sacrifice.” This is an appeal to pity. Even if other people did need the benefit of your sacrifice, it would not follow that this is a reason to sacrifice. More importantly, however, the notion that people need the benefit of your sacrifice is false. What people need is to produce values and to trade them with others who produce values. And to do so, they and others must be free to produce and trade according to their own judgment. This, not human sacrifice, is what human life requires. (I’ll touch on the relationship between freedom and egoism a little later.)
4. “You should sacrifice because if you don’t, you will be beaten, or fined, or thrown in jail, or in some other way physically assaulted.” The threat of force is not a reason; it is the opposite of a reason. If the force wielders could offer a reason why you should sacrifice, then they would not have to use force; they could use persuasion instead of coercion.
5. “You should sacrifice because, well, when you grow up or wise up you’ll see that you should.” This is not a reason, but a personal attack and an insult. It says, in effect, “If you don’t see the virtue of sacrifice, then you’re childish or stupid”—as if demanding a reason in support of a moral conviction could indicate a lack of maturity or intelligence.
6. “You should sacrifice because only a miscreant or a scoundrel would challenge this established fact.” This kind of claim assumes that you regard others’ opinions of you as more important than your own judgment of truth. It is also an example of what Ayn Rand called “The Argument from Intimidation”: the attempt to substitute psychological pressure for rational argument. Like the personal attack, it is an attempt to avoid having to present a rational case for a position for which no rational case can be made.
That’s it. Such are the “reasons” offered in support of the claim that you should sacrifice. Don’t take my word for it; ask around. Ask your philosophy professors. Ask a priest or rabbi. You will find that all the “reasons” offered are variants of these—each of which, so far from being a “reason,” is a textbook logical fallacy. (Most even have fancy Latin names.)
Ayn Rand demanded reasons for her convictions. So should we.
She set out to discover a rational morality—one based on observable facts and logic. Rather than starting with the question “Which of the existing codes of value should I accept?”—she began with the question, “What are values and why does man need them?” This question pointed her away from the established views—and toward the facts of reality.
Looking at reality, Rand observed that a value is that which one acts to gain or keep. You can see the truth of this in your own life: You act to gain and keep money; you value it. You act to gain and keep good grades; you value them. You act to choose and develop a fulfilling career. You seek to meet the right guy or girl and build a wonderful relationship. And so on.
Looking at reality, Rand also saw that only living organisms take self-generated, goal-directed action. Trees, tigers, and people take actions toward goals. Rocks, rivers, and hammers do not. Trees, for example, extend their roots into the ground and their branches and leaves toward the sky; they value nutrients and sunlight. Tigers hunt antelope, and nap under trees; they value food and shade. And people act to gain their values, such as nutrition, education, a career, romance, and so on.
Further, Rand saw that the ultimate reason living organisms take such actions is to further their life. She discovered that an organism’s life is its ultimate goal and standard of value—and that man’s life is the standard of moral value: the standard by which one judges what is good and what is evil. Man’s life—meaning: that which is required to sustain and further the life of a human being—constitutes the standard of moral value.
Now, the validation of the principle that life is the standard of value has a number of aspects, and we don’t have time to consider all of them tonight. For our purposes here, I want to focus briefly on just a few.
By pursuing the question “Why does man need values?”—Ayn Rand kept her thinking fact-oriented. If man needs values, then the reason he needs them will go a long way toward establishing which values are legitimate and which are not. If man doesn’t need values, well, then, he doesn’t need them—and there is no point in pursuing the issue at all. What Rand discovered is that man does need values—and the reason he needs them is in order to live. Life, she discovered, is the ultimate goal of our actions; life is the final end toward which all our other values are properly the means.
Granted, because we have free will we can take antilife actions—and, as we have seen, altruism senselessly calls for us to do just that. But the point is that we don’t need to take antilife actions, unless we want to die—in which case, we don’t really need to take any action at all. We don’t need to do anything in order to die; if that’s what we want, we can simply stop acting altogether and we will soon wither away.
If we want to live, however, we must pursue life-serving values—and we must do so by choice.
Free will enables us to choose our values. This is what gives rise to the field of morality. Morality is the realm of chosen values. But whatever our choices, these facts remain: The only reason we can pursue values is because we are alive, and the only reason we need to pursue values is in order to live.
This two-pronged principle of Rand’s philosophy is essential to understanding how the Objectivist morality is grounded in the immutable facts of reality: (1) Only life makes values possible—since nonliving things cannot pursue values; and (2) only life makes values necessary—since only living things need to pursue values.
Observing reality, we can see that this is true: A rock doesn’t have values. It can’t act to gain or keep things; it just stays still—unless some outside force, such as a wave or a hammer, hits and moves it. And it doesn’t need to gain or keep things, because its continued existence is unconditional. A rock can change forms—for instance, it can be crushed and turned to sand, or melted and turned to liquid—but it cannot go out of existence. The continued existence of a living organism, however, is conditional—and this is what gives rise to the possibility and need of values. A tree must achieve certain ends—or else it will die. Its chemical elements will remain, but its life will go out of existence. A tiger must achieve certain ends, too, or it will meet the same fate. And a person—if he is to remain alive—must achieve certain ends as well.
The Objectivist ethics—recognizing all of this—holds human life as the standard of moral value. It holds that acting in accordance with the requirements of human life is moral, and acting in contradiction to those requirements is immoral. It is a fact-based, black-and-white ethics.
Now, combining the principle that human life is the standard of moral value with the observable fact that people are individuals—each with his own body, his own mind, his own life—we reach another principle of the Objectivist ethics: Each individual’s own life is his own ultimate value. This means that each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others. Accordingly, he has no moral “duty” to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Nor does he have a moral “right” to sacrifice others for his own sake. On principle, neither self-sacrifice nor the sacrifice of others is moral, because, on principle, human sacrifice as such is immoral.
Human life does not require people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others; nor does it require people to sacrifice others for their own sake. Human life simply does not require human sacrifice; people can live without giving up their minds, their values, their lives; people can live without killing, beating, robbing, or defrauding one another.
Moreover, human sacrifice cannot promote human life and happiness; it can lead only to suffering and death. If people want to live and be happy they must neither sacrifice themselves nor sacrifice others; rather, they must pursue life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. And, given the role of morality in human life, in order to do so, they must accept the morality that advocates doing so.
In a sentence, the Objectivist ethics holds that human sacrifice is immoral—and that each person should pursue his own life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. This is the basic principle of rational egoism. And the reason it sounds so good is because it is good; it is right; it is true. This principle is derived from the observable facts of reality and the demonstrable requirements of human life. Where else could valid moral principles come from? And what other purpose could they serve?
We can now see why Ayn Rand said, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” Morality, properly conceived, is not a hindrance to a life of happiness; rather, it is the means to such a life.
So let us turn to the question of how to enjoy yourself and live. If that is the right thing to do, then what—according to the Objectivist ethics—is the means to that end?
First and foremost, in order to live and achieve happiness, we have to use reason. Hence the technically redundant word “rational” in “rational egoism.” Reason is our means of understanding the world, ourselves, and our needs. It is the faculty that operates by means of perceptual observation and conceptual abstraction—by means of our five senses and our ability to think logically, to make causal connections, and to form principles.
It is by means of reason that we identify what things are, what properties they have, and how we can use them for our life-serving purposes. For example, it is by the use of reason that we learn about plants, soil, the principles of agriculture, and how to produce food. It is by means of reason that we learn about wool, silk, and how to make looms and produce clothing. It is by means of reason that we learn the principles of chemistry and biology and how to produce medicine and perform surgery; the principles of engineering and how to build homes and skyscrapers; the principles of aerodynamics and how to make and fly jumbo jets; the principles of physics and how to produce and control nuclear energy. And so on.
On a more personal level, it is by means of reason that we are able to develop fulfilling careers, to engage in rewarding hobbies, and to establish and maintain good friendships. And it is by means of reason that we are able to achieve success in romance.
Since this last is perhaps less obvious than the others, let’s focus on it for a minute.
To establish and maintain a good romantic relationship, you have to take into account all the relevant facts pertaining to that goal. To begin with, you have to know what kind of relationship will actually be good for your life; you were not born with this knowledge, nor do you gain it automatically. To acquire it, you have to observe reality and think logically. Further, you have to find someone who suits your needs and lives up to your standards. To do so, you have to judge peoples’ characters and qualities accurately—which requires reason. Once found, you have to treat the person justly—as he or she deserves to be treated. To do this, you have to understand and apply the principle of justice (which we will discuss shortly). Your means of understanding and applying it is reason.
To succeed in romance, you have to discover and act in accordance with a lot of facts and principles. You must think and act rationally. If you choose a lover irrationally, or treat your lover irrationally, then your love life will be doomed. I’m sure you all know of people who approach relationships irrationally—and what the results are.
The Objectivist ethics recognizes that reason is our basic means of living and achieving happiness. Thus, it upholds reason as our guide in all areas of life: material, spiritual, personal, social, sexual, professional, recreational—you name it.
Now, what about emotions? Where do they fit into the picture?
The Objectivist ethics recognizes and upholds the crucial role of emotions in human life and happiness. Emotions are our psychological means of enjoying life—which is the whole purpose of living. But, toward that end, it is important to treat emotions for what they are and not to expect them to be what they are not.
What exactly are emotions? They are automatic consequences of our value judgments. They arise from our evaluations of the things, people, and events in our lives. For instance, if you apply for a job that you consider ideal for your career path, and you get it, you will experience positive, joyful emotions. If you don’t get it, you will experience feelings of frustration or disappointment. Similarly, if you have not seen your good friend for a long time and you run into him in a restaurant, you will be thrilled to see him. If, however, he informs you that he has joined the Church of Scientology, you will become highly upset. If he later tells you he was kidding, you will feel somewhat relieved. Likewise, if your favorite team wins a big game, you will react one way. If your team loses, you will react another way—especially if you bet a lot of money on the game.
Your emotions reflect what is important to you; they are, as Rand put it, “lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values.” As such, they are crucial to your life. If you did not experience the emotion of desire, you would have no motivation to take any actions at all—and you would soon die. If you never experienced joy, you would have no reason to remain alive; a life devoid of joy is not a life worth living. We need emotions.
But emotions are not our means of knowledge. They cannot tell us which berries are edible or how to build a hut, how to perform heart surgery or how to make an iPod, who is honest or who has a right to do what, what to do about terrorism or what will make us happy. Only reason can tell us such things.
Thus, rational egoism holds that we should respect each of our mental faculties for what it is. Unlike emotionalist moralities—which treat emotions as if they can tell us what is true and what is good and what is right—the Objectivist morality recognizes emotions for exactly what they are and treats them accordingly. To expect emotions to be what they are not—or to do what they cannot—is to misuse them. Just as we do not call child-abusers “pro-child,” so we should not call emotion-abusers “pro-emotion.” They are not.
The Objectivist ethics is pro-emotion—and it is the only moral code that is so. It is both 100 percent pro-reason—and 100 percent pro-emotion. It calls for the proper use of each mental faculty at all times on the grounds that human life and happiness depend on their proper use.
Reason is our only means of knowledge—and thus our basic means of living. Emotions are automatic consequences of our value judgments—and thus our psychological means of enjoying life. Properly understood, reason and emotions are not warring aspects of human nature; rather, they are a harmonious, life-serving team.
The Objectivist ethics holds that you should pursue your life-serving values with the whole of your life in mind, including all of your needs—physical, intellectual, and emotional—over your entire life span. Your basic means of doing so is reason.
Thus, egoism does not call for “doing whatever one pleases” or “doing whatever one feels like doing” or “stabbing others in the back to get what one wants.” Those are caricatures of egoism perpetrated by pushers of altruism who seek to equate egoism with hedonism, subjectivism, and predation. Again, don’t be duped! Egoism is not hedonism; it does not say: “Do whatever gives you pleasure regardless of its effects on your life.” Egoism is not subjectivism; it does not say: “Do whatever you feel like doing regardless of the consequences.” And egoism is not predation; it not only denies that you should achieve values by abusing others; it fundamentally denies that you even can achieve life-serving values through dishonesty, injustice, or coercion.
Egoism does not hold pleasure or feelings or conquest as the standard of value. It holds life as the standard of value—and reason as your basic means of living. Thus, an egoist strives always to act in his long-term best interest—as judged by his use of reason. In other words, an egoist is rationally goal-oriented, which brings us to another key aspect of Rand’s morality: the value of purpose.
A purpose is a conscious, intentional goal. A person acting purposefully is after something—as against meandering or wandering aimlessly. The rational pursuit of life-serving goals is the essence of good living; purpose is a hallmark of self-interest.
If we want to make the most of our days and years—if we want to be fully selfish—we have to be consciously goal-directed in every area of our life where choice applies. For instance, we have to choose a career that we will love. We have to think rationally about how to succeed in it. We need to plan long range and work hard to achieve excellence and happiness in our chosen field. We also have to choose and pursue interesting hobbies and recreational activities that will bring us great joy—whether making music or riding horses or surfing or blogging or the like. And, as mentioned earlier, we have to pursue friendships and romance. Such purposes are essential to a life of happiness.
Our purposes in life, according to the Objectivist ethics, are what make life meaningful. They are what fill our lives with intensity and subtlety and joy. They are the stuff of good living. And if our purposes are to serve their purpose, they must be chosen and pursued rationally. Reason and purpose go hand in hand. Having rational purposes is essential to our life and happiness.
Another value Rand identified as crucial to human life and happiness is self-esteem—the conviction that one is able to live and worthy of happiness. I won’t say much about this, since it is a relatively obvious requirement of life and happiness. Suffice it here to say that we are not born with self-esteem; we have to earn it. And the only way to earn it is by thinking rationally and acting purposefully.
These three values—reason, purpose, and self-esteem—are, as Rand put it, “the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life.”10 To live as human beings we have to think (reason); we have to choose and pursue life-promoting goals (purpose); and we have to achieve and maintain the conviction that we are able to live and worthy of happiness (self-esteem). All three are necessary for success in each area of our life.
Building on these basic values, let’s turn to some key social principles Ayn Rand identified. We will look first at the Objectivist principle of justice.
“Justice,” writes Rand, “is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature. . . .”11 Because people have free will, a person’s character is what he chooses to make it. We can either recognize this fact or fail to do so—but, either way, the fact remains. A person has the character he has; he is responsible for it; and his character, whether good or bad, can affect our life accordingly. A person of good character can generate good ideas, create life-serving products, provide friendship or romance, become an honest politician, or in some other way have a positive impact on our life. A person of bad character can generate evil ideas, destroy life-serving values, deceive us, assault us, steal our property, push for life-thwarting laws, or even murder us.
Justice is the virtue of judging people rationally—according to the available and relevant facts—and treating them accordingly—as they deserve to be treated. This is the basic principle of selfish human interaction. In order to live, to protect our rights, and to achieve happiness, we have to judge people. “The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’” writes Ayn Rand, “is an abdication of moral responsibility. . . . The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: ‘Judge, and be prepared to be judged.’” Quoting Rand further:
Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.
It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?12
Only one kind of person has anything to fear from moral judgment; the rest of us can only benefit from it. Being just consists in acknowledging this fact and acting accordingly.
To live successfully, happily, and freely, we have to judge our friends, our parents, our employers and employees, our professors, and our politicians. We have to judge everyone who has an impact on our life. We have to judge them rationally—and treat them accordingly.
In a sense, this is so obvious that it seems silly to have to say it. But given the commonly accepted views on morality—from the biblical tenet: “Judge not that ye be not judged” to the relativist mantra: “Who are you to judge?”—not only does it have to be mentioned; it has to be stressed. Judging people rationally and treating them accordingly is a requirement of human life.
While those who do not care about human life might be indifferent to this fact, those of us who want to live need to take it very seriously. We need to uphold and advocate the principle of justice, and not only when it comes to condemning those who are evil, but also, and more importantly, when it comes to praising, rewarding, and defending those who are good—those who think rationally and produce the values on which human life depends: scientists who discover the laws of nature, inventors who create new life-promoting devices and medicines, businessmen who produce and market life-promoting goods and services, artists who create spiritual values that fuel our souls and bring us joy, and so on. Justice demands that we recognize such people as good—good because they self-interestedly use reason and produce life-serving values.
By studying Ayn Rand’s ethics—in addition to learning a great deal more about her ideas on reason, purpose, self-esteem, and justice—you will discover the objective meaning and selfish necessity of the virtues of honesty, integrity, productiveness, and pride. In each case, Rand points to the facts that give rise to the need of such virtues; she shows why your life and happiness depend on them; and she provides an integrated philosophical system for guiding your actions accordingly.
I’ve merely indicated the kind of guidance offered by egoism. But in light of what we’ve seen so far, consider for a moment how it compares to the guidance offered by altruism. Given the many values on which human life and happiness depend—from material values, such as food, shelter, clothing, medical care, automobiles, and computers; to spiritual values, such as knowledge, self-esteem, art, friendship, and romantic love—we need a great deal of guidance in making choices and taking actions. We need moral principles that are conducive to the goal of living fully and happily over the course of years and decades. In answer to this need, egoism provides a whole system of integrated, noncontradictory principles, the sole purpose of which is to teach us how to live and enjoy life. In answer to this same need, altruism says: Don’t be selfish; sacrifice your values; give up your dreams.
If we want to live and be happy, only one of these moralities will do.
And just as egoism is the only morality that provides proper guidance for our personal lives, so it is the only morality that provides a proper foundation for a civilized society. Let us turn briefly to the politics implied by egoism.
Like every ethical code, egoism has definite political implications. Just as the morality of self-sacrifice lays the groundwork for a particular kind of political system—one in which the government forces people to sacrifice (e.g., socialism, communism, fascism, theocracy)—so the morality of self-interest lays the groundwork for a certain kind of political system—one in which the government plays an entirely different role.
The basic question in politics is: What are the requirements of human life in a social context? What, in principle, must people do—or refrain from doing—in order to live together in a civilized manner? Here, Ayn Rand makes another crucial identification. Since we need to think rationally and act accordingly in order to live, we need to be able to act on our judgment. The only thing that can stop us from acting on our judgment is other people. And the only way they can stop us is by means of physical force. Quoting Rand:
It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.
The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.13
If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you what to do, you cannot act on your judgment. The threat of death makes your judgment irrelevant; you now have to act on the gunman’s judgment. If he says, “Give me your wallet,” you have to give him your wallet. If he says, “Take off your clothes,” you have to do that. If he says, “Don’t object to my decrees,” you must not object. You have to do whatever he says, or you’ll get shot in the head. Your own judgment—your basic means of survival—has been overridden and is now useless.
And it makes no difference whether the gunman is a lone thug, or a group of thugs, or the KGB, or the senators and president of our rapidly deteriorating America. Whenever and to whatever extent physical force is used against you or me or anyone, the victim cannot act on his judgment, his basic means of living; thus, he cannot live fully as a human being. This is why rational egoism holds that the initiation of force against people is evil. It is evil because it is antilife.
On the basis of this identification, Rand established the objective case for individual rights. Since physical force used against a person is factually contrary to the requirements of his life—and since life is the standard of value—we need a moral principle to protect us from those who attempt to use force against us. That principle involves the concept of rights. Quoting Rand:
“Rights” are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law. . . .
A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.14
The key word here is action. Just as life is the standard of value and requires goal-directed action, so the right to life is the basic right and pertains to freedom of action. The right to life is the right to act as one’s life requires—which means, according to one’s basic means of survival—which means, on the judgment of one’s own mind.
All other rights are derivatives of this fundamental right: The right to liberty is the right to be free from coercive interference by others. The right to property is the right to keep, use, and dispose of the product of one’s effort. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to seek the goals and values of one’s choice. The right to freedom of speech is the right to express one’s views regardless of what others think of them.
And because a right is a sanction to action, it is not a sanction to be given goods or services. There can be no such thing as a “right” to be given goods or services. If a person had a “right” to be given food, or a house, or medical care, or an education, what would this imply with regard to other people? It would imply that others have to be forced to provide him with these goods or services. It would imply that some people must produce while others dispose of their product. As Rand put it: “The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.”
If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor. Any alleged “right” of one man which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right. No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unwarranted duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”15
The North fought (and thankfully won) a legitimate war against the South on the principle that there can be no right to enslave. Rand made explicit the fundamental reason this principle is true. The reason each individual’s life should legally belong to him is that each individual’s life does in fact morally belong to him. Each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others. Each individual has a moral right to act on his own judgment for his own sake—and to keep, use, and dispose of the product of his effort—so long as he respects the same right of others.
The Objectivist ethics recognizes that to live as civilized beings—rather than as masters and slaves—we need a social system that protects each individual’s rights to his life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The only social system that does so—consistently and on principle—is laissez-faire capitalism. Quoting Rand:
[Laissez-faire capitalism] is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.16
The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.17
The citizens of a laissez-faire society delegate the use of retaliatory force to the government and thus make domestic peace possible.
Of course, in an emergency situation, or when the police are not available, or when there is no time to rely on the government, citizens are morally and legally justified in using retaliatory force as necessary. (If someone comes running at you with a bowie knife, you are morally and legally justified in shooting him.) But in order to live together as civilized beings, rather than as feuding hillbillies, people must leave such force to the government whenever possible. As Rand put it, “The government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.”18
In a capitalist society, if someone physically harms a person or damages his property or threatens to do either—and if this can be demonstrated by means of evidence—then the victim has grounds for legal recourse and, when appropriate, compensation. For instance, if someone defrauds a man, or threatens to murder him, or dumps trash in his yard, or poisons his water supply, or infringes on his patent—or in any other way causes him or his property specific harm—then the perpetrator has violated the man’s rights. And if the man (or an agent on his behalf) can demonstrate that the perpetrator has done so, then he has a case against the rights violator and can seek justice in a court of law.
Properly understood, capitalism is all about enabling people to act on their own judgment, and to keep, use, and dispose of the product of their effort. It is all about stopping people from physically harming others or their property. It is all about recognizing and respecting individual rights. In other words, it is all about the requirements of human life in a social context.
Capitalism is the only social system that permits everyone to act fully according to his own judgment and thus to live fully as a human being. No other social system on earth does this. Thus, if human life is the standard of moral value, capitalism is the only moral social system.
Whereas rational egoism guides our choices and actions in pursuit of our life-serving goals and long-term happiness, laissez-faire capitalism protects individual rights by banning the initiation of physical force from social relationships. The two go hand in hand. Egoism makes human existence possible; capitalism makes human coexistence possible. Quoting Ayn Rand: “What greater virtue can one ascribe to a social system than the fact that it leaves no possibility for any man to serve his own interests by enslaving other men? What nobler system could be desired by anyone whose goal is man’s well-being?”19
Rand has much more to say about individual rights and capitalism; I have just touched on her revolutionary principles in this regard. Atlas Shrugged is a hymn to capitalism and the moral foundations on which it depends. And Rand’s book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is a series of essays demonstrating the vital nature of the social system, and blasting common fallacies about it. For a good understanding of the principles of capitalism, I highly recommend both books.
Reflecting on what we’ve discussed so far, Rand’s morality of selfishness holds that, in order to live as human beings, we must pursue our life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. Put negatively: We must neither sacrifice ourselves to others—nor sacrifice others to ourselves. One of the heroes in Atlas Shrugged put it in the form of an oath: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” That is an oath we can all live by. But to do so, we have to repudiate the morality of sacrifice.
Rand’s morality of selfishness is all about living and loving life. It is the morality of pursuing values and refusing to surrender a greater value for a lesser one. It is the morality of non-sacrifice. There is no reason to act in a self-sacrificial manner, which is why no one has ever given a reason to do so. Nor is there any rational justification for sacrificing others, which is why no one has ever offered one of these, either. But there is a reason to act in a self-interested manner: Your life and happiness depend on it.
Since we necessarily operate on a code of values of some kind while making choices in life—since morality is inescapable—here is the alternative that we all face in this regard: We can passively accept a morality through social osmosis—or we can think the matter through for ourselves and decide what makes sense given the observable facts. We can accept appeals to authority, tradition, popular opinion, intimidation, and the like—or we can insist on reasons in support of the morality we choose to accept. In other words, we can rely on the views and opinions of others—or we can rely on the judgment of our own mind.
This brings us to the final point I want to make tonight—and to what I regard as the single most important aspect of the Objectivist ethics: the principle that you should rely on your own observations and your own use of logic, the principle that you should not accept ideas just because others accept them, the principle that you should think for yourself.
Since your mind is your only means of knowledge and your basic means of achieving your goals and values, rational egoism says that—if you want to live and be happy—you must never surrender your mind. You must never sacrifice your judgment to anyone or anything—neither to faith, nor feelings, nor friends, nor parents, nor professors, nor Ayn Rand. And no one is more adamant about this than Rand. As she put it, “The most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth.”20
This is the Objectivist principle of independence. An independent thinker relies on his own judgment to determine what is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. He does not turn to others to see what he should believe or value. He may learn from others—if they are rational and have something to teach him. He may take their advice—if it makes sense to him. And he may listen to their arguments—so long as they present evidence for their claims and proceed logically. But he always makes the final judgment by means of his own thinking. In regard to any important issue, he asks himself: “What are the facts? What does the evidence say? What do I think?” His primary orientation is not toward other people—not toward his peers or his parents or his professors—but toward reality. And his means of assessing reality is his own use of reason.
Because rational egoism recognizes that the individual’s mind is his basic means of living, it holds rational, independent thinking as the essence of being moral. Unlike altruism, it does not call for you to accept its principles on faith or because others say so. Rational egoism is not a dogma. It is not a set of commandments or “categorical imperatives” from on high for you to obey.
In one of Rand’s essays, she tells a story of an old black woman who, in answer to a man who was telling her that she’s got to do something or other, says, “Mister, there’s nothing I’ve got to do except die.”21 Rational egoism does not say that anyone has got to do anything. It says only that if you want to live and achieve happiness—then you must observe facts, use your mind, pursue your goals, not sacrifice greater values for the sake of lesser ones, uphold the principle of individual rights, and so on. That is not dogma. It is logic. It is recognition of the law of cause and effect.
And just as Rand’s ethics is not dogmatic—so it is not relativistic. It is absolute. It is absolute because it is based on and derived from reality—from observable facts, from the laws of nature, from the requirements of human life.
Rand exposed the false alternative of dogmatism vs. relativism. In the light of her philosophy, we are no longer faced with the ugly option of Jerry Falwell’s morality vs. Jerry Springer’s—or that of Bill Bennett vs. that of Bill Clinton. We now know of an objective ethics: one that is secular, observation-based, demonstrably true—and, best of all, good for you.
If you want to live a wonderful, value-laden life, you need a morality that supports that goal and guides you to act accordingly. You need a morality that upholds the value of rational, self-interested, purposeful action. Rational egoism is the only morality that does so. If you want to live in a society in which you are free to lead your life as you see fit—a society in which no one, including the government, may force you to act against your own judgment—you need a morality that is conducive to that goal. You need a morality that provides a foundation for the principle of individual rights. The only morality that does so is the Objectivist ethics.
The moral code you accept underlies and shapes everything you do in life. It determines whether you live a richly meaningful, truly happy life—or something less. And it determines whether you advocate a fully free, civilized society—or some other kind of society. I have given you just a brief sketch of Rand’s ethics. There is a great deal more to it. Hopefully, I have inspired you to look further into the subject on your own.