There have been endless discussions over the centuries as to what ethical system people should follow, what code they should use to determine right from wrong. But the question is rarely asked: "Do people need an ethical code, a guide to proper behavior? And if so, why is such a set of principles necessary?"
This is the problem which Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism addresses and answers.
The purpose of ethics is to define man's proper values and interests. If he has no interests, no values with which to concern himself, then I might as well stop here, and we can all go home...
First, though, we need to ask, "What are values?"
A value is "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." A value is not a primary. It presupposes one who acts. But should this "acting person" be the one to benefit from what he does? Are the values he works to obtain or retain of value to him? And what are these values for? Are they obtained for some purpose?
The most popular answers to these questions come from the proponents of altruism. Altruism is the doctrine which states that only action taken for others' benefit is the good. Anything done for one's self has no moral sanction. Any hint of selfish benefit received by the "acting person" is immoral by this credo. To the extent that each individual looks to his own needs and desires, to that extent he is evil and must remain so throughout his entire life.
Are these people correct? Is man doomed to a life of self-imposed degradation; damned by every pleasure he finds, by every mouthful of food he consumes?
One philosophy gives an emphatic, "No!"
Objectivism states that concern with one's own interests -- a rational elfishness -- is the essence of a moral existence; that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions; that ethics is objective and must not be abandoned to the mystics, the altruists, the collectivists; that ethical principles are not subjective or relative.
Someone might say that these two opposite positions are mere assertions. Anything can be stated. The crucial point is how these statements are derived. Which -- if either -- is true and why?
Objectivism begins with three axioms; three concepts which cannot be refuted without using those very concepts. Any such attempt would merely prove the validity of these primaries.
The first axiom is that Existence Exists, that there is a reality -- an objective reality that exists independently of human consciousness. Self-evident? Well, yes, but there are millions, perhaps billions, of people in this world who would disagree. Many Eastern religions state that you, me, everything you see around us is mere illusion, a dream in a god's mind.
Others deny this reality by stating that there is more than one reality; that there is a higher -- a super-natural -- reality that is the one, true existence. How are they aware of this greater reality which no one can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste? By faith, of course.
I'll return to that contention later.
Objectivism's second axiom is that Consciousness Exists; in axiomatic form, that consciousness is conscious. It says that there is something which exists that one perceives and that one exists to do the perceiving. Consciousness is the faculty of perceiving existence.
Some assert that there is only consciousness, that reality does not exist until someone decides to perceive it. But a consciousness that exists independently is a contradiction in terms. To be conscious is to be conscious of something outside of oneself. A consciousness could not form the concept of "self" unless something external existed for comparison. That is the only way to arrive at the idea of "self" versus "other."
The third axiom is the Law of Identity, which is formally rendered as A = A. Again, this seems simple and obvious, right? That's the beauty of true axioms as opposed to those arbitrarily chosen. They must appear almost banal since they stand at the base of everything else. Just as in physics where the entire realm of matter from atoms to galaxies derives from a handful of basic particles, so, too, in philosophy, all the complexities, all the intricacies of life can be explained by the three axioms I've stated.
The trick, however, is to understand what "A is A" really means and how to apply it.
"A is A." To be is to be something -- whatever that is. A thing is what it is. It cannot both have an attribute and simultaneously not have that attribute. It has a basic nature which leads to the law of causality, the idea that a thing acts and must act according to its basic nature and not on the principle of chance or whims. Without the Law of Identity and causality, there is chaos. If today water freezes at 32o and tomorrow it boils, man can know nothing. It's the Null Set. If water can be water one moment yet wine the next simply because someone wishes that it be so, then all bets are off. Yet there are those who believe that A can equal Not-A. Miracles -- the supernatural -- violate causality and must be rejected on that basis alone.
So we have a universe existing independently of consciousness; Existence is Identity. Consciousness is Identification. As such, consciousness cannot erase facts or change the laws of nature. Consciousness describes reality but does not create it.
These two together -- existence and consciousness -- form the base of all knowledge. There is something to know and someone to know it. That someone must use the Law of Identity in discovering those facts.
But what are those facts?
The fundamental alternative in the universe is existence versus nonexistence. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional. It can change forms, it can even be turned into energy, but it does not cease to exist, it does not suddenly disappear from the universe.
However, the existence of life is conditional. Once life is gone, it's gone. There is no resurrection from death. Life is conditional upon a specific course of action. It is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action implemented to achieve a goal.
Only life can make the concept of "value" meaningful since only living beings can work to gain or keep something, that is, to obtain a goal. And since life embodies the basic alternative between existence and nonexistence, it is with life that the concepts of good and evil begin. Where there are no alternatives, there can be no distinction between what is right and what is wrong.
Those who disagree and say they value death are seeking after a non-value. If they achieve their so-called value -- an action possible, of course, only because they are alive -- then they automatically remove themselves from the realm of alternatives, choices, and ethics. If death were the value, there would be no values. We can leave proponents of death to their oblivion and move on.
Life depends on two things: fuel from an external environment and action of its own body to use that fuel and to use it properly. What defines "proper"? The standard is what is required for the organism's survival. What that requirement is arises from and is determined by the organism's nature (A is A), that is, the kind of entity it is.
A rose bush needs air, water, and soil, not steel, plastic, and glass. The former are the values necessary for the rose bush's survival.
That survival -- the organism's life -- is the ultimate value. All other values must be subordinate to and evaluated against this standard. That which furthers life according to its nature is the good, that which threatens it is the bad.
How does man discover the concept of "value"? The starting point is with sensations, single, discrete responses to single, discrete stimuli. Pleasure and pain are the indicators. The capacity to experience these is innate, that is, "wired in" by evolution. Thre is no choice in experiencing sensations or in the standard of this automatic code of values, that is, an organism's life.
At a higher level of consciousness are perceptions obtained by retaining sensations and integrating them, thereby giving rise to the idea of entities, that is, perceptual concretes; "things" in the world. An animal at this level still directs its behavior according to an automatic code of values. It knows automatically what is good or bad for its life. It can learn certain skills but has no choice in the kind of knowledge it acquires. The patterns of learning are the same from generation to generation. Moreover, the animal cannot choose not to perceive, to evade its own perceptions, to ignore its own good. Neither plants nor animals can act willingly for their own destruction.
The next step in the chain after sensations and perceptions is that of conceptions, mental integrations of two or more perceptual concretes, which are isolated by a process of abstraction and then united by a specific definition.
For man and all animals which possess it on whatever level, consciousness is the basic means of survival. But man has no automatic code of survival, of action, of values. Since man has no innate knowledge, his self-consciousness must discover the answers necessary for his continued existence. But this faculty of consciousness which he possesses is different from that of lower animals. It does not work automatically as does that of an animal and as do the faculties for sensation and perception. Man's kind of consciousness is volitional and works on the conceptual level. His sense organs work automatically. His brain integrates those sensations automatically into perceptions. But integrating perceptions into concepts is not automatic...and anyone who doubts this has never tried to learn calculus or nuclear physics.
But even if man chooses to exercise his conceptual ability, success is not guaranteed. Man is neither infallible nor omniscient.
Man's basic means for survival is reason, the faculty he possesses which directs the process of abstraction and concept-formation. This process is thinking, which is exercised by choice. Focussing one's consciousness is volitional. "To think or not" is "to focus or not" is "to be conscious or not" is to choose between life and death, value and nonvalue.
Using reason, man identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses and then uses the concepts he derives according to the principles of logic, logic being the art of non-contradictory identification (A is A), that is, rules of thought in accordance with objective reality.
Since thought is not automatic, instinctive, involuntary, or infallible, man must initiate it, sustain it, and bear responsibility for its results, true or false, right or wrong, good or evil, life or death.
Man is given nothing when he is born but potential and the material means to achieve that potential. Nature guarantees or gives nothing else, and it definitely does not guarantee survival. Man's "potential" is his consciousness arising from his existence, and it must constantly be used by him by his choice, his effort, his mind.
That which man requires for survival is set by his nature and is not open to choice. He can choose whether or not to discover it, to choose the right goals and values. He is free to make the wrong choices, but he is not free to succeed with them and to avoid the consequences of his choices. He can evade reality, can try to exist on a perceptual level, but he cannot evade the results of his blindness. By the principle of "A is A," what man is determines what he ought to do, what he should do. Let no one tell you that there is no way to leap from "is" to "should." By the Law of Identity, every "is" implies an "ought."
But because man has a volitional consciousness, he is the only living species that has the power to act voluntarily as his own destroyer.
This is why man needs ethics, a guide for his behavior. As derived from the three basic axioms, ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival; by the nature of reality and life, not derived from the supernatural, society, or the whims of any individual.
By choice: man has to be man; has to hold his life as a value; must learn to sustain his life; must discover the required values and practice their virtues. Only a code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality. Ethics deals only with the values open to man's choice, to his free will.
Man's standard of value is his life, or that which is required for his survival as a man, as a fully functioning human being. Reason is his basic means of survival. For man, good is that which is proper to the life of a rational, that is, reasoning being. Evil is that which opposes, negates, or destroys life and reason.
Everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort. This process requires thinking, not mindless imitation and repetition; it requires production, not the use of force or fraud. Those who seek to avoid thinking and production are trying to exist on the perceptual level of animals. They are doomed to failure since such attempts violate the basic nature of man. Destruction of those who do think and produce can be the only result.
Man cannot survive by acting on the range of the moment. Only by choosing lifetime goals, values, and course of action can he prosper. Man's survival qua man consists of the terms, methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan in all aspects of existence open to his choice.
The standard of value is man's life, and the ethical purpose of man's life is each individual's own life (a standard being an abstract principle to guide choices in achieving a specific purpose).
I spoke of values: that which one acts to gain and/or keep. Concurrent with them are virtues, the act by which one gains and/or keeps those values.
The three basic values are reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Their attendant virtues are rationality, productiveness, and pride.
Rationality is the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values, one's only guide to action. One must place nothing above one's perception of reality: not faith -- which is a supposed short-cut to knowledge by means of revelation from another reality -- or reliance on authority. Everything must be validated by thought, and one must accept responsibility for one's judgments.
The virtues of independence -- responsibility for self; honesty -- never faking reality; integrity -- never sacrificing one's convictions to the opinions or wishes of others; and justice -- never seeking or granting the unearned and undeserved in spirit or matter; these are all essential elements of rationality.
A rational person does not desire effects without causes, that is, "wishing on a star." He does not enact a cause without accepting responsibility for its effects. He must know his own purposes and motives; and he must not make decisions out of context from all of his knowledge. He never seeks to get away with contradictions and rejects any form of mysticism, that is, a claim to some nonsensory, nonrational, nondefinable, supernatural source of knowledge.
Using reason, man determines a purpose which he achieves by productiveness. Productive work is the process by which man's mind sustains his life. Man adjusts the environment to himself, not himself to the environment, as do animals. He must pursue a productive career on whatever level of ability he possesses, not simply go through the motions of some job. He must act to some purpose, some goal.
From this arises man's value of self-esteem and the virtue of pride, which is acquiring the values of character that make his life worth sustaining. As he is a man of self-made wealth, so, too, is he a being of self-made soul. Pride is moral ambitiousness, earning the right to hold oneself as one's own highest value. Never accepting irrational values. Always practicing one's rational virtues. Never accepting unearned guilt or earning any or failing to correct flaws.
The person with self-esteem and pride rejects the concept of self-sacrifice. Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. (By sacrifice, I mean surrendering a greater value for a lesser or a nonvalue.)
Achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose, but it is not the standard by which he chooses his actions.
The emotions that man experiences -- from joy to suffering -- are automatic results of his value judgments which are integrated by his subconscious. There are no innate, automatic judgments or ideas for man. While he has no choice in the capacity to feel that something is good or evil, he does have a choice in what he considers good or evil as determined by his selected standard of value. There are not, per se, rational or irrational emotions. There are, however, rational or irrational thought processes which lead to particular value judgments which, in turn, lead to particular emotional responses (which can be appropriate or inappropriate). Whether one's emotions are appropriate or not, they arise from what the individual finds precious.
Happiness proceeds from the achievement of one's values in a rational context. It is a state of non-contradictory joy, a joy that does not conflict with one's values or acts to one's own destruction.
Emotions are not tools of cognition and must not be used as primary guides to action. Man must seek only rational values, desires, self-interest, and ethics. If he does so, then he can trust in his emotions as a quick reference as to what course of action to follow. But again, that emotional response must ultimately be validated by a process of reason.
Rejecting the idea that any good can come of sacrifice (which can, in the end, achieve only destruction), Objectivism holds that the principle of trade is the only rational, ethical principle for all human relationships of any kind. Dealing with one another as traders is to give value for value. This is equivalent to the principle of justice. Traders do not treat men as masters or slaves. Only free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchanges which benefit both parties by their own independent judgments are permitted.
A trader values achievements, not faults; virtues, not weaknesses.
(Even in the realm of love, this principle is essential. Some people define the essence of love as selflessness and sacrifice. But love is a value, one of the greatest values that a person can desire or earn. One must have self-esteem arising from one's own values in order to love. A person must value himself before he can value others. "To say 'I love you' one must know first how to say the 'I'." Love must be selfish, otherwise the best person in your life and the worst must be considered of equal value -- which for a "selfless" person must be zero value.)
In a social existence, knowledge and trade come from voluntary interactions, a division of labor which is of value to every individual.
To achieve this state, the political principle must be that no man may initiate the use of physical force (direct or indirect) or its adjuncts against others. Force must be used only in retaliation and only against those who inititate it. It's the difference between murder and self-defense. One must not obtain values from others by the use of force.
To protect man's rights; to protect him from physical force; to protect his life, his liberty, his own property, and the pursuit of his own happiness, moral governments are established. Acting according to objective laws and principles which subordinate government to the citizens, government is given the exclusive right to the means of the retaliatory use of force. The creation and use of armies, police, and courts is the only valid role of government in human society. Any governmental trespass beyond this line is immoral. Government's prime purpose is to protect property rights, since without these rights, there are no others.
Property rights concern the right of the individual to keep the production of his own efforts. This is in keeping with man's need to engage in self-sustaining, self-generated action in order to maintain his life. Property rights are the implementation of one's right to one's own life. If a man cannot keep the production of his own efforts, he is a slave. Only by controlling the means for his own continued survival, his own existence, can a man hold to his basic nature. "A is A." Anything that interferes with this right and to whatever and any extent that it does so, is evil.
The only political system that recognizes this most basic right of man is laissez-faire capitalism -- the only moral political-economic social system. It is the separation of the State and economics in which the State may pass "no law abridging the freedom of production and trade."
Its opposite is collectivism in whatever guise: socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism.
But the detailing of that conflict must await another time.