Monday, January 11, 2010

Dr. Andrew Bernstein: The Nature of the Good

The Nature of the Good as it appears in the Capitalist Manifesto by Andrew Bernstein, published by University Press of America, appears by permission of the publisher

The history of capitalism provides ample evidence from which to induce the moral and philosophical principles that form the intellectual foundation of the system.

Here is the meaning of the achievements of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Inventive Period: If and when the advancement of human life on earth is held to be the ruling concern, men are superbly able to accomplish it. The attainments of those centuries show that the reasoning mind is the principal means by which such advancement is gained. They indicate that productiveness is a major moral virtue. Finally, to the surprise of some, they show that egoism – the theory urging a man’s pursuit of his rational self-interest – is an unsurpassed force for good.

The explication and validation of these principles will be the task of the next three chapters. [Only one chapter will be posted here]

The Conventional Moral Code

These principles have often, even generally, been opposed by modern intellectuals. Most of the leading philosophers of the past two centuries did not critique or even question the deeply entrenched ethical beliefs of mankind. They were content to accept the principle that a man must live for his brothers (altruism) – and that its political corollaries: that society as a whole is pre-eminent over the individual, who owes it unremitting service (collectivism) – and that the government must be granted the legal power to enforce an individual’s social obligations (statism).

Typical of the post-Kantian history of moral philosophy is a relentless assault on the theory that a man should properly be the beneficiary of his own actions (egoism) – and on its political corollaries, the creed that a man has an inalienable right to his own life and is not the slave of society (individualism) – and that the government’s sole legitimate function is to protect an individual’s rights (capitalism). Indeed, the altruist-collectivist-statist axis utterly dominates moral and political theory of the past 200 years.

The profoundly influential German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was so extreme an advocate of duty, of renunciation of self-interest as the criterion of virtuous action, he claimed that if a man desired to perform the action commanded by duty, he could never be certain that his action was morally pure, i.e., that it was not selfish, hence immoral. To be certain of the moral worth of his act, it must be performed in defiance of his personal desires. This was true even of a duty to preserve one’s own life. “But if adversities and hopeless sorrow completely take away the relish for life, if an unfortunate man…wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it and from neither inclination [desire] nor fear but from duty – then his maxim has a moral import,” i.e., his motivation is morally pure.

Though subsequent thinkers disagreed with Kant on a thousand specifics, they generally agreed that virtue required a full divorce of morality and self-interest. “The absence of all egoistic motivation is, therefore, the criterion of an action of moral worth,” taught German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. 1

The American philosopher, John Dewey, admired the moral code of the Soviet Union (which he visited in 1928), especially its effect on education. Unlike American educators, Dewey believed, their Soviet counterparts were not hampered in the quest for social change by “the egoistic and private ideals and methods inculcated by the institution of private property, profit and acquisitive possession.”

Dewey’s colleague, the Progressive educator, George Counts, also visited the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. Counts similarly bemoaned the individualism and selfishness of American society and admired Soviet teaching methods. Activity in Soviet schools, he enthused, “is activity with a strongly collective bias,” and: “individual success is completely subordinated to the ideal of serving the state and through the state the working class.” 2

Nor was devotion to altruism and collectivism limited to moral philosophers and educators. The eminent American historian, Charles Beard, in his essay, “The Myth of Rugged Individualism,” wrote in the Depression year of 1931: “The cold truth is that the individualist creed… is principally responsible for the distress in which Western civilization finds itself.” Beard, arguing in support of socialism, stated: “The task before us, then, is not to furbish up an old slogan, but to get rid of it, to discover how much planning is necessary, by whom it can best be done.”3

The logic of the anti-capitalist thesis is clear. If, in his personal life, a man has unchosen obligations to others – indeed, if the essence of virtue is to provide selfless service for those others – then, in the consideration of social issues, the needs of the public as a whole (others on a grand scale) take precedence over an individual’s own values, and it is morally imperative that the government be legally empowered to coerce those recalcitrant individuals too selfish to discharge their social responsibilities.

For decades now, even centuries, Western man has been inundated with an intellectual onslaught railing against self-interested action and individualism. The extent to which most professional intellectuals of the past century have embraced the altruist-collectivist-statist axis in philosophy is unimaginable to the average American, who shares none of these premises. For example, in a recent interview, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, two American historians who have written carefully researched accounts of the involvement by American Communists in Soviet espionage, were asked regarding the denial of Communism’s horrific crimes by many anti-capitalist historians. Their answer revealed a remarkable depth of insight:

"Many of those you speak of live in a different reality from that of the rest of us. Psychologically, they do not see what you see. They see the present and the past through a special lens. What is overwhelmingly clear to them is an imagined future collectivist utopia where antagonisms of class and race have been eliminated… poverty does not exist and social justice reigns…and an economy planned by people like themselves have produced economic abundance...You look at Soviet history and see the Gulag, the executions of the Terror, the pervasive oppression… Psychologically, the leftists you speak of see little of that. They see a Communist state that articulated their vision of the future and which sought to destroy the societies and institutions they hated. They cannot see the horror that communism actually created."4

Nor, on such moral premises, can they see the life-giving abundance that capitalism actually created.

Until the 20th century, these premises were not challenged by any thinker able to provide a systematic rational alternative. Nietzsche, for example, originated sharp, effective criticism of altruism, which he termed the “slave morality,” but he was an enemy of reason and beyond his often brilliant polemic had little positive moral guidance to offer men.

But at the same time, by the 20th century, a vast amount of historical data had accumulated regarding both the mind’s role in human life and the contrasting practical effects of the two opposing moral-political systems – egoism-individualism-capitalism and altruist-collectivism-statism.

The Fundamentals of Ethics

The exponents of capitalism wrought the extensive progress in freedom and living standards described above. The anti-individualist, collectivist backlash against the revolutionary individualism and freedom of the 19th century originated in post-Kantain Germany, let by the philosophers, G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx. In the 20th century, followers of their theories created the two most virulent statist regimes of history – Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The extreme to which individuals were compelled to sacrifice for the state in these two societies made them exact antitheses of the United States. The inevitable results of these dictatorships were enslavement, genocide and war. Both of these regimes denied men the right to their own lives and their own minds, and consequently were no match for the capitalist West. One succumbed, the other collapsed – and the truth regarding collectivism was revealed. The historical evidence necessary to identify the role of the mind in man’s life, and man’s necessity of freedom, was now fully available, if there could only arise a mind great enough to comprehend its meaning.

Such a mind did arise. It belonged to Ayn Rand.

Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand (1905-1982), born in Czarist Russia, was educated under the Communists but chose to live under the capitalists. She defected to the United States in 1926, where she lived the rest of her life. It took an individual (real name, Alisa Rosenbaum) born under one form of statism, raised under another, and who was an American by conscious choice and conviction, to finally identify the revolutionary moral and philosophical principles validating the intellectual foundations of capitalism. To do so, she went to the fundamental issues of moral philosophy.

Ayn Rand re-conceived the foundations of morality in light of the achievements of the Industrial and American Revolutions.

The field of morality – or ethics – deals with questions of right and wrong, good and bad, what men should and should not do. But what makes some action or individual good or evil? Similarly, what makes a political-economic system just or unjust? If capitalism – or any other element of human life – is to be morally judged, to be evaluated as good or evil, then men need to identify what constitutes virtue or vice, right or wrong. They need a criterion or yardstick by means of which to assess such qualities. For example, if a man held that working hard and supporting himself by honest effort was good, most human beings would doubtless agree. But what makes it good? Is it God’s will – or society’s judgement – or each individual’s belief for himself? Alternatively, is there some immutable fact of reality, some law of nature, that requires productive work of men – some fact, not the will or whim of some being or group of them?

The question regards a possible fundamental fact of reality that underlies and gives rise to men’s concepts of good and evil – it involves the relationship between facts and values, i.e., between facts and that which men consider valuable, right, proper, good.

Ayn Rand raised the questions: “Is the concept of value, of ‘good or evil’ an arbitrary human invention… unsupported by any facts of reality – or is it based on a metaphysical fact, on an unalterable condition of man’s existence?” Is ethics based solely in subjective whim – whether individual, social or divine – or is it grounded in hard objective fact? Is the field of morality merely a matter of taste, like dessert, varying from group to group or individual to individual – or is it, properly understood, a science, providing solid, fact-based principles to guide human behaviour? Asked simply: what is the relationship between values and facts? 5

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, in a famous passage, inquired if an “ought” proposition could be derived from an “is” proposition, i.e., if judgements of good and evil, of what men ought and ought not to do, could be based on matters of fact. His answer was an unqualified “no.” For example, Hume might argue that though it is true that man has a rational mind which education enhances, the claim “education is good” does not logically follow. Hume’s point is that although he can observe an individual studying, gaining knowledge, applying it, etc., he cannot observe the “good” or the “rightness” in any of these actions; neither can he observe the “bad” or the “wrongness” in the actions of those who abjure intellectual development. He concluded that there was no evidence upon which to assert a positive relationship between facts and values.

This has been a dominant form in which the question has been raised and answered. The majority of thinkers throughout history have held that there is no positive relationship between values and facts. These philosophers argued that matters of right and wrong are decided by somebody’s will – be it God’s, Society’s, or an individual’s for himself; that the laws and the facts of nature are irrelevant to the questions of good and evil.

Ayn Rand identified that most of the leading moral philosophers of history have construed ethics as a discipline dominated by irrational whim. One school, the religionists, held that “God’s will” was the standard of good and evil – while modern thinkers have generally offered nothing more than a secularized version of religion, arguing that the “will of the people” is the source of right and wrong. Others, recognizing the authoritarianism inherent in both the religious and social approaches, claimed that the good is what each individual wills for himself. But conspicuously absent in all three historical schools of ethics are facts, reason, logic. Ethics has been predominantly a matter of whims and arbitrary decrees. The ultimate question is: are values objective? Or phrased alternatively: is there a factual basis for moral judgements? 6

To answer this affirmatively, ethics must be examined from a fresh perspective. To sweep aside the errors of the past and to make a new start, it is necessary to begin at the beginning. In the field of morality, the first questions to be answered are: What are values? What role do they play in man’s life? Why do human beings need them? All subsequent quotes and paraphrasings in the philosophy section are from the work of Ayn Rand or that of her leading student, philosopher Leonard Peikoff.

Ayn Rand defined “value” as that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The existence of values presupposes a being that requires such things and is able to attain them – a being capable of pursuing specific ends in the face of an alternative. Where no alternatives exist, she wrote, no goals, no ends, no values are possible.

The essence of Ayn Rand’s revolutionary ethics lies in her identification of the relationship between values and the nature of living beings.

There is but one basic alternative in reality, she argued, and it applies only to living beings. Inanimate matter cannot be destroyed; it changes its forms, but it does not and cannot cease to exist. But life is not unconditional. Organisms face a constant alternative: the matter of life and death. Any organism must initiate and sustain an ongoing series of actions to remain alive. If it fails to find or grow food, build shelter, etc., it will die. Its chemical constituents remain in existence, but its life is irretrievable gone. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”7

The issue of good or evil arises in the world only because certain actions sustain the life of an organism – and others harm or kill it. For example, men can imagine a universe devoid of life forms, a world of rock and sun and sea, but no living beings. In such a universe, Ayn Rand argued, there would be no such thing as good or evil, no values or valuing – the phenomenon as such would not arise. For what could harm or benefit the wind? Or the tides? Or a rock or a grain of sand? What could be good for it – or ill? The rational answers to all such questions are: not applicable. There are no courses of action for such inanimate objects or processes to pursue that would improve their existence, and none that could undermine it.

But for a plant, an animal, a man, conditions are fundamentally different. It a plant fails to dig its roots into the soil by means of which to gain chemical nutrients – it dies. Similarly, if a lion cannot hunt to gain the meat it needs – or if human beings do not succeed in building shelter from winter and the elements – they will perish. Living beings – and only living beings – have to attain certain ends in order to sustain their existences. Consequently, it is a profound error to hold that a man being stabbed and the knife piercing his body are similar kinds of entities merely because each is a collection of atoms in motion. Put simply, one of these entities can loose his life; the other is incapable of it. In this sense, living beings are destructible – but matter as such is not. One of these two can become inanimate – but the other already is.8

The basis of Ayn Rand’s ethics is this fundamental, irreducible, factual distinction between living and non-living entities. To remain in – or to exist – the realm of existence is the fundamental alternative faced by all living beings and only by them. This alternative between existence and non-existence is the pre-condition of valuing as such. If a being did not face such an alternative, it could not pursue goals or values of any kind.9

To concretize her point, Ayn Rand introduced the idea of an immortal, indestructible robot, “which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed.” Such a creature, she argued, would be a value-less being; for it, nothing could be good or evil, because nothing could harm or promote its existence. “Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.”10

Consequently, such a being is incapable of taking any course of action. It may be confronted by alternatives – but none lead it to purposeful action. There is no reason for it to choose one alternative as distinct from another, because the fundamental alternative that gives rise to values is absent. “There is no ‘to be or not to be’”. The need to take action applies only to a being who possesses two characteristics: the potential to be destroyed – and the ability to prevent it. The ultimate goal of preserving its life makes possible all other goals.

For example, without the constant alternative of life or death, the robot could not enjoy a good meal – for being indestructible, it has no need of nutrition. Nor could it relax by watching a movie. Relax from what? Relaxation is a necessity for beings who work to sustain their lives. But this being has no concern about the sustenance of its existence. Values exist solely to sustain life. Where there is no need to sustain life, there can be no values – no good and no evil.

“Only the alternative of live vs. death creates the context for value-oriented action, and it does so only if the entity’s end is to preserve its life. By the very nature of ‘value’, therefore, any code of values must hold life as the ultimate value.”11

Ayn Rand’s robot example was an illustration from a negative standpoint, showing the processes that an indestructible, inanimate being could not perform. It is possible to argue for the same conclusion from a positive standpoint, as well, by showing the processes that a destructible, animate being must perform (if it is to sustain its life). The existence of a bird, for example, though far simpler than that of a man, involves a series of activities it must successfully perform in order to remain alive. Externally, above all, it must learn to fly; it must hunt the worms or other food it requires; it must find the sticks or twigs it needs to build its nest; on the ground, it must be ceaselessly alert to elude cats or other predators; etc. Further, internally, its digestive, respiratory, circulatory systems, etc., must function without impairment. If any of these processes (or others) go awry, its life can be terminated. If, for example, it relaxes its vigilance for one moment as it hunts for worms, it can become the hunted and itself be killed. This is an example of merely one kind of living being from among thousands. Universally, the continuous series of actions that must be successfully performed for the purpose of sustaining life constitutes the sole basis for the existence of values.

No organism can choose the necessities of its survival. These are determined by reality – by the organism’s nature, by the essence of the kind of being that it is. In the case of any organism, the goals that it must attain and the processes that it must perform, are pre-set by nature: the requirements of its life are the fundamental fact that necessitate the ends it must reach and the steps it must take. What it is determines what it should do.

The maintenance of life requires a ceaseless process of self-sustaining action – whether to eat, to find or build shelter, to carry on involuntary life-support functions, etc. The goal of such activities, the ultimate value to be attained, is an organism’s own life.

An ultimate value is the final goal toward which all actions are but necessary steps or means. A final value provides the standard or criterion by reference to which any lesser goal is appraised. “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is evil.”12

This is the revolutionary identification that has finally, after 2500 years of the history of philosophy, tied values – and by that means, ethics – to facts. Morality is now a science, a field of objective, rational, fact-based analysis; it is no longer a matter of will or whim or desire – whether social or personal.

Ayn Rand’s answer to Hume and the other philosophers who argue that no positive relationship can be established between values and facts is that the nature of living beings necessitates the existence of values. Therefore, moral principles are established by reference to the facts of reality. “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.” This represents a proper understanding of the relationship between “is” and “ought.”13

What, then, is the standard of moral value, the objective measuring rod by reference to which something may be evaluated as good or evil? The standard of value of Ayn Rand’s ethics – the standard by which one judges what is good and evil – is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. “Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.”14

To express Ayn Rand’s point simply: all that which objectively promotes man’s life, the life of a rational being – whether a nutritious meal, an education, a love relationship, the construction of skyscrapers and cities, the invention of labour-saving devices, cures for diseases, etc. – is the good. All that which objectively harms or destroys human life – whether poison, a blow to the head, the physical destruction of skyscrapers and cities, the forcible prevention of education, religious-racial-or-political persecution, etc. – is the evil.

What has been so far established is that values – and, consequently, all judgements of good and evil – come into existence only because living beings need to reach certain goals in order to sustain their lives; and that without life – its nature and its requirements – the concepts of “value” and of “good and evil” would have no rational meaning. Since values exist only to serve life, the objective requirements of life are the standard by means of which all existents are evaluated.

The Validation of Egoism

A second critical moral principle follows logically: if values come into existence only to sustain life, then living beings must achieve values. Each one of them should, properly, seek those values its nature requires for the advancement of its own life. This provides a rational answer to one of the major questions of moral philosophy: who should be the beneficiary of values? The question is generally stated: who should be the beneficiary of an individual’s actions? There are essentially two possible answers – the individual himself – or others.

Ayn Rand’s answer is a straightforward derivation from her fundamentals: an individual himself should benefit from his actions. Egoism – each individual’s pursuit of his own self-interest – is the only proper moral code.

Several points must be made to establish egoism. The first can be stated simply: if values come into existence only to sustain life, who or what is alive? Only particular things exist in general, and only individuals live. This is abundantly clear at the non-human level of life. A plant digs its roots into the soil and turns its leaves toward the sun to gain the chemical nutrients and sunlight it needs to sustain its life. A bird must fly to further its survival. A plant or an animal: “as a living entity, each necessarily acts for its own sake; each is the beneficiary of its own actions.” These organisms necessarily, automatically and non-volitionally pursue the values that their lives require. 15

In The Fountainhead, the novel’s hero, Howard Roark, makes this point clearly: “We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.” Just as there is no collective stomach engaged in digestion – only many individual ones – so there is no collective organism whose survival depends on value achievement; there are only many individual ones, and the life of each one is sustained only be reaching those goals its nature stipulates.16

Properly understood, egoism is a corollary of man’s life as the standard of moral value: since values exist solely to promote life, each living being must pursue and gain the values its sustenance demands. Plants and animals have no choice regarding their pursuit of values. They do so automatically by a pre-programming hard-wired into their nature. “Plants and animals do not have to decide who is to be the beneficiary of their actions.” They often fail in their pursuit of values and die – but they are incapable of repudiating the quest for values that their lives depend on. Humans are the sole beings who must pursue values by choice.17

Human beings can choose between, for example, nutrition food and poison, between education and ignorance, between medical care and neglect of an ailment, etc. They can make the fundamental choice between life and death – and, similarly, the choice between policies that promote life and those that promote death. Indeed, throughout history and to this day, men have often chosen self-destructive, suicidal courses of action. Because of this, “man must choose to accept the essence of life. He must choose to make self-sustenance into the fundamental rule of his voluntary behaviour. The man who makes this choice is an ‘egotist’.

“’Egoistic,’ in the Objectivist view, means self-sustaining by an act of choice and as a matter of principle.”18

According to Objectivism, to be an egoist in the proper and highest sense of that term is a significant achievement. It involves a consistent and unbreached commitment to the values upon which a man’s life as a reasoning being depends. Because life requires the attainment of values, because good and evil come into existence only because of this fundamental fact, it follows that the essence of moral virtue is value achievement, i.e., it involves the attempt of each individual to further his own life. Virtue is egoistic.

The heroes of the Enlightenment and the Inventive Period are perfect examples of egoism. The issue goes far deeper than that James Watt, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, et al, made well-deserved fortunes from their creative work. It is even more than that they pursued the work they loved and, consequently, lived passionately and joyously. These are important and legitimate aspects of egoism. But the fundamental point is that – at least at an implicit level – they recognized that their advances were in accordance with the survival requirements of man’s life and dedicated themselves to their full development. They lived the rationally creative lives proper to men. This is the essence of egoism.

Properly conceived and implemented, egoism is profoundly and uniquely benevolent force in human life – and the great heroes of capitalism make the clearest examples. It is only because Watt, Edison, Bell, et al., fulfilled their dreams that the rest of mankind benefited. If the great creators surrendered, betrayed or sacrificed the goals so dear to them, then their life-giving work would not have been brought to fruition. They would have suffered because of abandoning their values, and the lives of millions of others would not have been enriched.

Since egoism is the striving by a man for the ends that factually promote his life as a human being, a secondary but important consequence is that other human beings are benefited by his attainment of his values, not by his sacrifice of them.

The Code of Self-Sacrifice

It has been tragically rare that the nature of egoism has been recognised in human history. The most influential moral codes taught mankind have abjured egoism or selfishness in favour of self-sacrifice in some form.

Any version of the code of self-sacrifice undercuts morality at its base. “Life requires that man gain values, not lose them. It requires assertive action, achievement, success, not abnegation, renunciation, surrender. It requires self-tending – in other words, the exact opposite of sacrifice.”19

Ayn Rand defines “sacrifice” as the surrender of a higher value for a lesser value or a non-value. For example, if a man values a new car more than anything else – if its purchase would give him more joy than any other use of his money – but he spends it instead to provide for his sick brother out of a sense of guilt, an action that brings him little or no joy, but only a drab sense of a duty discharged, then this is a sacrifice. On the other hand, if parents value their child’s education more than a new car – as most do – then the expenditures on his/her schooling is not a sacrifice. Sacrifice is the betrayal of values – and the higher the value, the worse the betrayal. Nor is it a sacrifice to pursue an exhausting course of action in support of another human being who is an enormous value, e.g., one’s husband, wife, child or dearest friend.

The lives of the great men of the Scottish Enlightenment and British Industrial Revolution provide vivid examples. Thomas Telford, John Rennie, George Stephenson, et al., came from families vastly more deprived than what would currently be described in America as “disadvantaged.” Each one endured unimaginable hardships to achieve his education and his success. Men such as these, to navigate the distance between the depths where they started and the heights they attained, necessarily scrimped and scrounged, went without, shivered with cold in unheated attics because their pennies were devoted to books, not to fuel. Conventionally, such heroic deeds are described as “sacrifices,” because they chose to do without food or winter clothing.

Ayn Rand’s analysis is much more accurate. These men were uncompromising valuers, egoists in the truest sense. Their education, their career, and their long-term success were far more important to them than the lesser values they temporarily denied themselves. It was only because they fixated on the shining goals before them that they were bale to overcome every obstacle in their path. It was these grand-scale shining goals that they refused to surrender. These were men who would not compromise with themselves nor sacrifice what was dearest. Their unbreached commitment to values gave them the strength to wage and win their personal struggles.

Values come into existence only to sustain man’s life – and because of this, it is exactly values that must not be sacrificed. In principle, man cannot live by the abandonment of his values; by this policy, he can only die. To attain values is the code of life. To sacrifice them is the code of death.

For example, human beings must strive to achieve an education, a productive career, a comfortable home, a fulfilling love relationship and/or family, a circle of intimate friends, etc. It is these values that enable a man to lead an active, flourishing, happy life. But in myriad forms the code of sacrifice dictates the surrender of these things – whether of your money to the poor – or of the man or women you love to your disapproving family – or of your mind to a Nazi, Communist or Islamist dictator, etc. Without his values, a man’s life loses all meaning; indeed, without his values, he cannot survive at all.

The nature of reality, of life, of morality demand that a man be egoistic. This is the only code of healthy, flourishing, joyous life.

Cynical Exploitativeness

But in the history of moral philosophy, egoism has often been interpreted as a code of callous victimization. It is generally believed that to be selfish means to victimize other human beings, to ignore their goals and their rights, to violate and abuse them. Is this the actual nature of egoism? Is this the code endorsed by Ayn Rand?

Egoism must be distinguished from the code that can best be described as cynical exploitativeness, the theory that human life is indistinguishable from a jungle struggle, that others are a man’s natural prey, and that they exist solely for him to use and victimize. This is the code of the liar, the cheat, the criminal, of any man who seeks gain by duplicitous, dishonest and/or coercive means. The exploiter is not interested in working for what he wants; he doesn’t seek to earn values, merely to get them.

To a significant degree, the ancien regime embodied the exploitative code. Lines of hereditary aristocrats were generally founded by conquest. The serfs were force into labour, virtually enslaved, and conscripted into the nobles’ armies to fight and die in their interminable wars seeking power and plunder. The commoners more broadly were subjugated and forced into obedience. Economic restrictions were imposed. Taxes were levied. Freethinking was proscribed. Dissenters were imprisoned. The aristocrats, whose trade was warfare, did not work, but grew rich by impoverishing the commoners, who did. It was a system of institutionalized oppression: the lords claimed innate superiority by virtue of bloodlines and thereby rightful dominion over the “inferior” masses. In a word, the commoners had no rights, but existed to serve their masters, who ruled by force.

The egoist, on the other hand, recognizes that egoism is a principle, that it applies universally, that all human beings must unobstructedly pursue their values and happiness – and that this same principle that protects him from others, protects others from him. Men must work hard and earn their values and their happiness, not seek them by victimizing innocent others. On the egoistic code of Ayn Rand, none may be granted the license to impede the quest for values undertaken by another.

Egoism is a requirement of human life; consequently, every individual needs to act in accordance with his own thinking in pursuit of his own values. The clearest expression of this aspect of the Objectivist ethics is the oath taken by the hero of Atlas Shrugged: “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.” The theme emphasized by this oath is the evil of human sacrifice – in all of its forms, regardless of who is the victim and who the beneficiary. Ever human being is an end in himself. Ayn Rand advocated a non-sacrificial way of life – a mode of conduct that eschews both altruism and cynical exploitativeness, both the sacrifice of self to others and the sacrifice of others to self. 20

Although, historically, altruism and exploitativeness have postured as opposites, Ayn Rand pointed out that they differ only as variations on a theme. Neither have outgrown the primitive call for human sacrifice. They differ merely regarding the question of who is to be sacrificed to whom. The altruist claims that self should be sacrificed to others; the cynical exploiter claims that others should be sacrificed to self. But they agree that a non-sacrificial mode of life is neither possible nor desirable. This is why Ayn Rand categorized the two together, calling the combination: the cannibal morality.

If a man rejects the principle of egoism, it makes no moral difference which school of oppression he advocates. Whether he holds that others should be sacrificed to self – or self to others – he claims that martyrdom and victimization are inherent, ineradicable features of human life. The only question then is: a man’s life for the sake of others – or theirs for his? “This question does not represent a dispute about a moral principle. It is nothing but haggling over victims by two camps who share the same principle”. 21

Philosopher Leonard Peikoff points out that Ayn Rand emphatically rejected this viewpoint. Objectivism holds that the requirements of human life are not consonant with sacrifice in any of its forms, regardless of who is sacrificed to whom. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand argued that a moral individual repudiates sadism and masochism, domination and submission, the receiving of sacrifices or the making of them. What such a man stands for is “a self-sufficient ego,” i.e., an individual who thinks and lives by his own mind and effort in pursuit of his own happiness. 22

To some degree, the ethics of egoism was embraced during the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson wrote, after all, that men had the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At least implicitly, the doctrine of the Rights of Man upheld the moral principle that men had the right to their own lives. The political expression of this theme was explicit: men must be liberated from the tyrannical grip of the ancien regime, freed to pursue their own goals, to seek their own profit and happiness. Though the code of egoism was neither grounded in an objective basis nor fully articulated until the work of Ayn Rand, even in its mitigated 18th century form it promoted the dramatic results described above.

Just as there is no such thing as too much health, too much intelligence or too much justice, so there is no such thing as too much egoism – for that would mean: to much pursuit of values. Properly conceived and fully implemented, it is a moral force that will transfigure the world to an even greater degree than was achieved by its causal role in the original Industrial and American Revolutions.

The Third Fundamental Moral Question

Ethics deals with three fundamental, interrelated questions. These are: What is the source of values – or the good? Who should be the beneficiary of values? By what means do human beings gain values? The answers to these questions identify the ultimate value, the specific beneficiary and the principle virtue supported by a moral system. So far answers have been provided for the first two questions. The objective requirements of life form the source of values. Each individual should strive to earn the values his own life requires. The answer to the third question remains to be discussed.

But the great creators of the Inventive Period already taught men the answer. By what means did George Washington Carver revolutionize agricultural science? How did John Roebling improve the design of suspension bridges and create his masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge? What instrument did George Eastman employ to utterly transform the field of photography? In all of these cases and in many others, the answer is: the reasoning mind. The great achievements of science, technology, industry, as well as those of philosophy, literature and the arts, that uplift men and carry them from the caves to the skyscrapers, are the province of genius, of superlative thinking, of rationality.

Man’s mind – his rational faculty – as the primary means by which he promotes his life is the subject of the next chapter.


The leading philosophers and thinkers of modern culture have generally held a moral code of self-sacrifice bitterly antithetical to capitalism’s essence.

Ayn Rand identified and validated the fundamental principles of a rational ethics that establish capitalism’s rectitude and explain its life-promoting success. The requirements of human life form the standard by which good and evil are judged. That which promotes the life of a rational being is the good; that which harms or destroys it is the evil. It follows from this that an individual should pursue a course of action that furthers his own life, i.e., that he should be egoistic.

The next logical question is: By what means will men gain the values their lives depend on?

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clay barham said...

From her works, it is apparent Ayn Rand admired the courageous pebble-droppers, the nails standing above the boardwalk that ruling elite might trip over, who challenged the established and accepted way things were done. It was the creative, imaginative individuals who followed a dream, a vision of some better way of living that she wrote about, not the socialist taker who envied the creative few even when enjoying the benefits of the pebble-dropper’s efforts. This was her focus. All other ingredients haters add to the interpretation of Ayn Rand’s ideas are simply mud to cloud the water. Whether she was atheist or Jewish, anti-Christian or self-centered means nothing. She believed she was OK and others, as individuals, were potentially OK as well, but herds were led by the few who would limit individuals and take from those who have to share with those who have not, and they and their leaders were not OK. Those who violently oppose Rand are the ones who want to retain the Old World ideals of a few elite ruling the many, as is being reintroduced to America by the Obama forces.

Kasper said...

Thanks for your contribution Clay. I trust you enjoyed this piece? I think AR would have to be the most important thinker of our time. I haven’t heard a convincing argument against the women that would show her philosophy to be mistaken. Whilst she hasn't written the same quantity of philosophical dialogue in terms of quality and import she outdoes many of her predecessors combined and multiplied. She is growing fast in America and I believe that if America were ever to repair to Objectivism for their philosophical and moral ammunition then quite possibly it could be salvageable. :)

Kasper said...

On another note, it is most bizzare that Rand gets accused of being right wing, fascist or even favouring of an elite. A propagator for individual rights and liberty she made very clear her departures from the business round table and on many occassions needed to remind people that she wasn't a conservative. It can take time to 'get' Rand or understand her work. Many people who read her books come from a uni-axial political understanding and themselves are the products of todays conventional morality and some of the philosophies of our time. The David Humes, Immanuel Kants and Hegel's.

Michael M said...


The clay barham post is spam. The same reply, equally unrelated to the blog post commented on, is here:

Google "pebble-droppers" to find many more similarly unrelated comments touting a book and/or website.