OPAR, Chapter Seven
by Eyal Mozes
Date: 1 Apr 1993
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Eyal Mozes
In this chapter, Peikoff builds on the previous chapters, and especially on ch. 6, to explain the foundations of the Objectivist ethics. The chapter covers the Objectivist meta-ethics (life as the standard of value, and the objective nature of values), and the most basic principle of the Objectivist normative ethics (the virtue of rationality).
In explaining Rand's approach to ethics, it is crucial to thoroughly cover those principles which are Rand's original contribution, and which set her apart from other thinkers, such as Aristotle or the enlightenment, to whom she is otherwise similar. I would name four such principles in ethics: 1. life (rather than flourishing, or "the good life") as the standard of value; 2. the choice to live as the base of ethics; 3. the principle that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men; 4. the virtue of productivity, and the moral meaning of material production. One of the tasks of this review is to judge how well Peikoff covers 1, 2 and 3 (and the reviewer of ch. 8 should make a similar judgment regarding 4).
I. "Life" as the essential root of "value"
This section repeats Rand's argument, in "The Objectivist Ethics", on life as the root of the concept "value". This is a straightforward restatement of Rand's argument, and so I don't have much to comment on here.
The one part of this section that adds something new, is the thought experiment of the indestructible robot. Rand did use this thought experiment, but only in one brief, very sketchy and abstract paragraph. Peikoff (in pp. 209-211) does a good job of concretizing this idea, going over the various categories of values for human beings, and demonstrating why, for an indestructible robot, these can't be values (and thus, why for human beings these values depend on the requirements of human survival).
(Note: my understanding is that Aristotelian thinkers such as Douglass Rasmussen or Tibor Machan - who take flourishing as the standard of value, and hold that it has no necessary connection to physical survival - would disagree with this discussion of the indestructible robot. On their view, there may still be a meaningful sense in which the robot can be said to flourish, or to live a good life, even if that has no relation to his chances of survival; and so, such a robot can still have values. I'd appreciate it very much if Prof. Rasmussen or Prof. Machan, or both, could comment on whether I have understood their view correctly.)
II. Man's life as the standard of moral value
This section covers the crux of the Objectivist meta-ethics, i.e. of the Objectivist approach to the source of ethics and to how values are validated.
Like other organisms, man needs to act in order to survive; but unlike other organisms, man does not take the needed actions automatically. Man must choose to act to sustain his own life, and find out how to do so. That is why man needs morality. The standard of moral value, therefore, is man's survival.
As I mention above, this view is original to Rand. The more standard Aristotelian view takes the standard of value to be flourishing, or "the good life". Of course, Objectivism regards this as a perfectly valid concept (though rather than "flourishing", Objectivists more often refer to this concept by Rand's phrase "man's life qua man"); but for Objectivism, flourishing, or "man's life qua man", consists of those principles of action which man needs to act on *in order to survive*.
Aristotelian thinkers, who don't accept a necessary connection of flourishing to survival, have never been able to provide an objective method for telling what the good life consists of, and whether living a certain way is or is not flourishing. Most such thinkers, including Aristotle himself, do express strong judgments on these questions - many judgments that Objectivists would agree with, and some that Objectivists would disagree with. There are debates among Aristotelian thinkers, in which both sides are in complete agreement with each other about the foundations of ethics, and yet reach very different value judgments (see, for example, Rasmussen and Den Uyl's "Liberty and Nature" vs. David Norton's "Personal Destinies"). The crucial point here is that Aristotelian thinkers have no way to prove their judgments based on facts; ultimately, their method comes down to "you can just see, by observing a person living this way, that he is (or is not) living a good life"; and their debates, as a result, are irresolveable. Rand's view, on the other hand, makes possible a fully objective method, based on facts, for validating value-judgments - and I submit Rand was the first thinker to make this possible.
There are two important points on this issue which I think Peikoff makes clearer and more explicit than Rand:
i. "A self-destroying action need not be immediately fatal. ... It is possible to deteriorate gradually for years, breathing all the while, but increasingly damaged." And our judgment, of actions causing such drawn-out destruction, as wrong, is still guided by the standard of survival. "The size and form of the damage are not relevant here. No threat to vitality - no undermining of one's capacity to deal successfully with the environment - can be countenanced if life is the standard of value. The reason is that no such threat can be inflicted *safely* on so complex and delicate an integration as a living organism." (p. 216)
There's a related point, which Peikoff does not discuss, but which I think he definitely should have discussed in order to make the Objectivist position clear. It is possible for a person to act irrationally, causing damage to himself, living in the state of drawn-out destruction that Peikoff is describing, without this actually shortening his life. Damage is a threat to one's life, but, in particular cases, it may turn out in hindsight that the threat was never actualized; this does not change the fact that the damage, and the threat, were there, and that the person was wrong to inflict them on himself. This is the fallacy in the argument - which I have seen used by several people against the Objectivist ethics - of pointing out examples of people whose lives were not consistent with the Objectivist ethics but who still survived to an old age.
ii. Peikoff's explanation of man's need for principles (pp. 217-219) is more explicit than Rand's. Peikoff relies directly on points both from ch. 6 (reason as man's basic means of survival), and from ch. 3 (the nature of concepts). Moral principles are the application of conceptual thinking to the realm of action. Man's survival requires that he identify the long-range consequences of his actions, and act accordingly - i.e., that he act on principles. The role of principles is a crucial aspect of the proper Objectivist meaning of "man's life qua man", and its relation to the standard of survival; as Peikoff states it, ""man's life" means life in accordance with the *principles* of human survival".
III. Rationality as the primary virtue
In this section, Peikoff discusses the primary virtue - rationality - and its opposites - evasion and whim-worship. The section consists of straightforward restatements of Rand's arguments, and I have no specific comments on it.
IV. The individual as the proper beneficiary of his own moral action
In this section, Peikoff explains the Objectivist concept of selfishness. He explains why selfishness follows from man's life as the standard of value; why proper relationships with other people, including friendship and love, are selfish; and distinguishes the Objectivist idea of selfishness from subjectivist ideas and from the idea of "selfishness" as the sacrifice of others to self.
In my view, this is the weakest section of the chapter, and one of the weakest of the entire book.
The basic problem with this section is its location. Egoism is a highly derivative aspect of the Objectivist ethics; its main importance is not as a positive basis for Objectivist principles, but as polemics, refuting opposing views such as altruism; and its proper understanding and validation rely on many details of the Objectivist virtues. This section would have fitted much better at the end of ch. 8.
I can surmise two reasons why Peikoff chose to place this section in this chapter. First, since Rand has labeled her ethics "rational selfishness", he probably thought both words in this name should be covered in the chapter explaining the basics of ethics. Second, in the opening of the chapter (p. 206), Peikoff identifies the three basic questions of ethics as: "For what end should a man live? By what fundamental principle should he act in order to achieve his end? Who should profit from his actions?"; and he evidently wanted to make sure that all three questions, including the third one, are covered in this chapter. However, I think the third question is not nearly on the same level of fundamentality as the first two, and, as a result, this location of the section is a serious mistake.
The clearest example, of the problems caused by the location of this section, is on p. 235, where Peikoff contrasts the Objectivist concept of selfishness with "the policy of violating the rights, moral or political, of others in order to satisfy one's own needs or desires. ... Any such policy, as we will see in due course, is destructive not only to the victim, but also to the perpetrator. It is condemned as immoral, therefore, by the very principle of selfishness." A phrase like "as we will see in due course" is pedagogically very dangerous, especially when it is used in supporting a point as central as this; and the need to use that phrase is a clear sign that the material is presented in hierarchically wrong order. (Another, even more serious problem with the use of this phrase here, is that for the rest of the book, Peikoff in fact never returns to discussing this point, thus leaving this "promissory note" undelivered.)
Another, less glaring but still serious problem, appears on p. 232:
The process of thought requires a man to follow the evidence wherever it leads, without fear or favor, regardless of any effects such action may have on the consciousness of others. He must follow the evidence whether others agree with his conclusions or not, whether their disagreement is honest or not, whether his conclusions accord with their wishes or not, whether his conclusions make them happy or not. Since thought is an attribute of the individual, each man must be *sovereign* in regard to the function and product of his own brain. This is impossible if morality demands that a man "place others above self".
That is a very telling and valid argument; however, it is heavily based on the Objectivist view of the virtue of independence, which hasn't been discussed yet.
Point 3 listed at the beginning of this review - the principle that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men - is Rand's most revolutionary contribution to interpersonal ethics. This principle is central to the Objectivist concept of selfishness; and it is one of the principles that readers of Rand have had the most trouble understanding. This section should have been the place for an extensive discussion of this issue; instead, it is dismissed in one paragraph (p. 236). I have stated in my review a year ago, and still believe, that this is one of the worst of the intellectual crimes Peikoff commits in this book. And to a large extent, it is made inevitable by the location of the section; a discussion of the issue is impossible, because the context for it has not yet been established.
V. Values as objective
In this section, Peikoff explains the meaning of objective morality, contrasting it with the intrinsic, or duty, and the subjective approaches.
A crucial aspect of the objectivity of Rand's approach to morality is her view of the choice to live as the base of morality, and therefore as itself pre-moral. As Peikoff explains this point: "If life is what you want, you must pay for *it*, by accepting and practicing a code of rational behavior. Morality, too, is a must - *if*; it is the price of the choice to live. That choice itself, therefore, is not a moral choice; it precedes morality; it is the decision of consciousness that underlies the need of morality." (pp. 244-245)
This, again, is an original contribution of Rand. For the first time, we have an ethical theory that neither advocates obligations or duties independent of man's choices, nor regards man's choices as arbitrary or baseless.
This is precisely the point against which Douglass Rasmussen is arguing in his paper to the Ayn Rand Society, recently published on this list. (Let me note that I believe Allan Gotthelf's paper, read to the same meeting of the Ayn Rand Society, answers Prof. Rasmussen's points in detail, and it is unfortunate that Prof. Gotthelf's paper is not also available to the list. I was, however, very glad to hear of the plans to have these papers published, and I hope this happens soon).
I will not try here to argue against Rasmussen's position in detail, but let me note two essential points:
i. What Rasmussen calls "the existentialist interpretation" - i.e. a view of the choice to live as morally optional - is not Rand's (or Gotthelf's, or Peikoff's) view, and it is not the only alternative to the "natural end interpretation". The concept of "optional" applies to *moral* choices, i.e. to choices that can be made, and judged, on the basis of some value. A moral choice is optional if there are several alternatives that would serve equally well to achieve the relevant values. The choice to live is not optional, on Rand's view (as paraphrased in the passage I quote above from Peikoff), since it is not a moral choice at all. There's no value that would be served equally well by living or by not living; there are no values at all on which such a choice can be judged, since the choice to live is the basis of all values.
ii. If we reject Rasmussen's "natural end interpretation", that would *not* mean (as Jimbo worries it might) that "a person could choose not to live and therefore fail to be liable for contradictions of any sort, including any lifestyle at all". The choice to live is the foundation of all values, and so any person who acts at all (which shows that he does have some values) demonstrates that he has made this choice, and can be morally judged on whether he is acting consistently with it. The only person who, on this view, would "fail to be liable", is a person who does not choose to live, has no values, and does not act at all, i.e. lapses into catatonia.
There is a crucial connection between this issue and the issues discussed in section II (i.e. between points 1 and 2 listed at the beginning of this review). This connection was made clear to me by Douglass Den Uyl (who has co-authored several books and articles with Rasmussen, and, as far as I can see, agrees with him completely on these issues). In his article "Teleology and Agent-Centredness" (The Monist, January 1992, special issue guest-edited by Rasmussen), Den Uyl writes in a footnote:
Followers of Ayn Rand ... regard the "choice to live" as prior to the phenomenon of life itself and thus as a primitive and acontextual invocation of the standards for evaluating further choices. If such a "choice" were present, then ... all that is really significant, obligatory, or interesting about human life would be arbitrary. That one needs a certain amount of nutrients for survival might be a matter of objective necessity for survival; but unless one is Hobbes, it is not survival that is the issue here, but *human* life. So unless the choice is contextualized by recognizing it first as a *human* choice and secondly as for or about a *human* existence, it really would not matter whether one lived like Mother Theresa or John Galt, i.e., it would not matter what the answer was to the *important*, i.e., specifically human, questions of our existence.
Den Uyl recognizes that some value judgments, those identifying objective necessities for survival, can be based on a pre-moral choice to live. However, he does not regard acting on principle, being rational, or having any other virtues, as having a necessary connection to survival. In Den Uyl, or Rasmussen's, view, one should be virtuous, not because the virtues contribute to one's survival, but because one can just see that the virtues are a constituent of flourishing; by "choice to live", they really mean "choice to flourish"; and therefore, they find it necessary to hold this choice as itself obligatory and subject to moral judgment. Rand, on the other hand, by connecting the virtues to the objective requirements of man's survival, was able to adopt a fully objective approach, rejecting any obligations not based on man's choice.
At the end of this section, however, Peikoff makes a strange reversal of his position, and, as Jimbo notes, suddenly adopts Rasmussen's view. He brings up the question: how should someone who does *not* choose to live be judged? Based on his statements from pp. 244-245, quoted above, the answer is clear: such a person can't be judged at all; he is outside the realm of morality, and moral evaluations, condemnatory or otherwise, don't apply to him. However, Peikoff's answer is completely different: "A man who would throw away his life without cause, who would reject the universe on principle and embrace a zero for its own sake - such a man, according to Objectivism, would belong on the lowest rung of hell. His action would indicate so profound a hatred - of himself, of values, of reality - that he would have to be condemned by any *human* being as a monster" (p. 248).
(I don't think Rasmussen or Den Uyl would ever express their view in this sort of religious language, but I think they would completely agree with the position of the above statement.)
How does Peikoff reconcile this with the statement he made just three pages earlier? He says nothing to address this, and I don't believe there is any possible way to reconcile them.
Peikoff ends the chapter by emphasizing how revolutionary Rand's approach to ethics is, calling it "the moral liberation of man". The context is now established for discussing the details of the Objectivist virtues, in the next chapter.
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