Author’s note: This is chapter 3 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), which is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism. Chapters 1 and 2 were reprinted in the prior two issues of TOS. In the book, this chapter is titled “To Be Or Not To Be: The Basic Choice.”

In chapter 2, we encountered the problem known as the “is–ought” dichotomy, the notion that moral principles (principles regarding what people “ought” to do) cannot be derived from the facts of reality (from what “is”). We also saw that this problem persists for lack of an observation-based, objective standard of value. Here we turn to the solution to that problem. First, we will discover just such a standard; then, we will discover a number of objective moral principles—principles in accordance with that standard.

To begin, note that the basic fact that makes morality such a difficult subject is the very fact that makes it a subject in the first place: free will. As human beings we have the faculty of volition, the power of choice; we choose our actions. This fact gives rise to our need of morality. Indeed, the realm of morality is the realm of choice. What makes the issue complicated is the fact that our choices are guided by our values—which are also chosen. This is why it is so difficult to get to the bottom of morality: Human values are chosen—every last one of them. Consequently, peoples’ values seem to differ in every imaginable way.

Some people choose to play soccer; they value footwork, teamwork, and winning. Some choose to dance ballet; they value grace, poise, and flight. And some choose to attend church; they value sermons, faith, and prayer. A person who goes hiking values the scenery and exercise. One who goes fishing values the nibble and catch. And one who takes heroin values the so-called “high.” A person who steals jewelry values “free stuff.” One who makes jewelry values craftsmanship. A sculptor values the process of creating art. A software developer values that creative process. A student who cheats on a test values “getting away” with it. One who studies for the test values the knowledge he gains thereby. A doctor specializing in internal medicine values the process of curing disease. A terrorist specializing in biological warfare values the process of spreading disease. A man who treats his wife with respect values certain qualities in her. One who abuses his wife values having power over her. A General who fights for mandatory “volunteerism” values involuntary servitude. One who fights to defend individual rights values freedom. And so on. Different people act in different ways; they value different things.

So the question is: How do we know if our choice of values is good or bad, right or wrong? What is our standard of value?

As we have already seen, if we do not consciously hold something as our standard of value, then we have nothing by reference to which we can determine what goals we should or should not pursue—how we should or should not act. And if we do not hold something rationally provable as our standard of value, then we default to some form of subjectivism—personal, social, or “supernatural”—which can lead only to human sacrifice, suffering, and death. If we want to live and achieve happiness, we need a non-sacrificial standard of value that is grounded in perceptual evidence—facts we can see.

In search of such a standard, the proper approach is to turn not to personal opinion or social convention or “super-nature,” but to actual nature and ask, as the American philosopher Ayn Rand did: “What are values? Why does man need them?”

Generally speaking, a person’s values are the things he cares about, the things he is interested in, the things he pursues or protects. A “value,” observes Ayn Rand, is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.”1 The key word here is: acts. Plants, animals, and people act; 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 minerals, water, and sunlight. Snakes hunt, strike, and struggle to keep the critters they catch; they value crickets, frogs, and mice. Rabbits nibble on plants and hide in hollows; they value vegetation and shelter. People grow crops, build houses, make friends, and go to school; we value nutrition, shelter, other people, and education. All living organisms take self-generated, goal-directed action.2

Non-living things, on the other hand, take no such action. They can be moved, but they cannot act—not in the self-generated, goal-directed sense that living things do. A rock just remains wherever it is unless some outside force, such as a wave or a hammer, hits and moves it. A river flows, but its motion is not self-generated; water moves only by means of some outside force—in this case, the gravitational pull of the earth. And a hammer does not, by itself, smash rocks or drive nails; it does not generate its own action.

The reason why inanimate objects do not act in the same sense that living things do is that they have no needs and therefore no corresponding means of action. Rocks, rivers, and hammers do not need or value anything; thus, they have no means of gaining or keeping anything. Only living organisms have needs, values, or goals; accordingly, only they have a means of acting toward such ends.

“The concept ‘value’ is not a primary,” continues Ayn Rand; “it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative.”3 A tree faces the alternative of reaching water and sunlight—or not; a snake faces the alternative of catching and keeping its prey—or not; a rabbit faces the alternative of finding food and shelter—or not; and a person faces the alternative of achieving his goals—or not.

The objects that a living thing acts to gain or keep are its values—values to it. That answers the question: “to whom?” But the question: “for what?” remains.

What difference does it make whether or not an organism achieves its goals? What happens if it succeeds, and what happens if it fails? What ultimately is at stake? Here is Ayn Rand’s key passage on the issue:

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value” possible.4

The reason why living things need values is: in order to live. The answer to the question “for what?” is: for life.

For hundreds of years philosophers have been stumped by the problem of how to derive moral principles, principles regarding what people ought to do, from the facts of reality, from what is. By showing that values are certain kinds of facts—facts in relation to the requirements of life—Ayn Rand has solved the problem.

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.5

A living thing’s life is its ultimate goal; its life is the final end toward which its actions are the means; its life is its ultimate value. Ayn Rand’s crucial discovery here is the fact that life is the standard of value. And human beings are no exception to this principle. People need values for the same reason plants and animals do: in order to sustain and further their life. A person’s life is his ultimate value. Man’s life is the standard of moral value.6

Now, it is true that in the absence of an ultimate goal it would be impossible to derive moral principles from the facts of reality. But there is no such situation for manand there never could be. A person does not and cannot live without an ultimate goal, because his choice to remain alive establishes his life as his ultimate goal. If he chooses to continue living, reality (what is) dictates what he ought to do: He ought to pursue the values necessary to sustain and further his life. If he chooses not to continue living, he has no need of values: He can simply stop acting altogether, and he will soon die.

But, one might ask, doesn’t free will make the issue subjective? Can’t a person choose a different standard of value if he wants to?

No, free will does not make the issue subjective. It does mean that a person can choose not to live; but it does not mean that he can choose a standard of value other than life.

As Ayn Rand pointed out, the alternative of existence or non-existence is the only fundamental alternative; all other alternatives are derivatives of it. Consider, for instance, the following: food or poison, pleasure or pain, knowledge or ignorance, joy or sorrow, creation or destruction, wealth or poverty, trade or theft, freedom or slavery. What makes these alternatives possible? Life makes them possible. Without life they would not and could not exist. Without life there would be no one to whom anything could be beneficial or harmful. And why do such alternatives matter one way or the other? Because of the requirements of life. They are values or non-values only in relation to the alternative of life or death—and only for the purpose of promoting one’s life. The fact that we have free will does not change any of this; it simply grants us a choice in the matter: to live or not to live—to be or not to be.

The choice to be underlies and makes possible all of our other choices—and thus all of our other values. We cannot make any choice or value anything apart from the choice to continue living. The choice to do homework presupposes it; the choice to build a business presupposes it; the choice to compose a symphony presupposes it; the choice to go surfing presupposes it; the choice to make love presupposes it; and so on. All such choices depend on the choice to live. But the choice to live does not presuppose any other choice; it is the one choice on which all other choices depend. It is the most basic choice of all.

Moreover, just as our choice to remain alive makes our pursuit of values possible, so it makes our pursuit of values necessary. To continue living, we must act to gain the values on which our life depends, such as knowledge, food, shelter, and medical care. So the point is not merely that we have to be alive in order to pursue values, but also that we have to pursue values in order to stay alive—and, further (since we have free will), that we must pursue values by choice.7 Put negatively: Just as we cannot pursue values unless we choose to continue living, so we cannot continue living unless we choose to pursue values.

In sum, there is no ultimate goal or value other than life to which a person can pledge his allegiance, because there is no fundamental alternative other than existence or non-existence with which a person is faced. Life or death is it: A person either strives for self-preservation or courts self-elimination. In order to live, he has to pursue values; in order to die, he does not.

In a nutshell, Ayn Rand’s key ethical discovery is the fact that the concept of “value” presupposes, depends on, and derives from the concept of “life.” And since the choice to remain alive (or not) is the only fundamental choice, human life is logically the standard of moral value—and the only possible one.

Now, because people have free will, a person can choose to remain alive and then take anti-life actions. In fact, altruism encourages people to do just that: to sacrifice their life-serving values for the sake of God or other people. But a person cannot do so consistently; he cannot act against his life (his ultimate value) as a matter of unwavering principle, or he will quickly die. (This is why, as we saw in chapter 1, altruists have to cheat on their morality just to stay alive.) The only values a person can pursue consistently are those that are conducive to his survival and happiness. The only values he can seek as a matter of unwavering principle are those that promote his life.

Morality is chosen—all the way down to one’s standard of value. A person’s choice to remain alive makes his life his ultimate value and thus gives rise to his need of morality. If he chooses not to live, he has no need of morality. And if he chooses to remain alive and then hypocritically acts against his life, that, too, is his choice—and the consequences are his to suffer. But if a person wants to stay alive and achieve happiness, he has to act in a manner that promotes his life and well-being. None other will do.

Moral principles are guides to human action for the purpose of sustaining and furthering one’s life. And, not surprisingly, if a person chooses consistently to act in a life-promoting manner, then (disasters aside) he will achieve the kind of happiness that is consonant with the requirements of human life: genuine happiness. In other words, being good—acting in a life-promoting manner—is good for you; it furthers your life and results in true happiness.

If one wants to live happily, one has to act morally; one has to be loyal in action to one’s ultimate value: one’s life.

Ayn Rand’s breakthrough is truly profound: It not only bridges the is–ought gap; it also solves the problem of human sacrifice. Given that life is the standard of value, what is the moral status of self-sacrifice? Does a person have a moral “duty” to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, God, or society? And what is the moral status of sacrificing other people? Does a person have a moral “right” to sacrifice others for his own sake? The answers are becoming clear.

Since each person is obviously a separate being with his own body, his own mind, his own life—since life is an attribute of the individual—each person’s own life is his own ultimate value. Each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others.8 Accordingly, a person has neither a moral duty to sacrifice himself for the sake of others (as religion and social subjectivism claim) nor a moral right to sacrifice others for his own sake (as personal subjectivism claims). On principle, neither self-sacrifice nor 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 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.

The moral principle here is: egoism.

Egoism holds that each individual ought to act in his own best interest and is the proper beneficiary of his own moral action.9 (Ego is Latin for I or self; “egoism” means “self-ism.”) The validity of egoism is implicit in the very nature of values. A value is the object of an action taken by a living organism to sustain and further its life. Since human beings have free will, a person can choose to live or not to live. If he chooses to live, then his life is his ultimate value, and he ought to be loyal in action to that fact—he ought to take the actions necessary to sustain and further his life. Such actions are, by definition, moral actions. Conversely, if a person chooses to remain alive and then to betray his ultimate value—to act against his life—he is, by definition, acting immorally.

It is crucial here to clearly distinguish egoism from hedonism and personal subjectivism. True egoism—rational egoism—does not hold “pleasure” or “feelings” as the standard of value. It holds life as the standard of value—and happiness as the moral purpose of life.10 Many actions that might “please” a person or make him “feel” good for the moment do not actually promote his life, and thus are not actually in his best interest. For instance, a salesman might feel like snoozing the alarm one morning, but if it means missing an important meeting or losing a key customer, then it is not in his best interest. Likewise, a ballerina might get pleasure from eating lots of cake and ice cream, but if it means putting on weight that will ruin her career, then it is not good for her life. And a married man might feel like sleeping with another woman, but if it is going to destroy his integrity, his self-respect, and his marriage, then it is not going to make him happy. A person who allows himself to be guided by his feelings is not being selfish. He is being unselfish.

Every thinking adult knows that the mere fact that one wants to do something does not necessarily mean it is in one’s best interest to do it. This is why neither hedonism nor personal subjectivism is egoistic: Both advocate action guided by sheer desire—a policy that, far from advancing one’s life, is guaranteed to destroy it. If one wants to live and achieve happiness, one has to be genuinely egoistic; one has to act in a life-promoting manner.

The next question is: How do we know what constitutes life-promoting action? The principle of egoism says that we should act to further our life, but it does not give us any specific guidance as to what goals or actions will serve that purpose. To answer this question, we must again turn to (actual) nature and observe the relevant facts. And in so doing, we must bear in mind the following.

We are not simple creatures; we are complex beings of body and mind—matter and spirit—whose values pertain to both aspects of this integrated whole. Nor do we live for just a moment or a day; human life is an ongoing process spanning years and decades. Thus, living properly (being moral) consists in pursuing life-serving values not sporadically or occasionally, but regularly and consistently—as a matter of principle.

In order to do so, we need both long-range and wide-range guidance: long-range guidance to account for the span of our lifetime, and wide-range guidance to account for the broad spectrum of our needs. To determine whether an action is good or bad, helpful or harmful to our life, we have to project both the physical and the psychological consequences—and not only with regard to the present, but also with regard to the more distant future. Our means of doing so are moral principles—principles grounded in the dual fact that human life is the standard of moral value and personal happiness is the moral purpose of one’s life. Such principles are the subject of the remainder of the book.


1 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 16.

2 See Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 121; and “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 16–17.

3 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., p. 18.

6 See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 17, 27; and For the New Intellectual, pp. 121–22.

7 Cf. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), pp. 213–14.

8 See Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” in The Voice of Reason (New York: Meridian, 1990), p. 4.

9 See Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 229–30.

10 See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 32–33.

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