Objective Moral Values - The Objective Standard

Author’s note: This is chapter 4 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 1–3 were reprinted in the prior three issues of TOS. In the book, this chapter is subtitled “Basic Human Needs.”

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We have seen that human life is logically the standard of moral value—and that each individual’s own life is logically his own ultimate value. Here we turn to the question of the human means of survival. What things do we need in order to live? What actions must we take in order to gain and keep those things? And, most importantly: What makes those actions possible?

All living things have a means of survival. Plants survive by means of their automatic vegetative process known as photosynthesis. Animals survive by means of their automatic instinctive processes such as hunting, fleeing, and nest building. Human beings, however, do not survive by automatic means; our means of survival is not instinctual, but volitional. Since we have free will, we choose to live or not to live—and if we choose to live, we must also choose to discover the requirements of our life and to act accordingly.

While the choice to live is up to us, the basic requirements of our life are determined by nature. In order to live, we must take a specific course of action; random action will not do. We cannot survive by eating rocks, drinking Drano, or wandering aimlessly in the desert; and we cannot achieve happiness through procrastination, promiscuity, or pot. If we want to live and enjoy life, we have to discover and act in accordance with the actual, objective requirements of our survival and happiness. What are they?

To zero in on the most basic of these requirements, suppose you were alone on an island. What would you have to do in order to survive? At a bare minimum you would need food, clothing, and shelter; so we can begin by considering what you would have to do to get them. In order to obtain food, you would have to hunt and fish, gather nuts and berries, plant and harvest crops, build and control fires, and prepare and cook meals. In order to acquire clothing, you would have to skin animals, clean and tan their hides, measure yourself for size, lay out a pattern, cut it to shape, and stitch it together. In order to procure shelter, you would have to establish a suitable location, gather appropriate materials, and build a structure capable of shielding yourself from the elements and from any animals that might want to eat you. In order to accomplish these goals, you would have to fashion the necessary tools such as clubs, spears, bows, and arrows; hooks, lines, and sinkers; knives and cookware; needles and thread; measuring devices, props and fasteners. And each of these objectives would require a number of subordinate tasks such as whittling, twisting, braiding, pounding, chopping, aligning, lashing, and so forth.

In short, you would have to take materials from the environment and transform them into your means of survival. You would have to reshape the available resources and create the values on which your life depends. In a word, you would have to be productive.

Of course, in a specialized society we can buy food from a supermarket, clothing from a department store, and a home from a realtor. But our ability to purchase such goods presupposes both that someone has produced them and that we have produced something to trade in exchange for them. So the fact remains: Whether alone on an island or among others in a society, if one wants to live, one has to be productive.

And human life requires much more than just food, clothing, and shelter; it requires a multitude of values. Consider the vast number of things that support and enhance our life: furniture, electricity, machinery, medicine, books, airplanes, plumbing, computers, automobiles, schools, cinemas, sports facilities, works of art, libraries, and so forth. All such things come from people being productive.

Productive work is essential to human life; it makes human life possible.

What happens if a person refuses to be productive? If he is alone on an island, he dies. And if a person refuses to be productive while he is among others in a society, he becomes a parasite on those who do choose to be productive; he becomes a pauper, a beggar, or a thief. In order to live as a human being (rather than as a parasite), a person has to be productive.

It is clear that human life depends on productive work. Our next question is: What does productive work depend on? What is it that enables us to transform raw materials into human values? It is our ability to think—to observe facts, to form concepts, to discover causal relationships, and to use logic. While other animals acquire their values by means of instinct, we have to engage in a process of thought. As Ayn Rand put it:

Man cannot survive, as animals do, by the guidance of mere percepts. A sensation of hunger will tell him that he needs food (if he has learned to identify it as “hunger”), but it will not tell him how to obtain his food and it will not tell him what food is good for him or poisonous. He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available—but to build the simplest shelter, he needs a process of thought. No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools, how to make a wheel, how to make an airplane, how to perform an appendectomy, how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron or a box of matches. Yet his life depends on such knowledge—and only a volitional act of his consciousness, a process of thought, can provide it.1

In order to live we have to be productive; in order to be productive we have to think; and the faculty that makes thinking possible is reason. While other animals survive by means of instinct, we have to use reason—and we have to do so by choice. Quoting Ayn Rand again:

Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival—so that for you, who are a human being, the question “to be or not to be” is the question “to think or not to think.”2

Human life depends on productive work, and productive work depends on reason. Productivity is a process of value creation governed entirely by the rational functions of the human mind. If a person moves materials around without thinking, he will not create values; he will only make a mess (for examples see Marxist politics and modern art). Human values can come into existence only by means of productive effort guided by rational thinking.

Rational thinking is the most basic requirement of human life; it is the process on which human life most fundamentally depends.

What happens if a person refuses to think? If he is alone on an island, he dies. Even wild berries have to be identified as edible before they can be used to support human life; identifying them as edible requires a process of rational thought. And what happens if a person refuses to think while he is among others in a society? He becomes a parasite on those who do choose to think. In order to live as a human being, a person has to use reason.

The purpose of thinking is to understand the world and our needs so that we can pursue our values and live. Since life is the standard of value, and since reason is our most basic means of living, it follows that reason is our most basic value.

Being moral is a matter of being rational—which means: looking at the facts of reality, discovering the requirements of our life and long-term happiness, producing the values that support and enhance our life, and enjoying the process of living as a human being.

Let us now turn our attention to this last issue: enjoying life.

The fact that we must think in order to live is a relatively straightforward matter. The more difficult but equally important question concerns the role of our feelings. If reason is our guide to living and enjoying life, where do our emotions fit into the picture?

To answer this question, we need to discover the nature and source of our emotions—what they are and how they come to be. In so doing, we will see that emotions are as necessary to our life as reason is—but that they serve a very different role, which, if we are to achieve and maintain happiness, must be recognized and respected.

In order to live, we have to acquire knowledge, form convictions, and make value judgments—judgments regarding what is good or bad, for or against our life. These three things—our knowledge, our convictions (or beliefs), and our value judgments—are the spiritual cause of our emotions.

For example, if a hiker knows what rattlesnakes look like and judges them to be dangerous, then when he encounters one on the trail, he will feel some degree of fear. But if he does not know anything about them, or is unaware of their deadly nature, he might feel curious and try to pick it up. Similarly, if a hiker gets lost in the wilderness and runs out of food, he will feel relieved to discover a patch of wild berries—providing he believes them to be edible. If he thinks they might be poisonous, he will feel apprehensive about eating them.

Emotions are automatic responses arising from one’s ideas—one’s knowledge, beliefs, and value judgments—in relation to one’s experiences.3

To further illustrate this point, consider three women who experience the same physical phenomenon, morning sickness, but have entirely different emotional reactions to it. The first woman wakes up feeling physically ill but becomes spiritually excited. She has been trying to get pregnant for over a year and knows that this could be a good sign. The second woman has been trying to get pregnant, too, but when she wakes up feeling sick she becomes frustrated. She does not know the meaning of morning sickness and thinks she has the flu. The third woman wakes up feeling sick and panics. She knows all about morning sickness but had no intention of getting pregnant—and her religion forbids abortion.

While each woman has the same physical experience (morning sickness), each has a different emotional reaction to it. Why? Because each has a different set of ideas—knowledge, beliefs, and value judgments—in relation to which the experience is processed.

Emotions are consequences of ideas.

Take another example. Three men hear the following news: “A chemical extract from the Pacific yew tree appears to be a promising new drug in the battle against cancer.” When the first man hears this, he becomes irate. He believes that trees have a “right” to live and should not be cut down to save human lives. He believes that nature has “intrinsic” value—value “in and of itself,” apart from any human purpose; thus, he believes that people have no right to use or exploit it for their selfish human ends. Further, since cancer is a part of nature too, he believes that it should be left alone to take its natural course. Consequently, this news about people tampering with nature to fight cancer just enrages him. The second man has a different reaction. When he hears about the drug, he feels a burst of hope. His wife has cancer, and since this man knows that the concept of “value” presupposes the question “of value to whom and for what?” he believes that nature has value only insofar as it can be used to serve human life—for instance, the life of his beloved. The third man experiences yet another reaction. When he hears the news, he feels a tinge of discomfort. He knows that such issues are controversial and believes that it is best to avoid the subject, to stay clear of the debate, and not to have any strong “opinions” about human life, nature, or cancer.

Again, while each man has the same experience (hears the same news), each has a different emotional reaction to it because each has accepted a different set of ideas.

Different ideas cause different emotions.

Our emotions are automatic results of our ideas (in relation to our experiences). As such, they are the psychological means by which we experience our values. When we receive good news or gain a value or accomplish a goal, we experience some kind and degree of psychological pleasure or joy—the basic positive emotion. When we receive bad news or lose a value or fail to accomplish a goal, we experience some kind and degree of psychological pain or suffering—the basic negative emotion.

For example, when a hard-working artist completes a beautiful sculpture, he experiences positive emotions such as elation and exaltation. Since he considers the event to be a good thing, he experiences psychological pleasure or joy. If he later discovers that an envious vandal has smashed the sculpture, he experiences negative emotions such as anger and grief. Since he considers this event to be a bad thing, he experiences psychological pain or suffering.

Observe further that if the artist’s emotional reactions were reversed—if upon completing the sculpture he plunged into depression, and upon discovering it smashed he jumped for joy—this would mean that he has serious psychological problems.

Our emotional faculty serves as a gauge of our spiritual health. To the degree that our emotions are in harmony with the facts of reality, we are in good spiritual health. To the extent that our emotions are in conflict with the facts of reality, we have some spiritual work to do in this area. Such work can be difficult and time-consuming, but if a life of happiness is our goal, it is work we must do. And in order to do it, we need to know how.

The key to achieving and maintaining spiritual health lies in understanding the source of our ideas. We have seen that our emotions are consequences (effects) of our ideas (which are their cause). Our ideas, in turn, are consequences of our thinking—which can be rational or irrational, evidence-based or evidence-free, connected to reality or disconnected from it. If we want to achieve and maintain spiritual harmony, we must think rationally; we must accept only evidence-based ideas—ideas connected to reality. Such ideas give rise to healthy emotions—emotions in harmony with the facts. Conversely, we must not think irrationally; we must reject all evidence-free ideas—ideas disconnected from reality. Such ideas give rise to unhealthy emotions—emotions in conflict with the facts.

To illustrate this point, consider a person whose thinking is connected to reality and thus has led him to believe that trade is good and theft is bad. When he goes to the movies he will gladly pay the admission fee and will have no desire to sneak into the theater. His feelings about the financial transaction will be in harmony with reality—with the fact that human values (such as movies) are products of people’s efforts and are made available to others only on the condition of trade.

Now, compare him to a person whose thinking is disconnected from reality and thus has led him to believe that trade is a nuisance and theft is the way to go. When he goes to the movies he will resent having to pay and will feel an urge to sneak in. His feelings about the transaction will be in conflict with reality. The solution to this emotional conflict is for the person to start thinking rationally. If he does, then, over time, his emotions will come into harmony with reality, and he will begin to feel like doing what is right instead of what is wrong. If he does not start thinking rationally, then his feelings will remain in conflict with the facts, and he will continue to feel like doing what is wrong instead of what is right.

Like the basic material requirements of human survival, the basic spiritual requirements of emotional harmony are determined not by us, but by nature. Just as we cannot survive by eating poisonous berries, playing in traffic, or leaving nature alone, so we cannot achieve happiness by robbing banks, sneaking into theaters, or lying our way into a job or a relationship. If we want our emotions to be in harmony with reality, we have to discover and uphold the actual requirements of that spiritual state.

The human mind is a specific kind of thing (a consciousness with free will) whose emotional harmony requires a specific kind of action (the commitment to keep its ideas connected to reality and to direct its body to act accordingly). If we want to achieve and maintain happiness, we have to think and act rationally.

As a final example, consider a child who is raised by racist parents and adopts their irrational ideas. Until and unless he decides to look at the evidence, think for himself, and replace the false ideas with true ones, he will experience unhealthy, harmful emotions. If he never embraces the responsibility of independent thinking, he will be plagued for life by twisted ideas, false value judgments, and their consequent emotions—which will sabotage his happiness. If, however, he does decide to think for himself, he will discover that his first-hand knowledge of the fact that people have free will is incompatible with the racist notion that character is determined by genetic lineage. He will discover that character is a matter not of a person’s blood or heritage, but of a person’s choices and actions. He will come to judge people not as cogs of a collective, but as autonomous individuals. And by thus deriving his beliefs logically from facts, he will foster harmony between his emotions and reality. He might even end up marrying someone of a different race whom his prior irrationality would have disqualified at first sight.

Healthy emotions are those that are in harmony with the facts of reality, and such emotions are products of rational, observation-based, non-contradictory thinking.

Of course, reason does not make us infallible; we can err in our thinking. Consequently, we can draw false conclusions that, in turn, lead to conflicting emotions. But the only way to correct a false idea is by looking at the facts and logically reassessing them until we discover the truth of the matter. If we use reason consistently—as a matter of principle—then, over time, true ideas displace false ones, and our feelings come into harmony with the facts. (Note, in this regard, that while most children go through a stage during which they scream and cry when others won’t share their belongings with them, most adults no longer suffer this spiritual conflict—because they have come to recognize the principle of property rights.)

Now, it is important to remember that our emotions are themselves facts—facts that are extremely relevant to our life and well-being. Thus, our emotions should not be ignored or repressed. Like all relevant facts, they should be acknowledged and properly considered. But just as the existence and relevance of our lungs does not render them our means of knowledge, so the existence and relevance of our emotions does not grant them that role.

Our emotions are crucially important to our life and happiness, but they are not our means of knowledge. They do not tell us what is true or false; thus, they cannot tell us what is good or bad, right or wrong. Only reason can. We recognize the truth of this principle every time we feel like taking one course of action but then consider the facts, use logic, and realize that another course would be better.

If we want to live and enjoy life, we have to respect each of our mental faculties for what it is. Reason is our means of knowledge; it is our basic means of achieving our values and living. Emotions are consequences of our ideas; they are our psychological means of experiencing our values and enjoying life. With these principles in mind, let us turn to our next subject: how to make life meaningful.

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Endnotes

1 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), pp. 22–23.

2 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 120.

3 See Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), pp. 153–58.

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