Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at Amazon.com.
Ayn Rand opposed the morality of self-sacrifice, which is inherent in most philosophic systems and all religions. She advocated instead a morality of self-interest—the Objectivist ethics—which, as she explained in her essay “Causality Versus Duty,” is neatly summed up by the Spanish proverb “God said: ‘Take what you want, and pay for it.’”
Rand was an atheist, so her use of “God” here is metaphorical. By “God said” she means “reality dictates.” She is referring to the immutable fact that if you want to achieve an effect (an end), you must enact its cause (the means). This is the law of causality applied to human values. Our values—whether a wonderful career, a romantic relationship, good friendships, life-enhancing hobbies, or political freedom—do not come to us automatically, nor do we pursue them automatically. If we want these things, we must choose to act in certain ways and not in others. This is the way reality is. This principle is an absolute. “God said.”
“Take what you want” refers to the fact that human values are chosen. The realm of human values—the realm of morality—is the realm of choice. A proper morality is not about “divine commandments” (there is no God) or “categorical imperatives” (there’s no such thing) or “duties” (they don’t exist). Rather, it is about what you want out of life and what you must do to get what you want. A proper morality is a set of principles to guide your choices and actions toward a lifetime of happiness.
Importantly, as Rand emphasized, this does not make morality subjective. What promotes a person’s life is dictated not by his feelings divorced from facts, but by the factual requirements of his life and happiness—given his nature as a human being. Just as a rabbit can’t live and prosper by jumping off cliffs, and just as an eagle can’t live and prosper by burrowing underground, so a person can’t live and prosper by acting contrary to the requirements of his life.
We are complex beings of body and mind, matter and spirit, and the requirements of our life and happiness derive from both aspects of this integrated whole. If we want to know what these requirements are, we must identify the relevant facts. Given our nature, we need certain values in order to live and prosper. We need material values such as food, clothing, shelter, and medicine; we need spiritual values, such as self-respect, self-confidence, friendship, and romantic love; and we need political values, such as the rule of law and political freedom—which enable us to pursue our material and spiritual values. Consequently, in order to live and prosper, we must uphold and employ the one fundamental value that makes our identification and pursuit of all our other values possible: reason.
Reason is our means of observing reality, forming concepts, identifying causal relationships, avoiding contradictions, and forming principles about what is good and bad for our life. Reason is our only means of knowledge and our basic means of living. Thus, if our goal is a lifetime of happiness, we must uphold reason as an absolute; we must be rational as a matter of principle.
Being rational doesn’t mean never erring; humans are fallible beings, and occasional errors are part of life. Nor does it mean repressing or ignoring one’s feelings; that would not be rational, as feelings are a crucial kind of fact. Rather, being rational means committing oneself, as a matter of principle, to identifying the available and relevant facts concerning one’s alternatives in life, to acting on one’s best judgment given what one knows at any given time, and to correcting any errors one commits if and when one discovers them.
Seen in this light, “Take what you want” doesn’t mean: “Go by your emotions without respect for facts and logic.” It means: “Use your rational judgment to figure out which goals and courses of action will result in a lifetime of happiness, and proceed accordingly.” It means: “Take what you rationally want.”
“Pay for it” refers to the fact that if we want to achieve our goals, we must work to achieve them, we must enact their causes. So says the law of causality. This is not a burden but a blessing: Choosing values and working to achieve them—whether a career in computer programming, a romantic relationship with the girl or guy of our dreams, a sailing trip around the world, or a summer home in the Catskills—is not a process to bemoan. It is part and parcel of living a wonderful life.
A proper morality is a crucial tool for living and loving life, and the Objectivist ethics is just such a morality. Its values of reason, purpose, and self-esteem—along with its virtues of rationality, productiveness, honesty, integrity, independence, justice, and pride—are, one and all, in service of this end. They are our means of taking what we want and paying for it.
Such is the beauty of the Objectivist ethics.
If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to The Objective Standard and making objective journalism a regular part of your life.
- Who is Ayn Rand?
- What is Objectivism?
- Making Life Meaningful: Living Purposefully
- Objective Moral Virtues: Principled Actions