Author’s note: A version of this essay will be published as a short book later this year, and the work is divided into seventeen chapters accordingly. I’m prepublishing it here because I think readers of TOS will find it of interest. —CB
“The morality of self-interest? That’s outrageous! You shouldn’t be reading such a corrupt book.” So might say adults who are wedded to tradition, convention, or religion. But you don’t have to heed their advice. Nor do you have to end up in their shoes.
As a teenager, you are in a unique position with respect to morality. You have the ability to reason like an adult, but you also have something few adults have: freedom from a vested interest in moral falsehoods around which you’ve organized your entire life.
Almost all adults have accepted some form and degree of the morality of self-sacrifice, the idea that being moral consists in giving up your personal goals and dreams in order to selflessly serve other people or “God.” And because many adults have accepted this idea and have tried to implement it to some extent (albeit not fully or consistently), they tend to resist considering whether the morality may be false. Why?
Among other reasons, if the morality of self-sacrifice is false, and if adults who have long embraced it were to discover this, they would have to face the fact that they have thrown away substantial portions of their one-and-only life for no good reason. Not many people are willing to face that fact.
You don’t have to wind up in their unenviable position.
If you want to make your life the best, happiest life it can be, this book is for you. It’s about the essential means to that end—a rational, observation-based, life-serving morality: the morality of self-interest. It’s about why you should pursue your goals and dreams fully, and why you should never sacrifice your life-serving values for the sake of anyone or anything.
Importantly, however, this book does not tell you what is moral and what is not. Rather, it shows you the facts that give rise to the morality of self-interest so that you can see for yourself whether the ideas make sense. If you don’t think the ideas make sense, you should not adopt them. To adopt ideas that don’t make sense to you would be to relinquish the judgment of your mind, which is the most selfless thing you could do. According to the morality of self-interest, that would be immoral.
The basic ideas examined in this book were first put forth by the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, author of Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, The Virtue of Selfishness, and several other books. As we proceed, we will make use of a number of questions that Rand initiated as well as several quotations and passages from her works. The focus of this book, however, is not on who said what, or even who discovered what. The focus is on the observable facts that give rise to and support the morality of self-interest, and how you can use the principles of this morality to make your life truly awesome.
If the possibility that this morality is true appeals to you, take a look. See whether the ideas make sense to you. If they do, you will find yourself in a beautiful position: You will not only be free of the morality of self-sacrifice; you will also possess the morality of self-interest—and you’ll understand how it derives from observable facts. Thus you will never face the possibility that the self-sacrificial morality you accepted early in life made no sense and needlessly put a damper on your goals and dreams. Instead, you’ll be free to think and plan and soar to the highest heights possible to you. And you’ll have a set of moral principles designed to guide you in living and loving your life to the fullest.
Falsehoods You’ve Been Told
All your life, you’ve been told about “good” and “bad,” “should” and “shouldn’t”—about what it means to be moral. And much of what you’ve been told about this is dead wrong.
“You shouldn’t be selfish”—“You should put others first”—“It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” Such claims are false. And their falseness is not an opinion. It is a demonstrable fact.
As we will see, there is a fact-based reason why you should be selfish—in the actual, rational meaning of that term. Selfishness does not mean “stabbing people in the back to get what you want” or “doing whatever you feel like doing regardless of facts or consequences.” Rather, it means thinking rationally, pursuing the goals that will make your life the best it can be, and respecting the rights of other people to do the same.
If you’ve attended church or synagogue, you’ve likely been told that self-sacrifice is a virtue and that self-interest is a vice. Both claims are false. If self-sacrifice were a virtue, then to be fully virtuous, you would have to sacrifice yourself fully and die—as, according to the Bible, Jesus did. Likewise, if self-interest were a vice, then eating, breathing, thinking, and generally taking care of yourself would be wrong. The idea is absurd.
If you were raised in a religious environment, you’ve probably heard the biblical story in which Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, because God ordered him to do so. For this obedience, Jews, Christians, and Muslims regard Abraham as one of the most moral men who ever lived. In reality, however, a man who is willing to kill his son because “a voice in the sky” tells him to is evil (if not psychotic).
Being moral does not consist in being selfless or sacrificing for others or obeying “God” or anything of the sort. This is why those who claim that being moral does consist in such actions never provide evidence to support their assertions. They can’t. Instead, as you may have noticed, they expect you to accept their assertions because “that’s the general consensus,” or because “I know this by faith,” or because “who are you to challenge tradition or your elders?”
But neither consensus nor faith nor tradition nor elders is the standard of truth. It used to be the general consensus in America that slavery should be legal. That doesn’t mean it should have been. Likewise, some people have faith that they should kill you if you refuse to accept their religion. That doesn’t mean they should. And you know of many instances in which traditional ideas and those of your elders have been wrong. The earth is flat? Not so. A woman turned into a pillar of salt? Can’t happen. A snake spoke? Perhaps in the Harry Potter series—otherwise, no.
Truth is not a matter of counting opinions or just believing or asking elders. Truth is recognition of reality. To grasp it, we must observe reality—and think.
What, then, is the truth about morality? I’m not going to tell you. Or, to be exact, I’m not going to push some new consensus-based or faith-based or authority-based dogma on you. You’ve been spoon-fed dogma about morality all your life. You don’t need more of that. Instead, I’m going to show you how to discover the truth about morality for yourself. I’m going to show you how to derive valid moral principles from observable facts. And, best of all, I’m going to show you that such principles are guides—not to sacrificing your values—but to achieving them.
In the pages ahead, we will ask a series of questions aimed at discovering the deepest truths about morality. We’ll pursue answers to these questions by turning to facts we can perceive with our senses. In due course, we’ll identify the essential elements of a rational, secular, observation-based morality—and we’ll see that such a morality is not a damper or a constraint on your life and happiness, but rather a guide to living and loving your life.
As you may have surmised, this book is controversial. It not only rejects two thousand years of Judeo-Christian ethics; it disproves that ethics. It also rejects and disproves the secular dogmas that call for human sacrifice—dogmas such as social subjectivism (the creed of Nazis, communists, and others who treat social consensus as the standard of moral truth) and personal subjectivism (the creed of lone murderers, rapists, thieves, and others who treat personal feelings as the standard).
Given the controversial nature of this book, if your parents, preachers, or teachers knew you were reading it, they might urge you to stop—or, perhaps, even prohibit you from continuing. After all, knowledge of the truth about good and evil is, in biblical terms, “forbidden fruit.” But if conventional views of morality can’t withstand rational scrutiny, what good are they? Why embrace moral ideas that don’t make sense? And if a morality exists that does make sense—and if it provides you with vital guidance for living and loving your life—why not learn about that morality and put it into practice?
As a teenager, you have your entire life ahead of you. And if you want to make your life the best it can be—if you want to achieve the greatest happiness possible—you need the essential means to that end. You need a rational morality: a code of values based on observation, logic, and the requirements of your life and happiness. In short, you need a morality that is designed to make your life the best it can be. That morality—and the observable facts that give rise to it—are the subject of this book.
If There Is No God . . .
Many people claim that the only possible source of an objective, absolute morality is “God.” As radio talk show host Dennis Prager puts it, “If moral standards are not rooted in God, they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than ‘yummy’ and ‘yucky.’ They are simply a matter of personal preference.”1 In other words, says Prager,
If there is no God who says, “Do not murder” . . . murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral “facts” if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.2
This same idea is sometimes put more tersely: “If there is no God, anything goes.” But, on examination, this approach to morality makes no sense. . . .
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1. Dennis Prager, “Why Young Americans Can’t Think Morally,” http://www.dennisprager.com/why-young-americans-cant-think-morally/.
2. Dennis Prager, “The Case for Judeo-Christian Values: Part II,” http://www.dennisprager.com/the-case-for-judeo-christian-values-part-ii/.
3. Ayn Rand makes this point in “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964); see pp. 13–14.
4. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 13.
5. Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 56; Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 79; W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 15, pp. 109–11.
6. Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 61.
7. John Hospers, Philosophical Analysis (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), p. 259, emphasis added.
8. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.
9. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.
10. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.
11. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 17.
12. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 32.
13. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 22.
14. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30.
15. See Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 128.
16. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 27.
17. See Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 121.
18. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 25.
19. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 27–28.
20. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Penguin, 1990), pp. 33–34.
21. See Ayn Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 50.
22. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 28; and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), p. 267.
23. See Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” p. 69.
24. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 29; and Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 292.
25. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 28; and my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), pp. 89–94.
26. See Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 129; and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 51.
27. Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 82–83.
28. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 29. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W. D. Ross, book IV, chapter 3, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.4.iv.html.
29. Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations, translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks (New York: Scribner, 2002), p. 69.