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.
To begin with, there is no evidence for the existence of God, which is why religions invariably uphold faith as a basic virtue. Faith is acceptance of ideas that are not supported by evidence. If you accept ideas on the basis of evidence, you’re accepting them by way of reason. This is why we have and need the two different concepts, “reason” and “faith”: We need to distinguish between acceptance of ideas on the basis of evidence and acceptance of ideas in the absence of evidence. Reason refers to one, faith to the other.
A God-based morality is a faith-based morality. It is a morality based on the idea that we can know the truths of morality by means of faith—which means: by just believing. There are other problems with a God-based morality—for instance, what if the alleged God commands or condones murder, rape, slavery, or the like, as he does in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? But the lack of evidence for the existence of God is sufficient grounds to disqualify the whole endeavor.
If the moral truth is whatever people have faith is the moral truth, then the moral truth is whatever anyone just believes it to be. Contrary to the claim “If there is no God, anything goes,” the fact is that if faith is a means of knowledge, anything goes.
Faith, however, is not a means of knowledge. And, as we will see, when it comes to morality, nothing goes—except that which makes rational sense and supports human life and happiness.
A faith-based morality can’t be objective, because “objective” means “fact-based.” In order for a morality to be objective, it must be based not on faith nor on feelings but on facts. It must be based on and derived from perceptual evidence and logic. Further, for a morality to be valid, there must be a reason for us to embrace it. It must serve some valid purpose. There must be something in reality that makes the morality necessary. The faith-based approach to morality ignores the fundamental question that is a precondition of any rational discussion of morality: Why do we need this thing? A rational approach to morality must begin with that question.3
Here’s why: Either we need morality or we don’t. If we don’t need it, then we don’t need it, so there is no point in pondering the subject at all. If, on the other hand, we do need morality, then the reason why we need it will help guide our thinking about which principles and values factually serve that purpose and which do not.
This is analogous to a healthy diet. Either we need a healthy diet or we don’t. If we do, then the reason why we need it—namely, to fuel our bodies and keep them fit and functioning properly—will help guide our thinking about which foods serve that purpose and which do not. If we didn’t need nutrition, or if we didn’t know the purpose of the science, we couldn’t identify its principles because we wouldn’t know what the principles were supposed to help us accomplish. It is only because we know the purpose of nutrition that we can use reason to identify the corresponding principles. That’s what (rational) nutritionists do; they form principles based on the purpose of the science and the corresponding facts of reality. This is why you never hear nutritionists say, “I have faith that a good diet includes protein and fiber,” or “In our society, the best diet is cyanide and arsenic,” or “In my opinion, it’s milk and mercury.”
Just as knowing the purpose of nutrition enables us to identify valid principles of nutrition, so too identifying the purpose of morality will enable us to identify valid principles of morality.
The Purpose of Morality, Part One: Choices You Face
We can observe the need for morality on two related levels: a commonsense level and a deeper philosophic level. We’ll consider the commonsense level first and dig down to the deeper level later (in chapter 5).
If you want to live a long and happy life doing things you love—such as building a rewarding career, spending time with good friends, enjoying romance and sex, engaging in your favorite recreational activities, and generally flourishing and thriving—then you need to acquire and apply a lot of knowledge about how to live such a life. Human beings are not born with such knowledge. Nor do we gain such knowledge automatically. Nor, if we do gain it, do we act on it automatically. As evidence, observe the countless miserable people in the world. If there were some kind of innate or automatic knowledge about how to live well and love life, wouldn’t practically everyone do just that?
We are not born with and do not automatically acquire knowledge about how to live and flourish. If we want such knowledge, we must acquire it by observation and logic, and we must retain it in the form of principles—general truths that we can readily recall and put to use when necessary.
Think about the myriad questions you face in your teenage years:
- Should I go to college? If so, which college should I choose? What career should I choose? How can I know whether I’ve decided correctly? Are there any principles to guide me in these areas? Or is it all a matter of feelings and opinions?
- Is the love of money the root of all evil? If so, by what standard?
- Is it okay to masturbate? Is it okay to have sex before marriage? How about oral sex? What if I discover I’m gay? Is gay sex okay? What principles govern these questions?
- Should I report a classmate I saw cheating on a test? If cheating will get me a better grade, should I cheat? If not, why not? What’s the principle here?
- When someone tells a lie about me, or bullies me, or otherwise abuses me, should I stand up for myself? If so, how? Is violence ever okay? If so, when? If not, why not?
- How about drugs? Is alcohol okay? How about marijuana? How about heroin? Isn’t caffeine a drug? Are all drugs equally permissible or impermissible? Where should I draw the line?
- If I see no evidence for the existence of God, should I believe in him anyway? If so, why? If not, why not?
- When my parents and I disagree about right and wrong, how can I know whether I’m right? What’s the standard of morality?
- What if my parents treat me horribly? Should I honor them anyway? What does “honor” mean?
- How should I choose my friends? What should I do if a friend lies to me? How about if he is dishonest with others but seems honest with me?
- What should I do this weekend? How should I spend my time? Are there any principles to help me decide? Or is it all just a matter of opinions and feelings?
- What matters most in life? What is the meaning of life?
As a teenager, you regularly face these kinds of questions—even if not these specific questions. And you’ll face a constant stream of similar questions throughout your life. How you answer such questions is now, and always will be, a fundamental determining factor in whether you live a wonderful, joy-filled life, or something less. And your answers to—or uncertainties about—all such questions depend on your morality.
This is what a morality is: a code of values to guide your choices and actions, the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of your life.4
Because you have to make choices in life—because you have free will—a morality of some kind is inescapable. Your only choice in this regard is whether you acquire your morality through conscious deliberation, by actively thinking about it and figuring out what makes sense to you—or by default, through social osmosis, by passively absorbing the dominant views from the culture.
Which morality are you likely to accept if you acquire one passively from the culture?
Altruism: The Morality of Self-Sacrifice
If you acquire your morality through social osmosis, you will most likely accept the dominant morality in the culture today: altruism, the idea that being moral consists in selflessly serving others. This is the morality most frequently taught in churches, synagogues, and schools; offered in books, movies, and on TV; and encouraged by most parents.
The word “altruism” derives from the Latin “alter,” meaning “other”; altruism literally means other-ism. It holds that the whole point of morality is to focus on others, to live for others, to serve others.
Importantly, however, altruism does not call merely for serving others; it calls for self-sacrificially serving others. It calls for serving others in a way that renders you with an overall loss of values, not an overall gain. Otherwise we’d have to regard the famous author J. K. Rowling as more altruistic than the famous nun Mother Teresa. Why? Because J. K. Rowling has served millions more people than Mother Teresa did.
The difference, of course, is in the way these women have served people. Mother Teresa “served” people by exchanging her time and effort for nothing. For instance, she washed the feet of strangers for no compensation whatsoever. J. K. Rowling, on the other hand, serves people by trading with them—by exchanging value for value to mutual advantage—an exchange in which both sides gain. For instance, she wrote the Harry Potter series and sold the books to millions of people, making herself rich and bringing countless readers great joy.
Altruism calls for the kind of service rendered by Mother Teresa: self-sacrificial service. It does not call for the kind of service provided by J. K. Rowling: self-beneficial service.
Altruism is the morality of self-sacrifice. It is the morality of personal loss, and it does not condone personal gain. “To the extent that [people] are motivated by the prospect of obtaining a reward,” explains philosopher Peter Singer, “they are not acting altruistically.” Philosopher Thomas Nagel puts it this way: Altruism entails “a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives”—“ulterior motives” meaning personal interests or personal gains. And philosopher W. G. Maclagan explains: According to altruism, you have “a duty to relieve the stress and promote the happiness” of others—and you must “discount altogether” your own happiness when “deciding what course of action to pursue” because your own happiness is “a matter of no moral concern . . . whatsoever.”5
Singer, Nagel, and Maclagan approve of and advocate altruism, so they are not trying to make it sound worse than it is. Although some people mistakenly believe being altruistic means having goodwill toward others or being nice to people or the like, that is not the meaning of the term.
Altruism is not about benevolence or kindness. It is about self-sacrifice and personal loss—thus it is wholly against your life and happiness. Philosopher Ayn Rand, who adamantly opposed this morality, put it this way: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.”6
That is the theoretical meaning of altruism.
What, then, does altruism look like in practice? Suppose someone accepts this morality as true and tries to practice it consistently. What will become of his life? A widely used college philosophy text provides an indication:
A pure altruist doesn’t consider her own welfare at all but only that of others. If she had a choice between an action that would produce a great benefit for herself (such as enabling her to go to college) and an action that would produce no benefit for herself but a small benefit for someone else (such as enabling him to go to a concert this evening), she should do the second. She should be selfless, considering herself not at all: she should face death rather than subject another person to a minor discomfort. She is committed to serving others only and to pass up any benefits to herself.7
That illustrates the practical meaning of altruism—and indicates why no one practices it consistently.
Any morality that calls for you to give up your values rather than pursue them is not good for your life. If you accept such a morality as true and try to practice it consistently, you will regularly give up the values that would have filled your life with joy. If you accept it as true and practice it inconsistently, you will constantly feel guilty for not living up to your own moral standards.
If you have to any extent accepted the idea that altruism is true, then you likely have acted intentionally in ways that were not good for your life. Perhaps you’ve skipped a trip to the beach with your friends in order to do community service from which you received no benefit. Or perhaps you’ve let others cheat off of your schoolwork because you thought it would be wrong to be selfish.
Likewise, if you’ve accepted the idea that altruism is true, you probably have felt guilty at times for not selflessly serving others. Perhaps you’ve felt guilty for not giving money to a beggar. Or perhaps you’ve felt guilty for declining an invitation to a party when you saw no self-interested reason to attend.
But if you have accepted the toxic morality of self-sacrifice, you should not berate yourself. In fact, you should congratulate yourself—because you are right now in the process of solving that life-throttling problem.
As we proceed, you will come to see with crystal clarity why the idea that being moral consists in selflessly serving others is observationally false. And your ability to see its falseness will be a consequence of an even more important discovery: You will see by means of observation and logic that being moral consists in rationally pursuing your life-serving values, refusing to sacrifice them, and respecting the rights of other people to do the same.
The Purpose of Morality, Part Two: Observable Foundations
Why do people generally regard matters of life and death as the most important matters of all? On a commonsense level, we do so because if a person dies, nothing else can matter to him. Whatever happens to a person, as long as he is still alive and able to think and act on his judgment, he can strive to succeed in life, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve happiness. But if (and when) a person dies, that’s it. Nothing matters to him anymore because he no longer exists. His body remains, but his life is gone.
This fact has deeper philosophic meaning than you might initially think. And as we ask and answer questions aimed at getting to the perceptual base of morality, we will begin to see a profound connection in this regard. And we will come to see that the very alternative of life or death is what grounds morality in reality.
With that in mind, let’s return to the question “Why do people need morality?” And let’s dig deeper.
Morality is a code of values to guide your choices and actions. And because morality is a code of values, we can break down the question “Why do people need morality?” into two more-specific questions: “What are values? And why do people need them?” This is how Ayn Rand approached the subject, and we will proceed as she did, by asking pivotal questions and looking to observable facts for rational answers.
To begin, observe the relevance and importance of these two questions: “What are values? And why do people need them?” If we don’t know what values are, we can’t understand what a code of values is. Before we can put our finger on a correct code of values, we must first put our finger on the precise nature of values. We must be clear about what values are.
Likewise, as indicated earlier, if we don’t need values, then we don’t need them, and there is no point in concerning ourselves with a code of these things we don’t need. If, on the other hand, we do need values, then the reason why we need them will go a long way toward establishing which values are legitimate and which are not.
Looking at reality, we can see that a value is that which one acts to gain or keep.8 You can see this first and foremost in your own life: You act to gain or keep money; you value it. You act to gain or keep friends; you value them. You act to gain or keep good grades; you value these. And so on. Your values are the things you act to gain or keep.
You can see this same meaning of value among people in general: People act to develop fulfilling careers, romantic relationships, and hobbies; they value these things. Soccer players act to score goals and win games; bank robbers act to get “free” money; churchgoers act to establish and maintain a relationship with “God.” And so on. The things people act to gain or keep are their values.
The key word here is: act. Values are objects of actions. If someone doesn’t act to achieve good grades, or to develop a fulfilling career, or to establish a relationship with God, then he doesn’t value the thing in question. He might dream about the thing. He might want it. Or he might feel that he should value it. But if he takes no action whatsoever to gain or keep the thing, he doesn’t truly value it. (This is why parents correctly say of a child who leaves his bicycle out in the elements to rust that he does not value the bicycle.)
Broadening our view, we can see that values pertain not only to people, but to all living things—and only to living things. Trees, tigers, and people take actions toward goals. 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. Tigers hunt antelope and nap under trees; they value meat and shade. And people act to gain their values, such as food, education, and friendship. This pattern continues throughout the plant and animal kingdom: All living things take self-generated, goal-directed action.
Nonliving things, on the other hand, take no such action. They can be moved, but they cannot act in the self-generated, goal-directed way 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. Even a robot programmed to engage in some purposeful activity, such as vacuuming a carpet, does not take self-generated, goal-directed action. Rather, a robot acts only as it mechanically must, given that someone built and programmed it to act that way. In this case, the self-generated, goal-directed action is that of the programmer or the person employing the robot.
Living things are unique in this respect: Only they take self-generated, goal-directed action. Only living things pursue values.
Why? Why do living things pursue values? What are values for?
At this point we can see, as Rand observed, that “the concept ‘value’ is not a primary; 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.”9
A tree faces the alternative of reaching water and sunlight—or not. A tiger faces the alternative of catching and keeping its prey—or not. And a person faces the alternative of achieving his goals—or not. The objects 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 an organism achieves its goals? What happens if it succeeds? What happens if it fails? What ultimately is at stake?
Here is where we get to the very base of morality and see how it is grounded in perceptual reality. As Rand observed, and as we can too:
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.10
What we can see here is that the reason why living things need values is: to live. The answer to the question “for what?” is: for life.
Life is conditional: If a living thing takes the actions and achieves the values necessary to remain alive, it remains alive. If, for some reason, it fails to take those actions or fails to achieve those values, it dies. And human beings are no exception to this principle. We need values for the same reason plants and animals do: in order to sustain and further our life.
On the basis of such observations, we can see that an organism’s life is its ultimate value—the ultimate goal or end toward which all of its actions are the means. The sustenance of a living thing’s life is, by nature, the ultimate purpose of the values it pursues. This makes an organism’s life its standard of value—the standard by reference to which all of its other values and actions can be objectively evaluated.
Each form of life has its own specific needs as determined by the nature of the organism in question. Trees have their needs, tigers have theirs, and we have ours. All organisms have specific requirements for life, and, for any given organism, whatever those requirements are, they constitute its standard of value. Nutrients, sunlight, and water are good for a plant—why? Because they serve its life. Meat, shade, and water are good for a tiger—why? Because they serve its life. And so on. For any given organism, the good is that which sustains or furthers its life, and the bad is that which harms or destroys it.11
Now, as human beings, we have free will, the ability to choose our values, and this capacity adds a layer of complexity to the issue. The ability to choose is what gives rise to the field of morality: Morality is the realm of chosen values. If we couldn’t choose our values and actions, there would be no point in a science dedicated to telling us what we ought to choose.
Whereas other animals act automatically or instinctually to further their lives, people do not. A person can choose to act in ways that are contrary to the requirements of his life, as some people tragically do. For instance, a person can choose to consume drugs that harm his brain and mangle his mind. Or a person can choose to do nothing but sit around and be unproductive, even though doing so will not advance or support his life. A person can even choose to commit suicide. Free will makes life-harming or even life-destroying action possible. Further, free will makes possible the choice to adopt a morality that is contrary to the requirements of human life, a morality that calls for people to sacrifice their life-serving values for the sake of “God” or others—as altruism does.
So free will truly does add significant complexity to the question of values. This complexity, however, is substantially simplified by reference to a crucial observable fact: People don’t need to take anti-life actions; nothing in nature necessitates or warrants such actions; there is no reason to act self-sacrificially.
The fact that people can choose a course of action or even a code of values that is contrary to the requirements of their life does not change anything about the objective standard of value. Whatever anyone’s choice, these facts remain: The only reason we can pursue values is because we are alive, and the only reason we need to pursue values is in order to live.
This observation-based, two-pronged principle is the key to grounding morality in reality, so it is worth emphasizing for clarity and retention: Only life makes values possible (non-living things cannot pursue values); and only life makes values necessary (only living things need to pursue values). Put another way: You have to be alive in order to pursue values, and you have to pursue values in order to stay alive.
In accordance with this observation-based principle, the choices and actions that promote one’s life are morally good, and those that harm or destroy one’s life are morally bad.
Recall our earlier observation that people generally regard matters of life and death as the most important matters of all. It is no coincidence that this commonsense idea corresponds to the very foundation of morality. The alternative of life or death—existence or non-existence—is the fundamental alternative that makes possible all other alternatives that matter. The alternative of life or death is precisely what gives rise to the possibility and need of values—and thus to the need of ideas such as good and bad, right and wrong, matters and doesn’t matter. If it weren’t for life and the goal of sustaining it, nothing would or could matter at all.
Life is the standard of value because life is the very reason why values exist. And human life—meaning, the requirements of our life given our nature as human beings—is the standard of moral value, the standard by reference to which we can determine which choices and actions are good or bad, right or wrong for human beings. Acting in accordance with the requirements of human life is moral; acting in contradiction to those requirements is immoral.
Now, combining the principle that human life is the standard of moral value with the observable fact that people are individuals—each with his own body, his own mind, his own life—we reach another principle of observation-based morality: Each individual’s own life is his own ultimate value. Each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others. Accordingly, he has no moral “duty” to sacrifice himself for the sake of others (as religion and altruism claim he does). Nor does he have a moral “right” to sacrifice others for his own sake (as thugs and predators pretend they do). On principle, neither self-sacrifice nor the sacrifice of others is moral, because, on principle, human sacrifice as such is immoral.
Human life does not require human sacrifice. It does not require people to give up their values for the sake of other people. Nor does it require people to attack others or to steal their belongings or to rape or otherwise assault them. People can live together rationally, civilly, peacefully, and prosperously. They can produce life-serving values and trade them with others by mutual consent and to mutual advantage; they can refuse to sacrifice themselves or others; thus they can live and flourish in peace and harmony. But, given the role of morality in human life, in order to do so they must accept the morality that advocates doing so: the morality of self-interest.
Let’s turn now to a crucial distinction regarding the relationships between the requirements of human life and the important values of pleasure and happiness.
As we proceed, it will be helpful to shorten the phrase “the morality of self-interest” to a single, equally accurate term: egoism. “Ego” is Latin for “I” or “self”; egoism literally means self-ism. It is the idea that you should be concerned primarily with your self; your life and happiness; the values, goals, and relationships that will make your life the best it can be. So, moving forward, we will use the term “egoism” and the phrase “the morality of self-interest” interchangeably.
Egoism Versus Hedonism
Egoism is sometimes confused with hedonism, but these two moralities are fundamentally different, and, if you want to make your life the best it can be, you need to differentiate these ideas clearly in your mind.
Whereas egoism upholds the requirements of human life as the standard of moral value, hedonism treats pleasure as the standard. “Hedone” is Greek for “pleasure”; hedonism literally means pleasure-ism. It’s the idea that you should do whatever gives you pleasure. The basic problem with this idea, as you might already have surmised, is that actions that give you pleasure may be bad for your life.
For instance, a drug addict might get pleasure from shooting heroin into his veins, but doing so clearly is detrimental to his life. Likewise, a ballerina might get pleasure from eating lots of cake and ice cream, but if doing so causes her to gain too much weight, it will ruin her career as a ballerina. And a student might get pleasure from sleeping in one morning, but if doing so means missing a crucial exam or failing an important course, it is not in his best interest to do so.
Even if we broaden the standard from mere “pleasure” to “happiness,” this same problem persists. Certain kinds of behavior might make a person feel “happy” for a period of time even though the behavior is contrary to the requirements of his life and long-term happiness.
For instance, suppose a person holds happiness as his standard of moral value, and suppose he thinks to himself, “What would make me really happy is to have a lot of money and to quit this rotten job so I can just live it up.” Suddenly, he inherits a million dollars. So he quits his job and proceeds to “live it up”: He buys an expensive sports car and a yacht, travels the world, throws big parties, and so on. He feels happy . . . for a while. But in two years’ time, the cash is gone, he has no money to put gas in his car or to dock his yacht or even to buy a hot dog. How did that standard of value work out for him?
Although pursuits of pleasure and happiness are not necessarily bad for your life, they are not necessarily good for your life either. It depends: Is the pleasure or happiness in question consistent with the requirements of your life and long-term happiness—or not? If you want a lifetime of happiness, that is the question you need to answer.
This is why, as important as pleasure and happiness are, they cannot be the standard of moral value: When detached from the requirements of life, they can and often do work against those requirements.
What, then, is the precise relationship between life and happiness (or life and pleasure)? The relationship, conveniently, is set by nature.
Observe that you can be alive and not happy—but you cannot be happy and not alive. This is because, although life and happiness are intimately related, one is more fundamental than the other. And this difference makes a difference. As Ayn Rand put it:
The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. . . .
But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting “man’s life” as one’s primary and by pursuing the rational values it requires that one can achieve happiness—not by taking “happiness” as some undefined, irreducible primary and then attempting to live by its guidance. If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good.12
The requirements of life and the pursuit of happiness are harmonious—as long as we uphold the primacy of the former. The nature-based principle is this: The requirements of human life constitute the objective standard of moral value, and the achievement of personal happiness is the moral purpose of each individual’s life.
At this point, we’ve surveyed the essential facts that give rise to the principle that choosing and pursuing life-serving values is the right thing to do. So let’s turn now to the question of how to do so. What are the basic means to that end?
As we look to reality for answers to this question, it’s important to bear in mind that human life does not last merely for a moment or a day; it is an ongoing process spanning years and decades. And 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. Thus, to choose and pursue values that will promote our life and maximize our happiness, we must account for the long-range and wide-range material and spiritual requirements of our life and happiness. Our means of doing so are valid moral principles—principles grounded in the fact that human life is the standard of moral value.
Reason: Our Basic Means of Living
In order to live and prosper, we need food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and other material goods. We also need self-confidence, self-respect, friendship, romantic love, and other spiritual values. More fundamentally, we need knowledge of such needs and knowledge of how to acquire them. So a crucial question is: What, fundamentally speaking, must we do to gain such knowledge and acquire such values? Looking at reality, we can see the answer: We must observe reality and think.
“Look where you’re going”—“Use your head”—“Think before you act”—“Set goals and strive to achieve them.” You’ve heard such advice many times. And everyone knows that such ideas are in some sense “good” advice. (No one says, “Don’t look where you’re going” or “Don’t use your head.”) But few people regard such pearls of wisdom as moral matters. Why? Because such advice pertains to self-interest, and almost no one regards self-interest as moral.
In light of the fact that self-interest is moral, we can see that activities such as observing reality, thinking, and pursuing your life-serving goals are morally good. We can also see why the faculty that most fundamentally enables us to do all of this—reason—is the most fundamental of all life-serving values.
Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by our senses.13 It’s the means by which we discover what things are, what qualities they have, and how we can use them to support and enhance our lives.
For instance, it’s by means of reason that we learn about plants, soil, the principles of agriculture, and how to produce food. It’s by means of reason that we learn about wool, silk, and how to make looms and produce clothing. It’s by means of reason that we learn the principles of chemistry and biology and how to produce medicine and perform surgery; the principles of engineering and how to build homes, cars, football stadiums, and iPhones; the principles of aerodynamics and how to make and fly jets, helicopters, and hovercrafts; the principles of atomic physics and how to produce and control nuclear energy. And so on. We could multiply examples endlessly.
And reason is not only our means of understanding the physical realm and achieving our material needs; it is also our means of understanding the psychological realm and achieving our spiritual needs—needs such as self-confidence, friendship, and romantic love.
Let’s focus for a moment on romantic love. How is reason crucial to this value?
To establish and maintain a good romantic relationship, you have to take into account the relevant facts pertaining to that goal. For instance, you have to know what kind of relationship will actually be good for your life. You were not born with this knowledge, nor do you gain it automatically. Will a relationship based on mutual respect, mutual admiration, and harmony of interests be good? How about one based on disrespect, acrimony, and conflicts? Is it necessary for you and your partner to agree on everything? If not everything, what (if anything) must you agree on in order for the relationship to thrive and serve your life? What exactly are the requirements of a good romantic relationship? To acquire such knowledge, you have to observe reality and think.
Further, you have to find someone who possesses the qualities that matter to you and who lives up to your standards. Does honesty matter? How about integrity? Intelligence? Cleanliness? To determine whether a person possesses the qualities you regard as important, you must judge him accurately—according to the available and relevant facts—which requires reason. And, once you’ve found someone worthy of your love, in order to attract him or her, and to make the relationship thrive, you must treat the person justly—as he or she deserves to be treated. To do all of this, you have to understand and apply the principle of justice (which we will discuss shortly). Your means of understanding and applying it is: reason.
To succeed in romance, you have to discover and act in accordance with a lot of facts and principles. You must think and act rationally. If you choose a lover irrationally, or treat your lover irrationally, then your relationship with him or her will be a disaster. You probably know of people who approach relationships irrationally and what the results are.
Reason is our basic means of understanding the world, our needs, and other people; thus, it is our basic means of living and achieving happiness. Consequently, the morality of self-interest upholds reason as our proper guide in all areas of life: material, spiritual, personal, social, sexual, professional, recreational, and so on.
Importantly, reason is not our only mental faculty; we also possess the faculty of emotion, and it too is crucial to our life and happiness.
Whereas reason is our basic means of acquiring knowledge, making plans, and pursuing goals, emotions are our psychological means of experiencing our values and enjoying our life—which is the whole purpose of living. But, in order to live and love life, we must treat emotions for what they are and not expect them to be what they are not.
What exactly are emotions? They are automatic consequences of our ideas and value judgments in relation to our experiences.14
Our emotions arise from our evaluations of the things, people, and events in our lives. For instance, if you research colleges, apply to one that you consider perfectly suited to your needs and interests, and are accepted, you’ll experience positive emotions, such as joy or elation. If you’re rejected, you’ll experience negative emotions, such as sadness or frustration.
Likewise, if you regard dolphins as harmless and playful, then if you see some nearby while swimming, you will not feel frightened; you might even feel fortunate and swim over to play. If, however, you regard dolphins as dangerous, you will feel frightened, and you’ll likely strive to get away. (Replace dolphins with tiger sharks in this example, and observe the significant differences.)
Your emotions are automatic responses arising from your ideas—your knowledge, beliefs, and value judgments—in relation to your experiences.
We can multiply examples endlessly to see that this is what emotions are: If you have a crush on someone, and he (or she) smiles at you warmly, you will feel delighted. If he rolls his eyes at you dismissively, you’ll feel dejected. If you regard honesty as important, and you find that a friend has lied to you, you will feel angry and betrayed. If you later discover that you were mistaken and that he had not been dishonest, you’ll feel relieved. If you get lost in the woods for a few days and have no food, you’ll feel fortunate to come across a patch of wild berries. If on inspection you think they might be poisonous, you’ll feel apprehensive about eating them. And so on.
Your emotions are consequences of your ideas in relation to your experiences, and they are crucially important to your life and happiness. If you didn’t experience the emotion of desire, you would have no motivation to take any actions at all—and you would soon die. You need emotions.
But emotions are not your means of knowledge. They cannot tell you which schools will suit your needs, or which animals are dangerous, or who is worthy of your love, or which berries are edible, or which morality corresponds to reality. Only reason can.
By recognizing each of these mental faculties for what it is and treating it accordingly, you create a harmonious relationship between your reasoning mind and your emotional faculty: The former gives you knowledge you need in order to live and love life. The latter enables you to experience your values and thus to enjoy your life.
Now, even if you recognize the distinct natures of these faculties and treat them accordingly, you may occasionally experience conflicts between your emotions and your rational thinking, or between your feelings and the facts. This is because your emotions are automatic consequences of your ideas—which include not only your knowledge but also your beliefs and value judgments. And, depending on how you have acquired your beliefs and formed your value judgments, they may be in conflict with the facts of reality and with other ideas you hold.
For instance, if you were raised in a religious family and were constantly told that God exists, that He is good, and that you must believe in and obey Him or you will go to Hell, you may have come to accept this set of beliefs and value judgments. “God exists” is a belief; “God is good” is a value judgment; “You better believe in and obey God or else . . .” is a belief and a value judgment. Having accepted these ideas, you naturally would feel, on the emotional level, that God is real and good and will send you to Hell if you believe otherwise. If in time you were to realize that you have never seen or otherwise experienced actual evidence for the existence of God, you might conclude that there is no reason to believe in such a being. But even if you do reach this conclusion, your long-held, deep-seated beliefs, value judgments, and corresponding emotions regarding God will not immediately vanish. Your emotional reactions reflect any and all beliefs and value judgments you hold—including any fragments of old, stale ones that linger or have not been fully replaced by other ideas. So even if you have rationally concluded that there is no reason to believe in God (because no evidence for him exists), you can, for a substantial period of time, continue to feel that God is real and good and will send you to Hell if you believe otherwise.
Your emotions are automatic consequences of the ideas you accept—whether those ideas are true or false, rational or irrational, evidence based or evidence free. This further highlights the vital importance of always acting in accordance with reason and never in accordance with unchecked emotions.
If you use reason consistently, then, over time, your beliefs and value judgments will come into harmony with the facts, and your rational and emotional faculties will harmonize accordingly.
We’ll talk more about reason later. For now, let’s turn to another fundamental aspect of self-interest: the value of purpose.
Purpose and the Meaning of Life
“What is the meaning of life?” You’ve heard this question countless times, and you’ve probably heard all manner of answers. Some people say the meaning of life is to serve “God” and do his will. Others say the meaning of life is to serve “the community” or “the poor.” Still others say life has no meaning—it’s a meaningless journey and then you die.
Looking at reality, however, we can see that the meaning of life is whatever you choose to make it. And the key word here is: make. If you want your life to be meaningful, you have to make it so.
What is the meaning of a motorcycle? To someone who has no interest in or need of a motorcycle, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a man-made object that he doesn’t need or care about. But to someone who races motorcycles for a living, or who loves to bike mountain roads for fun, a motorcycle is full of meaning. It is a means to furthering his life and happiness. It’s no accident that the word “meaning” derives from the same word as “means.”
Human life is a process of self-generated, goal-directed action—action that, because we have free will, we generate toward goals we choose. The meaning of our life is a function of the activities and goals we choose—that is, our purposes—and the means of pursuing them.
A purpose is a conscious, intentional activity or goal, something you deliberately aim to do or to accomplish. And a rational purpose is a purpose that promotes your life and happiness—such as getting an education, producing a video, riding a motorcycle, writing a short story, pursuing a romantic interest, or starting a business. These are the kinds of activities and goals that make life meaningful.
For example, consider a college student who chooses his major carefully, goes to class regularly, and takes his studies seriously. He is selfishly after something; he is acting purposefully to accomplish life-promoting goals—to expand his knowledge, to improve his judgment, and to get good grades. The meaning of these choices, actions, and goals is that they serve his purposes—including his career aims and his overarching purpose, which is to advance his life and maximize his happiness.
By contrast, consider a college student who picks a major at random, frequently skips class to “hang out” in the coffee shop, and studies just enough to “get by.” He is not selfishly after anything; he is not acting purposefully to accomplish life-promoting goals. And his lack of purpose makes his life less meaningful than it would be if he were to spend his time purposefully.
Life is a process of self-generated, goal-directed action—and a moral life is a process of consciously chosen actions toward consciously chosen goals intended to promote one’s life and happiness. Rational purposefulness names the essence of this process.
Consider someone who is rationally purposeful about romance. He recognizes that romantic relationships and sex are crucially important values, and he approaches them accordingly. He does not dive mindlessly into sexual relationships. If someone piques his interest, he thinks about why he feels interested; he considers what he knows about the person’s character, values, and actions. He doesn’t follow his emotions blindly; he thinks about them to see whether they are in harmony with his rational evaluations and his life-serving interests. He seeks a relationship with someone he is both emotionally attracted to and rationally respectful of, someone he both desires and admires. Only when he meets such a person—and finds mutual attraction and mutual admiration—will he consider engaging in a sexual relationship. Consequently, when he has sex with his partner, it is spiritually meaningful. It is a celebration of his life, his values, his interests—and those of the girl (or guy) with whom he is involved.
By contrast, consider someone who treats sex as a casual matter of mere emotional or physical impulse, requiring no thoughtful consideration. He’s willing to have sex with anyone he feels the slightest attraction to, regardless of what he may or may not know about the person’s character, values, or actions; regardless of whether he respects or admires the person, or whether the person respects or admires him. From his perspective, all that matters is emotional or physical attraction. His motto is: “If it feels good, do it.” Consequently, when he has sex, it is devoid of spiritual meaning. It is neither a celebration of his life or values or interests, nor of those of the person with whom he “hooks up.” Rather, sex for him is a matter of mere physical friction with a (presumably) warm body.
Sex stripped of spiritual values is completely different than sex saturated with such values. One is essentially meaningless; the other is profoundly meaningful.
Purposefulness and meaningfulness go hand-in-hand; together, they make life wonderful, enjoyable, and full of spiritual depth.
Importantly, being purposeful does not mean never resting, never relaxing, or never taking it easy. On the contrary, rest, relaxation, and downtime are crucial life-serving values. Being purposeful requires acknowledging this fact and incorporating these values into your life. The goal is not to “always be busy” or “always be active.” The goal is to always be rational and purposeful with your time. The principle is that whatever you’re doing at any given time—whether writing code or pumping iron or making love or taking a nap—you should be doing it because, in your best judgment, this is the most selfish use of your time at the moment.
That said, if you find yourself doing something that you don’t regard as in your best interest, there is no value in beating yourself up about it. Instead, simply refocus your mind, think about what you can do to put yourself back on a self-interested track, and proceed accordingly.
Later, we’ll discuss how you can organize your life and values toward acting in a consistently self-interested manner. For now, let’s turn to a third crucial value of egoism, which is intimately related to reason and purpose, namely: self-esteem.
Self-Esteem: A Vital Conviction
Self-esteem is the dual conviction that you are able to live and worthy of happiness.15 Its two components, self-confidence and self-respect, are objective requirements of human life and happiness.
If you don’t develop self-confidence, you can’t live successfully, because you won’t have the psychological motivation to put forth the necessary effort. Why try if you don’t believe you can succeed? And if you don’t develop self-respect, you can’t achieve happiness, because you’ll lack the positive personal evaluation that is the essence of happiness. How can you be happy if you think you’re no good?
Although self-esteem is essential to human life and happiness, we are not born with it; we have to earn it. And the only way to earn it is by means of rational achievement.
We come to believe that we are able to live by using our mind, exerting effort, and accomplishing life-serving goals. And we come to believe that we are worthy of happiness by using our mind, striving to succeed, and thus showing ourselves that we are worthy. To the extent that we believe we can deal with the world and we deserve to be happy, we are psychologically positioned for success. To the extent that we believe we can’t deal with reality or we don’t deserve happiness, we are psychologically positioned for failure.
Thus, self-esteem is as important to our life and happiness as are reason and purpose; and there is only one way to gain or keep it: by thinking rationally and acting purposefully. This is why reason, purpose, and self-esteem are, as Ayn Rand emphasized, “the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life.”16
To live and flourish as a human being, you have to think (reason); you have to choose and pursue life-promoting goals (purpose); and you have to achieve and maintain the conviction that you are able to live and worthy of happiness (self-esteem).
Of course, reason, purpose, and self-esteem are not our only life-serving values. Rather, they are our fundamental values. In addition to these, we must choose and pursue various optional values—values specific to our personal contexts, needs, and preferences.
Optional values include our choice of a particular career, particular recreational activities, particular leisure activities, friendships, romantic interests, and so on. Life offers a virtual smorgasbord of optional values, and rational egoism does not dictate which ones you should choose. It simply points out that if you want to live and flourish, you must think rationally about your interests, consider your options, choose life-serving goals, and go after them. That’s what living and loving life is all about.
Let’s turn now to some specifically action-oriented aspects of egoism.
Rationality: The Basic Life-Serving Virtue
Whereas a life-serving value is an object or thing by means of which you promote your life, a life-serving virtue is a choice or action by means of which you do so.17 Thus, we have touched on a number of virtues already: The faculty of reason is a value; the act of thinking is a virtue. Life-serving purposes are values; the act of pursuing them is a virtue. Self-esteem is a value; the act of gaining and keeping it is a virtue.
Because human life is the standard of moral value, the kinds of actions that promote human life are virtues; the kinds of actions that harm or destroy it are vices. As Ayn Rand put it: “Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.”18 The objective moral status of an action is determined by reference to this principle.
Because reason is our only means of knowledge and our basic means of living, the primary virtue of egoism is rationality, which is, as Rand put it, “the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.”19
Importantly, embracing reason as your only judge of values and only guide to action does not mean repressing or disregarding your emotions. Rather, it means recognizing and embracing the fact that reason and emotion are two different mental faculties that serve two different (but related) purposes—and treating each faculty for what it is. As we saw earlier, whereas your reasoning mind is your means of knowledge, your emotional faculty is your psychological means of experiencing your values. When you recognize and treat these two faculties for what they are, they serve as a harmonious, life-serving team: Using reason as your means of judging values and guiding your actions enables you to live and pursue happiness. Recognizing your emotions as your psychological means of experiencing your values enables you to enjoy your pursuits and accomplishments without being confused about whether an idea is true or an action is right just because you feel that it is.
What does rationality mean in terms of day-to-day living?
First and foremost, rationality requires that you accept ideas only when they make rational sense to you. For an idea to “make sense,” it must “make it to the sensory level”—it must be grounded in perceptual observation, the evidence of your senses. To accept an idea on faith, or because you feel that it is true, or merely because others say it’s true, is to open the gate to all manner of nonsense.
Do you see evidence for the existence of an invisible, all-powerful being who demands your faith and obedience? If not, rationality requires that you not accept the idea that such a being exists. Do you see evidence in support of the idea that the standard of moral value is selfless service to others? If not, rationality requires that you treat the idea as unfounded. Do you see evidence that the pursuit of values is a requirement of life and happiness? If so, then rationality requires you to treat this idea accordingly. Do you see evidence that if you exert effort you can succeed in life? If so, then rationality requires you to acknowledge this fact and to recall it as necessary whenever you doubt your ability to succeed.
Some questions of evidence are extremely complex matters requiring specialized knowledge, such as evidence regarding the theory of evolution, the causes of cancer, the theory of relativity, whether global warming is occurring, and whether a warmer globe would be harmful or beneficial to human beings. In such cases, depending on the extent of your studies, you might have some evidence but not conclusive evidence in support of a given idea. When that is the case, rationality requires that you acknowledge both what you know and what you don’t know. When you don’t know whether an idea is true, the rational position is, “I don’t know.”
And sometimes detecting evidence requires specialized tools, such as in the case of evidence for the existence of atoms and subatomic particles or for the existence of faraway planets and galaxies. In such cases, if you have no self-interested reason to gain access to the tools or look into the matter, your understanding of the issue may remain forever indeterminate. You might consider the presentations and arguments you hear or read on the matter and make your best judgment about what is plausible, or what best fits with the body of knowledge you have. But if and when you don’t know, you don’t know. And that’s okay.
Rationality does not require you to check the truth status of every idea you encounter. (That would be absurd.) It requires you to go by reason, evidence, and logic—and to be honest with yourself and others about what you know and what you don’t. Many questions are simply not of interest to you given your purposes in life, and in such cases you have no need to pursue the issue or to take a position on it.
As for choosing and pursuing your personal values, which is our central concern here, rationality requires that you use your mind to think about what will make your life the best it can be, that you choose your values on the basis of such thinking, and that you act accordingly, as a matter of principle.
To do this, you need to think about your interests and possible interests; you need to project various possible courses of action; and you need to ask yourself which of them in your best judgment would make your life the most enjoyable and meaningful it can be. This thought process is complex; it involves many considerations. But if you view your life in terms of the major areas of personal concern, you’ll find this process to be relatively easy and supremely enjoyable.
The major areas of life are: education, career, recreation, leisure, friendship, romance (and, if you choose to raise a child, parenting). You could organize these differently or combine or parse a few items depending on your needs and preferences. But these are the major areas of concern. And if you view your life in terms of these areas, you can focus on each sphere separately, as well as jointly, and work to integrate them into a unified whole, designing your entire life in the image of your values.
What matters to you in the realm of education? What will serve your long-term purposes here? What career (or careers) are you interested or potentially interested in pursuing? What kinds of sports or physical activities do you enjoy? How do you like to rest or cool your jets or refuel your batteries? What kinds of friendships are good for your life? What do you want in a romantic partner? If you gather your thoughts on these matters, regularly think about them, revise your ideas and values when and as necessary, and work to maximize your happiness with respect to each area, you can steer your life in a beautiful direction.
Toward that end, it’s important that you organize and integrate your values and goals with respect to their relative importance to your life and happiness. Ayn Rand elaborates this idea in the following passage. Bear in mind as you read it that “telos” means “end” or “goal”; thus “teleological” means “goal-directed.” A teleological measurement is simply a value calculation made with respect to the relative importance of a number of goals and values.
A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes—he must choose the particular goals and values which he is to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly. Thus all his actions have to be guided by a process of teleological measurement. (The degree of uncertainty and contradictions in a man’s hierarchy of values is the degree to which he will be unable to perform such measurements and will fail in his attempts at value calculations or at purposeful action.)
Teleological measurement has to be performed in and against an enormous context: it consists of establishing the relationship of a given choice to all the other possible choices and to one’s hierarchy of values.
The simplest example of this process, which all men practice (with various degrees of precision and success), may be seen in the realm of material values—in the (implicit) principles that guide a man’s spending of money. On any level of income, a man’s money is a limited quantity; in spending it, he weighs the value of his purchase against the value of every other purchase open to him for the same amount of money, he weighs it against the hierarchy of all his other goals, desires and needs, then makes the purchase or not accordingly.
The same kind of measurement guides man’s actions in the wider realm of moral or spiritual values. (By “spiritual” I mean “pertaining to consciousness.” I say “wider” because it is man’s hierarchy of values in this realm that determines his hierarchy of values in the material or economic realm.) But the currency or medium of exchange is different. In the spiritual realm, the currency—which exists in limited quantity and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value—is time, i.e., one’s life.20
Your fundamental currency in life—the thing you spend one way or another depending on the clarity and consistency of your values and their relationships to one another—is your time, which is your life. They’re essentially the same thing. If you organize and prioritize your values with respect to their relative importance, you can think clearly about how to apportion your time and effort toward maximizing your happiness. To the extent that you don’t prioritize your values, you can’t think clearly about what matters most; thus you can’t maximize your happiness.
Should you go snowboarding this weekend? Or should you work on that short story? Should you make plans with Melissa? Or would that time be better spent with Peter, or Ed, or alone? Should you apply to Yale or Stanford? Should you even go to college? What’s in it for you? What are your alternatives? What would best enable you to flourish? Such questions can’t be answered rationally without reference to the hierarchy and network of your values and goals.
If you don’t organize and prioritize your values, the best you can do is make vague approximations about what might be the best use of your time. If you do organize and prioritize them, you can be clear and precise in your thinking. Rationality calls for you to do the latter—so that you can make your life as wonderful as possible.
A particularly important benefit of establishing and maintaining a clear hierarchy of values is that it enables you to avoid committing sacrifices. A sacrifice is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser value or a non-value.21 Of course life requires that you regularly forgo lesser values for the sake of greater ones. But these are net gains, not net losses. A sacrifice consists in giving up something that is more important to your life and happiness for the sake of something that is less important; thus, it results in a net loss.
For instance, if you have a test in the morning that bears heavily on your long-term well-being, then it is not a sacrifice to put off watching your favorite television show in order to study. The importance of doing well on the test outweighs the pleasure you would get from watching TV; thus, if you were to watch the show instead of studying, that would be a sacrifice.
Likewise, if want to pursue a career in music and have no interest in a career in law, but your parents want you to go into law, then it would be a sacrifice for you to go into law. The rational, self-interested thing to do is to pursue the career that you think will fill your days and years with joy. To give up that selfish ideal for your parent’s preference would be selfless and thus harmful to your life.
Importantly, the principle of non-sacrifice does not mean that you should never help others, or never do volunteer work, or never engage in charity, or the like. Helping others can be and often is in your self-interest. For instance, if a friend is moving into a new apartment, helping him can be in your self-interest—as long as doing so does not involve a sacrifice. If on that same day you have a crucial meeting about a business you’re working to launch, and if helping your friend move means botching that vital venture, then helping him move is not in your best interest. (And, of course, any good friend would understand this fact.)
Likewise, if you enjoy volunteering at a children’s hospital, say, reading stories to leukemia patients, doing so can be perfectly self-interested—as long as no sacrifice is involved. If volunteering at the hospital means you can’t make it to the tryouts for a band you eagerly want to join and that could launch your career as a professional musician, then volunteering at the hospital that day would be a sacrifice.
Similarly, if you’ve earned enough money to donate to a charity you value, and if you see donating to the charity as adding to the quality of your life, then donating is perfectly self-interested. If, however, the charity in question somehow contradicts or undermines your life-serving values, then contributing to it would be a sacrifice. For instance, if the charity in question works toward the establishment of a theocratic dictatorship (or any other form of government under which human life and happiness would be impossible), then donating to the charity would be worse than a sacrifice. It would be an assault on the requirements of your life and happiness.
The bottom line regarding rationality is that you live once, and every choice you make and every action you take matters to the quality and course of your life. If you want to make your life the best it can be, you need to think and act in accordance with the long-range and wide-range material and spiritual requirements of your life and happiness.
Rationality is the virtue of observing reality, using reason, figuring out what is good or bad for your life and long-term happiness, and acting accordingly, as a matter of principle.
Let’s turn now to some more specific aspects and applications of rationality.
Honesty: Refusing to Pretend Facts Are Other Than They Are
One major aspect of rationality is honesty, the refusal to pretend the facts are other than they are.22
Honesty is essentially the flip side of rationality. Whereas rationality is the commitment to think, judge, and act with respect to the relevant facts, honesty is the commitment not to do otherwise. It is the commitment not to make up alternative realities and pretend that they are real. There is, of course, nothing wrong with engaging in fantasy or making up stories. Novels, science-fiction movies, and the like can be and often are great life-serving values—as long as we don’t pretend the fantasy in question is reality. Fantasy is one thing; dishonesty is another.
Because reality remains what it is regardless of any efforts to ignore or deny it, because facts are facts and cannot be wished away, the consequences of recognizing reality can only be positive, and the consequences of evading it can only be negative. In order to understand why this is so, we must bear in mind that human beings are integrated beings of body and mind, matter and spirit, and our choices and actions affect both aspects of this integrated whole.
Consider some examples.
If an overweight person wants to lose weight and pretends that pizza and beer constitute an appropriate diet for this purpose, he will suffer the consequences of his evasion—and the consequences will be both physical and psychological. On the physical spectrum, he won’t lose weight; he will gain it—along with all the problems that come with it. On the psychological spectrum, he will know that he has been dishonest with himself, and this will chip away at his self-esteem: Because he will have demonstrated that he is not competent to deal with this aspect of reality (his weight problem), he will lose self-confidence; and because he will have demonstrated that he cannot trust himself, he will lose self-respect. The net effect will be increased weight and decreased self-esteem, both of which—along with all of their related consequences—are bad for his life.
Likewise, if a girl does not want to get pregnant but evades the fact that she has run out of birth control pills and continues having sex with her boyfriend, she will suffer the consequences. Although she might not get pregnant (luck happens), if her brain functions at all she will worry about the possibility that she might be pregnant; at least she will worry until she has her period and breathes a sigh of relief. Either way, pregnant or just fretting about it, the effect is bad for her life. And, if she gets pregnant, it could be devastatingly bad.
Similarly, if you know that a particular person has been dishonest with others but you pretend that you can trust him to be honest with you, you will suffer the consequences of that pretense. In addition to the likelihood that he will be (or already has been) dishonest with you, and in addition to the fact that his dishonesty might cause serious problems in the sphere of your external values, such as your property or reputation or the like, your knowledge of his dishonesty will cause you internal strife, such as concern about whether claims he makes are true, and concern about your ability to judge people’s character.
Again, we could multiply examples endlessly. If someone pretends that a driver is not drunk when he is, his pretense could land him in a hospital or a morgue. And even if it doesn’t, he will know that he acted stupidly; thus, he will lose self-respect, which will negatively affect his life in myriad ways in the future (insofar as he has a future). Likewise, if a girl ignores all evidence to the contrary and pretends that thinking and exerting effort make no difference in life because the “system” is rigged so that only men can get ahead, she will suffer the consequences of that evasion. Whatever becomes of her life, she will be substantially less successful and less happy than she would have been if she had refused to pretend.
Honesty is a selfish virtue because only one reality exists—the one we live in—and because reality is what it is regardless of our hopes, wishes, fears, or evasions. Refusing to pretend that facts are other than they are is a hallmark of self-interest.
Importantly, the virtue of honesty does not mean you should never tell a lie. If a robber asks whether you have hidden cash in your apartment and you tell him that you don’t when in fact you do, you have told him a lie. But this lie is an act of honesty. In such a case, you are accounting for all the relevant facts—including the fact that the money is yours and that he has no right to it. The robber, on the other hand, is pretending that your money belongs to him; thus he is being dishonest.
Honesty is deeper, more personal, and more precise than “never tell a lie.” Honesty is the refusal to pretend that facts—including all available and relevant facts—are other than they are.
You have heard the cliché “wishing won’t make it so.” This saying is true—but it is true for a deeper reason than its own terms imply. Wishing won’t make it so because wishing can’t make it so. Reality doesn’t bend to our wishes because it can’t bend to our wishes. If we want to achieve our goals, we must conform to reality. As Francis Bacon put it, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Honesty is the principled recognition of this fact. Thus, it is always good for your life.
Integrity: Practicing What You (Rationally) Preach
Another key aspect of rationality is integrity, which is commonly regarded as “walking your talk” or “practicing what you preach.” But integrity involves deeper meaning than these clichés convey.
A person can consistently practice what he preaches only if he preaches ideas that can be practiced consistently. If someone holds that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others, he can’t act consistently in accordance with his standard. In order to live, he has to engage with other people in self-interested ways at least to some extent. For instance, he has to produce goods or services and trade them at a profit. The only alternatives would be either to die, or to survive parasitically on the self-interested, productive efforts of others. The goods required to sustain human life simply do not come ready-made in nature. Someone has to produce them. Producing life-serving goods is a self-interested activity. Trading them with others to mutual benefit is a self-interested activity, too. And the only way a person who refuses to produce and trade can get the goods on which his life depends is by somehow getting them for “free” from others—such as by stealing or begging, which, among other problems, will damage his self-esteem.
Integrity, properly understood, does not consist merely in “practicing what you preach.” Rather, it consists in accepting ideas that can be practiced consistently—namely, rational ideas—and then practicing them consistently.23 It involves integrating your ideas and your actions into a unified whole: an integrated person. That’s why it is called “integrity.”
For instance, if you recognize that your mind—and its primary physical tool, your brain—are your basic means of living and thus your most important life-serving values, integrity requires that you refrain from consuming substances such as alcohol or marijuana in quantities that might damage your mind or brain.
Likewise, if you recognize the importance of rationality and honesty and the danger of irrationality and dishonesty, then integrity requires that you seek and maintain friendships only with people who are rational and honest; and it requires that you avoid or end friendships with people you find to be otherwise.
Similarly, if you know that engaging in unprotected sex can cause you serious life-throttling problems, integrity requires that you don’t do it. If you want to have sex, integrity calls for you to do so thoughtfully, self-responsibly, selfishly.
Integrity is the virtue of accepting rational, fact-based, life-serving ideas and acting accordingly, as a matter of principle. Consequently, it is always good for your life.
Productiveness: Producing Goods or Services to Support Your Life
As mentioned above, the values required for human life don’t come ready-made in nature. In order to live and thrive, human beings must transform raw materials into the requirements of our life. We must use our minds to identify the nature of things—from tuna fish to yew trees to iron ore to petroleum—and we must transform these materials into values we can use or consume—from meals to medicine to steel to energy.
Of course, in a specialized society, with division of labor, we can choose a line of work we enjoy, and we can trade our goods or services for those that others produce. But in order to trade value for value, we must first produce something of value. Hence the virtue of productiveness, which is the commitment to producing goods or services to support one’s life.24
Because productive work is essential to human life, and because the moral purpose of your life is the achievement of your happiness, it makes moral sense to choose a line of work that you love or at least enjoy.
If you don’t know what kind of work you might love or enjoy, you can always pursue a line of work that appeals to you at least slightly more than the other possibilities. The human mind is such that when we get involved in a productive endeavor, develop some proficiency in the area, and see the value of what we produce, we come to enjoy the process. You may have experienced this phenomenon in your educational pursuits, or in a summer job, or in doing household chores. Working and seeing the results of your efforts is psychologically rewarding. (The Montessori method of education is based on this fact of human nature.) But if you haven’t yet discovered this fact, you’ll likely experience it when you begin working in a professional capacity. Work and accomplishment in an area of some interest give rise to satisfaction and enjoyment in the work—which, in turn, lead to greater interest in the work, and so forth. It’s a virtuous, life-serving cycle.
Of course, every line of work involves certain tasks that are less enjoyable than others. The selfish goal is not to find some kind of work that is pure and continuous bliss through and through. Rather, the selfish goal is to find and pursue a line of work that is generally enjoyable—if not enormously so—and that supports your life. In addition to enabling you to support yourself financially and materially, such work adds great spiritual meaning to your life in the form of goals, productive activities, accomplishments, self-esteem, and joy. Thus it enhances your life in myriad ways.
Life is decades long, and you might decide to start out in one career and later switch to another. You also might choose to raise children, which is a productive activity of sorts. And you might take time off from work to travel the world or pursue other interests. The selfish goal is not to work every waking moment of your life, but, rather, to work enough to support yourself and to pursue your life-serving interests so that you can make your life the best it can be.
In your teens, and even in your twenties, you might still be financially dependent on your parents to some extent. Over time, however, if you embrace the virtue of productiveness, you’ll transition to full independence and you’ll increasingly enjoy not only the material fruits of such independence but also its spiritual fruits.
Some people experience great difficulty in choosing a career. If you have trouble in this area, a good way to approach the issue is to consider the things you’ve enjoyed doing in the past, then look into the kinds of careers that involve such activities. If you’ve enjoyed spending time with animals, for instance, consider careers that involve working with animals—such as veterinary medicine, zoology, or training dolphins or dogs. If you’ve enjoyed playing video games, or dabbling in electronics, or writing computer code, consider careers that involve those values. If you enjoy thinking about philosophy or politics or economics, consider careers in those areas. Sometimes you can’t know whether you’d enjoy a given kind of work until you try it. So you might need to choose a few possible areas of interest and “get your hands dirty,” so to speak. For instance, you might apply for a summer job at a veterinary clinic, a tech firm, or a think tank.
However you go about choosing a career path, take this decision seriously. Your career is the centerpiece of your life. Of all your life-serving purposes, it is the one into which you will put the most time and effort, and it’s the one pursuit that makes all of your other pursuits financially possible. Find a productive activity that you love or at least enjoy, and go after it with gusto. It will pay off profoundly.
Independent Thinking: Relying on Your Own Judgment
Another element of rationality is the virtue of independent thinking, which is the commitment to forming your own judgments about what is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong, and acting accordingly—regardless of what others think, say, or do.25
If a person lived alone on a desert island, he’d have no choice about whether to think for himself, because there would be no one else’s views for him passively to adopt. There would be only his mind and reality, along with his choice of whether to look at reality and think or not to do so. In a social environment, however, a person can decide to adopt other people’s judgment and thus to treat their minds as more important than his own.
For instance, a person can turn to others to decide which music and movies he will “like.” He can turn to others to decide which friends he “should” have. He can turn to others to decide which political candidates he will support. He can turn to others to decide what he will believe and value and do. Ayn Rand descriptively referred to the behavior of putting other people’s judgment before one’s own as “secondhandedness,” and that is a helpful term to capture what is going on in such cases. A secondhander is someone who expects others to think and judge for him.
Importantly, however, secondhandedness does not mean caring about what others think or do. In caring about what others think or do, a person is not necessarily treating their judgment as more important than his own. Secondhandedness refers not to the act of caring about what others think—but to the act of placing their judgment above and before one’s own judgment.
You may have encountered people who do this characteristically, and you may have surmised that their behavior is a consequence of low self-esteem. It is. Importantly, however, it can also be a cause of low self-esteem. The more a person expects others to do his thinking for him, the less he regards himself as capable of thinking for himself; thus the less he regards himself as capable of dealing with reality, and the less he regards himself as worthy of happiness. Secondhandedness, if not corrected, can lead to a vicious, life-throttling cycle.
Importantly, secondhandedness does not always manifest as conformity; it can manifest as nonconformity. A secondhander might seek to act in compliance with others’ views—or he might seek to act in defiance of them. He might turn to others to determine what he will believe and do—or he might turn to others to determine what he will not believe and will not do. A conformist relies on others to see what to accept; a nonconformist relies on others to see what to reject. Both the conformist and the nonconformist are secondhanders because both put others’ views in first place and relegate their own views to second place.
An independent thinker, on the other hand, regards his own view of reality and his own judgment of truth and value as supreme. In regard to any given issue or concern, he turns to reality to see what makes sense to him, what he thinks is true, what he thinks is good. He might learn from others, if they are rational and have something to teach him, as experts often are and do. He might take advice from others, if their advice is reasonable and makes sense to him. And he might agree with others’ conclusions, if their conclusions are supported by evidence and logic. But he always makes the final decision about what ideas he will accept and what actions he will take by reference to his own rational judgment.
If someone claims that “homosexuality is immoral” or “masturbation is immoral” or the like but does not provide evidence in support of the claim, an independent thinker does not say, “Okay, that’s where I’ll stand on the matter.” Nor does he rail against such positions on the grounds that others believe them to be true. He seeks neither conformity nor nonconformity. He seeks the truth—and he knows that his only way of knowing what is true is by looking at reality for himself and making his own judgments based on evidence and logic. In regard to assertions such as “homosexuality is immoral” or “masturbation is immoral” an independent thinker would want to know: “On what grounds are these activities immoral? Immoral by what standard? And what facts of reality give rise to that standard?”
Likewise, if someone claims government should seize wealth from producers and redistribute it to non-producers, an independent thinker does not say, “Yeah, let’s spread the wealth around!” In the realm of politics, he wants to understand the proper purpose of government, and he wants his political views to be in accordance with that purpose. So, again, he asks the relevant questions: “What is government for? Why do we need this thing? What are its legitimate, life-serving functions? What must it do and refrain from doing so that people can think and produce and trade and prosper?”
Similarly, if someone says, “Who are you to question your elders?” or “Who are you to challenge cultural traditions?” or the like, an independent thinker does not say, “Yeah, what was I thinking to think that I can think?” Rather, if he replies to the insulting question at all, he says something to the effect: “I’m an individual with a reasoning mind, and I’m perfectly capable of looking at reality, thinking for myself, and drawing my own conclusions about what is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. When elders make assertions that don’t make sense to me, or when traditional ideas or practices don’t stand to reason, I challenge them because it’s the right thing to do. I need to keep my mind connected to reality so that I can live and prosper. If people present evidence and logic in support of a claim, or if they present life-serving reasons for a given tradition, I’m happy to hear them out. If they make a convincing case, I’ll accept the idea or the practice as valid, or at least possibly valid. If not, I won’t. I’m also happy to change my view on a given issue if I’m proven wrong about it. But to suggest that because someone is older than me he is therefore correct, or that because some idea or practice is traditional it is therefore right, is absurd.”
Independent thinking is the virtue of facing reality directly and using your own mind to form your own judgments. Because your mind is your only means of knowledge, this virtue is always good for your life.
In relying on your own judgment, will you sometimes make errors and come to false conclusions? Of course you will. You are fallible—as is everyone else. But that is not a problem: So long as you remain committed to focusing on reality and using reason, you’ll be able to figure out where you’ve erred; and you’ll be able to reconsider the facts, rethink the matter, and revise your judgment in light of your ever-increasing knowledge.
As the great educator Marva Collins advised, “Trust yourself. Think for yourself. Act for yourself. Speak for yourself. Be yourself. Imitation is suicide.”
Justice: Judging and Treating People Rationally
Another crucial aspect of rationality is the virtue of justice, which is the application of reason to the evaluation and treatment of other people.26
The most important thing to bear in mind about other people is that, like you, they have free will; they choose the actions that form their character. They choose to think or not to think, to be honest or dishonest, to act on the basis of facts or to act on the basis of faith or feelings. This means they can be good or evil or anywhere in between—depending on their choices.
To live happily, you need to develop good relationships—relationships that are conducive to your life and happiness—and you need to avoid bad ones. You can benefit enormously from productive people but not from parasites. You can trust honest people but not dishonest ones. You can count on people of integrity but not on hypocrites. You can learn from independent thinkers but not from secondhanders. In short, you can gain a great deal from those who choose to live and pursue rational, selfish values; but you can gain nothing but trouble from those who do not.
If you want to establish and maintain good relationships, you need to judge people rationally, according to the available and relevant facts; and you need to treat them accordingly, as they deserve to be treated. To do so is to embrace the virtue of justice.
This idea is diametrically opposed to the biblical dogma “Judge not, that ye be not judged” and the relativist mantra “Who are you to judge?” On examination, however, those ideas are absurd. What would happen to your life if you refused to judge people’s character and actions? What kind of friends might you have? Are thieves, rapists, and drug addicts good friends or bad ones? Don’t judge? What kind of romantic relationship might you find yourself in? Is a relationship with a person who sleeps with anyone who winks at him good for your life? How about a relationship with someone who beats you? Don’t judge? What kind of politicians might you support? If a candidate advocates fascism or theocracy, is he a good politician or a bad one? Don’t judge?
As Ayn Rand pointed out, dogmas such as “Judge not, that ye be not judged” and mantras such as “Who are you to judge?” are means of evading moral responsibility. The moral principle to adopt here is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.” Rand elaborates:
Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.
It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?27
Only one kind of person has anything to fear from moral judgment; the rest of us can only benefit from it. Being just consists in acknowledging this fact and acting accordingly.
To live successfully, happily, and freely, you have to judge your friends, your parents, your teachers, your romantic interests, your politicians, and everyone else who has an impact on your life. You have to judge them rationally—and treat them accordingly.
Importantly, moral judgment is most vital not in regard to negative assessments, but in regard to positive assessments. In addition to and more important than condemning those who are bad or evil, justice requires us to acknowledge, praise, and defend those who are good—those who think rationally and produce the values on which human life and happiness depend: scientists who discover the laws of nature, inventors who create new life-promoting devices and medicines, businessmen who produce and market life-promoting goods and services, artists who create spiritual values that fuel our souls and bring us joy, and so on. Justice demands that we recognize such people as good—good because they self-interestedly use reason and produce life-serving values.
Whereas other moralities treat justice unjustly, egoism does justice to this virtue—by connecting it to reality and thus enabling it to do its job, which is to serve our lives.
Pride: Being Morally Ambitious
The final aspect of rationality we’ll discuss is pride, which is the principled commitment to making your life the best it can be. It is, as Ayn Rand put it, “moral ambitiousness”—or, as Aristotle put it, “the crown of the virtues.”28
Of course, in one sense pride is an emotion (e.g., you feel proud of an achievement). But in another sense, which is our concern here, pride is an action—specifically, a commitment to uphold all of the (rational) virtues as a matter of unwavering principle.
Thus, although pride is commonly confused with self-deception and the refusal to stand corrected when proven wrong, such actions are logically incompatible with pride. As the commitment to uphold all of the virtues, pride requires and entails honesty and integrity. A proud person acknowledges his abilities and inabilities, his accomplishments and failures, his potentials and limitations; he does not attempt to deceive himself or others about who he is, what he has done, or what he can do. And he is positively eager to stand corrected if presented with rational evidence that is incompatible with his position, because it means the expulsion of a contradiction and the acquisition of new knowledge; it means that he is better fit to live, to pursue values, to achieve happiness.
Marcus Aurelius captured this point when he wrote, “Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change—for it is the truth I seek, and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance.”29
Pride is the virtue of taking life-serving virtues seriously, applying them in all instances and areas of life, and thereby making your life a life you are proud of.
Egoism and the Liberty to Live and Love Life
You have considered some controversial ideas in this book. And you should not accept them as true unless or until they make rational sense to you. To do so would be to violate your most fundamental life-serving value: the judgment of your own mind.
But if and to the extent you think these ideas make sense, I urge you to begin living accordingly. You are entering your adult years, and, if you adopt the principles of egoism now and consistently choose and pursue life-serving values going forward, you will make your life into a beautiful and profoundly rewarding journey.
You will, of course, run into all sorts of obstacles along the way. Everyone does. That’s the nature of life. But if you put your mind to the task of rationally designing your life in the image of your selfish values, you will flourish and thrive spectacularly.
Some people may say that the principles of this objective morality amount to constraints on your life and limitations on your happiness. But, on examination, that is not true. The opposite is true.
Egoism is not constraining but liberating. It liberates you from the dogmas of religion because it rejects the senseless religious “values” that are bad for your life, such as mindless obedience and self-sacrifice. And it liberates you from the chaos of subjectivism because it rejects the nonsense that you have no way of knowing what is good or bad for your life—nonsense represented by the subjectivist mantras “anything goes” and “who’s to say what’s right?” and “everything’s just a matter of opinion and feeling.”
By freeing you from religion and subjectivism, egoism enables you to choose rationally from the wide range of values and goals that are potentially good for your life and conducive to your long-term happiness. And it provides you with clear, rational, practical guidance for pursuing your chosen goals and making your life awesome.
Think about these ideas. Mull them over. Discuss them with your friends. Challenge these and competing ideas from every perspective you think is reasonable. And do what you think makes sense.
That last line is the most important one in the book.
You might also like
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.