Copyright © 2007, Barry L. Linetsky, All Rights Reserved
Ayn Rand was the first philosopher to attempt to establish a wholly scientific, inductive, bottom-up approach to ethics. She first presented her paradigm-shifting theory of rational egoism fully in the now famous 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, in fictional form, but outlined her approach formally in a paper delivered in 1961 at a University of Wisconsin Symposium On "Ethics In Our Time," in a paper titled "The Objectivist Ethics." It is available in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. It should be required reading for anyone engaging in a discussion of ethics today because in this seminal work, Rand redefined the terms of any serious discussion of ethics. (All page references in this essay are to the Signet paperback Centennial Edition, ISBN 0-451-16393-1.)
Rand pursued an intellectual quest to establish a rational and objectively demonstrable answer to the question of why man needs a code of values and a means to identify valid moral principles. No philosopher before her had succeeded in this task.
“Most philosophers," wrote Rand, "took the existence of ethics for granted... and were not concerned with discovering its metaphysical cause or objective validation” (P. 14). They either tried to establish good or evil, right and wrong, by appeals to either God or Society, thereby taking a theological or sociological approach rather than a scientific approach aimed at establishing objective grounding for ethics as a science.
Ethics as a science, writes Rand, deals with discovering and defining a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions - the choices and actions that determine the purpose of his life. Rand contended that the starting point of any investigation into ethics had to begin with the question of whether and why man needs a code of value at all. It is only then that one can proceed to the central issue of ethics by answering the question: "What particular code of values should man accept?”
Why man needs a code of values is a scientific question for Rand because to answer it, one must appeal to reality. Rand challenged herself to identify a rational and objectively demonstrable approach to ethics, in contrast to the dominant approach which takes the rationale for ethics for granted as a historical fact. Rand wrote: "In the sorry record of the history of mankind’s ethics - with a few rare, and unsuccessful, exceptions - moralists have regarded ethics as the province of whims, that is: of the irrational." (P. 14)
For Rand, it didn’t matter whether one tried to establish the basis for ethics on the will of god or the will of society. Neither, she argued, could be justified by an appeal to reason. "Most philosophers," she wrote, "have now decided to declare that reason has failed, that ethics is outside the power of reason, that no rational ethics can ever be defined, that in the field of ethics - in the choice of his values, of his actions, of his pursuits, of his life’s goals - man must be guided by something other than reason” (P. 15).
That ‘something’, she wrote, was faith, instinct, intuition, revelation, feeling, urge, wish or whim. She defined whim as "a desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause" (p. 14). "Whatever else they may disagree about," she concluded, "today’s moralists agree that ethics is 'a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason – mind - reality" (P. 15).
Respect for, and adherence to reason, mind and reality are prerequisites of science and a scientific approach to living. Those who reject reason in ethics affirm their position that reason and facts have no place in a discussion about what values are, why man needs them, and how man should apply them to achieve his goals. Such people divorce facts from value, placing the former (facts) in the scientific realm, and the later (values) in a place where reason, mind and reality have nothing to contribute. For these folks, value, which is the subject matter of ethics, is a matter of faith or personal feelings or whims, a realm to which they assert that reason and reality have nothing to contribute.
For Rand, reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by our senses. It operates by the process of thinking. The faculty of reason has to be exercised by choice. Thinking is not an automatic function. To say that ethics is beyond the realm of reason is to assert that our senses and the world with which they interact have nothing to contribute to our understanding of the subject matter that ethics pertains to. It is to assert that ethics is beyond reality. It is to assert that ethics derives from, or pertains to a mystical or extra-sensory realm beyond the grasp of normal human experience. It removes thinking – reason and logic - as a valid methodology for ethical discovery and the pursuit of the right and the good. It removes the illumination of reason from the realm of man’s pursuit of values and the achievement of the good.
If reason and thinking are excluded as valid methodologies of ethical inquiry and discovery, all that's left are methodologies that reject the validity of reason and man's mind, namely, some variation of mysticism or nihilism.
Reason and thinking are required by man to focus his awareness - his consciousness - on reality and deal with it so he can take action and provide for his survival as an individual. Everything a person does to sustain life requires thought, and though is not infallible. We have the responsibility to initiate thinking to acquire and apply knowledge to help us define and pursue our values and successfully live our lives. I will quote Rand at length because it is critical to understand why she holds that reason and ethics are inseparable. She writes:
"[Man] has to initiate [a process of thought], to sustain it and bear responsibility for its results. He has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct his own errors; he has to discover how to validate his concepts, his conclusions, his knowledge; he has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic, to direct his thinking. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of the efficacy of his mental effort.
Nothing is given to man on earth except a potential and the material on which to actualize it. The potential is a superlative machine: his consciousness; but it is a machine without a spark plug, a machine of which his own will has to be the spark plug, the self-starter and the driver; he has to discover how to use it and he has to keep it in constant action. The material is the whole of the universe, with no limits set to the knowledge he can acquire and to the enjoyment of life he can achieve. But everything he needs or desires has to be learned, discovered and produced by him – by his own choice, by his own effort, by his own mind.
A being who does not know automatically what is true or false, cannot know automatically what is right or wrong, what is good for him or evil. Yet he needs that knowledge in order to live. He is not exempt from the laws of reality, his is a specific organism of a specific nature that requires specific actions to sustain his life. He cannot achieve his survival by arbitrary means nor by random motions nor by blind urges nor by chance nor by whim. That which his survival requires is set by his nature and is not open to his choice. What is open to his choice is only whether he will discover it or not, whether he will choose the right goals and values or not. He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see. Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.” Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. Man is the only living species that has the power to act as his own destroyer – and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.
What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics.” (P.p. 23-24).
Rand’s argument leads to the conclusion that "Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival - not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life" (P. 24).