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What is Morality Good For?

What is Morality Good For?

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October 22, 2010

July/August 2000 -- Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality.By Tara Smith. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. 205 pp. $62.00; $21.95, paperback).

In Viable Values, Tara Smith sets forth an exposition of Ayn Rand's metaethical theory and defends it against competing views regarding the basis of value and morality. Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, is clear and convincing in the critical portions of the book, but her defense of Rand's metaethics, and especially her discussion of the relation of happiness to life, could be stronger.


Smith lays out the plan of the book in an introduction (1-11), but things begin in earnest only with Chapter Two, "Why Be Moral?" (13-60). In that chapter, Smith shows that "Why be moral?" is a meaningful question that demands an answer. She stresses that we will be ill motivated to behave morally and will treat morality as an onerous burden unless we know what it is for. Then, in the bulk of the chapter, Smith examines how three historical schools of ethics answer the question "Why be moral?" and she finds their answers wanting. The three schools are Intuitionism, Contractarianism, and Rationalism.

Intuitionists erroneously suppose that we possess a faculty that perceives moral truths directly. Smith argues that the intuitionist has misunderstood the nature of self-evidence and that the prevalence of moral disagreement offers evidence against the existence of any such faculty. Furthermore, she argues, Intuitionism cannot make our moral beliefs objective, because objectivity is a matter of method, and Intuitionism, at bottom, provides us with no method for arriving at moral beliefs. We are supposed to "just see" the moral truth. But since we cannot in fact "just see" that we are obliged to do this or that, we cannot "just see" that we have reason to be moral.

Contractarians argue that we should be moral because we have agreed to be moral, or at least would so agree under certain conditions. We would enter into such an agreement because it would be good for us, as long as everybody else entered into the agreement. But if we are justified in entering into the agreement on the basis of our self-interest, why are we not equally justified in opting out or "taking back" our initial agreement whenever it is in our interest to do so? Contractarians are thus afflicted with so-called "free-rider" problems. How can we prevent people who do not themselves act according to the terms of the agreement from reaping its benefits? Sometimes, contractarians try to patch things up by arguing that it would not be in our interests to renege on the agreement. But, Smith notes, the harder the contractarians lean on appeals to self-interest, the lighter the load on agreement. Yet, according to this theory, it is agreement to the contractual conditions, not self-interest, that is supposed to establish morality's authority.

Smith's last target in Chapter Two is Rationalism. Rationalism is identified with theories of a Kantian stripe that equate morality with a certain conception of rationality. Thus, the rationalist will respond to "Why be moral?" by pointing out that I am asking forreasons to be moral and that I am therefore already committed to standards of evaluation internal to reason. If it can be shown, in this way, that morality is required by standards I have already accepted, then morality will have a strong justification. Smith's main criticism here is that rationalists misconceive the nature of reason. She points out that reason is not inherently authoritative and that we need a reason to be rational just as much as we need a reason to be moral. She then goes on to argue that the reason that we should be rational is that we need reason to identify facts about the world, and we need to know how the world is in order to achieve our most important ends. Like Intutionism, Rationalism fails to tie reason to our ends. We are left wondering why we should care about being rational, and, since morality is supposed to be grounded in reason, we are left wondering why we should care about being moral. "In the final analysis," Smith writes, "Rationalism offers a pointless morality"(53).

Smith's refreshing emphasis on why morality matters is all but absent in contemporary moral philosophy. Too often, moral theorists make big claims about the authority of morality. But then, failing to explain why we really need to be moral, they leave morality with the status of a peculiarly consuming hobby. As a result, such theorists' zeal in demanding that we share their interest in this hobby looks ridiculous. Morality, if it is to have authority, cannot be something extra tacked on to life. Nor can it be something like Victorian etiquette, for which one might develop a taste but could neglect to no ill effect. The strength of Smith's second chapter is its unrelenting insistence that the rational authority of morality be made evident and compelling.

Smith also insists that one demonstrate the rational authority of rationality. Becausenothing is intrinsically valuable, reason is not intrinsically valuable. So it makes sense to ask: Why be rational? And the answer is: If reason has value, the source of its value must be the same as the source of any value-its relationship to our ends. Reason has value (and therefore we have reason to be rational) just insofar as reason contributes to our life and happiness. Such a clear, overtly teleological account of the value of reason is refreshing.


In Chapter Three, "Intrinsic Value: A False Foundation" (61-82), Smith turns again to the possibility that morality could be grounded in the fact that some things are intrinsically valuable. Intrinsic value is non-relational value. Something that is intrinsically valuable is supposed to be valuable in itself, independent of its relationship to anyone's ends. Now, Smith's earlier reasoning showed that appeals to intrinsic value are empty if we have no compelling reason to care about what is intrinsically valuable. Repeating ever more loudly that something is intrinsically valuable does not give anyone a reason to care about it. But why, in any case, should one think that anything is intrinsically valuable?

Smith astutely points out that intrinsicism with regard to value often boils down to subjectivism. According to G.E. Moore, for instance, if you want to find out whether something is intrinsically valuable, just put it before the mind's eye and then isolate that thing from its relationship to everything else. Sooner or later, Moore says, you will be delivered a verdict on its value. Smith notes that tests for intrinsic value, such as Moore's "method of isolation," usually amount to reports of our subjective preferences. We feel so strongly that certain things are good or bad, right or wrong, that we are driven to project our feelings out into the world. But if our only grounds for identifying something as intrinsically valuable are our preferences, or the intensity of our convictions, then it looks as though psychology is driving ontology. And that is subjectivism. Without independent evidence, one is left with no way to adjudicate between competing claims of intrinsic value. The best one can do is affect a confident, holier-than-thou attitude in the face of disagreement and insinuate that one's opponent is woefully blind. But if that is the best one can do (and it is what a lot of moral philosophy amounts to), then probably there is no intrinsic value to be seen in the first place.

While reading early, critical chapters, I almost always found myself in agreement with the outlines of Smith's arguments, although I thought that some of the arguments went by a bit too quickly and could have been improved by a more detailed and careful statement. However, one virtue of this book is its concision and readability, and those would undoubtedly have suffered from more detailed, rigorous arguments. In any case, the critical portion of Viable Values will be of use to those who wish to understand better the defects of intrinsicism and of several prominent responses to the question "Why be moral?"


In Chapter Four, "Morality's Roots in Life" (83-124), Smith sets out to "elaborate and defend Rand's account" of morality (83). With Rand, Smith argues that the key to a viable moral theory is a sound theory of value. (By contrast, most Kantian theories identify the nature of right action first and then define value in terms of right action.) According to Smith:

Rand's thesis is that the foundation of morality resides in the nature of values. Values,

in turn, depend on the fact that organisms face the alternative of life or death. We can

understand what values are only against the background of this fundamental alternative.

The requirements of human life furnish the standard of value for human beings and,

derivatively, the basis for all moral prescriptions. . . . A person should pursue value and

abide by a moral code in order to advance his own life (83).

This should sound familiar, and Smith's further elaboration of Rand's thesis sounds familiar as well. Smith draws mainly from Rand's most important and most carefully worked-out essays in ethics-"The Objectivist Ethics" and "Causality versus Duty"-and with only a few exceptions Smith's view closely tracks these works.

Like Rand, Smith argues that value can be understood only by reference to the fundamental alternative of life or death. The conditional and uncertain nature of life establishes certain needs, and those life-needs provide a standard of value. "In essence, the good is that which protects, furthers, or enhances one's life" (93). "Value denotes a thing's standing in a life-promoting relation to a given individual" (98).

But it is unclear whether, on Smith's account, something that meets a life-need is ipso facto a value. In light of Rand's statement that values are "that which one acts to gain and/or keep," Smith is driven to distinguish between values and "benefits" (84). Abenefit is whatever makes one better off; a value is a benefit that one acts to gain or keep. This implies that not everything that satisfies a need is a value, and this seems inconsistent with a number of statements, like those above, that do apparently identify life-needs and values. The distinction also has counter-intuitive consequences. For instance, it implies that political liberty is not a value for someone, such as a child, who does not act to secure it. Liberty, like sunlight, will be beneficial to such a person but not valuable.

Smith's distinction between values and benefits is similar to distinctions other Objectivists have made in their attempts to clarify Rand's theory of value. For example, Robert Hartford argued at the 1996 Advanced Seminar that there is a distinction between "the valued" (what one is disposed to act to gain or keep) and "the valuable" (life-needs). Others have distinguished between two kinds of values: psychological and existential. (Psychological values are the things one desires and prefers. Existential values are, once again, life-needs.) Some such distinction is necessary to make perfectly clear the difference between what we need in order to survive and find happiness, and what we think we need. Liberty may be valuable (or a benefit) to me, whether or not it is actively valued (pursued) by me. However, Smith does not seem to carry through the benefits/values distinction. A few pages after she raises the distinction, she characterizes value as "a thing's standing in a life-promoting relation to a given individual," as though she had never made the claim that values, as opposed to benefits, must be actively sought.

Smith does emphasize that life itself cannot be a value unless it is actively sought. The mere fact of a living thing's existence does not necessarily entail that its life is a value. "A living organism's existence establishes the measure of other things' goodness or badness only to the extent that that organism's existence is sought as an end" (87). Thus, in the dispute as to whether life has value prior to and independent of the choice to live it, Smith, following Rand in "Causality and Duty," comes down firmly on the side of those who hold that life's value is rooted in the choice to live it.

Moreover, Smith's clarification of the way one chooses life is instructive. She recognizes that we rarely choose life over death in a direct fashion, but usually choose life by choosing to pursue concrete values. "[L]ife is not a distinct aim that one can adopt inaddition to learning French, saving money, building a career, and so on. To embrace life is to embrace the condition of having specific ends" (105). Nevertheless, Smith argues:

Life is not a value simply because someone seeks it or seeks something else whose

enjoyment depends on his being alive. People seek myriad ends, but they are not thereby

valuable because they are not necessarily life-promoting. To regard any end that a

person embraces as a value would revert to subjectivism, deflating values into mere objects

of desire. Since life is not compatible with any conceivable ends that a person might adopt,

ends per se cannot be equated with value. The end of life, however, is not merely

"compatible" with life; its achievement is life (104).

Smith's point here is somewhat obscure. She seems to worry that if life is a value simply because it is sought, then anything else might likewise be a value simply because it is sought. But Smith herself is claiming that life is valuable simply because it is sought by way of seeking other specific ends. And there is nothing wrong with that. The key, I think, is to point out (a) the metaphysical fundamentality of the alternative "existence or non-existence " and (b) that it is because of the alternative's fundamentality that simply choosing to seek life makes it a value. One can then go on to observe that the non-fundamentality of other alternatives (the alternative of "learning French or not learning French," say) allows for the possibility of a gap between the fact that one seeks a goal and its value. In this way, one may concede that life can be a fundamental value simply because it is sought, without conceding that anything that is sought is therefore a value. Because of life's special metaphysical status, the desire to live has special value-endowing properties not possessed by other desires.


Smith's contention in Chapter 5, "Morality's Reward: Flourishing" (125-52), is that "the end of value and the reward of living morally is individual flourishing" (125). Again, she tries to follow Rand's views closely. But Smith notes that while Rand usually spoke of "happiness," she prefers to speak of "flourishing," because it implies activity in a way "happiness" conventionally does not. Nevertheless, Smith claims that she considers the terms "roughly interchangeable" (125). She goes on to distinguish the activity of flourishing from the experience of flourishing and identifies the activity of flourishing with life itself and the experience of flourishing with happiness.

Now, it does seem reasonable that flourishing and the feeling of flourishing should go hand in hand, just as dancing and the feeling of dancing go hand in hand. But when flourishing just means living and the experience of flourishing just means happiness, then the connection becomes questionable. Is the connection between life and happiness really so intimate? Notice that if 'flourishing' and 'happiness' are roughly interchangeable-if living is the activity of flourishing and happiness is the experience of flourishing-then 'living' and 'happiness' should be roughly interchangeable. But they are not interchangeable, not even roughly. For example, if I hear that a bus carrying my beloved has collided violently with a truck, I do not say, "My God, I hope she's happy!" I want to know if she lives. And I know that if she lives, she is almost certainly in tears and in pain-not happy at all.

Clearly, Smith takes a very strong stand on the relationship of happiness to life. Life and happiness march in lockstep-as an activity and the experience of that activity-so, although they are separable in thought, they are in fact one thing. Here, Smith follows Rand. In "The Objectivist Ethics," Rand advances the thesis that more or less happiness reliably implies more or less success in living (and vice versa), because tracking life is the function of our emotional capacities (The Virtue of Selfishness, 24). But Rand's theory of the relation of life and happiness is, in my opinion, among the least well supported parts of her metaethics, resting as it does on armchair speculation about the biological function of pleasures, pains, and complex emotions. Smith's argument would have been much better if she had made explicit her Randian assumptions about the function of emotions and happiness, and then defended them.

In order to make plausible the view that happiness just is the psychological correlate of successful living, Smith attempts to break down the apparent distinction between a longer life and a more enjoyable one. One way to do this is to argue that matters of quantity cannot be understood apart from matters of quality. Smith notes that doctors, lawyers, and medical ethicists disagree about the level of functioning required for deciding whether a particular human is living. On this basis, she argues:

The fact that the boundaries delimiting quantity of life are themselves arguable indicates that

the distinction between quantity and quality is not as crisp or as value neutral-as devoid of

qualitative assessments-as is usually presumed. Indeed, the very concept of biological health

is normative. We must identify a certain manner of functioning as the goal for an organism and

as good for the organism in order to identify successful functioning (132).

If Smith is right, and life is not "mere morgue avoidance" but involves a normative component subject to qualitative assessment (good versus bad; better versus worse), then a question arises about the standard of value employed in that assessment. Smith argues that we must identify a certain manner of functioning as good for the organism. But by what standard are we to make such an identification? Smith suggests that we will have a standard for determining what functioning is good for the organism if we can identify the goal of the organism. Good functioning will, presumably, be the sort of functioning that achieves the organism's goal. But if the goal of the organism is life, then we are stuck in a vicious circle. What is the goal of the organism? Life. What is life? It is good or proper functioning. What is good or proper functioning? Functioning that satisfies the goal of the organism. What is the goal of the organism? Life. It seems as though Smith's argument is left chasing its tail.

This is a serious problem. Smith needs to specify the nature of life in a non-circular manner if she is going to give teeth to the notion of life as the standard of value. In order to do this, she needs an answer that offers a theory of good or proper functioning that can explain the normative nature of life in non-normative terms. For example, one plausible-and scientifically respectable-approach would be to argue that the proper function of an organism derives from the proper function of its various traits, and that the proper function of a trait is what it was selected for in the course of evolution.


In the sixth and last chapter of Viable Values, "Principled Egoism: The Only Way to Live" (153-91), Smith sets forth a brief for egoism. Her main goal is not to defend egoism in detail but to clarify what egoism involves. She argues, against common misconceptions, that egoism requires close attention to the spiritual dimension of life, that egoism requires firmly principled action, that value seeking is not a zero-sum game, and that rational interests do not conflict.

Little of Smith's apologetics will be unfamiliar to long-time Objectivists. However, Smith is a skillful and sensitive analyst of the moral contours of particular cases and her arguments for the egoist's need for honesty and for values honestly gained are a pleasure to read.

For example, in her discussion of the value of ill-gotten gains, Smith tells the story of Bill, a benighted fellow who lands an engineering job by misrepresenting his qualifications. Since it is a better, higher-paying job than Bill could have honestly earned, he seems to be better off. But Smith takes the reader step by step through Bill's bad experience-how his lack of qualifications makes otherwise simple engineering tasks immensely laborious; how his strain negatively affects his relations in the office; how his fear of being found out leads to mounting anxiety; and so on. In the conclusion to the saga of Bill, Smith writes: "Bill's life must . . . be organized in a defensive crouch against what other people might discover. . . . Thus we may ask, Even for the time that the lie is undetected, however brief or extended, what does Bill gain? A tense anxious existence" (171).

A measure of literary talent is required to illustrate the woe that, the egoist argues, will befall those who lie, cheat, and steal. Just saying that bad things will happen if one fails to act in a principled way is remarkably unpersuasive. Most people skeptical of egoism (and that is most people) are unmoved by abstract rationalistic arguments to the effect that the egoism does not allow for kicking children and stealing Grandma's wallet. Smith does an especially nice job bringing home the likely consequences of deception.

This is not to say that Smith's arguments for the necessity of principled, egoistic action will sway those determined to picture the egoist as an underhanded jerk. But her discussion will, I think, prove persuasive for those who do not already have a strong opinion about egoism one way or the other. In any event, she makes a strong case that there is nothing oxymoronic about an egoist ethics. That is important because prominent contemporary moral theorists, such as John Rawls, often characterize egoism not as one ethical theory among others but as a challenge to the entire enterprise of ethics. Smith demonstrates that an egoist needs to be both principled and attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life, characteristics that are central to common pre-philosophical notions of morality.

One difficulty people often have with egoism is the fear that it sanctions a war of all against all. In back of the worry is a premise that there is a finite pot of value and that a gain for me is a loss for you, and vice versa. If I take something out of the pot, that is one less thing that you might have. One of Rand's great contributions was the vividness with which she illustrated the confluence of interests among egoists living under capitalism. Smith's explanations that value-seeking is not a zero-sum game and that there is a lack of conflict between rational interests are useful reminders of Rand's points. The fallacy of the finite pot of value and the consequent expectation that interests must conflict are so pervasive that we cannot be reminded of their fallaciousness too often. In fine Randian style, Smith writes, "A person advances his life by creating values rather than by extracting things from others. Cannibalism is not a policy that sustains human life" (183).

However, I think Smith could have done better establishing the context within which the "no conflicts" principle holds true. That rational interests do not conflict has not been true of most human beings throughout most of history. For the principle is true only under special circumstances, namely, when problems of scarcity have been solved by the emergence of property rights and market mechanisms. Here is a place where moral philosophy is intertwined with social philosophy. One cannot make the moral point without introducing the limited and historically fragile context in which it holds true. Nevertheless, Smith makes the "no conflicts" point clearly and forcefully, showing once again that she is at her best battling misconceptions about egoism. On many occasions, I found myself thinking that this chapter of the book would be very useful for presenting egoism to undergraduates.

Despite my misgivings about its central theoretical chapters, Viable Values is a stimulating, suggestive book worth looking at if one wishes to grapple with the central theoretical issues in the Objectivist ethics. The opening critical chapters will be helpful to those who wish to get a better grip on what is wrong with alternative views about the foundations of ethics, and the closing chapter is useful for dispelling misconceptions about egoism. However, I think Smith's case would have been much improved had she engaged Rand's theory in a more critical spirit. In the opening chapters of the book, she shows an incisive critical intelligence, but it goes underground when she lays out her interpretation of Rand's ethics. Surely Smith has the acuity to spot infelicities in some of Rand's arguments and the theoretical imagination to offer creative emendations and useful extensions of her own. With a more critical approach, Smith would be better able to formulate a strong and persuasive theory of her own, and she would simultaneously cast Rand in a better light-as an important philosopher to be grappled with rather than as a guru to be whole-heartedly defended.

Will Wilkinson  has an M.A. in philosophy from Northern Illinois University and is currently working on his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. He delivered a lecture on philosophy and language at the 2000 TOC Summer Seminar, as well as a lecture on psychological visibility. In 1999, he was a summer intern at TOC.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2000 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.  

Will Wilkinson
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Will Wilkinson
Values and Morals