Question: What is the Objectivist position in morality (ethics)?
My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man's virtues…
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.
For thousands of years, people have been taught that goodness consists in serving others. "Love your brother as yourself" teach the Christian scriptures. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" preach the Marxists. Even the liberal Utilitarian philosophers, many of whom defended free market capitalism, taught that one should act always to attain "the greatest good for the greatest number." The result of this code has been a bloody trail of wars and revolutions to enforce self-sacrifice, and an endless struggle in society to achieve equality among people.
Meanwhile, like the barnyard revolutionaries of George Orwell's Animal Farm, the advocates of uniformity and self-sacrifice strain to prove themselves "more equal than others," so that they may determine how much love is enough, or what your ability is and what your needs should be. It seems loving our fellow man is a fine way to hate him.
The Objectivist ethics rebuilds morality from the ground up. "You cannot say 'I love you' if you cannot say the 'I'," wrote Ayn Rand. According to Objectivism, a person's own life and happiness is the ultimate good. To achieve happiness requires a morality of rational selfishness, one that does not give undeserved rewards to others and that does not ask them for oneself.
Traditional moral codes have taught that social life is a war of dog-eat-dog and that people must restrain themselves through self-sacrifice and self-abnegation. "Live simply, that others may simply live," is their slogan. It is a doctrine suited to a world of peasant villages and rapacious conquerors.
Objectivism, on the other hand, was made for the era of industrial capitalism. It teaches what became plain as the West got rich: that a harmony of interests exists among rational individuals, so that no one's benefit need come at the price of another's suffering. Because one person's happiness does not come at the expense of another's, a life of mutual respect and benevolent independence is possible for all. It is the doctrine of "live and let live," to the full and in every way.
Because one person's happiness does not come at the expense of another's, a life of mutual respect and benevolent independence is possible for all.
Now how can such a harmony of interests exist? Aren't our interests really in conflict? Aren't we each at the other's throat? The answer is that human beings are not vampires, feeding on each other, nor need we live as hunter-gatherers, simply feeding on limited natural resources. Where animals graze the land, humans can cultivate it. The human mode of living is production: the creation of value from the raw materials around us. Human beings see a rock, and we invent tools, smelting techniques, stone buildings, steel girders, paved streets, and so on and on. We see a tree, and we make furniture, fuel, papers, books, construction materials, medicines, and so on and on. The application of reason to our problems allows us to create solutions. Thus we are not like dogs squabbling over meat or children sharing a pie; we are each creators, making new goods through our productive work, materially and morally.
Material well-being is possible for everyone, and no one needs to make others poor to get rich. Consider the fact that the richest people in America are entrepreneurs who created products that millions of people were glad to use. And since knowledge, ideas, and other non-material goods can be shared as widely as need be, we are not in fundamental competition with others for our spiritual needs, either. So, because reason is our means of survival, we stand to benefit from every discovery others make, every image or story they share, and every dollar they earn by production and trade.
Objectivism holds that the purpose of morality is to define a code of values in support of one's own life, a human life. The values of Objectivism are the means to a happy life. They include such things as wealth, love, satisfaction in work, education, artistic inspiration, and much more. We choose many of our values, such as what work we enjoy and who are our friends and lovers. But we cannot choose the need for material goods or for friendship, if a happy life is what we seek. The ultimate choice open to us is whether we want life or not. Life is a choice we must make consciously and seriously, argues Rand, or else we may find that, by default, we have chosen the alternative: suffering and death.
The cardinal values of Objectivism are Reason, Purpose, and Self. Reason, because it is our means of gaining knowledge, and, through production, our means of survival. Purpose, because each of us has free will and must direct himself toward chosen goals, through a chosen course of life. Self, because without self-esteem, a self-motivating being cannot find the means to continue. Just as one's own needs lie at the heart of the Objectivist ethical code, so should respect for them lie at the heart of one's values.
The Objectivist ethics is a code that honors achievement and counsels the celebration, not the envy, of greatness. It honors the creativity not only of artists and scholars, but of the producers on whose shoulders civilization rests: industrialists and engineers, investors and inventors. It holds that any work is spiritual that is well and thoughtfully done, no matter what the scale of achievement, from the factory line worker to the corporate CEO, and from the most unknown clerk to the most celebrated movie star.
The virtues of Objectivism, then, define principles of action that lead to the achievement of objective values, considered in the full context of human life. The key principle of the Objectivist ethics is rationality, as against mysticism and whim. The ethics is a code of benevolence and justice toward other people: holding evil-doers to account for their vices, but treating rational and productive people with good will and generosity. It entails integrity, allowing no breach between our principles and our actions. A rational being practices honesty, loving the truth more than deception; and he lives first-hand, on the basis of his own judgment and effort, so independence is a virtue. The Objectivist ethics places industry and productivity in one's chosen work at the center of life's concerns. It is the code of a person who holds his head up with pride, in an objective appreciation of his merits and in aspiration to improvement in the future.
Traditional ethics contrast the image of man as an animal with the ideal of man as an otherworldly monk. Man is by nature a ravening beast, on this view, and he must be taught self-denial and self-sacrifice to be angelic and meek. Objectivism holds that man lives best as a trader, acting rationally for his own sake and dealing with others by exchanging value for value. Traditional ethics extol courage in the face of death as a virtue; Objectivism counsels integrity in the long-term pursuit of happiness. Traditional ethics extol charity as the mark of nobility; Objectivism extols productive achievement, because no one exists merely for the sake of others. It is an ethic for those who want all life has to offer, consistently, over the full course of life.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.