Ayn Rand and Objectivism:
An Introduction


Ethics and Value Theory
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The theory of the good and the right

   Ayn Rand's value theory is naturalistic; she regarded the so-called "naturalistic fallacy" as based on a question-begging assumption about the relation of facts to values. Statements about the right and the good are statements about what is in fact right for human life or good for human life. There are no valid value concepts that drop the context of "for whom and for what" a given action is valuable.

   The need for morality, according to Objectivism, arises from man's distinctive nature. Since man, unlike lower animals, does not automatically perform the actions necessary to satisfy his natural needs, he must exercise free choice to do so. But in order to determine what those needs are and how to satisfy them, man must think--he must be rational, that is, be conscious of reality and disposed to act accordingly. Man is not particularly fast, strong, sharp-clawed or well-insulated from the elements. But he is vastly more intelligent than the other animals, and this intelligence endows him with a mode of survival where the exercise of that intelligence plays the central role. That is why Rand defined man as "the rational animal." [N.B.: "man" in these contexts is used to designate the species, not the male gender]

   Since the mind is an attribute of the individual, the continued existence of each person is ultimately, up to himself. People morally ought to think for themselves. This is the doctrine of rational egoism, or rational individualism. It is each individuals' moral responsibility to "look out for number one." If a man is persuaded, on the other hand, that his existence is not up to him, but to others (society, the government) he will be transformed into a helpless parasite, demanding that others sacrifice for him.

   It is morally up to each individual to look out for number one, but not only number one. When we choose to bear certain responsibilities (such as responsibilities to our children or spouse) we are morally obligated to come through for them. Objectivism says that there are no unchosen moral obligations to others or to "society."

  Objectivism rejects altruism, the theory that the most noble of actions are those that benefit others by means of the sacrifice of one's own values. No one has any moral claim to your time or money simply because they might need it.

   Now, actions intended to benefit others may well be simply benevolent, or expressions of compassion or charity, which are good. Morally speaking, you can't tell whether an action is good or evil just by looking at who benefits from it. Rand rejected this "beneficiary criterion" of moral value.

   The other side of the coin is that Objectivism rejects predation--actions taken to benefit you by means of the sacrifice of others to yourself. By rational egoism, Rand meant that morality consists in acting in accordance with the general principles that make human life worth living, and pursuing those values which are in our rationally determinable actual interests, whether we happen to feel like it, or not.

   Objectivism defends the trader principle. Your well-being is not something you can attain by force. You have to use reason--your mind. Production and trade are the predominant kinds of action you must do in order to survive. Sitting on your butt, daydreaming, or endless partying will lead you to an early grave--and nobody will come to your funeral to pay their last respects, for what will you have done to earn respect?

   A life in pursuit of our true interests as human beings, in which production and trade are central activities, is not a life of "selfishness" as commonly understood:

  • It is not a life of trying to grab the biggest slice of the pie in a zero-sum game, but a life of making bigger pies for all.
  • It is not a life of screwing the other guy for your own gain, but one of upholding your promises and contracts, and knowing that it is in your own interest to uphold your end of the bargain in any situation.
  • It is not a life of cheating on your obligations to others while indulging your pleasures, but a life of upholding your responsibilities and earning the trust of others and honor for yourself.
  • It is not a life of greedy scheming and back-stabbing, but one in which you, by practicing the virtues of honesty, integrity, and justice, help to advance the smooth operation of free markets, and strengthen the fabric of civil society.
  • It is not a life that is mean, solitary and devoid of community activity, but one in which you give generously of your time and money to work with and support people and organizations that share your values and have earned your respect.

   Just as, according to Objectivism, you cannot judge an action as good or bad just by who benefits from it, you cannot judge a person as good or evil (or a mixture thereof) just from what they say. There are no "short-cuts" to moral judgment, as there are no short cuts to cognition, if you value objectivity.

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