The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Guest Post by a Rational Egoist (Part 1)

William Schultz

Guest Contributor, William Schultz

By William Schultz, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: I have previously noted the differences between Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” and Christianity, as well as where I see some overlap. Given the recent prominence of Rand in both the budget talks and the cinema, I thought it timely to provide readers with a general introduction to Randian ethics. To provide such an introduction, I called on William Schultz, an atheist Objectivist and friend of mine. William will follow this post by providing a closer discussion of how Randian ethics (generally) line up against those of Christianity.

I am a rational egoist. In any discussion on morality, the first question I address isn’t “Which moral code should I accept?” Instead, the first question is “Why should I accept any moral code?” Why should I even bother applying “right” and “wrong” to specific actions? Is it all simply a waste of time?

And why shouldn’t I ask this? At first glance, it seems that adopting a moral code is going to place prohibitions on the ways I can act, which might mean all kinds of delightful activities get thrown out the window and the bars of morality are erected in their place. Why would I want that?

Well, I think there are reasons. But first things first.

In order for someone to persuade me that I should accept any moral code, we must first understand what a moral code is. A moral code tells you the types of things you should go after. A moral code is a hierarchy of values. Values are things you act to gain or keep. A hierarchy is a ranking structure. But why should I value some things and not others? And why should I place the things I do value in hierarchical order.

To answer the above questions, we must first recognize a crucial distinction between entities in the universe: the difference between inanimate and animate matter. Inanimate matter has no values. A rock, a rocking chair, the rings of Saturn — these entities don’t have values. These things could care less whether you beat them, break them, or throw them in a box. They can’t “care” at all. They don’t “act” at all. On the other hand, animate organisms face a fundamental alternative: life or death. If an organism chooses death it need not act anymore — remaining motionless will do the trick in time. But if an organism chooses life, then it must act.

But it can’t act any way it pleases. To continue living, an organism must achieve the values required by its nature. A bacteria must act to find…whatever bacteria live on. An ant must scavenge. A cow must eat grass. A human being must act to achieve food, shelter, etc. Further, living entities must value some things before others because some things are more urgently needed. A human must value oxygen before water, water before food, food before shelter, etc.

Once we see this, we can tell that what’s of value to any living organism isn’t arbitrary or subjective, but an objective fact. That is, regardless of what any trout “thinks,” flopping onto land and trying to live life like a squirrel is not good for him. Likewise, a human being who thinks he can sink his fingers and toes into the dirt, turn his face toward the sun, and live life like a tree is in trouble.

By combining these features — (1) only animate matter has values, and (2) life is always the life of an individual organism with objective requirements — we can see that the life of each individual organism is the standard of value. That which is good for an organism is “good” and that which is bad for an organism is “bad.” This is egoism.

So, what is good for a human being and how does a human being go about obtaining his values? Well, the first question is open-ended and very complicated. We know some basics: Don’t eat raw chicken, avoid heart-disease, etc. The key is that all that we know — our knowledge — is a product of our mind. For a human being, his mind is his primary tool of survival. From the crudest spear to a satellite, a human being uses his mind to manipulate his environment and obtain his values. Using his mind is the process of reasoning. Reasoning is the use of reason. Reason is the faculty that integrates the information from man’s senses. This is rational-egoism.

And so, the reason I should adopt a moral code is that, if I want to live, I must prioritize and achieve values.

I have thus described the theoretical foundation for rational egoism. I have deliberately not mentioned the applications of this moral code or the types of criticism it has in store for alternative moral theories. For now, I’d just like to note a “down-side” of rational-egoism when compared to other ethical codes.

Ayn Rand, Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and founder of Objectivism

Unlike following the ten commandments, the “will of society,” or the pronouncements of a dictator, knowing what’s in my interest isn’t obvious. Rational egoism doesn’t get an easy, a priori or deductive set of rules laying out what’s in my interest and what’s not.

I’m not omniscient, so I don’t know if I should keep eating a vitamin D supplement. Or precisely how much exercise should I get. Or if I should eat red meat. Or how much. More abstractly, how should I treat other people? Is pacifism in my best interest? Or what about theft and murder? How should government be structured? Should the U.S. put tariffs on Chinese goods? (etc.)

For now, I’ll only say that just because I don’t have absolute knowledge doesn’t mean I don’t have some good theories. And that’s all rational-egoism offers: an inductive, scientific morality.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the relationship between Christian ethics and Objectivist ethics — their foundations, where they differ, and what common ground they share.

William Schultz has worked in the education department of the Ayn Rand Institute and currently works at the Texas A&M University Business Library.

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