Objectivist Ethics vs. Christian Ethics: Is There Any Common Ground? (Part 2)


Objectivism, Ayn Rand, Christianity, Sermon on the Mount, contrast, ethics, philosophyBy William Schultz, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: This the second post by guest contributor, William Schultz, who began by providing a basic introduction to the ethics of Ayn Rand. In this installment, William discusses whether (and where) Christians and Objectivists might find common ground.

At a public forum on the minimum wage, a man talked with two people. Both were vigorously opposed to lowering or abolishing the minimum wage.

One of these individuals was a “social-justice” activist whose concern was that abolishing the minimum wage would lead to the exploitation and suffering of the poor. This concern was, however, only the tip of the activist’s ideological iceberg. His ultimate political purpose, his ultimate political value, was a radical egalitarian society which reined in the power of large corporations and wealthy individuals for the sake of the common good.

The other individual was a Wal-Mart lobbyist whose concern was that abolishing the minimum wage would hurt Wal-Mart by increasing the competition the company faced in the market. This concern was, however, only the tip of this lobbyist’s ideological iceberg. His ultimate political purpose, his ultimate political value, was a corporatist state where Wal-Mart’s profits would be indefinitely secured.

These two had a common interest in supporting minimum wage laws. However, their ultimate political values conflicted. With enough time, their political values would clash.

There’s a similarity between the relationship of the two individuals above and the relationship between Christians and Objectivists. Christians believe that men should be treated as ends not means. They believe that murder, theft, initiation of violence, lying, etc. are evil. On these issues, Christians and Objectivists are in agreement.

However, the ultimate value of a Christian is different from the ultimate value of an Objectivist.

Just what are the ultimate values of a Christan and an Objectivist? What criticisms does an Objectivist have of Christian ethics? And do these ultimate values necessarily conflict?

In the Christian view, the ultimate value is the will of God. The reason something is good or evil is whether or not it is God’s will as it is presented by God’s voice on Earth (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount). The will of God is good. Anything against the will of God is evil. Some of the consequences of this view are that men should be treated as ends, not means, and that actions like murder and theft are evil (in Christian jargon: “blessed are the meek and the peacemakers”). The essential point is that, for a Christian, the reason things are good or evil is because things are willed or not willed by God.*

In the Objectivist view, the ultimate value is an individual’s happiness. Happiness is the successful state of life. The reason something is good or evil is whether or not it leads the individual to a successful state of life. Some of the consequences of this view are that men should be treated as ends, not means, and that actions like murder and theft are evil (in Objectivist jargon: the principle of individual rights). The essential point is that, for an Objectivist, the reason things are good or evil is because things stand in an objective relationship to the happiness of an individual.**

Thus, despite the fact that Christians and the Objectivists may believe the same thing is evil, the reasons they believe that are different.

Not only do Objectivists justify their ethics for different reasons than Christians, Objectivists have arguments against the reasons Christians give for their ethics. The Objectivist arguments against Christian ethics come from three complimentary but independent directions.

1) An Objectivist believes that faith, as a method of justifying belief (including ethical beliefs), is evil. Thus, any system of beliefs in which faith is an essential feature is, according to an Objectivist, evil.

2) An Objectivist does not believe in god. And it doesn’t make any sense for an Objectivist to justify the goodness or evilness of an action by referring to the will of an entity the Objectivist doesn’t believe in.

3) Even if an Objectivist were to concede that a Christian god exists, an Objectivist will claim that (1) this fact does not logically entail that one should be moral in the first place, and (2) it does not logically entail that the standard of morality is the will of god. To support #1, an Objectivist would argue that even if god exists, concepts like “good” and “evil” only have meaning in relationship to an individual’s life.*** To support #2, an Objectivist can appeal to (what he takes to be) problematic philosophical dilemmas, like the Euthyphro problem or (what he takes to be) problematic examples like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

So, whether or not these objections stand the test of argument, they are the basic reasons that Objectivists disagree with the Christian justification of ethics.

Does this mean that Christians and Objectivists will necessarily clash? On an ethical level, definitely, but on a political level, I’m not sure. It seems that Christians with a particular political philosophy can have the same view as Objectivists on the proper function of government, even if the reasons Christians hold their views differs from the reasons Objectivists hold their views. If this is true, then on a political level, the Objectivist and the Christian would not clash.

William Schultz, Ayn Rand, Objectivism

William Schultz, Guest Contributor

This “particular” political philosophy (which not all Christians hold) is, basically, a political philosophy of non-coercion. In this view, the government’s proper role is to protect individual rights, including property rights. Thus, the government’s sole purpose is to protect each individual from violence, direct (e.g. murder, etc.) and indirect (e.g. fraud, breach of contract, etc.). To do this, the government is responsible for the institutions that protect individuals from violence: courts, police, military. And that is it. ****

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

*An individual may achieve happiness when he follows God’s will. But his happiness isn’t what makes something moral. Something is moral if it is congruent with God’s will.

**When defending rational-egoism, the argument I most often hear is that I can’t logically prove that any particular act of murder, theft, etc. is not in my interest. I take this objection seriously but answering it here would take too much space and not serve my purpose of illuminating the differences in the Objectivist and Christian positions.

***Why? In the Objectivist view, the first question of ethics is not “Which moral code should I accept?” but, instead, “Why should I accept any moral code?” A moral code is a hierarchy of values and values are things you act to gain or keep. The concept “value” only makes sense to entities capable of acting (animate organisms). Because the concept “value” has no meaning outside of a living entity (inanimate organisms don’t act to gain or keep anything), the standard, the evaluation of whether or not any particular value an entity acts to gain or keep is good or evil, is based on whether or not that value contributes to the successful state of life of the living entity (e.g. food is good, poison is evil). Thus, what contributes to the successful state of life for a living entity is good. What does not contribute to the successful state of life of a living entity is evil.

****There will, I think, be disagreement on abortion.

Note: The picture on the left in the image above is “Profit” by Nick Gaetano. You can find more of his images and other romantic realist art here: http://www.cordair.com/

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