Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Chapter 2, Part 1 of 3)

by | Oct 17, 2005

Adapted from Chapter 2 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle. As we have seen, subjectivism–whether “supernatural,” social, or personal–fails to provide proper guidance for human action, because each version calls for human sacrifice and leads to human suffering. If we want to live and achieve […]

Adapted from Chapter 2 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

As we have seen, subjectivism–whether “supernatural,” social, or personal–fails to provide proper guidance for human action, because each version calls for human sacrifice and leads to human suffering. If we want to live and achieve genuine happiness, we need a non-sacrificial alternative that is grounded in the facts of reality. But in search of such an alternative, we are faced with a big problem: The world is full of facts.

In fact, facts are all there are out there: Paris is a city in France. The Earth revolves around the Sun. Men are mortal. Acorns are potential oak trees. Computers are man-made objects. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Electrons surround the nucleus of an atom. Fire is hotter than ice. Some grass is green. People make choices. Mountains are bigger than molehills. A bush cannot speak. “Think” is a verb. The stock market rises and falls. The list goes on and on.

But where among all the facts is morality? Behind a tree? Up in the sky? On the Web? In a crystal? Where?

The problem is that in just looking around, facts appear to be everywhere, but morality does not appear to be anywhere. Our task is to discover moral principles in a world full of facts.

To begin, note that we can identify facts on several levels. Some are directly perceivable (fire is hotter than ice; some grass is green; the Sun rises). Others must be logically inferred (heat is a function of the motion of atoms; color is a function of the wavelengths of light; the Earth revolves around the Sun). With our five senses, we can observe countless facts at the concrete, perceptual level. And with the power of our minds, we can infer even more facts on the abstract, conceptual level. The faculty that enables us to advance from the perceptual level (which we share with other animals) to the conceptual level (which is distinctive to human beings) is: reason.

Reason enables us to form concepts, to use language, to discover causal relationships, and to make the logical connections necessary for the achievement of our goals. It is our means of understanding the world in ever deeper and wider ways and of applying our discoveries to our chosen ends. But reason allows us to identify facts and only facts, which alone do not seem to tell us anything about what we morally ought to do. There simply is no fact labeled “ought” out there.

This is a serious problem. As human beings, we need moral guidance. Without moral guidance, how do we know the right way to spend our time or where best to put our effort? How do we know whether we should work for a living or steal from others or beg for handouts? How do we know whether we should tell the truth always or sometimes or never? How do we know if we should befriend someone, do business with him, trust him with our children, support his campaign, or grant him our vote? And how do we know the proper way to deal with criminals, tyrants, or terrorists?

In order to live and achieve happiness, we need to know how to evaluate our alternatives; we need to know how in principle we should act. In order to establish and maintain relationships conducive to our life and happiness, we need to know how in principle we should evaluate and respond to the actions of other people. And in order to define and defend the social conditions necessary for a life of happiness, we need to know what in essence they are.

So, since facts are all there are out there, and since reason is our means of discovering and understanding facts, the question we must answer is: How can we use reason to derive moral principles–principles regarding what people ought to do–from the facts of reality–from what is?

Now, at first blush an answer might seem pretty straightforward: Pick a goal, determine what you have to do in order to accomplish it–and there’s your “ought.” But not so fast. The moral question is: How does one choose a proper goal? If morality were a matter of picking and accomplishing any old goal, then a bank robber would be “moral” if he successfully robbed a bank; a swindler would be “moral” providing he never got caught; the Nazis, Communists, and priests of the Inquisition would have to be considered “moral” because they successfully tortured and slaughtered the people whom they chose to torture and slaughter; and the terrorists of Black Tuesday would have to be considered “moral” because they succeeded in their mission.

Logically, morality cannot be a matter of doing whatever one chooses to do; it cannot be a means to achieving arbitrary goals or ends. If moral ends were arbitrary, there would be no such thing as “good” and “evil”; there would be only “works” and “doesn’t work.” As in: If you want to have a lot of unearned money, robbing a bank works; robbing a parking meter doesn’t. Or: If you want to suppress rational thought on a grand scale, theocracy works; mere scolding from the pulpit doesn’t. Or: If you want to murder millions of innocent people, gas chambers, killing fields, and anthrax-loaded crop dusters work; a lone gunman doesn’t. In other words, if moral ends are arbitrary, there is no such thing as morality–“anything goes.”

If there is such a thing as morality, it is not merely an issue of effective means; it is also–and more fundamentally–a matter of proper ends. The concept of “morality” logically presupposes a proper end; without such an end, morality cannot exist. So the question is: What is a proper end?

Adapted from Chapter 2 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.


Related Articles:
Loving Life: A Case-Study in Presenting Objectivism Objectively by Alex Epstein
Loving Life is an introduction to the Objectivist Ethics that assumes no prior knowledge of Ayn Rand’s ideas. By taking into account its audience’s context of knowledge at every stage, Loving Life succeeds at the formidable task of making Ayn Rand’s epic ethical discoveries accessible to a lay audience in a scant 150 pages.

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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