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

by | Oct 26, 2005

Adapted from Chapter 2 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle. According to Hume, if you see a man raping a woman, you cannot say that what you are witnessing is factually immoral; you cannot say that as a matter of fact he should not be […]

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

According to Hume, if you see a man raping a woman, you cannot say that what you are witnessing is factually immoral; you cannot say that as a matter of fact he should not be doing that. No matter how you view the situation, all you can say in terms of facts is: There is a woman kicking and screaming furiously while a man is eagerly trying to have sex with her; the man has made a choice, and the woman appears to think differently about it. As to a moral judgment–as to whether the man is being virtuous or vicious–that, says Hume, depends solely on how it makes you feel inside.

Lest it seem that I am exaggerating Hume’s position, here it is in his own words: “An action, or sentiment, or character is virtuous or vicious; why? Because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind.”

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object [the observable facts]. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation [moral disapproval], which arises in you, towards this action.[9]

Disturbed by that, you might demand a firm answer: Tell me, Mr. Hume, is it your position that rapists and murderers are vicious or not! His answer: “When you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or a sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.”[10] In other words, to condemn murderers and rapists as immoral is merely to express your emotional discomfort at the thought of what they do.[11]

If moral judgments cannot be grounded in the facts of reality, then we are in a moral vacuum; logic is merely a means to achieving arbitrarily chosen ends; swindlers, hoodlums, Nazis, communists, terrorists, and religious “inquisitors” are neither moral nor immoral–only successful or unsuccessful. If so, human sacrifices of any kind and degree can be “justified” by the decree of any common criminal, any collective, any dictator, any “prophet,” or any pope.

The problem is not: “If there is no God, anything goes.” The problem is: If there is no objective standard of value, anything goes. If there is no rationally provable standard of value, there is no way to defend with moral certainty what is right or to condemn with moral certainty what is wrong. The alternative is not religion versus subjectivism, but reason versus subjectivism–and the secular subjectivists know it.

Hitler did not fear religion or faith; he feared reason and logic. He saw the Church not as an enemy but as a mentor, because of its remarkable ability to get people to believe in a creed full of contradictions. Here, in his own words, is Hitler acknowledging his heartfelt debt to religion:

The Church has never allowed the Creed to be interfered with. It is fifteen hundred years since it was formulated, but every suggestion for its amendment, every logical criticism or attack on it, has been rejected. The Church has realized that anything and everything can be built up on a document of that sort, no matter how contradictory or irreconcilable with it. The faithful will swallow it whole, so long as logical reasoning is never allowed to be brought to bear on it.[12]

Hitler’s plans required that people have faith; thus, he had nothing but contempt for logic. And he was neither the first nor the last to feel this way. David Hume was as explicit about his hatred of reason as he was about his love for feelings. Just as he insisted that feelings are our only moral guides, so he insisted that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” What does that mean? Hume tells us: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”[13]

Now, we know what Hitler’s hatred of reason led to, but what about Hume’s? After all, he was not a maniacal mass murderer, but a peaceful philosopher who merely taught legions of other philosophers that moral principles cannot be derived from the facts of reality. What harm could that do?

Well, ideas have consequences. And Hume’s ideas have made their way from the minds of ivory-tower philosophers into the minds of regular people. They have even made their way into the minds of children. Recall who said this: “My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law, and if you don’t like it, you die. If I don’t like you or I don’t like what you want me to do, you die.” It was Eric Harris of the Columbine massacre. Is it any wonder what ideas got into his head? How far is his philosophy from this one: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”?

Subjectivism–whether personal, social, or “supernatural”–wreaks havoc on human life and happiness. Until we can answer it with (genuine) moral certainty–that is, until we can show that morality is based on facts–it will continue to do so. From muggings and rapes, to school shootings and truck bombings, to concentration camps and gulags, to religious “inquisitions” and divinely inspired acts of terrorism–all such mayhem is caused by subjectivism. And the is–ought dichotomy is what makes subjectivism seem plausible.

The is–ought gap represents a moral abyss. If we care about human life and happiness, we need to bridge it. We need to ground morality in reality; we need to discover a rationally provable ultimate end–a standard of value derived from observation and logic.

Fortunately, the problem has been solved; the gap has been bridged; morality has been tied to reality. An objective standard of value has been rationally proved, and it is the subject of our next chapter.

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.

References
[9] Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, pp. 468–69, spelling modernized.
[10] Ibid., p. 469.
[11] Cf. Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), esp. pp. 11, 27–28, 32–33.
[12]Adolf Hitler, quoted in Hermann Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction (New York: Putnam, 1940), pp. 239–40.
[13] Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, pp. 415–16, spelling modernized.

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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.

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