Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand's Morality of Egoism (Part 2 of 3)

by | Aug 14, 2010 | POLITICS

  Now, despite its destructive nature, altruism is accepted to some extent by almost everyone today. Of course, no one upholds it consistently–at least not for long. Rather, most people accept it as true–and then cheat on it. All the major religions–Christianity, Judaism, Islam–advocate altruism; their holy books demand it. All so-called “secular humanist” philosophies–utilitarianism, […]


Now, despite its destructive nature, altruism is accepted to some extent by almost everyone today. Of course, no one upholds it consistently–at least not for long. Rather, most people accept it as true–and then cheat on it.

All the major religions–Christianity, Judaism, Islam–advocate altruism; their holy books demand it. All so-called “secular humanist” philosophies–utilitarianism, postmodernism, egalitarianism–call for altruism as well. (Note that “secular humanists” do not call themselves “secular egoists” or “secular individualists.”)

“Alter” is Latin for “other”; “altruism” means “other-ism”; it holds that you should sacrifice for others. From the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim points of view, the significant “others” are “God” and “the poor”; in the Old Testament, for instance, God says: “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). From the utilitarian point of view, the “other” is “everyone in general”; the utilitarian principle is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” From the postmodern and egalitarian points of view, the “other” is anyone with less wealth or opportunity than you have; in other words, the better off you are, the more you should sacrifice for others–the worse off you are, the more others should sacrifice for you.

Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Everyone believes it is the moral thing to do. And no philosopher has been willing to challenge this idea.

Except Ayn Rand:

[T]here is one word–a single word–which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand–the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it–and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.9

On examination, this is true. No reason has ever been given as to why people should sacrifice for others. Of course, alleged reasons have been given, but not legitimate ones. So let’s consider the alleged reasons–of which there are approximately six–each of which involves a logical fallacy.

1. “You should sacrifice because God (or some other voice from another dimension) says so.” This is not a reason–certainly not an earthly one. At best, it is an appeal to authority–that is, to the “authorities” who claim to speak for God. Just because a preacher or a book makes a claim does not mean the claim is true. The Bible claims, among other things, that a bush spoke. More fundamentally, this non-reason is an arbitrary claim because there is no evidence for the existence of a god. But even those who believe in a god can recognize the fallacy of appealing to an authority.

2. “You should sacrifice because that’s the general consensus.” This is not a reason but an appeal to the masses. Matters of truth and morality are not determined by consensus. That slavery should be legal used to be the general consensus in America, and is still the consensus in parts of Africa. That did not and does not make it so. Nor does consensus legitimize the notion that you or anyone else should sacrifice or be sacrificed.

3. “You should sacrifice because other people need the benefit of your sacrifice.” This is an appeal to pity. Even if other people did need the benefit of your sacrifice, it would not follow that this is a reason to sacrifice. More importantly, however, the notion that people need the benefit of your sacrifice is false. What people need is to produce values and to trade them with others who produce values. And to do so, they and others must be free to produce and trade according to their own judgment. This, not human sacrifice, is what human life requires. (I’ll touch on the relationship between freedom and egoism a little later.)

4. “You should sacrifice because if you don’t, you will be beaten, or fined, or thrown in jail, or in some other way physically assaulted.” The threat of force is not a reason; it is the opposite of a reason. If the force wielders could offer a reason why you should sacrifice, then they would not have to use force; they could use persuasion instead of coercion.

5. “You should sacrifice because, well, when you grow up or wise up you’ll see that you should.” This is not a reason, but a personal attack and an insult. It says, in effect, “If you don’t see the virtue of sacrifice, then you’re childish or stupid”–as if demanding a reason in support of a moral conviction could indicate a lack of maturity or intelligence.

6. “You should sacrifice because only a miscreant or a scoundrel would challenge this established fact.” This kind of claim assumes that you regard others’ opinions of you as more important than your own judgment of truth. It is also an example of what Ayn Rand called “The Argument from Intimidation”: the attempt to substitute psychological pressure for rational argument. Like the personal attack, it is an attempt to avoid having to present a rational case for a position for which no rational case can be made.

That’s it. Such are the “reasons” offered in support of the claim that you should sacrifice. Don’t take my word for it; ask around. Ask your philosophy professors. Ask a priest or rabbi. You will find that all the “reasons” offered are variants of these–each of which, so far from being a “reason,” is a textbook logical fallacy. (Most even have fancy Latin names.)

Ayn Rand demanded reasons for her convictions. So should we.

She set out to discover a rational morality–one based on observable facts and logic. Rather than starting with the question “Which of the existing codes of value should I accept?”–she began with the question, “What are values and why does man need them?” This question pointed her away from the established views–and toward the facts of reality.

Looking at reality, Rand observed that a value is that which one acts to gain or keep. You can see the truth of this in your own life: You act to gain and keep money; you value it. You act to gain and keep good grades; you value them. You act to choose and develop a fulfilling career. You seek to meet the right guy or girl and build a wonderful relationship. And so on.

Looking at reality, Rand also saw that only living organisms take self-generated, goal-directed action. Trees, tigers, and people take actions toward goals. Rocks, rivers, and hammers do not. Trees, for example, extend their roots into the ground and their branches and leaves toward the sky; they value nutrients and sunlight. Tigers hunt antelope, and nap under trees; they value food and shade. And people act to gain their values, such as nutrition, education, a career, romance, and so on.

Further, Rand saw that the ultimate reason living organisms take such actions is to further their life. She discovered that an organism’s life is its ultimate goal and standard of value–and that man’s life is the standard of moral value: the standard by which one judges what is good and what is evil. Man’s life–meaning: that which is required to sustain and further the life of a human being–constitutes the standard of moral value.

Now, the validation of the principle that life is the standard of value has a number of aspects, and we don’t have time to consider all of them tonight. For our purposes here, I want to focus briefly on just a few.

By pursuing the question “Why does man need values?”–Ayn Rand kept her thinking fact-oriented. If man needs values, then the reason he needs them will go a long way toward establishing which values are legitimate and which are not. If man doesn’t need values, well, then, he doesn’t need them–and there is no point in pursuing the issue at all. What Rand discovered is that man does need values–and the reason he needs them is in order to live. Life, she discovered, is the ultimate goal of our actions; life is the final end toward which all our other values are properly the means.

Granted, because we have free will we can take antilife actions–and, as we have seen, altruism senselessly calls for us to do just that. But the point is that we don’t need to take antilife actions, unless we want to die–in which case, we don’t really need to take any action at all. We don’t need to do anything in order to die; if that’s what we want, we can simply stop acting altogether and we will soon wither away.

If we want to live, however, we must pursue life-serving values–and we must do so by choice.

Free will enables us to choose our values. This is what gives rise to the field of morality. Morality is the realm of chosen values. But whatever our choices, these facts remain: The only reason we can pursue values is because we are alive, and the only reason we need to pursue values is in order to live.

This two-pronged principle of Rand’s philosophy is essential to understanding how the Objectivist morality is grounded in the immutable facts of reality: (1) Only life makes values possible–since nonliving things cannot pursue values; and (2) only life makes values necessary–since only living things need to pursue values.

Observing reality, we can see that this is true: A rock doesn’t have values. It can’t act to gain or keep things; it just stays still–unless some outside force, such as a wave or a hammer, hits and moves it. And it doesn’t need to gain or keep things, because its continued existence is unconditional. A rock can change forms–for instance, it can be crushed and turned to sand, or melted and turned to liquid–but it cannot go out of existence. The continued existence of a living organism, however, is conditional–and this is what gives rise to the possibility and need of values. A tree must achieve certain ends–or else it will die. Its chemical elements will remain, but its life will go out of existence. A tiger must achieve certain ends, too, or it will meet the same fate. And a person–if he is to remain alive–must achieve certain ends as well.

The Objectivist ethics–recognizing all of this–holds human life as the standard of moral value. It holds that acting in accordance with the requirements of human life is moral, and acting in contradiction to those requirements is immoral. It is a fact-based, black-and-white ethics.

Now, combining the principle that human life is the standard of moral value with the observable fact that people are individuals–each with his own body, his own mind, his own life–we reach another principle of the Objectivist ethics: Each individual’s own life is his own ultimate value. This means that each individual is morally an end in himself–not a means to the ends of others. Accordingly, he has no moral “duty” to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Nor does he have a moral “right” to sacrifice others for his own sake. On principle, neither self-sacrifice nor the sacrifice of others is moral, because, on principle, human sacrifice as such is immoral.

Human life does not require people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others; nor does it require people to sacrifice others for their own sake. Human life simply does not require human sacrifice; people can live without giving up their minds, their values, their lives; people can live without killing, beating, robbing, or defrauding one another.

Moreover, human sacrifice cannot promote human life and happiness; it can lead only to suffering and death. If people want to live and be happy they must neither sacrifice themselves nor sacrifice others; rather, they must pursue life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. And, given the role of morality in human life, in order to do so, they must accept the morality that advocates doing so.

In a sentence, the Objectivist ethics holds that human sacrificeis immoral–and that each person should pursue his own life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. This is the basic principle of rational egoism. And the reason it sounds so good is because it is good; it is right; it is true. This principle is derived from the observable facts of reality and the demonstrable requirements of human life. Where else could valid moral principles come from? And what other purpose could they serve?

We can now see why Ayn Rand said, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” Morality, properly conceived, is not a hindrance to a life of happiness; rather, it is the means to such a life.

So let us turn to the question of how to enjoy yourself and live. If that is the right thing to do, then what–according to the Objectivist ethics–is the means to that end?

First and foremost, in order to live and achieve happiness, we have to use reason. Hence the technically redundant word “rational” in “rational egoism.” Reason is our means of understanding the world, ourselves, and our needs. It is the faculty that operates by means of perceptual observation and conceptual abstraction–by means of our five senses and our ability to think logically, to make causal connections, and to form principles.

It is by means of reason that we identify what things are, what properties they have, and how we can use them for our life-serving purposes. For example, it is by the use of reason that we learn about plants, soil, the principles of agriculture, and how to produce food. It is by means of reason that we learn about wool, silk, and how to make looms and produce clothing. It is by means of reason that we learn the principles of chemistry and biology and how to produce medicine and perform surgery; the principles of engineering and how to build homes and skyscrapers; the principles of aerodynamics and how to make and fly jumbo jets; the principles of physics and how to produce and control nuclear energy. And so on.

On a more personal level, it is by means of reason that we are able to develop fulfilling careers, to engage in rewarding hobbies, and to establish and maintain good friendships. And it is by means of reason that we are able to achieve success in romance.

Since this last is perhaps less obvious than the others, let’s focus on it for a minute.

To establish and maintain a good romantic relationship, you have to take into account all the relevant facts pertaining to that goal. To begin with, you have to know what kind of relationship will actually be good for your life; you were not born with this knowledge, nor do you gain it automatically. To acquire it, you have to observe reality and think logically. Further, you have to find someone who suits your needs and lives up to your standards. To do so, you have to judge peoples’ characters and qualities accurately–which requires reason. Once found, you have to treat the person justly–as he or she deserves to be treated. To do this, you have to understand and apply the principle of justice (which we will discuss shortly). Your means of understanding and applying it is reason.

To succeed in romance, you have to discover and act in accordance with a lot of facts and principles. You must think and act rationally. If you choose a lover irrationally, or treat your lover irrationally, then your love life will be doomed. I’m sure you all know of people who approach relationships irrationally–and what the results are.

The Objectivist ethics recognizes that reason is our basic means of living and achieving happiness. Thus, it upholds reason as our guide in all areas of life: material, spiritual, personal, social, sexual, professional, recreational–you name it.

Now, what about emotions? Where do they fit into the picture?

The Objectivist ethics recognizes and upholds the crucial role of emotions in human life and happiness. Emotions are our psychological means of enjoying life–which is the whole purpose of living. But, toward that end, it is important to treat emotions for what they are and not to expect them to be what they are not.

What exactly are emotions? They are automatic consequences of our value judgments. They arise from our evaluations of the things, people, and events in our lives. For instance, if you apply for a job that you consider ideal for your career path, and you get it, you will experience positive, joyful emotions. If you don’t get it, you will experience feelings of frustration or disappointment. Similarly, if you have not seen your good friend for a long time and you run into him in a restaurant, you will be thrilled to see him. If, however, he informs you that he has joined the Church of Scientology, you will become highly upset. If he later tells you he was kidding, you will feel somewhat relieved. Likewise, if your favorite team wins a big game, you will react one way. If your team loses, you will react another way–especially if you bet a lot of money on the game.

Your emotions reflect what is important to you; they are, as Rand put it, “lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values.” As such, they are crucial to your life. If you did not experience the emotion of desire, you would have no motivation to take any actions at all–and you would soon die. If you never experienced joy, you would have no reason to remain alive; a life devoid of joy is not a life worth living. We need emotions.

But emotions are not our means of knowledge. They cannot tell us which berries are edible or how to build a hut, how to perform heart surgery or how to make an iPod, who is honest or who has a right to do what, what to do about terrorism or what will make us happy. Only reason can tell us such things.

Thus, rational egoism holds that we should respect each of our mental faculties for what it is. Unlike emotionalist moralities–which treat emotions as if they can tell us what is true and what is good and what is right–the Objectivist morality recognizes emotions for exactly what they are and treats them accordingly. To expect emotions to be what they are not–or to do what they cannot–is to misuse them. Just as we do not call child-abusers “pro-child,” so we should not call emotion-abusers “pro-emotion.” They are not.

The Objectivist ethics is pro-emotion–and it is the only moral code that is so. It is both 100 percent pro-reason–and 100 percent pro-emotion. It calls for the proper use of each mental faculty at all times on the grounds that human life and happiness depend on their proper use.

Reason is our only means of knowledge–and thus our basic means of living. Emotions are automatic consequences of our value judgments–and thus our psychological means of enjoying life. Properly understood, reason and emotions are not warring aspects of human nature; rather, they are a harmonious, life-serving team.

The Objectivist ethics holds that you should pursue your life-serving values with the whole of your life in mind, including all of your needs–physical, intellectual, and emotional–over your entire life span. Your basic means of doing so is reason.

Thus, egoism does not call for “doing whatever one pleases” or “doing whatever one feels like doing” or “stabbing others in the back to get what one wants.” Those are caricatures of egoism perpetrated by pushers of altruism who seek to equate egoism with hedonism, subjectivism, and predation. Again, don’t be duped! Egoism is not hedonism; it does not say: “Do whatever gives you pleasure regardless of its effects on your life.” Egoism is not subjectivism; it does not say: “Do whatever you feel like doing regardless of the consequences.” And egoism is not predation; it not only denies that you should achieve values by abusing others; it fundamentally denies that you even can achieve life-serving values through dishonesty, injustice, or coercion.

Egoism does not hold pleasure or feelings or conquest as the standard of value. It holds life as the standard of value–and reason as your basic means of living. Thus, an egoist strives always to act in his long-term best interest–as judged by his use of reason. In other words, an egoist is rationally goal-oriented, which brings us to another key aspect of Rand’s morality: the value of purpose.

A purpose is a conscious, intentional goal. A person acting purposefully is after something–as against meandering or wandering aimlessly. The rational pursuit of life-serving goals is the essence of good living; purpose is a hallmark of self-interest.

If we want to make the most of our days and years–if we want to be fully selfish–we have to be consciously goal-directed in every area of our life where choice applies. For instance, we have to choose a career that we will love. We have to think rationally about how to succeed in it. We need to plan long range and work hard to achieve excellence and happiness in our chosen field. We also have to choose and pursue interesting hobbies and recreational activities that will bring us great joy–whether making music or riding horses or surfing or blogging or the like. And, as mentioned earlier, we have to pursue friendships and romance. Such purposes are essential to a life of happiness.

Our purposes in life, according to the Objectivist ethics, are what make life meaningful. They are what fill our lives with intensity and subtlety and joy. They are the stuff of good living. And if our purposes are to serve their purpose, they must be chosen and pursued rationally. Reason and purpose go hand in hand. Having rational purposes is essential to our life and happiness.

Another value Rand identified as crucial to human life and happiness is self-esteem–the conviction that one is able to live and worthy of happiness. I won’t say much about this, since it is a relatively obvious requirement of life and happiness. Suffice it here to say that we are not born with self-esteem; we have to earn it. And the only way to earn it is by thinking rationally and acting purposefully.

These three values–reason, purpose, and self-esteem–are, as Rand put it, “the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life.”10 To live as human beings we have to think (reason); we have to choose and pursue life-promoting goals (purpose); and we have to achieve and maintain the conviction that we are able to live and worthy of happiness (self-esteem). All three are necessary for success in each area of our life.

Building on these basic values, let’s turn to some key social principles Ayn Rand identified. We will look first at the Objectivist principle of justice.

“Justice,” writes Rand, “is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature. . . .”11 Because people have free will, a person’s character is what he chooses to make it. We can either recognize this fact or fail to do so–but, either way, the fact remains. A person has the character he has; he is responsible for it; and his character, whether good or bad, can affect our life accordingly. A person of good character can generate good ideas, create life-serving products, provide friendship or romance, become an honest politician, or in some other way have a positive impact on our life. A person of bad character can generate evil ideas, destroy life-serving values, deceive us, assault us, steal our property, push for life-thwarting laws, or even murder us.

Justice is the virtue of judging people rationally–according to the available and relevant facts–and treating them accordingly–as they deserve to be treated. This is the basic principle of selfish human interaction. In order to live, to protect our rights, and to achieve happiness, we have to judge people. “The precept: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,'” writes Ayn Rand, “is an abdication of moral responsibility. . . . The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: ‘Judge, and be prepared to be judged.'” Quoting Rand further:

Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you–whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?12

Only one kind of person has anything to fear from moral judgment; the rest of us can only benefit from it. Being just consists in acknowledging this fact and acting accordingly.

To live successfully, happily, and freely, we have to judge our friends, our parents, our employers and employees, our professors, and our politicians. We have to judge everyone who has an impact on our life. We have to judge them rationally–and treat them accordingly.

In a sense, this is so obvious that it seems silly to have to say it. But given the commonly accepted views on morality–from the biblical tenet: “Judge not that ye be not judged” to the relativist mantra: “Who are you to judge?”–not only does it have to be mentioned; it has to be stressed. Judging people rationally and treating them accordingly is a requirement of human life.

While those who do not care about human life might be indifferent to this fact, those of us who want to live need to take it very seriously. We need to uphold and advocate the principle of justice, and not only when it comes to condemning those who are evil, but also, and more importantly, when it comes to praising, rewarding, and defending those who are good–those who think rationally and produce the values on which human life depends: scientists who discover the laws of nature, inventors who create new life-promoting devices and medicines, businessmen who produce and market life-promoting goods and services, artists who create spiritual values that fuel our souls and bring us joy, and so on. Justice demands that we recognize such people as good–good because they self-interestedly use reason and produce life-serving values.

By studying Ayn Rand’s ethics–in addition to learning a great deal more about her ideas on reason, purpose, self-esteem, and justice–you will discover the objective meaning and selfish necessity of the virtues of honesty, integrity, productiveness, and pride. In each case, Rand points to the facts that give rise to the need of such virtues; she shows why your life and happiness depend on them; and she provides an integrated philosophical system for guiding your actions accordingly.

I’ve merely indicated the kind of guidance offered by egoism. But in light of what we’ve seen so far, consider for a moment how it compares to the guidance offered by altruism. Given the many values on which human life and happiness depend–from material values, such as food, shelter, clothing, medical care, automobiles, and computers; to spiritual values, such as knowledge, self-esteem, art, friendship, and romantic love–we need a great deal of guidance in making choices and taking actions. We need moral principles that are conducive to the goal of living fully and happily over the course of years and decades. In answer to this need, egoism provides a whole system of integrated, noncontradictory principles, the sole purpose of which is to teach us how to live and enjoy life. In answer to this same need, altruism says: Don’t be selfish; sacrifice your values; give up your dreams.

If we want to live and be happy, only one of these moralities will do.

And just as egoism is the only morality that provides proper guidance for our personal lives, so it is the only morality that provides a proper foundation for a civilized society. Let us turn briefly to the politics implied by egoism.

Originally published as a special online article at The Objective Standard. © 2009 Craig Biddle.

Related Articles in this three part series:


9 Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 61–62.

10 Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27.

11 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 129.

12 Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 82–83.


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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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