An excerpt from Chapter 1: The Relevant Principles of Objectivism from Andrew Bernstein’s book Capitalist Solutions: A Philosophy of American Moral Dilemmas.
A key original principle of Objectivism that will repeatedly emerge in this book is the identity of the moral and the practical. What is morally right is practically efficacious—and, conversely, what is morally wrong is practically disastrous.
The idea that only moral virtue leads to long-term practical success—and that evil, will, in the long run, accrue misery—opposes the dominant code of the modern world; which claims generally that callous exploitation of others is a necessary condition of practical success, while “selfless” virtue is too noble for this world, resulting in inevitable failure. The belief that “either you swim with the sharks or you’re eaten by them” is widely held in such fields as law, business, politics, and others. Leo Durocher’s cynical observation that “nice guys finish last” is, unfortunately, an accurate description of many people’s belief on this topic.
An equation of virtue and practical success—and of vice with abysmal failure? How is such an innovative theory supported? The answer to this question penetrates to the heart of moral philosophy.
The proper name of Rand’s moral code is: “rational egoism.” Expressed briefly, this means that virtue is achieved by pursuing one’s self-interest—that which leads to personal happiness—in accordance with rational moral principles. The key to Rand’s version of rational egoism lies in understanding the nature of values, and the role they play in human life.
She defines values as: “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” A value is always the object of an action—it is not a wish, a dream, or a fantasy. An individual’s values are those things or persons he considers preeminently worthy (or valuable); those things or persons that fill his life with meaning, passion, and purpose. Whether an individual values education, or a productive career in a specific field, or a particular man or woman, or his children, or a plethora of other possibilities, his values are those things or persons sufficiently important to him to impel him to goal-directed action.
The role of values in man’s life is an overarching theme in Rand’s fiction. In The Fountainhead, for example, its hero, the revolutionary architect, Howard Roark, is portrayed as so in love with his buildings that he literally cannot keep his hands off of them as they are under construction. The young Roark seeks mentoring from Henry Cameron, the world’s greatest living architect, but a bitter, aging curmudgeon.
Cameron, recognizing the young man’s genius and integrity, becomes a father figure to the hero-worshipping Roark. The innovative young architect has a passionate love relationship with the tormented but brilliant and idealistic Dominique Francon, his eventual wife. He is more than friends—he is soul mates with the story’s tragic hero, Gail Wynand.
Roark rescues the talented young sculptor, Steven Mallory, from bitter despair and incipient alcoholism, and the budding genius goes on to become both a major success, and, in effect, Roark’s kid brother.
The same is true in Atlas Shrugged, in which the two main narrators, Dagny Taggart, who superbly runs a transcontinental railroad—and Hank Rearden, the country’s ablest steel manufacturer and inventor of Rearden Metal, a new alloy vastly superior to steel—are each passionately in love with their careers, and with each other.
In both Rand’s great novels, and in her nonfiction work on ethical theory, The Virtue of Selfishness, she presents an integrated, impassioned theme: Values are the meaning of life.
To hold values dearly, to pursue them vigorously, and to never surrender them for anything or anybody—this is what it means to be genuinely, properly selfish. This is what is truly egoistic, i.e., in the interest of the ego or self; this is the sole course to personal happiness. But a proper egoism does not consist of a relentless pursuit of any urge or desire that an individual experiences. Values, properly understood, are objective; not subjective whims.
What makes X a value? What makes something good? This is a question that moral philosophers have debated for at least two millennia. Rand posed the question in a new form. She asked, in effect: what is the fundamental fact of reality that gives rise to the entire phenomenon of valuing? Her answer was: it is only because living beings must attain certain ends to sustain their lives that values become both necessary and possible. In the absence of life, there are no values; no possibility of either good or evil.
A plant, for example, must gain sunlight, water, chemical nutrients from the soil in order to survive. These are its values; these are what are good for it. Such ends are objective; they are a matter of hard fact; they are not subject to whim or caprice; they are unalterably fixed by nature.
The same is true of animals. A lion, for example, must hunt in order to gain the meat its survival requires; without it, the beast perishes. The lion has no choice in this matter. Its values are set for it by nature.
Finally, human beings must grow food, construct dwellings, manufacture clothing, and cure disease. Their lives depend on it. To reach such achievements they must study agricultural science, architecture and engineering, biology, etc., and they must make the advances in philosophy, logic, and theoretical science that underlie such disciplines. Nature confronts man with a single, simple, pitiless alternative: cultivate the mind as a pre-condition to cultivate the soil—study, create, and grow—or die. Man, despite immeasurable intellectual advantages, is accorded no more choice by nature than any other organism. For him, as well, the alternative is stark: attain specific goals—or perish.
Fundamentally, there is a sole alternative in reality—existence or nonexistence; and it is faced exclusively by living beings. The sustained existence of inanimate matter does not require the satisfaction of conditions; matter simply is; it changes its forms ceaselessly, but it neither comes into nor goes out of existence. But life requires the attainment of certain ends. If an organism does not succeed in that endeavor, it perishes. Its material constituents endure—but its life is expunged. For example, the pulverizing of a rock and the pulverizing of a man are actions profoundly different in nature, in outcome, and in moral significance. The one merely changes its form—the other relinquishes its life.
Organic beings must reach specific goals in order to sustain their lives. It is because of this fundamental fact—and only because of it—that values come into existence. Values are that which nature requires of an organism to maintain its life. Rand states: “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”
Values are, therefore, grounded in fact; they are objective. It is reality—not society, or God, or an individual’s own whim that necessitate plants to gain water and sunlight, lions gain meat, and that human beings grow crops, build homes and cities, and cure diseases. Such matters are no more open to choice than is gravity. These are unyielding facts of nature.
The good for an organism is that which supports its life. The evil is that which harms or destroys it. For man, therefore, the standard of good and evil, the measuring rod by reference to which right and wrong are judged, is: the requirements of human life. All that furthers man’s earthly life is the good; all that inimical to it, is the evil. Or, in another form: for man, the good is all that which promotes the life of a rational being; the evil all that which harms or destroys it.
Plants and animals automatically, inherently, and with no choice on their parts pursue the values that nature sets as a requirement to advance their lives. Plants cannot refuse to dig their roots into the soil—and hungry lions cannot eschew the hunt. Their instincts are not infallible and their knowledge is limited; when these prove inadequate, they perish. But as long as they are alive, they automatically pursue that which they sense as life-affirming, with no capacity to repudiate their interest and act as their own destroyers.
But because man is a rational being, he can understand moral principles and make moral choices. He can choose, for example, between nutritious food and poison—between education and ignorance— between individualism and bigotry—between productive work and parasitism off of honest men—between establishing a free society and imposing a dictatorship—between life-sustaining actions and those life-destroying.
Human beings do not automatically, intrinsically, nonvolitionally pursue that which advances their lives; they have the capacity to destroy themselves, to commit suicide in a multitude of forms—and quite often they do. Th ey surrender their values to satisfy others—or they ingest toxic drugs—or they seek gain by deceitful conniving—or they vote for statist politicians—or in one of countless other modes sabotage their own lives and well-being.
Human beings must choose values, they must choose life, they must choose egoism.
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