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Objectivism

The Scope of Moral Failure
by Barry Kayton

Is it wrong to regard the moral failures or suffering of others with indifference?

In this age of relativism, the term "moral failure" will seem to many people archaic. But since objectivist ethics is grounded in the requirements of life and the nature of a rational person, the term "moral failure" has an objective meaning.

To what in reality does the term "moral failure" refer? Ayn Rand called moral failures "breaches of morality" which she distinguished from "errors of knowledge". An error of knowledge is an unintentional mistake (based on insufficient or irrelevant facts or based on knowledge that is regarded as true but is actually false). In contrast, a breach of morality is the "conscious choice of an action you know to be evil" (Atlas Shrugged), where "evil" means "inimical to the life of a rational being" -- an action that undermines, negates, opposes or destroys the life of a rational being.

Therefore, the context of a moral failure presupposes the following two conditions:
  • You must know the good (that which is proper to the life of a rational being); and
  • You must ignore that knowledge and instead choose an action which is evil (that which is not proper to the life of a rational being).


Relativists may take issue with the use of the word "proper" here by charging that this is a circular argument: the good is that which is proper; but isn't proper a synonym for good? However this accusation misses the point that the objectivist ethics bases morality ("ought") on facts ("is").

Ayn Rand shows that the objective requirements of the life of a rational being are what we should regard as morally good. Food, water and shelter are good because they are consistent with the requirements of survival. Likewise, safety and security are good. Self-esteem is good. Love and friendship are good. Knowledge, art and self-actualisation are good. Benevolence, generosity, sensitivity, civility, manners, tolerance and even a "wicked" sense of humour are good. These things are good because they ensure the survival and support the growth and flourishing of a rational being.

With this context in mind, consider the following two scenarios...

Scenario one
Imagine you're at a cozy restaurant and you notice two pregnant women at the next table. Both of them are smoking and drinking. They've each had two or three beers, oblivious to the harm they're causing to their unborn children. What do you feel? What do you do?

Scenario two
Imagine you're visiting a new social club to see what it has to offer. You find a formal lounge with bridge and chess tables, a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, a well-equipped gym and a travel club. When filling out the application form you notice that the club has a strictly "whites-only" policy. All other races are excluded. What does this make you feel? What do you do?

Each of these two scenarios presents a context in which you are confronted with a wrong -- a breach of morality -- and you have the opportunity either to ignore it or to confront it. The question is this: would your indifference to these issues constitute a breach of morality on your own part? The way to answer this question is to ask yourself: what is the proper -- the objectively right -- way to respond? What emotional response accords with human nature and your own values? And what course of action accords with your own values?

Personally, the ignorant and abusive mothers-to-be would make me angry, and I wouldn't hesitate to express my anger at their behaviour and at the restaurant owner for serving alcohol to obviously pregnant women.

Personally, the bigoted social club would be the object of my contempt and I wouldn't hesitate in tearing up the application form. I'd also advise my friends to boycott the club and to write to the owners explaining that while they have every right to set their own admissions policy, they should not expect the support of respectable, principled patrons.

But these are my responses -- my emotions and my actions -- based on my values. Perhaps the drinking, pregnant women would leave you feeling nothing -- but I should hope not. Perhaps you'd consider joining that bigoted social club -- but I'd like to think that you'd take a personal stand against racism.

Being confronted by the moral failures of others is not the only context that tests your commitment to maintaining your moral character. Life presents us with much more complex events that test both our emotions and choices of action. Consider the following three scenarios...

Scenario three
Imagine it's a mid-summer's day. The heat is unbearable. You've just parked your car at a busy shopping mall and you're walking toward the entrance when you notice that someone has left a beautiful Labrador locked up in a black car in direct sunlight. All the windows are closed. The dog is virtually being cooked alive. She's frantic. What does the sight of this helpless Labrador make you feel? What do you do?

Scenario four
Suppose you're taking a walk through a park and you hear an agonised and desperate plea for help? You notice a blood-stained hand twitching from behind a thicket. You manage to break a pathway through the bush to find a naked woman who has been raped and stabbed and who is barely alive. What does this make you feel? What do you do?

Scenario five
Imagine you're on holiday in South Africa. You're taken on a personal tour of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, where people live in tin shacks with no plumbing and children go to sleep hungry for food and starving for intellectual stimulation. You remind yourself that the cause of their misfortune is apartheid. What does their plight make you feel? What do you do?

In scenario three you are confronted with senseless animal suffering. In scenario four you are confronted with human suffering that has been criminally inflicted. And in scenario five you are confronted with human suffering that has been politically inflicted.

Again, the question is this: would your indifference to these situations constitute a breach of morality on your own part? And again, I would suggest asking yourself: what is the proper -- the objectively right -- way to respond? What emotional response accords with human nature and your own values? And what course of action accords with your own values?

Personally, the sight of the suffering Labrador would make me angry and I wouldn't hesitate to free her, even if it meant breaking a window to open a door. Yet ordinarily I would respect property rights. And I do not accept the notion of animal rights.

Of course, I imagine that I would react with almost instinctive compassion to the desperate rape victim.

Finally, I would respond with compassion for the destitute children and I wouldn't hesitate in making a donation that is within my means since it represents no sacrifice, but rather an investment in the achievement of some of my values.

Again, these are my responses -- my emotions and my actions -- based on my values. Perhaps you felt nothing for the Labrador -- but I would hope that is not the case. And I imagine that none but a psychopath would fail to help the rape victim. Finally, perhaps you feel nothing for poor children. But I'd like to think that the sight of destitute children moves you to want to do something to bring their plight to an end or to expose and defeat the ideology that makes their circumstances possible.

In thinking along these lines I cannot help but ask: are my values simply optional or are they "proper"? In other words, to what extent do my responses accord with the facts of human nature and with objective values that are true for everyone?

Would a psychologically healthy person respond to the rape victim with indifference? No. Would a rational person leave the rape victim to die? No. In this case your impetus to act is intense because the victim is in great pain (which you can relieve at little cost to yourself) and because the life of the victim must surely be a greater value to you than an undisturbed walk in the park.

Would a psychologically healthy person respond to the suffering Labrador with indifference? No. A Labrador is not an ant or worm or cockroach. It is a beautiful animal that shares with us a range of emotions: pleasure, affection, curiosity, love of offspring and the desire to protect its values. A dog thus embodies values that most people cherish. To watch the suffering -- pain, fear and stress --of an animal such as this with indifference is simply inhuman. Would a rational person leave the Labrador to suffer and die in the car? No. If the Labrador is in pain then your impetus to act is likely to be strong. Yet your emotional response is likely to tempered by other considerations (such as respect for property rights and fear of legal action) and your choice of action will be complicated by the number of options available, each with a different solution to the Labrador's predicament, and each with its own costs. In this context there is no course of action that I would regard as objectively right. I would say only that an emotionally compassionate response is appropriate.

Finally, would a psychologically healthy person be unmoved by the suffering of children? No. Again, I think the emotion of compassion would be a natural response. Would a rational person leave the destitute children without considering how best to relieve their plight? No. But in this case your impetus to act is likely to be mild because the lives of the children are not threatened and they are not suffering immediate, bodily pain. Furthermore your choice of action will be complicated by the scale of the problem, by the vast, wider context of history, economics and politics, and by the countless number of options available, each with a different solution to the children's predicament, and each with its own costs. In this context there is no course of action that I would regard as objectively right. I would say only that an emotionally compassionate response is appropriate.

Why is there no objectively right choice of action in response to this scenario? Because objectivism rejects altruism and accepts that the only real solution to poverty is the creation of wealth (made possible by capitalism). And government has no right to extort wealth from those who are productive to support those who are not. Besides which, government by its very nature is unable to solve the social problems that arise when population growth exceeds economic growth. In fact, government only makes these problems worse.

Objectivism rejects totally the idea that poverty and suffering are a claim check on those able to offer relief. Charity, in Ayn Rand's view, is a minor virtue. And I concur. It is the major virtues of rationality -- independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride and benevolence -- that develop moral character. This is a reciprocal relationship. Moral excellence makes possible the production of wealth and other values, and the process of wealth-production, amongst others, offers opportunities for the development of moral character. Moral excellence does not derive from the distribution of wealth through charity or philanthropy.

Yet I am inclined to regard a person who is indifferent to animal suffering as psychologically deficient, and a person who is indifferent to human suffering as not only psychologically deficient but also morally deficient.

The claim that indifference to suffering is a psychological deficiency can easily be defended by reference to clinical studies of sociopaths.

But is it possible, by reference to facts of reality and within the framework of objectivism, to defend the proposition that indifference to human suffering is a moral deficiency? In other words, to what extent is compassion a virtue?

In Unrugged Individualism, Dr David Kelley makes the following point:

The words "sympathy" and "compassion" derive, respectively from Greek and Latin roots meaning "to feel with". They refer to the human ability to "enter into" another's mental state and feelings, to take on those feelings imaginatively as if they were one's own, and to feel some affinity with that person as a result. "Compassion" is the narrower term, being directed specifically to the suffering or sorrow of another person. "Sympathy" is broader, "signifying a general kinship with another's feelings, no matter of what kind."

Dr Kelley goes on to identify sensitivity -- "the alertness to the psychological condition of others" -- as a form of benevolence. But he stops short of regarding compassion with the same level of significance, since compassion is a response to suffering, and objectivism does not regard suffering as metaphysically significant.

For the most part, I agree. A proper moral code to guide your choices and actions should not hold death as a standard but life. It should not consist of prescriptions against death, disease or misfortune, but of principles based on the requirements of life and the virtues that contribute towards survival and flourishing: the values of reason, purpose and self-esteem; and the virtues of independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness and pride, amongst others.

Yet if objectivism is built on the non-contradictory identification of facts of reality, it must acknowledge that the negatives of life are no less real than the positives. Disease and misfortune -- and in some places even injury at the hands of criminals -- are commonplace experiences of life. And death is the ultimate, inescapable fact of life. A proper moral code should offer at least some principles that guide your choices and actions in response to these undesirable circumstances.

In her interview with Playboy Ayn Rand said: "I regard compassion as proper only toward those who are innocent victims, but not toward those who are morally guilty."

In other words, compassion is a valid emotional response to the undeserved misfortune of others.

Why is it proper to the life of a rational being to respond with compassion to the undeserved misfortune of others? Because a rational person's responses to others should be conditioned by the principle of justice. We should respond to the positive choices, actions and circumstances of others with praise if they are morally deserving. We should respond to the negative choices, actions and circumstances of others with disapproval if they are morally culpable. And we should respond to the negative circumstances of others with compassion if they are undeserved.

So, to return to the five scenarios I introduced earlier, how can we capture the appropriate responses in the form of principles?

With respect to the first two scenarios: to maintain your own moral character and sense of justice, it is appropriate to respond to the moral failures of others with disapproval.

With respect to the last three scenarios: to maintain your own moral character and sense of justice, it is appropriate to respond to the undeserved misfortune of others with compassion.

Thus, it is wrong to regard the moral failures or suffering of others with indifference.

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