Rebirth of Reason


Rand and Ethical Objectivity
by Tibor R. Machan

{Note from Joe:  Tibor has submitted an extend paper on this topic to the journal Social Philosophy and Policy.  Rand's idea of an objectively formulated morality is one of her most controversial and powerful ideas.  But even within that general topic, there are many aspects of her ideas that are debated even amongst those who ally themselves with Objectivism.  Is there a pre-moral choice to live?  Is the objective standard of value survival or flourishing?  To what extend do subjective preferences or emotional desires impact morality?  Tibor and I are hoping for some discussion on the various aspects of this topic.  Please feel free to bring up any points you think are important or difficult, or ask questions on this topic.]

This is a short discussion of an issue that arises in Objectivist meta-ethics, that is to say, the foundation of ethics according to Ayn Rand. It is an attempt to quite briefly but accurately show why Rand believed that ethical knowledge is objective, that human beings can know what is morally right and wrong, based on how she understood what "objective" means, namely, "neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man's consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man—as the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality." (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology [New York, NY: New American Library, 1970], 54; emphasis added to indicate the source of objectivity is that facts are apprehended by human consciousness). A more extensive treatment of this topic by me will be published in 2008.

Ayn Rand called her philosophy Objectivism because she wanted to be sure she is known as someone who defended our ability to know the world as it is, not as distorted or constructed by our minds, not as we wish it to be, etc. Subjectivism and relativism propose these other positions and Rand was against them, indeed considered those who promoted them, such as Kant, vicious.

When it came to one of the most controversial areas of human knowledge, namely, ethics or morality, Rand insisted that she was an objectivist here as well, unlike, say, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises, who denied that we can know (objectively) what is right or wrong.  Friedman, for example, said

"The liberal conceives of men as imperfect beings.  He regards the problem of social organization to be as much a negative problem of preventing 'bad' people from doing harm as of enabling 'good' people to do good; and, of course, 'bad' and 'good' people may be the same people, depending on who is judging them." ( Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, p.12) 

Yet Rand's ethical objectivism isn't all that simple. She isn't a straightforward realist who believes that ethical principles are evident in the world independently of human existence. This is what is implied by objectivity in, say, the natural sciences. If a principle of physics or chemistry is objective, that would mean that the principle is part of the world regardless of whether anyone knows it to be so. For Rand, ethical objectivism is not like this. The reason is that without human beings or some beings very much like them, there would be no principles of ethics or virtues. For Rand, ethics emerges with human (or possibly some very similar) life only. Once we have human beings living their lives, ethics does apply to them and this is knowable by us as an objective fact. But there is something conditional about this type of objectivity, namely, the fact that human life is a free option to one.

Rand advanced the view that only when one makes the choice to live and think (which are practically the same thing, as she understood them), does one become bound by the principles that must guide human living. And this idea has proven to be quite controversial. Do people generally make a choice to live and think? Or are they pretty much living and thinking beings without any choice to be such, as of their birth? If the latter, then it would seem that the principles of ethics are binding on them independently of any choice, as a necessary and not conditional aspect of their lives. Why would Rand think that this isn't the case?

Before answering that question, it bears noting that conditional principles can be every bit as objective as unconditional ones. For example, let us take it that the principle of gravitation is unconditional, necessary (although in some very broad metaphysical sense it might well be—if no objects with mass existed, there would be no gravitation). Let us also take it that the principles of mechanical engineering are conditional—unless people wanted to build things, there would be no such principles (only potentially).   Yet, principles of mechanical engineering are objective. Once people want to embark upon building things, their conduct would have to conform to the principles studied in the discipline of mechanical engineering. So, while conditional, these principles are still objective, not something we can just make up. (Consider, also, the example of fire fighting—without people wanting to put out fires, they are not in play but once they do, fires must be put out in certain ways, it is not a matter of subjective preference.)

Rand believed that human beings have free will, so whether they would take up the task of living and thinking is up to them. They initiate these, they are not instinctual or automatic. So Rand held, in consequence, that whether a person is bound by the principles of ethics is in the last analysis up to him, although the alternative would be annihilation, so effectively irrelevant. As she put the point:

"Life or death is man's only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. IF he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, natural will take its course." ( Philosophy: Who Needs it? [Bobbs-Merril, 1982], p. 118).

As with many aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy, her views on the objectivity of ethics and on free will are only sketchily laid out by her. Only in the field of epistemology did she advance a fairly detailed and in-depth theory. Nonetheless, as sketched by her and related here, there seems to be nothing amiss in the Randian idea of objectivity in ethics. Once we commit to living our human lives—and there is no other option to this but fading out of existence—we are freely but firmly bound to the principles of ethics which are knowable by us. (In the special areas of human life the same holds—it is only once one decides to become a doctor or lawyer that the ethics of the profession become binding.)

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and is a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute (San Francisco, CA) and the Hoover Institution (Stanford University, CA).  He is public policy adviser to Freedom Communications, Inc.'s newspapers. (www.TiborMachan.com)
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