Rebirth of Reason


Ayn Rand's Ethics
by Edward W. Younkins

Ethics, a code of values to rationally guide manís choices and actions, is an objective, metaphysical necessity for a manís survival. A proper ethics gives practical guidance to help people think and direct their lives. Ethics aids a man in defining and attaining his values, goals, and happiness. A man needs ethics because he requires values to survive. The telos of ethics is a personís own survival and happiness. The realm of ethics includes those matters that are potentially under a manís control. A manís uncoerced volition is necessary to have an objective theory of morality. He can discover values only through a volitional process of reason.

Randís ethics identifies the good and bad according to the rational standard of value of manís life qua man. Her Objectivist Ethics focuses on what is, in reality, good or best for each unique individual human being. Such an ethics is rational, objective, and personal. Accordingly, a manís goal should be to become the best possible person in the context of who and what he is and of what is possible for him.

Rand explains that objective and contextual knowledge, including ethical knowledge, can be obtained through rational means. A person requires conceptual knowledge in the form of abstractions to guide his actions. Moral concepts necessarily come into play when one acts. A man needs to acquire knowledge of external reality and self-knowledge in order to discover and choose his values, goals, and actions. He requires knowledge of what is possible and of the potential means to achieve that which is possible.

To acquire knowledge, a person needs to function at a certain level of abstraction. A man subsumes concretes under abstractions and his hierarchy of abstractions leads to general evaluative principles. A principle is a proposition that integrates facts, observations, experiences, and knowledge about subjects and cases. A man needs an adequate set of principles to provide basic guidance in living well. He must consciously identify the principles he wants to live by and must critically evaluate his values and principles.

Rational moral principles guide us toward values and are essential for achieving moral integrity, character, and happiness. Living by rational principles tends to make principled thought and actions habitual. When we habitually act on sound moral principles we develop virtues and incorporate our moral orientation into our character. Rand connects virtues to the objective requirements of manís survival and flourishing. Moral principles are needed because the standard of survival and flourishing is too abstract. To act in a concrete situation, a man needs to have some basic view of what he is acting for and how he should act. Because actions are subsumed under principles, it is imperative to adopt and automatize good principles. Acting on principles cultivates corresponding virtues which, in turn, leads to value attainment, flourishing, and happiness.

A person uses his free will to determine his focus and how logical to be. Though the employment of his free will, a man forms and selects the principles that underlie his actions. Focusing oneís mind, staying in focus, thinking, and critically assessing oneís principles includes introspection to identify and assess the principles that one has automatized.

A man who thinks in principles makes himself aware of the best means of attaining his ends in the full context of his life. Moral principles are true in a delimited context. Recognizing the moral context of a situation precedes oneís chosen actions in that situation. A man should not evade relevant knowledge nor drop context when he acts. Moral principles are absolute within the context in which they are defined and applied. Of course, some cases will fall outside the context in which they are defined and applicable. It is therefore essential for a person to validate his principles and to understand the contexts that give rise to these principles.

Thinking is needed in order to understand the facts of a situation and to apply appropriate principles to the circumstances. For example, honesty, as a principle, states that it is immoral to misrepresent the truth in a context in which a personís goal is to obtain values from others. It follows that in a different context in which a person is attempting to use deceit or force in order to gain values from an individual, it is appropriate for the wronged individual to select self-defense as his appropriate principle instead of honesty. The context is different from one calling for honesty on his part.

Honesty is an essential principle because the proper end of a manís actions is his own objective flourishing. The moral appropriateness of honesty is grounded in metaphysics. A person must focus on what reality requires if he is to attain his ends. A person should tell the relevant truth. What the relevant truth is depends on the type of relationship a person has with the individual with whom he is dealing.

In Randís biocentric ethics moral behavior is judged in relation to achieving specific ends with the final end being an individualís life or flourishing. The act of deciding necessitates the investigation of how an action pertains to what is best for oneís own life. This is not done in a duty-based ethic that is limited to precepts and rules. In a duty-oriented ethical system rules or duties are placed between a person and reality. In a biocentric ethics what is moral is the understood and the chosen rather than the imposed and the obeyed. Principles are valuable ethical concepts that do not require imperatives or obligations as their justification.

Altruist moralities hold that morality is painful and difficult and involves ideas such as self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. Contrariwise, an egoist morality, such as the one found in Objectivism, maintains that morality is natural, attractive, and enjoyable. Of course, there is work involved in staying in focus, acquiring knowledge, formulating moral principles, and applying them in the appropriate contexts. Morality is demanding but it is also indispensable and rewarding. Remember, the purpose of morality is to enjoy life, flourish, and be happy.

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