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Introduction to Objectivist Morality

by Francois Tremblay



This web site does not support any specific moral system as “the right system”. It only states the obvious fact that rational-scientific worldviews imply moral objectivity, but we include all objective positions in that category. In this article, I will give a short review my own position, Objectivist morality, or if you prefer, rational individualism.

Objectivist morality is a type of objective morality (i.e. a moral system based on the facts of reality and deduced by reason). Objectivism, as you may know, is a philosophical system first constructed by Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher. It seeks to examine philosophical issues with a scientific approach, using observations and logic to arrive to rational conclusions. Many people associate Objectivism with Randist pseudo-cults, however, and I am not part of such organizations. If one does not like the term “Objectivism”, then we can express the philosophy in general, as well as its morality, as “rational individualism”.

Although I used it in the first sentence, I prefer to use the term “moral principles” instead of “objective morality”. First of all, stating that morality is objective, is a tautology. Anything that is based on reality is objective by definition. It makes no more sense to speak of “subjective morality” than it does to speak of “subjective biology” or “subjective wood-carving”. All are subject to causality, and causality is observed objectively. Moral statements are no more dependent on our desires or whims than the fact that the human heart has two atria and two ventricles (in fact, many biological facts are part of our basic values).

The term “principles” also highlights how morality is composed of moral principles (values and virtues) which are derived from causal principles (physical and mental needs). Whatever the objective moral system, it has these principles : the difference is whether we are correct in identifying them, and how we use them.

Morality is the study of optimal action, and a moral system must tell us what actions are desirable and which are not, by value-judgment (understanding which values are implemented in a potential action). We need morality because we are volitional beings – unlike most animals, we can choose to act in a certain way instead of another, and in many cases we must choose to act in a certain way.

The first premise of any moral system should be what I call structural individualism – the fact that only individuals can benefit or suffer, think and act, that each human being is its own moral agent. This principle is denied by many other objective moral systems on the basis of collectivism, that for instance “society benefits/suffers” is a meaningful phrase. But to say such phrases cannot be understood as anything more than a metaphor. There is no actual organism called “society” that benefits and suffers, only individuals. There is no nervous connection between individuals in a “society” : we are all separate biological organisms. So to claim that moral collectivism is true is to either say a biological absurdity, or to commit a basic ontological mistake.

We must be careful not to confuse structural individualism with egocentrism. I think this is the main reason why people reject structural individualism, even though the latter is a rather obvious principle. People say things like “if you are the only important person, then what prevents you from killing other people ?”. But this is a very confused statement, as our flourishing, the establishment of our values, depend on other individuals. To hurt other people has consequences that are as important as hurting ourselves. These are obvious causal principles, which are most evidenced in the results of criminal and anti-social behaviour.

Objectivism is an individualist philosophy in the most fundamental sense : it rejects all attempts to deny the facts of individual existence. It is also individualist in the common sense, in that it acknowledges that no other individual can think for us. If we are to be moral agents, we must take responsibility for our actions and use judgment based on the facts of reality and science.

The value is the basic unit of morality. A value is something we act to gain or keep. Some obvious examples of values are : sufficient nutrition, sleep, a roof over our head. But biological values are not the only kind of values, in fact there are four categories of values :

Material needs such as needs for health and food: these values contribute directly to survival.

Spiritual needs such as needs for conceptual knowledge, self-esteem, education and art: these values are spiritual in the sense that they primarily pertain to consciousness, and contribute to survival by helping Reason to function properly.

Social needs such as needs for trade, communication, friendship and love: these values are social in that they occur only through interaction with others. Logically, their status as values is due to the fact that they contribute to the fulfillment of spiritual and material needs.

Political needs such as needs for freedom and objective law, which are needs concerning the organization of society. These provide the context for fulfilling our material, spiritual and social needs.

This is from the book Logical Structure of Objectivism, by David Kelley, available for reading at http://www.objectivistcenter.org/objectivism/objectivism-lso.asp. This is a book to read if you want to understand the basis for Objectivism, but especially ethics, since most of the book discusses values and virtues.

We have a hierarchy of values for the same reason than we have a hierarchy of needs – because some values need to be reasonably fulfilled (such as nutrition or sleep) before some others can come under the purview of our actions (such as love or excellence). There is a gradient of importances that necessarily enters into account here. That is why one may say, objectively, that eating is much more important than, say, gaining status.

It is important here to understand that while values themselves are objective in all ways, their specific implementation differs from person to person and from culture to culture. For instance, we all need to eat, but we do not eat the same things. Someone in Latvia might eat a dinner of bizugis with pea balls and a glass of maizes kvass, and I might have a piece of tourtire with maple syrup and a glass of milk. But it remains an inescapable biological fact that we both need to eat to survive.

We judge an action based on two factors : the context of the action, and the consequence in terms of values.

Contextuality expresses the fact that an action does not exist in a vacuum. When we examine an action, we cannot ignore that the action takes place in a given context. This context is necessary to evaluate the consequences of an action, because it informs the values that are effected by the action.

To take a simple example, the action of “killing” effects very different values whether it involves :

  • killing someone who has a gun trained on you
  • killing an innocent person walking down the street
  • killing an animal for food on a hunting trip
  • killing a spider that entered the house

And so on and so forth. In each case, the being that is killed, the state of ourselves and the being, the actions necessary to perform, are all very different and lead to different results. In one case, our life is saved. In the other, we are a criminal.

Here is a graph that expresses the interaction of all these factors clearly :

We have seen that a value is what we should seek. A virtue is how we should seek them. It is also a mental attitude that we should have in order to make us moral individuals – to ensure that our values can become part of our mental habits. Given that we cannot take the time to reason through values all the time, we need to be virtuous in order to ensure that we will always tend to do good regardless of the situation.

Here are some mental and social virtues, from Logical Structure of Objectivism :

Rationality : The fundamental virtue in Objectivism, our primary means of survival, our only means to knowledge. The acquisition of any value depends on our capacity to understand rationally the causal principles underlying them.
Integrity : The commitment to act in accordance with principles in pursuit of long-range values.
Productiveness : The commitment to take responsibility for achieving one’s values.
Honesty : The commitment to grasp the truth and act accordingly.
Pride : The commitment to take credit and responsibility for acting on the basis of one’s judgment, in accordance with rational principles.

Autonomy : The commitment to act by one’s independent judgment.
Justice : The commitment to evaluate other people objectively and act accordingly.
Non-Sacrifice : The aspect of trade that recognizes that one should not deliberately provide others with values without seeking values in exchange. (it is important to remember that values are not solely financial : loving another person is not a sacrifice because we gain a great deal of mental and social values by doing so)
Existential Independence : The aspect of trade that recognizes that one should not deliberately seek values from others without offering value in exchange.
Non-Coercion : The aspect of trade that recognizes that one should not initiate the use of physical force against others.
The Trader Principle : The commitment to interacting with others only by trade.
Benevolence : The commitment to treating other people as potential trading partners.

For the interested, all these virtues are logically justified in Logical Structure of Objectivism, chapter 5 and 6.

I would like to end by comparing Objectivist moral principles to other objective systems, since it may seem that these virtues are universal. They are, however, completely opposite to Christian pseudo-virtues. Christian belief promotes faith, not rationality, and promotes blind love, instead of justice, thus undercutting man’s basis for survival : but on the other hand it also promotes intolerence instead of benevolence. Christianity is based on sacrifice and glorifies sacrifice (so do most religious systems), and tells us that man is sinful and unworthy of his own moral evaluation, that pride is evil. All of these must be rejected as being irrational and fostering dependence.

Another popular moral system is utilitarianism, the idea that value-judgment must be made not on the individual’s values but also on everyone else’s values. That is to say, that when we judge an action, we must not only judge it according to our values but everyone else’s. This is sometimes a denial of structural individualism, in which case it is simply invalid because each individual is a separate moral agent.

Most utilitarians however would say that they understand structural individualism but still think that the individual should take other people’s values into account when making a decision. In this rebuttal, he is missing the point : as I said earlier, the rational individual does take other people into account when he takes decisions. As a social agent, I have no choice but to do so, as other people’s values influence mine.

The utilitarian desire for everyone to be as important as we are is absurd and counter-intuitive to the reductionist view that benefit arises from the interaction of individual units by harmony of interests, not by curtailing these interests.

It also leads to absurdities, reducing an individuals’ life to a statistic dependent on other individuals, a view which we must reject as statist and anti-man. No one’s life is unimportant to himself. Yet the utilitarian is committed to a democratic-like view of society, where it is morally acceptable to sacrifice individuals to please the majority. In this view, killing a vagabond because he takes away resources for the community, and therefore takes away slight value from millions of people, is morally acceptable.

Utilitarian thinkers have tried their best to evade this problem by amending the basic utilitarian premise (by, for instance, barring coercion to some extent), but by doing so all they do is make it look more and more like Objectivist morality.

Last updated: August 16, 2004