Russell Madden
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It Mattered
Russell Madden
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Russell Madden


The Nature of Ethics and Values

There have been endless discussions over the centuries as to what ethical system people should follow, what code they should use to determine right from wrong. But the question is rarely asked: "Do people need an ethical code, a guide to proper behavior? And if so, why is such a set of principles necessary?" (The discussion of ethics in this chapter relies primarily on Rand, 1964.)

This is the problem I will address and answer in this chapter. In addition, I will endeavor to demonstrate the relevance and need for a consideration of ethical principles in the social sciences, that is, why and how the impact of ethics is important for a complete understanding of individual human behavior and social interaction.

(While some people see "ethics" and "morality" as two separate, if related, areas, I use the terms as synonyms. In the guidelines I develop here, there is no meaningful distinction between them; they are simply different labels for the same concept.)

The purpose of ethics -- any ethics -- is to define a person's proper values and interests and the actions which he should take in regard to those interests (Merrill, 1991). If an individual has no interests, no values with which to concern himself, then any discussion regarding ethics becomes as superfluous and vacuous as contemplation of how many angels will fit on the head of a pin.

To be begin this exploration, we first need to ask, "What are values?"

(Many people limit values to a small sphere of human interests, to such moral prescriptions as, "Honesty is a value," or "Marital fidelity is a value." Such a constricting of the concept of value, however, blurs the relationship between values and the nature of ethics as a guideline for decision making. In this narrow view, one could not state that food or water are values. To say that such physical items are "valuable" or "of value" but are not "values" has no justification.)

A value is something for which a person is willing to take some action in order to obtain and/or to keep that something (whether that something is a physical object such a house or a nonphysical existent such as love). It is important to emphasize here that some action is involved. This serves conceptually to distinguish between values and desires (wants or wishes). I may want or desire a million dollar home, but unless I am willing to take some (not necessarily successful) action to try to obtain it, it is not a value. (This reason for this is given below in the relationship between values and life.) A value is not a primary existing independently of a valuer as the intrinsic theory of value would hold (Rand, 1966). (This is the position implicitly held, for example, by many current day environmentalists: the idea that objects in nature have a value in and of themselves regardless of their relationships to people.) Values presuppose someone who values and acts. But should this "acting person" be the one to benefit from what he does? Are the values he works to obtain or retain of value to him? And what are these values for? Are they obtained for some purpose?

The most popular answers to these questions in today's world come from the proponents of altruism. Altruism is the doctrine which states that only action taken for others' benefit is the good, that is, constitutes proper behavior (Peikoff, 1982; Rand, 1964). (A popular misconception is that "altruism" is the same as having compassion for or helping other people [Rand, 1982]. A particularly egregious scientific error in this regard is the depiction of behavior by animals as "altruistic" when, for example, animals in a herd survive when the death of one of their number permits them to escape and the dead animal is said to have acted "altruistically" in "giving" its life for its fellows. This inappropriate anthropomorphism obscures the fact that "altruism" is a moral concept and only humans [because only they possess volition] have -- or need -- a moral code...which provides the explanation for the truth behind Mark Twain's saying that only people blush...or need to.) The proper philosophical meaning of this ethical system is the principle that sacrifice is the essence of morality (Rand, 1964). (See the addendum at the end of this chapter for a fuller treatment of this point.) According to altruism, anything done for one's self has no moral sanction. Any hint of selfish benefit received by the "acting person" is immoral by this credo. To the extent that each individual looks to his own needs and desires, to that extent altruism declares that he is evil and must remain so throughout his entire life.

Such a philosophy dooms people to lives of self-imposed immorality; damned (at least a bit) by every pleasure they find, by every mouthful of food they consume.

There is another possibility.

The ethical system embodied in the philosophy of Objectivism states that concern with one's own interests -- a rational selfishness or egoism -- is the essence of a moral existence (Merrill, 1991; Peikoff, 1991; Rand, 1967). It holds that people must be the beneficiaries of their own moral actions; that ethics are objective (that is, derived from the facts and reality and valid and applicable to all individuals [see also Adler, 1985; Machan, 1990]) and that it must not be abandoned to the mystics, the altruists, or the collectivists who believe that ethical principles are subjective, relative, or revealed.

Someone might observe that these two opposite positions are mere assertions. Anything can be stated. The crucial point is how these statements are derived. Which -- if either -- is true and why?

What and How Revisited

As noted in the first chapter, a proper philosophy begins with three axioms; three concepts which cannot be refuted without using those very concepts since any such attempt would merely prove the validity of those primaries.

To recap, the first axiom is that Existence Exists, that there is a reality -- an objective reality that exists independently of human consciousness. While this self-evident fact forms the basis for any and all knowledge, millions, perhaps billions, of people in this world would disagree. Many Eastern religions, for example, state that you, me, and everything we see around us is mere illusion, a dream in a god's mind.

Other belief systems, such as Christianity, deny this reality by stating that there are multiple realities; that there is a higher -- a super-natural -- reality that is the one, true existence (an idea traceable to Plato and, more recently, Immanuel Kant.) (Peikoff, 1982). How are they aware of this greater reality which no one can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste? By faith or revelation, a belief in something without evidence or in direct contradiction to evidence which is available. (I'll return to that contention later.)

The second axiom is that Consciousness Exists; in axiomatic form, that consciousness is conscious. Again, this says that there is something which exists of which one is aware and that some conscious being (of whatever type) does exist to do the perceiving.

Some assert that there is only consciousness, that reality does not exist until someone decides to perceive it. But a consciousness that exists independently of or prior to existence is a contradiction in terms (Adler, 1990; Rand, 1964). To be conscious is to be conscious of something outside of oneself. A conscious entity could not form the concept of "self" unless something external to it existed for comparison. That is the only way to arrive at the idea of "self" as opposed to "other."

The third axiom is the Law of Identity, which is formally rendered as A = A. Again, this seems simple and obvious, right? That's the beauty of true axioms as opposed to those arbitrarily chosen. They must appear almost banal since they stand at the base of everything else. Just as in physics where the entire realm of matter from atoms to galaxies derives from a handful of basic particles, so, too, in philosophy, all the complexities, all the intricacies of life can (and must) be understood (eventually) by use of these three axioms. No other route exists for gaining conceptual knowledge.

The trick, however, is to understand what "A is A" really means and how to apply it.

"A is A." To be is to be something -- whatever that is. A thing is what it is. It cannot both have an attribute and simultaneously not have that attribute. It has a basic nature (an identity) which leads to the law of causality (the Law of Identity applied to action). (For more on causality, see Chapter 3.) An entity acts and must act according to its basic nature and not by chance. For it to be able to act against its nature would entail a contradiction; would mean that it could act as something it is not. Without the Law of Identity and causality, there is chaos. If today water freezes at 32o and tomorrow it boils or becomes a rock, people can make no knowledge claims and the universe becomes a cartoon. If water can be water one moment yet wine the next simply because someone wishes that it be so, then all bets are off. Yet there are those who believe that A can equal Not-A. Miracles -- the supernatural -- violate causality and the Law of Identity and must be rejected on that basis alone.

To say that "Existence is Identity" is simply another way of restating the same axiom. Similarly, to say that "Consciousness is Identification" is to restate the nature and function of consciousness, that is, to be aware of what exists and to identify it. Existing in reality and itself having an identity, consciousness cannot erase facts or change the laws of nature (Branden, 1969). Consciousness can describe reality but cannot create it.

It is not necessary (or possible!) to prove the three basic axioms, for example, that there is, in fact, something rather than nothing. Proof presupposes some more basic facts which when taken together lead to the conclusion one seeks (Peikoff, 1991; Rand, 1967). But there is nothing more basic than existence or reality, i.e., something which underlies it. Reality (the universe, existence, Nature, however one cares to describe it) is where one begins. One cannot arrive there from nonexistence. The same holds true for consciousness. The very act of questioning the reality of consciousness presupposes its existence. If one did not possess consciousness -- was not aware of reality -- one would not (and could not) be asking such a question. A rock does not have the faculty of consciousness, is not aware of anything, and does not investigate questions such as these. And any attempt to disprove the Law of Identity (or its corollaries, the Law of Noncontradiction and the Law of Excluded Middle) must make use of it. One cannot disprove the existence or validity of logic by using logic! The only manner of "proof" (or more properly, the wider concept of "validation") needed here is ostensive proof, i.e., pointing to the world to indicate what one means by existence or introspecting to become aware of the fact of consciousness.

Existence and consciousness form the base of all knowledge. There is something to know and someone to know it, and that someone must use the Law of Identity to discover those facts.

But what are those facts?

We start with sensations, single, discrete responses by our sensory cells to single, discrete stimuli such as pressure waves, photons, or molecules. The capacity to experience these is innate for any animal, that is, "wired in" by evolution (Rand, 1964). Simple pain and pleasure responses derived from these sensations direct the action of primitive animals existing at this level. As humans, we are not directly aware of sensations since they are automatically registered by our eyes and ears and tongues into perceptions obtained by retaining sensations and integrating them. This integration gives rise to the experience of perceiving entities, that is, perceptual concretes; "things" in the world (Rand, 1967).

An animal existing at this perceptual level still directs its behavior according to an unchosen code of values. It acts automatically in order to obtain what is good or bad for its life. It can learn certain behaviors during its lifetime but has no choice in the kind of knowledge it acquires. The patterns of learning are the same from generation to generation (Branden, 1969). Moreover, the animal cannot choose not to perceive, that is, it cannot decide to evade its own perceptions or to ignore its own good. Neither plants nor animals can act willingly and knowingly for their own destruction.

For any animal, the object of awareness is some thing in reality. When a bee observes a flower in ultraviolet light and a human sees it only in the "visible" part of the spectrum, each is using its consciousness or awareness according to its own specific identity. Each may be aware of different aspects of the flower, that is, may be experiencing the flower in somewhat different ways, but each is aware of reality -- the flower -- and not merely of their own consciousnesses. Another way to state this point is to say that we are conscious/aware of objects in reality but not of our means of awareness (Kelley, 1986; Peikoff, 1991). When I observe a flower, I am aware of it but not of the photons which strike my retinas or the electrical impulses in my brain by means of which I am aware of it. The same goes for our other senses. While the bee and I (or I and someone who is colorblind) may perceive the flower in different forms, the philosophically important point is that we are still aware of the same object. Our senses provide us evidence that something is; it is up to our conceptual awareness to decide what that something is and what it means, i.e., to identify it.

These facts counter those who object that we are not aware of reality because we are not aware of all aspects of it, e.g., I do not see the flower in all possible wavelengths or at the molecular level. This is yet another example of the epistemological error I mentioned in the first chapter, that is, the skeptic's demand for omniscience or infallibility before conceding that some proposition may be accepted as knowledge. Simply because I am not aware of all of reality does not invalidate the validity of my perception of that aspect of which I am aware. By including information from other wavelengths of light or by examining the flower under a microscope, I can increase or expand my level of awareness (my context) and, possibly, my understanding, but that does not mean I must abandon the knowledge I have at this level of awareness. (These facts have important implications for my discussions later in the book of decision making, communication, relational maintenance, and the Integrative Perspective. For the present, I reemphasize the fact that all knowledge is contextual.)

We may perceive or experience something in different forms, but it is still the same existent we are perceiving and experiencing. (Compare this with the observation of a coin by a group of people, some of whom see it as a circle, others as an oval, others as a line...or the proverb about the blind people observing an elephant. Or more prosaically, the different views in which objects are presented in technical drawings.) One level or aspect is not "more real" than another. The microscopic realm is no more (and no less) real than the macroscopic. To state, for example, that a needle is not "really" sharp since a microscopic view makes it look blunt is arbitrarily to dismiss an entire level of reality: the human perceptual level. (I challenge any person who accepts the "dullness" of that needle because of its microscopic image to stick it in her finger...and then tell me it is not sharp.)

Armed with this notion of form, it becomes easier to see that our senses do not distort reality but simply "report" on or provide us evidence (by the particular means which we possess) of whatever is out there to be seen or heard or touched. Since our sensory organs operate automatically, they do not distort reality or provide us with "false" perceptions. Our senses do not "lie" to us when we see a stick "bend" when placed in water. Our vision accurately provides us with information on the form in which a stick appears to us when put in water. In poor light, the stick might visually blend into its background and our eyes would likewise simply give us another (somewhat non-typical) view or form of the stick. When we combine our present experience of the visual form of the "bent" stick with our experience of the form presented to us by our sense of touch (and in combination with memories of past perceptions of it), we can interpret and identify the nature of the stick more fully...but this latter process is a function of the conceptual -- and not the perceptual -- level of consciousness. If errors are to occur, it is on the conceptual level that they will happen.

At this juncture it will help to restate the fact that contradictions do not exist in reality; A is A. Contradictions can exist only in our cognitive processes, that is, only on the conceptual level.

Concepts, then, represent the next level of integration (but only for humans). A concept is the mental integration of two or more perceptual concretes which have been perceptually differentiated from other concretes (and seen as similar to one another) and which are then conceptually differentiated or isolated from other concretes by a process of abstraction of their distinguishing characteristics (Kelley, 1984; Rand, 1967). The process is completed when these concretes are united (integrated) conceptually by a specific definition which identifies their (epistemologically) fundamental or essential traits and a word is assigned to the concept.

For humans and all animals which possess it on whatever level, consciousness is the basic means of survival. But, unlike other animals, people have no automatic guidelines for survival, action, or values. Humans possess no innate knowledge, no innate ideas or conceptualizations; mentally, we are all born tabula rasa ("blank slates"). Since awareness is awareness of the world, no knowledge enters our mind which is not directly or indirectly traceable to our senses (Peikoff, 1991; Rand, 1964).

(Some people misunderstand or misrepresent the nature of what it means to be born "tabula rasa." [For example, Merrill, 1991.] They state [rightly] that there is a large body of evidence that our genetic heritage can influence our personalities. For example, differences in metabolism may lead one person to be energetic and able to deal more easily with stress, while a sibling may be naturally quiet and reserved. As critics of the "blank slate" point out, nature [as well as experience] is important in influencing what one's personality will be like. Some of this fear of ignoring the genetic component may result from a desire to avoid the errors of Skinnerian behaviorists who belief that environment is all-important in determining who we will become [we are all the result of "nurture"]. Yet this is merely the flipside of the position held by materialists, positivists, and reductionists who believe that all we are and do -- from personality, to alcoholism, to psychosis or crime -- is determined by our genetics [the "nature" school]; the belief that we can [and should] be understood by the same methods and techniques as physics. [Some "moderates" hold that who we are is determined by some combination of nature and nurture.] Yet understood in the way described here, all three positions are in error: all suffer from the logical fallacy inherent in any variation of determinism. [For a further explanation of this fallacy, see Chapter 3.] There is no dichotomy between our minds and our bodies. Our bodies provide us with potentialities. It is up to our minds how -- or if -- we actualize those potentials. [For an example, see the discussion in Chapter 13 on evolution and the nature of human relationships] )

Unlike the integration of sensations into perceptions, the integration of perceptions into concepts is not automatic...if it were we would have no need for epistemology. The human kind of consciousness is volitional, that is, we have free will; the capacity to decide to focus our minds on the attainment of the conceptual level or to attempt to exist on a more or less perceptual level and thereby diminish our awareness and understanding of the world in which we exist (Rand, 1957, 1961, 1982). A person's self-consciousness must discover the answers necessary for his continued existence. Even if an individual chooses to exercise his conceptual ability, success is not guaranteed. As noted before, we are not infallible, omniscient, or omnipotent .

A human's basic means for survival is reason, the faculty he possesses which directs the process of abstraction and concept-formation, that is, the identification of the facts of reality (Rand, 1964). ("Reason" does not simply mean "problem solving" or "planning." By such a definition, a psychotic mass murderer would have to be considered "rational." It ignores the purpose of reason and the ethical principles consonant with its use. See Chapter 8.) The process of concept formation and its use is thinking, which, as mentioned, is exercised by choice.

Using reason, a person must identify and integrate the material provided by his senses and then use the concepts he derives according to the principles of logic, that is, rules of thought which act in accordance with the requirements of objective reality.

Since conceptual thought is not automatic, instinctive, involuntary, or infallible, a person must initiate it, continue it, and bear responsibility for its results, whether those consequences are true or false, right or wrong, or result in good or evil, life or death.

As humans we are given nothing when we are born but the potential of our minds and bodies and the material means (things in the world) to transform that potentiality into actuality. Our survival is never guaranteed. Operating on the conceptual level of awareness (that is, seeking to be aware of and to integrate the relevant facts under consideration) requires the constant (implicit or explicit) choice to do so as well as the constant effort necessary to carry out that choice (Branden, 1969; Rand, 1964).

For an ethical choice to be possible, there must be alternatives available and the opportunity and ability to freely choose between them, i.e., should implies can (Machan, 1989). Animals act automatically on the basis of perceptual stimuli and make no volitional choices. Yet even for them, as for humans, there are alternatives.

Life and Ethics

The fundamental alternative in the universe is existence versus nonexistence. Inanimate matter exists unconditionally, that is, it does not have to "do" anything in order to continue existing. It can change forms, it can even be turned into energy, but it does not cease to exist, that is, it does not suddenly disappear from the universe (Rand, 1964).

However, the existence of life is conditional. Once life is gone, it's gone. There is no resurrection from death. Life -- any life -- is conditional upon a specific course of action, a set actions necessitated by the kind of life it is, i.e., its identity. Life is a continuous process of self-initiated and self-maintained action implemented to achieve a goal. Life is both a means to and an end in itself (Binswanger, 1990; Merrill, 1991).

Only life can make the concept of "value" meaningful since only living beings can perform actions to gain or keep something, that is, to obtain a goal. Without life, no action and no choices are possible. And since life embodies the basic, essential alternative between existence and nonexistence, it is with life that the concepts of good and bad (or constructive and destructive) (or on a volitional, ethical level, good and evil) begin. Where there are no alternatives, there can be no distinction between what is right and what is wrong (Rand, 1964).

Those who disagree and say they value death rather than life are seeking after a non-value. If they achieve their so-called value -- an action possible, of course, only because they are alive -- then they automatically remove themselves from the arena of alternatives, choices, and ethics. To be dead is to return to the realm of the inanimate where self-generated and self-sustained action becomes meaningless. If death were the value by which to judge an ethical system, there would be no values.

A living entity depends on some kind of input from an external environment and the proper utilization of that input by its body. "Proper" here means what is required for that specific type of organism's survival. What that requirement is arises from and is determined by the organism's nature (A is A), that is, the kind of entity it is (Rand, 1964). A rose bush needs air, water, and soil, not steel, plastic, and glass. The former are the values necessary for the rose bush's survival.

That survival -- the organism's life -- is its ultimate value (Binswanger, 1990; Merrill, 1991; Rand, 1964). All other values must be subordinate to and evaluated against this standard. That which furthers life according to its nature is the good, that which threatens it is the bad.

(It must be recognized that what is of value to one organism may not be of value to another. Grass is a value to a horse, yet that grass loses its ultimate value -- itself -- when the horse eats it. The same process occurs when a human eats -- or wears or uses -- plants and animals. There is nothing "immoral" or "unethical" involved in the way the human deals with that plant or animal [in terms of violating the "rights" of those things, i.e., from the animal or plant's perspective...which is not to say that torturing an animal to gain pleasure from that pain would not be immoral from a human perspective; an ethical person seeks values, not destruction, and would try to actly humanely within the context of obtaining the values his (human) life requires]. To speak of animal "rights" is a contradiction in terms. The concept of "rights" is an extension of individual ethical requirements into a social setting [Rand, 1964]. Since lower animals do not possess volition, the concept of ethics or morality does not apply to them. By extension, then, they also do not possess rights. Any discussion of ethics -- or any concept derived from them such as rights or government -- applies only to beings of volitional consciousness...and, to date, only human beings qualify.)

How do people discover the concept of "value"?

That which a person requires for survival is set by his identity as a human being (i.e., by reality) and is not open to choice. He can decide whether or not to discover it, to choose the right -- or wrong -- goals and values. He is free to make the wrong choices, but he is not free to succeed with them and to avoid the long-term consequences of his decisions. He can evade awareness of reality and its requirements for him; he can try to exist on a perceptual level, but he cannot escape for long the results of such self-imposed blindness. By the principle of "A is A," what a human is (that is, his identity, his nature) determines what he ought to do, what he should do (Adler, 1985; Machan, 1989, 1990; Peikoff, 1991; Rand, 1964).

If life is the basis for values, and if a person would sustain and/or expand that life, then the facts of his nature tell him what he should do. Normative judgments or guidelines (should, ought to do "X") are simply another species of fact (Machan, 1985; Merrill, 1991). They can, at times, be very subtle and complex facts, but they are facts, nonetheless, derivable from reality and thus objective and applicable to all humans since we all share the same fundamental identity (i.e., being rational animals with volitional, conceptual consciousnesses). By the Law of Identity, "is" implies "should." Normative, moral statements are the means to the ultimate end of continued life which forms the basis for all values. If we want to live, we need to eat proper foods, have some kind of shelter, and have water to drink. If we want to survive and grow to the fullest extent possible, we should use the rational faculty available to us and not subvert or evade it. If we want to establish a healthy, meaningful love relationship, we should first develop our self-esteem and learn to love ourselves.

But because a human being has a volitional consciousness, he is a member of the only species that has the power to act voluntarily as his own destroyer. This is why people need ethics, a guide for behavior. As derived from the three basic axioms, ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of survival as a human. If we seek after a fully human life and the values needed to sustain it, we must all follow an ethical code derived, not from the supernatural, society, or the desires of any individual, but from the nature of reality and life.

Choosing Life

A person has to choose to act as a human should; to hold his life as a value; to maintain his life; to discover what is required to reach that goal; and to carry out those actions. Only a code of values accepted by choice, that is, freely, by an act of volition, is a code of morality. Ethics, therefore, deals only with the values open to human choice, to one's free will (Rand, 1964).

A person's standard of value is his life, or that which is necessary for survival as a human being, as a fully functioning person. Accepting mere survival which does not tap into or seek to utilize the full extent of one's mental, emotional, and physical potentials (when circumstances permit) does not qualify as "ethical" behavior. Such action serves to diminish the scope of one's awareness and understanding, to limit one's options and abilities and thus to decrease the likelihood of one's survival over the long run (Merrill, 1991; Rand, 1964). For a human being, "good" is that which is proper to the life of a rational, that is, reasoning creature; the good is constructive or facilitating of that end. "Bad" (and in ethical situations, "evil") is that which opposes, negates, or destroys life and reason; it is destructive to or hinders the physical, emotional, and intellectual tools necessary to sustain and/or improve life (Smith, 1991). (Such considerations provide the metaphysical basis for the discussions later in this book on the value and importance of individualism, self-esteem, and maintaining an Integrative Perspective.)

Everything a person needs to survive in the physical and mental realms has to be discovered (or at least recognized and accepted) by his own mind and produced by his own effort. This process requires thinking, that is, conscious, conceptual awareness and understanding, not blank imitation and repetition; it requires production, not the use of force or fraud. Those who seek to avoid thinking and production are trying to exist on the perceptual level of animals who merely gather what already exists around them. Such people are attempting to violate the basic nature of what it means to be human.

Given the contextual nature of his knowledge and the requirements of his mind, a person cannot survive well or for long by acting only on the basis of the short term. Only by choosing long-term, lifetime goals, values, and courses of action which are consonant with his short-term needs and only by actively working to achieve them can he prosper (Rand, 1964). (See the nature of the Integrative Perspective described in Chapter 10 for an application of this principle.) A person must endeavor to apply reason throughout his life in every area of life open to his free will choices.

The standard of value (the principle) against which to judge one's actions in achieving one's goals is human life, but the ethical purpose of a particular life is each individual's own life (Rand, 1964). This means, that while all humans should, for example, utilize their rational faculties to the fullest extent possible, one person may decide to actualize that general human potential by becoming a physicist while another may decide to become an actor and someone else decide to work as a farmer. A moral physical principle might be that we should all engage in a certain level of physical activity in order to maintain the proper functioning of our lungs, heart, etc. One person may decide to follow this general human value by playing tennis. Another may prefer to swim or jog. Someone bound to a wheelchair might decide to join a wheelchair basketball team. The specific context of each person's life will influence how to implement (but will not determine) general ethical principles.

Even given the desire and actions to achieve such human values, different levels of "living" can be discerned (Merrill, 1991). A person may know, for example, that she should run for thirty minutes, three times a week but decide to do so only once or twice weekly because she is pretends she is "too busy" to fit the rest into her schedule. While this evasion of knowledge has the potential to be destructive or diminishing to her capacity for a fully human life, she is still "living" more fully and more rationally than, say, a couch potato who exercises not at all or who believes that exercise is "bad" for you. As mentioned earlier, fulfilling the requirements of a conceptual level of existence requires effort -- self-initiated and self-maintained effort -- and this can be difficult. Not too surprisingly, many people shy away from such an unremitting demand and commitment (Machan, 1989).

But given the absolute nature of reality in general and of human identity in particular, such people cannot escape or eternally avoid the negative consequences of such inaction. Overeating, smoking, and not exercising may not kill you right away, but the wise bet would be that in the long run, they will. So too, seeking to subvert rationality or avoiding the exercise and expansion of one's intellectual or emotional abilities may not kill you or even make you unhappy right away, but eventually such destructive tendencies will result in depression, diminished self-esteem, and a lessened ability to cope with the demands of reality (Branden, 1971, 1983). Just as one would not expect one's body (which has certain requirements arising from its identity) to function properly when fed a diet of poison, so too one's mind is not infinitely malleable to a constant diet of contradictory thoughts and values, a continual failure to pursue rationality and awareness.

I spoke of values as those things which one acts to gain and/or keep. Concurrent with them are virtues, the actions by which one gains and/or keeps those values.

Values and Virtues

The three basic values are reason, purpose, and self-esteem (roughly analogous to the realms of the intellectual, physical, and emotional). Their attendant virtues are rationality, productiveness, and pride (Peikoff, 1991; Rand, 1964).

One practices rationality by recognizing and accepting that the only way to gain knowledge, judge values, or decide on proper courses of action is to follow the principles of reason. One must place nothing above one's perception of reality: not faith (which is a supposed short-cut to knowledge by some non-sensory, non-rational means...which usually translates into revelation from some "other" reality) or reliance on authority. Everything one accepts as knowledge must be validated by a process of thought, and, even more -- since volition is a hallmark of humanity -- one must accept responsibility for the judgments which one does make as a result of that thinking. To do otherwise is to subvert and distort the very tool -- one's mind -- needed to deal with reality...and the consequences of losing confidence in the ability of one's mind to handle the demands of the world can be devastating (Branden, 1969). (See the discussion on self-esteem in Chapter 6 for a more complete handling of this issue.)

The virtues of independence -- accepting the responsibility which each of us has for ourselves and the actions we take (a responsibility which exists whether we choose to acknowledge it or not); honesty -- never intentionally trying to misrepresent some aspect of reality, either within ourselves or in the world around us; integrity -- never sacrificing, surrendering, or abandoning our convictions to the opinions or desires of others when reason tells us that they are wrong; and justice -- never seeking for or giving values to those who neither earned nor deserved them (including ourselves!), whether the values are material ones, such as money, or nonmaterial ones, such as love or respect; all of these virtures are essential elements in practicing the value of rationality. (As will be seen in Chapter 11, these are also important qualities of a healthy love relationship.)

A rational person does not try to achieve goals without consideration of the means required, that is, "wishing on a star"; a desire which is an expression of the primacy of consciousness, that "somehow" we can alter reality merely by wanting it badly enough, and which is, in turn, a denial of the absolutism of reality and the Law of Identity (Rand, 1982). (This subjectivist fallacy also applies to such acts as prayer.) A rational individual also does not initiate a cause without accepting responsibility for its effects (whether all of those effects were anticipated or not). Such a person must know his own purposes (what he wants to achieve; i.e., is the goal life-affirming [e.g., to further one's education] or life-diminishing [e.g., to humiliate his girlfriend]) and motives (why he wants to achieve them, i.e., is he acting from constructive, rational desires [e.g., to better understand himself and the world] or destructive, irrational ones [e.g., for reasons of jealousy]). He must not make decisions out of context from the rest of his knowledge (context-dropping) (Rand, 1964) (i.e., evading knowledge he has or which is available to him [e.g., ignoring the fact that he's cheated on his girlfriend a number of times]). A rational person never tries to maintain contradictions and rejects any type of mysticism, that is, a claim to knowledge allegedly attained by some supernatural, undefinable means without the use of human senses or reason. A rational person knows that any such course of action is ultimately self-defeating.

Using reason, a person determines a purpose which he then achieves by practicing the virtue of productiveness (Rand, 1957, 1964). Productive work is the way a person maintains his life by using his mind; it is a link between the abstract and the concrete or between the intellectual and the physical. Human beings adjust the environment to themselves, not themselves to the environment, as animals do. A rational person must pursue a productive career on whatever level of ability he possesses, whether that means as a CEO or a beautician. Simply going through the motions of some job which fails to challenge him or to utilize all of his talents is a failure to act fully human, is to act in a way which will eventually diminish his capacity to deal with reality and to succeed. A rational individual must act to some purpose, some goal, and not merely drift from point to point with no idea of an end towards which to direct his energies.

From successful production arises the human value of self-esteem (the belief that one is able to use one's mind to cope successfully with reality and that one has earned and deserves to enjoy the results of that productivity; see Chapter 6) (Branden, 1969; Rand, 1964). One achieves this value by accepting and practicing the virtue of pride, that is, having the character values which make one's life worth living. Just as people must earn material wealth on their own, so, too, must they earn the kind of character in keeping with the requirements of human life. Pride means coming to hold oneself as one's highest value through one's own efforts in using one's mind to deal with the world in a consistently ethical manner. Again, one must never knowingly accept the irrational; must consistently practice one's rational virtues; and must never accept guilt one does not deserve; or, if one should do something deserving of guilt, one must admit and correct the errors in one's thoughts or actions and try to rectify (if possible) the results of any such irrational behavior.

The person with healthy self-esteem and a properly understood sense of pride rejects the concept of self-sacrifice, and thus rejects the essence of any altruistic morality. A person must live for his own sake, never knowingly sacrificing himself to other people or sacrificing anyone else to himself. By sacrifice, I mean giving up a greater value for something which one values less or for something which one does not value at all (Rand, 1957, 1964). This is the opposite of the concept of "cost"; the achievement of any value requires the expenditure of some energy, time, or resource, i.e., it has an attendant cost or price. (TANSTAAFL: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody somewhere pays for it.) A sacrifice is always a loss, i.e., diminishing to one's self and therefore to one's life; that is, it is always destructive to one's values, and, therefore, always unethical. A course of action in which one continually operates at a deficit can have no other outcome. (For a fuller discussion, see the end of this chapter.)

Achievement of his own happiness is a person's highest moral purpose, that is, the goal which he seeks to achieve (the way in which he experiences a life lived properly). But happiness is not the standard (i.e., principle or guideline) by which he chooses his actions. Again, that standard is the life proper to a human being. It is by practicing rationality and the other virtues that one may best hope to achieve an integrated happiness, one which does not contradict any of the requirements of life. A junky may feel "happy" when taking heroin and may even take heroin in order to feel "happy" (the [erroneous] principle of hedonism: If it feels good, do it.). Objectively, however, i.e., according to the true nature of what it means to be human, he can sustain that emotion in the short term only by evading knowledge of what the drugs are doing to him. In the long run, the psychological and physical contradictions will destroy the very thing he hopes to achieve. i.e., happiness.

The emotions that a person experiences -- from joy to suffering -- are automatic results of his value judgments as integrated by his subconscious. Since people are born tabula rasa, they possess no innate, automatic knowledge, judgments, or ideas. While a person has no choice about having the capacity to feel that something is good or bad for himself, he does have a choice in what he considers good or bad since he can select what standard of value will guide his judgments (Rand, 1964). There are not, per se, rational or irrational emotions; they are not irreducible primaries (though they can seem so due to their automatic nature). There are, however, rational or irrational thought processes which lead to particular value judgments which, in turn, lead to particular emotional responses (which can be appropriate or inappropriate in regard to the particular stimulus eliciting them) (Branden, 1983). Whether one's emotions are appropriate or not, they arise from what the individual finds precious. (For a more complete explication of the nature of emotions, see Chapter 9.)

Happiness, therefore, results from obtaining one's values in a rational context. A rational happiness does not conflict with one's values or act to one's own destruction. (See Chapter 11 for the implications of this for relational development and maintenance.)

Since emotions result from a process of cognition but are not, themselves, a tool of (rational) thought, they must not be used as primary guides to action. If a person has sought and integrated only rational values, he can trust his emotions as a quick reference as to what course of action to follow (Rand, 1982). Yet while one should pay attention to one's emotions for the information they can provide about one's internal state and one's relationship to one's physical and social environment, emotional responses must ultimately be validated by a process of reason (Branden, 1969).

An Ethical Society

Rejecting the idea that any good can come of sacrifice (which can, in the end, achieve only a diminution of life), Objectivist ethics holds that the principle of trade is the only ethical way in which to conduct human relationships of any kind. Dealing with one another as traders means to give value for value (remembering here that "values" are not limited to physical substances and need not be exchanged simultaneously). This is equivalent to the idea of justice. Only voluntary and uncoercive interactions which each side decides is of personal benefit are allowed. Since a trader deals only with values, he acknowledges and admires achievements, not faults; admires the virtues, not the weaknesses, of those with whom he interacts (Rand, 1957, 1964).

(As will be seen in Chapter 11, even [or especially?] in the realm of love, this principle is essential if one seeks to establish and develop a healthy, life-affirming and -expanding relationship. Though some people define the essence of love as selflessness and sacrifice, love is a value with objective requirements; indeed, it is one of the greatest values that a person can desire or earn. One must have self-esteem arising from one's own values in order to love. As the virtue of pride indicates, a person must value himself before he can value others. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead: "To say 'I love you' one must know first how to say the 'I'." Love must be selfish, i.e., be concerned with one's self-interest, otherwise the best person in your life and the worst must be considered of equal value -- which for a "selfless" person must be zero value. Since one's values must be judged in accordance with the life proper to a rational person as actualized in one's own self [one's own life], without a self [as demanded by the advocates of "selfless" love], one is left...nowhere. As noted before, contradictions do not exist in reality...and a "selfless" love is precisely a contradiction.)

In an ethical social existence, knowledge and trade come from voluntary interactions which result in a division of physical and cognitive labor which is of value to every individual. Only an individualistic person can properly benefit from or appreciate the values to be had from such a social relationship (Merrill, 1991). Only he realizes that the natural relationship between people is not some kind of Hobbesian "dog eat dog" existence or Nietzschean master-slave zero-sum travesty but rather one based on voluntary, value-for-value exchanges in both the material and non-material realms. People are naturally social animals...but in order to profit from this fact, their social institutions must be based upon an objective understanding of the nature and requirements of human beings including the kind of objective ethics presented in this chapter. (For further discussion, see Chapter 7 on individualism.)

Since a rational person seeks only the earned and accepts responsibility for his self, he believes that he (and he alone) deserves to decide how to dispense the benefits accruing from his correct choices/actions and he (and he alone) must suffer the negative consequences of incorrect or irrational actions. It would be unjust if people he has not chosen to help should spend his wealth; likewise, it would be unjust for others to have to involuntarily cushion the blows of his mistakes. Only a social setting in which one is free to act according to the independent judgment of one's mind (with the proviso that one's actions not interfere with the right of others to that same freedom) could be characterized as a society based on the principle of justice.

To achieve this "Just State," the political principle must be that no one may initiate the use of physical force or coercion (directly or indirectly) or its adjuncts (such as fraud) against others. Force must be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate it...and only according to objective laws based upon an objective ethics. One must not obtain values from others by the use of force or coercion since that very act contradicts the requirements of human cognition and human life.

As alluded to earlier, a political "right" is a right to an action, not to a thing itself, e.g., one has a right to pursue purchase of a house and to keep one which one has earned, but one does not have a "right" to housing to be provided involuntarily by others. Such a "right" violates a number of ethical principles and is thus invalid. A right must be objectively determined and must be consonant with the objective ethical standard upon which it is based; a right is the implementation of an ethical principle in a social setting (Machan, 1989; Rand, 1964). While people would need ethics (a guide to behavioral choices) even when alone on a desert island, rights are necessary only when there are other people with whom one interacts.

To protect a person's rights; to protect him from physical force; to protect his life, his liberty, his property, and the pursuit of his own happiness, moral governments are established. Acting according to objective laws and principles which subordinate government to the citizens whom they serve as agents, a just government is given the exclusive right to the means of the retaliatory use of force. The creation and use of armies, police, and courts to protect its citizens' rights is the only valid role of government in human society. (Even then, the right to retaliatory force is only delegated, not surrendered or abandoned. One still retains the right to defend oneself.) Any governmental trespass beyond this line is immoral. Government's prime purpose is to protect property rights, since without these rights, there are no others (Rand, 1964, 1966).

Property rights concern the right of the individual to keep the production of his own efforts. This is in keeping with a person's need to engage in self-initiated, self-maintained action in order to continue his life. Property rights are the implementation of one's right to one's own life. (Since we are not ghosts, we need such physical things as food, clothing, and shelter for even the most minimal of existences, let alone a fully human one.) If a person cannot keep the production of his own efforts, he is a slave. By preventing him from actualizing his choices and dealing independently with the results of such actions, an immoral government prevents him from properly using his volitional consciousness. Only by controlling the means for his own continued survival, his own life, can a person hold to his basic nature. "A is A." Anything that interferes with this right and to whatever and any extent that it does so, is destructive and immoral (Rand, 1964).

The only political system that recognizes this most basic right of humanity is laissez-faire capitalism established within the context of a limited, constitutional government, and as such, it is the only objectively moral political-economic social system. Such a system results in the separation of the State and economics so that the State may not interfere in noncoercive and nonfraudulent production or trade. For it to do otherwise would be to violate the requirements of the human mind and human ethics.

The opposite of such a just system is collectivism in whatever guise: socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, or the modern welfare state.

But the detailing of the conflict between these two visions of what it means to be human and to exist as a social animal must await another time. While relevant to such issues as censorship, mass communication, persuasion, and other issues in psychology, sociology, politics, and economics, the focus of this book is centered upon a smaller stage: the individual in dyadic and small groups. And it is to the relationship between the individual, causality, and communication that I turn in the next chapter.


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