"Loving Life:" Biddle Presents Guidebook to Objectivist Ethics
by Ari Armstrong, December 10, 2005
This is the book I wish I'd read when I was 16. If I had fully absorbed its lessons then, I would have achieved more and saved myself a lot of hassle, grief, and guilt (both earned and unearned). Of course, reading a book is no substitute for actively pursuing values and building moral character, but this particular book will encourage any active reader to think harder about a number of moral truths. Even mature readers with a deep well of practical experience, personal reflection, and theoretical knowledge will find Craig Biddle's Loving Life to be invaluable in thinking about the foundations and practical aspects of morality.
If you read this book, work hard to understand its ideas, and put those ideas into practice in your own life, you will come to lead a happier, more fulfilling life. Quite simply, Biddle's book is the best primer on ethics I've seen, and it is an excellent introduction to Ayn Rand's Objectivist ethics. The ethics is based on one central idea. "A person's life is his ultimate value. Man's life is the standard of moral value" (47). (Numbers in parentheses indicate page numbers.)
The main text is a concise and accessible 138 pages, yet it covers all the basics. Of course, any number of topics could become the subject of more specialized books, but Biddle nicely explains the essentials of the theory and fleshes them out with good examples to fulfill the purpose of the book.
The first three chapters are more theoretical and thus probably over the heads of the young. Members of families with teenagers might want to read and discuss the book together. And parents can pick up on some ways to convey the book's ideas implicitly through their actions. While discussing good parenting as an example of purposefulness, Biddle suggests some ways to teach ethical behavior: "Consider a mother who embraces the responsibility of properly raising her children... She sets a good example for her children, teaches them the importance and joys of choosing and pursuing rational goals, encourages them to ask questions, and talks with them regularly about their thoughts and feelings. In doing so, she fosters their spiritual growth and helps them to become independent, self-confident, life-loving adults (66). (Biddle has made clear that he uses the term "spiritual" in relation to this-worldly consciousness.)
Biddle offers numerous examples and real-life scenarios to illustrate and make more real his theoretical material. Thus, it's impossible to read his book as if it were "just theory." Biddle makes sure you know what actions particular principles such as honesty require in real life. No book can prevent a reader from rationalizing bad behavior, but this book at least strongly discourages that failing.
Biddle's book is subtitled, "The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support it." The usual criticism of such an approach is that, if people are "self-interested," they will just seek to take advantage of others. Where's the morality in that? Biddle does an excellent job discussing and dismissing the various forms of moral subjectivism. And Biddle's book shines in demonstrating, through real-life scenarios, why genuine self-interest requires consistent morality. Biddle convincingly argues that a subjectivist who avoids principled action suffers severe spiritual and psychological harm. For example, Biddle describes the results of petty thievery:
In just a few months, [a thief] has stolen thousands of dollars... But for some reason, he still feels empty. His friends lie and try to steal from him; surprisingly [to him], they, too, are crooks. He can't seem to keep the attention of any quality women; they all want to talk about career goals, achievements, and ambitions. The party scene has gotten old; there is really nothing to celebrate. (27)
What if the petty thief decides to pull off a bigger heist? Obviously, he risks arrest, long-term imprisonment, and even death. But what if he "gets away with it" and moves to an island? Biddle continues:
What will he do on the island? Go scuba diving? Watch TV? Get drunk? "Hang out" with other criminals? Pretend that he is a man of virtue in order to associate with good people to whom he has lied? Who will be his lover? Will she be intelligent, passionate, and have good character? Or will she be ignorant, boring, and likely to steal his stolen money? ... How will he face each day? Will he be fearless and eager to meet his next challenge? Or will he be timid and terrified that the law might catch up with him? (28)
Biddle applies similar reasoning to lying and other vices. A person who tries to escape a rational morality ends up losing real values, splintering his psychological state, and self-inflicting deep anxieties. These are the passages I most wish I'd read and fully taken to heart when I was 16, and the passages perhaps most helpful for the instruction of younger people.
By the way, Tara Smith offers a similar, and similarly useful, discussion in her book Viable Values (167-74). And in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff discusses the harm a hypothetical swindler inflicts upon himself (270-2).
Another strength of Biddle's book is his clear explanation of the relationship between reason and emotions (57-62). The basic idea is that our emotions are fundamentally dependent on the ideas we hold. If our ideas defy reality, we will tend to fail in our pursuits and suffer negative and conflicting emotions. If our ideas reflect reality, we will tend to be efficacious in action and experience healthy emotions. Biddle's examples illustrating this point are well worth perusing (though I won't recount them here). Of course, our ideas can be implicit or explicit, conflicting or consistent, honestly mistaken or dishonest or correct, and so the interaction between our emotions and our ideas can be complicated. Biddle acknowledges that the "spiritual work" of improving our ideas and fostering healthy emotions "can be difficult and time consuming" (59). I wonder if this point might have merited some additional discussion, as some readers might not grasp just how difficult the process can be. Biddle points to the broad issues involved, but readers with significant "spiritual work" ahead of them may need to seek more specific guidance elsewhere.
Biddle also states other formulations with particular clarity: the idea that religion is a form of subjectivism; the relationships among rationality, productivity, and self-esteem; and the essential meaning of the virtues. Also, the appendix, which deals with emergency situations, explains why one can properly consider the ethics of emergencies only after discovering the ethical principles of normal life (135), and it presents the helpful concept of a "moral impasse" (137).
I have a minor criticism. Biddle offers an excellent description and defense of the virtue of honesty (76-85), but there is a potentially confusing passage:
Nor is it dishonest to lie to a person who is unjustly prying into one's private life. If the snoop has no morally legitimate reason to be asking certain questions, one is morally entitled to answer as necessary to thwart his unwarranted inquiry. (84)
Biddle is quite correct that lying to a thief is fine. And "[l]ying to a friend in order to lure him to his surprise party is not a breach of morality..." (84) However, if the snoop is merely a gossip, then one should not lie; one should tell the gossip to mind his own damned business. If, however, the snoop is trying to get information for ill-gotten gains, then the snoop is really a type of thief.
The chapter on politics clearly relates the human need of rationality to the need of individual rights in a social setting. The main idea is that the initiation of force is wrong because it prevents us "from acting on our judgment" (103) and thus diminishes our ability to advance our lives. What are a few of the details?
Recently I asked for a more complete description of the potentially self-interested nature of voluntarily providing charity to the truly disabled. Biddle fills in the details (126-7). Part of the idea is that helping the disabled can create a better social environment and show a basic respect for human life. I think there might also be something to the idea that we self-interestedly contribute to charity for the truly disabled because there is a slight risk that we might suffer some great tragedy, and we want such a system of charity in place in the unlikely event that we need to access it.
Biddle briefly mentions taxation (128), which he argues is improper, and he offered more detail in his recent talk.
Some of the derivative issues of politics lie outside the scope of Biddle's book. Is it appropriate for the government to require witnesses to crimes or civil disputes to testify in court? How should juries be provided? When is it appropriate for the police to stop or search a person for cause, even in cases when, as the police eventually discover, the person is innocent? When is it appropriate for the government to forcibly restrict trade with a region controlled by a tyrannical government? Biddle discusses the idea that all property should be privately owned (120-1), but is there room for land purchased through voluntary contributions and used only to provide quarters for the police, the courts, and the military? But such questions are best answered in a dedicated work on political philosophy.
Biddle's book is a concise yet rich introduction to Objectivist ethics. Page for page, it's the most helpful book devoted to the subject that I've read. Biddle regularly formulates principles I thought I already knew in a new and sometimes startlingly clarifying way. Biddle discusses some very sophisticated ideas, yet never do they seem dry or merely "academic," for they are means, as Biddle writes, of loving life.