The (Five) Objectivist Ethics
by Ari Armstrong
Ayn Rand wrote "THE Objectivist Ethics" in 1961. This essay has spawned five distinct ethical theories; the "survivalist/flourisher debate" no longer is adequate to describe the range in ethical theories purported to be Objectivist in origin.
These five theories, while distinct, overlap considerably; members of all five camps share many similarities in their ethical views. All are egoists in important respects, all value pride, productivity, honesty, and so forth, and all would have us respect the (libertarian) property rights of others.
Why, then, the seeming hair-splitting over technical points to divide Objectivists into disparate ethical groupings? Isn't it adequate simply to say that all of us are "Objectivists," and leave it at that?
While often it is helpful to focus on the similarities between the various camps, say, when presenting Objectivism to newcomers, at other times exploring the differences between theorists is appropriate and beneficial.
Contradictions between theories suggest that at least all of the theories but one are false. For a simplistic example, if one child reports that two plus two equals four, while another claims that two plus two equals five, then at least we would expect to be able to convince the two children that one of them is incorrect. Then we could proceed to explain why one statement is true and the other false. If, in exploring the various interpretations of Objectivist ethics, two or more of these theories are found to conflict, then we have a pretty good idea that at least one of the theories is false.
Of course, it is not always possible, when dealing with complex issues such as ethics, to immediately tell the difference between a true contradiction and a mere paradox. It is possible that the various theorists are all merely the blind men grasping different parts of the elephant. However, I do not think so, in this case. I shall argue that the five theories are indeed contradictory with each other, and that therefore at most one can be correct. (The reader will know which theory I favor upon reaching that section.)
Achieving a wholly true ethical theory is imperative for the very success of Objectivism. In general, it is much easier to convince rational people to accept a true theory, rather than a false one. Even if we present a mostly true theory with a few wrong points, it will be much more difficult for us to "sell" the theory.
We also need a wholly true theory to help us guide our lives. While all the various Objectivist theories are generally pro-life and will yield the same ethical prescriptions for most scenarios, in some cases there will be a difference depending on which variant of the Objectivist ethics one accepts. This can have meaningful implications for one's life; if one has adopted a partly wrong theory, then one will make less than optimal decisions sometimes.
The five different Objectivist ethical theories, as I've divided them, are as follows:
1. Life-Happiness Correspondence - pursuing life necessarily renders the attainment of happiness.
2. Survivalism - life is the "standard." All other values, including happiness, must be instrumental to life.
3. Life-Happiness Duality - both life and happiness are seen to be independent sources of value.
4. The Happiness Ethic - happiness is the "standard," and all other values, including life, must be instrumental to happiness.
5. Man-Qua-Man Deontology - life as constrained by deontological rules is the standard.
The two central concepts of the first four Objectivist ethics (as I've listed them) are "life" and "happiness." The distinctions between the various ethics lie mainly in how they relate these two phenomenon.
In "The Objectivist Ethics," Ayn Rand puts forth what I'll call "life-happiness correspondence," in which the pursuit of "life" is seen to necessarily correspond with the achievement of "happiness." I will briefly reconstruct Rand's theory to make clear what is my interpretation of that theory and to provide a basis of comparison for the other four theories.
Rand begins at the beginning by defining "value" to be "that which one acts to gain and/or keep" (Rand 15).
Then Rand argues that life is a prerequisite of value, a necessary condition for value to exist. This fundamentality of life lies on two planes, the metaphysical and the epistemological. On the metaphysical level, "where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.... It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death" (ibid.). On the epistemological level, "it is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible" (Rand 15-16).
So far so uncontroversial. Rand's next step is to define life as the "standard" of value:
Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate *value* which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism's *life*. (Rand 16-17)
It serves us poorly to interpret "standard" in ways unintended by Rand. Rand pretty clearly equates "standard" with "ultimate goal or end:" "An *ultimate* value is that final goal or end by which all lesser goals are *evaluated*. An organism's life is its *standard* of value..." (Rand 17)
Note here the distinction between Rand's argument that life is a necessary condition for value, and her argument that life is the "standard," or final goal or end, of value. The two arguments do not mean the same thing, and they are not necessarily related. Neither theory depends upon the other; each can independently succeed or fail.
Rand's next step, one not appreciated by many commentators, indeed, one not fully appreciated by me until recently, builds the concept of "life" as it pertains to human beings. One cannot understand Rand's ethics without understanding her "rich" definition of life. As Ronald Merrill puts it, "Life," for Rand, "is *not* merely the absence of death" (Merrill 111).
Rand describes four levels of survival. The first is the unconscious survival of plants. "A plant has no choice of action; the goals it pursues are automatic and innate..." (Rand 18). "Conscious" survival spans three different levels: that of sensation, that of perception, and that of "Man" (Rand 18-19). Organisms operating on the sensual or perceptual levels of consciousness have an "*automatic* code of values" (Rand 19). The human level of consciousness brings with it at least two unique qualities: the ability to reason and think conceptually, and the ability to make choices and act volitionally (Rand 20). Hence, "man has no automatic code of survival" (Rand 19). So, when Rand speaks of "life" in the human context, she means life with reason and volition.
Rand describes life as a reasonable, volitional organism as "man's survival *qua* man" (Rand 23). A reasonable, volitional creature must think long-term, must plan out a full life (Rand 24).
"Man's survival *qua* man" means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan - in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice. (Rand 24)
It is a mistake to think that either Rand or the "Survivalists" such as David Kelley hold an "anemic" view of life. Life in the human sense entails reason and volition. As Merrill puts it, "there is no real distinction between the 'simple biological survival' of a human being and the 'life of man *qua* man'" (Merrill 110).
Merrill makes a further interesting point which I believe is wholly consistent with Rand's essay. He argues that reason and volition are both *means* to life, and part of the *end* of life. "Every action taken to sustain life is simultaneously a means (because it supports life) and an end (because life is by definition simply the collective of such actions)" (Merrill 104). I.e., we use reason and volition to sustain a life capable of reason and volition.
When we pay attention to the "rich" view of life that Rand is positing, her "indestructible robot" example loses its ambiguity. Some have argued that the fact that humans can die somehow imports meaningful theoretical considerations to the Objectivist ethics. J. Charles King with his essay "Life and the Theory of Value" argues that Rand's robot example fails:
The robot example is ambiguous in just the following way. If we take the Den Uyl - Rasmussen interpretation, the crucial point is that the robot cannot be destroyed. If we take Rand's words literally, however, perhaps we are to think that the robot is not affected in *any way whatsoever*.... But, of course, if the robot neither knows nor cares [about anything], the example seems uninteresting.... The mere removal of the possibility of destruction [for people] would not remove a whole range of the interests or desires of ordinary human life. (Den Uyl and Rasmussen '84,109)
However, life is not merely the absence of death. Even if the robot were immortal, still it's "life" *qua* rational being could exist or pass out of existence. Thus, Rand with perfect coherence (if not perfect clarity) quite purposely places *two* conditions on the robot: it must be indestructible, and it "cannot be affected by anything" (Rand 16). With Rand's conception of life, even if the robot were immortal, still it could live by the Objectivist ethics if it's "life" (*qua* rational being) could be "affected."
Another natural extension of Rand's ethics is that life as the standard of ethics entails a *maximization* of life. David Kelley has described a view of "flourishing" compatible with his beliefs to mean "living far away from death," or living with full vigor, such that it would take a great deal of damage or loss to die. "'Life' is more than a binary or 'on-off' attribute," as Merrill puts it (111); there are degrees of being alive. This view entails the point that Merrill, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, and others have picked up, that *every* action carries moral weight. An act not taken to further life is a waste and a deviance from the morality of maximizing life.
Let's regroup. Rand holds life as the standard, or end goal, of value, for human beings, who are by nature potentially volitional and reasonable. Where, then, lies "happiness?" In her words:
To live for his own sake means that *the achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose*.
In psychological terms, the issue of man's survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of "life or death," but as an issue of "happiness or suffering"....
The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one's own life as one's ultimate value, and one's own happiness as one's highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one's life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness....
But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting "man's life" as one's primary and by pursuing the rational values it requires that one can achieve happiness.... (Rand 27-29)
For Rand, then, when we pursue life, we achieve happiness. It is this (postulated) necessary correspondence between pursuing life and achieving happiness that permits Rand do talk of a "standard" of ethics and a distinct "purpose" of ethics. The "standard" defines that which we pursue - "life" - while the "purpose" defines that which we achieve - "happiness."
Note Rand's successive uses of "purpose." Within three pages, she first defines "purpose" as one's "own life," as opposed to the "abstract principle" of the "standard." Second, she claims that "productive work is the central *purpose* of a rational man's life" (Rand 25). Finally, she says "that the *achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose*" (Rand 27). Is Rand merely equivocating on the use of the term "purpose," or does she have some reason for using the same term in three ways? "Happiness is the state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values," says Rand. "If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life" (Rand 28). I.e., happiness is the automatic result of pursuing those values *which* promote life.
Rand's theory does not permit room for any conflict between happiness and life. If you pursue life, you'll be happy. If you don't, you won't be. Formally, the theory may be stated, "If, and only if, one pursues the ethical standard of life, will one achieve happiness."
Happiness, for Rand, can be no more than the "purpose" of ethics, for, if taken as the "standard," it would lead to "hedonism" and ethical subjectivism (Rand 29-30).
Survivalists (Will Thomas, Eyal Mozes, David Kelley) accept Rand's theories of life as the standard of value. However, they do not accept (by implicit denial) her view that the pursuit of life *necessarily* yields the achievement of happiness. In this sense, then, the survivalists stray from Rand's original position to form a second, distinct theory.
Let us return to the formalized statement of Rand's "correspondence" view: "If, and only if, one pursues the ethical standard of life, will one achieve happiness."
This statement can be broken into two separate views: "If one pursues life, then one will achieve happiness," and, "If one achieves happiness, then it is because one pursues life." Survivalists (and the other ethical variants) reject both of these statements, at least as necessary conditions.
"If one pursues life, then one will achieve happiness," does not always ring true for humans of volition and rationality (the qualities which for Rand constitute "human life"). When we talk about pursuing life after a devastating tragedy, or during a painful disease, then we can think of examples in which, sometimes, pursuing life might not automatically yield happiness.
Similarly, the statement, "If one achieves happiness, then it is because one pursues life," is difficult to support given Rand's framework. When we eat vanilla ice-cream, the indulgence can be said to yield some small happiness, yet it can hardly be said to be good for the life of a "volitional, reasonable human" (and is indeed demonstrably bad for the human).
(Rand's theory that life is also necessarily the "standard" or end goal of the pleasure-pain mechanism - Rand 17 - is also false. Consider, for instance, the pain that a necessary surgery brings.)
How, then, do Survivalists deal with this problem? They stuff happiness into two different parts of the ethical theory. First, they sometimes seem to add an additional quality to "man *qua* man" (besides volition and reason), which is, simply, happiness. That is, to really be alive, means to have some happiness.
Second, Survivalists claim that happiness is itself a means to life (even discounting the happiness-injected life). That is, if we are happy, then we are more likely to act reasonably and pursue life-sustaining values. If happiness is a means to life, then it can "bleed" into the end of life (man *qua* man) in a way similar to how rationality and volition become part of the ethical end as Merrill describes.
This theory is coherent, but it tends to stretch justifications for common activities to uncomfortable lengths. How can it be that eating ice-cream contributes to one's happiness in such a way as to benefit life? Perhaps it does, but it certainly takes some peculiar explaining. Even more troublesome for Survivalists is trying to justify suicide in extreme cases, as Rand permits in her fiction.
The Survivalist position joins Rand's original position (of her essay) in relying on a justification of life as the "standard of value." If such a justification can be sustained, then Survivalism can easily take the place of Rand's "correspondence" view as a minor extension or correction of that view. It does strike me that all contemporary Objectivists will want to move beyond the ethics of Rand's essay at least to Survivalism. The other theories represent a more radical departure from Rand's position.
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I might say a few words here about a tension I and others see between Rand's formal essay on ethics and her treatment of ethics in her fiction. While formally Rand argues that the pursuit of life naturally brings with it the achievement of happiness, in her fiction we see Rand's characters pursuing happiness seemingly for its own sake.
Rand could be interpreted, in her fiction, to take a Survivalist turn. That is, she sees happiness as a means to life. The romance between Dagny and Rearden could easily be explained in such light. As Merrill notes, Rand's "Sheriff of Durance says that he will not pass judgment on the man who kills himself because of unbearable suffering" (110). This can be taken to mean that, absent the possibility of happiness, one literally cannot act in pursuit of life.
In my view, the "VOS-Rand" simply was unable to fully formalize the ethics implicit in the fiction of the "Atlas-Rand."
Actually I subsume three distinct theories under this heading. However, each of the three theories is similar enough to warrant placement in a single category. The common thread among the ethics is a dual foundation of value: life and happiness are seen to be independently valuable (hence the "duality"). Note the logical progression: for Rand in her essay the pursuit of life is primary and happiness is a coincidental result of that pursuit. The Survivalists place a greater emphasis on happiness, making it a means to the pursuit of life and something worthy of pursuit (if only in an instrumental sense). The dualists go farther in holding that happiness is of value in itself, whether or not it assists the pursuit of life.
The first of the three sub-divisions I'll call "life-constrained happiness." That is, we need to make sure we sustain a certain level of life, but, once that point is reached, we may properly pursue happiness with our "excess" energies. No longer is the support of life seen as a full-time job; on the side, we can pursue happiness even if it does not contribute to life.
A good version of this view comes from David B. King:
A standard is the basis upon which rests or which makes possible the existence of a purpose. The two things, while related, are not identical and should not be confused with one another. Consider a house. Its standard is the foundation which it is built upon. Its purpose is the function of providing shelter for people. You can see that it could not fulfill its purpose without having its standard; but observe also that its standard is not the reason for its existence. Now consider a man. His standard is his life - the life which is manifested in his biological mechanism.
With his "foundation/house" analogy, King seems to be suggesting that life is the "foundation" upon which the "house" of happiness is built. Thus, happiness extends beyond life, even though it is made possible by life.
The trouble with this sort of theory is that it seems to be a rather arbitrary way of dealing with the theoretical problems. How much life must one maintain while one pursues happiness beyond it? In positing two distinct "ends," the "life-constrained happiness" ethic seems doomed in its duality, unable ever to explain when one value (life or happiness) "trumps" the other.
The main problem with such a theory is that it must independently justify two distinct sources of value (life and happiness). I have not seen any attempt at such a justification. This theory, then, must be seen as an "ad hoc" attempt to resolve the tensions of the Survivalist position in regards to explaining our preoccupation with happiness. That is, the Survivalists seem not to be able to justify a great many of our activities that we are nonetheless not eager to give up, and so the dualists have attempted to come to the rescue of happiness by imbuing it with its own value.
The opposite side of the dualist coin is "happiness-constrained life." In this variant of the theory, we should spend all of our energies in the pursuit of life, so long as we have attained a particular, minimal level of happiness. If our happiness ever dips below this minimal level, we may properly diminish our life if that enables us to restore our happiness. I don't have a quote from someone who holds this belief, but I seem to recall some people on e-mail discussions offering arguments to such effect. A typical example is suicide for the terminally ill: someone in severe pain, someone whose happiness has "dipped below" the minimal requirement, may legitimately take his or her own life to end the suffering.
The final variant of the dualist view is the position of Doug Clements. I do not have a published source for this view, as Clements told me of the idea at the 1998 IOS summer conference. However, I shall endeavor to present it accurately. The theory is best considered graphically: on one axis is life, in years, while on the other axis is happiness. The idea is to maximize the area bound by the curve. Thus, it's acceptable to trade some longevity for a large dose of happiness at a given time (and vice versa).
For a while, it seemed to me (and apparently to Eric Mack as well, who also heard the theory) that Clements's view is just another way to advocate maximal happiness; over the span of one's life, the point is to get as much happiness as possible. And this is a possible interpretation of the theory. However, after some consideration, I came to see the view as dualist after all which sees life as an independent value. For a pure happiness view, the happiness is important *to the actor*. But one's future happiness is not *automatically* of value to the actor, apart from the way in which the potentiality of future happiness impacts one's immediate happiness. Clements view, thought, seems to require us to calculate the "happiness curve" from a perspective outside our present happiness, and to accept a low level of happiness now in order to maximize the area of the curve for the span of life. In this sense, both life and happiness take on value independently.
Both "happiness-constrained life" and the Clements Theory fall into the same problems as "life-constrained happiness;" they fail to justify their independent values and they get lost in the contradictions of all ethical dualisms.
THE HAPPINESS ETHIC
The "happiness" school, to which I belong, deals with the tension between life and happiness by relegating life to the supporting role and claiming that life is of value only insofar as it is instrumental to happiness.
Obviously, life is a prerequisite of happiness, as Rand notes. What the Happiness Ethic denies is that life is the standard (end goal) of ethics.
The Happiness school is consciously straying from Rand's initial formulation, though it claims the benefits of inspiration and much substantive theory from Rand. (Some members of the other schools, on the other hand, may not consciously recognize their theories to be different from Rand's.)
Our first task is to counter Rand's notion that taking happiness as the "standard" leads to hedonism and ethical subjectivism. We argue that, to attain the maximum happiness, or "noncontradictory joy," one must live a principled life (principled by Rand's basic ethical prescriptions). We do NOT say that "the proper value is that which gives you pleasure" (Rand 30), but, rather, "the proper value is that which gives you *consistent*, *full* happiness." (Happiness entails cognitive and emotional satisfaction as well as physical and other "pleasures;" hence, it is not "hedonistic" if that term implies merely physical joys like sex and good food.)
The "fundamental choice" debate figures into the discussion. If life is to become the "standard" (the final goal or end) of ethics, then, most Objectivists concede, each individual must at some point decide to pursue life. Absent such a choice, a person may wander a-morally into death.
Eyal Mozes, Ron Merrill, and Chris Sciabarra all argue that the nature of the "fundamental choice" of ethics is such that *whatever* action one takes one is implicitly pursuing life. The only way to "choose" death is to fail to make any choice whatsoever; to just wither up and die in a catatonic state. Acting in ways harmful to life is fundamentally contradictory. In Sciabarra's words,
In choosing to live, a person has chosen the only *consistent* alternative. By choosing not to live, a person has rejected the entire realm of values and has no alternative but to die.... Those who deny this proposition are guilty of a contradiction; their very ability to deny is proof that they are alive... (Sciabarra 242)
However, this is very strange talk, to note an ability to live in a "contradiction:" how is "life" the "standard" (end goal) of action, if people can actively damage their lives?
At this point, Rand must fall back upon the argument that life is a necessary prerequisite of action. However, as noted, this fact has no necessary bearing on what is the *end* (standard) of action. If Sciabarra's version of the "fundamental choice" is accepted, then, it seems, life loses its position as the necessary end goal. Further, the notion that we might somehow have a primal moral duty to avoid living in "contradiction" seems alien to Rand's egoism.
What, then, if we interpret the "fundamental choice" rather more broadly to mean that a person must consciously choose to rationally pursue life, to take action that actually furthers life, in order to become subject to ethical evaluation? With such a broad interpretation, those not acting for life would remain in the realm of the a-moral. This theoretical option is unsavory in that it leaves a huge range of possible human behavior outside of the prescripts of ethics.
The Happiness Ethic can circumvent the problem of the "fundamental choice." According to the theory, happiness is the proper "standard" of ethics, regardless of the choices people actually make.
The case for happiness can be made on two independent grounds. The weaker of the arguments depends upon the truth of the theory of "psychological egoism." "Psychological egoism" holds that, on a psychological level (not necessarily a conscious level), people in fact pursue that which they believe will bring them the greatest happiness, despite any confusion they might consciously suffer over the matter. For example, a Kantian, while believing him or herself to be acting from the "Categorical Imperative," is actually acting in a manner consistent with what the subconscious believes will bring happiness. If "psychological egoism" is accepted, then we can make the case that people ought to consciously pursue happiness, in ways that will actually yield happiness, because that's what they're subconsciously trying to do anyway. I do believe that the theory of "psychological egoism" is true; however, the justification of happiness as the "standard" of ethics does not depend upon it.
The stronger argument to ground happiness as the only proper ultimate value is a variant of Rand's conceptual "genetic dependency" argument. Rand argues that the concept of "value" is dependent upon the concept of "life." I modify this argument to say that the concept of "value" is in fact dependent upon the concept - or at least the experience - of "happiness." (Of course, since life is a prerequisite of happiness, value is indirectly dependent upon life.)
I find an analogy with perception helpful to understand the sense in which "value" is dependent upon "happiness." A blind person might be able to discuss "red," but he or she wouldn't be able to understand what is "red" the way that people with normal vision understand "red." The majority of us who have experienced "red" can define it, but we cannot convey the *experience* of the color to other people, except to point to a thing which is red and say, "THIS is what I mean by 'red'." Any discussion of "red" in which the experience of the color was not understood would be seen as inadequate and, in many contexts, pointless.
Similarly, I argue that people just do naturally experience "value," and that this is basically what is "happiness" (which includes but extends beyond physical "pleasure"). We are biologically organized such that we are able to experience value, just as we are biologically organized such that we are able to experience red. (Of course, "red" requires an external stimulus, whereas "value" need not.) Literally, we could not conceive of "happiness" or "value" without the biological experience of it. When ethicists try to equate or ground value in something other than the biological experience of it, they are guilty of the "stolen concept fallacy;" they are trying to use a concept while severing the concept from its existential foundation. When ethicists speak of "value" as arising from something other than the biological experience of it, they quite literally don't know what they're talking about and are speaking nonsense.
Obviously, this argument needs a great deal more work before it can ground a theory of ethics. I believe that this is the main thesis of the "happiness ethic," though, and that it will bear fruit with future work. I believe that the "genetic dependency" argument can succeed for "happiness," whereas Rand could never really make it work for "life." Time will tell, I suppose. Of course, even the mere notion of "happiness" needs a great deal of clarification which I am at present unable to give it. How do cognitive, emotional, and physical values relate to create the broad "happiness" that I want to crown as the "standard of value?"
So far, I have explained Rand's "correspondence" theory of ethics and I've tried to show why this theory prompted the development of three off-shoot, but distinct, theories that give progressively more important status to "happiness."
The final theory (deontology) does not stem from the same theoretical tension (between life and happiness). Rather, it comes primarily from the tension some see between egoism and respecting "natural rights." Members of the "deontology school" include Chris Cathcart, Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, and Eric Mack.
A "deontological constraint" is a principle of ethics which defines a proper range of action which does not aim at any further goal, but is in some respect seen as good in itself. Thus, the deontological view is not wholly egoistic, whereas the other four theories are completely egoistic.
"The Dougs" (R&D) argue that, just as Aristotle defines entities according to their purpose, so Rand defines human life according to its rational purpose. "[Rand] does seem to be committed to the idea that a good x is one that conforms to its nature or fulfills its natural function" (Den Uyl and Rasmussen '84, 68). So far, many can accept the case. However, R&D claim that the particular "rational" nature of human beings injects life (and ethics) with certain deontological constraints. For instance, according to R&D, we must respect rights merely because of the fact that we are rational, not, as Will Thomas argues, because it is rational to believe that respecting rights is in our egoistic interests.
The Survivalists interpret "man qua man" (man qua rational organism) to mean that rationality is of great instrumental value to survival. I believe Rand can sensibly be interpreted to mean this, and this is what I take Leonard Peikoff to believe (219). To the extend that rationality "bleeds" into the "end" as well, it is only because it is first a means to life.
R&D, however, take "man qua man" to mean that the very type of "life" which is the "standard of value" includes ethical prescriptions which are not of themselves useful for life.
In their _Liberty and Nature_, they write:
Since we need to conceptualize principles for successful living (flourishing), it is important to understand the general nature of these principles, or at least the ones most properly associated with ethics. The principles we have designated as ends in themselves are also known as 'virtues.' These principles or virtues share a characteristic which transcends the usual consequentialist/ deontological way of considering rules: actions which instantiate the principles not only contribute to the achievement of our natural end (consequentialism), but the very performance of the action is itself what constitutes our natural end (deontologism). Aristotle was clear that eudaimonia was an *activity*. (59)
The important part to note is that some *principles* are ends-in-themselves. This is not Rand's view, for within her original framework all principles must further the final end of life. R&D try to say that their deontological standards are a part of the "end" of life, but this is merely to arbitrarily inject life with something that doesn't assist life. (Rationality and volition, on the other hand, are demonstrably part of the human condition and obviously useful for furthering life.)
Contrary to their assertions, then, R&D's deontology does not "transcend" the "consequentialist/ deontological" dichotomy. Rather, it merely attempts to define the proper "consequence" to be pursuing a deontological constraint. In the same way, Kant's deontological theory could be said to be "consequentialist," in that presumably Kant wants us to achieve the "consequence" of being people who act from deontological constraints. There is nothing *fundamentally* "consequentialist" about either view, as there is with Rand's egoistic ethics.
The main problem with deontological standards is that they are hard to justify. Why say that "rationality" entails, automatically, without considering the egoistic benefit, respecting others' rights? This is just arbitrarily dubbing particular actions "rational" or "irrational." For the other four ethics, an action is "rational" if and only if it furthers the end of life (or happiness or whatever combination). There is *some* standard. R&D would have us judge actions "rational" absent any view to ends. But, then, what is wrong with the deontological standard, "blow your nose with blue napkins on Tuesdays?" I don't see any way to evaluate it, within R&D's framework.
As I've noted, rationality, volition, and happiness can be argued to "bleed" into the end of life because they are first and fundamentally necessary conditions for the attainment of life (for humans). However, nothing about deontological constraints can be said to be fundamentally necessary for life, and thus deontology cannot "bleed" into the end as can the other qualities.
To be sure, the deontology camp has tried to argue precisely the point that deontological constraints are a necessary part of (human) life. Lance Neustaeter offered an anology in a post to the Objectivism-L list on May 13, 1998:
Why does a bacteria metabolize? In order to live. But "to live" is partly *constituted* by "metabolizing." Metabolizing is not *merely* instrumental to achieving some state called "life"- it is a part of life itself...
Douglas Rasmussen suggested another analogy May 18 to Objectivism-L:
Ackrill notes that there is a difference between buying golf clubs 'for the sake of' playing golf and putting 'for the sake' of playing golf. The latter has already the end of playing golf present in it. Life is like playing golf. It consists of activities that constitute or express it. It is not an end that is external to these activities. These activities are for their own sake, since life is done for its own sake. Life's status as an ultimate, inclusive end should not be reified. Further, since life is not denatured; it is also life of a certain kind or sort. The justification for what virtues constitute living the life the is proper to a human being is based on causality, but it is not simply efficient causality. It is formal and final--which for living things dovetail into the same thing.
However, these analogies fail to support deontological constraints as part of the "end" of life. Metabolizing really *is* part of the life-process of a bacteria; putting really *is* part of the process of golf. Are deontological activities such as respecting rights (for the sake of respecting rights) really a necessary part of human life? Reason is, volition is, even happiness arguably is. But is respecting rights? I think not, and I certainly haven't seen an argument to such effect. To get to rights, it seems to me that we have to follow Will Thomas's road, and justify them according to our egoistic interests.
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Eric Mack comes right out and admits that his ethical theory is dualistic; he doesn't try to hide his deontology inside "man *qua* man." However, the nature of Mack's deontology is similar to R&D's. Mack writes:
[T]he second task of ethical theory, viz., the determination of the means by which value may be attained, is *not* directly governed by an identification of what is of ultimate value. This second task requires the identification of an independent (albeit not utterly detached) dimension of morality - a dimension that delineates moral constraints on the acceptable means for attaining the good. What we need is a theory of rights... that is independent of the theory of the good... (Machan and Rasmussen 44)
However, such an "independent" justification of rights is for Objectivists impossible. For the Survivalists, respecting rights must be shown to be in one's egoistic interests of life. For the Happiness camp, rights must be shown to be in one's egoistic interests of happiness.
Mack suggests that rights theory is independent of the "theory of the good," and yet, if rights cannot be justified AS "good," what business have we in respecting them? In his language Mack tries to avoid the consequence that his theory posits dual foundations of value, but he cannot hope to succeed in this task.
Remember that, for Objectivists, all actions carry moral weight. An action not taken to further one's egoistic interests is immoral, not just a-moral. Thus, any action taken to respect others' rights is immoral, UNLESS it can be justified to be in one's egoistic interests. I believe that such an egoistic justification of rights is possible and strong as a theory. Unfortunately, the deontological views point us away from the "facts of reality" that give rise to a robust theory of rights.
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Judging from some of his comments at the '98 IOS conference, Mack believes that his theory of rights is consistent with Rand's position or at least a plausible interpretation of that position. (See Mack's "The Fundamental Moral Elements of Rand's Theory of Rights," Den Uyl and Rasmussen '84, 156-157.) Similarly, Den Uyl, Rasmussen, Cathcart and others seem to believe that their deontological constraints are compatible with Rand's theory.
I'm not sure who first interpreted Rand's ethics in a deontological light, though the tendency seems to go back at least 20 years. In my view, any claim that Rand's ethics contains or permits deontological standards is a misinterpretation of her work.
It seems that the most troublesome passage, the one in which some claim to see deontological leanings, is in "The Objectivist Ethics:"
The basic *social* principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others - and, therefore, that man must life for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. (Rand 27)
Various commentators have taken this to mean that the *reason* we are to respect the rights of others is fundamentally that they are ends in themselves. If this is Rand's meaning, then surely it is distinct from her egoistic theories.
However, I do not think this interpretation is correct. Rand discusses the "social principle" directly after discussing the various virtues - of rationality, productiveness, and pride. She is going through a list of the various principles it takes to live a good life, and one of these principles, the social principle, is that nobody is supposed to be sacrificed to any other person. Rand is *not* attempting to *justify* the social principle in this passage, however, but merely to note its existence.
Her justification of rights-respecting behavior comes later. Toward the end of the essay (31), Rand introduces the "Trader Principle" and explains that, within a civil (rights-respecting) society, people gain knowledge, material goods, and spiritual values from other people. This is, in brief, the grounding of rights-respecting behavior in egoistic ethical theory.
In subsequent essays, Rand makes fairly clear her view that rights grow out of and become a part of the egoistic framework. In "Man's Rights," Rand says that the concept of rights "provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual's actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others" (92). In order for rights to be a "logical transition" from egoism for the lone person, they must describe egoism in a social context. In "Collectivized 'Rights'," Rand says of rights that a person "needs moral principles in order to organize a social system consonant with man's nature and with the requirements of his survival" (101). Thus, rights, as with all of Rand's moral principles, aim to further the actor's life.
The deontologists can attempt to uphold their theories, but they can't properly claim support in Rand's works.
As I've suggested, I do not think that any of the dualist ethical theories are viable. Neither the "life-happiness" duality of value nor the "egoism-deontology" duality can withstand criticism, in my view. Dismissing such dualistic theories is, I believe, wholly consistent with Rand's tendency to reject dichotomies.
That leaves us with Survivalism (for no one really buys into the "correspondence" theory) and Happiness. Both theories are purely egoistic, both seek to root value in one phenomenon. The point of disagreement, then, is whether life is the ultimate value and happiness is instrumental to life, or vice versa. I have made some beginning attempts to ground happiness as the ultimate value, and I look forward to considering the future arguments of the Survivalists which attempt to ground life as the ultimate value. I would urge the dualists to turn from their bifurcated ways and embrace the "Survivalist-Happiness" debate as the most promising key to a wholly true and more complete ethical theory.
David B. King, _Guide to Objectivism_, http://www.geocities.com/ Athens/Olympus/7695/.
Tibor Machan and Douglas B. Rasmussen, Ed., _Liberty for the 21st Century_, Rowman&Littlefield 1995. Includes "Moral Individualism and Libertarian Theory" by Eric Mack.
Ronald Merrill, _The Ideas of Ayn Rand_, Open Court 1991.
Leonard Peikoff, _Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand_, Dutton 1991.
Ayn Rand, _The Virtue of Selfishness_, Signet Books 1964.
Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, _Liberty and Nature_, Open Court 1991.
Chris Matthew Sciabarra, _Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical_, Pennsylvania State University Press 1995.
Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, Ed., _The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand_, University of Illinois Press 1984. Includes "Life and the Theory of Value" by J. Charles King and "The Fundamental Moral Elements of Rand's Theory of Rights" by Eric Mack.