Moral Principles: What is a Principle?

Moral principles vs. the tradeoff approach

I want to turn now to the topic of ethics, which many people will breathe a sigh of relief at, because this is much, I guess, easier, although it’s not that easy.  But I want to turn specifically to the topic of moral principles, that’s what I want to be on for this whole next, this is our last unit—what moral principles are, and why they are necessary.  This is something that most people do not grasp, and even a great many very dedicated Objectivists; they don’t grasp it in the full sense that I want to be presenting in the next several sessions.  I had an extremely intelligent student, extremely honest, who could not grasp why you have to be honest.  He had no desire to be dishonest, but he simply couldn’t grasp why honesty was an absolute.  And he would say, “How do you know always in advance that honesty is to your self-interest?  What about if you knew you could make a million dollars by telling a lie, the chances of being detected were virtually nill, and you would use the money only to spread Objectivism?”  He could not grasp it.  And the discussion finally resolved itself not into honesty at all, but into what is a principle and why are principles necessary.  And only then did he see, and of course he sees it now.  Or I’ve also heard about Roark, and I know that many more people think this than have the courage actually to ask it, what would be wrong if he compromised occasionally?  Why does he have to be so 100% pure?  Look at how many years he wasted doing nothing, just sitting around idly, I’ve had it put to me.  What if he compromised a few times, so a couple of buildings wouldn’t be that good, but he would get money, he would get a name, he’d get himself established right away, and then, now that he would have clients and so on come, he could be all those years productively employed doing perfect buildings, and at the end of his life the net total effect, if he blasted out the earlier buildings, he’d have a great volume of work than otherwise.

Now this is what I call, these two examples, the tradeoff approach to morality.  That is, “Should I be honest?  Should I have integrity?  Well let’s make a list—what’s the tradeoff?  What are the advantages, what are the disadvantages?”  And then within that, whoever uses this tradeoff approach, by the fact of using it says, “How can you possibly know in advance that it’s always going to come out that it’s bad?  Don’t you have to weigh in a particular case?  What guarantees that your tradeoff has to come out negative?  And yet you have to weight the consequences of an action—actions aren’t an end in themselves—so how else weigh except by consequences, how else judge consequences except by tradeoff, and how do you know that a tradeoff has to always end up on the side of morality?”  Now you can see, I’m sure, that this applies to any issue.  People who say, “Well I believe in going by reason, but I don’t see why I can’t occasionally have faith in something or other.  I’m not going to go around and be a religious zealot, but every once in a while I get some advantages.  It’s comforting, for instance, to believe in God, it makes me popular, and so on.  I’m not going to go whole-hog on this, but why can’t I weigh in a given case whether to go by reason or faith?”  Now of course, you know, this is the essence of pragmatism.  Pragmatists do not say always be dishonest, always do evil.  I mean, it would be much nicer if they did.  They say there are no absolutes, experiment, try and see.  And many people who are not pragmatists, or in fact who dislike pragmatists actively, cannot really see all the way down the reduction of principles, all the way back down to reality.  Obviously you know that this applies in politics.  All the mixed economy advocates who say don’t go to extremes, do not grasp the role of principles.  Those who say, “Let’s judge controls in each case by the circumstances and the consequences.  Let’s have a tradeoff.  Granted this control interferes with freedom.  Maybe in a given case it will help out the poor more than it hurts liberty, so let’s weight and balance.”  That’s that same tradeoff approach.  And of course, that absolutely is taken for granted as an axiom of our any discussion of politics today.  Which means that people take for granted that principles are absolutely out of the question, that they just don’t exist.

Now I was sure that if I understood anything about Objectivism, I understood the role of moral principles.  I have been an absolutist, personally, from the very beginning.  I always was an extremist, I hated moderation in anything.  But despite that, I feel that it’s only within the last year that I have really come to grasp with a new clarity why acting on moral principles is so essential.  And as I indicated in the opening lecture, I was writing on the virtue of integrity, finally opened my eyes, and I saw there was a deficiency in the full step by step reduction of the issue of moral principles, and that when you get that, the whole of morality just falls wide open before you.  Now I assume you are motivated.

Now the background, or context, I’m just reminding you, of any discussion of Objectivism is that life is the standard, the ultimate purpose which makes the whole issue of values arise, and that morality therefore is entirely a means to an end.  Plants and animals act automatically—you know this—they don’t need ethics, they support their life just automatically, they have no choice.  But man has volition, he has choice.  Morality is the science really of self-preservation.  Now that’s what I want to develop—how do we get principles out of this set up?  Man is a being of choice, trying to sustain his life—that’s the foundation that we need.

2. Why principles? Man’s life is long-range

Now if I asked you—we have a couple of minutes—if I asked you, where would you start in reality, with what fact of reality would you start if you want to end up with the need of principles?  Or put it another way—what is the basic fact about human life that requires, by a long chain, the need of living by moral principle?  I hesitate to ask it, because if you tell me the wrong thing, that’s going to throw us off.  But out of curiosity, suppose we start with “Man exists, he wants to remain alive, he wants to follow something or other as guidance in how to do it”—what is the first fact that he has to take into account that will lead him step by step to the whole idea of what is a morality, and what it should consist of, etc.?  I’d just be curious to know what you would take as the primitive here.  No, we’re starting with “Man has choice,” but now he wants the first fact that will end up giving him guidance in how to exercise his choice, the first fact about human life, about his action, that he would discovery very, very early.  The crow?  No, that’s a fact about human consciousness, about epistemology, and he wouldn’t discover that probably for a long, long time.  No, I mean something gross and obvious that you would learn in your earliest conceptual observations?  Cause and effect—that’s a law of reality.  Now apply that to the way you have to act.  Once you grasp cause and effect, what does that tell you about how you have to behave, just that in and of itself?  To get something—let’s put it this way—you want something, you have to do something, it’s not enough therefore just to do the thing of the moment because want something in the future which requires a certain process of you in the present, right?  So you have to pay attention to more than the present.  If you want to satisfy your desires or get anywhere, you have to pay attention to more than simply the immediate present.  That’s one of the earliest things you learn.  Now how would you put that in a hyphenated word?  You have to be long-range.  That’s the first, the beginning.  Now let me give you a definition of “long-range”; that’s where I would start.  “Long-range” means “allowing for or extending into the more distant future.”  I got this out of a dictionary.  “Allowing for or extending into the more distant future.”  A man is long-range to the extent that he choose his actions by reference to such a future.  That means he sets goals that require him to follow a course of action extending across some significant time span—it may be weeks, months, years.  And, since he’s concerned with such goals, he weighs effects—in other words, the future consequences—of his present desires and behavior.  A short-range man, by contrast, is simply one who is indifferent to the future.  He wants the immediate satisfaction of a given impulse without thought for any other ends or results.  For example, I’m making this point about long-range, I myself am being long-range in making it, because I have a goal in the distant future, which is Thursday in this case, to culminate in your grasp of principles.  And therefore, I’m doing this with an eye to a significant time span.  And for that very reason, even though the thought just occurred to me, let’s say, that I would have a great desire to talk about what I’m going to have for lunch, I brush it aside, I push that impulse aside, because that’s simply going to detract from my long-range goal and confuse you.  Now that is a simple model about what is long-range vs. short-range.  Focus only on the immediate impulse of the moment, or be concerned with a goal across time that requires a course of action, and that requires you to observe what you’re doing and see the results on that goal.

Now tomorrow we’re going to develop the implications of this, and hopefully reach the issue of moral principles.  Thank you.

Good morning.  This discussion of the van was calculated to give you an example of long-range action, which is where we are picking up in our discussion of the need of moral principles.  And let’s start this morning by observing that an animal has neither the need nor the ability to be long-range.  An animal is automatically self-sustaining.  It doesn’t choose its goals, it doesn’t have to worry about the distant future, nature takes care of that.  And it can safely act on the impulse of the moment, no matter what that impulse happens to be, because within the limits of the possible, the impulse is programmed to be pro-life.  But man, being volitional, is not safe no matter what, so he cannot rely on any random impulse that strikes him.  If he is to safeguard his survival—and remember, our whole discussion here is based on the premise that life is the ultimate goal and morality is whatever safeguards and leads to and sustains it—if he is to safeguard his survival, a man has to assess any potential action that he takes in terms of its relationship to survival.  He has to plan a course of behavior deliberately committing himself to a long-range purpose, and then using that as the standard to pick his various goals, desires, and actions.  This is the only way attaining an ultimate goal becomes an issue open to his conscious choice and control.  

Now am I saying that all short-range action is necessarily suicidal?  No.  An action undertaken by a short-range mentality may lead to a beneficial result, temporarily and by accident.  If you swallow, or buy, or befriend, or vote for whatever or whoever you happen to like at the spur of the moment, without reference to reason, purpose, the long-range, or effects, you can get away with it for a while.  But the point is, only for a while.  If you’re concerned with consistency in regard to an end such as self-preservation, that is something no one can stumble into.  It can’t be achieved by luck or by subconscious habit, only by the aide of explicit knowledge.  So you have to be long-range.  That is the only way you can achieve a long-range goal such as survival.

Well, we may as well put on the board the first step then, which is “We have to be long-range.”  Now we sequeway into the next point.

3. Why principles? Man’s life is all-embracing

What we said so far would be applicable to any human undertaking above the very simplest level.  You couldn’t reach the big sale across town just by getting into a car and steering as the spirit moved you, with no map, no plan, no knowledge of direction, turning points, detours, nothing to guide you but the urge of the moment.  And yet, to reach a sale is a very modest quest.  To preserve your life is incomparably more difficult and complex and demanding because your life is affected by everything that you do, literally everything.  So we reach the next point—for any living organism, including man, the course of action which survival demands is continuous, full-time, all-embracing.  Put the point negatively, no action that a living entity takes is indifferent or completely irrelevant to its existence.  Every action is either in accordance with what self-preservation requires, or it isn’t.  It’s for the entity’s life or against it.  When I lectured on this point originally in ’76, I gave the example of even so innocent an action as a man’s lying down to take a nap, which is certainly an innocuous seeming action.  But in one context, if he’s tired after work and needs to unwind say, that can be very beneficial to him.  If he does it when trapped in a blizzard in the far north, it can be disastrous.  Now I hope you will not be confused by the fact that in the question period I was asked, “Are there any morally neutral actions?”, and I said, “Yes, there are many,” and I gave the example of scratching my nose.  That does not contradict the point I am making now.  I was there attempting to make the point that there are many options within concretes all illustrating the proper principle.  But that doesn’t mean that there are actions that literally have no relevance to life whatever; even scratching the nose, which is an utterly insignificant, tiny action, gives you a minor satisfaction, or else you have the minor rest, if you don’t scratch it, of not exerting the energy.  Now those are hardly worthwhile consequences to discuss.  But the point is nothing is literally devoid of consequences on your life.  So when we say a choice is morally neutral or optional, that merely means its consequences will be beneficial no matter which one you take.  And consequently, morality doesn’t mandate one or the other.  But in the literal sense, there is no action that is neutral in the sense of simply detached from your life.  This applies to every choice a man makes.  To his choice of career—you can obviously think of careers which, if you chose, like being a bank robber, that’s just a blatantly obvious example, will be tremendously deleterious to your character and your life.  It applies to your choice of friends, of investments (I don’t have to concretize that), of psychotherapists (what if you go to a primal screamer?), even of entertainment—if you become to mindless game shows, for example—it applies whatever the form and scale of a given choice’s effects on your existence, which may be blatant or subtle, major or minor.  But the point remains true—every blessed choice, and the damned ones too, is relevant to your survival and has such effects.  This is really the essential meaning of Ms. Rand’s statement that “life is motion.”  The motion is either therefore in one direction or another, for your life or against it, whether in a big or a small way.

Now when we say “against your life,” I want to make one clarification here for people who take this in an improperly literal way, “self-destroying action” doesn’t mean instantaneous suicide.  There is such a thing as drawn-out destruction; that is a factual phenomenon.  In other words, a state of affairs in which you are neither healthy nor dead, but in process of moving from one condition to the other; that’s what we mean by “drawn-out destruction.”  And that’s why it is possible to deteriorate gradually for years, breathing all the while, but increasingly impaired, weakened, damaged.  An obvious medical example would be a long-term alcoholic or drug addict.  And of course, there’s countless cases which don’t involve substance abuse.

In addition, sometimes, though not always, there is such a thing as reversible damage—in other words, damage that you can rectify if you change your course of behavior and counteract the effects of your past in time before the ultimate result becomes irrevocable.  But the fact that the destruction may be slower and that up to a certain point you can reverse, doesn’t affect the fact that damage is damage.  Nor the fact that damage, if you don’t attend to it and correct it, is progressive.  So if life is our purpose, and that’s where we started, no one can ever justifiably or willfully court damage of any kind, nor passively tolerate it, not if life is his goal.  If you undermine your capacities to survive, your ability to deal with your environment to gain values—and that’s what damage is, in some form or another, the undermining, big or small, of an organism’s ability to survive—that is a willfully anti-life action.  And no such threat, no matter how big or small, can be inflicted safely on that delicate creature which we call a living entity, any more than you can safely take only a little cyanide now and then, or safely play only an occasional game of Russian Roulette, if life does not mean flirting with death.  Nor can you achieve it by that kind of means.

4. Man needs an all-encompassing, lifelong view

So we have to be long-range, take into account the future, and take into account the effects of every single thing we do.  Now we have one more question to understand fully the problem that ethics has to resolve—how long-range do we have to be?  Now even animals, some of them, have some ability to plan for the future, even though it’s done automatically.  And in fact you can say that, in regard to being future-oriented, there is a certain scale among a conscious species, according to the nature of their conscious faculty.  A purely sensory organism—certain worms, entities of that order—knows nothing but the immediate moment, utterly in the present.  The higher animals, however, do project the future to a certain extent, and they have to do so to survive.  Of course, they do this automatically, and only so far as their perceptual form of awareness allows.  And you remember Ms. Rand’s point, that their life consists of a series of separate cycles repeated over and over, like breeding their young or storing food for the winter, each cycle undertaken afresh each time as a separate unit, without connection in the animal’s awareness to the past or the future.  The animal cannot grasp with the total of its life span across all the years, or possibly decades, and of course it doesn’t have to because it’s automatized to keep performing these pro-life cycles.  In this respect, too, man is unique.  I quote from Ms. Rand, “Man’s life is a continuous whole.  For good or evil, every day, year, and decade of his life holds the sum of all the days behind him.”  In other words, man has the capacity and the need to know not merely tomorrow’s requirements, or even this season’s, but all the factors that affect his survival.  He can assess not merely, as its called, the proximate consequences of his choices, the immediate results, but also their remote consequences decades into the future.  So if you are a man, it’s not enough to consider the chance of a toothache next week when you are calculating your action.  You also have to know, are you courting unemployment next month, or an anxiety attack next year, or an invasion from Russia next decade, or a nuclear holocaust in the next generation.

So what is the answer then to how long-range must a man be?  What is the temporal scale necessary for him to be concerned with?  It’s not any isolated hour, day, season, decade, or cycle of his life, but what?  The total life span, the entire life span.  So you can see a parallel here—just as a man’s knowledge has to be integrated into a single, all-encompassing sum, so must his actions, across all the decades of his life.  And thus Ms. Rand’s statement, “If he is to succeed at the task of survival, man has to choose his course, his goals, his values, in the context and terms of a lifetime.”

Now you’re able to grasp the problem the answer to which will take us to moral principles.  Man must be long-range.  He must consider the survival-significance of every action he takes.  And he has to do so in relation to the time span of an entire human life.  Now that is a breathtaking cognitive problem.  It is, on the face of it, an insoluble problem because, how many units does it require us to deal with and come to conclusions about?  Countless; I wouldn’t say literally infinite, but literally countless because it would be hundreds and thousands and millions, the number of things that you do in one given day, if you itemize the number of actions alone.  And yet it has to be all-embracing.  And you have to think of the effects of every one of those, not simply today or next week, but across decades from now, and of all the ones you’ll take tomorrow across all those decades.  So I would think in a conservative estimate, it would be millions and millions and millions of concretes for someone who isn’t struck down, you know, at the age of four.  And yet, as we’ve seen, if you are to achieve your life, there is no way of shirking this task.  You can’t do it by accident.  You must project the consequences into the future.  And you must do it on everything you do, you can’t leave out anything.  So we have a tremendous problem that must be solved that, on the face of it, is insoluble.  Now you won’t appreciate the answer until you see that human life, therefore, requires a fantastic cognitive feat, because it is not automatized, we have to somehow get ourselves to be able to do what animals have built into them.  And the question is, how can we deal with this size of units?  What makes such a feat possible?  Well, don’t get ahead of me, I’ll take it one step at a time.  Of course, “principles” is the answer, but I have to get there.

5. How to achieve it: Conceptualization

The best way to say it is that what makes it possible is the same kind of consciousness that makes it necessary.  We can retain and deal with so enormous a quantity of data, so many units, only by doing what with those units?  Reducing them, reducing this vast array down to a few units that we can deal with.  Now what is the name for the human means of taking a vast quantity of data, far beyond what anyone could hold in mind, and reducing it to a manageable number of units?  Conceptualizing.  How are we able to grasp knowledge of a series of events extending across decades, including a tremendous number of events that we haven’t yet perceived and won’t for who knows how long, and yet we have to know now what those events in the future are going to be, except by integrating future events to events that we do perceive?  And what is the mechanism that says put together everything in a given class, including countless things that you’ll never perceive, on the basis of its similarity to what you do perceive?  What is that called?  Conceptualizing.  Concepts are the only possible tool that would enable you to deal with this kind of data and project consequences on this scale across this kind of future.  And so the first step of our answer to the problem is, if we are to sustain our lives, we have to conceptualize the requirements of human survival.  And of course, that means we have to adhere in the process to all of the rules of a proper conceptualization.  We have to confront in other words—and this is exactly what the task of ethics is—we have to take the vast realm of human choices and actions—and if you think of it, that is an unbelievably vast realm; I mean, even the choice of apple pie vs. cherry pie, and all the things involved in that, is pretty big—but take the totality of all human choices and actions, in every field and area, in all its bewildering complexity—and we have to achieve unit economy.  So the first thing we have to do is decide, what are the fundamentals in this realm, what kind of choices should we focus on?  What are the ones that underlie and shape all the other choices?  That’s one big step in unit economy, because by that means, we can throw out 99% of the actual choices we have to make, and even more, if we concentrate on the few basic ones that shape our whole direction.  And of course, the grasp of fundamentals, although we didn’t cover it in this course, is one essential element of conceptualizing, it’s one form of unit reduction.  When you focus on a fundamental, you can set aside all the derivatives, they take care of themselves as long as you grasp the fundamental.  And then within the realm of that which is fundamental, we ask ourselves, well, there’s hundreds and thousands of instances of those fundamentals; what abstractions would condense that realm?  What abstractions will tell us the effects of certain choices vs. others?  In other words, what generalizations will give us, in condensed, retainable form, the effects on man’s life of different kinds of fundamental choices?  That’s the two ways in which we achieve unit reduction.  First we concentrate on fundamentals that shape all of our character, and then within that realm we identify generalizations which tell us this type of choice in all its countless manifestations will lead to this kind of effect, pro-life; this kind of choice will lead to anti-life.  So we, by those means, take this incredible quantity of choices and reduce it down to a few simple items of cognition that we can easily retain.

Now, if I point to this gentlemen over here and I say to you, “What is it?”, you don’t say, “Let me consult my feeling” or “I don’t know, I’ve never started with him before, I have to just begin in a vacuum and try to imagine.”  You automatically apply to him your previously-formed concepts; see, it’s a man as opposed to an animal or an automobile or whatever.  Now, the exact same thing is applicable in ethics.  If you have conceptualized the requirements of survival in the way I have just indicated, you do not approach any moral question either by “What do I feel?”, or just “I’m starting from scratch.”  Any moral question immediately you have the key to answering—whether in a particular case you should tell a lie, whether you should get a job, whether you should compromise your convictions, whether you should give to charity, whether you should fight a dictatorship, etc.  You have previously formed moral concepts which indicate to you what kind of effects what kind of choice will make, and then you just apply them and you churn out relatively easily your guidance, just as we decide easily that this entity is a man.

6. What is a principle? What is a code of values?

Now the name of this form of cognition, of taking a generalization and then applying it to a particular case—and this is far broader than morality, far, far broader than morality—is principle.  Now I’ll give you my simple definition of “principle”—a “principle” is “a general truth on which other truths depend.”  I’ll elaborate on that in a few minutes.  That has to be understood with some elaboration, but I’ll give it to you briefly.  But here I simply want to make the point that every field of thought, every science, it is in no way restricted to morality, involves the discovery and application of principles.  A principle, in effect, is a basic generalization.  It’s not just a generalization, as we’ll see, it’s a basic one.  Or you can think of it as the identification of a fundamental in the realm of induction.  And that will either help you or not.  A moral principle accordingly is not anything unique.  It is simply a type or subdivision of scientific principle.  It’s the type that identifies the relationship to man’s survival of the various basic human choices.  That’s all it is.  So a man who acts on moral principle is neither a martyr, a zealot, nor a prig.  He is a man whose actions are guided by the distinctive human faculty of cognition.  If you are a rational being—that is, a conceptual volitional being—principled action, as I have tried to demonstrate, is the only effective kind of action; it’s the only kind capable of achieving a long-range goal, such as man’s life.  Now I’m assuming here that you act on demonstrably true principles.  But the point here is that moral principles, for Objectivism, are not ends in themselves.  They are entirely instrumental; they are means to an end.  Nor are they spiritual luxuries reserved for so-called higher souls, nor are they duties owed to anybody, neither God nor Kant.  They are a practical earthly necessity to anyone concerned with self-preservation.  The only alternative to action governed by moral principle, the only alternative, would be action expressing concrete-bound, short-range impulse.  A principle, as we’ve defined it, is the only way to take into account the long-range future.  If you drop principles, you’re reduced to being short-range.  And as we demonstrated, for man, the short-range and the long-range is self-destructive.

Now you can see the fatal flaw of pragmatism in its very essential approach.  The pragmatist says he is the pure exponent of the short-range, naked and unashamed.  He says, “Don’t judge your choices in advance”—did you ever hear a pragmatist say that?—“Don’t be so theoretical and have to decide in advance.  Try and see what the actual results will be in practice.  Today’s results don’t have to recur tomorrow.  We always have to experiment,” he says, “let’s try new approaches to virtue, new approaches to value, there are no absolutes, let’s judge each situation as a unique concrete ‘on its own terms.’”  These are all the slogans of pragmatism. 

Now if you follow what I’ve been saying, this advice of the pragmatist—abandon principles, abandon theory, abandon concepts, don’t worry about prediction in the long-range, just take the situation as it is on its own terms and do it—what does that amount to saying?  Throw out your mind, give up your capacity for thought, decide each case perceptually.  But that is exactly what a man cannot do.  An animal can, because he is so programmed.  But a man is not.  So if he also throws away his weapon, he puts himself in a position with the capacity of an animal and not the safety.  And then, he has necessarily destroyed himself.

Now we often say that the Objectivist morality is a code of values, and you can now understand the technical definition of “code.”  Here’s my definition of “code”; it’s pretty long, but you should now understand all of its elements.  “An integrated, hierarchically structured, noncontradictory set of principles, which enables a man to choose, plan and act long-range.”  And you see there of course, “noncontradictory” means it ties into man’s method of cognition, and that we know requires that he integrate his knowledge, including within morality, and one key form of that is he has to structure his knowledge hierarchically, starting with the fundamental and then its derivatives.  And when he has that kind of knowledge in this realm, he is then able to make all of his decisions and guide all of his actions by reference to the long-range.  And that is exactly what we mean by a “code of morality.”  And you see now why man needs such a code.  He needs it because his life requires a specific course of action, and being a conceptual entity, he can’t follow this course except by the guidance of concepts.  And this is how we get from simply “life as the goal” to “man’s life as the standard.”  The argument for the Objectivist ethics begins by showing that value presupposes life as the standard.  But then the next step, which requires that we go through all this, is when you talk about morality, which applies only to man, man’s life is the standard.  Now “man’s life,” and here I quote Ms. Rand’s definition, means “the terms, methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his life span in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.”  Or, to give you exactly the same meaning in the terms that we’re talking today, when we say that man’s life is the standard, we mean plain ordinary life in accordance with the principles of human survival, life in accordance with the principles of human survival.  And you see that is not a highfalutin addition to life; that is simply importing into the standard the only way that human life can be lived or attained.  So if life is your goal, life in accordance with the principles required is simply an elaboration if you are a conceptual being who must act on principle.  That’s how we reach the stage that man’s life is the standard.  Now that becomes the standard, life in accordance with the principles.

7. Principles as conceptual first causes

Now I want to focus, before we develop this, all of the virtues, by the way, are simply statements of the principles that life requirements.  They are scientific descriptions, on various levels of generality and from different aspects, of the principles required by the nature of life.  But first I want to concentrate a bit more on the concept of “principle” as such, just to be sure that this is clear to you.  Now “principle,” as I said, is broader than “moral principle.”  It’s a basic generalization.  Now “basic” doesn’t necessarily mean “axiomatic”; that is not what we mean here.  Axioms are principles, but not all principles by any means are axioms.  To qualify as a principle, it has to be basic enough for a substantial cognitive development to be founded on, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the total of human knowledge.  Now you might find etymology interesting here.  When you get a really crucial term like this that goes back many centuries, I often find it illuminating to look up in The Oxford English Dictionary (which is the only worthwhile dictionary for this type of purpose, because it gives you citations going back to Adam and Eve), you then have to conceptualize what the dictionary gives you and draw out the common denominators, because they don’t always do it very well, but it’s very instructive I think, so I’ll tell you briefly what I found in The Oxford English Dictionary about “principle.”  It started out as meaning “the source of action, the beginning, the first place.”  The front of an army was called its principle, that’s where the war started, the troops in the front were the principle of the army.  It was that from which something begins or takes its rise.  And here is a quote from 1432 illustrating that usage (which of course I didn’t come across on my own, but from the dictionary): “The beginning of that water called Tybor, which have their original principle at the foot of Mount Albanis,” because that’s where that river started.  And in 1674 they were writing like this: “Improving the ports has given principle to no inconsiderable navy.”  You see, it was the beginning, the start, from which something later follows.  That was the first use, on a purely physical level.  Now it gradually evolved to the conceptual realm, where it also meant the beginning, the starting point, that from which a whole development flows, and therefore began to acquire the idea of a base or a foundation, not just the chronological beginning or the first place in space, but now the logical beginning.  And so it came to mean “fundamental truth or law.”  And so the dictionary gives us a second definition: “a fundamental truth or proposition on which many others depend; a primary truth comprehending various subordinate truths; a general statement forming the ground of a system of thought or belief.”  You see, there’s a whole bunch of others like that, and the whole idea is the same—a conceptual beginning on which a whole cognitive development is based.  And then as a distinct meaning, the third meaning—there’s many, many others, but these are the only three that are of philosophic interest—“a general law or rule adopted as a guide to action.”  See, that’s the moral use.  And that is simply an application to morality of what this second meaning is.  So if you put it together, you’d say a principle is like a first cause in the conceptual realm.  That’s how I think of it, a conceptual first cause.  Now if I’m ever confused, I go back to the idea that this is where the river started, that’s really what the whole thing began with, and that’s what you have to keep in mind with regard to “principle.”  Now you mustn’t, however, forget that it does not have to be axiomatic.  It has to be basic, not necessarily axiomatic.  But the point here is that it is not synonymous with any generalization.  There are many generalizations that are not principles.  It represents the integration of many derivative generalizations.  You can think of it this way—a principle is to an ordinary generalization the way a concept is to a concrete: it’s the integrator that unites all those lesser generalizations into one unit, just the way the concept “table” unites all the endless tables into one.

Now let me give you an example that’s far afield here just to clarify.  I had a student once who asked me whether the following was a principle: “If you travel by subway, allow extra time because the trains are sometimes late.”  Now how many think that is a principle?  Well that’s good, I scared you off.  No.  That at best is the material for a principle which you might reach some day.  But as it’s formulated, it is much, much too concrete.  If that were a principle, then you could just as well have as a principle, “If you’re going to take the 42nd Street local, at rush hour, to your dentist, be sure to leave twenty minutes in advance.”  Now I mean, that’s the reductio ad absurdum of that approach.  That is simply a narrow, concrete-bound generalization.  Albeit that is a generalization; it says if anybody goes to his dentist by this means, for this purpose, he should do this.  So it’s a generalization, but it is not a principle.  Well just to finish out this example, what would be a principle of which this advice about the subway would be simply one point subsumed?  Something like this: “Plan your actions to allow for unforeseen contingencies.”  Now that would at least have the scope and status of a principle, because it would cover not just the IRT, but the BMT and the IND, and it would cover not just going to the dentist, but also your doctor and your girlfriend, etc.  And it wouldn’t even restrict itself only to subways.  It would tell you, “If you’re taking a cab, you better leave extra time in case there’s traffic; and plus, you better remember to take some extra money in case unforeseen expenses.”  And it would even tell a lecturer, “Sometimes classes don’t ask as many questions as you expect, you’re going to run out of material, so have a little extra ready in case,” etc.  There would be countless generalizations coming under it from a whole divergency of fields, all of them united in this one abstract formulation.  That is just on the level of a simple example the difference between a generalization and a principle.

Now, don’t take this advice too far in the other direction, because if you get too broad, then you lose the crucial content for which you need the principle.  For instance, if you start at that subway advice and you said, well, the real principle is, “If you ever want to achieve an effect, enact the necessary cause,” well, that is true, but that is now so broad that it doesn’t give you anything more specific than philosophy gives you.  Philosophy is indispensable to form principles, but obviously we need more than simply metaphysics to live.  We need to discover and identify particular causal sequences in order to be able to function.  So the principles that we are concerned with in actual life, whether in the sciences or in ethics, are neither the axioms of philosophy nor these concrete-bound generalizations.  They’re what you can think of as an intermediate level.  If we give an analogy, it’s neither the tables and chairs, but it’s like furniture, as against concrete tables and chairs on the one hand, and abstractions like “existence” or “being” on the other.  That is what we are actually dealing with when we’re talking about principles.

8. Example: Honesty as a principle

Now I don’t want to yet, or today, as I see the time, go into honesty.  I simply want to take that as an example of a principle, the virtue of honesty, not why we should be honest, but why does it qualify under the term “principle.”  Not why is it a right principle, but why is it a principle, the advice that you should be honest.

Well, to see that, you have to see the contrast to the way that same issue would stand in most people’s minds, which—I mean decent people—they have countless daily observations relevant to the subject of honesty.  And in fact, this is how anybody starts on the issue of honesty.  Contrary to what some people may think, Ayn Rand was not born with seven virtues engraved on the crib in Russian, and she could only get them by the way that anybody can get principles, by observation of concretes and then hierarchically simple generalizations, and then more integration and more integration.  And this is the kind of early generalizations that decent people would make—“Well, when you lie to yourself”—I’m just doing this schematically—“when you lie to yourself, it makes you uncomfortable, it causes you anxiety,” and then they try, “well I have to be honesty with myself.”  And then they say, “Well, it really doesn’t pay to deceive your wife about your sexual activities and so on, because in the long run, you just can’t maintain it, and the marriage won’t survive.”  And then they lie to their friends, let us say, about a political view they hold which is unpopular, and they feel, and it destroys the closeness of the relationship, and they say, “Well, you can’t lie about what really matters to you to your friends.”  And they go into business and they see the kind of person who sells goods fraudulently, “In the long run, honesty is the best policy if you’re in that kind of business because he loses his customers,” and so on.  And they just have a series of generalizations—now those are generalizations—but they just have a series of disconnected generalizations from such observations as they have seen in this realm or that realm.  If you translated their moral content on this issue into the form of words, it would stand in their mind like this, just schematically: “Tell your wife about your affairs, your friends about your politics, your customers about your goods, and as far as the rest of life is concerned, who knows.  Judge it as it comes up pragmatically.”  That is the way it stands in decent but unphilosophical or unprincipled—not unprincipled in the sense that they’re willfully against principles, but just principles have not yet entered their cognition.  Now honesty, by contrast, takes all of these observations and countless others and integrates them all into one overarching generalization, which is, “Never seek to gain a value by faking reality, no matter with whom, yourself or others, or for what.”  It puts it all together.

Now what do you achieve—I haven’t yet explained or validated that—I simply want to show you what you achieve by that.  To begin with, it unites all these observations and makes them retainable in one unit.  It gives you the key to decide any future question regarding honesty.  You don’t have to constantly swim by the seat of your pants, if I can mix metaphors, because you now have one principle that already tells you, by the crow-epistemology, what the answer is and what the effects are going to be throughout life.  And it also gives you the key to knowing why that principle is true.  The very formulation gives you the key to discovering how to validate it, to explaining why honesty is so crucial.  You see, if all you say is, “Tell your friends the truth,” you may think, “Well, the key to honesty lies in something to do with friendship.”  Or if what you have is, “You shouldn’t lie to yourself,” you think the key to honesty is peace with your own emotions.  You see, all those are beginning observations.  But when you reach the level of an integrating principle, and you see that the common thread uniting it all is, “Never seek to gain a value by faking reality,” then you see what is essential to this issue and what isn’t.  And that’s the crow again at work, the function of concepts, to strip aside the details so you can retain the essence.  And you see right away the key somehow lies in your relation to reality, to what your mind does to reality, whether it deals with business or friendship or yourself or whatever it is.  And then of course, if you know anything about philosophy, you have a right room to enter as to why you should be honest, what’s the context where it’s applicable, how it relates to the basic requirements of human survival, how it applies in countless cases, because you’ve taken it now back to fundamentals.

Now all of morality is just like that.  It’s middle-range principle, like “honesty,” integrating countless earlier generalizations.  And once you have them, each of these principles enables you to understand why all these lesser generalizations are true, and what will happen if you go counter to them.  In other words, you’re back to our original point that the only method we have of unit reduction, the only way of dealing with masses of concretes, is conceptualize, in other words principle-ize, in other words formulate principles.  They are the only way to make lower level generalizations retainable and intelligible, the only way literally to know what you are doing.

9. Example: The need for principles in politics

Now I want to take one quick example from politics to see why it’s truly hopeless to be a pragmatist.  Why do we need political principles?  This is just an example of the point we’ve been developing of why we need principles.  Why couldn’t we follow John Dewey’s advice?  He says, “Look, let’s just start off wherever we are in society and try something new.  People have good will.  If we see that the results of our experiments are undesirable, people will simply alter it.  So why do we need rigid dogmas in advance?”  That’s the standard pragmatist viewpoint.  Well let’s project—let’s suppose we start with the welfare state as it is now, and we watch it develop—a pragmatist doesn’t give it very long, because he’s very short-range—but let’s suppose we watch it for a few years, and we see that pressure group warfare is becoming very virulent, the government is growing ominously, there is a lot of discontent, foreign nations are becoming more menacing.  We don’t like all these symptoms, but we have no political principles.  Well we want to change something.  What do we change?  How do we explain why it all happened?  Now an honest man devoid of principles could look at it all and say, and that’s exactly what they all say today, for instance he could say, “Human nature is imperfect; wherever you start you’re going to end up in trouble because people are just at each others’ throats, and that’s the way they are.”  Or, if you have a little lower mentality who can’t think quite that abstractly, he’ll say, “If only we had had a Democrat in charge instead of Nixon, everything would be great.”  Or, “The problem is with education—people are just too selfish, we need to train them to be less greedy, and then everything will work well.”  That’s the communist viewpoint.  In other words, you cannot learn from experiments without principles.  There is no way to evaluate, assess, explain, or make it comprehensible.  In other words, without concepts, you cannot deal with percepts.

Now in politics, as in everything else, you have to start with direct observation.  But contrast this now with, for instance, the way an Objectivist would start, or the way Ayn Rand did.  She didn’t start with the principle engraven, you know, “laissez-faire capitalism,” and in fact she started by seeing communism all around her.  Let us say she started by observing welfare functions to make it parallel to the welfare state, to make it parallel to the example I just gave.  And she would see, let us say the first thing she would see is, “Well, welfare subsidies encourage laziness.”  Let us say she just notes that, doesn’t yet have deep philosophic explanations, a lot of people note that, right, I mean, it’s a widespread observation.  Or she observes, let us say, on another day, censorship of obscenity, let us say, and she notices that new ideas are being frozen out, and that everywhere the government starts to censor there’s intellectual stagnation.  Or she observes that there’s subsidies or tariffs and so on for certain businessmen, and that encourages the incompetent ones and strangles the better ones.  Etc., etc.  Now, at this point, she’s got a lot of simple generalizations that are within anybody’s means to grasp.  She is now able to say, “Well what is the common denominator between redistribution of income, special favors to the government, censorship, etc., etc.?”  And obviously I don’t have to recapitulate her reasoning.  She grasped that the central unifying principle was coercion, the initiation of physical force against the mind or person or property of another individual, and that it always brings bad consequences.  Now once she has grasped that far, she could, just as I indicated you could with honesty, say, “Well what could it be about the nature of coercion that produces such negative consequences?”  She can now integrate it with what else she has discovered about human knowledge—you know the full development; the crucial insight here would be to connect it to, what is the effect of coercion on man’s mind, on reason, which is his means of survival?; and yet coercion is destructive of the mind, it’s anti-reason.  And once she’s made that integration, she then sees that the evil of coercion follows from the very nature of man.  Now she can see why, if we start with this welfare state, it has to lead to all of these negative consequences, and why it will every time, and what to do about it.  And without that, you could be an honest person and have every conservative columnist’s observations about what’s wrong with this program, and that one, and that one, and you haven’t the faintest clue what to do about it, what to replace it with, why is this happening—you’re simply lost.  So we come back to the point that you simply cannot deal with concretes except by means of principles.  Or to put it in the terms we started, the only way of being long-range is to reduce the units, and that means conceptualizing.

10. Rationality as a principle

Now let’s see how this discussion applies to some of the specific virtues.  And I wanted, assuming time permitted—which is starting to look very dubious—but I wanted to cover three virtues, because they were the three that I found, I wrote them in this order—except “independence,” I put “independence,” I followed Ayn Rand’s order and I stuck “independence” in after “rationality” and before “integrity,” and I did not learn anything, which maybe means I didn’t have a very creative treatment of “independence”—but the three that I learned the most from, and I felt it all unfolding before me, were “rationality,” “integrity,” and “honesty,” and the climax was “integrity,” and then “honesty” mopped it all up.  But I’ll take you through the steps of what made this all stand out crystal clear to me.

Now “rationality,” as you know, is the basic moral principle for Objectivism.  All virtues are basic in the sense that they’re all principles, but the base of the base, the fundamental principle, is “rationality.”  All the others are just aspects or expressions.  Now I’m not going to lecture you on what “rationality” is, because if you don’t know the Objectivist view on that, it was a waste of your money to come here, that is a very elementary point.  I want to plunge in, in this context of our discussion of principles, with a statement of Ayn Rand’s that seems very extreme on its face.  And I don’t feel that I really ever entirely understood this statement the way I do now.  I quote you this statement from Galt’s speech: “A concession to the irrational invalidates one’s consciousness.”  Do you remember that statement?  Now that is a very sweeping statement.  “A concession to the irrational”—now she doesn’t mean there of course a mistake; she means a deliberate, willful evasion, just one, a concession, wipes out your whole mind, detaches your mind from reality—that’s what “invalidates your consciousness” means—makes every conclusion of yours untrustworthy, all from one concession.  Now you see, if you grasped this, this would be further fuel to the issue of principles, it will help to concretize why you have to function by principle.

I hesitate to ask you to give me the answer to this because we’re late, although I have in my notes “Let them answer,” but I have to because we’re way over time and I want to get through this, so I’m going to tell you how I worked out, step by step, the answer.

I started by thinking, “Well why can’t you just evade, a delimited evasion, and leave everything else unaffected.  I’ll just evade X, and I’ll be completely rational all around it.  So why would everything in my mind be subverted or undercut if I just localize or delimit my evasion?”  And of course, all evaders believe that they can localize the practice.  The reason that they think evasion is safe is because they think they can delimit the area of their blindness to just this and they can function perfectly all the rest.  If they felt that the evasion committed them to blindness in relation to reality as a total, obviously they would never engage in the process.  Now the thing that you have to see is that an act of evasion does in fact commit you to blindness to reality as such.  It causes you to break with the method of perceiving reality.  And there are several steps to develop this point.

First is the point that I think you know, everything in reality is interconnected; we commented on that in an earlier class.  In logic, therefore, if you wanted to sustain an evasion on any single point, you would have to gradually expand and keep expanding the scope of your non-perception.  Now the example that I’ve given of this in the past, which is the easiest just because it’s so blatant, is suppose you decide to evade only in regard to the question of God.  You want to accept that just because you feel like it, but in everything else you’re going to follow reason.  Well what in pattern happens to your mental processes thereafter?  Can you remain entirely rational dealing with the rest of metaphysics, such as, for instance, the eternity of the universe, or the possibility of miracles?  Obviously you can’t, God is radiating out.  Well what about in epistemology, when you get to the topic of faith vs. reason?  Well obviously, to be very gingerly, you can’t prohibit faith.  Well what about God’s moral commandments?  You get to politics, what about God’s views which, according to many of His advocates He has very strong ones on pornography, prayer in the schools, abortion, biology—what about the clash between the Bible and science—etc.?  So if you tried just as an exercise consistently to protect your one starting evasion, and you turned aside methodically from everything that might threaten it, directly or indirectly, that single evasion would lead you step by step to one unavoidable result, which is total blindness.

Now what is the positive principle of which this is the negation?  That is, the negation is, any act of evading will ultimately have to redound throughout the total fabric of knowledge.  What is that the negative side of?  Man’s need of integration, right.  The evil of evasion is just the negative side of man’s need of integration.  Just as every idea has a relationship to your other ideas, and you can’t accept any idea until you see that it’s a part of an essential part of a single whole, so every fact has a relationship to other facts, and you can’t evade one without tearing apart that integrated whole, without blowing up your knowledge.  Now of course, you have to be realistic here—there is no such thing in reality as what I just gave you as a pedagogical example, namely, a methodical, conscientious, scrupulous evader, who says, “Well now, this is the thing that I’m going to evade, and I’m going to just turn away methodically from the rest,” who says, “Oh yeah, I guess I can’t discuss that question because that would expose my evasion.”  Obviously if he did that, he couldn’t evade.

Which leads us into the heart of what actually happens.  An evader, by his nature, cannot be concerned with such questions as consistency.  He does not conscientiously watch for the logical implications of every new piece of data to determine its effect on the fact that he’s evading.  If he did that, he couldn’t evade it.  Inherent in evasion is not following your evasion wherever it leads logically.  It’s the exact opposite—inherent in your evasion is saying, “To hell with logic, I am not concerned with logical relationships, I am going to deal with facts and ideas piecemeal, as unique, discrete datum, in a vacuum.  I’m going to accept or reject at random, by reference to feeling, and without reference to”—what process?  What process does the evader throw out?  What technical cognitive process is intrinsically incompatible with an act of evasion?  Integration, connecting knowledge, uniting your present information with what you previously knew or with what else is available.  Now that’s inherent in the nature of evasion.  Evasion is a form of non-integration, and in fact it’s the willful disintegration of mental content, it’s the deliberate saying, “I’m going to rip my knowledge apart, I’m going to go in the teeth of the logical requirement, I’m going to tear this, treat each piece in a vacuum without reference to the totality.”  Now once you are in this condition, you no longer have the means to determine are your ideas consistent or inconsistent, are they true or false.  For the very reason that we saw that integration, methodical integration, is a requirement of cognition, the person who throws it out has therefore taken his mental content and done what to it?  He’s removed it from the realm of cognition.  In his consciousness, all his content is reduced to the baseless, the capricious, the arbitrary, the non-logical.  No conclusion qualifies as knowledge in a mind that rejects the requirements of cognition.  So the real evader, just like the hypothetical one, does end up with a form of all-encompassing blindness or disconnection from reality.  And that is the step by step point that illustrates Ayn Rand’s observation that “A concession to the irrational invalidates one’s consciousness.”  It does so through the fact that to make such a concession—not an error now, not an honest error, but a willful, deliberate evasion—throws out integration, and therefore logic, and therefore reduces you back to the pre-Aristotelian state, the pre-Greek state, when you have no means of checking your mental content, and therefore none of it any longer qualifies as cognition.  And this is why you can no more tolerate a little irrationality than the body can tolerate a little malignancy.  Once you’ve introduced either element, the healthier tissue starts to be consumed.

Now you can see, therefore, why—we’ve come to the part that really interests us—why rationality must be an issue of principle, why it must be, to put the same point another way with the letter “a,” an absolute.  Now this is the last point I’ll make this morning.  Your alternative is to accept rationality as an absolute, or reject it utterly.  There is no middle of the road rejection of rationality.  There is not, even in theory, a possible compromise here.

Let’s try to imagine a compromise.  Let’s try to imagine that we have reason and subjective emotion—I take that as the underlying motor of the evader, he wants something to be so or not, and therefore, that’s what’s running him—let’s try to imagine him at the bargaining table.  They’re going to try to come to a deal between the two of them, reason and emotionalism (that is, arbitrary, subjective feeling).  Can we say we’ll let reason be the ruler and the decider of the division between these two realms?  Obviously you cannot.  Why?  Can reason dictate the terms of the compromise?  Obviously not, because reason doesn’t permit subjectivism to have any voice in cognition; as soon as that happens, reason has been repudiated.  However, subjective feeling certainly can set the terms.  Why?  Because you can do anything you want.  You’re not restricted to anything if you go by subjective feeling.  You can even allow reason to exercise itself when you feel like it.  So feeling has to be the element that decides the terms of the compromise.  It has to be the one that says, “Reason, you can function in this role, within these limits.”  In other words, the ruling principle of the compromiser in this issue, the middle-of-the-roader in regard to rationality, is, “I will consult facts and obey the rules of evidence sometimes, when I feel like it.”

Now, this approach makes the use of logic as such a matter of caprice, and therefore makes it completely useless.  This is not a compromise.  You couldn’t describe this approach as “partial emotionalism.”  Because what then would full-fledged, utter, and unadulterated emotionalism consist of?  There is no such thing as an individual who shuns every logical connection; he would just lie down flat in the middle of the street and be run over by a truck.  There is no such thing as a person who bypasses data that are acceptable to his feelings.  What makes a person an emotionalist is not that he universally rejects every rational argument.  What makes him an emotionalist is the criterion by which he accepts a given content.  To him, if you’re asking him accept or not, the standard of acceptance is not the objective, logical weight of the information, but its emotional congeniality.  And that is precisely the criterion that governs this so-called middle-of-the-roader.  He may very well go through the recital of evidence.  But when he does it, in his mind, that is not an expression of objectivity.  It’s just a sham, a social ritual that he’s learned from others that has no cognitive significance, because that’s not the grounds on which he’s accepted it.  His underlying grounds is, “Is it congenial or not?”  Now you see the point that a concession to the irrational invalidates your consciousness, because in regard to this kind of mentality, the skeptic claims are true—the emotionalist is cognitively impotent and cannot fully trust even his better ideas.  He does not have any means any longer to know which ideas are better and which are worse, because he’s thrown out the human means of knowledge.  So if you say, “I accept reason, but occasionally I do something else,” that is not like saying, “I’m on a diet but occasionally I have some chocolates.”  If you have to give an analogy to food, it’s more like swallowing arsenic three times a day for life, or at least as long as such a life drags on.

Alright, we are going to stop here and hopefully next time, on Thursday, squeeze in integrity and honesty.  I’m sorry I was a little overlong today, but I wanted to get to this point.

11. Question Period

Q: How does the term “principle” apply to Christianity, the principles of Christianity?

A: Yes, you can apply the term independent of whether the content is true or false.  There is such a thing as a false principle.  For instance, “Man should act selflessly” is a principle because it is a fundamental generalization, fundamental in the sense a whole course of behavior in countless realms would flow from that, and yet it’s false, it’s in defiance of reality.  Consequently, there is certainly nothing in the concept of “principle” that means that it has to be correct, or correctly formulated.  Of course the point is, is your principle is false, you cannot act on it consistently.  But nevertheless, you can certainly promulgate it, and in that sense, what’s the problem there?  A principle is either a truth which is so, or which is purported to be.  I mean, if I understand your intention—“What do you mean by calling it a truth?”—you cannot import into every definition the total of epistemology, which is what you want me to do.  You’re trying to take words out of context.  “Principle” arises only in the context, the concept, of a long epistemological development in which it’s long, long established that man is capable of error in the conceptual realm.  Therefore, any definition that you give of a conceptual process includes the possibility of being done incorrectly or invalidly.  I said that a concept is an integration of data of similar particulars, and then somebody goes through the process and does it badly, and unites man and a desk and a Rachmaninoff symphony and calls it a “gloop”—I’d say that is a concept.  It’s an invalid concept.  And now you’ll say to me, “But that doesn’t live up to your definition.”  I’d say yes it does, because the definition includes the fact that people are not infallible, or even necessarily honest, and therefore we have to define the products and processes in such a way as to capture what they are, and then as a separate question, which ones correspond and which ones don’t.  So do not drop the rest of the subject and focus on a definition out of context.

Q: You spoke of a life span as a frame of reference.  But since people have values that extend beyond their life span, such as their children, their friends, the ideas they believe in, can it be longer?

A: Can your frame of concern be longer than your life span?  Well, it wouldn’t alter anything if it could, because once you’ve added that many decades to your present perspective, I would say in a delimited sense, you can—in a delimited sense—particularly in regard to the conditions of your loves ones.  As long as that doesn’t become altruism—for instance, if I were to say, “Well I want there to be a decent world for my daughter, so I’ll give up philosophy and try to earn much more money in another field to leave her a big nest egg because I’m that long-range,” that is already self-sacrifice then.  She has to, you know, take her chances with a philosopher and just have to be poor, that’s her lot, or earn her own money.  So you can’t do it at the expense.  And you will find if it’s not at your expense, it doesn’t add anything except certain elementary provisions.  Since you’re not there to act after you die, all you can do is live your life to achieve your goals and leave some material security for that which matters to you.  And that is really what making a will consists of.  But that would be all, practically speaking, you can do for after you’re gone.  There is nothing you can with your children, your friends, or your ideas after you’re gone.  And it would be wrong to say, “Well, I want to do such and such with my life, but I’m really also concerned with my ideas in the 25th century, so instead of doing what I want with my life, I’m going to spend a couple of months taking care of the 25th century.”  That would be ridiculous.  You have to live your own life, and the only concern with the future after you’re dead is who gets the material assets.  And that doesn’t take a lot of work.  It costs a lot of money—you have to consult a lawyer—but it doesn’t add an ethical dimension to the question.

Q: Ayn Rand has a statement that “Those who work for the future live in it today.”  What is the definite meaning to that statement as it connects here?

A: Well I don’t exactly see the connection to what we’re saying except the issue of—it’s Ms. Rand’s statement about “Those who fight for the future live in it today”; she was saying it in the context of esthetics I think—but that is an aspect of being long-range.  But she was more focussed from the point of view of if you are caught in a miserable world, you project how man should live, and you want to fight for that, that gives you relief from the spectacle around you, an alternative to it, and an inspiration to keep you going in the face of what you see around you.  So it’s an aspect of being long-range, but more from the point of view of what art, or a projection of the ideal, can do for you.  That is part, obviously, of being long-range, but it’s not directly on the point we’re making here.

Q: Dr. Peikoff, what’s the criteria that we might use to distinguish between flirting with death and accepting a seemingly insoluble challenge?

A: What do you mean by “insoluble challenge”?  I don’t follow your question.  Give me an example of the seemingly insoluble challenge.

Q: Like mountain climbing.

A: Oh, I get it.  That clarifies the whole question.  What is the difference between flirting with death and pursuits which involve substantial risk of a recreational kind, like mountain climbing and parachuting or skydiving, stuff like that, or test pilot, etc.?  Yes, I see your point.  There, I would say this—it depends very much on what the activity is, what your reason is for undertaking it, and how it integrates into the total of your life, and what is the nature of the value it can produce.  Now for instance, take a test pilot—that is a perfectly legitimate career, it would be essential to aviation or an astronaut, to human progress.  And therefore, you would cut off the possibility of progress without such a career.  Now nobody is mandated to do it.  But if a man says, “My passion for this field is so great that I am prepared to risk my life, within reasonable safety precautions,” that is analogous to—it’s not the same as, but it’s analogous to a man who says, “I will take a risk to get out of a dictatorship even if I have a change of getting caught, because I don’t want to live under those conditions.”  Now this of course is not the same thing; it’s an optional choice within the career realm; but if it really is that in his hierarchy, and for instance, with Jagar and people like that it really is their value structure, and it’s a legitimate value structure as such, that they don’t want to live without following this path, then that is a rational calculation.  When you however come to recreation which is risky, if it is objectively risky, it is irrational.  There is no justification if it really is risky.  In other words, that becomes then like Russian Roulette.  And that applies, and you have to judge, don’t ask me, I don’t want a list of every possible form of recreation.  It depends, what are the actual chances, what is the degree of the danger?  You could just as well say, “I’ll never play baseball because people get hit in the mouth with a wild pitch, and they could break their leg.”  So if you’re going to say it’s risk possible, you’d just have to stay in bed, and even there you could be hit by a meteor.  You have to judge though realistically, is this an outside chance inherent in any normal human action, or are you courting trouble?  Are some mountains reasonably safe, as far as I can tell?  Some mountains are safe to very skilled explorers who have fallback positions and rescue teams, etc.  And others the guy is just begging, it’s like Russian Roulette.  Any time that latter element enters, that is flirting with death.  Recreation is rest, and one absolute requirement is it must be safe within the normal risk that’s inherent in any human occupation.  Otherwise, you’re right, that does become flirting with death.  But the test pilot is different because that is a rational part of a total integrated life.

Q: I’ve always had the attitude that I owe a debt to society.  I was born into a world that had already brought language and culture and so forth into, and I felt that I had produce at least equal to, if not more, than I consumed, and that I had paid to my debt to society, from then on I would have more optional choices.

A: Well let me say in answer to that, I couldn’t disagree with you more.  You say that you were born into a society and you were give a lot of things created by other men, such as language and culture and so on, therefore you first have to pay back the debt that you incurred to those people, and then you’re free to live your own life.  Number one in answer to that, you cannot pay back those people, because all the people that made our society possible are long dead.  The ones who really deserve to be paid back, and that would have a legitimate claim on you, there’s probably about a dozen, or maybe twenty, who have long since died, and the only ones left alive now are just imitating partly, and partly destroying.  So if you could resurrect Aristotle or Aquinas or Galileo or Jefferson, you could make a case for saying, “I really owe this guy something, I’ve got to write him a letter or something.”  And then of course there’s the question, how would you pay him back if you went to Aristotle?  What does he want from you?  He didn’t write what he wrote in order to give you anything; he wrote it for his own purposes.  He charged the people involved whatever he charged them (of course, they didn’t charge in those days), but he got whatever values he wanted in exchange, if he was a rational man he was entirely paid up when he died because he engaged in his transactions voluntarily when it was to his interest.  There was no accumulated debt for heirs, and if he thought there was, that means he was behaving selflessly.  Every man in a proper society is paid back for what he does.  And you have no mortgage.  He knows perfectly well what he creates.  If it’s a positive creation, people are going to benefit forever from it.  And he’s perfectly happy that that takes place, and he doesn’t expect any reward from future generations.  So you are making society into some kind of mystic collective that’s there, and here you are, Baby Jane, at birth, and society comes in the door and says, “Here you are, here’s language, here’s science,” and so on.  That is fantastic, there is no such entity.  You don’t even have that debt to your parents, who really do something concretely and specifically for you, because you didn’t ask to be born.  So it’s a completely one-sided obligation.  As a parent, you brought the kid into existence, you said “I want this as part of my life,” you knew what it was going to involve.  And if you waited until the kid was twenty-one and said, “Now look, I’ve given you all this time and money and effort, it’s about time you repaid me,” that would be monstrous; that would amount to breeding slaves.  The kid is completely free.  And if he turns around and says, “Thanks Dad, see you in another generation,” he has every entitlement to do that.  Of course, if you’ve been nice, hopefully he won’t do that.  But it is a completely collectivist assumption underlying your question.  There is nobody to repay.

Q: To what extent can one develop a loyalty to one’s own integrity and psychology, so to speak, and in an extreme circumstance—I’m thinking certain characters from We the Living—what would make you continue to act in the course of a value, which is your life, even though there is no projection possible?

A: To what extent—you’re taking Kira at the end of We the Living—can one continue to act to sustain one’s life when there is no long-range possible?  Well, you can’t.  If you literally conclude no long-range is possible, you have to give up.  And that is exactly what happened to Leo and Andre in two different ways—they decided that no long-range was possible, so Leo just became a short-range, range-of-the-moment mentality; he gave up projecting any future, and he became dissolute; Andre said, “Under these terms, I don’t want to live at all,” so he committed suicide.  Kira tried to escape for one reason only—she thought there was a chance in a million that she might get across the border.  She didn’t think there was a good chance, but she thought there was a chance.  And so she was willing, rather than end up like that, to try to escape knowing that she was courting death, but the alternative was in effect suicide.  But if you truly do believe that long-range is impossible, you either break down psychologically in one form or another—go into total depression, immobilizing anxiety, or whatever—or you become a bum, or a professor, or you kill yourself.

Okay, thank you very much, I’ll see you soon.

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