Based on a lecture delivered in February 1961 at the University of Wisconsin, this essay was first published in The Virtue of Selfishness
Rand also delivered a version on radio and, in a separate radio program, answered questions on the subject. The radio address lasts 56 minutes and the Q&A lasts 36 minutes.
Since I am to speak on the Objectivist Ethics, I shall begin by quoting its best representative — John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged:
“Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of morality, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfish to spill all the blood it required. You damned man, you damned existence, you damned this earth, but never dared to question your code. . . . You went on crying that your code was noble, but human nature was not good enough to practice it. And no one rose to ask the question: Good? — by what standard?
“You wanted to know John Galt’s identity. I am the man who has asked that question.
“Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. . . . Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality . . . but to discover it.”
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all — and why?
Is the concept of value, of “good or evil” an arbitrary human invention, unrelated to, underived from and unsupported by any facts of reality — or is it based on a metaphysical fact, on an unalterable condition of man’s existence? (I use the word “metaphysical” to mean: that which pertains to reality, to the nature of things, to existence.) Does an arbitrary human convention, a mere custom, decree that man must guide his actions by a set of principles — or is there a fact of reality that demands it? Is ethics the province of whims: of personal emotions, social edicts and mystic revelations — or is it the province of reason? Is ethics a subjective luxury — or an objective necessity?
In the sorry record of the history of mankind’s ethics — with a few rare, and unsuccessful, exceptions — moralists have regarded ethics as the province of whims, that is: of the irrational. Some of them did so explicitly, by intention — others implicitly, by default. A “whim” is a desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause.
No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined. The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.
Most philosophers took the existence of ethics for granted, as the given, as a historical fact, and were not concerned with discovering its metaphysical cause or objective validation. Many of them attempted to break the traditional monopoly of mysticism in the field of ethics and, allegedly, to define a rational, scientific, nonreligious morality. But their attempts consisted of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God.
The avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics. The neomystics replaced it with “the good of society,” thus collapsing into the circularity of a definition such as “the standard of the good is that which is good for society.” This meant, in logic — and, today, in worldwide practice — that “society” stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that “society” may do anything it pleases, since “the good” is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And — since there is no such entity as “society,” since society is only a number of individual men — this meant that some men (the majority or any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they desire to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desires.
This could hardly be called rational, yet most philosophers have now decided to declare that reason has failed, that ethics is outside the power of reason, that no rational ethics can ever be defined, and that in the field of ethics — in the choice of his values, of his actions, of his pursuits, of his life’s goals — man must be guided by something other than reason. By what? Faith — instinct — intuition — revelation — feeling — taste — urge — wish — whim. Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it “arbitrary postulate” or “subjective choice” or “emotional commitment”) — and the battle is only over the question of whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s. Whatever else they may disagree about, today’s moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason — mind — reality.
If you wonder why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell, this is the reason.
If you want to save civilization, it is this premise of modern ethics — and of all ethical history — that you must challenge.
To challenge the basic premise of any discipline, one must begin at the beginning. In ethics, one must begin by asking: What are values? Why does man need them?
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.
I quote from Galt’s speech: “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence — and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”
To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.
Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex — from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man — are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.1When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term “goal-directed” is not to be taken to mean “purposive” (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term “goal-directed,” in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism’s life.
An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival.
No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it is. Many variations, many forms of adaptation to its background are possible to an organism, including the possibility of existing for a while in a crippled, disabled or diseased condition, but the fundamental alternative of its existence remains the same: if an organism fails in the basic functions required by its nature — if an amoeba’s protoplasm stops assimilating food, or if a man’s heart stops beating — the organism dies. In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life. 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.
An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means — and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.