Critique of "The Objectivist Ethics"

by Michael Huemer

The following responds to "The Objectivist Ethics" by Ayn Rand. I assume the reader is familiar with it. I begin with a general overview of what is wrong with it. I follow this with a set of more detailed comments, which make a paragraph-by-paragraph examination of her statements in the essay. The latter also elaborates further some of the points made in the overview.

General Overview

1. Rand's Argument

Rand's argument seems to be as follows. I enclose in parentheses required implicit premises that I have introduced. The right-most column gives page and paragraph citations for where Rand says these things (15,6=page 15, 6th paragraph from the top).(1) Major conclusions are marked by asterisks.

1. Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities. premise 15,6
2. Something is valuable to an entity, only if the entity faces alternatives. premise 15,6
3. No non-living things face any alternatives. premise 15,7
4. Therefore, values exist only for living things. from 1,2,3 16,1; 16,3
5. Anything an entity acts to gain or keep is a value for that entity. premise 15,6
6. Every living thing acts to maintain its life, for its own sake. premise 16,3
(7. There is no other thing that they act to gain or keep for its own sake.) implicit premise
8. Therefore, its own life, and nothing else, is valuable for its own sake, for any living thing. from 5,6,7 17,1; 17,2
9. Therefore, life and nothing else is valuable for its own sake. from 4,8 17,3
(10. Everyone should always do whatever promotes what is valuable for himself.) implicit premise
*11. Therefore, everyone should always do whatever promotes his own life. from 8,10 passim, 17,4; 22,3; 25,2; 25,4(2)
12. A person can live only if he is rational. premise 23,4; 19-23 passim
*13. Therefore, everyone should be 100% rational. from 11,12 23,4; 25,7; 25-26

2. Problems with the argument

The argument contains eight fatal flaws.

Objection (i):

The first is that premise 1 begs the question.

One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another. (N.B., this should not be confused with what are commonly called "moral relativism" and "cultural relativism.")

Another way to put the issue is this: absolutists think that value exists as a property of something--most likely, as a property of certain states of affairs. For instance, if I say, "It is good that intelligent life exists on the Earth," I am saying that the state of intelligent life existing on the Earth has a certain property: goodness. Agent-relativists think, instead, that value exists only as a relationship between a thing and a person. For instance, an agent-relativist might say, "It is good for me that intelligent life exists on the Earth," and this would mean: the state of intelligent life existing on the Earth bears a certain relationship to me: it is good for me. But an agent relativist would not say it is good simply.

Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

Objection (ii):

Premise 2 seems to be false. If I knew that I was inevitably going to get a million dollars tomorrow--there's no way I can avoid it--would that mean that the money will have no value? Again, Rand offers no defense of this assertion.

Perhaps her thought was that "good" is the same as "ought to be sought" or "ought to be chosen", and that since it makes no sense to say one should seek or choose what one either cannot get or cannot avoid, it follows that it makes no sense to say something one cannot get or cannot avoid is "good". But this simply illustrates why that definition of "good" is wrong. Nor does Rand offer any defense of this assumption (which she doesn't even explicitly state)--she seems simply not to have noticed that she was assuming it.

Objection (iii):

Premise 3 seems to be false. Rand claimed that living things face an alternative of existing or not existing but that non-living things do not. I can think of five interpretations of this, but all of them make it false:

First, it is not true that non-living things can't be destroyed. I once saw a house destroyed by flames, for example.

Second, it is true that the matter of which non-living things are composed can't be destroyed; but this is equally true of living things.

Third, it is not true that a non-living thing's continued existence never depends on its activities. If my computer ceases to function properly, this may cause me to destroy it.

Fourth, it is not true that positive action is never required to preserve a non-living thing's existence. A cloud, for instance, must absorb more water in order to continue to exist.

Fifth, it is true that non-living things do not possess free will. But this is equally true of almost all living things, and yet Rand claims that they (including plants, single-celled organisms, etc.) face an "alternative".

Thus, it seems there is no sense in which Rand's claim is true.

Objection (iv):

Either premise 5 is false, or the argument contains an equivocation. The word "value" has at least two different meanings.

First. Sometimes "value" is used as a verb. In this sense, it means approximately, "to believe to be valuable," or sometimes "to desire". Thus, if I say John values equality, I am saying John thinks equality is good, or that John desires equality. Along the same lines, "value" is sometimes used as a noun, to refer to things which someone 'values' in this sense--i.e., things which someone regards as good. Thus, if I say equality is one of John's 'values', I mean equality is one of the things that John believes is good.

Second. Sometimes "value" is used to refer to things which are good. So if I say, "equality is an important value", I am saying that equality is one of the important goods. Notice the difference, then: the difference between believed to be good and is good. No objectivist can afford to neglect this distinction, since if one does, one will be forced into extreme ethical subjectivism.

If Rand meant "value" in the first sense, then her premise was close to true. (Not exactly, since it is possible to act to gain something even if you don't believe it to be good, but let's overlook that.) However, in this case, it has no ethical significance. In particular, the later steps 8 and 9 would not follow, since they claim that life is valuable--that is, good--whereas the premise from which they are derived is about what is valued--that is, held to be good.

If Rand meant "value" in the second sense, then her premise was false. It is perfectly possible, as Rand herself explains later on, for someone to value what is actually bad for them. Nor did she give any argument for thinking that whatever one acts to gain or keep must actually be good.

Objection (v):

Premise 6 is false.

If we read it in a teleological sense, as saying living things have inherent goals or purposes, then it is false because nature is not teleological--Aristotelian physics and biology have long since been refuted. In that sense, living things do not aim at anything (with the exception of conscious beings with intentions).

If we read (6), as Rand suggests (p. 16n), to mean merely that the actions of living things result in the maintenance of their lives, then two problems appear. First, (7) will now be false. There are many things that living things' actions result in. For one thing, their actions result in the reproduction of their genes. For another, animals' actions result in production of body heat.

Second, it would follow, absurdly, that any object whose actions have results, has values. Thus, since when a rock rolls downhill, this results in its having greater kinetic energy, we must conclude that the rock acts to gain and/or keep kinetic energy, and therefore that kinetic energy is a value for the rock.

Objection (vi):

I have included 7, because it is necessary in order to get to 8. But 7 is false, however one reads it. If one interprets it as a claim merely about actual results of action, it is false as discussed above.

If one reads it as an observation about what organisms are evolutionarily 'programmed' for (that is, what traits are naturally selected for), it is false because the only trait that is selected for is that of producing more copies of one's genes. Thus, if anything is the ultimate 'value' for living things, it would be gene-reproduction (technically, 'inclusive fitness').

If one reads it as a claim about genuine teleology in nature, it is false because teleological physics is false.

If one reads it as a claim about the purposes or aims of living things, it is false because, for those living things that have purposes, they can often have other purposes. Rand frequently says that many human beings are aiming at self-destruction, for example. It is hard to believe that they are doing this for the sake of promoting their lives.

Consequently, conclusions 8 and 9 are unsupported, and in fact they are false. Many people value happiness or pleasure for its own sake, and not simply for the sake of further prolonging their lives. Rand herself, inconsistently, later declared happiness to be an end in itself. According to her theory, she should have said it was good only because it helped maintain your life.

Objection (vii):

This is probably the most egregious error. Premise 10 begs the question. Rand claimed to have an argument, a proof even, for ethical egoism. Yet 10 is one of the required premises of that 'proof'--and 10 essentially just is ethical egoism!

Some will dispute that this is really one of her premises. The reason I say it is is that without 10, the subsequent steps 11 and 13 do not follow. All Rand established up to that point, even if we ignore all the above objections, was that there is one and only one thing that is good for you, and that is your life. But obviously it does not follow that you should only serve your life unless we assume that you should only serve what is good for you. So, if 10 is not included as a premise, then Rand simply has a non sequitur.

Obviously, someone who held a non-egoistic theory--an altruist, say--would respond to the news of 8 and 9 (assuming Rand had demonstrated them) by saying: "Ah, so therefore, we should promote all life" or, "I see, so that means I should serve everyone's life. Thank you, Miss Rand; I previously thought I should serve other people's pleasure or desires (or whatever), because I thought that was what was good for them. But now that you've convinced me that life is the sole intrinsic value, I see that it was their life that I should have been serving all along." What argument has Rand given against the altruist, then? None.

Objection (viii):

Either 12 is false, or the inference to 13 rests on equivocation.

Rand explains that reason is our basic tool of survival. If her thesis is that any person who is not 100% rational, all the time, will die, then she certainly needs to provide argument for that. There seem to be lots of counter-examples, many of them pointed out by Rand herself.

If her thesis is something weaker, such as that any person who is not by and large rational will probably die, then 12 is plausible. But 13 does not follow. All that would follow would be, e.g., that one should be by and large rational.

3. General arguments against ethical egoism

Rand endorsed a version of 'ethical egoism': the view that a person should always do whatever best serves his own interests. I have discussed the following objections to this doctrine in my "Why I Am Not an Objectivist", so I will be brief here. Here is one general argument against egoism:


If ethical egoism is true, then if you could obtain a (net) benefit equal to a dime by torturing and killing 500 people, you should do it.


It is not the case that, if you could obtain a (net) benefit equal to a dime by torturing and killing 500 people, you should do it.


Therefore, egoism is not true.

This argument is very simple, but that should not fool us into thinking it is therefore illegitimate. It is true that an egoist could simply deny 2, proclaiming that in that situation, the mass torture and killing would be morally virtuous. Any person can maintain any belief, provided he is willing to accept enough absurd consequences of it.

Here is a second argument against ethical egoism: it contradicts Rand's own claim that each individual is an end-in-himself and that it is therefore morally wrong to sacrifice one person to another. For either Rand meant that an individual life is an end-in-itself in an absolute sense--as discussed in my objection (i) above; or she meant that an individual life is an end-in-itself in a relative sense--i.e., for that individual.

Assume she meant it in a relative sense. In this case, Smith's life is an end-in-itself for Smith. But since Smith's life is not an end-in-itself for Jones, there has been given no reason why Jones should not use Smith or sacrifice Smith's life for Jones' benefit. In fact, for Jones, Smith's life can only have value as a means, if it has any value at all, since for Jones, only Jones' life is an end in itself.

Now, assume she meant it in an absolute sense. In that case, she contradicted her agent-relative conception of value. Furthermore, she generated a general problem for ethical egoism. If the life of my neighbor, Jones, is an end-in-itself in an absolute sense, and not just relative to Jones, then why wouldn't it follow that I ought to promote the life of my neighbor, for its own sake? But this is not what Rand wants--she claims that my own life is the only thing I should promote for its own sake.

4. Attacking straw men

Rand seriously misrepresents the history of ethics. Essentially, she leads the reader to believe that there have been only two alternative views in ethics: (a) that moral knowledge comes by mystical revelations from God, and (b) that moral principles are arbitrary conventions. Either way, ethics is regarded as "the province of the irrational." One other position is mentioned: that of Aristotle, who allegedly based ethics on what noble and wise people choose to do but ignored the questions of why they chose to do it or why he thought they were noble and wise. Next to these alternatives, Rand's theory looks almost reasonable by comparison.

However, the above is a gross caricature of the history of ethics, and Rand makes no effort to document her claims with any citations.

In short, Rand draws plausibility for her position by attacking straw men.

5. Man qua man and fudge words

Some time after getting to step 9 in her argument (as described in section 1 above), Rand introduces the idea of "the life of man qua man" (hereafter, MQM). She informs the reader that when she says a person should promote his own life, she means life MQM, which means the sort of life proper to a rational being. She tries to use this to explain why, despite the truth of egoism, you still shouldn't live off of the productive work of others by stealing--that's not the sort of life proper to a rational human being.

Let's distinguish, then, between life qua existence (hereafter, LQE) and MQM. LQE means simply one's continued literal survival--i.e., life in the sense of not being dead (what everyone else means by "life"). MQM is something more than that--the kind of life proper to a rational being.

The first problem is that Rand's shift in the argument from LQE to MQM is illegitimate. It is an equivocation: If "life" in the argument means LQE, then Rand cannot switch over to MQM as her standard of value and claim that she gave an argument for it; she only gave an argument for LQE. On the other hand, if we assume "life" means MQM throughout the argument, then the premises preceding step 11 that mention life or living are all false: 3 will be false, because many entities that do not possess life MQM face alternatives. 4 is false similarly. 6 is false, because most living things do not have MQM life. Moreover, it is clear that Rand meant LQE, since she starts off the argument by saying the only fundamental alternative is that of existence or non-existence.

The second problem is that Rand has given no criterion for what counts as 'proper to a rational being.' I consider three possibilities:


Suppose that we try to use something other than life as our criterion for what is rational. In that case, we would have to abandon her claims 8 and 9. Furthermore, she has in fact provided no such criterion.


Suppose we try to use LQE as our criterion. Then MQM collapses into LQE, and it cannot be used in the way Rand wants, to explain why some forms of physical survival are undesirable.


Suppose we try to use MQM as our criterion. Then we have a circular criterion, because Rand hasn't told us what "MQM" means, except that it means the sort of life proper to a rational being.

Rand makes a number of claims about what is or isn't rational, but they are simply arbitrary declarations in the absence of a criterion of the rational, and an explanation of how that criterion follows from her initial argument discussed in section 1. In many cases, her claims about what is 'rational' are intuitively plausible, but in no case do they follow from that argument.

The upshot is that Rand can and does use "man qua man" and "rational" as fudge words: words that can be interpreted to mean whatever it is convenient for them to mean at a particular time. Words that can be used to insulate her thesis from testing and to enable her to claim that her theory supports, or doesn't support, anything; since there is no precise and unambiguous definition of these terms.

6. Rand's intuitions

This will be a suitable topic to conclude with. Rand's main argument in "The Objectivist Ethics", as well as all of the moral claims she makes, here and elsewhere, rest squarely on her intuitions.

She would deny this. She says or implies at various points that she is giving a fully rational proof of her ethical system, that all her value judgements can be proven, and that ultimately they all rest on the evidence of the senses. She criticizes Aristotle for thinking ethics was not an exact science. The implication seems to be that she thinks her theory, as set out here, is an exact science. This claim would not withstand a casual acquaintance with any actual exact science.

Rand's ethical system rests on her assertion of premises 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, and 12. She gives no defense for 1, 2, 5, 7, or 10; and very little for the others. This would be alright if all of those were self-evident truths, like the axioms of a mathematical system. But not only are none of them self-evident, I have raised serious doubts about every one of them.

It is worthwhile to remind ourselves of what mathematics--a real exact science--is like. Mathematicians too start with certain premises. But their premises are not highly controversial claims like "value only exists relative to a person" or "everyone should only serve his own good". A typical mathematical axiom would be something like, "if a=b, then b=a" or "the shortest path between 2 points is a straight line"--things that no one doubts. Mathematicians then proceed to deduce their theorems according to rigid and precise rules. That is why there are no divergent views about mathematical theorems--when Euclid wrote his Elements, no one disagreed with it or presented arguments against it. That's because Euclid had actually proved his theorems. Does Rand think that she 'proved' a series of moral theorems like that?

Alternately, she might view her 'science' of ethics as more like the natural sciences, like physics or chemistry, say. Now, for many centuries these were not exact sciences either. Part of what makes them relatively exact now is that scientists have evolved techniques for eliminating fudge factors. A scientist with a theory has to 'put up or shut up'. He can't make vague gestures or rest his arguments on vague concepts, such as "proper to a rational being" or "man qua man". The scientist has to identify a specific, clear observation, preferably a measurement, that he predicts can be made in a certain experiment. He has to say, in effect: "If, when you do this experiment, the needle on the instrument goes up to past .6, then my theory is wrong." Does Rand think she has a theory that is empirical like that?

Probably not; I hope not. Probably she was simply using "prove" and "exact science" loosely, and perhaps she was unfamiliar with mathematics and modern science. In any case, the fact remains that Rand has proposed no experimental test that can be done on her assertion that value is only agent-relative, or that people 'should' only pursue what is good for them. Importantly, scientific reasoning involves the idea of falsifiability: a scientist must be prepared to describe what specific set of observations would refute him. This is one of the things that prevents fudging. Note another aspect: the sort of observation the scientist identifies should not be something that is open to interpretation, as to whether that sort of observation happened--or at least, it should be minimally so. These are the sort of things that make science science.

Rand has done nothing like this. She has not told us what sort of specific, not-open-to-interpretation observations she would accept as refuting her. That is why her theory is not scientific, and it is not a proof. It is based on intuition: her intuition that the premises mentioned above are true. Likewise, her claims about what is rational and what promotes MQM rest on intuition, for the same reason. The terms are simply not defined in a scientific manner (if they were, you should be able to build an "MQM-ometer" which would tell you how much a given event promoted your MQM), so they require the exercise of individual judgement in a particular case--in other words, intuition.

Now, I am not saying this means the concepts are illegitimate, nor does this, by itself, show that her argument is wrong (though the objections I raised in section 2 do).

I am not opposed to the use of intuition in philosophy--quite the opposite, in fact--and nor am I saying that Rand's ethics is bad simply because it is not an exact science. What I am opposed to is someone's claiming their intuitions and philosophical theories as 'scientific proofs,' and then deriding the philosophical theories of others for being unscientific and therefore 'mystical.'

When we confront this sort of thing, it is imperative that we remember that Rand gave no argument for ethical egoism. She assumed egoism, discussed other propositions at some length, and then said that she proved it.

Detailed comments

I list in order each major claim Rand makes, followed by my comments on it. Numbers preceding Rand's claims are the page and paragraph number (13,6 = page 13, 6th paragraph from the top), and the claims are paraphrased unless quotation marks are used.(3) All italics in quotations are in the original.

For convenience, I use "NA" as an abbreviation for the following: "Rand gives no argument for this. Perhaps she considers it self-evident, but I do not."


13,6: The first question we have to ask when approaching ethics is "Does man need values at all--and why?"

NA. Taking this as the starting point makes two substantive ethical assumptions, which are rejected by some ethical systems, namely:


That ethics is properly regarded as a tool, as something that we have to serve some ulterior purpose. This would seem to be building consequentialism in right from the start.


That the particular purpose in question is to satisfy some human need.


13,7: "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.)"

This is a false dichotomy. She ignores the possibilities:


That the concept of value is based on an ethical fact, where ethical facts are distinct from metaphysical facts. By ruling out this possibility, Rand presupposes that there is no is/ought gap.


That the concept of value is a primary, not 'based on' anything.


That it is a human invention, but that the invention is neither arbitrary nor based on the recognition of a metaphysical fact. Instead, the invention might have a pragmatic (rather than purely cognitive) function. Along the same lines, it might function to satisfy some desires we have. I don't think this sort of thing is what Rand has in mind by a 'metaphysical fact.'


That it is based on alterable conditions of man's existence.


14,1: "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?"

This implies: First, that conventions are not facts of reality. Second, that human conventions are generally arbitrary.

Perhaps by "fact of reality" she just means convention-independent fact, and perhaps she is not asserting that conventions (or "mere" customs) are always arbitrary. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Rand does not consider the possibility of grounding ethics on non-arbitrary conventions, i.e. conventions that serve useful functions--she appears to be assuming that a convention-based morality is non-objective, irrational, and arbitrary, but she has given no defense of this assumption.


14,2: "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."

It would be difficult to support this contention by attention to the history of ethics, and in fact Rand does not attempt to do so. She names no one whom she might have in mind here.

Perhaps this will help: I have a history of ethics book here, and it includes the following moralists: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Butler, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Nietzsche, Bradley, Sidgwick, Moore, Prichard.(4)

Obviously, I cannot undertake to explain all of these moralists' positions here. Suffice it to say that I do not think anyone familiar with them would argue that Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Aquinas, Butler, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Bradley, Sidgwick, Moore, or Prichard--any one of them--thought that ethics was "the province of the irrational." I would be equally surprised to hear someone argue that those moralists as a class are accurately described as "a few" and "unsuccessful."

I'll grant her the cases of Hume and Nietzsche. I am unsure about Augustine and Hobbes.


14,3: Aristotle "left unanswered the questions of" why noble & wise people do as they do, and "why he evaluated them as noble and wise."

Rand overlooks Aristotle's discussions of the function of man and of the nature of the virtues (see Nicomachean Ethics). Perhaps Aristotle's answers to the above questions are wrong, but it is grossly inaccurate to imply that he had nothing to say about them.


14,4: Many philosophers have tried "to break the traditional monopoly of mysticism in the field of ethics ... But their attempts consisted of accepting the ethical doctrines of the mystics and of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God."

If Rand intended someone familiar with the history of ethics to be able evaluate this claim for himself, she should have identified some of the philosophers she is referring to here, as well as the ethical doctrines she claims they accepted and tried to justify on social grounds.

Referring to my list of famous moralists (comment 4): she may be referring to contractarians such as Hobbes, but it is unclear that he accepted "the ethical doctrines of the mystics." She may mean the utilitarians like Bentham and Mill, but again, they hardly accepted the same ethics as "the mystics" (if the latter means traditional religious teachings). I suspect Rand did not identify whom she was talking about because she did not know.

At this point, I am going to skip over the rest of her remarks about the history of ethics, about which I would say essentially the same things: that she makes no effort to document her claims and that they are in fact impossible to document because not true.

What is the significance of this? Two things. First, Rand gains an illegitimate rhetorical advantage with her readers by portraying her theory as the only existing alternative to two openly irrational theories--the 'mystical' theory and the arbitrary-convention theory. If her readers knew that there have been a great number of philosophers throughout history who have attempted to give ethics a grounding in reason and/or objective facts, they would be less inclined to accept Rand's theory and more inclined, perhaps, to investigate these other theories. Indeed, if Rand's theory were the only known way of even trying to ground ethics in reason, I myself might accept it.

Second, I do not think Rand was openly dishonest: she was not deliberately trying to manipulate an ignorant reader by lying about the history of philosophy. Rather, I think she herself believed that she was the only figure to attempt to ground ethics in reason or objective reality. I do not see how to avoid concluding that she was very ignorant of the history of her subject. I believe that this explains, in part, why her ethics is so flawed.

As an analogy, imagine a person with no training in science and engineering, trying to build a bridge. His first try would probably collapse, even if he were highly intelligent. I am not saying here that ethics is on a par with modern engineering in its degree of sophistication and certainty; nevertheless, people have been working on it for the past 2000 years, and there are things one can learn from that effort.


15,6: "'Value' is that which one acts to gain and/or keep."

First, just because someone acts to gain something, does not mean it has value. If an alcoholic acts to get another drink, it does not follow that the drink is valuable; it may be very bad for him. Perhaps Rand meant "value" only in the sense of "that which a person values, i.e., regards as valuable." But then she has failed to define the important concept for ethics, that of a thing's actually being valuable.


15,6: The concept of value "presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?"

NA. This assumes without argument that nothing is intrinsically valuable, and there is no such thing as an end in itself (though she later contradicts this). It likewise assumes without argument that value is agent-relative.


15,6: "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."

NA. I think Rand means by "an alternative" a situation in which there are at least two possible future courses of events, and one can control which takes place.

Suppose you knew that you were going to receive a million dollars tomorrow. Suppose that you will receive it no matter what you do. Does it follow that it won't be good, or valuable? Rand seems to think it does--that in order for it to be good, there must be alternative courses of action you can take that will determine whether you get the money.


15,7: "There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence..."

NA. It is unclear what "fundamental" alternative means. Perhaps she means this in the sense that one of the branches on that alternative forecloses all other alternatives (i.e., if you don't exist, then there are no choices available to you about anything); therefore, in a sense, all other alternatives depend on this alternative. If this is what she means, she is right; however, we must keep in mind that it does not follow that all other alternatives depend on this alternative in the sense that the resolution of this alternative determines how the other alternatives must be resolved.


15,7: continuing the same sentence: "...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..."

I can think of five things Rand might mean by saying something's existence is unconditional: she might mean (a) that the thing cannot be destroyed, (b) that the stuff of which the thing is made cannot be destroyed, (c) that whether the thing is destroyed or not does not depend on what the thing does, (d) that the thing continues to exist without performing any positive actions, or (e) that whether the thing is destroyed or not does not depend on any exercise of free will, and so in that sense there are no genuine alternatives. Let's examine these in turn.

(a): It is obviously false that only living organisms can be destroyed. Inanimate objects are often destroyed; I once saw a house destroyed by flames. The last quoted phrase suggests Rand might reply: yes, but the matter of which the inanimate object is composed continues to exist, which brings us to:

(b): It is true that matter cannot be destroyed. However, living organisms are composed of matter in exactly the sense that houses are composed of matter. Therefore, if we say the matter the house is made of was not destroyed (but only rearranged), we can equally well say that the matter of a living organism cannot be destroyed but only rearranged. The point is that Rand has identified no difference between living things and inanimate objects.

Perhaps Rand would reply that although the matter of a living thing cannot be destroyed, it can cease to be living matter; whereas the matter of an inanimate object cannot cease to exist as non-living matter. This, however, is false. Non-living matter is incorporated into living things, just as often as living matter decomposes into non-living matter.

(c): Whether an inanimate object is destroyed can often depend on what the thing does. If my computer malfunctions constantly and irreparably, this may well result in my destroying it. Or, for an example not involving human agency: if a storm cloud moves over a plain and rains on it, this may result in the cloud's ceasing to exist (because the cloud is converted to rain water, which then dissipates).

Perhaps Rand would say that in these examples, the inanimate object is purely passive. However, they do not seem to be any more 'passive' in these examples than living things normally are. They are acting in accordance with the laws of nature, with what they do being determined by their nature together with the environment they are in--just like living things.

(d): Perhaps Rand would say that the inanimate objects don't have to do anything, positively, to continue to exist, whereas living things deteriorate immediately if they stop acting--e.g., if they stop breathing. There is a difference of degree here, but not a qualitative difference: a living thing can continue to exist for a (very) short time without acting. Non-living things can exist longer, but nothing lasts forever. The computer will fall apart eventually, if it just sits here, even if nothing comes in and actively destroys it.

Perhaps Rand would say that although this is true, the computer can't do anything to stop the destruction that results from its inactivity, whereas a living thing can do something to stop (or delay) the destruction that results from its inactivity. But the storm cloud could do something to stop itself from dissipating: namely, absorb more water vapor. If it stops doing that, the storm cloud will eventually dissipate and so stop existing. So its continued existence depends on its activity. This may not seem like much of an 'activity'--but then, neither are the activities of a lot of living things (e.g., plants, sponges, mussels). It seems absurd to claim that, if this is true, it follows that it is good for the cloud to continue to exist, but not otherwise.

(e): It is true that the continued existence of inanimate objects does not depend upon free will, but neither does the continued existence of any kind of living thing other than people--and Rand is trying to identify something that differentiates all living things from all non-living things.

What is the significance of this? Rand aims to use this alleged difference between living things and inanimate objects to explain why 'value' applies to living things but does not apply to inanimate objects. Since she has failed to identify any qualitative difference between living and non-living objects, she has failed to explain this. This removes the foundation of her ethical system, since she cannot show why value applies to life at all.


15,7: "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."

NA. Rand has given no explanation for how value, good, or evil arises--even if we ignore the objections under 11 and even if we grant her claim there. That is, even if we granted that the existence of a living thing depends upon action, nothing follows about anything being good. In particular, it does not follow that the organism's existence is good, nor that its life-sustaining action is good (nor that it is bad). Rand has given no argument for thinking that life is good; not even that it is good for the living thing. So far all we have is that living things can exist or not exist.


16,2: "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..."

NA. Unfortunately, this scenario is under-described in all the important respects. First, it is unclear whether Rand thinks that a robot could be conscious or not. We proceed by cases:

Case A: Assume that the robot was not conscious. In that case, I agree that it would have no values. But this would not support the claim that "it is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible." If it shows anything, it shows that value depends upon consciousness--which is not what Rand is trying to show.

Case B: Therefore, let's assume Rand intended the robot to be conscious. Now we have a further question: Does the robot have any desires? Does it have any feelings? Does it have any moral beliefs?

Case B1: Assume the robot has no feelings, desires, or moral beliefs. In this case, I agree that it would have no values. But again, this does not show that 'value' depends on life. If it shows anything, it shows that 'value' depends on desire, feeling, and/or moral beliefs. And this is definitely not what Rand wants to conclude. Perhaps Rand would say that the robot couldn't have any desires, feelings, or moral beliefs because it is indestructible, etc. If so, however, she needs to give an argument for this. Why couldn't the robot have feelings about the things it sees happening? Why couldn't it want, for example, for people to be better off? Why couldn't it believe, for example, that it is morally good for humans to be happy?

Case B2: Assume the robot has feelings, desires, and/or moral beliefs. In that case, why wouldn't it have values? Why wouldn't it value the things that made it feel happy, for instance, or the things that it desired, or the things it believed to be morally good? In this case, Rand appears to be giving a thought-experiment to refute her own view, rather than to support it.

Perhaps, however, we are supposed to take the "cannot be affected" clause more strictly. If we take this literally, the robot could have no awareness of its environment since awareness of an object requires interaction with it. According to Rand's own theories, however, this means that the robot would not be conscious at all,(5) so we are back to case A above.

Moreover, the series of stipulations Rand makes about her robot, after "indestructible", have nothing to do with supporting her point. Her claim is that the concept of 'value' arises because living things have an alternative of existence or non-existence. Therefore, her claim must be that the robot, if indestructible, could have no values, regardless of what else was true of it. The part about its being incapable of being changed in any respect is therefore superfluous (besides being inconsistent with the claim that it moves and acts). I will grant that it may well be true that an entity incapable of being changed in any way could have no values; but if that showed anything, at most it would show that the concept of value depends on the concept of 'change', which, again, is not what Rand is trying to show.

A better thought experiment, therefore, would be one in which: the 'robot' has lots of feelings, it feels love for several humans and has developed close personal relationships with them; it also experiences a passion for classical music; it also has a strong desire for philosophical knowledge and often takes actions to further this; and it has a series of strong moral convictions, e.g., that socialism is one of the world's great evils, whereas democratic capitalism is morally good--but the robot is immortal. And now imagine Rand saying: "you can clearly see that the robot would have no interests and no values, and nothing could be good or bad for it." (Or perhaps Rand would say that the robot couldn't have those feelings, desires, and beliefs I describe because it was immortal--but again, this claim would need an argument.)

I conclude that this thought experiment does not support Rand's thesis, and that instead, it refutes her.


16,3: Only living things have goals, and "the functions of all living organisms ... 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." A footnote warns that "goal-directed" does not mean "purposive" and that she also does not mean to endorse "any teleological principle operating in insentient nature." Rather, "I use the term 'goal-directed' ... 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."

The footnote may have been added later to answer an objection someone raised. The problem is that once Rand makes that concession, she is no longer saying anything distinctive about living things. Yes, living things undertake actions which result in the maintenance of their life, usually. But if that licenses saying that the maintenance of their life is their goal, and that their actions are goal-directed, then we could equally well call anything goal-directed since anything has results. The rain causes the ground to get muddy: since the latter is the result of the former, we could say (using Rand's way of speaking) that the cloud's action of raining on the ground is goal-directed and that its goal is to make the ground muddy.

What about the point that the organism's actions are "generated by the organism itself"? I really don't know what this means. The internal state of an organism determines how it behaves in exactly the same sense that the internal state of any object determines how it behaves. The state my computer is in, together with the inputs it receives, determine what it does. The internal properties of a rock (e.g., the molecular structure, the mass, etc.) determine how it reacts when you do various things to it (e.g., it sinks in water, or it breaks apart when hit with a hammer, etc.) In the same way, the internal properties of an amoeba determine what it does when various influences from the environment impinge on it. In all cases, the action is determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. (I am not denying the reality of free will, but free will is not the issue here--Rand is talking about automatic functions of organisms.)

Again, Rand has failed to identify any distinction between living and non-living things here.


16,4: Organisms have to take in 'fuel' from the outside and use 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."



16-17: Life requires constant, self-sustaining activity. "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 organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."


Rand seems to be sliding between the claim that the 'goal' of the organism's activity is its life, to the claim that its life is good or valuable. However, she told us before that by saying the organism's life was the 'goal' of its activity, all she meant was that this activity results in maintaining the organism's life. (See comment 14.) Therefore, Rand is sliding between the claim that A causes B, and the claim that B is good.

If Rand hadn't chosen idiosyncratic uses of "value" (see comment 7) and "goal" (see comment 14), she would perhaps have been much less tempted to make this confusion, and the reader would be less tempted to think that she was saying anything relevant to ethics. To repeat, her argument seems to be this:


Organisms act to sustain their own lives.


Therefore, their lives are good.

Which is a non sequitur. Only her misuse of the words "value" and "goal" make it seem at all cogent--given her definitions of those terms, she gets to rephrase (1) as "The goal of an organism's action is to sustain its life" and then "Sustaining its life is a value for an organism." This equivocation seems to be the whole foundation of her effort to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'.


17,3: "Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself."

NA. Even if we granted that Rand's argument above were valid and that she therefore showed that life is good, she certainly did not give an argument to show that nothing else is intrinsically good.(6) Why could there not be 2 or more ends in themselves?


17,5: "By what means does [a person] first become aware of the issue of 'good or evil' in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain." She goes on the explain that pleasure tells you you are doing something good (something that furthers your life), while pain tells you you are doing something bad (something that interferes with your life).

I view pleasure and pain sensations differently. Pleasure is not a cognition of some fact; rather, it is just a good sensation, and a sensation that one likes to have. Likewise pain is just a bad sensation, and a kind of sensation one does not like to have. Pleasure is not the awareness of good; it is just something that is good. How to decide between Rand's view and mine? Two things:

First, if Rand is correct, then to be in pain is to be aware that something bad is happening, and also to be aware that "something is impairing the proper function of [one's] body" (18,1). If this is true, then small children and animals should be aware of those things, since they can have pain sensations. But I don't think an animal can be aware that something is impairing the proper functioning of its body, since I don't think an animal is even aware that there is such a thing as 'proper functioning', let alone the impairment of it. The animal just has a bad sensation that it doesn't like, and so it tries to get away from whatever is causing it. My explanation seems the simplest one.

Second, if Rand is correct, then it appears that there should be no reason, off hand, why one should want to avoid pain provided that one's bodily functioning was not actually being impaired. For instance, if you have to go in for surgery, and you know the surgery is actually going to improve your body's functioning, then there is no reason prima facie--at least, no reason that appears evident from the nature of pain according to Rand--why you should want anesthetics. For the pain is just a signal--in this case, a false signal--telling you that your body is being harmed. Since you know your body isn't actually being harmed, what's the problem? Why would you mind having the pain? Again, my explanation seems the simplest one.


18,2: "Consciousness--for those living organisms which possess it--is the basic means of survival."

What does this mean? Why would the beating of the heart, for example, not be an at least equally "basic" means of survival for us?


18-19: Organisms that have only sensations "are guided by the pleasure-pain mechanism ...: by an automatic knowledge and an automatic code of values. ... [I]t acts automatically to further its life and cannot act for its own destruction."

First, sensations are not knowledge, and an animal that has only sensations has no knowledge (because it has no concepts, and because sensations are not propositional).

Second, more importantly, the above claim is refuted by evolutionary biology. Organisms can act for their own, individual destruction. Example 1: when the male praying mantis mates, he seals his own doom, for he will be eaten by the female. (He does not know this, of course, but that is the result of his action.) Example 2: When a bee stings a person or animal, the bee dies as a result. Evolutionary biology shows that the actions of living things are aimed at the 'goal' (in Rand's non-teleological sense) of reproducing more copies of their genes, rather than simply of surviving.

This further illustrates the invalidity of Rand's form of argument. For if Rand's original argument for why life is the good were valid (see comment 16), then once we discover the facts of evolutionary biology, we should be forced to conclude that the ultimate good in life is producing as many copies of your genes as possible, which is absurd.


19,3: Unlike animals, man has "no automatic code of values ... His senses do not tell him automatically what is good for him or evil ... Man ... the being whose consciousness has a limitless capacity for gaining knowledge--man is the only living entity born without any guarantee of remaining conscious at all. Man's particular distinction from all other living species is the fact that his consciousness is volitional."

"...[T]he automatic values provided by the sensory-perceptual mechanism of its consciousness are sufficient to guide an animal, but are not sufficient for man."

Two main problems here:

First. It is unclear whether Rand is saying that we have no automatic code of values (as in the first sentence) or that we have one, but it just isn't enough for us, and we need something more (as in the last sentence). If the latter, she contradicted herself. If the former, her view is empirically implausible. Humans evolved from lower animals. If all the animals have an automatic code of values built into them (built into their sensory-perceptual mechanism), then that means that our evolutionary ancestors did too. Therefore, Rand must be claiming that somehow, in our evolutionary past, during the last 2 million years, that mechanism was selected out, and a completely new mechanism evolved that induces us to do many of the same things (e.g., seek food, fear predators, mate). The simpler explanation is that the original mechanism stayed there, and just got added to. The same response applies to Rand's evolutionarily implausible claim that only humans, of all animals, lack instincts.

Now, what is the significance of this? This is central to Rand's claim that ethics must be based purely on reason, and never on instinct or emotion. Given the biological basis she claims for ethics, if she is wrong about the biology, she is wrong about the ethics: if humans do have the same built-in code of values as the animals do, then it would follow that we should base ethics at least partly on instinct and/or emotion. I'm not saying that conclusion is true, only that it would follow if we accept Rand's thesis about the biological basis of ethics.

Second, Rand seems to be implying here that (a) animals will stay conscious without any active choice, but (b) humans will not. This is false; you won't automatically fall asleep if you stop trying to stay conscious. This is related to the fact that the forms of awareness the animals have were not selected out when we evolved from apes. We still have them; they were just added to. Rand seems to admit this later (21,2).


20,5: "In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness."

This is not true unless in a merely stipulative sense. People can (and all too often do) think in a confused, only half-focused way.

As to the first point, this is not entirely true. People often find themselves unable to stop thinking about something. Nevertheless, I agree that people can choose to think more or less and to focus more or less.


21,3: "Metaphysically, the choice 'to be conscious or not' is the choice of life or death."

I'm not sure what function "metaphysically" is playing here, but I seem to understand the rest of the sentence, and it seems to say that if you choose to be conscious, you thereby choose to live, and if you choose not to be conscious, you thereby choose to die. This would seem to imply that if you decide to go to sleep, you will die.

Perhaps she means that if you decide never to be conscious, you will die. This seems true, but it also doesn't support the point I think she is aiming at here--namely, that you should always be fully rational and fully 'focused' (or: that "reason is man's only absolute"). You won't die if you're occasionally irrational or confused.


21,4: "A sensation of hunger will tell [a person] that he needs food (if he has learned to identify it as 'hunger')..."

The parenthetical suggests the absurd view that, unless a person learned to identify the sensation as 'hunger', he wouldn't want to eat when he was hungry. In other words, she seems to be claiming that if you lacked the concept of hunger, the sensation wouldn't be enough to make you want to eat. Do newborn infants not know to eat until someone teaches them that what they're feeling is 'hunger'? Cf. comment 21.

I agree that we need to use reason to survive. But Rand is claiming that we have only reason to tell us how to survive, and that claim does not withstand the facts of biology.


21,5: Man "has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct his own errors; he has to discover how to validate his concepts, his conclusions, his knowledge; he has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic..."

NA. I think this means that if we do not discover those things, then we will not have any knowledge. This creates a vicious circle, however. How could we hope to discover 'how to tell what is true or false' if we were not already able to tell what is true or false? How would we know that a particular claim about how to tell what is true or false was true?

Similarly, if a person did not already know how to validate any concepts, conclusions, or knowledge, how could he go about discovering anything? Since he has no valid concepts, and doesn't know how to get any either, what would be his procedure for discovering what a valid concept is? It would have to be an invalid one.

It is as if Rand had said that in order to get anywhere, you had to first learn to drive, but to do so you have to drive to the driving school.

What is the significance of this? This bears on Rand's hostility to a priori knowledge, which makes her claim that even knowledge of logic is learned. The vicious circularity of her view means that knowledge of logic--in the sense of 'knowing how', though perhaps not in the sense of 'knowing that'--must be innate. (I.e., we innately know how to think logically, though we may not have explicit knowledge of the laws of thought.) It is incoherent to say that you figure out logically how to figure things out logically.


22,4: "What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics."

I am quoting this in order to refer to it later. If it wasn't clear enough already, Rand is saying that ethics is all about the question of how we can survive.


23,3-4: "The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics ... is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man.

"Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good..."

This is the first appearance of the "man qua man" standard of value. Until now, everything Rand has said has centered on, supported, illustrated, and explained the claim that the sole ultimate good is life or survival--and, accordingly, that the question of ethics is nothing other than, "What will enable us to survive?" (see comment 26) This has counter-intuitive implications: for instance, it would be morally better to live for 100 years in a prison and in constant agony, than to live for 90 years in bliss. Also, it would always be morally wrong to sacrifice your life for anything (in fact, this would be the worst conceivable moral wrong).

Rand does not want these results. Thus, she introduces the idea that the good is not merely life but life qua man. What does that mean? It means the kind of life "proper to a rational being." Now, there are two objections to this.

First, this move is not justified by anything preceding. Remember, the initial claim was that the existence of good & bad stems from the fact that living things face an alternative of existence or non-existence, which is "the only fundamental alternative" (see comment 10). This makes it clear that when she goes on to say that the good is what promotes an organism's 'life', "life" must mean continued existence. She is in no position now to introduce an ad hoc exception for human beings.

Second, what is the standard for what counts as "proper" to the life of a rational being? I see three alternatives:


"proper" means tending to promote one's life in the sense simply of continued existence. In this case, no modification has been made, and she is just saying that the good is whatever prolongs your existence. In this case, we get the counter-intuitive results mentioned above.


"proper" means tending to promote one's life in the sense of the life of man qua man. In this case, we have a circular definition.


"proper" means "good for" or "right for" where this does not mean promoting one's life. In this case, the fundamental proposition of Rand's ethics--that life is the only standard of value--is contradicted.


23,6: "If some attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing."

From Rand's other writings, we can infer that she has in mind socialist governments, among other things, and we know that she believes this looting behavior is morally wrong. It is reasonable to interpret this as an attempted explanation of why such behavior is morally wrong, in terms of the theory of ethics she has just given.

If so, it fails. Nothing in the above indicates how the looting behavior is not conducive to the survival of the looters. It is true that the strategy depends on the existence of non-looting, productive people. But that does not make it a bad strategy, given that one knows productive people exist and will continue to exist. Analogously, a tribe might live by hunting buffalo. That their existence depends upon the buffalo does not make this a bad strategy, provided they know the buffalo exist and will continue to exist.

Of course, Rand might say that the looters, while they survive, do not have the sort of lives 'proper to a rational being.' But (a) we have already indicated that Rand is committed by other things she says to holding mere survival (continued existence) as the standard of value, and (b) anyway, no reason has been given so far for why this behavior is 'improper' to rational beings.


23,6: "Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man."

No reason has been given why the looting behavior is improper, other than the claim that the looters are "incapable of survival." What does she mean by that? I consider four alternatives:


Perhaps she means that looters always immediately die, once they take up looting.

One counter-example to this will suffice. From her other writings, we know that Rand would regard most people in the United States government at present as looters. Yet these people are not dead. They have survived for years.


Perhaps she means that the looters will eventually die.

But everyone will die eventually, so this shows nothing about why looters are more immoral than anyone else.


Perhaps she means that the life expectancy of looters is significantly less than that of non-looters.

If so, she has given no evidence for this claim. We may again use the example under (i): do government officials on average have a significantly shorter life-span than, say, businessmen? I have no reason to think so.


Perhaps Rand means that although looters can physically survive, their lives are sub-human in quality, i.e., they are not living 'qua man'.

In that case, no argument has been given for this claim. See also comment 27.

The significance of this is that Rand's meta-ethics is incapable of delivering the moral judgements she wants. Moreover, it is incapable of explaining obvious moral facts such as that stealing is wrong.


24,1: Discussing why looting will lead to your own destruction: "As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship."

I have not edited the remark--she gives no further elaboration.

I do not find this adequate evidence. It is not obvious that all criminals and dictators have shorter life-spans than non-criminals, though I grant many of them do. Again, take the example of U.S. government officials, whom Rand would regard as looters.


24,2-3: Unlike animals, people have to take a long-term view of their lives--they are aware of their whole life-span. "Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man's survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. ... '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."

Does any of this explain why the survival of the looters doesn't count as "survival qua man"? Take these remarks in turn:

First, the looters do not have a merely momentary survival. Many of them live for years and years--a normal human life-span, in fact.

Second, their survival is not merely physical. I assume Rand's intended contrast to "physical" is "mental." The looters also survive mentally, in the sense that they remain conscious (they don't fall asleep or go into a coma).

Third, their looting enables them to survive through the whole of their lifespans.

Fourth, are they surviving as rational beings? Well, Rand has given no reason so far for thinking that their behavior isn't rational.

Fifth, are they surviving "in all those aspects which are open to [their] choice"? I'm not sure how to parse the end of that sentence, actually; it seems ungrammatical. I gather the point, however, is that certain goals, methods, etc. are applicable in all the circumstances where we have to make choices. I see no reason why the looters' behavior does not enable them to survive in all such circumstances.


25,6-7: "The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics ... are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.

"Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life..."

NA. Earlier, Rand told us that life is the only end in itself, and that one's own life is the purpose of each individual (25,2). She contradicts this by declaring something else to be the purpose of life.

Moreover, we have already seen that there is no reason within Rand's scheme why productive work is more morally virtuous than looting (comments 28-31).


25,7: "Rationality is man's basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues."

I agree with this; however, Rand can give no adequate basis for it. (See comments 20-24.)


25,7: "Irrationality is the rejection of man's means of survival and, therefore, a commitment to a course of blind destruction; that which is anti-mind, is anti-life."

I quote this to emphasize that Rand's view is that rationality is good only because it serves the end of 'life'; life is the only end in itself.


26,1: Rationality means a commitment to the principle "that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one's perception of reality."

NA. How does this follow from her view of ethics? Rather, 'life' is supposed to be the highest value--one must place that above everything else. One's 'perception of reality' is only a means to furthering one's life, yet Rand seems to be saying that accurate perception is the ultimate end in itself.


26,1: "... It means one's acceptance of the responsibility of forming one's own judgments and of living by the work of one's own mind (which is the virtue of Independence)."

NA. How does this follow from the value of life? Why can't people survive while being dependent?


26,1: "It means that one must never sacrifice one's convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)--that one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner (which is the virtue of Honesty)..."

NA. I skip over the rest of her elaborations on what rationality means, about which I would say the same thing. Granted, dishonesty and lack of integrity may sometimes lead to one's death (though not very often), but how can Rand justify these "must never" claims? She makes no attempt to argue that these things one allegedly must never do will, all of them, automatically kill you. That is what she would have to argue, given that life is the only ultimate standard of value.

I skip over her similar remarks about productiveness and pride.


27,3: "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 live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself."

Above (comments 7-8) we saw that Rand adopts a purely agent-relative conception of value: that is, a thing cannot be said to be good simply. Rather, a thing can only intelligibly be said to be good for (or: good relative to) someone. This is what the ethical egoist has to say.

Since "is an end in itself" means "is good for its own sake," it follows that nothing can be said to be an end in itself in any absolute sense; rather, one can only say a thing is an end-in-itself for someone or other.

Now, what does Rand mean in saying "life is an end in itself"? This appears to be using "end in itself" in an absolute sense, but perhaps she means only that each particular life is an end in itself for that particular living thing. What does she mean by saying every human being "is an end in himself"? Again, is she using this in an absolute sense, or a relative sense?

Case A: Assume she is using "end in himself" in an absolute sense here. In that case, she is contradicting her earlier claim that value is agent-relative (comment 8). Furthermore, it would seem to follow that every person has a reason for promoting the welfare of everyone, as an end in itself. That is, utilitarianism would seem to follow, which is not what she wants. She thinks one should promote one's own life as one's sole ultimate value. Which brings us to the second case.

Case B: Rand must mean this in an agent-relative sense: i.e., each individual human being is an end in himself for himself (but not for other people). So for me, my life is the only end in itself, whereas for you, your life is the only end in itself. This is consistent with what she has said up to now. But now what about the rest of the passage: "not the means to the ends or the welfare of others." Well, of course for me my life is an end in itself. But for other people, it is not; we just established that. So why wouldn't my life be for them just a means to their own ends? Why wouldn't my life from my neighbor's point of view be good only as a means to promoting my neighbor's life?

Similarly, what about the remark, "man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself"? Clearly, given that my life is, for me, the only end in itself, I would be irrational to sacrifice it for the sake of others. But why would I not be rational to sacrifice others to myself? True, their lives are ends in themselves for them; but what has that to do with me? For me, their lives are not ends in themselves, since only mine is. So why wouldn't it be good, for me, to sacrifice their lives for the sake of my own?

What seems to have happened here is that Rand slipped from the agent-relative theory of value into the absolutist conception.


27,4: "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.'"

I think she means that, even though the good is in fact what serves our life (our survival), we aren't always aware of it as such; instead, we are aware of it as what makes us happy. In fact, what makes us happy does so because it promotes our life, but we're immediately aware of it only as what makes us happy.


27,4-5: "Emotions are the automatic results of man's value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man's values or threatens them ... [T]he standard of value operating his emotional mechanism is not [automatic]. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgements."

NA. There are a number of problems here.

First, Rand's claim that emotions result from value judgements is evolutionarily implausible. The other animals all have certain emotions, which we share (though we have a wider range of emotions)--e.g., fear, anger, love for one's offspring. But Rand would probably agree that the other animals do not make value judgments. Therefore, what she is saying is that at some time in our history, as humans broke off from the primate line, the emotional mechanisms of the animals got selected out, and then replaced by other mechanisms that induce us to have the same emotions.

Alternately, perhaps Rand would say that the other animals do have value judgments, but of a different kind: theirs are automatic and instinctive, whereas ours are not. Then again, she would be saying that the mechanisms that give the animals instinctive value judgments got selected out, and then replaced with mechanisms that lead us to make many of the same value judgments. (Cf. comment 21.)

Second, people can often have emotions that conflict with their value judgments, for instance, a person who experiences a fear of flying even though he knows that flying is perfectly safe.

Third, in order to claim, rationally, that people (a) have no innate knowledge, (b) have no innate values, and (c) have no innate ideas, Rand would have to cite some actual scientific evidence. This is armchair cognitive psychology. (Cf. comments 24, 25.)


28,5: "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values. ... [I]f a man values destruction, like a sadist--or self-torture, like a masochist--or life beyond the grave, like a mystic--or mindless 'kicks,' like the driver of a hotrod car--his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment's relief from their chronic state of terror."

28,6: "Neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims."

29,2: "Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy--a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. ... Happiness is possible only to a rational man..."

The initial claim is that happiness simply results from attaining one's values. But this is followed by the claim, apparently, that a person with the wrong values cannot experience happiness (or 'true' happiness).

Why wouldn't the 'irrationalists' experience happiness when they attained their goals? Perhaps Rand is saying that it is impossible for the irrationalists to attain their goals. Why? Rand implies that the 'irrational' goals are ones that lead to one's own 'destruction.' Now, there are two alternatives:

Case A: Suppose Rand means this literally: that those values, if attained, result in your being literally dead, i.e., not existing. Then we could understand why people with those values could not experience happiness (since they would be dead first). However, she has given no indication of why this would be true. Apart from the 'mystic' case, the other kinds of people she mentions do seem to be alive and to often get the things she says they seek (e.g., drivers of hotrod cars do get kicks). Why, therefore, are they not 'really' happy?

Case B: Suppose Rand meant their 'destruction' metaphorically, e.g., their ceasing to live the life proper to man. In that case, she has given no explanation for why these people would not experience happiness when they attain this improper state, given that it is what they value.

The third quotation suggests that perhaps Rand believes these people's pseudo-happiness is always tainted by guilt. But she has just told us (comment 40) that all our value judgements are chosen, not innate. So if someone chose the improper values, how would they feel guilt upon attaining them? Guilt would seem to presuppose that they somehow knew those values to be wrong; but by hypothesis, they don't, since they have such knowledge neither innately nor by choice.

The significance of this is that it is another example of Rand's failure to explain, in terms of her theory, why sadism, masochism, or various other things she believes to be wrong, are wrong.


29,3: "The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. ... [W]hen one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself ... one is ... affirming ... the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself."

It is possible for a person to be alive but not happy, so how can it be that the maintenance of life is not a "separate issue" from the pursuit of happiness? Further, since Rand has said that life is the only end in itself, how can it also be that some kind of happiness is an end in itself?

This apparent contradiction could be resolved if and only if we assume that happiness is (that is, is exactly the same thing as) life. This is false, since a person can be alive but not happy--unless Rand wants to simply define "life" to mean "a happy life." But then her initial argument for why life is the ultimate value would not apply to this new sense of "life". (Cf. comment 27.)

Happiness, on Rand's theory of the emotions, is simply a signal that one is attaining one's values. It is the values themselves that are valuable; why would the mere signal be intrinsically valuable? Given the rest of her view, happiness could only be valuable as a means to furthering one's life.


29,5: "This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism ... 'Happiness' can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man's proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness. To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that 'the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure' is to declare that 'the proper value is whatever you happen to value'--which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication..."

First, it is unclear how happiness, rather than life, can be the purpose of ethics, according to what Rand has said earlier.

Second, it is unclear what the distinction is supposed to be between the 'purpose' and the 'standard' of ethics. If one's purpose is X, then why wouldn't one's standard be simply: that which achieves X? Here is everything Rand has to say about this:

25,3: "The difference between 'standard' and 'purpose' in this context is as follows: a 'standard' is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man's choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose. 'That which is required for the survival of man qua man' is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose--the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being--belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own."

I take it that survival qua man is the same thing as living a life proper to a rational being. The difference between the 'standard' and the 'purpose' in this example, then, seems to be that the 'standard' is something that applies to everyone--it is 'the life proper to a rational being'--while the 'purpose' is made specific to a single person--e.g., 'my living the life proper to a rational being.' Why this is a significant distinction escapes me. In any case, none of this explains why happiness could be a 'purpose' but not a 'standard.' Apparently, she is claiming that 'happiness' can be specific and concrete but not abstract?

Leaving that aside, the complaint against the hedonists seems to be one of circularity. They are not giving a genuine standard of value, since one's experience of pleasure depends on one's already having values; one then experiences pleasure as a result of attaining those values. This, however, is false. Children do not experience pleasure when eating ice cream because they believe that eating ice cream is good; quite the reverse. (Cf. comments 21, 24, 40.)


30,2: "The philosophers who attempted to devise an allegedly rational code of ethics gave mankind nothing but a choice of whims: the 'selfish' pursuit of one's own whims (such as the ethics of Nietzsche)--or 'selfless' service to the whims of others (such as the ethics of Bentham, Mill, Comte and of all social hedonists, whether they allowed man to include his own whims among the millions of others or advised him to turn himself into a totally selfless 'shmoo' that seeks to be eaten by others)."

This passage is misleading about the history of ethics.

First, it implies that there are some philosophers who held that people should turn themselves into totally selfless shmoos that seek to be eaten by others, but, while she names some 'social hedonists', she does not tell us who she thinks held the 'shmoo' theory. Perhaps she meant Comte (inventor of the term "altruism")--but Comte did not believe that 'altruistic' behavior was self-destructive. Nor did Bentham or Mill think that somehow, other people's pleasure had value but one's own did not.

Second, Rand seems to be using "whim" as a term of abuse. Utilitarians believe that one ought to bring about the most overall pleasure or happiness in the world that one can, but they certainly do not think this amounts to pursuing whims. Rand does, but it is unclear what she is saying is a whim here. The utilitarians advocate pursuing pleasure. So, is pleasure, itself, a whim? Perhaps Rand means that the desire for pleasure is a whim. More likely, she is applying her theory (see comment 43) that one will only experience pleasure when something happens, if one antecedently desired that thing--and it is the desires whose satisfaction causes pleasure that she is calling 'whims'.

Why would those desires be 'whims'? Perhaps Rand's point is simply that some of them are whims--i.e., that people can get pleasure from satisfying whimsical desires, and the hedonists do not discount those kinds of pleasures--those pleasures are just as intrinsically good as any other pleasures, according to the hedonists (except for Mill). This is a genuine objection to some forms of hedonism. Nevertheless, Rand's remarks are at best misleading--they suggest, to a reader unfamiliar with whom Rand is talking about, that these 'hedonists' all say: "A person should just pursue solely whims, of himself or of others, with no exercise of reason." Which, of course, is false.

The significance, again, is that Rand is able to illegitimately make her theory seem more plausible by attacking straw men.


30,5: "[W]hen one speaks of man's right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man's self-interest..."

The omission of quantifiers is used to great effect here. When they hear the idea that an individual should always do whatever serves his own interests, most people assume this means his right to sacrifice others. They are thereby 'confessing' their belief that it could be in someone's interest, some time, to injure, enslave, rob, or murder someone else. If one removes the italicized quantifier terms in the above, Rand sounds much more reasonable.

However, Rand has given no evidence for the conclusion that it is never in anyone's interest to harm anyone else (see comments 27-31).


31,3: "The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash..."


This would be a good time for a general remark about all the ethical claims Rand makes about what the life of man qua man requires, or what a rational person would value, and so on--that is, all her ethical claims after the claim that life is the ultimate value.

Not only does Rand gives virtually no argument for any of them, but she has given us no criterion of what is 'rational'--unless we are to take the criterion, 'what serves life is rational.' Let us consider four cases:

Case A: The rational is what serves your life, and "life" means continued existence. In that case, Rand needs to give an argument that you will literally, physically die if you do any of the things she says are wrong, or refrain from the things she says are right. For instance, if you hurt another person, drive a hotrod car (28,5), or marry a slut (32,1), you will die.

Case B: The rational is what serves your life, and "life" means "the sort of life proper to a rational person." This is circular.

Case C: The rational is what serves your life, and "life" means "the life of man qua man," where this does not just mean "the sort of life proper to a rational person." In that case, Rand has given us no criterion for what does or does not serve the life of man qua man.

Case D: The rational is what serves your life, and "life" means something other than (A), (B), or (C). In this case, Rand has not told us what she means.

Case E: The rational is something other than "what will serve your life." In this case, given what she said earlier, what is 'rational' cannot be used as a criterion for ethical judgement, since she already told us that what serves life is the only legitimate such criterion.

I think this problem is extremely significant. The problem is that--whichever one of these cases holds--"rational" and "man qua man" are simply fudge words. That is, their function in the theory is that they enable Rand to claim almost anything she likes as being supported by her theory, and also to reject any attempt to infer conclusions that she doesn't want from the theory.

I give a couple of examples to show what I mean by a "fudge". First, imagine I declare boldly, "No real philosopher has ever denied the law of non-contradiction." You respond: "What about Nicholas of Cusa, who thought that God has all properties, including contradictory ones?" I say, "Oh, he's not a real philosopher. He's more of a theologian." You: "Okay, how about Hegel?" Me: "Oh, he's not a real philosopher. He's much too incomprehensible to be a real philosopher. Only analytic philosophers count." You: "Okay, how about Graham Priest? He's an analytic philosopher, and he denies the law of non-contradiction." Me: "Oh, he's not a real philosopher. Have you seen his book, In Contradiction? It's terrible." Now, you can imagine that in each of these cases, an interminable debate might spawn about whether my stated rationale justified denying the figure in question the status of 'real philosopher.' In the course of the debate, I make a bunch of declarations about who is and isn't a 'real' philosopher, but I never come out with a precise, unambiguous criterion of 'real-philosopher-ness'. In this case, I am using "real" as a fudge word. That is, it is a word that insulates my thesis from decisive testing, because any proposed counter-example can, if I choose, be immediately bogged down in interminable debates about who is real qua philosopher. So I am never forced to give it up. At the same time, at the end of this debate, I can declare victory, since no one found a counter-example to my thesis. I probably won't convince anyone else, unless they were already favorably disposed toward my thesis, but I can almost certainly convince myself that I gave good reasons for rejecting each of the proposed counter-examples.

Second example. This one is more realistic. On a television program investigating his psychic powers, Uri Geller instructed the audience to phone in if anything unusual happened during he program. At the end, several people phoned in reporting bizarre occurrences that took place during the show. Geller claimed that this supported psychic powers (I'm not sure if he meant because he had psychically predicted these events, or because the TV show had psychically caused them, or just because the events themselves were inherently psychical). Of course, we know this is nonsense. But since Geller did not precisely define "unusual", nor was it known how many people were watching the show, no one could calculate the prior probability of unusual events happening during the show, and thus no one could actually prove that what Geller claimed was nonsense. This meant that people who wanted to believe in psychic powers could do so, and could interpret Geller's remark about unusual events as predicting the events the callers described. Geller used "unusual" as a fudge word.

Third illustration, but this one is an example of non-use of fudges. In scientific testing of drugs, it is standard to use "double blind" tests. This means that half the subjects are given placebos, and neither the patients nor the physicians observing the results know who has the placebo and who has the drug. Now, why keep the physicians 'blind'? The answer is, because it is too easy to fudge--that is, to interpret results favorably if you want the drug to be successful. Scientists know this, and they impose this restriction on themselves, to prevent themselves from fudging. (You don't always know when you're fudging.)

So a 'fudge word' is a word that functions to make fudging easy. "Rational" and "man qua man" are Rand's fudge words. She never gives a precise and unambiguous criterion for their applicability. Thus, suppose someone tries to argue that, on Rand's theory, it would be morally acceptable to steal from people, provided you could get away with it. Then she has at least two fudges she can employ (probably more): (a) She could claim that this is not in your interests, because there is always a risk that you might get caught, and it's not worth it. This works because no one knows how to calculate this risk, so no one can actually refute this claim. This is the sort of thing I have seen many Objectivists do. However, Rand doesn't do this in "The Objectivist Ethics"; she goes for the second sort of fudge: (b) She can claim that although you would gain money from this, it would not be in your rational interests, or it would not be serving the life of 'man qua man', or that it would reduce you to a 'subhuman' status. Thus, she can immediately bog down the counter-example in an interminable debate about what is or isn't 'rational', 'subhuman', etc., because no precise and unambiguous criterion of the rational, or the human, has been identified. She gets to make it up as she goes along.

Now, let's look at her definition of "rationality":

25,8: "The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values and one's only guide to action."

Does this obviate my 'fudge word' charge? Not at all. Whenever she encounters a behavior she disapproves of, she can declare that the person is not accepting reason as his only guide to action. The above 'criterion' just refers the fudge word "rational" back to the fudge concept of what is "supported by reason". If Rand could give us a precise, unambiguous list of what reason recommends and why, then this charge would be answered.

Rand's following list of things that rationality 'means' is filled with further fudge words. Here are some of the concepts that can be fudged: the notion of using full focus in all choices (if x makes a choice I don't like, I can claim he wasn't in full focus), the idea of a commitment to 'reality', the idea that values must be 'validated' and 'logical', the idea of living 'by one's own mind', etc.

Now, I am not saying here that all of those concepts are bad concepts and should never be used--any more than I think the concept "real" or "unusual" should never be used. Often we have no choice but to use vague concepts. But we should recognize that they are not like scientific and mathematical concepts. They are concepts whose application requires interpretation.


32,6: "[N]o man may initiate the use of physical force against others. ... Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation, and only against those who initiate its use."

NA. Again, Rand would have to show how this follows from the premise of life as the standard of value--i.e., she would have to demonstrate that if you initiate the use of force, you will automatically die. 'Automatically', because she is saying you must never initiate force, so she must hold that you could never do it and not die.


1. All references are to "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness, paperback edition (New York: Signet, 1961), pp. 13-35.

2. I have cited passages where Rand mentions the connection between 'is' and 'ought' and where she discusses the standard of 'life' as an action-guiding principle. Unfortunately, she did not clearly distinguish 9 from 12, but it is clear she meant to assert 12.

3. All quotations are from "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness, paperback edition (New York: Signet, 1961), pp. 13-35.

4. The book is Ethical Theories, ed. A. I. Melden (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

5. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New York: NAL Books, 1990), p. 29.

6. "Intrinsically good" in ethics means the same as Rand's "an end-in-itself": i.e. a thing which is good for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of something else to be obtained by means of it.