The Importance of the Subject

 Posted by on 13 July 2008 at 5:04 pm  Ethics, Objectivism
Jul 132008

The January 2008 issue of the journal Social Philosophy and Policy had numerous papers focusing on the “Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics.”[1] Among them was Objectivist philosopher Dr. Tara Smith’s “The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value.”

In this paper, Dr. Smith elaborates on philosopher Ayn Rand’s view that the individual (the “subject”) plays an important role in the generation and the instructions of an objective morality.

To appreciate what Dr. Smith is pointing out, consider the following examples:

(1) Tiger Woods and his accomplishments. Woods has deliberately sought a particular type of life as a professional golfer, and as we can all attest, has had an extraordinary amount of success in his efforts. He paid attention to facts relevant to his goal as a great golfer, such as the value of practicing his golf swing and buying effective golf equipment (or even changing his swing when it injures him).[2]

(2) John Allison, the chairman and CEO of BB&T bank. Allison drove towards a particular career, and, like Woods, is also very successful in his field, the banking industry. He identified certain business actions as practical, and engaged in them, including teaching his employees his personal value system, and funding courses and organizations in support of Capitalism.

These examples illustrate that seeking life makes certain actions, objects, and positions objective values or disvalues relative to certain facts of life’s requirements and to an individual’s goals and purposes. Not adequately practicing before an upcoming golf championship would be a disvalue for Woods, because it would decrease his chance of winning, possibly lessen his endorsements, and reduce his general ability as a golf player–which means: all things considered, it would be bad for his life. Increasing the economic value of BB&T’s products would be a value for Allison, by contrast, because it would likely increase his company’s success, increase shareholder value, and allow his company to buffer any future losses–meaning that it would be good for his life, fully considered. Objective values are needs that we should pursue because they are conducive to our lives, and they allow us to succeed at our chosen goal of living–this is Rand’s basic depiction of objective values.

Another element of the objectivity of values Smith points out is that it is relational: while things or practices can benefit us, such as a better golf swing in Woods’ case, they can only function as values if the person identifies them as beneficial–as worth the effort of gaining. This relational aspect of objective values highlights the crucial role that our free will plays. Certain biological facts make certain things beneficial and other things harmful regardless of our own thoughts and opinions towards them, but our thoughts do matter in regards to considering some benefits as “values,” because our conclusions will determine if we act towards what we believe to be values.

We need to seek beneficial objects to enhance our lives, and many of these beneficial things can only be gained by our deliberate choices and actions–meaning that in order to be successful, we must know how to choose and what to choose. In Smith’s (and Rand’s) view, this is precisely why we need morality. “A moral code,” Smith writes, “identifies the kinds of ends that a person should seek (values) and the kinds of actions that he should take to secure values (virtues).”[3]

This understanding of how the individual’s choice to live and his pursuit of identified beneficial things is (partly) what gives rise to objective values (and morality) is one of Smith’s points in the essay.

The other point highlighting how pivotal the individual is in an objective morality centers around the concept of “objectivity” itself.[4] In short, our thoughts and choices don’t automatically conform to reality, and so we discover that it is necessary to identify methods of thinking which take the facts into consideration (objective) and contrast them with methods which ignore or evade relevant facts (non-objective). For example, Woods changing his swing when it injured him is a professionally objective approach insofar as he paid attention to relevant facts (his physical condition, his previous golf approach, negative consequences of not changing his swing, etc.) in order to succeed in his goals.

The need to pursue values, coupled with the facts that we don’t automatically pursue them and don’t automatically know how to succeed, are the grounds for an objective morality–a morality that makes possible systematic guidance in determining if our actions conform to the facts and our goals, or if they don’t.

It is the deliberate choice to live, the identification of certain beneficial things which one should pursue (objective values), and an objective approach to one’s life-decisions that demonstrates the importance of the subject in an objective morality.

Before concluding, I’d like to point out one of the implications of this view of moral objectivity.[5] Namely, that Smith-Rand’s view of morality places its function solely in the advancement of one’s own life–it is egoistic.[6] This moral code is concerned with one’s self-interest and how to realistically accomplish it. As Smith notes:

The question that a person faces, in aspiring to moral objectivity, is not how to escape his vantage point, either literally or figuratively, but how to make his view conform with reality. What is the nature of this thing that I am considering? And what sort of impact is it most likely to exert on my life? These are the principal questions that a person must address.[7]

A very illuminating essay, which may be of particular interest to those who think of an “objective morality” as a set of duties to be fulfilled in total disregard to one’s interests.

References and Notes
[1] All of the essays in the January issue are available for free
viewing, and no registration required.

[2] The Truth About Tiger

[3] Tara Smith (2008). The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value. Social Philosophy and Policy, Cambridge University Press, 25: p. 132.

[4] For more on the concept of “objectivity,” the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on objectivity.

[5] Another implication Smith points out in the paper is that Rand’s view of moral objectivity rejects a single list of values, identical for everyone (which is usually a characteristic of the moral objectivism position in philosophy). Many of the things Tiger Woods pursues in connection to his profession as a golfer are values for him, but probably are not values for John Allison, since he is in a different line of work. Similarly, the values they both pursue (organizations they support and career) legitimately differ. By “legitimate,” I second Smith’s remark that the “parameters defining the permissible range are themselves objective insofar as they are grounded in the natural requirements of human life” (Smith, “The Importance of the Subject,” p. 143).

[6] See more on egoism in chapter 6 of Smith’s book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, and in this Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on Selfishness

[7] “The Importance of the Subject,” p. 146

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