Overloaded Meta-ethics

 Posted by on 17 April 2003 at 8:01 am  Uncategorized
Apr 172003

I’m completely overloaded with work at the moment, so blogging may be light for a few weeks. The following comments on meta-ethics have been waiting in the “ready” folder for just such a dry spell. I wrote them last May as I was struggling to prepare the third lecture of “Objectivism 101″ on Ayn Rand’s metaethics. I never completed them, as there was no need. They’re pretty decent, although only in nascent form in many ways. The ellipses separate out some different approaches and formulations.

I’m currently having difficulties with construction the third lecture of Objectivism 101. The first lecture primarily deals with the nature and importance of philosophy. The second lecture concerns the basics of the Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology. So in the third lecture, I turn to the foundations of ethics.

The problem is, as Will Thomas noted, that the material is inherently geeky. It’s very abstract and often technical, dealing with issues like life as the standard, happiness as the purpose, the need for moral principles, the relationship between mind and body, egoism versus altruism, the nature of sacrifice, and so on. So making this material concrete and relevant to everyday life is quite a challenge.

So here’s a stab at how I can structure this lecture.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that defines code of values to guide actions and choices. Ethics primarily concerns two issues: what we ought to pursue in life and how we ought to pursue those things. What we ought to pursue are values. How we ought to pursue those values are virtues.

Most philosophers start ethics with the questions: What is the highest value? What should we pursue? The answers vary wildly. The Muslim says that the highest value is submission to God’s will. The hedonist claims that pleasure is the highest value. The utilitarian claims the greatest good for the greatest number as the highest value. The Christian says that the highest value is salvation through Jesus Christ. So it seems that there are no facts about ethics, just opinions.

In contrast, Ayn Rand began her ethical inquiry with far more fundamental questions. She asked: Why do we need ethics at all? What is the purpose of ethics? AR’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” in VOS answers this question. AR notes that all living creatures face a fundamental alternative of life or death. And that only through life do any other alternatives, any other values, exist for us. So the individual’s own life is his/her highest value, what should be pursued above all else. So the purpose of ethics is to guide our choices and actions towards that highest value of our own lives. Ethics ought to be a “how-to manual” for life. It tells us what values we need to pursue and what virtues we need to effectively pursue those values. This is the foundation for a science of ethics.

So in Objectivism, we say that life is the standard of value. That means that we judge something as good or bad based on its impact on our own lives. But we also say that happiness is the purpose of life. In other words, we don’t want to live a long and miserable life. We want to live a long and happy life!

Most ethics make one of two claims about the relationship between happiness and ethics. They either say that happiness is impossible here on this earth or that happiness is irrelevant to ethics. But in the Objectivist ethics, happiness is the reward for living a moral life. (Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it?) A moral life is not a life of pain and suffering. A moral life is a happy life. It is a life of accomplishing rational goals and taking pleasure in your success. You might not be successful all the time, but with a rational morality grounded in your life and happiness, success and happiness is the normal state of affairs.

So we know that life is the standard of value and that happiness is the purpose of life. So what sort of values do we need to pursue and what sort of virtues do we need to cultivate within ourselves to achieve that long and happy life? Let’s first look at some rational values.

We start our list with those things that we literally can’t live without, like air, shelter, water, and food. Without these values, we would die in a fairly short time.

But these material values don’t just magically appear on our doorstep. We have to go seek them out. So knowledge of how to obtain these values is itself a value. We need knowledge of how to grow crops, of how to handle and cook meat safely, of how to negotiate a trade with someone else. So knowledge of what will promote our life and what will destroy it is a value.

Such knowledge doesn’t come automatically or even easily to us. We have to use our senses and our reason to gain this knowledge of the world. And we also need other rational people with whom to trade. So reason and other people are also values.

But reason doesn’t function automatically either. So knowledge of how to use reason effectively, otherwise known as epistemology, is also a value. We need to know that using reason requires us to be in mental focus, to attend to the facts of reality, and to use the method of objectivity. We need to know the rules of logical inference and the fallacies of reasoning to avoid.

Now imagine that every day, you asked yourself: So where will I find food today? Where will I find water and shelter? You probably wouldn’t last too long because you wouldn’t be planning in advance. You wouldn’t be planning for that drought or that infestation of beetles that destroyed all the bananas. Living hand to mouth is likely to result in a rather short life.

So in order to achieve our goal of a long and happy life, we need to identify the values that promote our lives in the long run. What do we need to achieve a long and happy life?

We need knowledge of the world, like knowledge of how to obtain and store food. We need to know that standing under a tree during a thunderstorm is unsafe. We need to know when to take antibiotics. We need to know who our friends are. And we also need to know how to gain knowledge. We need to know how to use our faculty of reason effectively.

For example, trade with other people is a value because it allows people to specialize in a particular area, instead of forcing people do meet all their needs all by themselves. And we need to identify the ways in which we can effectively pursue them consistent with out life and happiness. Those are virtues. For example, honesty is a virtue because people will not want to trade with me if I lie about the terms of the exchange. And thus begins the science of ethics.

So let’s pause here to notice what the Objectivist ethics is not. It doesn’t advocate absolute moral duties, like the Ten Commandments. It doesn’t advocate acting on feelings, like that dishonesty is wrong because it will make you feel guilty. In the Objectivist ethics, we are deriving moral principles from the facts of reality in the context of pursuing our own life and happiness.

As a result, Objectivism doesn’t advocate a moral ideal of self-sacrifice and service to others. Objectivism rejects the moral ideal of altruism, where actions are moral if and only if they benefit someone else. Rather, Objectivism advocates a moral ideal of egoism, where actions are moral if they benefit the self.

I’ll be substantially editing “Objectivism 101″ in May, after school winds down and my Camp Indecon curriculum is complete.

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