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Reflections on Ethics 11
Objectivism and ethics

by Tom Adam

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I have previously examines three ethical systems and the context of social contract theory in ethics. I wish to add the principles of objectivism to that list.

Objectivism is the philosophy created by Ayn Rand, an emigrant from Soviet Russia, who has written some of the greatest literary works of our age: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Her philosophy is based upon several simple concepts that are necessary to understand in order to grasp her ethical system completely.

“Ayn Rand was once asked if she could present the essence of Objectivism while standing on one foot. Her answer was:

  1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  2. Epistemology: Reason
  3. Ethics: Self-interest
  4. Politics: Capitalism

She then translated those terms into familiar language:

  1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
  2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”
  3. “Man is an end in himself.”
  4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

By “man is an end in himself,” Ayn Rand was proposing that man was his own end, not a means to his own goals. He cannot have any goals other than himself. She was also rejecting the idea that he be the means for others. She rejected the ethics of altruism (as exemplified by utilitarianism and most religions) as self-defeating and death-focused. The criticisms of that ethical focus are well thought and can be found in her novels or philosophical works.

Objectivist ethics can be best described as rational self-interest. Rational, because we must obey the nature of reality and reason is the way we can grasp that. Self-interest, because the sole interest is man’s life.

“Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value – and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.”

Man’s values form the basis for any actions; they are what he chooses to gain and acts to keep. According to Rand, we should never sacrifice. We should never give a higher value for a lower or a non-value. My life is important to me. Yours may not be. I should not be asked to sacrifice my life for yours, and that is what altruism tries to assert, and what Rand rejects.

The difficulty with Objectivist ethics is the rational part. Man cannot rationally seek the unearned in flesh or spirit. In flesh–the goods and services of another without payment. In spirit–unearned respect and admiration. Rather, rational self-interest supports life as man qua man. To seek the unearned is theft, looting, and animal behavior. It satisfies the needs of the moment, but negates the future. Rational self-interest seeks to fulfill needs now and in the future. If theft is the standard, the producer of what is stolen loses his ability to satisfy his needs. The thief cannot satisfy anything but his needs of the moment: eventually he will run out of victims. To be rational, we must never seek that which we cannot gain by productive labor. We must never seek the unearned, but only seek to gain by trade, value for value.