Some Problems with Ayn Rand's Derivation of Ought from Is

[I posted this to humanities.philosophy.objectivism about November of 1996.]


For the past month or two, I have been arguing that Rand's drivation of oughts, if consistently applied, leads to conclusions that few Objectivists would accept, and that Objectivists should therefor reexamine its logic with a more critical eye. That discussion seems to have died down at this point. The purpose of this post is to attack Rand's argument from the other end--by going back to the beginning and seeing what is wrong with it. My source is the version of the argument provided in Galt's speech.



1. Existence as the value sought by living things:

"There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence--and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. ... But a plant has no choice of action; ... : it acts automatically to further its life, it cannot act for its own destruction.

An animal ... . But so long as it lives, ... it is unable to ignore its own good, unable to decide to choose the evil and act as its own destroyer."

The claim here, quite clearly, is that living things other than human beings automatically act for their own survival. That claim is false. A male mantis, for example, mates, even though the final step of the process consists of being eaten by the female. Female mammals get pregnant, even though (especially in species where the male does not help support female and offspring) doing so substantially reduces their chances of survival. If one is going to ascribe values to non-human living things, the purpose of those values, on both empirical and theoretical grounds, is not survival but reproductive success.

Of course, survival is usually a means to reproductive success, so most living things most of the time are trying to survive. But a living being that put survival above everything else would not reproduce, so its descendants wouldn't be around for Rand to use as evidence in deriving oughts.

Some philosophies, I suppose, could dismiss all of this as irrelevant to metaphysical argument. But Objectivism claims to base its conclusions on the facts of reality--and the "fact" with which Rand starts her argument is false.


2. Life or death as the fundamental value choice:

"Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death."

Consider someone following a value other than Rand's--a utilitarian, say, or a nationalist. His life is not the motive and goal of his actions, but it is usually a means to the achievement of his goal. If he isn't alive, he can't have utility himself, nor can he act to increase the utility of others--and similarly if his goal is the triumph of his nation. So such people usually take the actions required by their own survival. But their life is not their goal, as becomes apparent when they have an opportunity to achieve their goal at the cost of their life--assassinate Hitler, say, with the knowledge that they will die in the process.

The first sentence quoted above is false. It is not true that there is a specific course of action required for life and any other course will destroy it. There are a great many different courses of action which preserve life with varying degrees of success. Rand's statement, taken literally, is contradicted by the facts of reality. If such people were acting on the motive and standard of death they would commit suicide at the first convenient opportunity, and there would be nobody but Objectivists left. That hasn't happened.

A more charitable interpretation is that Rand means that if you do not take your life as your goal, you are choosing a little death--a slightly higher probability of death, a somewhat shorter life expectancy. That is a true statement, but the equivalent is equally true for any value one might propose. The utilitarian could argue that a non-utilitarian, by not acting in the way that maximizes human happiness, is choosing a little misery. A utilitarian Galt could go on to assert that "A being who does not hold the happiness of all men as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of human misery." His argument would be as good--which is to say as bad--as Rand's.


3. The shift from life to life as man qua man:

"Man's life is the standard of morality, but your life is its purpose. If existence on earth is your goal, you must choose your actions and values by the standard of that which is proper to man--for the purpose of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life."

(this passage actually precedes the one I quoted just above, but is relevant to the next point I want to make)


This seems fairly clear. My life is the purpose of my morality, and the reason that I must choose a certain sort of morality is that that sort of morality is the best way of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying my life. The only puzzle is where "fulfilling and enjoying" come from, given that the previous step hinged on the choice of existence or non-existence. By the logic so far, "fulfilling and enjoying" belong in the argument only as means to the goal of preserving.

This is the point where the argument I introduced a month or so back takes off from. "Your life" means what it says, so if I can show that your physical survival is enhanced by an act then, according to the argument up to this point, you should do it. A means cannot trump the end it is a means to.

"No, you do not have to live as a man ... . But you cannot live as anything else--and the alternative is ... the state of a thing unfit for existence, no longer human and less than animal, a thing that knows nothing but pain and drags itself through its span of years in the agony of unthinking self-destruction."

At this point, Rand is using passionate oratory to obscure a shift in the argument. She is claiming that someone who lives a full lifespan "in the agony of unthinking self-destruction" isn't really acting for his life. But the fact that he lives a full span of life is evidence that he is not in fact destroying himself. Somehow, something extra has been slipped into the argument, to convert "life" into "the kind of life Rand thinks you should live," where the latter is not deducible from the former.


4. The shift from surviving by reason to Objectivist ethics:

"Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud--that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, become the enemies you have to dread and flee ... ."

According to Rand, values are things you act to get and keep; in that sense cash obtained by fraud is obviously a value for some people. If we interpret "value" in this passage as meaning "value for your life," hence "value of the sort Rand is arguing you should seek," it is still puzzling. Money obtained by fraud will pay for just as much food or medical service as money obtained honestly.

The rest of the quoted passage is a highly colored exposition of a true point--that if you defraud people, you have to worry about being detected. The problem is that Rand is drawing an absolute conclusion that her argument does not justify. Different opportunities to defraud people have different risks of detection, and victims vary in their ability to retaliate against fraud if they detect it. So the implication of the argument is not that one should always be honest, but that one should be prudent in one's dishonesty--which is not, of course, the result Rand wants.

"To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgement, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death ... .

To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun ... is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality."

Using force against someone reduces his ability to use his reason to preserve his life. Reality implies that the victim is less likely to have a long and healthy life. But the coercer is not trying to defy that reality--his objective is not his victim's life but his own.



I have pointed out what appear to me to be gaping holes in the chain of reasoning by which Rand starts with the facts of reality and ends with a specific set of ethical prescriptions banning force or fraud. I await responses from those who believe that Rand's argument is correct. I am not, for the moment, interested in the broader question of whether there is some other way of accomplishing what she claims to accomplish--deriving oughts from the nature of reality.


David Friedman
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