My question(s) arise about the link between reality and morals/ethics. I do not understand how the facts of reality translate into morals or ethics (if they do at all). While I have read the OPAR, most of Ayn Rand's fiction and non-fiction work, the essays of various others, and I believe that I have a general understanding of what it is that (some) Objectivists believe, I do not understand how morality is derived from reality.
On another Objectivist forum I posted the following scenario that I think helps focus the discussion (please feel free to ignore it if you do not find it interesting/helpful etc.):
I live alone on an island in the middle of the ocean. There is no one else on the island, no one ever visits the island, and there is never any communication with any other person. I am completely alone on the island.
How I got to the island is irrelevant. I will never leave the island.
The island and the ocean immediately around the island provide a wide variety of resources. I use my reason and my ability to think to devise ways of turning the resources available to me into those things that I need to live, e.g. I make tools for gathering and/or hunting food, I devise means of collecting and storing fresh water, I discover or construct shelter.
Over time I have become so efficient at providing for my basic needs that I am able to devise ways to use the resources available to make my life better, i.e. provide luxuries and means of entertainment.
I live my life to the fullest of my ability given the circumstances in which I find myself.
One day, a man washes up on the beach. This man is alive but unconscious. I have never seen this man before and I have never had any interaction with this man. Due to being unconscious, the man has not interacted with me in any way and I do not perceive any kind of threat or danger from this man. I walk up to this man and I kill him. I then continue with my day. The tide washes the body out to sea that evening and I never see the body again. I continue with my life as I did before the man washed up on the beach.
Given the scenario, I ask the following questions: Was it immoral for me to kill the man on the beach? If it was immoral for me to kill the man on the beach, why was it immoral?
Any thoughts on the subject that would help me understand would be appreciated.
I do not understand how morality is derived from reality.
Morality is cognitively connected to reality by way of the choice to live (or by actions seeking to remain alive, whether one consciously identifies one's actions as a choice to live or not). Ayn Rand offers extensive explanation of this connection in VOS and Atlas Shrugged, especially in Galt's Speech. I have previously posted synopses of the derivation myself in past questions on this website, such as:
Also related, although I didn't contribute to this one myself:
How I got to the island is irrelevant. I will never leave the island.
As a human, you had to have been born. You had to have had parents and a childhood. Do you, the island dweller, know that? Are you suffering from massive amnesia? What was your life with others like? Did you learn anything from it? How can you be sure you will never want to go back if you eventually have the chance? And wouldn't your life, even on the island, be better off with at least one or a few other capable humans to help you divide up the work and perhaps provide some companionship?
There is no one else on the island, no one ever visits the island, and there is never any communication with any other person. I am completely alone on the island.
The story itself depicts the fact that this isn't entirely true. According to the story, at least one other human did show up once, although he was unconscious. How can you know that others won't show up, too, and perhaps not be unconscious? Maybe they are actively searching for the one who washed up. Maybe they will even be strong enough to overpower you or at least give you an opportunity to work out a mutually beneficial division-of-work among all of you. They could be more valuable to you alive than dead, if you and they handle it properly, i.e., according to the standard of what would be most beneficial to the lives of everyone involved.
I use my reason and my ability to think to devise ways of turning the resources available to me into those things that I need to live, e.g. I make tools for gathering and/or hunting food, I devise means of collecting and storing fresh water, I discover or construct shelter....
By the standard of man's life qua man, your values are moral. You have learned to live by reason, not by throwing yourself at the mercy of imagined "gods" or other mystical beings or forces. Why would a man of reason want to kill a fellow potential man of reason? It would be completely out of character. And men of reason would be so much more valuable to each other alive than dead. The scenario described in the question seems to say that there are plenty of natural resources; the total store of wealth that two of you would be capable of building up wouldn't be limited to what you alone can produce.
You wouldn't need to be overly "trusting" of your associate. You could make it clear that you have the means to defend yourself and he'd better not try to attack you and plunder your property. Let him know the "rules," and kill him only you have to, to stop him from violating your rights.
The tide washes the body out to sea that evening and I never see the body again. I continue with my life as I did before the man washed up on the beach.
Maybe he wouldn't have recovered before then anyway, even if you hadn't killed him. If you really don't want to try to revive him, and aren't strong enough to move him, you might at least cover him a little for protection from the sun and then wait for nature to take its course, whatever that might be. But it seems unlikely that passing up the opportunity for an associate to share the work of living on the island would be of greater value to your life than making more of an effort to revive him and help him to regain his vitality, within reasonable limits of your own strength and endurance (and medical knowledge, if any).
Bottom line: he's a potential trading partner, so killing him would not be of greatest benefit to your life. There is also the potential for more visitors like him to come in the future (he came, so maybe others eventually will come, too), and you will need to define and consistently practice a morally defensible policy toward potential future visitors. You can't assume that they won't know something about the first unconscious visitor, too.
Update: Learning Objectivism
In the comments, the questioner explains that he is still very unclear about how Objectivist morality is derived from reality. I can attempt to offer some additional commentary on the Objectivist derivation, but ultimately it will be impossible for anyone to learn Objectivism accurately by reading only commentaries, without consulting the original sources (Ayn Rand's writings).
One methodological approach to understanding the derivation of Objectivist morality could be to follow the approach that Ayn Rand herself followed and describes in TOE ("The Objectivist Ethics," Chap. 1 in VOS). She writes:
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions -- the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
Or: How does morality, and man's concern with it, arise in human existence?
Does man need values at all -- and why?
Ayn Rand observes what thinkers mean by "value" and identifies the essence of "value" (of any kind, in any serious theory of morality) as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." She continues:
The concept "value" is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative.... There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence -- and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms.
Ayn Rand goes on to point out that all living entities face a constant alternative of life or death and must act to sustain themselves. All living action is goal-directed, with the life of the organism as the ultimate goal. She concludes:
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.
A few paragraphs later, after some further development of life as the ultimate value, Ayn Rand concludes:
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life.
The development continues with many pages discussing how that which is objectively "good" or "bad" for a living entity is discovered, how it follows from the nature of the entity and of its environment. She discusses how man differs from other living entities (volitional rational faculty) and why man, unlike all other living species, needs a code of values accepted by choice, a code of morality. This development culminates in the following key identification in Objectivist ethics:
The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics -- the standard by which one judges what is good or evil -- is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man.
Ayn Rand then names thinking and productive work as "the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being."
If these very brief excerpts and highlights raise a huge number of further questions, I will not be surprised. Ayn Rand discusses a great many highly related issues in TOE. Again, reading only commentaries by others can never replace a careful reading and study of Ayn Rand's original works. I can only hope that my own commentaries will reinforce that fact and perhaps motivate other serious observers to take a closer look.
Applying the foregoing again to the murderous island dweller, the question of why he shouldn't kill the unconscious intruder is actually the wrong question, by a rational standard. The proper question is: why would he want to do it? I.e., what value would he stand to gain or lose by doing so? I maintain that a rational view of values implies that a rational thinker and producer would have no value to gain and considerable potential value to lose by killing the non-threatening intruder (who is potentially a fellow rational thinker and producer himself, perhaps even a potential trading partner) for no rational reason.
Update: Context of Morality
In the comments, the questioner continues to resist all efforts to show how and why Objectivist morality is derived from reality. The questioner insists that he is already familiar with Ayn Rand's formulations, but he rejects them and offers little explanation of why. Ayn Rand's development of Objectivist morality began with the question: What is morality and why does man need it? This is actually two questions. Ayn Rand's answers are already noted in my previous update. If the questioner holds some alternative view on these questions, he should name it. Where does he think morality comes from? If he believes that Ayn Rand's answers are not objective, and rejects Ayn Rand's view of what "objectivity" is, he should explain what his own alternative views are; he should explain more fully the context from which he critiques Objectivism, since other observers are likely to be unfamiliar with it. If he wants to ask a question on this website about what "objectivity" refers to, he is welcome to do so -- though probably as a separate question on epistemology rather than here in the comments on this question about ethics. It may also be helpful for the questioner to describe his own position on whether or not objectivity is even possible. (The view that objectivity is impossible is actually an instance of the stolen concept fallacy: how can one discuss objectivity at all if no such thing exists? What can "objectivity" refer to if no instances of it exist? There is an important related question: how does objectivity relate to context?)
At one point in the comments, the questioner asks about the objective basis of rights and Objectivism's view of physical force as anti-life (sometimes referred to as the "non-aggression principle," although that expression is not Objectivism's terminology). These issues are discussed in TOE:
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash -- that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
The TOE discussion explains these points far more fully than I can excerpt here. If the questioner objects to any of the explanations and elaborations that Ayn Rand offers, the questioner really should explain more fully what his own context is.
Update: Various Clarifications
I found two additional past Answers on this website that relate to the question of how Objectivist morality is derived from reality:
In the comments, many questions have been raised about disagreements, conflicts, and physical force. For those who may not already know, I would like to point out some potentially helpful references on these topics in Ayn Rand's writings, starting with Galt's speech. Speaking to the whole nation, Galt discusses happiness, then the trader principle, and then explains, in part:
Do you ask what obligation I owe to my fellow men? None -- except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason.... It is only with their mind that I can deal ... when they see that my interest coincides with theirs. When they don't, I enter no relationship; I let dissenters go their way and I do not swerve from mine.... When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.
This passage goes on for three more full paragraphs and then turns to the issue of self-defense and retaliatory physical force.
Regarding conflicts of men's interests, there is an entire chapter in VOS (Chap. 4) on that topic. A recording of it by Ayn Rand is also available for on-line listening at no charge from The Ayn Rand Institute, link.
Another topic that may cause confusion about Objectivist morality is the fact that reason operates volitionally; man can choose his code of values. Objectivism regards the code itself, based on rationality and man's life qua man, as objective (based on reality). Man's only choice is whether or not to adhere to it, and whether to do so consistently. There is no moral principle in Objectivism (nor can there be) mandating that man must adhere to the life-based code of values. Galt's speech seems to express this as follows:
My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists -- and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason -- Purpose -- Self-esteem.
This paragraph continues with further explanation of what each of the values refers to, followed by several pages discussing the seven essential virtues.
A key confusion may arise over what happens if some people choose not to be consistent, or perhaps choose outright death. The answer, as I understand it, is that an outright death-chooser needs no code of values to achieve his ultimate goal (death), nor does he need any values from others. He might attack others but has no rational reason to do so. If he does attack, his victims are perfectly morally entitled to defend themselves, even if it means killing the attacker, thereby granting his stated wish to die (just as they are morally entitled to defend themselves against actual wild animals who attack humans).
As for one who adheres to the rational, life-based code of values some of the time but not always, he will suffer the consequences that reality imposes on his life, namely, a diminished state of life and diminished capacity for future living action. That, in effect, is what he said he wanted. He, too, will have no reason or need to attack others. Inconsistent followers of the life-based code have no more need than either the fully consistent life-seekers or the fully consistent death-choosers to attack others. There is no conflict. It's only when an inconsistent life-seeker aspires to more than his chosen values can achieve that there is any conflict with other life-seekers, since that is a contradiction that only others can shield him from, if he can compel or induce them to do so.
Again, there is only one objective, life-based code of values for man. He is free to accept it or not, with corresponding effects on strengthening or weakening his life, imposed by reality. An inconsistent life-seeker doesn't necessarily become immoral merely by being inconsistent; he may only be less alive and less efficacious than he could have been. The choice is entirely his to make, since it's his life that is at stake.