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Objectivists (at least some of them) claim that Objectivism is superior to other schools of philosophical thought because Objectivism is objective and not subjective. Specifically, Objectivists claim that morality is objectively derived from the facts of reality and is therefore not subjective.

I do not understand this claim and I wish to learn if this claim is true. To that end, I will take the following position:

Morality is not objectively derived from the facts of reality and is subjective.

Before I continue, please note that I am taking this position in order to facilitate the discussion. It is the claim that morality is objectively derived from the facts of reality that I am questioning. I am not criticizing Objectivism as a philosophy nor am I claiming the Objectivist moral theory is invalid. I am also not making any claims that there is no such thing as morality or that reality does not exist. All that I am questioning is the Objectivist claim that morality is objectively derived from the facts of reality and is therefore not subjective.

Before starting the discussion, I will provide the definitions and/or explanations of some of the terms and concepts that I will be using.

Morality: I will be using Ayn Rand’s concept of morality as she presented it in the essay ‘The Objectivist Ethics’ and in "Atlas Shrugged". Ayn Rand stated morality is a code of values accepted by choice, man’s life, which he must choose, is his ultimate value, and all that is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil. This is her, and hence Objectivism’s, starting point and basis for all discussion of morality. Therefore, the concept of morality is:

A man’s ultimate value is his life. *

All that is proper to the ultimate value is moral. **

All that which destroys the ultimate value is immoral. **

Action: Ayn Rand used the phrase “all that which is proper” and “all that which destroys” in her concept of morality. I will define “all that” to mean an ‘action’ and/or the ‘consequences of an action’ and will refer to actions and consequences of an action going forward. ***

The Objectivist Model: I will refer to the method of examining an action and/or the consequences of an action ("all that") and evaluating how the action and/or consequences of an action affects a man’s ultimate value ("is proper to" or "that which destroys") in order to make a moral determination as the Objectivist Model for Determining Morality or the Objectivist Model.

Objective: When I use the term ‘objective’ it will have the definition of ‘objective’ as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as:

of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers: having reality independent of the mind ****

Subjective: When I use the term ‘subjective’ it will have the definition of ‘objective’ as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as:

characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind

Moral Topic: In order to focus the discussion, I will be concentrating on, and relating the discussion to, one topic which I believe to be fundamental in any discussion of morality: the action of killing a man. It is my hope that if conclusions can be reached concerning this topic, then conclusions can be reached on other similar topics using the same line of reasoning.

So let us consider the claim that morality is objectively derived from the facts of reality and is therefore not subjective.

To start, I will demonstrate the process of making an objective moral determination by first, asking a question; second, using the Objectivist Model to provide an answer; third, provide an objective reason for the answer; and fourth, provide an explanation of how the reason is objectively derived from the facts of reality. I will then attempt to use the same process to make an objective moral determination about the action of killing a man.

The Question: Is it moral or immoral for a man to fall from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent?

The Answer: The action of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent is immoral.

The Reason: If a man falls from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent, the consequence will be the man’s death. Using the Objectivist Model, since the fall from the cliff will cause the man to die, thus destroying his ultimate value, the action of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent is determined to be immoral.

The Explanation: The consequences of the action of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent can be objectively derived from the facts of reality. Applying the concepts of physics such as gravity, terminal velocity, etc., and by applying knowledge about the nature of the human body e.g. how much force bones, organs, etc. can withstand, it can be shown that the consequence of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent will be, will only be, and will always be death for the man. *

Conclusion: If a man's ultimate value is his life, then it would be an immoral action to fall from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent.

Now before moving on, I know from past experience that some people may wish to discuss why the man fell from a 10,000 foot high cliff, e.g. did he jump off, did he slip and fall off, did his parachute fail after he jumped, did someone pick him up and throw him off, etc., and may even claim that one cannot make a moral determination about the situation without knowing why it occurred. While I am not dismissing the question of why an action occurred and will discuss it later, for now I will point out that the Objectivist Model for Determining Morality does not need to have an answer as to why an action occurred in order to make a moral determination about that action. The only information needed is how the consequences of the action will affect the ultimate value.

Now, let us consider the issue of the action of killing a man in the same manner as the action of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff.

The Question: Is it moral or immoral for a man to kill a man?

The Answer: The action of killing a man could be moral or it could be immoral.

At this point, the Objectivist Model for Determining Morality does not provide a definite answer to the question because the consequences of the action and the affect of the consequences of that action on the man’s ultimate value are not known.

The reason that the consequences of the action of killing a man are not known is because there is no objective phenomenon that will occur as a result of that action - no law of physics or aspect of human physiology or anything similar will cause any consequences as a result of the action.

The only consequences which occur from the action of killing a man are a result of man’s perception of the action. This is where the question of ‘why’ enters the picture**. The question of ‘why did the action occur’ (or a derivative of that question) is used to determine the perception of the action.

For example: A man took the action of killing another man. The question is asked: “Why did the man take the action of killing another man?” One possible answer is that the man took the action of killing another man because he thought it would be fun to watch him die. Another possible answer is that the man took the action of killing another man because he thought the other man was trying to kill him so he acted in self defense. Another possible answer is that the man took the action of killing another man because he is a soldier fighting in a war and the other man was an enemy soldier. Even though the action, killing another man, was the same regardless of the answer as to why the action occurred, the perception of the action could be, and for most people is, different depending on the answer as to why the action occurred.

Once men decide how they are going to perceive an action, the consequences, out of a choice of many possible consequences, will be determined. Since the consequences are determined by men, they are manmade. Manmade consequences, while real and will affect you, are derived from the minds of men and are not objective.

Depending on how the action is perceived, the manmade consequences can be different. Consider some of the various manmade consequences that can occur based on how men choose to perceive the action of killing a man - doing community service, a term of years in prison, life in prison, execution, and no consequences at all.

Again, consider the act of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent. The question is asked: “Why did the man fall from a 10,000 foot high cliff onto the rocks below without any means of slowing or stopping the decent?” One possible answer is that the man fell from the cliff because he slipped. Another answer is that the man fell from the cliff because he jumped. Another answer is that the man fell from the cliff because someone pushed him. Even though the action, falling from the cliff, was the same regardless of the answer as to why the action occurred, the perception of the action could be different depending on the answer as to why the action occurred. However, the consequences of the action are independent of the perception of the action and remain the same. Regardless of the perception of the action, the affect of the consequences of falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff on the ultimate value is the same and regardless of the perception of the action the moral determination of the action remains the same.

So, is the action of killing a man moral or immoral? The answer will depend on how that action is perceived by men and what the consequences men decide there will be for the action.

Now, I am not stating that the Objectivist Model for Determining Morality does not work. On the contrary, the Objectivist Model works very well when the consequences to the ultimate value are known. If, for example, you know for certain that if you kill a man you will be convicted of murder and executed, then you can use the Objectivist Model to determine the morality of the action. In this example, since the act of killing the man results in your death, the destruction of your ultimate value, then the action of killing the man is immoral.

If the Objectivist claim that morality is objectively derived from the facts of reality is true, then just as falling from the cliff is immoral and is always immoral because the consequences of the action are always the same despite any perception of the action, if it is determined based on the facts of reality that it is immoral to kill a man, then it should always be immoral to kill a man regardless of the circumstances and the consequences of killing a man should always be the same regardless of the circumstances. But this is not the case. Depending on how men perceive the action of killing the man and what consequences men decide there should be, the act of killing a man could be moral or immoral.

Since the act of killing a man could be either moral or immoral, morality is not objectively derived from the facts of reality. Morality is subjective.

Notes:

*For the purposes of this writing, it will be assumed that a man’s ultimate value is always his life and not death unless stated otherwise.

** Ayn Rand appears to use the terms, ‘good and evil’, ‘right and wrong’ and ‘moral and immoral’ interchangeably in her writing. I will consistently use ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ even if a particular sentence would read better using one of the interchangeable terms.

***It is, in my experience, very common to describe something (a person, or thing, or idea) as moral or immoral when it is the actions and/or the consequences of those actions taken and/or caused by something (a person, or thing, or idea) that are either moral or immoral. Consider the phrase, ‘Joe Smith is immoral’. Does this mean that the actions taken by Joe Smith are immoral and he is therefore immoral for having taken those actions, or does it mean that Joe Smith is immoral and therefore any actions taken by Joe Smith are immoral because they were taken by Joe Smith? Based on my reading of Objectivist thought, I think that an Objectivist would conclude that it is the actions of Joe Smith that are immoral not Joe Smith qua Joe Smith. For the purposes of this writing, moral determinations will be made for actions and/or consequences of the actions not people, things, or ideas.

**** The term ‘sensible’ as used in the definition of ‘objective’ will be used as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary: as perceptible to the senses or to reason or understanding.

*I realize that with the statement, “…will always be death for the man” the conclusion could be challenged with some future looking statement like, ‘At some point in the future, man may live on another planet were the gravity is different than Earth and a fall from a 10,000 foot high cliff on that planet would not kill the man so you cannot claim it will always be death for the man therefore your whole argument is discredited’. While I do not think that these types of criticisms either add value to the discussion or discredit the discussion, I will state that for the purposes of this discussion, we are referring to Earth and it is assumed that the conditions on Earth as they are at the time of this writing with regard to the natural laws that govern those conditions will remain the same indefinitely.

** The term ‘why’ in this context is used to determine the reason the action occurred not an attempt to understand why an action is what it is or why the consequences of an action are what they are. If, for example, someone is ignorant of the laws of physics, or has never seen someone or something fall from a cliff, that person may not know why falling from a 10,000 foot high cliff with no means of stopping or slowing the decent will kill a man. In this context, asking the question why is used differently that asking why an action occurred. When the question of ‘why’ is used in the case of this post it is assumed to mean that the question is being asked to determine the reason the action occurred.

asked Feb 09 '14 at 10:16

tjfields's gravatar image

tjfields
493

edited Feb 10 '14 at 13:04

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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Morality is not subjective. It is contextual.

(Feb 09 '14 at 11:31) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The Objectivist ethics depends on the Objectivist epistemology. One cannot judge or even understand the Objectivist ethics without understanding and considering the Objectivist epistemology. The basic epistemological issue in this question is tersely identified in a comment: "Morality is not subjective. It is contextual." Objectivist ethics, including the principle that life is the ultimate value (and standard of value) for any living organism, proceeds from a definite context of observations and integrations. It can be highly illuminating to make a brief summary list of the essential facts of reality from which Objectivism's conclusions about "ultimate value" proceed. The key facts of reality that Objectivist ethics integrates are as follows:

  • Entities in reality can be divided into two broad categories: living and non-living.

  • Living entities are capable of internally generated, self-sustaining action.

  • Living entities face a constant alternative of life or death (existence or non-existence in living form).

  • To remain alive, living entities must act to sustain themselves.

  • All living entities except man do this automatically; they act to sustain and strengthen their lives. ("Strengthen" here means to increase one's capacity for future living action.)

  • Man has a conceptual faculty and the capacity to choose consciously whether or not to focus his mind and use his conceptual faculty. In general terms, this can be referred to as man's power to choose to think or not.

  • Man's power to think or not gives him the power to choose for himself what objects, if any, to pursue in reality and for what purpose. He can choose whether to be life-seeking or not.

  • But man faces the same life-or-death alternative that all other living entities face. If man wants to remain alive, he must act to sustain himself; he must act to sustain and (if possible) strengthen his life.

  • Unlike other living entities, man is not innately predetermined to act as a life-seeker; he can choose not to.

  • For human life-seekers, man's mind (his conceptual or rational faculty) is his basic means of survival.

  • Human death-choosers inherently are a very temporary phenomenon; they can exist only in a decaying mode leading to death, if they fail to act to sustain themselves. Such failure (if willful) is what "death-choosing" means.

Three additional points should also be noted by way of a broad overview:

  • Objectivist morality is based on life-seeking entities only, whether human or non-human. It does not apply to human death-choosers, i.e., it will not help them to die, and they don't need moral guidance on how to die.

  • Human death-choosers can be left free to die in peace. There is nothing that life-seekers need from them, nor vice versa. Death-choosers have no need to attack life-seekers, but no reason to adhere to reason, either. If they attack anyway, the life-seekers' moral code holds that the life-seekers can defend themselves. This does not conflict with a death-chooser's code of morality (if any) because the death-chooser wants to die anyway. At most, the life-seeking victims of his attack may help to accelerate the death-chooser's stated wish to die.

  • Man can choose life-seeking inconsistently, i.e., life-seeking some of the time and death-choosing at other times. Objectivist morality applies to the life-seeking aspects of such a person's actions, and a trend toward death applies to any death-choosing actions or inaction, still with no necessity in reality for any conflict between life-seekers and death-choosers.

Objectivism integrates these facts as follows. Ayn Rand identifies "value" as the core concept in any moral code. She identifies "value" generically (in any serious moral code) as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep.... [This] 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." In other words, "value" presupposes (a) a valuer, and (b) an alternative confronting the valuer. These two qualities pertain only to living entities, which face the constant alternative of life or death and must act to sustain themselves, or die. These qualities apply to all living entities, including man (qua life-seeker), animals, plants, micro-organisms. Objectively, "value" thus is that which sustains and/or strengthens the life of a living entity.

OPAR (pp. 212-213) stresses the importance of an alternative as well as a valuer, and Ayn Rand's indestructible robot analogy also stresses the importance of an alternative in reality in forming the concept of "value."

The standard of value that is implicit in this identification of the nature of values is life, i.e., the life of an entity of the same type as any particular valuer. OPAR explains (p. 212):

Only the alternative of life vs. death creates the context for value-oriented action, and it does so only if the entity's end is to preserve its life. By the very nature of "value," therefore, any code of values must hold life as the ultimate value. All of the Objectivist ethics and politics rests on this principle.

This leads to the conclusion that the two essentials of the method of survival proper to man are thinking and productive work (see TOE). With further discussion of the distinction between values and virtues, Ayn Rand concludes that man's life qua man requires three cardinal values: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem. She identifies rationality as the primary virtue (action) for achieving those values, along with six corollary virtues: productiveness, independence, integrity, honesty, pride, justice.

These virtues (especially justice) lead to the trader principle and the identification of initiation of physical force against others as evil, with retaliatory physical force as the rationally appropriate response.

Government is then identified as man's proper (objective) agent of retaliatory physical force, with only three proper functions: police, armed forces, and law courts.

The values to be gained from the social form of existence are: knowledge and trade. (Opportunity for division of labor.)

Objectivism thus advocates laissez-faire capitalism, with separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church. Objectivism identifies capitalism fundamentally as the system of individual rights.

Galt's Speech (p. 157 in the Signet paperback edition of FNI) contains a brief mention of choosing non-earthly life, referring to the fact that Objectivist morality pertains only to earthly life. Galt states that his audience is concerned with no other life. This statement comes in the context of a discussion of sacrifice as anti-life. Galt appears to be saying that the audience actually wants to live on earth, but to do so by following an other-worldly moral code. Such a code amounts to de facto death-choosing as far as earthly life is concerned. Hence, followers of such a code are acting inconsistently -- seeking life on earth by implicitly rejecting life on earth.

Nowhere does Ayn Rand explicitly address the issue of how Objectivist morality can be applied to a human death-chooser. OPAR discusses it (pp. 247-248) but doesn't quite seem to address it fully, bringing in an implicit moral judgment (death-choosing as "monstrous") based on life-seeking as the foundation. Monstrous it certainly is, by the standard of life, and life-seekers are well advised to steer clear of it if they ever actually encounter it. In real life, serious death-choosing isn't some kind of pastoral academic exercise. It places the chooser into a category akin to a wild animal, except that a non-human animal is a life-seeker, not a death-chooser.

Death-choosing cannot actually be a standard for guiding living action, because its attainment constitutes the end of living action by that valuer. Life-seeking is different in this respect. Values that help to sustain and strengthen one's life allow life to continue; they don't end one's life. Because values presuppose a valuer, death cannot be an ultimate value. Thus, death-choosing is not consistent with reality and reason. If reality and reason are accepted first, then one must logically choose life. But then the issue of one's ultimate choice merely moves from the choice to live or not, to the choice to follow reality and reason, or not. And life or death is a more fundamental alternative than being rational or irrational. One can't start out as dead, then pursue values aimed at sustaining one's death; there is no chance that one might spontaneously come back to life if one fails to act to keep oneself dead. Death can't be an end-in-itself, because it doesn't require (or permit) any action; life, in contrast, requires constant action in order to sustain itself. This difference between life-seeking and death-choosing won't be relevant to a death-chooser who rejects reason, but it helps to reinforce a life-seeker's choice to live and be rational.

In Objectivism, morality is not a tool for ruling others' lives. It is offered to all as a guide for living their own lives, a guide which they have the mental power to accept or reject (without escape from the consequences imposed by reality on their lives). And any moral code purporting to be applicable regardless of the choice to live or not cannot escape the fact that man does have a choice to accept or reject the code. If something like "wrath of god" is supposed to motivate everyone to adhere to the code, it clearly doesn't work; most people routinely deviate from a "divinely ordained" anti-life code when it's expedient, as they must if they want to remain alive on earth.

Here are some additional Objectivist formulations expressing the choice to live as a precondition for morality of any kind (FNI page numbers refer to the Signet paperback edition):

  • "I am, therefore I'll think." (FNI p. 200)
  • To live is man's basic act of choice. (FNI p. 138)
  • The morality of reason is contained in the axiom of existence and the choice to live. (FNI pp. 142-143)

The question relies on the dictionary definitions of "objective" and "subjective":

Objective: When I use the term ‘objective’ it will have the definition of ‘objective’ as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as:

* "of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers: having reality independent of the mind ****"

Subjective: When I use the term ‘subjective’ it will have the definition of ‘objective’ as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as:

* "characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind"

**** The term ‘sensible’ as used in the definition of ‘objective’ will be used as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary: as perceptible to the senses or to reason or understanding.

The fundamental Objectivist principle of "awareness of context" (and of reason as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses") may represent a fundamental challenge to conventional dictionary definitions of objectivity and related terms, particularly insofar as the conventional definitions may implicitly accept any Kantian or Platonic influences. For more on the Objectivist view of objectivity, refer to the topic of "Objectivity" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

answered Feb 09 '14 at 15:59

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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Asked: Feb 09 '14 at 10:16

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Last updated: Feb 10 '14 at 13:04