Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Ayn Rand’s metaethic

August 24 2013

In Ayn Rand’s essay, The Objectivist Ethics[1], she valiantly attempted to defend a rational ethic. Did she succeed?[2]

At the base of every system of ethics is metaethics, which provides the ultimate concepts and justifications of a given ethical system. Metaethics is notoriously difficult to rigorously square with reason, and Rand was well aware of that, as the proud proclamations she gave regarding her own solution makes clear.

Before I summarize Rand’s argument, let me specify what I am looking for in a metaethical argument, because I am not going to cite everything she seems to think is relevant, but mainly only what actually is relevant. Indeed, much of her essay is littered with either bashing other philosophers or analyzing things that, while they may well be true, are completely irrelevant to the subject (e.g. her description of the behavior of indestructible robots, inanimate matter, or plants – these may be relevant to physics or biology, but they are irrelevant to human ethics).

The purpose of a metaethical argument is to “bootstrap” a system of ethics, and by this I mean we want to find a set of justified foundational propositions that give rise to the rest of our ethical theory. The key is that we must be able to answer why any given ethical proposition in our theory is true, ultimately by reference to these foundational propositions. If the foundational propositions are justified, and if our other propositions follow from them, then we have a rational ethical system.

The nature of ethics is to prescribe how we ought to behave. For example, a proper ethical system would say that we should not commit murder. If we have a proper ethical system, then we should be able to answer why not, and this would give rise to some reasons, to which we might ask why those are valid, and so on, until we ultimately land at a final set of rationally justified propositions.

One of the commonest types of mistakes made in attempting such a line of reasoning is non-sequitur, which is of course what David Hume famously identified:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

I decided to do something unconventional and address Rand’s argument in reverse order[3], on the assumption that a given conclusion should point to a specific justification for it, and so on back to the foundation of her system.

The conclusion I start with is this (I will combine paraphrasing and quoting in order to streamline her arguments):

We must be rational, because reason is a cardinal value.

It certainly follows that if reason is a cardinal value, then we should be rational. So far so good.

Reason is a cardinal value, because it and the other cardinal values “are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life.”

“Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes, or destroys it is the evil.”

[We must be ethical because] “Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival…

At this point Rand, having gone on and on like this for a long stretch, is in serious difficulty. Taken literally this is a plainly evident falsehood – reason (or ethics) is not the means to and realization of many people’s lives; this is evident from the rampant irrationality we see.

She declares that “man cannot survive as anything but man”, meaning that man must live by reason. She goes on to claim that by not doing so, then life will just be “a brief span of agony.” This sort of conclusion is patently false, unfortunately (if it were true then we’d be living in a world where men were much more rational).

Plenty of people have lived very long lives while being thoroughly evil. Now, she may claim that an evil life is not life as it should be, it is not a life for “man qua man”, and I think this is true, but introduce that argument here is to beg the question, it would be arguing “one should be rational, because that’s the means of living a rational life, and you should live a rational life.”

I certainly think reason should be man’s basic means of survival, but in fact it isn’t for a great many people. Further, there is no argument here for the tacit premise of total consistency to reason. E.g., even if Genghis Khan (or a contemporary politician) can be said in some sense to have been “following reason” when executing his irrational plans, clearly he was not consistent about following reason, but also he was very successful at survival.

She may have realized herself that she was in difficulty, which is why she attempted this long stretch of argument by emphatic assertion.

“The fact that a living entity is determines what it ought to do”, because “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.”

First off, this argument has gotten out of control in its abstraction. There is no “ought” for a bee or an apple – they are not moral agents, they have no choice in how they behave. Let me try to rescue something intelligible (taking into account some of her preceding remarks):

The fact that man is implies what he ought to do, because the fact that man is means he acts, and he acts in pursuit of values. Crucially, action toward any value must imply action toward that which furthers that which makes all values possible: his own life. Therefore, man’s life is his ultimate value.

This little bit of reasoning is the most coherent and on point she gets in the entire essay.

It is true, after all, that if you want to (say) read a book, then you must be alive to do it. Wanting to read a book implies eating a reasonably healthy diet, getting a good night’s sleep, crossing the road without getting hit by a car, obtaining money to buy a book, etc. – a whole host of values that you must pursue in order to sustain your life. But this would be the same for Joseph Stalin – if he wants to read a book, he’s got to do these things too.

So while her point is a good one, it is not enough to make up for her subsequent reasoning. It does not itself help argue that one ought to strive to be a paragon of rationality; on the contrary, even a war criminal must do as she specifies. She clearly can’t argue that one must be completely consistent in order to further survival, since a good many criminals have survived into old age. She can claim that to survive as “man qua man” (i.e., man as Rand thinks man should be) then he must be consistent, but as I already pointed out, that argument begs the question.

Even worse for her argument is that she has not demonstrated that one ought to pursue survival. She does point out, correctly, that if we want to do anything (other than die), then we must pursue survival, but she hasn’t argued that we should want to do anything. Yes, most of us want to pursue survival already, but her piggybacking on what we happen to already want is cheating. She hasn’t actually made a rational case that we should pursue this. So Rand’s argument is implicitly hedonistic or consequentialist, it is not a rational case at all. At best she has stated some nice conclusions that some of us like to hear, and thereby painted the outlines or set the tone for something that might come along later and actually fulfill her ambitions.

For an additional example of Rand’s essentially hedonistic metaethic, see her essay Causality Versus Duty[4]. Please keep in mind that I’m not claiming that her ethic is hedonistic, or at least not in the usual sense. Rand had an extremely rigorous and disciplined ethic (nobody could write something like Atlas Shrugged without being so) and expected the same of others. What I am claiming is hedonistic is her justification for her ethic.

In this essay, she essentially claims we should be ethical not because of some ultimate reason (which she implicitly claims does not exist), but because we desire the consequences of being ethical. She sums it up like this:

[My] metaphysical attitude and guiding moral principle can best be summed up by an old Spanish proverb: “God said: ‘Take what you want and pay for it.’”

What she is implicitly saying here is to go ahead and be irrational and immoral if that’s what you really want. Again, the point is not that she advocates being irrational or immoral. Certainly she does not. But her metaethical justification for being rational and moral is merely that you desire the consequences that follow therefrom. If you happen to desire different consequences, then so be it. And so, her ethic rests upon whim.

Those who have understood her criticism of Hume should find this highly ironic.

  1. The Virtue of Selfishness

  2. Various criticisms of Rand’s metaethics have been written before.

  3. This attempts to try to reconstruct what Socratic Questioning would yield.

  4. See Philosophy: Who needs it?. I present my approach metaethics in REASON and LIBERTY. To give a very brief idea: since by asking the question “What is a proper metaethic?” we are engaging in the pursuit of truth, then we have already embraced the value of following reason, at least for the purposes of specifying the proper ethic. This fact leads to various important other conclusions, including the legitimacy of natural rights.