Ayn Rand’s Philosophical Achievement

If there is one point on which all philosophic schools of the last two hundred years agree, it is that no rational foundation for morality is possible. Limiting reason to syllogistic deduction, ignoring the fact that deduction presupposes induction and concept-formation, philosophers have concluded that it is impossible to prove any code of values. It is impossible, they say, to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Yet Ayn Rand has done just that — not by deducing values from facts, but by pointing out the facts of reality which give rise to the concept “value,” and therefore to all “oughts.”

Her derivation begins with the identification that ‘“value’ is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.”1 Observing that “the concept ‘value’ is not a primary,”2 she went on to ask what underlies the whole phenomenon of action to gain values.

She found the answer in the fact that man faces the constant alternative of life or death. As a living entity, man has survival needs — things he must act to obtain in order to remain in existence. This is the fact that makes value-seeking action possible and necessary. I quote one of the most important paragraphs Ayn Rand ever wrote:

“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. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. 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.”3

Apart from the need for self-sustaining action, no values can exist and no value-concepts can be given meaning. To speak of a “value” that is unrelated to one’s survival needs is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. The fact that an organism’s continued existence depends upon its actions is the root of values as such.

“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.”4

Since man has free will, he does not automatically act in the direction of his survival. He is not born with the knowledge of what his survival needs are or how to fulfill them, nor is he genetically programmed to gain this knowledge and act accordingly. As a conceptual being, man needs the guidance of principles; he needs an integrated, hierarchical system of values and virtues; he needs a code of morality.

Ayn Rand solved the dilemma that had stymied all previous moral philosophers. It seemed that the basis of morality — an ultimate value — could not itself be justified. For either the ultimate value is held as a value by choice or not. If choice is not involved, if factors beyond his control compel man to pursue the ultimate value, then morality is impossible: whatever one does, one had to do. But if, on the other hand, the ultimate value is subject to choice, then morality is, they held, subjective, for there is no higher value obligating one to choose any one ultimate value over any other.

This dilemma vanishes once one grasps that “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.” The issue of justifying choices arises only within the context of having chosen to live.

Holding one’s life as an ultimate value is a matter of choice: man does not automatically value his own life, and there is no such thing as a “duty” or “categorical imperative” obligating one to live. But this does not make morality subjective or arbitrary. For fundamentally, one’s choice is to live, and hence to define and pursue the values one’s life requires, or not to live, and hence to have no values, take no actions, and perish. “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.”5

NOTE: This is Part II of a series.

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