Morality is the recognition of the fact that as mortal beings with a rational, volitional consciousness, we need to adopt and practice certain principles in order to live.
Living beings clearly act to achieve particular values by particular means. Their actions are aimed at specific ends " namely, their survival and reproduction. But the question of purpose does not arise for them either because their actions are automatic, determined by instinct. They cannot choose, as men do, to live by one means or another, to be carnivores or herbivores, to live or die. Unlike non-living entities, they have various values, such as food, reproduction, and shelter, but they have no means to choose which values to achieve or which course of action to take to achieve them beyond their immediate environment.
Like all living organisms, man can be distinguished from non-living matter by the fact that in order to remain alive, he must act to attain the values needed for his survival (such as food, water, shelter, clothes.) For animals, which operate entirely on the perceptual level, this guidance comes automatically through their facility of instinct. Man does not have any automatic means of attaining the values needed for his life. He may have urges (hunger, thirst, etc) but he has no automatic means of fulfilling them. Unlike animals, human beings lack any kind of innate ideas or instinct - we learn our values and ideas from your experience of reality. We are the creators of our own mental nature - but we have no power over our metaphysical nature - we can refuse to recognize that we need food to live - but that does not change the fact that we are mortal beings who need food to live.
As a conceptual being, his survival depends on correctly using reason to identify and attain the values necessary for his life. As a volitional being, his thinking is neither automatic nor infallible, but is an active process that requires a constant focus on correctly identifying the facts of reality and applying them to achieve the values needed for his well-being. Unlike the automatic function of animal instinct, man must choose to think, " and his thoughts will determine his actions, his values, his emotions, and his character. The primary choice of every individual " to think or not" corresponds to his primary alternative " to live or not. His own life is the primary moral value of each individual" whether he chooses to accept it or not.
Rational self-interest, or egoism is therefore the proper morality each man must adopt if he wishes to live " the application of his reason to achieve the values needed for his survival. A man may choose not to think or to reject his life, but to the extent he does so, he chooses to act towards his death. Egoism is not a virtue by itself - simply knowing that one should act selfishly provides no guide to action. One must use reason to derive virtues, which are specific principles for practicing rationality in all areas of one's life.
Imported from Wikipedia
The Objectivist ethic begins with a meta-ethical question: why do human beings need a code of values? The Objectivist answer is that humans need such a code in order to survive as human beings.
Objectivism maintains that, alone among all the species of which we know, human beings do not automatically act to further their own survival. A plant seems to have no awareness of any kind and simply grows automatically; an organism that possesses a faculty of sensation relies on its pleasure-pain mechanism; an animal that operates at the level of perception can use its perceptions to muddle its way through its essentially cyclic life; but a human being, who at least potentially operates at the conceptual level, lives a life that consists of an integrated whole.
Objectivism recognizes, of course, that biologically a human being can survive in a physical sense without operating at the conceptual level at all. Indeed, Objectivism regards the conceptual level as a volitional achievement that not everyone in fact attains. In speaking of "survival" here, however, Objectivism is speaking of survival as a "human being" — that is, as a being that has realized its cognitive potential and attained the conceptual level. It is at this level, Objectivism says, that a life is the sort of continuous whole proper to a human being.
Ayn Rand also recognized that in humans, who are conscious organisms, the motivation to pursue life is experienced as the pursuit of a conscious state - the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, in her one-sentence summary of Objectivism, Ayn Rand condensed her ethics into the statement that man properly lives "with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life." According to Objectivist epistemology, however, states of mind, such as happiness, are not primary; they are the consequence of specific facts of existence. Therefore man needs an objective, principled standard, grounded in the facts of reality, to guide him in the pursuit of this purpose. Rand regarded happiness as a biological faculty evolved from the pleasure-pain mechanism of pre-human animals. This faculty functions as an instrument providing a continuous measurement of how successful one is at meeting the challenge of life. As she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness (23, pb 27)
Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man's body is an automatic indicator of his body's welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death - so the emotional mechanism of man's consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering.
That is, the faculty of happiness continuously provides one's consciousness with a current measurement of one's success on the continuum between full life and actual death (by analogy with the barometer, which continuously provides the current measurement of atmospheric pressure.) The measurement provided by the faculty of happiness is experienced as emotion on the continuum between joy and suffering. To achieve happiness (the purpose,) one must recognize, choose, and pursue that which preserves and enhances one's life (the standard.)
Since operating at the conceptual level remains volitional for the duration of one's life, Objectivism holds, human beings require a code of values — an ethic — in order to guide them in making the choices and taking the actions that will not only keep them biologically alive but preserve their status as fully human beings. For Objectivism, a "human being" who is not operating at the conceptual level is not, in the proper sense of the word, conscious, and indeed is not even properly human: by lapsing from the conceptual level, a human being "can turn himself into a subhuman creature."
The purpose of Objectivist ethics, then, is to guide human beings in becoming and remaining "fully human" — or, in Rand's language, in promoting their survival as "man qua man". In so doing, it adopts life — the specifically human form of life — as its standard.
However, the purpose of Objectivist ethics as applied by any particular human being is the preservation of that person's own life (again, as man qua man). In this context, Objectivism seeks to differentiate between the "standard" and the "purpose" of ethics, adopting "life" as its standard and "one's own life" as its purpose.
"Value", again, is understood as anything which a living organism seeks to gain or keep. Objectivism contends that values make no sense without a single "ultimate value" — and argues that this ultimate value is, for each person, that person's own life.
Objectivism contends that "value" makes no sense apart from the context of "life". Here the Objectivist trichotomy reappears: Objectivism rejects both "intrinsicism" and "subjectivism" with regard to values just as with regard to universals. On the Objectivist account, value (or the "good") is not "intrinsic" to external reality, but neither is it "subjective" (again meaning "arbitrary"); the term "good" denotes an objective evaluation of some aspect of reality with respect to a goal, namely, the life of the human being with respect to whom the evaluation is made. In making this argument, Rand claimed to have solved David Hume's famous is-ought problem of bridging the gap between empirical facts and moral requirements.
Objectivism regards the concept of "duty" as one that divorces value from its context in life (and therefore as an "anti-concept"). On its Objectivist definition, a "duty" is a moral obligation rooted in nothing more than obedience to an external authority and independent of one's goals and desires. Such a supposed moral obligation Objectivism sees as particularly destructive; according to Objectivism, one has no obligations other than those one has voluntarily assumed. Even obligations rooted directly in the needs of one's own life count as "voluntary" in this sense, for Objectivism regards the "choice to live" as the fundamental choice from which all other ethical requirements flow.
A "virtue" is any act by which one gains or keeps a value. It is in this sense of the word that Objectivism speaks of the "virtue of selfishness": the Objectivist view is that adopting one's own life as one's ultimate ethical purpose, and then making the specific choices and taking the specific actions that implement that fundamental choice to live, is an achievement worthy of moral respect. It is in this sense that Rand wrote, "Man is a being of self-made soul."
In fact, Objectivism does not list "selfishness" among its official virtues. The "values" officially recognized by Objectivism are "reason," "purpose," and "self-esteem," and the "virtues" by which these are achieved are said to be "rationality", "productiveness," and "pride." Objectivism maintains that productiveness — work productive of objective value — is the central purpose of a rational human being's life, reason its precondition, pride its outcome.
Rejection of altruism
Objectivism rejects as immoral any action taken for some other ultimate purpose. In particular it rejects as immoral any variant of what it calls "altruism" — by which it means, essentially, any ethical doctrine according to which a human being must justify his or her existence by service to others. According to Objectivism, every ethical or moral action has the agent as its primary beneficiary.
Objectivism especially opposes any ethical demand for sacrifice. Objectivism uses this term in a special sense: a "sacrifice", according to its Objectivist definition, is the giving up of a greater value for a lesser one. (In other worlds of discourse, for example baseball and chess, the term is used to mean the giving up of a lesser or shorter-term value for the sake of a greater or longer-term one. Objectivism does not regard such an exchange as a genuine "sacrifice.")
Not all superficially self-interested actions count as moral, however. Objectivism espouses an ethic of genuine self-interest — that is, of choices and actions that genuinely do promote one's life qua human being, not merely those that we think or hope may do so. The Objectivist ethic can be called one of "rational self-interest" (rational egoism) on the grounds that human beings must discover, through reason, what genuinely is of value to them.
"Conflicts" of interest
Objectivism rejects the possibility of a conflict of interest between two rational individuals under normal circumstances (though it may happen in emergencies). Ordinarily, if human beings behave rationally, do not claim what they have not earned, and recognize that rational, productive human beings are of tremendous value to one another as trading partners, no irresolvable conflicts will arise.
In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand argues that emergencies should not form the basis, or be a test of one’s moral system, since the purpose of morality is to be a practical guide to life, not deal with improbable scenarios. Actions taken under threat of physical force are considered immune from moral judgment, as they occur in a special type of "emergency situation". A man's actions under initiation of force — for instance, if one man points a gun at another man and instructs that man to kill a third man — are neither moral or immoral, as he is not free to choose his actions. In the words of Ayn Rand,
- "No rights are applicable in such a case. Don't you see that that is one of the reasons why the use, the initiation of force among men, is morally improper and indefensible? Once the element of force is introduced, the element of morality is out. There is no question of right in such a case."
This particular emergency situation can only be interpreted literally — as Rand also said,
- "For instance, you couldn't claim that the men who served in the Gestapo, or the Russian secret police, [...] that they were merely carrying out orders, and that therefore the horrors they committed are not their fault, but are the fault of the chief Nazis. They were not literally under threat of death. They chose that job. Nobody holds a gun on a secret policeman and orders him to function all the time. You could not have enough secret policemen."