Friday, December 25, 2015

The Moral Virtues of Objectivism

In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand gives one of her main characters a lengthy speech in which she lays out the general features of her philosophical system – finally a philosophy based on reason.

In developing her philosophical approach to morality, she identifies seven primary virtues. They are: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.

She writes:
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. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man's virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.
Notice that personal character qualities that are often held up as bolstering one’s virtuousness, such as empathy, gratitude, cooperation, etc., cannot stand in isolation or in a vacuum, but can only be meaningful in the context of more fundamental virtues, namely those which Rand calls out by name.

When detractors of rational philosophy denigrate Objectivism’s virtues, it must be these virtues that their worldview rejects. Their worldview must reject rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. Thus in condemning rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride, they tell us about themselves, who they are, and what they stand against.

Rand explains what she means by each as follows:
"Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking—that the mind is one's only judge of values and one's only guide of action—that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise—that a concession to the irrational invalidates one's consciousness and turns it from the task of perceiving to the task of faking reality—that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind—that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one's consciousness.  
"Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life— that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence.  
"Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence—that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions—that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him—that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth, and confidence is the practical form of being true to one's own consciousness.  
"Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.  
"Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero—that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions—that to withhold your contempt from men's vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement—that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit—and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death, the dedication of your consciousness to the destruction of existence.  
"Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live—that productive work is the process by which man's consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one's purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one's values—that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others—that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human—that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind's full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay—that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live—that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road—that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up—that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.  
"Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself—and that the proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul's shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal, against the vile impertinence of any creed that proposes to immolate the irreplaceable value which is your consciousness and the incomparable glory which is your existence to the blind evasions and the stagnant decay of others.
If an individual rejects the virtues of rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride, what does he advocate in their place as virtues according to his worldview? Or, is it that they just reject anything that is good and virtuous simply because it is good and virtuous, as part of some nihilistic mission to condemn existence, man and goodness?

Contrast the moral virtues of Objectivism with what we find advocated in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5-7). There we are told that we should invest ourselves emotionally in the fantasy of “heaven,” the pretense of an afterlife, and that mourning and persecution are the means to rewards. There we find a morality steeped in the primacy of consciousness in which just the mere experience of emotions like anger or lust renders an individual immoral. Ancient traditions about marriage are upheld, condemning marriage as such without argument. Man is not to “swear by the earth” because it is the Christian god’s footstool? One should restrict his communication to “yes” and “no” “for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”? (How many Christian apologists abide by this arbitrary ruling?) We are instructed to “resist not evil” (i.e., not to oppose evil or stand in its way, but to enable it), and that if someone harms us, we are to expose ourselves to further harm by that person. If some asks us for something, we are to give twice as much as he asks from us. We are to “love” our enemies – i.e., to show affection to those who represent a threat to our values. We are to “be… therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Mind you, this is the same “father” that turns his back on his own child when he is being tortured and executed in an act of child sacrifice for the sake of flawed, vicious people who deserve punishment instead of appeasement. What “reasons” are given for any of these teachings? None at all – they are completely arbitrary. One is not expected to obey these edicts, as useless as they are as moral principles, because there are good reasons for them; if that were the case, we could examine the reasons and measure them for their value. Rather, we are expected to obey them simply because we are commanded to obey them.

So the alternatives here are clear: go with reason and live, or go with faith and suffer. I’ll go with reason.

And those who choose to go with faith, don't try too hard to be consistent. But at the same time, don't let yourself borrow from rational philosophy while vilifying it at the same time. If you recognize that the rational path is in fact proper for man and better for his life, admit it.

by Dawson Bethrick


Anonymous said...

This was an excellent read Dawson.

Ydemoc said...

Re: Photo's comment: I'll second that!


95BSharpshooter said...

I'll third that.

Unknown said...


Do you have any thoughts regarding David Kelley's argument for benevolence as a major Objectivist virtue, as defined and defended in his work Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence (

While I am still chewing on his claims, I did find the following particularly insightful:

1) His dispelling of the notion of benevolence as function of altruism;
2) His analogy between productivity and benevolence;
3) His distinction between justice and benevolence.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Brandon D Dickens

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Brandon,

Thanks for sharing the link to Kelley's pamphlet.

Do I have any thoughts on his argument? Hmmm... None that are probably worth sharing until I've examined his case (which I haven't). I don't have any objections, at this time anyway, if that's what you're asking.

Of course, I agree that benevolence is not equivalent to, nor does it entail or suggest, altruism. And as 'good will' among individuals, I myself see a lot of positives in that. But that's not just the philosopher in me speaking. I'm naturally affectionate and have always had a high level of empathy. I remember even back in my earliest grade school experiences being really irritated by kids who would laugh at other kids' misfortunes (and not just mine!). If I saw a kid crash his bicycle, for example, I was immediately concerned that he wasn't hurt while my peers would laugh and joke. I remember being really puzzled by this kind of reaction. I don't think this was something that was actively taught to me. It seemed to come natural to me, and I always figured, at the time anyway, that laughing at others' tragedies came naturally to them.

Anyway, I'm wandering off-topic already. Sorry, didn't mean to make this about my own personality and experiences. It's been a long day. I have a really busy next couple of weeks too. But I do hope to get a chance to read Kelley's work on this, so thanks for sharing.

Of course, any thoughts you might have on Kelley's work would be very welcome. Sorry if I don't get around to responding - lots happening this month for me.


Unknown said...


Yes, I was curious if either 1) you purposely left out benevolence as an major Objectivist virtue, contra Kelley or 2) you were just not aware that a case had been made.

In any event, there is certainly no need at all for apologies. Your original blog entries alone are already a great (and free) intellectual resource and benefit to me, so anything beyond those is just icing on the cake.

Regarding Kelley's work, my initial impression was that he presented a cogent case, but I plan to re-read and reduce. My analytical process is purposefully slow. Like you, the concept of benevolence definitely plays into my personality, so I a may be little biased to start.

Hope your busy weeks go well, and remember to relax when you can!

Brandon D Dickens

Unknown said...

Thank you Dawson for this very useful entry. Purposing one's self to practice the Objectivist virtues will over time enable one to grasp Objectivism in psycho epistemological and emotional responsive actions. Existence is benevolent for Man. Individuals can modify their mental environment by choice, for all versions of determinism are false. Thank you.