Derbyshire on the Morality of Animal Research

 Posted by on 9 September 2008 at 6:03 am  Animals, Ethics, Science
Sep 092008

British scientist Stuart Derbyshire recently wrote the following essay defending the right of humans to use animals in scientific/medical research, and attacking the current UK scientific mainstream position against such research.

I thought it was especially noteworthy that he attempted to make his case on moral grounds. For instance, his article is entitled:

“Humans are more important than animals”

Also, the subheading is:

“When it comes to using animals in research, the only moral judgement should be: does it benefit humankind?”

In a related earlier essay from 2006 entitled, “The hard arguments about vivisection“, Derbyshire also arguee:

There is very good reason for believing that human beings are special. The sheer staggering scale and richness of human culture are unlike anything in any other species. The development of medicine, industry, transportation, communication, clean water, a stable food supply, and so on, are the discernible signs of culture and progress that are evidently absent from the non-human world. The absence of such cultural development in the animal world means that their experiences are also likely to be wholly dissimilar from ours, both as a cause and consequence of their limited progress.

Arguments in favour of animal research must include an acknowledgement that human beings are special…

Derbyshire is definitely moving in the right direction, although he does not quite make the full moral case. What he lacks is the explicit identification of reason as the source of human “specialness” (although it is implicit in his argument). It is man’s capacity for reason that gives rise to and explains the various unique features of human culture and behaviour Derbyshire describes. “Reason” is thus a fundamental characteristic of “man”, and is why one properly defines “man” as “a rational animal”.

Derbyshire also doesn’t quite make the argument that reason is the source of rights and that it is precisely man’s capacity for reason (and the volitional exercise thereof) that makes man’s special moral status both possible and necessary:

The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A — and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.

This is yet another example of where Objectivist philosophy can help place others’ good ideas on a more solid philosophical footing.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a scientist taking a man-centered view of his work, and using benefit to man as his standard of value. I hope we will see more discussion by scientists along these lines. And I also hope that Objectivists will be contributing to this debate.

* * *

I did submit a supportive letter to Spiked, but I’m not completely satisfied with the argument I used. If anyone has ideas for better formulations aimed at an active-minded member of the general public, please offer your suggestions in the comments section. In particular, I am interested in formulations that would fit within the usual LTE word limit of 150-250 words. I also welcome any criticism of what I actually did submit. If I botched my argument or should have taken a different tack, please don’t be shy in telling me!

Here is what I submitted:

Thank you for publishing Dr. Stuart Derbyshire’s essay, as well as linking to his 2006 piece, “The Hard Arguments About Vivisection”.

As a practicing physician, I am blessed to see daily the tremendous benefits that patients reap from scientific breakthroughs resulting from animal research — such as new “clot buster” drugs to stop brain strokes.

I wish more scientists defended the morality of animal research on precisely the same grounds that Dr. Derbyshire does — that it is good for people.

Dr. Derbyshire is quite right — humans are special relative to animals, because they possess the unique faculty of reason. It is this faculty that gives rise to and explains all the manifestations of human culture that he rightly praises in his 2006 essay, such as “medicine, industry, transportation, communication”. Animals exhibit none of this complex behaviour precisely because they lack the faculty of reason.

Furthermore it is man’s faculty of reason, not his capacity for suffering, that makes the concept of “rights” both possible and necessary. Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context — principles which presuppose both volition and reason. Animals have survival needs, but not rights — we don’t say that a lion violates an antelope’s “rights” when it stalks and kills the antelope. Nor does a human violate a cow’s “rights” when he eats a hamburger.

If humans can morally eat animals for food, we can also properly use them for other purposes that serve human interests, such as medical research.

Thank you,

Paul Hsieh, MD
Sedalia, CO
Co-founder, Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM)

Update: My letter (along with a few others) appears here.


Lobbying is often scorned, and commonly considered an unethical practice of influencing lawmakers. Even though there are thousands of lobbyists working at all levels of government for every conceivable interest group, it is corporations that often receive the most wrath.

For example, Barack Obama brags: “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists – and won.”John McCain has been criticized for being anti-lobby while at the same time courting the advice of several corporate lobbyists; but he’s quick to wash his hands of this hypocrisy, saying, “At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust.”

But petitioning the government either as an interest group, private citizen, or corporation, is a fundamental right explicitly enumerated in the petition clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law…. abridging…the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

And according to the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, lobbying is considered a form of petition (with no guarantee that the lobbyist will get what he wants):

“Lobbyists try to persuade government officials either to support or oppose various policy issues. Therefore, lobbying can be considered a form of petitioning the government for redress of grievances, subject to protection under the First Amendment’s petition clause. Although there has not been a great deal of judicial analysis on First Amendment protections afforded to lobbying, the courts have carved out several parameters. First, the petition clause does not grant a lobbyist the absolute right to speak to a government official nor does it grant a lobbyist the right to a hearing based on his or her grievances. In addition, the clause does not create an obligation for a government official to take action in response to a grievance. Finally, any statement made while a lobbyist petitions a government official does not receive greater protection than any other expression protected by the First Amendment.”

So, with the political bias against corporate lobbying, how are companies supposed to survive when politicians attempt to make laws and regulations that threaten their businesses? Are they just supposed to shut up and accept any capricious violation of their property rights?!

Because there is no separation of state and economics in America—resulting in the mixed capitalist-socialist economy we have today—it is imperative that the right to petition government be upheld. It may be the only way, albeit indirect, to fight for property rights.

While some interest groups and companies improperly lobby for government handouts and preferences, and play the infamous “pork-barrel” game, this is not because the right of petition is wrong, but because the entanglement of government and the economy is wrong.

The essential point is this: politicians’ flagrant disregard of the First Amendment right to petition is symptomatic of not only their power lust, but their arrogant disdain for the concept of individual rights, property rights and government’s proper role as servant to the people.

And the “people” includes the companies which create the wealth and the necessities of our daily life. If politicians legislate them out of existence directly by regulations or indirectly by limiting their right to petition, then government will truly have total power over the economy–and you and me.

Aug 312008

What could be a scarier entity to a rational person than a religious leftist? But that’s what’s coming down the cultural pike.

The Religious Right has historically staked its moral claim on the Republican Party, focusing on what they call “pro-life” issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, human cloning, and other issues that pertain to life and death.

But we have an emerging phenomenon among what has traditionally been the morally-vacuous Left: a religious basis for their agenda to tackle the Iraq war, so-called “social justice” and environmentalism.

To many, the Left has been always been perceived as coldly “scientific” and therefore anti-moral. But now that the Democrats are eagerly jumping into bed with religion, it must be very reassuring to some voters on the fence who “kind of like” the leftist ideology, but just can’t embrace its moral hollowness. Now they have a new leader: Barack Obama, who has been apologetically leading his Christian Democrat soldiers into battle.

This is a marriage that should be annulled. It is a Las Vegas wedding of two faiths: religious belief in the supernatural with the statist’s hatred of individualism.

Ayn Rand opened the lid on the leftist movement in her book, The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. Although published in 1970s, the essays are as relevant today as ever.

And now that the Left can claim moral sanction from God, that’s just one big heavenly green light for Obama’s Blueprint for Change.

His plan is explicitly clear: Obama will expropriate wealth from capitalist producers and fund a welfare state on a grand scale with the moral call-to-arms that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers (to paraphrase his exact quote).

What a rallying cry for a purposeful America! The Taliban couldn’t do any better!

Where is that third alternative to the bible-quoting statism of the Left and the
mystical-biblical politics of the Right? It is Ayn Rand’s rational egoism.

Rational egoism means that an objective reality exists as we perceive it by our senses and by a process of reason (not by prayer or mystical revelation). This includes the knowledge that humans are individuals, not globs of “society” that must follow the state’s or God’s commands. Morally we have the right to pursue happiness and our necessities of life without violating the rights of others to do the same. It means we can have a society where we interact benevolently with others on the basis of trade with one another, free from theft of our lives and property by the state or criminals.

The bleak reality is this: our politicians are ruining America. But they don’t have our minds yet. It is the ideas of rational egoism that will lead us to a better future–a future of freedom, wealth and happiness.

The Evasion Invasion

 Posted by on 26 August 2008 at 11:21 pm  Ethics, Politics
Aug 262008

They’ve arrived in Denver by the thousands, ready to take on America… and change it.

In “The Blueprint for Change,” Barack Obama outlines just what he’s going to do if elected President. In this way, he will “… put government back in your hands, where it belongs.”

Just what does he mean? Is this blueprint a principled declaration of the proper role of government? Is it an acknowledgment that somehow that relationship between government and its citizens has been breached and that he is going to set it right?

Careful not to fall out of your chair when reading this blueprint, because the dizzying list of government fix-its often contains a dollar sign followed by the word, “billions,” in the sentence.

And the man who boasts that he’s only worked in “public service” (as opposed to the private sector) doesn’t hesitate to usurp the capitalist term, “investment,” to hide the wealth-bleeding expropriation of earnings that will be required to pay for this fantastical plan.

This blueprint represents evasion on a grand scale, “…a wish to negate existence, an attempt to wipe out reality,” in the words of Ayn Rand.

The Democratic candidate for President is blanking out the fact that it is the individual who is the fundamental unit of a society. To Obama, we are globs of groups: the wealthy, working class families, lenders, borrowers, the bankrupt, the corrupt, seniors, veterans, women, volunteers, methamphetamine addicts, the underserved, students, employers, disadvantaged youth…”

So it is no surprise that his vision of government is to correct the ailments of the various groups… somehow. And to pay for it… somehow…

  • “President Bush’s policies of giving tax breaks for the wealthy will cost the nation over $2.3 trillion by the time they expire in 2009… Obama is committed to repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.”

  • “Obama supports public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time as a way to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests.”
  • “Obama will also create an energy-focused Green Jobs Corps to connect disconnected and disadvantaged youth with job skills for a high-growth industry.”
  • “Obama will create a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that will make tuition at the nation’s community colleges completely free and will cover up to two-thirds the cost of tuition at the nation’s public colleges and universities.”
  • “Obama will create a Clean Technologies Venture Capital Fund to fill a critical gap in U.S. technology development. Obama will invest $10 billion per year into this fund for five years. The fund will partner with existing investment funds and our National Laboratories to ensure that promising technologies move beyond the lab and are commercialized in the U.S.”
  • “Obama will invest $1 billion over five years in transitional jobs and career pathway programs that implement proven methods of helping low-income Americans succeed in the workforce.”
  • “Obama will set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year.”
  • “Obama will sign a universal health care plan into law by the end of his first term in office.”

In this blueprint, there is no reference to the individual. Therefore, there is no understanding of what is required for life. Therefore there is no mention of freedom… no mention of a moral basis for individual rights… no mention of property rights… no mention of how wealth is created… no mention of the right to live one’s life free from the violation of one’s rights… no mention of pursuing happiness… no mention of limitations on governmental power.

This is because, to Barack Obama and his evaders, there is only the collective.

Even when Obama properly opposes any attempt to overturn a woman’s right to abortion, it’s not because abortion is a moral right, but because it fits into the category of his policies that pertain to women.

In order to carry out his blueprint, Obama will take on America’s “enemies” — a floating, disembodied melange of “lobbyists,” “disparities,” “agribusiness,” “chronic disease,” “special interests,” and “workers falling behind.”

This is what he will do for America. This is what he means by giving America back to the people.

I fear there will not be enough duct tape in the world to patchwork this country back together if Obama’s blueprint becomes realized. And the tragedy is that the masters of evasion won’t even notice.

The Ethics of Emergencies, Gotham Style

 Posted by on 25 August 2008 at 11:45 pm  Ethics, Film
Aug 252008


In the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, there is a climactic scene, as follows. Gotham must be evacuated, and part of the evacuation is effected by putting 500 people on each of two ferries. One ferry is filled with civilians, and the other, with convicted felons and their guards. The Joker supplies a dilemma: he has provided each boat with a detonator, and unless one ferry uses its detonator to blow up the other before his deadline, the Joker will blow both ferries up. Hashing out what one would do in that situation became the focus of discussion on at least one blog, which managed to capture the attention of a blog published at the New York Times, “Freakonomics.”

I enjoyed The Dark Knight as a well-made movie with some terrific performances (your mileage may vary). But the ferry dilemma didn’t occupy any mental real estate in my brain once the movie was over, in terms of caring to figure out what I would do. So my reaction upon discovering the fuss about this scene in the movie was first amusement and then bemusement–why did some people still find it such a hot topic for discussion? Then I remembered what Ayn Rand wrote in one of her most famous articles, “The Ethics of Emergencies” (published in her anthology The Virtue of Selfishness).

The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as: “Should one risk one’s life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?”

Her point was that altruism doesn’t tell you how to live, but only under what conditions you’re supposed to sacrifice your life. Rand explained this approach to ethics as follows:

If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance): …

[A] lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality–since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.

Altruism is the dominant morality in our culture, meaning there are a lot of people for whom morality is irrelevant, most of the time. Yet no-one wants to think of himself as amoral. So when can an altruist take morality seriously? In a hypothetical life-or-death situation. The ferry dilemma in The Dark Knight provides a perfect outlet for seeming to take seriously the morality of altruism–in a fantasy world where it doesn’t matter if you practice what you preach.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the ferry dilemma–in 20/20 hindsight. When one is forced to make a decision under threat of violence, all bets are off. The world becomes a topsy-turvy, down-is-up, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place, where it’s impossible to know what actions would be in one’s own best interest. Nothing the Joker said could be a guide to action; he might just as well have kept his mouth shut, for all the content to be found in the ravings of an irrational psychopath. Therefore, I think the movie sensibly resolved the dilemma: throw the detonator overboard. There was no way to make any rational decision about what to do with it; it was just as relevant to the situation as a rubber ducky. Strictly speaking, the scene didn’t depict a moral dilemma at all. Where rationality is impossible, morality is impossible, too.

(An aside: just what does it say about the screenwriters that it was a criminal who made the correct choice? Inquiring minds want to know …)

Fraud or Ignorance?

 Posted by on 25 August 2008 at 12:58 pm  Business, Ethics
Aug 252008

Wine Spectator magazine was caught giving out its “Award of Excellence” to a non-existent Italian restaurant, which included on its featured wine list a vintage which the magazine itself once likened to “paint thinner and nail varnish”.

Writer and wine critic Robin Goldstein created this fake restaurant (complete with realistic website and all) as a test to see if the magazine would simply pocket the $250 entrance fee and give out the Award, or if they would actually do some serious investigation of the restaurant before handing out their stamp of approval. He presented his results at the recent meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists. Here’s more information on his methods.

So was the magazine acting fraudulently or in ignorance? And is it ethical for individuals or groups to use these sorts of deceptive methods to test the integrity of organizations which purport to offer a value to consumers by rating other businesses and products?

Decide for yourself after reading the article.

"Serving Others" is NOT the American Way

 Posted by on 24 August 2008 at 11:37 pm  Ethics, Politics
Aug 242008

Political wives Michelle Obama and Jeannie Ritter, the wife of Colorado’s Governor, wrote a Guest Commentary about “serving others” as being the American way. They echo Barack Obama’s directive, “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.”

Well, who is my big brother? Are we as Americans supposed to sit around while others “serve” us? Who pays the rent while we run around volunteering? What if I decide to define myself as “needy” and demand that others give me what I lack?

In fact, I think I’m going to quit my job and become needy so that rich liberals can serve me and feel good about themselves. (Drum roll and trumpets, please) I hereby heroically declare it my duty as a good and brave citizen to allow others the privilege of fulfilling their “American Way” by serving MOI! Gee, I feel really good about this….Now give me your money!!

All sarcasm aside, Obama’s and Ritter’s pernicious underlying message is this: that altruism should be one’s primary purpose and responsibility in life, and that it is immoral to be left free to live one’s life as an end in itself.

I’ve got news for the followers of this mandate: serving others out of altruism is not what made this country great. Our country is distinguished by the concept of freedom: freedom to pursue one’s own life, goals, rational self-interest, relationships, and happiness. (Why the hell would millions leave everything behind in their dictatorial or poverty-infested countries to come to America?!)

Giving to a cause should be a secondary choice based on one’s own values. It should not be a duty imposed by cultural pressure or law. The fact that Americans do volunteer and donate billions to various non-profits or community groups speaks of the generosity of Americans. It is a result of a natural benevolence that emerges when people are left free to choose their life path and relationships with others.

The alternative of “good equaling sacrifice” versus “bad equaling self-interest” is utterly fallacious. It disavows our nature as human beings. It ignores the historical fact that people pursuing their values without preventing others from doing the same leads to wealth, a higher standard of living and a healthier society.

The liberals are evading the natural consequence of their credo. Just look at the past horrors of regimes demanding sacrifice for the “people” or for the “state” (Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany) or sacrifice for God (Afghanistan under the Taliban).

We must reject the evil idea of altruism. A government that tells us we are responsible for the happiness and health of others is a government that will control us.

Whoever is my keeper is my master.

The Preciousness of a Finite Existence

 Posted by on 20 August 2008 at 12:17 am  Ethics, Politics, Religion
Aug 202008

[Originally posted to Politics without God, the blog of the Coalition for Secular Government.]

Most religious or “spiritual” values include the belief in eternal life, such as an afterlife in heaven or reincarnation into another life after death. The common theme is the idea that each person has an eternal soul that lives beyond the physical body after death.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, a key goal of modern religious activism is advocacy for what many faithful call the “sanctity of life”. Believers are taught that life is given by and belongs to God, and therefore we must not meddle in the godly matters of life and death.

This is the biblical basis for prohibitions against abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research, even though these practices are for the purpose of relieving suffering and improving the lives of living individuals. (And it is also the moral basis for the Colorado ballot proposal to grant rights to fertilized eggs.)

But when the religious interpretation of the “sanctity of life” is the law of the land, people are forced to endure suffering. For example, a woman who is impregnated by a vicious rapist must forever live with the psychological and social burden of raising a child she doesn’t want. A terminal cancer patient with agonizing pain only has the option of withering away using ever-increasing mega-doses of pain drugs rather than being allowed the choice of ending his life with dignity. These examples demonstrate the opposite of respect for the sanctity of life.

How do the faithful psychologically tolerate these indignities? By believing in an eternal life: that when it’s all over, one’s soul will live on. It may go to heaven to be with God in a state of eternal bliss, or it may reincarnate and advance to a “higher plane” of existence with “lessons learned” from the previous life.

But this belief comes at a high price: believing in an eternal soul essentially renders one’s life in the here and now expendable. If you live forever, it doesn’t ultimately matter if you suffer in this life. All that matters is that humans must not “play God” by taking ownership over their own their lives.

One of the most difficult truths we face as humans is that our existence is finite. This is something we have to learn to accept and cope with. The religious belief in an afterlife is a total evasion of this blunt truth.

The fundamental fact that we all die means that it is this life that is sacred. Therefore, we must have a society that protects the unique, finite and precious life of each living individual. Such a society based on rational egoism has a moral code founded on the realities of our finite existence and the requirements of human life.

But a faith-based society that unquestioningly accepts the idea of an eternal soul can rationalize doing anything it wants to individuals in the name of God, because people get eternal life anyway.

A proper sanctity of life is for the living. It is not for potential life, a dreamy “eternal” life, or for God.

The Psychological Pyramid Scheme of Altruism

 Posted by on 14 July 2008 at 11:02 pm  Ethics, Politics
Jul 142008

Often, when I am trying to explain to someone why it is improper to tax people for others’ benefit, no matter how desirable that benefit might be, I get the response: “But I’m willing to pay taxes for that!” This often happens in the context of health care — people tell me they don’t mind being taxed for health care, and wouldn’t mind being taxed more if it meant universal coverage. So I wonder: why do so many people find it easy to agree to be taxed to help other people, to provide welfare? In Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson (which I recommend for its readability, although the philosophy is often incorrect), the single lesson he teaches is: people only see the immediate (single) consequence in front of them, but don’t look at the many diffuse repercussions of a decision. So one answer is: a taxpayer might agree to be taxed to provide for others’ medical care, caring only that others are taxed to provide that taxpayer with medical care and not worrying about the fact that government finance of something means government control of something — and government control of a thing properly left private means government destruction of that thing. Many, many people really want the cake now, even at the expense of destroying the ability to make cakes in the future.

But I think there’s a deeper level why people agree to it. The argument that socializing medicine will destroy it is so rational and sound that I think we need to look for a deeper psychological reason why people evade the truth of it. And I think it has to do at least in part with a particular aspect of altruism identified by Ayn Rand: namely, that it is impossible to consistently practice altruism. What is the effect of adopting a moral code impossible to practice? A catastrophic loss of self-esteem. I believe that, rather than face such a catastrophic loss of self-esteem, people will evade the facts that bring them face to face with that loss. I think this is a possible explanation of why people agree to be taxed to provide welfare to others. I explain more below — hopefully, without lapsing into “psychologizing.”

When a person directly asks another for alms — in this case, for medical care — the altruist ethics demands that whoever is asked to contribute do so to the limit. “To each according to his need.” If a patient in the hospital directly asks a strange visitor for $10, perhaps this visitor, if also an adherent to the altruist ethics, cannot help but think that he or she could afford much more. And maybe this altruist also can’t help knowing that there is more than one patient in the hospital that needs help paying medical bills — maybe this altruist should be giving $10 dollars to each financially needy patient in the hospital. Perhaps the altruist can’t avoid the knowledge that his ethics require him to give to his absolute limit. Being face to face with a request to live up to his altruist ethics starts the altruist on a train of thought that ends with divesting himself of every value he has ever worked for and, deep in his heart, he knows he has earned. Whether or not the altruist gives the $10 requested of him, he is stuck with the guilt of knowing that he is a hypocrite: the reason he gives the $10 is identical to the reason he must give away all of his money. And he knows he will not and cannot do it, because he wants to live and enjoy his life. The guilt must be crushing.

On the other hand, being taxed for something doesn’t bring an altruist face-to-face with his guilt over his failure to actually live by the altruist ethics. If the altruist agrees that everyone must be taxed, he can, in a way, feel that he is giving more than $10. If everyone gives $10, then that’s hundreds of millions of dollars. If the altruist supports EVERYONE giving ten dollars, he gets to support giving needy patients, as a group, hundreds of millions of dollars.

So he gets to feel virtuous.

That other people might, in good conscience, consider themselves free of any obligation to engage in charity, is immaterial.

People really do need to feel they are right. It might be the most basic need. Ayn Rand has identified pride as the sum of all virtues. It’s because pride has to do with making yourself a worthy subject of effort. If you aren’t worthy of effort, you aren’t worthy to live, because man’s life requires sustained effort. But to be worthy of effort, you have to be a valuable, good person. Which means: you have to be a MORALLY good person.

Forcing altruism on others is the only way for an altruist to feel morally good, because no-one can consistently practice altruism. Since you can’t actually practice it, your only hope is to counterfeit it and evade the fact of your counterfeiting. But it’s hard to evade something right in your face, such as being confronted with a beggar asking for alms. It’s easier to evade something less concrete. The person asking an altruist for money directly makes an altruist feel horrible because she is faced with a concrete instance of how painful her morality is. But what’s most concrete about taxes is: for the price of $10, you can feel like you’re contributing hundreds of millions. Instead of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, the road to heaven is.

No one can practice altruism. Anyone can intend to practice it. Anyone can claim credit for intending to practice it, especially when every other person who shares that moral concept is hoping to get away with the same self-swindle. It’s one big psychological pyramid scheme.

The Importance of the Subject

 Posted by on 13 July 2008 at 5:04 pm  Ethics, Objectivism
Jul 132008

The January 2008 issue of the journal Social Philosophy and Policy had numerous papers focusing on the “Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics.”[1] Among them was Objectivist philosopher Dr. Tara Smith’s “The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value.”

In this paper, Dr. Smith elaborates on philosopher Ayn Rand’s view that the individual (the “subject”) plays an important role in the generation and the instructions of an objective morality.

To appreciate what Dr. Smith is pointing out, consider the following examples:

(1) Tiger Woods and his accomplishments. Woods has deliberately sought a particular type of life as a professional golfer, and as we can all attest, has had an extraordinary amount of success in his efforts. He paid attention to facts relevant to his goal as a great golfer, such as the value of practicing his golf swing and buying effective golf equipment (or even changing his swing when it injures him).[2]

(2) John Allison, the chairman and CEO of BB&T bank. Allison drove towards a particular career, and, like Woods, is also very successful in his field, the banking industry. He identified certain business actions as practical, and engaged in them, including teaching his employees his personal value system, and funding courses and organizations in support of Capitalism.

These examples illustrate that seeking life makes certain actions, objects, and positions objective values or disvalues relative to certain facts of life’s requirements and to an individual’s goals and purposes. Not adequately practicing before an upcoming golf championship would be a disvalue for Woods, because it would decrease his chance of winning, possibly lessen his endorsements, and reduce his general ability as a golf player–which means: all things considered, it would be bad for his life. Increasing the economic value of BB&T’s products would be a value for Allison, by contrast, because it would likely increase his company’s success, increase shareholder value, and allow his company to buffer any future losses–meaning that it would be good for his life, fully considered. Objective values are needs that we should pursue because they are conducive to our lives, and they allow us to succeed at our chosen goal of living–this is Rand’s basic depiction of objective values.

Another element of the objectivity of values Smith points out is that it is relational: while things or practices can benefit us, such as a better golf swing in Woods’ case, they can only function as values if the person identifies them as beneficial–as worth the effort of gaining. This relational aspect of objective values highlights the crucial role that our free will plays. Certain biological facts make certain things beneficial and other things harmful regardless of our own thoughts and opinions towards them, but our thoughts do matter in regards to considering some benefits as “values,” because our conclusions will determine if we act towards what we believe to be values.

We need to seek beneficial objects to enhance our lives, and many of these beneficial things can only be gained by our deliberate choices and actions–meaning that in order to be successful, we must know how to choose and what to choose. In Smith’s (and Rand’s) view, this is precisely why we need morality. “A moral code,” Smith writes, “identifies the kinds of ends that a person should seek (values) and the kinds of actions that he should take to secure values (virtues).”[3]

This understanding of how the individual’s choice to live and his pursuit of identified beneficial things is (partly) what gives rise to objective values (and morality) is one of Smith’s points in the essay.

The other point highlighting how pivotal the individual is in an objective morality centers around the concept of “objectivity” itself.[4] In short, our thoughts and choices don’t automatically conform to reality, and so we discover that it is necessary to identify methods of thinking which take the facts into consideration (objective) and contrast them with methods which ignore or evade relevant facts (non-objective). For example, Woods changing his swing when it injured him is a professionally objective approach insofar as he paid attention to relevant facts (his physical condition, his previous golf approach, negative consequences of not changing his swing, etc.) in order to succeed in his goals.

The need to pursue values, coupled with the facts that we don’t automatically pursue them and don’t automatically know how to succeed, are the grounds for an objective morality–a morality that makes possible systematic guidance in determining if our actions conform to the facts and our goals, or if they don’t.

It is the deliberate choice to live, the identification of certain beneficial things which one should pursue (objective values), and an objective approach to one’s life-decisions that demonstrates the importance of the subject in an objective morality.

Before concluding, I’d like to point out one of the implications of this view of moral objectivity.[5] Namely, that Smith-Rand’s view of morality places its function solely in the advancement of one’s own life–it is egoistic.[6] This moral code is concerned with one’s self-interest and how to realistically accomplish it. As Smith notes:

The question that a person faces, in aspiring to moral objectivity, is not how to escape his vantage point, either literally or figuratively, but how to make his view conform with reality. What is the nature of this thing that I am considering? And what sort of impact is it most likely to exert on my life? These are the principal questions that a person must address.[7]

A very illuminating essay, which may be of particular interest to those who think of an “objective morality” as a set of duties to be fulfilled in total disregard to one’s interests.

References and Notes
[1] All of the essays in the January issue are available for free
viewing, and no registration required.

[2] The Truth About Tiger

[3] Tara Smith (2008). The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value. Social Philosophy and Policy, Cambridge University Press, 25: p. 132.

[4] For more on the concept of “objectivity,” the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on objectivity.

[5] Another implication Smith points out in the paper is that Rand’s view of moral objectivity rejects a single list of values, identical for everyone (which is usually a characteristic of the moral objectivism position in philosophy). Many of the things Tiger Woods pursues in connection to his profession as a golfer are values for him, but probably are not values for John Allison, since he is in a different line of work. Similarly, the values they both pursue (organizations they support and career) legitimately differ. By “legitimate,” I second Smith’s remark that the “parameters defining the permissible range are themselves objective insofar as they are grounded in the natural requirements of human life” (Smith, “The Importance of the Subject,” p. 143).

[6] See more on egoism in chapter 6 of Smith’s book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, and in this Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on Selfishness

[7] “The Importance of the Subject,” p. 146

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