Rand’s Ethics: Reply to Dave Walden

Dave Walden posted a comment on social media summarizing his criticisms of my book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics. I am pleased to reply here. Other readers are invited to send me comments or criticisms of the book that they’d like me to publicly address.

Following are Walden’s remarks:

Ari: As I previously indicated in my review of your draft, I applaud the respectful manner in which you present your scholarship, though I nonetheless believe you have made errors in your theory.

As I summarized in my response to your draft:

I believe you have not logically grasped the profound implications of Rand’s bedrock epistemological tenet that reason must be man’s only absolute. Further, I believe you have not sufficiently understood her law of identity.

Further still, and more specifically, the difference between the “biology” of all non-human living entities, and that of man’s, is paramount. Consequently, your usage of the words “life” and “value” assumes little—if any, important epistemological differences between the “biology” of human and non-human living entities.

In your failure to discern such differences, the values each might act to gain or keep, demonstrate the profoundly-consequential DIFFERENT MEANS whereby each acts to gain or keep them.

For example, your concluding paragraph in which you cite Rand’s use of “biology” as the proper starting point for “values,” ignores the fact that, for human biology, It is CONSCIOUSNESS AND CHOICE as the starting place for values, arising from man’s uniquely-human “biology.”

Again, as I have previously stated, I applaud your effort and hope it results in renewed interest in Rand and her unprecedented ideas!


Walden brings up a number of important issues that I will address in turn.

I do not ignore or downplay the role of reason either in Rand’s philosophy or in human life. As I discuss in the book, reason plays a central role in Rand’s approach to ethics as well as in my own, and in my final chapter I discuss at length how reason is the fundamental way in which people pursue their values.

For example, I write, “What distinguishes human beings from other caring conscious creatures is that people can choose what to pursue based on complex rational calculations about how their values fit together” (p. 152).

Rand’s comment about reason being man’s only absolute comes from her “about the author” section in Atlas Shrugged. The fuller quote is this:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Rand intends her remark as an “essential” summary of of her philosophy, not as a substitute for its particular elements. Rand develops a particular metaethical theory, mainly in John Galt’s speech and in “The Objectivist Ethics,” and obviously she thought it was important to do so. We need to pay attention, then, to how, specifically, Rand thinks that people go by reason when it comes to ethics.

That Rand is right that people should go by reason does not, by itself, imply that she’s right about how people properly apply reason to the field of ethics. Rand’s metaethics needs to be addressed on its own terms.

I quite agree with Rand that human beings are unique sorts of living things and that we therefore live our lives by unique means—fundamentally, by use of reason.

At the same time, Rand holds that certain basic facts about values are true of all living things, regardless of their specific biology, whether amoebas, plants, insects, mammals, or humans.

Rand plainly holds that only living things can have or pursue values and that the nature of values depends on the nature of living things, and on these points she’s obviously right. Rand, then, sees all organisms as the same in certain respects, in that they pursue values according to their nature; and different in certain respects, in how they pursue values depending on their nature. I agree with Rand on these basic points.

When I write that Rand sees “biology as the starting point of values” (p. 174), I am merely summarizing Rand’s claims that only living things are capable of having or pursuing values and that an organism’s life conditions its values. These are not and should not be controversial points.

That said, I think Rand does leave open the door (as I think it should be open) to potential artificial “life,” which would meet her definition of “a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action.” If such ever arises, I will have to modify my claim to “life, whether biological or artificial, is the starting point of values.” But to date the only sort of life that we have any evidence of existing is biological, so, in that context, my remark is sufficient and accurate. (I have a section in my book on Rand’s hypothetical example of the “indestructible robot.”)

Is “consciousness and choice,” not biology, the starting point for (human) ethics? Obviously a human choice cannot take place in a vacuum; the reason we are able to make choices is that we are living beings with specific capacities. So choice presupposes that we are living (biological) entities with a (biological) brain capable of choice. What I say here is not at all at odds with what Rand says.

John Galt says, “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.” Yet the choice to live in Rand’s system presupposes the biological need to pursue values in order to live. Both in Rand’s system and in mine (although important details differ), absent biological needs, choice would be meaningless. (I have a detailed section in my book on the role of the “choice to live” in Rand’s theory.)

The problem with Rand’s theory, as I show in my fourth chapter (“The Error in Rand’s Biology”), is that important claims that Rand makes about values as they pertain to living things generally simply are false.

In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand clearly argues that, for living things generally, values as such orient to an organism’s life in terms of survival. The issue of “existence or nonexistence,” of “life or death,” is central to Rand’s approach. She summarizes: An organism’s life is its “ultimate value,” the “final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means.” She continues: “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (emphasis omitted). I go through Rand’s basic arguments in detail in my book.

Rand is right about values arising in the context of living things, but she is wrong about why living organisms generally pursue values. They do not, as Rand has it, pursue values for the ultimate aim of sustaining their own survival. Rand is wrong, moreover, when she claims that “the functions of all living organisms . . . are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.” Standard modern evolutionary biology, of which Rand was by her own admission ignorant, shows Rand to be wrong. (Yes, I have an entire section devoted to Harry Binswanger’s attempts to defend Rand’s biological claims. His efforts to not succeed.)

That Rand is wrong about the values of living things generally—that values orient to an organism’s survival—calls into question Rand’s claims about the proper end of action for people. That’s the point of my fourth chapter.

I am not arguing that Rand thinks or that it is the case that biology determines specific human values generally. Rand certainly does not believe that, and neither do I.

At the same time, obviously Rand thinks that biology plays an important role in the particular values that people pursue. For example, we have specific nutritive needs that directly bear on what we eat.

A difference between Rand’s views and mine is that I see a relatively larger role for biology in what we experience as valuable for its own sake. Rand and I would agree on many basics: Certain foods taste good to us, and sex feels pleasurable, fundamentally because of our biological capacities. I see quite a lot more room for biology playing a role in our capacities to value having and raising children and sympathizing with others, as examples. I think that basic evolutionary biology strongly supports my position.

At the same time, as I argue at length in my final chapter (“Rethinking the Ultimate Value”), I see reason as fundamentally important in our integration of our values into a functioning life. As I explain, I end up with a moral theory that is similar to what Rand held in her earlier years and to what many Objectivists implicitly hold.

To summarize: Rand sees reason as “man’s only absolute,” but her metaethics is not logically sound or consistent with the evidence. (For my detailed arguments, for which this short essay is not a substitute, see my book.) My alternative preserves reason as the basic virtue but builds a moral theory consistent with the facts of human existence. Hence, my position is consistent with the identity of human beings, as Rand’s theory is not. And my approach fully accounts for the importance of human consciousness and human choice in integrating values into a meaningful and joyous life.

Objectivists are, of course, welcome to continue to try to show why Rand’s position holds up despite my challenges and why my arguments fail. I don’t think they can succeed in this, but I welcome the discussion.

November 30 Update: The discussion continues on my Facebook feed, for anyone interested. Walden replied to my remarks here, and I replied in kind. Following are my main remarks:

My remark that values arise in the context of biological organisms—which is also Rand’s explicit position—is not a denial of the role of reason in human life, nor a denial of choice, nor a denial of our unique psychological needs. I say that biology is the starting point of value, not the ending point, which is precisely Rand’s position. I discuss the role of reason, of choice, and of our psychological needs extensively in the book, content that you don’t seem to have noticed.

Nor do I argue that ethics applies to non-humans. Instead, I explicitly state the opposite.

I do state Rand’s own position, straight out of her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” that value arises in the context of living things generally (i.e., of all living things) pursuing values to further their survival. Rand states, “The goal of that [self-sustaining] action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.” By “the organism” here, Rand means any given organism. That which applies to life generally, applies to human life.

So what I’m talking about is Ayn Rand’s metaethical theory as she lays it out, primarily in “The Objectivist Ethics.”

I already offered a quote from my book regarding the importance of reason and choice. Here I offer the fuller quote, from pages 152–153 of my book:

What distinguishes human beings from other caring conscious creatures is that people can choose what to pursue based on complex rational calculations about how their values fit together. Other creatures’ capacity to do this is either severely restricted or else nonexistent. For example, my cat might decide whether to eat cat food or laze in the sun at a given moment, but her deliberations go little further. People have the capacity to reason—to think abstractly, to understand complex relationships of means and ends and parts and wholes, to plan their lives not just moment to moment but decade to decade. And this capacity is what gives rise to morality in the human sense.

Rand is right that, as humans, we do not pursue our values automatically; our actions are not programmed into us by our genes. We can think, deliberate, choose. That is, we can use our conceptual and logical faculties to guide our actions in the pursuit of values and, to a substantial degree, to decide which values will constitute our lives.

Update: I bit later, I added what I hope is a useful summary:

Rand’s theory is that, for all living things, values normally orient to an organism’s survival. For people, who have choice, this implies that people should act ultimately for their (robust, long term) survival (which results in happiness and which they can achieve only by practicing reason and the related virtues). If that’s not what you think Rand’s theory is (in a nutshell), then you simply do not understand Rand’s formal theory. Rand is wrong about why organisms other than humans generally pursue values, and she is wrong about why people ultimately should pursue values. Living things do not generally pursue values for their own survival; rather, they pursue values for the survival of their genes, meaning, in practice, themselves, their offspring, and closely related relatives. But that is not directly relevant to human ethics. What is directly relevant to human ethics is that we experience certain things as valuable for their own sake (or valuable as ends in themselves), and the point of ethics is to help us rationally integrate that which we experience as valuable for its own sake and our derivative values. Such is the thrust of my book. But, again, I urge people to bear in mind that, if I could have adequately presented Rand’s theory, my critique of it, and my own approach in a single paragraph, I wouldn’t have had to write a sixty-thousand word book on these topics. My remarks here are a summary of my main conclusions, not a substitute for the arguments that I present in my book.

See also the landing page for the book for reviews, media, and additional essays.

Image: Atlas by Lee Lawrie, photo by Peter Kaminski