Exploring Value Integration: A Reply to Mozes on Rand’s Ethics

Eyal Mozes reviews my book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics, in a detailed essay posted January 6, 2019.

Mozes and I agree very closely on the proper interpretation of Ayn Rand’s metaethical theory. We disagree about whether that theory is correct (I say no) and what the theory entails in terms of certain moral commitments. We also disagree about whether my proposed alternative, that the point of ethics is to help a person rationally integrate values experienced as ends in themselves, can succeed.

A bit of background: Mozes, whom I met years ago at an Objectivist event, has written important essays about Rand’s moral theory, including one on the free-rider problem, several of which I discuss in my book. In my view, Mozes is a widely underappreciated Objectivist theorist.

Here I do not limit myself to a point-by-point reply of Mozes’s commentary; I seek also to put the conversation in context and to expand my ideas in a way that I hope will prove helpful to the general reader.

Mozes’s Praise

I appreciate Mozes’s general comments about my book:

Objectivists have become jaded with critiques of Objectivism that attack ridiculous straw men, with no attempt to understand what Rand actually said; and who throw out any argument they can think of, no matter how obviously fallacious, in the hope that something sticks. Armstrong’s book is a refreshing exception. Armstrong has read Rand’s writings, and the literature discussing her ethics, with close attention, and for the most part presents Rand’s philosophy accurately, more so than many of those who claim to defend it. He devotes a lot of time to explaining Rand’s ideas and arguments, correcting common misconceptions about them, and discussing and ably answering many of the weak criticisms of Objectivism that have appeared in the literature, before presenting his own criticisms. The result is a very interesting and thought-provoking book, which, if it gets the attention it deserves, will be an important contribution to the literature on Objectivism. . . .

I very much hope Armstrong’s book gets the wide attention it deserves among Rand scholars. If it does, its explanations of the principles of Rand’s ethics, corrections to common misconceptions about it, and answers to many of the common weak criticisms of Rand’s ethics, will serve as a valuable resource in improving the quality of debates over Rand’s ethics, and helping both those who agree with Rand and those who disagree with her to clarify their thinking.

I appreciate these remarks, particularly as Mozes disagrees with most or all of my criticisms of Rand. Mozes spends the rest of his essay criticizing my book, starting with a discussion on biology.

Rand and Biology

My fourth chapter is, “The Error in Rand’s Biology.” Mozes and I agree on the basics of what Rand’s theory is. He summarizes: “Rand believed that all action by non-human living organisms has the ultimate goal of supporting the organism’s survival. This is the foundation for her identification of survival as the ultimate end and the standard of value in ethics.”

It is important to understand what Rand is getting at with her observations about biology.

Rand is not arguing something like the following: “All nonhuman living things pursue their survival; therefore, people too should pursue their survival.” Such would be a crude instance of the naturalistic fallacy.

Instead, Rand observes how values function in living things, and, she believes, she has discovered that values by their nature orient to an organism’s survival. Therefore, when we look at nonhuman living things, Rand thinks, we observe that living functions and actions generally further the acting creature’s survival. When we consider people, who have choice, we realize (if we properly understand the nature of values and of life) that people should orient their values to their survival. [Yes, I must emphasize to sate my critics, Rand holds that people should orient their values to their survival, if they choose to live. Rand recognizes no other moral end. See the section in my book on the choice to live, pp. 90–99.]

My counter to Rand here (an argument hardly original with me) is that it is not true that organisms generally function and act exclusively or ultimately for their own survival. Instead, they function and act for the survival of their genes, meaning that they often act for the benefit of offspring or other closely related organisms, even at cost to their own survival. What this means is that Rand is wrong about the nature of values; they do not by their nature orient to the individual organism’s survival.

I am not arguing that people should pursue their reproductive fitness rather than their individual survival, and I explicitly reject that position in my book. (Mozes does not suggest that this is my position, but other people who refuse to read my book have suggested that it is.) Rather, my point is that neither survival nor reproductive fitness is the proper moral end for people. Rand is fundamentally on the wrong track.

As I discuss in my book, Harry Binswanger attempts to harmonize evolutionary biology and Rand’s moral theory, but, in my view, he fails in this.

Mozes thinks that I miss Binswanger’s key point: “Binswanger’s basic argument is that when an organism’s actions are deterministically controlled by its genome, the consequence is that the organism must act in the same way that its parents, and other close genetic kin, have acted in similar situations in the past.”

I agree with the point about determinism (for nonhuman life), but this does not affect my critique of Binswanger’s case.

Mozes, with admirable forthrightness, argues that “the organism does, in many cases, serve its survival by doing something that causes it to die.” He sees this as a way out of my criticism; I see it as an obvious absurdity (absurd in the technical sense, meaning that it contains a contradiction).

I don’t have any other main sort of response on this issue, nor do I think I need one. Once I back Objectivism into the corner of claiming that an organism pursues its survival by doing something that causes it to die, I consider that I’ve won the argument.

Let us briefly return to the example of bees (which I use in the book) to illustrate the point. Mozes, following Binswanger’s approach, acknowledges that a bee might sting an animal threatening the hive, causing the bee to die but possibly helping to save the hive. Mozes’s take on this is that the bee therefore acts for its own survival, in a sense, because such is the sort of behavior that allowed its hive to exist in the first place. My reply is that the individual bee—and Rand is after all concerned fundamentally with the actions and welfare of individual organisms—thereby sacrifices its own survival for the sake of the survival of other organisms. That it cannot do otherwise does change the fact of what it does.

I will make a stronger point: Even if (counterfactually) it were the case that nonhuman organisms always functioned and acted for their own survival, that (counter)fact would not suggest that survival is the proper moral end for people. Rand’s case is logically flawed even aside from her mistaken claims about biology, as I discuss in the book. However, Rand’s errors about biology, by themselves, disqualify her case, because they undermine her claims about the relationship between values and life.

Even if Objectivists squint very hard to see all (nonhuman) living functions and actions as normally oriented to the organism’s “survival,” such that even a bee sacrificing its own life for the sake of its hive thereby acts for its “survival” in some sense, such a view hardly relates to the sort of egoistic ethics that Rand has in mind.

“Ah, but people have choice,” many Objectivists will reply. This is true, but it misses the point. If we reject the claim that values inherently orient to the individual organism’s survival—as we must if we take seriously basic biological facts—then there is no reason to expect that a person should choose to pursue his survival as his ultimate moral aim. And if we follow Objectivists in holding that values orient to “survival,” with an expanded view of “survival” that includes such acts as a bee sacrificing its life for the sake of its hive, then there is no reason to think that a person should choose to pursue his “survival” in the egoistic way that Rand has in mind. The Objectivist moral theory fails in either case.

Values and Goals

I argue that the starting point of ethics is values that we experience as ends in themselves. Mozes replies that my position has a problem:

Armstrong, to follow the logic of his argument, has to disagree with both Rand and [biologist Richard] Dawkins. By Armstrong’s logic, if we experience physical pleasure (as we obviously do) as valuable for its own sake, not as a signal of what is helpful to survival or to gene propagation; and if we experience physical pain (again, as we obviously do) as bad in itself, not as a signal of threats to survival or to gene propagation; this demonstrates conclusively that both Rand and Dawkins must be wrong about the goal of the pleasure-pain mechanism, and that its actual goal must be to provide pleasure for its own sake.

I think the problem here is in Mozes’s understanding of a “goal.”

Let’s start with a basic point. The process of evolution per se has no goals; it operates in accordance with the causal processes of nature. It turns out that, because of the phenomenon of natural selection, the functions and actions of living organisms generally orient to reproductive fitness. If the functions and actions of a given organism do not so orient, that organism is unlikely to reproduce.

A goal pertains to an intentional and conscious act. So, for example, when a lion chases a gazelle, its goal is to catch and eat the gazelle to sate its hunger. It so happens that, because of evolutionary pressures, the lion’s hunger and desire to eat align with the lion’s need to gain nutrients to live and reproduce. The pain of hunger and the pleasure of hunting and eating are evolution’s way of getting the lion to pursue its reproductive fitness. But of course the lion does not think of its actions in terms of reproductive fitness; it just experiences hunger, the thrill of the hunt, and satiety.

Let’s say that there were a mutated gazelle that looked and tasted exactly like a regular gazelle, except its flesh offered no nutritional value to the lion. Let’s say that eating the gazelle is actually unhealthy for the lion. Would this automatically affect the lion’s goals? Of course not. The lion would still feel hungry, still feel the driving need to chase the gazelle, and still relish eating the gazelle’s flesh, just as before. But now the lion, by eating the gazelle, would not serve the evolutionary “goal” of furthering its reproductive fitness. (Presumably, if such gazelles spread, eventually this would prompt an evolutionary adaptation among lions, or lions might be displaced by other creatures.)

The point is that Mozes’s criticism is misplaced. Standard evolutionary theory holds that living things tend to function and act so as to maximize their reproductive fitness. But this does not mean that the “goal” of an individual organism, as it acts, is to maximize its reproductive fitness. Its goal is just to avoid the things it experiences as bad (hurtful, distressing) and pursue the things it experiences as good (pleasurable, satisfying).

What if a given lion gained conceptual awareness? (For example, perhaps someone outfitted the lion with the sort of cybernetic enhancements that we see with the character Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy.) Then we could explain to the lion that its taste for the mutated gazelle is actually at odds with its health, and the lion could decide to take some other course of action. For example, the lion could avoid the temptation to hunt mutated gazelles and pursue only other sorts of animals. (In my terms, the lion could rationally integrate its values.)

Part of my point is that human goals frequently are at odds with evolutionary imperatives, especially in the modern world, and we need to account for this to integrate our values. I’ll offer three obvious examples.

1) Evolution “wants” us to have sex so that we reproduce; hence, sex is extraordinarily pleasurable. The main evolutionary “goal” of sex is reproduction. (Note my scare quotes.) But, as human beings, usually we want to have sex without reproducing, so we take great pains to accomplish that. Our goal usually is to have sex because it’s awesome. The evolutionary explanation for why we experience sex as awesome—because it serves reproduction—often is entirely beside the point. People do not typically scream in bed, “Oh, baby, you serve my reproductive fitness!” Nor do people typically have sex, as Rand would have it, in order to further their survival.

2) Food manufacturers routinely try to capture our evolutionary taste for certain foods to get us to buy and eat foods that are actually very unhealthy for us. We have a taste for sugar, which was rare throughout most of human evolution; today someone can down sugary sodas one after the next. I love the taste of hot McDonald’s French fries. But, it turns out, the fries are cooked in canola, corn, soybean, and hydrogenated soybean fats, which I regard as extraordinarily unhealthy. So I choose not to eat those fries, even though they taste good to me. I do eat Boulder Canyon chips cooked in avocado oil, because I think that fat is healthy and the chips taste great.

3) We seem by inborn capacity to experience the exertion of our bodies as enjoyable, to a degree, yet to experience physical exertion beyond some point as naturally distressing and painful. But our modern lives, in which many of us sit around computers all day typing, look far different than the lives of our Paleolithic ancestors, who often had to physically exert themselves. We compensate by exercising, and strenuous exercise is painful in some respects. I have to “psych myself up” to do deadlifts and reward myself for doing them (I listen to music, for example), because doing them is miserable. But I do them because, not only does the exercise alleviate my once-chronic lower back pain, but, I believe, it helps maintain my long-term health. This is a good example of consciously accepting short-term pain (and sore muscles the next day) for long-term benefit. But, in the moment, I am aware not only of the physical pain; because I am consciously aware of the benefits of exercise, I also feel satisfaction and pride in doing deadlifts.

My position has an odd implication: Because we are conceptual beings, we do not (always) have to follow evolutionary imperatives. For example, some people intentionally starve themselves to death or abstain from sex because of religious commitments. In some sense, we have evolved beyond evolution’s grasp. Evolution sets the boundaries for what we can do and what we can experience, yet we have remarkable freedom within those boundaries.

How could evolution produce beings who are free in this way? My hypothesis is that evolution is essentially (blindly) making a trade-off: Our conceptual awareness gives us a profound capacity to further our survival and the survival of our offspring and relatives, even as it gives us the freedom to diverge from those goals.

Of course, evolution front-loads us with all sorts of incentives to pursue our survival and reproduction, such as by making food taste good, sex feel great, and sociality feel essential. Because we are biological creatures shaped by evolution, what I see as a person’s proper moral end—a life of rationally integrated values—overlaps substantially with evolution’s “goal” of getting us to survive and reproduce. At the same time, a moral life does not consist fundamentally in following evolutionary “goals”; for example, many people live spectacular lives while consciously choosing not to have children.

The “goals” of evolution do not and should not dictate human goals. As I summarize in my book, “Morality is not fundamentally about people pursuing their own survival (nor about them reproducing their genes)” (p. 61). At the same time, staying alive and having children have profound moral implications.

Implications of Rand’s Ethics

What I offer in Chapters 5–8—by page count, the bulk of my book—“are reasons to doubt the plausibility and structural integrity of Rand’s survivalist metaethics” (p. 62).

By this point, I believe, I have disproved Rand’s metaethics, in my third chapter (“The Essential Fallacies of Rand’s Ethics”) and my fourth chapter (“The Error in Rand’s Biology”). If I had written nothing besides those two chapters (a total of 19 pages), I would consider Rand’s metaethics definitively disproved. (Indeed, I think either chapter on its own definitively disproves Rand’s theory.)

What, then, is the point of the rest of the book? I look at supplementary arguments that Rand offers for her case, particular aspects of her theory, and implications of her theory in terms of applied ethics, to see how her theory holds up in its details. These chapters are meant to supplement and extend my main case. However, some of the points I make also independently disprove Rand’s theory.

Here is a brief summary of some of my key arguments from those chapters:

  • People normally do not and should not have and raise children fundamentally to further their own survival, and the idea that they do or should is ludicrous. Objectivists have no good response to this. I regard this point as strong enough that it independently disproves Rand’s moral theory.
  • Objectivists also offer no persuasive case that people normally do or should pursue physical pleasures, such as sex, fundamentally to further their survival. (I go through Objectivist arguments on the matter and find them wanting.)
  •  Rand argues that emotions properly are geared to “man’s survival,” but she offers no persuasive case for this, and her claim is pretty obviously false.
  • Rand’s survivalist metaethics does not logically permit suicide, yet Rand and other Objectivists (and most people, including me) hold that suicide can be rational in certain cases.
  • Rand’s example of the “indestructible robot” does not buttress her case, as she thinks; rather, it offers additional reason to doubt her case. Among other problems: “A person who accepts Rand’s moral theory should turn down a (hypothetical) offer of immortality” (p. 85). (To my mind, this point independently reduces Rand’s theory to absurdity.)
  • Rand’s theory about the “choice to live” depends on her theory of the relationship between values and survival, a relationship that does not hold. People normally do, and they should, pursue their survival (in most contexts) as a means to more fundamental moral ends.
  • In important contexts involving institutional force, a person who consistently accepts Rand’s metaethics has a survivalist interest in initiating force against others, even in cases in which most Objectivists think a person should not initiate force.
  • Similarly, a person who consistently accepts Rand’s metaethics has a survivalist interest in free riding and in refraining from coming to others’ aid in important contexts, even though most Objectivists think a person should not free ride or should come to others’ aid in those contexts.

Mozes does not find my arguments along these lines to be persuasive. Regarding my remarks about practical implications, he replies:

Armstrong considers various types of specific situations, and argues that Rand’s ethics implies that a person should act in a certain way in these situations; or considers various specific values, and argues that Rand’s ethics cannot justify them.

However, in none of these discussions of specific implications does Armstrong provide any argument for why the implications he points out are a problem; why the actions, that he argues are implied by Rand’s ethics, are wrong; or why the values, that he argues Rand’s ethics cannot justify, are justified. Armstrong’s implied argument, in all these discussions of specific implications, seems to be that he feels that there is something wrong with the action, or that the value is justified; and that his feelings, or the feelings he expects the reader to have, are a sufficient demonstration of a problem with these implications of Rand’s ethics.

All arguments of this form are committing the fallacy of appeal to emotion.

But I do offer arguments and do not appeal to emotion.

I have described many of these claims as “plausibility arguments,” and that’s accurate (Rand’s theory cannot plausibly account for certain facts and certain moral commitments). Another way to look at these claims is that they appeal to reality—which, for Objectivists, should be the best sort of argument there is. Yet a third way to look at these claims is that they reduce Objectivism to absurdity, because the Objectivist metaethics is not compatible with certain Objectivist moral commitments.

Let’s take the simple example of sex. According to the Objectivist ethics, an individual should have sex for the fundamental moral value of survival. But is that actually why anyone, including any Objectivist, has sex? No.

If the Objectivist ethics claims to account for all proper human behavior (as it does), and if it cannot account for why any person, including any Objectivist, actually has sex (which it can’t), then that independently reduces Rand’s theory to absurdity.

It is not remotely plausible that survival should be the ultimate moral aim of having sex. Is this an appeal to emotion? No. It is a fact that people should have sex fundamentally for reasons other than to further their survival. But how do I know this fact? For one thing, I can appeal to our biology and our evolutionary history, which (again) disproves Rand’s thesis that values inherently orient to survival.

At a certain point, I can just declare a claim obviously false. People should have sex fundamentally to further their survival, Objectivists say. False. The claim is just wildly implausible. We should not believe a wildly implausible claim, unless there is very strong evidence and argument that it is true (in which case it becomes plausible).

This is not an appeal to emotion, it is an appeal to fact. Consider an analogy. If I open my eyes and observe that I have two hands, and proclaim, “I have two hands,” if you (a hypothetical person) claim that I do not have two hands, I don’t have to come up with some sort of intricate deductive argument in order to sensibly say your claim is false. I just do have two hands; look and see. That is the argument. If you’re going to insist that I don’t have two hands, then it’s on you to prove it.

Of course it is not perceptually obvious that people should have sex for reasons fundamentally other than to further their survival. But it is obvious nevertheless. In making this claim, I am counting on people being able to introspect and to observe their own and others’ behavior. Drawing out the obviousness of this is the aim of my remark, “If someone learned that he had a condition whereby he shortened his life by a minute every time he had sex, he’d probably still have a lot of sex (if marginally less)” (p. 68).

The onus, then, is on Objectivists to prove that their metaethics has the practical implications that they say it has. It is insufficient for Objectivists just to argue that values inherently orient to survival, therefore every Objectivist moral commitment necessarily furthers survival as its fundamental aim.

If Objectivism were true, then Objectivists should have a fairly easy time explaining how it applies in various cases. Instead, we find that the Objectivist metaethics cannot come close to plausibly explaining various Objectivist moral commitments. Hence, I conclude, the theory is false.

Let’s briefly return to the example of having and raising children to further drive home the point. It is just a fact of reality that Objectivists (and people generally) do not further their own survival by having and raising children (leaving aside unusual contexts). The claim that they do is ludicrous on its face. Pregnancy and childbirth used to be extremely dangerous to the mother, and they remains moderately dangerous. Raising a child is enormously costly. A parent typically will give his own life if necessary to save the life of his child. A moral theory that cannot plausibly explain such a major part of most people’s lives—parenthood—cannot be true.

I recognize that having and raising children can profoundly benefit a person’s life of rationally integrated values, but that moral end is not the same as the survival-oriented moral end of Rand’s theory (although the two substantially overlap).

At this point, I suspect that some Objectivist readers are nearly apoplectic. “That’s not what Rand means by survival! Rand doesn’t advocate survival at any price! Look at how Rand’s fictional characters act!” Yes, I have heard all of these arguments, and I address them in detail in my book.

I think two main things are going on here.

First, I think, a lot of self-proclaimed Objectivists do not know and do not care what Rand’s metaethical position is. To them, Rand’s Objectivist ethics is not what she lays out in her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics”; it is instead the collection of attitudes and behaviors that we find among the characters of Rand’s novels, most of which were written before Rand developed her formal metaethics. (This is understandable, as Rand was primarily a novelist.)

A large part of my point is that Rand’s formal metaethics does not square with many of Rand’s own moral commitments. People who don’t care what Rand’s metaethics is or how it works out won’t see this as a problem.

Second, a lot of Objectivists do what Eric Mack calls “The Shuffle” (as I discuss in my book). The idea is that Objectivists really have two, incompatible moral theories, only they pretend they have a single, unified one. When they need to justify their ethics philosophically, they invoke the formal, survival-oriented metaethics; when they want to talk about particular moral commitments, they may pay lip service to the metaethics, but they don’t take it seriously.

The main reason that I respect the work of Mozes is that it takes Rand’s metaethics seriously and expects the metaethics to have practical consequences.

That said, I think Mozes could do a lot more to explain what Objectivist moral commitments are and how they relate to the metaethics. If Mozes could offer a compelling case that having and raising children and having sex fit with Rand’s metaethics, that would be a great start.

I will note here that Mozes does get into some of these issues in his exchange with Roderick Long, but, for reasons I explain in the book, I don’t find Mozes’s arguments convincing.

Rand and Rights

The point of my chapter on rights is that, although Rand makes strong arguments that an individual has a survivalist interest in consistently respecting the rights of others in the context of a rights-respecting society, Rand does not offer convincing arguments that an individual always has such an interest in the context of institutional force.

My main example is that an Objectivist would not be able to offer a consistent, survival-oriented egoist, who grew up in a slave-holding society (such as the American South) to inherit slaves, strong reasons to unilaterally free his slaves.

Mozes counters that I don’t “present an argument for why the implications [I have] pointed out are bad; why unilaterally freeing one’s slaves would have been the right thing to do.” But I think that almost all Objectivists, and Rand herself, would say that the slave holder should free his slaves, so I think my argument counts as a reductio ad absurdum. If Rand’s theory cannot even explain Rand’s own (likely) moral commitments, there’s something wrong with the theory.

Beyond that, I am not appealing to emotion, as Mozes claims; I am appealing to the fact that it is extremely wrong to hold slaves, and that a slave holder has a positive moral obligation to free his slaves, even in the conditions that I outline. True, in my book I do not make much effort to establish that fact; I think in today’s context I can reasonably take it for granted.

Here’s the idea: Does Rand’s version of egoism work out satisfactorily in this case? I think the answer is obviously no. To this, Objectivists can reply in one of two main ways. They can say, “It works out fine, because the theory implies that the slave holder should free the slaves,” or they can say, “It works out fine, because it implies he should keep the slaves enslaved.” The first answer is wildly implausible; the second answer is morally repugnant. Objectivists might also say that morality is silent in the case at hand, but this also would seem to be a failure of the theory.

Think of it this way: Advocates of a philosophy have to persuade people of their era that their philosophy is true (if they want people to believe it). In the modern world, the near-universal presumption (including by Objectivists) is that slavery is a moral evil and that slave holders had a moral obligation to unilaterally free their slaves. So I don’t think it unreasonable to ask Objectivists to assume the onus of explaining what their theory entails in this regard and why their conclusion is justified.

My broader point is that Rand’s theory runs into trouble in any case of institutional force. Rand herself recognizes in “The Ethics of Emergencies” that there are cases in which normal moral considerations do not apply. My point is that the reasoning she lays out in that essay applies (in some cases) in any context of institutional force, in ways that Rand herself would not have approved. Mozes does little to rebut my case.

(Mozes complains about some of the quotes I use in this regard, but most relevant is the logic of Rand’s arguments. I don’t think there’s good reason, as Mozes claims, to reject Ayn Rand Answers or to regard Leonard Peikoff’s work on Objectivism as anything other than authoritative, but I don’t want to get into those discussions here. [March 11, 2019, Update: I don’t think Peikoff’s podcasts necessarily are statements of the Objectivist philosophy. His comments about immigration are about applied politics, not philosophy. In my book, I use Peikoff’s comments about immigration to illustrate that people who take Objectivist moral principles seriously can allow for the initiation of force. Of course many Objectivists disagree with Peikoff about immigration, but my point does not rest on that particular example.])

I want to clarify a point here. It is not my position that a person has a moral obligation to never initiate force against others, no matter what. Hardly anyone believes that (consider the case of trespassing to flee a murderer, for example). Rather, my position is that the logic of Rand’s moral theory permits people to initiate force in some ways that are morally troublesome.

A final note on this topic: Mozes claims that I confuse non-initiation of force and respect for rights, but I deny this. When I say that someone violates others’ rights, I mean that the person initiates force in a morally problematic way, such that the act should be outlawed, whether or not it actually is outlawed. There is no substantive problem here.

The Alternative of Value Integration

The thesis of my book is that Rand’s metaethics is wrong. Some of my critiques of Rand’s theory also tie in to my proposed alternative, which I present in my ninth chapter. (As I point out, even if I am wrong about my alternate theory, that does not imply that Rand is right about her theory.)

As mentioned, my theory in brief is that the point of ethics is to help a person rationally integrate values experienced as ends in themselves. (Note: This essay is mean to supplement the discussion about this in my book, not substitute for it.)

Is it true that we experience certain things as valuable for their own sake, as ends in themselves? I think the obvious answer is yes. And Rand agrees with me on this point, only she does not see the implications of the point for her own moral theory. I take it that Mozes agrees with this point as well. I also take it that this is what Darryl Wright is after when he proposes that we have “nondeliberative grounds” to choose to live (as I discuss on p. 96). Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone could disagree with this point.

The question, then, is, what is the moral relevance of this fact? For Rand, the fact that we experience certain things as ends in themselves (in some sense) might be grounds to choose to live, and it might be a happy coincidence of pursuing survival.

I think that the experience of certain things as valuable for their own sake is the basic reason to do anything. I cannot think of any other fundamental reason to do anything. Further, motivationally, I think that experiences of things as valuable for their own sake (which include experiences of alleviating pain and distress) are the only things that can and do motivate us to act.

To point out an implication: Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics could get started only if people had grounds to embrace their survival, but the only possible grounds people might have to embrace their survival is to experience certain things as valuable for their own sake. But then those experiences, not survival per se, are the moral primary. In other words, people pursue survival (to the extent they do) for the further end of experiencing certain things as valuable for their own sake. Rand’s moral theory is basically unstable. Once we see the problems with Rand’s approach, we can see that value integration theory avoids those problems.

As I point out in my book, value integration theory is similar to Rand’s theory in certain respects. Rand and I both reject any sort of transcendent value or value apart from individual valuers. We both build an interest-based account of ethics (although we disagree, to some extent, about what our interests are). But value integration theory is viable, and Rand’s theory is not.

The essence of my theory is that we should seek to rationally integrate our values, to fit them together into a unified life. The integrated life is the proper moral end (hence, I deny Mozes’s assertion that “there is no one ultimate end” within my theory).

Mozes does not see how this can possibly work out as a moral theory. He makes two main arguments: First, we can experience practically anything, such as eating gluttonously, fighting for a theocracy, holding slaves, or imposing religious dogma as an end in itself. Second, to integrate our values means only that we’d try to harmonize whatever values we hold in an internally consistent way, not try to embrace good or worthy values. Survival, Mozes argues, provides the external standard that we need to judge something as valuable or not.

Obviously I don’t think Mozes’s criticisms find their mark. If I thought that my theory could so easily fall, I wouldn’t have proposed it.

One of Mozes’s mistakes is to underappreciate the biological basis of what we experience as valuable for its own sake.

Following Rand, Mozes distinguishes our pleasure-pain mechanism from our emotions. The pleasure-pain mechanism is directly rooted in our biology; our emotions are driven fundamentally by our judgments. Mozes writes:

[U]nlike physical pleasure and pain, a person’s emotional responses are not fixed from birth; they are based on his values, which are in turn based on the thinking he has done in the past, either by active and deliberate thinking or by passive absorption of the values he was taught by parents or teachers or others in his culture. And he can rethink and change his values.

I agree with this as far as it goes; the problem is that neither Rand nor Mozes fully appreciates the role that biology plays in values that we experience as ends in themselves.

We all recognize examples of basic pleasures and pains. We (normally) take physical pleasure in eating tasty food, having sex, maintaining our temperature, and so on. We experience physical pain when hungry, too hot or cold, injured, and so on.

But it is not the case, as Rand and Mozes have it, that all of our value-oriented experiences are governed either by such basic physical pleasures and pains or else by our judgment-driven emotions. They are leaving out a large and important range of experiences.

An important example that I discuss in my book is that of sociality. Our need for social interaction does not arise solely from the directly physical pleasure of it (such as the pleasure of touch), plus our positive judgment-driven emotions of it. Instead, we have a deep physiological-psychological need for social interaction, rooted in our evolutionary history. If we do not adequately meet that need, we suffer profoundly.

This need for sociality goes a long way toward explaining why (given the right context) we mate, make friends, have and raise children, care about others’ judgments of us, care about the suffering and well-being of others, and aid others.

We also have deep physiological-psychological needs to exercise our faculties. As I point out in the book, human children and all mammalian young love to play. This capacity helps explain, for example, why we value work and recreation. It also helps explain why we value using our rational faculties. (That is only part of the explanation, of course.)

Mozes thinks that value integration theory means taking for granted whatever particular things we happen to value in the moment. In other words, he thinks that it is pure subjectivism.

Value integration theory means nearly the opposite of what Mozes thinks it means. Much of the point of the theory is that we should not take for granted the values arising from our judgment-driven emotions. We should instead seek to reprogram our emotions by bringing our judgments into line with reality, so that we can integrate our values into a whole, long-range, happy life.

What motivates us to integrate our values? At some level, we value our future selves and an integrated existence. We have a very deep physiological-psychological need for these things. Someone who did not value these things at any level simply would have no motivation to integrate his values or to seek a moral existence. The person would be inescapably subjectivist, to the point of nihilism. People very much like this actually exist: They are called psychopaths.

Obviously to integrate our values we must strive to hold reasonable rather than unreasonable beliefs. Yet Mozes fears that I offer “no explanation for what correspondence to the facts means for values that are ends in themselves.”

Especially when it comes to means-ends reasoning, the relationship of reality-based judgments to values is obvious. I value sating my hunger, avoiding suffering, and maintaining my health and life. If I erroneously think that drinking a gallon of bleach will sate my hunger and improve my health, and I drink a gallon of bleach, it turns out that my hunger will not be sated and my health will not be improved. Instead, I will suffer an agonizing death. To generalize, whether I integrate my values turns very dramatically on whether my beliefs are true.

Regarding ends in themselves, it is a fact that we experience certain things as valuable for their own sake, as ends in themselves, and it is reasonable to embrace that fact and to act accordingly.

Perhaps what Mozes is asking is whether it is reasonable for me to value (say) sating my hunger and the health benefits that brings. Obviously things that we value as ends in themselves are not fundamentally a product of reason; it is not as though I have to come up with some sort of logical proof for why I should eat food before I can experience eating tasty food as valuable. (Similarly, in Rand’s theory, the grounds by which one chooses to live are not fundamentally a product of reason.) The relevant question is, given that I do value certain things as ends in themselves, including an integrated existence, is it reasonable for me to seek to integrate my values? The answer is yes; that is simply what reason means in the context of ethics. There is nothing else it could mean.

Consider further how Rand’s ethics deals with this point. Rand holds that, given the choice to live, it is reasonable to pursue values for the sake of survival. Objectivism is murky on the role of reason in making the choice to live (see my section on this topic on pp. 90–99). Regardless, Rand says that values by their nature orient to survival. Is that relationship itself the product of reason? Obviously not. It is simply a basic fact of reality, by Rand’s theory. It is not as though values acquire their relationship to survival only after human beings present a formal proof on the matter. Reason, within Rand’s moral theory, consists in recognizing the nature of values and pursuing values accordingly. Reason plays a comparable role in my theory.

With this background in mind, let us return to Mozes’s examples: The glutton, the theocratic terrorist, the slave holder, and the religious zealot. Can such modes of life constitute an integrated existence? No.

Start with gluttony. We have a deep physical need to eat, obviously. We experience eating tasty food when hungry as extraordinarily pleasurable, and we experience serious hunger as extremely painful and distressing. (The evolutionary explanation for this is obvious.) But do we have a physical need to eat gluttonously? No.

Gluttony is a psychological problem, not a physiological need. From what I can tell, people who regularly overeat do so as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. It is essentially an addiction. And, physically, it can be quite painful. It is miserable to overeat to the point of physical pain. And regular overeating brings with it severe health problems that typically cause chronic pain and debility.

Obviously, someone who thinks seriously about integrating his values will try very hard to avoid or escape the trap of gluttony. It can be very difficult to break longstanding habits and build new ones, but the immediate and long-term consequences of eating a poor diet are so serious that the effort is well worth it, by the standard of an integrated life.

A caveat: In my book I mention that people do often eat for the sheer pleasure of eating, not purely for sustenance. This is perfectly compatible with what I write above. Generally, tasty food is also nutritious food. (I’ve noticed that foods that I once thought I enjoyed, such as soda and donuts, I now can barely tolerate to eat, since I’ve retrained my tastes, which are partly alterable.) Other things equal, given two equally nutritious meals, we prefer the tastier one. Sometimes we splurge on foods that we know aren’t optimally healthy, because they’re yummy. And sometimes we eat somewhat more than perhaps is required for optimal health. People typically accept a modest trade-off in their diets between optimal health and yumminess, and doing so is perfectly reasonable. But eating an occasional cookie is vastly different from, say, eating a pound of sugar a day or eating double the daily calories that are optimal for health.

What about the theocratic terrorist? It is obvious that such a person is self-deluded in all kinds of ways. The reward of Heaven is a fantasy. God’s commandments are just often-stupid lines in an old book of myths. The motivation for such people generally is irrational hatred of others, which helps explain why such theocrats routinely promote nutty conspiracy theories.

Mozes is right, in a sense, that integrating our values is about making them consistent. My point is that only certain values can consist in an integrated life. Can a theocratic terrorist make his values consistent? No. As people, we innately care about our future selves (excepting psychopaths). The theocratic terrorist, motivated by false beliefs, has a profound risk of dying early. At some level, we experience evasion as psychologically distressing; the life of the theocratic terrorist is essentially the life of habitual evasion.

We have to be careful here not to overstate the motivational power of philosophy. Could I walk up to a theocratic terrorist, explain my theory of value integration, and persuade the terrorist to embrace reason, throw down his weapons, and get a productive job? Almost certainly not. What I think would happen is that the terrorist would shoot me or cut my head off. The same thing would happen to Mozes if he tried to persuade a theocratic terrorist that Objectivism is true. So we can’t judge a philosophy by whether someone could persuade a corrupt individual that the philosophy is true.

At a certain level, for a person to change his beliefs, he has to be open to thinking critically about his beliefs and his behaviors. Doing that is essentially the process of value integration. I am not arguing that every person, given their current psychological state, will seek to consistently integrate his values, if only he hears about my theory. I am arguing that value integration is the essence of morality, for those people open to morality.

I talk about slave holders at length in my book, and I don’t want to say much more about them here. I write, “[W]e would expect slave holders to tend to disguise [various] uncomfortable facts through pervasive self-deception, and that is precisely what we find in the historical record” (p. 118).

My theory embraces all of the reasons that Rand might give against holding slaves (in the context described) and invokes additional reasons as well. In general, I offer a far “thicker” theory of rights than what Rand offers, because I recognize a wider range of ways in which the individual has an interest in promoting the well-being of others (I refer readers to my discussion on pp. 161–165). So I’m in a far better position than is Mozes to try to persuade a Southern slave holder (if we could go back in time) to free his slaves. Mozes seems to concede “that Rand’s ethics would not motivate a slave-owner to unilaterally free his slaves.”

What about the person who seeks to impose religious dogma through the political system? Mozes writes, “‘The sanctity of marriage’—meaning preventing marriages one disapproves of—is an important value to many people, who experience it as valuable for its own sake.” Again, Mozes thinks that value integration theory is simply straight-up moral subjectivism.

But people do not experience opposition to gay marriage as an “end in itself” in any primary way. Instead, the position is mostly the result of stupid dogma rooted largely in ancient mythological texts. The “reasons” put forward for the position are rationalizations, pseudo-scientific covers for the dogma. How one feels about gay marriage is solely the result of judgment-driven emotions. For someone open to reason, the judgments on which the emotions are based are easily reprogrammed.

A key point that Mozes misses is that value integration is an inherently rational process. A person integrates his values by thinking rationally about them, and he integrates his values only to the extent that he is rational. A person disintegrates his values to the extent that he is irrational. Thus, fidelity to reality through reason is the fundamental orientation of the value integrator.

Mozes’s worry that someone concerned fundamentally with value integration would resist upsetting his existing values, then, is entirely misplaced. A person can integrate his values only by deeply questioning his beliefs and motivations, not by refusing to do so. A value integrator welcomes that sense that “something’s not right,” because it signals an area that needs to be rationally explored.

Irrational beliefs are the fundamental threat (over which a person has control) to a person’s values, including his survival. In extreme cases, people literally kill themselves because they are motivated by false beliefs. Self-caused physical disintegration often is the ultimate manifestation of value disintegration. Forming true beliefs and correcting irrational beliefs is the basic way by which a person integrates his values. To the extent that a person pursues disintegrated values, he necessarily undermines or destroys some of his values.

Value integration is not a static state that a person finally achieves, after which he can rest easy. It is a continual and evolving goal. (In that way it is similar to survival.) The goal of a value integrator is not to have perfect and eternal confidence that his values are integrated; it is continually to learn new things relevant to his life, to look for possible errors in his thinking, to examine how the changing context of his life may require updates to certain particular values (such as career), to make his life better and more integrated.

I want to clarify a point here. I have distinguished values that have a biological basis (eating, sex, sociality) from values that arise solely from our judgment-driven emotions. The former sort of values are “stickier” in an important sense; we cannot change certain things about our biology, but we can change our judgments. But I am not saying that we must or should pursue any possible value that has a biological basis. We could not and should not do that. We can pursue only a limited range of values at a time. By pursuing some particular value, we necessarily do not pursue an unlimited number of other potential values.

Consider again the example of exercise. Rather than lift weights at a given time, I could instead eat a box of cookies. The latter would bring me more immediate physical pleasure. But we are complex creatures of body and mind, and we usually experience a lot more than physical pleasures and pains at a given time. I am aware of the pain of lifting weights, but I am also aware of the satisfaction of preventing future back pain, of maintaining a physically capable body, and of potentially avoiding future serious health problems. If I ate the cookies instead, I would be aware of all the benefits that I was missing by not lifting weights, and I would also be aware of the negative health consequences of eating too many cookies. So in this case I best integrate my values by doing something that is physically painful rather than something that is physically pleasurable. Note that my ability to integrate my values depends on me maintaining true beliefs about such things as the impacts of certain actions on my health.

Our values as we experience them in the moment arise from a rich and intricate interplay of our biology (including our neurobiology) and our judgment-driven emotions.

If I am right that the essence of moral reasoning is value integration, then any critique of value integration theory necessarily takes the theory for granted, at least implicitly. And I think that what Mozes is actually doing is criticizing value integration theory without realizing that he is presuming the theory in order to criticize it. In essence, Mozes is arguing that a person who embraces rational integration theory will fail to integrate his values. Mozes is particularly concerned that such a person will not adequately attend to his survival needs. My reply is that the only reason we care about our survival needs is that we realize that we must remain alive in order to experience values that are ends in themselves. My aim, then, is not so much to persuade Mozes that he ought to accept value integration theory; it is to show that he already implicitly accepts it, only he is confused about what it means and implies.

To generalize, any time someone says, “Value integration theory cannot be true because of such-and-such implication,” I will reply (in part), “You are worried about that implication only because you have an underlying concern about some value which is an end in itself, which value integration theory can accommodate.” My critics may claim that I am arguing in a circle, but I will reply that value integration really is the essence of moral reasoning and that we simply cannot escape that fact—although people can be confused about it or can try to evade it.

As I concede in the book, the theory of value integration is relatively undeveloped. What I am asking people to do is to cast aside their dogmas and to observe how values work in their own lives, how they actually pursue values and decide which potential values to take seriously, how and why they seek to retrain their judgments and habits. I believe that, if people carefully observe what is going on in their value pursuits, they will discover that value integration describes the nature of moral reasoning. Morality simply is, at root, the process of the individual integrating his values. There is, ultimately, nothing else that it could be, nothing else that it is, and nothing else that it needs to be. Morality is about integrating values, and the moral life is the integrated life.

Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics is a dead end. Value integration, I believe, points the way forward.

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

Image: Olga Berrios