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Salmieri on Reproduction and the Objectivist Ethics

Gregory Salmieri discusses how reproduction fits into the Objectivist ethics. I continue to think that Rand's conception of egoism in terms of individual survival has trouble explaining the value of having children.

Copyright © 2023 by Ari Armstrong
December 11, 2023 (ported here December 19)

Gregory Salmieri is, in my view, the best Objectivist philosopher, at least on par with the "old guard" led by Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger (Peikoff no longer is active in philosophy as far as I can tell). Last year, Salmieri gave a short talk on "Reproduction and the Objectivist Ethics" that discusses some of the important issues that I also raise in my 2018 book, What's Wrong with Ayn Rand's Objectivist Ethics.

Here I want to focus on the first part of his talk, where he discusses how having children fits with the Objectivist ethics. The rest of his talk, about the ethical and legal questions surrounding abortion and parental rights, also is very much worth listening to. (I have some minor disagreements with the now-standard Objectivist view of abortion.) Near the end Salmieri has some delightful observations about his son learning to use and apply concepts.

Rand's Metaethics

Here, in a nutshell, is what I take Rand's metaethical theory to be, as outlined in her important essay (originally a talk, also published in The Virtue of Selfishness), "The Objectivist Ethics." People should be egoistic ("selfish") in the sense that they should act consistently for the betterment of their own lives, ultimately with all of their actions oriented to their remaining alive.

We immediately need a couple of caveats. First, the "should" mentioned above is coming out of an ethically prior (?) "choice to live," such that, if a person chooses to live, then a person should act consistently to sustain his life. But Objectivists do not wish to say that making some other fundamental choice, other than a "choice to live," is just as valid or legitimate. So at some point, I think, to give their moral theory traction, Objectivists have to say or at least imply that a person normally "should" "choose to live" in the sense they mean. But let us leave that complex matter aside for now.

Second, a person cannot act consistently to sustain his life in just any old way. Instead, a person has to be rational and has to recognize the need to sustain and develop his conceptual abilities. Rand writes, "The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man." Rand clarifies: "'Man's survival qua man' means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice."

Here is the big debate within (or about) the Objectivist ethics. Does Rand mean, as I think she very clearly says in "The Objectivist Ethics," that all of a person's actions should orient to a person's survival? Or does Rand mean that a person should act to live as a rational being, even if that means that a "rational being" does not always act strictly to sustain his own survival? This makes a large difference. The first position may be summarized: "A person should consistently act to sustain his own survival, something that can be accomplished only by acting rationally." The second position may be summarized: "A person should act consistently to live as a rational being, which may not always entail acting to sustain his own survival." Again, I think that Rand very clearly takes the first position in "The Objectivist Ethics." But a surprising number of self-described Objectivists argue or presume the second position, which, I'll point out, is not strictly "egoistic," unless you stuff a lot of other-serving actions into "egoism" (in which case it's unclear what purpose the term is serving).

Previously, I have thought that Salmieri clearly takes the first position, what I regard as the standard Objectivist position on the metaethics.

Here is what Allan Gotthelf and Salmieri write for A Companion to Ayn Rand (p. 79): "The structure of Rand's argument makes it clear that she intended the standard of value to include only content that could be derived from the requirements of man's literal survival." (The essay at hand was "completed by Gregory Salmieri," and on a few matters the two "disagreed on how to present a point"; see the first note on p. 98.)

This is also the view clearly taken by Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, widely regarded as the definitive statement of Rand's philosophy (pp. 211, 213): "Only self-preservation can be an ultimate goal, which serves no end beyond itself. . . . Objectivism says that remaining alive is the goal of values and of all proper action."

Tara Smith takes the same position in Viable Values (pp. 92–93): "[T]he fact that the life-or-death alternative makes values possible secures that the only true values are life-promoting ones. . . . [I]f a person seeks to live, all his purposes must be pursued in light of this end. . . . The life-or-death alternative thus stands at the foundation of all others [all other alternatives], rendering them significant because of their impact on life." Other things can matter, she writes, "only because of their impact on an individual's life—on his survival and on the subordinate goals that sustain his survival."

But, given some of Salmieri's remarks in his talk on reproduction, I am no longer confident that he agrees with the standard take on the Objectivist ethics.

Reproduction and Rand's Ethics

The idea that parenting can be "egoistic" or "selfish" in the sense that Rand means, that the point of having children is to further one's own survival, will baffle most people. It's hard to think of a more other-oriented pursuit. As I have pointed out, most parents would, if they had to, risk their safety or their very lives if necessary to protect their children. (I'm not saying we should do what "most people" do; I'm suggesting there's a problem here that needs to be addressed.) So how do Objectivists propose to square this circle?

Objectivists have to sustain two main points to defend the standard interpretation. First, they have to say, having children really is good for the parent's life in the sense of "literal survival." As a parent, I recognize that having children does bring a lot of "selfish" benefits, especially "spiritual" benefits, as Salmieri describes them, mostly having to do with intimately engaging with another person's development. Just the companionship, for many parents, is hugely valuable. But, even if they can plausibly argue that parenting brings many selfish values, can Objectivists really sustain the claim that the fundamental purpose of having children is sustaining one's own life? That seems like a tough case to make.

Second, Objectivists have to say, a parent risking his life for his child (using "his" in a gender-neutral sense) really is in some sense in the service of a parent's life in terms of survival. On its face, that claim seems like a flat contradiction. Here's how I think Objectivists can thread the needle. People who rationally decide to have children want the spiritual benefits that having children brings—spiritual benefits that ultimately redound to a person's literal survival—and can get those benefits only by accepting the profound attachment that a parent develops for his child. The spiritual benefits of having a child are a near-certainty (for the rational person); the risks to the parent's life are minuscule (although certainly not zero). So, basically, the benefits of having a child, in terms of the parent's survival, outweigh the potential risks to the parent's life. That's actually a plausible argument. But is it correct? To most people, the claim that the ultimate purpose of having a child is to benefit the parent's survival will seem bizarre. That's just not the point of having kids, most people will (reasonably) say.

My solution to the problem is just to reject Rand's metaethics. It just isn't the case that we "should" or need to make some fundamental "choice to live," such that all of our actions then properly sustain the actor's life in terms of "literal survival." Instead, to very briefly summarize my alternative position, we start with our biologically given values, and then we need to rationally integrate all of our values, including the value of sustaining our rational faculty, into an integrated life. In this view, staying alive normally is an extremely important value, but it isn't the fundamental value toward which all other values are supposed to aim. So I don't have to come up with some strange philosophic jiu-jitsu move to try to explain why a parent risking his life for his child "really" is in the parent's selfish survival interests. I can just say, look, not all of our proper values aim ultimately at sustaining our own lives in terms of survival. (I also discuss my take on ethics in my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.)

Salmieri's Remarks

Now that I've cued things up, let's take a look at some of Salmieri's interesting remarks from the talk. I'll include time markers indicating the start of a quote.

Salmieri starts out by explaining how individualism fits in with having children and, more broadly, with being part of a community. Then Salmieri gets right to the point:

The Objectivist ethics is a biological ethics. It's about our nature as living beings. But one salient fact about living beings, indeed, the most salient fact about them, to a lot of people thinking about them, is that they reproduce, they have offspring. Their lives are organized in part around reproducing. (3:55)

Salmieri continues:

I want to think about how this part of life relates to an ethics based on life, and based on life as the kind of beings we are. The standard of value for the Objectivist ethics is man's life. It's part of life in general that it reproduces. How does reproduction fit into man's life, in light of the specific kind of living being a human being is? (4:45)

Having set up the relevant issues, Salmieri continues:

Ayn Rand characterized life as a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. The self in this formulation is I think first and foremost the individual organism involved. . . . But it's not sustaining the individual body of the the fern plant, or me, or the snail [that's at issue], just as a lump of matter. What's being sustained is the individual as an organism, which is engaged in the process of self-generated, self-sustained action. The self that's being sustained is in a way the body, but in a way the process. And it's the entity as a thing engaged in this process. . . . The process as a whole is self-sustaining, not necessarily in that every element of that process is directed at this fern's continuing to exist in the next moment or hour or year, but, in that it does keep the fern in existence, and it's largely a process of just keeping the fern in existence. Even if not every action it takes is one of keeping it in existence, think of how many are, and of how this touches every aspect of what goes on in the fern. (6:15).

I'll have something to say about this soon. But first we should see how Salmieri ties in reproduction:

Part of what a life process aims at is perpetuating itself beyond the lifetime of the individual organism. Every species of living thing reproduces, and that's inherent in the nature of life. But not every individual organism aims at reproduction. . . . Organisms invest a lot of energy in reproducing, at least many of them do, energy that might be thought to keep them alive a little longer. (8:42)

Let's pause there. Salmieri does a great job of summarizing the basics of biology here. Here's the question I want to raise: Are the biological facts as Salmiery reviews them compatible with what Rand says on the subject? I think the answer clearly is no. Rand does not want to recognize, as Salmieri does, that some of an organism's actions do not aim at its own survival. Here's what Rand has to say in "The Obectivist Ethics" (p. 16 and the footnote in the paperback edition):

On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism's life. . . . I use the term "goal-directed," in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism's life.

We might wonder, when reading the passage above, whether Rand means "life" here strictly in terms of the organism's survival. Context makes clear that she does. A bit before that passage (p. 15), Rand writes that "only a living organism . . . faces a constant alternative . . . of life or death." She writes, "Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies." A bit after the passage above, Rand writes (pp. 16–17):

Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism's life. An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.

Salmieri says he wants to "differentiate what I think the Objectivist position is, from a line of reasoning that I don't think is any part of Objectivism," but that he's encountered (10:20). He explains: "The view that I think is a mistake is that ethical egoism is a matter of emulating other organisms' supposed single-tracked focus on their individual survival" (10:53).

I'm not sure who he has in mind here. I've never heard anyone put forward the position that Salmieri describes.

Let's review what Rand is getting at in discussing biology generally. She's trying to establish what is an ultimate value. In her view, the ultimate value for an organism is that organism's life in terms of survival, staying alive as opposed to dying. But, she argues, whereas lower organisms pursue their survival automatically, human beings as beings with a rational faculty have choice. So we can either choose to pursue the proper ultimate value—life in terms of survival—or not. The idea is not that we're supposed to "emulate" other organisms, but that we're supposed to choose to pursue the proper ultimate value, whereas other organisms do that automatically. In discussing other organisms, Rand is not trying to set up a model for human action (and I've never heard anyone claim that's what she's doing); rather, she's trying to establish that life in terms of survival is any organism's proper ultimate value.

Here's another way to put the point. Rand is not saying that we as people should (individually) pursue our own survival because other animals do so (goes the theory); she is saying that we should pursue our own survival because that is the proper ultimate value, something that is true of all living things. So there is a sense that we properly are doing something that other living things do automatically—pursuing survival—but that's not because we're "emulating" other living things.

That Rand gets the basic biology wrong means that she doesn't actually make her case for the ultimate value. It just isn't the case that the "final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means" normally is the organism's life in terms of survival. Generally, in the nonhuman world, the "final goal" is something like the organism's survival and reproduction. (But that's not a model for human behavior either!) Looking at biology in general just is not a helpful way to figure out a person's ultimate value (although our biology properly informs our complex values). Rand is just basically on the wrong track in terms of how we rationally derive an ultimate value. That's not to say that we can't appreciate her efforts! Her proposed solution to metaethics is very clever. It just happens to be wrong.

Salmieri notes that the idea that "mating and falling in love . . . draws us away from self-interest is an old idea in the history of philosophy" (11:22). Salmieri mentions Comte in this regard, who coined the term "altruism" and used it to mean self-sacrificially living for the collective. I do think that pair-bonding and reproduction points us away from strict self-interest in terms of personal survival (at least it requires us to broaden "self-interest" to encompass the interests of some other people), but that doesn't mean that Comte's collectivism is warranted. Thankfully, we don't have to choose between survival-based egoism and selfless collectivism.

Here is how Salmieri lays out his own position:

Egoism follows not from the mere fact that we're all alive, and that all living things need to sustain themselves, although they do. It follows from what's distinctive to human beings. We have reason and free will, which makes us individuals. . . . Because we think, and we have free well, that's the locus of our choices and our selections and our values. (12:11)

I agree that we're individuals in the important sense that Salmieri describes. He's on to something essential. But this doesn't really help to save egoism in the sense that Rand means. If we're just going to say that "egoism" refers the embracing "my values," things that are rationally important to me, where rationality is not presumed to entail strictly survival-oriented values, then we can easily fold a lot of other-considering behavior into my "egoistic" values. Then risking or even trading my life for the life of my child, if necessary, is just me "egoistically" pursuing what matters to me. (Most people will regard that as a rather strange way to talk about "egoism.") But then we've strayed rather far from Rand's conception of egoism as about living things pursuing values ultimately for their own survival.

Salmieri takes another stab at it:

[A person builds] a specific life, a product of his mind and choices, and this specific life is the individual's ultimate value upon which his other values depend. It's the individuality of the whole process of value formation, including the formation of a life, that's the essence of egoism. (15:33)

Again, I don't see that this saves egoism as Rand conceives it in "The Objectivist Ethics." It does sound remarkably like what I describe as "value integration" as the basis of metaethics. As I've written, I think that Rand often implicitly strays from her own formal metaethics and adopts something close to what I describe. My view is very much influenced by Rand's broader approach and by the Aristotelianism embedded in Rand's approach.

After restating his basic position, Salmieri turns to a discussion of how children are a value to parents (17:48). Here he makes some excellent points, starting with the spiritual value of having children ("spiritual" here pertaining to consciousness). My concern here has been with the metaethics; I'll leave the reader to listen to the rest of Salmieri's interesting talk.

I do want to mention something that Salmieri says in the Q&A (56:50): "I don't think that phrase, process of self-generated and self-sustaining action, is a definition, or was intended by Rand as such." Regardless, it very much seems that Rand means to say in "The Objectivist Ethics" that the ultimate value is an organism's life in terms of survival and that all other values therefore properly are "self-sustaining" in that sense.

Then Salmieri says something else that's interesting (57:39): "The right way to think about reproduction is extending one's life process beyond one's self." Okay, but that again seems to take us away from the idea that what fundamentally matters, always and only, is the organism's own life in terms of "literal survival." If we're just going to say that the organism's "life" (or "life process") encompasses the lives and well-being of other organisms in some fundamental way, I guess okay, but then that's just not leading us to Rand's ethics (as articulated in "The Objectivist Ethics").

In the end, in substance, I think Salmieri and I are in very close alignment regarding the correct metaethics. The main disagreement seems to be over what exactly is Rand's metaethics. I continue to think that my interpretation of Rand's theory is the correct (or at least the best) one, and it is the standard Objectivist view in line with what Peikoff, Smith, Gotthelf and Salmieri, and Rand herself say that her theory is. But what Rand thought about metaethics is the secondary issue. The primary issue is what is the correct metaethics.

It is always worth paying attention to what Salmieri has to say (for individuals who care about Rand's approach to ethics). This talk is perhaps his best.

"Reproduction and the Objectivist Ethics," by Gregory Salmieri
"The Objectivist Ethics," by Ayn Rand
What's Wrong with Ayn Rand's Objectivist Ethics, and updates, by Ari Armstrong
Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God, by Ari Armstrong
"On the Right to Get an Abortion," by Ari Armstrong (check back for link)

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