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The Objectivist Ethical Code

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I got asked a question today that I wasn't able to answer. I was asked, what precisely is the code an Objectivist must follow? I wasn't asked to prove the Objectivist ethics, I wasn't asked a specific question about a specific scenario, just, "What is the Objectivist code of ethics, summarized?"

Let me summarize and we'll see if I have it right so far: An individual man's life qua man is his ultimate standard of value. His nature demands that he adheres strictly to reason, and that he applies it to the problem of survival (which means, he ought to produce.) But it's here that I start to feel incapable of really arguing any further for his other major values. Why should man seek romantic love at all? Friendship? Art? I realize that the question is absurd, I know that man should seek romantic love, friendship, and art. But I can't really explain why with reference to facts beyond my own emotions.

My best explanation is the following: Once a man has integrated a rational metaphysics and consequently has benevolent sense of life, certain psychological values just follow, and determine what he should pursue. But this doesn't seem proper. I seem to be saying, in essence: "Once you've integrated a rational worldview, your emotions can guide you."

Can anyone help? Am I totally misguided here?

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This is a good question. You've done the hard part already, so if you can validate rational self-interest, the rest follows pretty naturally. We seem to have at this point grasped and validated our standard, which tells us to pursue our rational self-interest, and the question remains "how do we actually attain our rational self-interest?"

When we look at our starting point after we've validated that reason can and must direct man's acts to the attainment of the objective good for man by examination of the nature of ourselves and of things, this is exactly what points us to what we need to look for in a code of generalized virtues. The first thing we need to do is to do exactly what we have said we must do: examine our nature to see what we require in order to be able to find the good.

Well, what is our nature, then? If we were some kind of cyborgs who have to download the good from some database, then our prime virtue would be: go download the good as whenever required. If we were such that meditation in a certain way would allow us to know the good, then our prime virtue would be to meditate in that position. But, as we have already noted at this point, our nature is such that our survival and well-being depend on perceiving and identifying reality correctly, and acting accordingly. Thus, we arrive at rationality as the cardinal virtue. This is pretty obvious, seeing as how we started off by trying to find a rational ethic, so it makes sense that rationality should be the main generalized virtue in the code that will result from this. So we can see that it directly flows from what you have already identified: "His nature demands that he adheres strictly to reason." Since rationality is our cardinal virtue, all the other generalized virtues will be derivatives of that (independence, integrity, honesty, justice, etc. Productiveness and pride would be exceptions to this, and so obviously come from examining different aspects of our nature.) Once you identify the nature of the good and man's means for attaining it, the code itself will be an expression of that, spun out into various contexts.

It might be asked at this point why do we need virtues at all, but as per above, we have already noted that we are trying to attain the good for man, i.e. you have already identified our standard of value. Virtues are a requirement, then, because they are the means of gaining values. So, any virtue we do find will have to be judged according to the extent that it advances value-attainment. The proper values are the ends that fulfill and advance man's life, so virtues are generalized prescriptions for the kinds of actions we should routinely take, and the habits we should cultivate, for achievement of those ends. We have characters, in other words, and we need to cultivate the proper character in order to be someone who can attain the good.

It make then by asked, but why do we need generalizations, principles, or a code specifically? We need to generalize certain patterns of action into principles because reason does not function merely by the range of the moment without integrating the wider context and the long-range effects of actions and character over a whole lifetime. Man's mind does not work by considering, in every decision, all aspects of the present situation from scratch. We induce generalizations from the fundamental nature of things, and deduce from them applications to specific situations.

That these broad abstractions can be summed up in generalizations called "principles" and applied to specific circumstances to ensure we are in alignment with long-range success. We must integrate the most fundamental facts that we know about our identity and the kind of world we live in into broad fundamental truths, and then apply these principles to the particulars of whatever situations we encounter in the context of our lives. Once we recognize the effects a fact has on us, by applying our standard, we can judge individual actions at any time or place. Since natures are identifiable, the interactions of the various entities will be replicable under the same conditions. The same causes will always yield the same effects. So by examining entities, identifying similar kinds of things, and classifying them into categories each with its own properties and nature, we can arrive at a list of main virtues that form the corpus of our ethical code, that will aid the process of contextual judgment (and that's basically what Rand does with her list of rudimentary virtues in "The Objectivist Ethics.")

So on some of those particulars, like "Do I need romantic love, friendship, art, etc." what we are basically doing is examining the objective effects these things have on man's nature in pursuant with our standard of advancing what is good for our nature. The code itself is basically just asking "what are the means of attaining life-promoting values?" So we might need some knowledge of psychology for example, or of biology, or whatever (e.g. for the question of how do I know eating this piece of bread is good for me.) Some of these things might be more obvious than others, but if we find that we do have some kind of a need for friendship, then attainment friendship is a good. Then it might bring up a question like "if I want to attain friendship, is honesty effective for this, or is deception better for this?" and so we can then apply the generalizations to these specific instances.

Anyways, hope that helps, but if not, the best book so far on what the actual Objectivist virtues and their derivations is Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, which includes footnotes to several other Aristotelian philosophers. This is basically Aristotle's view of virtues as the character traits, or dispositions, which are the means of attaining happiness and flourishing (although she didn't endorse his Doctrine of the Mean.) There's also a Peter Schwartz lecture on the ARI website where he touches on this topic. Of course, you can also consult pretty much the whole Chapter 8 of OPAR. And also the great intro book by Bernstein Objectivism In One Lesson has a chapter on "Virtues as a Requirement of Survival."

Edited by 2046
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I was asked, what precisely is the code an Objectivist must follow? I wasn't asked to prove the Objectivist ethics, I wasn't asked a specific question about a specific scenario, just, "What is the Objectivist code of ethics, summarized?"

You were asked for the code, not a justification, but you immediately went to justifying it. The answer you were asked for is this:

To never live your life for the sake of another, nor ask another to live for the sake of yours.

Edited by Greebo
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2046: Thank you, I'm still thinking.

You were asked for the code, not a justification, but you immediately went to justifying it.

No I didn't.

The answer you were asked for is this:

To never live your life for the sake of another, nor ask another to live for the sake of yours.

That is most certainly not a summary of the Objectivist ethics, not at all. It's an aspect of the code as it pertains to social relationships, but even then it is only an indication.

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2046: Thank you, I'm still thinking.
Not sure if it will help, but you can re-phrase your question thus: why will I be happier if I do something productive? why will I be happier is I use rationality be my long term guide? why will I be happier is I have confidence in my self-worth?

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Not sure if it will help, but you can re-phrase your question thus: why will I be happier if I do something productive? why will I be happier is I use rationality be my long term guide? why will I be happier is I have confidence in my self-worth?

So is emotion (happiness) the standard of value here?

If so, am I mistaken for seeing that as a problem?

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So is emotion (happiness) the standard of value here?

If so, am I mistaken for seeing that as a problem?

Yeah, a misunderstanding. When Snerd says to ask if something will make you happy, he doesn't mean to say that happiness is the standard. Life is the standard of value, but happiness is the purpose of life. The derivation of this is that maintaining one's life requires pursuing certain values, and the emotional/psychological reward of the achievement of those life-affirming values is the state of happiness (Branden's Psychology of Self-Esteem delves into a more scientific explanation of why happiness is the emotional reaction to value-achievement.) Happiness is the result of living according to that your life as the standard, then. Taking it the other way around (holding happiness as the standard of value, i.e. ethical hedonism) begs the question because it doesn't tell us what will make us happy, and so in practical terms we are left guided by range-of-the-moment emotions (or "whim worship" in Rand's terms.)

So the goal is to live and achieve happiness, and since reason is our only means of knowledge, we can only achieve that goal to the extent that we recognize reality and adjust our actions accordingly, which requires rationality as the cardinal virtue, and from there we go on into the code of virtues designed to guide us in this as per the previous post explained.

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Trying to be an Objectivist is alot of work. It's a hard standard to hold yourself to.

Think of the emotion of happiness as the reward or goal, ultimately the pursued value.

So is the justification for having friends "Havings friends makes me happy"?

What's bothering me here is that I can't really justify these desires rationally.

Let's put it another way: Having a fulfilling romantic relationship based on the virtues of both my partner and myself makes me happy. Is that the justification for it?

Given my metaphysical premises it just seems kind of given that I would value such a relationship, but I can't seem to explain why in intellectual terms.

Does that make sense at all?

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I really enjoyed Tara Smiths book "Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist" She starts with rationality as the principle virtue and then builds from there with honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness and pride. Tara Smith then addresses some of the other commonly held virtues like charity and in most cases undermines them as actual virtues. I recommend this book to anyone who would like a concise and well written discourse on ethics.

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So is the justification for having friends "Havings friends makes me happy"?

Sure, but there are some basic requirements for friendships that result from the Objectivist ethics. For example, the friendships in question should be mutually beneficial, and the values that you're getting from them rational. So if you're friends with someone who always dumps their problems on you but is never willing or able to help you with your problems, that's not a rationally justifiable friendship. If you like spending time with someone because they're not that smart and being around them makes you feel better about your own intelligence, that's not a rational value on which to base a friendship.

So, we can use the Objectivist ethics to see in general what kinds of friendships can be valuable and what kinds cannot be; but beyond those kinds of fundamental characteristics, choosing friendships is based on individual characteristics and what appeals to you personally. I might think George is really funny and like hanging around him, while you find his humor crass and grating and therefore avoid being around him. That kind of thing is simply up to your individual personality and tastes, and so long as the friendship your examining is on a rational basis, you should consult what appeals to you personally in making decisions.

I'll draw an analogy with choosing a profession. In a sense, the justification for my choosing to become an economics professor is simply that I think the work will make me happy. It's a profession that appeals in particular to me, to my interests and talents, and that's a good enough reason to choose it. However, there are some basic requirements on choosing a profession that we can draw from the Objectivist ethics; for example, it needs to be productive. If I thought that being a con man would make me happy, that doesn't justify me choosing the profession; defrauding others is a fundamentally exploitative and parasitic activity. So that kind of requirement eliminates certain professions, but doesn't really help me to decide whether I should be an economics professor or an engineer; my basic reason for choosing the first over the second (or any other possible profession) is that I think it'll make me happy.

Edited by Dante
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Trying to be an Objectivist is alot of work. It's a hard standard to hold yourself to.

Yes, it does require effort and focus to develop the principles we choose to live by.

So is the justification for having friends "Havings friends makes me happy"?

What's bothering me here is that I can't really justify these desires rationally.

Let's put it another way: Having a fulfilling romantic relationship based on the virtues of both my partner and myself makes me happy. Is that the justification for it?

Given my metaphysical premises it just seems kind of given that I would value such a relationship, but I can't seem to explain why in intellectual terms.

Does that make sense at all?

Objectivism holds that emotions are an automatic response. An automatic response to what? It is a response to a fact of reality, dictated by the standards we hold.

If the response is proper to the fact of reality, enjoy it.

If the response is not proper, we can choose to introspect and discover what standard caused it, and replace it with a more appropriate principle.

In this way, happiness could be considered a 'by-product' or a 'side-effect' of putting the proper principles and standards into effect. In essence, the goal of putting the proper principles and standards into place is to enjoy the happiness that is a natural consequence of said same. Or the pursuit of happiness by putting into place the mechanism that generates or causes it, i.e. the goal of the actions of rationality and productivity, developing a fulfilling romantic relationship, etc.

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I wasn't aware of the distinction.

Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.

Joy on the other hand is a feeling of pleasure. It can come from something as simple as physical stimulation. I think they are easily conflated because joy is so often the result of happiness.

But even if it exists the primary problem here remains the same: I fear that I'm justifying my actions with reference to my emotions rather than reason.

Happiness is the barometer of achieving ones values. It is the counterpart to suffering. Just as suffering is how you know when something is wrong, happiness is how you know when something is right. It's not the goal, it's how you know you are reaching it. By way of analogy: You want to boil water, the goal is to bring it up to 212º. Making the water bubble is not the goal, but it is how you know when the water is at 212º.

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Trying to be an Objectivist is alot of work. It's a hard standard to hold yourself to.

So is the justification for having friends "Havings friends makes me happy"?

What's bothering me here is that I can't really justify these desires rationally.

Let's put it another way: Having a fulfilling romantic relationship based on the virtues of both my partner and myself makes me happy. Is that the justification for it?

Given my metaphysical premises it just seems kind of given that I would value such a relationship, but I can't seem to explain why in intellectual terms.

Does that make sense at all?

We might put a "because" after it, like "Friendship makes me happy because..." We could answer that in a number of ways, and it might be revealing to the ethical issues involved. If I say "...because I need to be seen positively in this person's eyes in order to feel good about myself" then that might be a hint that there is some trouble lurking beneath the surface. That's why happiness isn't the standard. Emotions are reactions to value-judgments, so they ultimately depend on what we already have evaluated and compared to ourselves. Happiness or joy just result from the achievement of a value, and suffering and misery result from the frustration or destruction of a value. It doesn't necessarily say anything of whether or not that value is good or bad for us. They are just motivational functions compelling us to act and achieve values. Whether or not this function will result in happiness or misery, and life or death for us, depends on the nature of the values that we choose.

Friendship is a kind of complicated example because there are two people and the processes involved are psychological, so lets stick with the example of a piece of bread, something with easy to understand physical health effects. Eating this piece of bread makes me happy because I'm hungry, I like the way it tastes over the alternatives, it's good for me, my wife baked it for me, etc. These kinds of reasons show a direct connection between happiness and that which is consonant with man's nature and needs. Since your life and well-being depends on you selecting values that are in fact good for you, always asking yourself why something makes you happy keeps you checking on what the reasons behind a given emotional response are. This makes sure that what is making you happy is beneficial, so that you don't select values that are incompatible with mental and physical health, needs, and well-being.

We've all seen examples of people tangled up in some neurosis where you get kicks off of something that is detrimental to you, e.g. [an obvious example] people that cut themselves, which makes them happy, but only because there are deeper issues that are affecting their mental health, inhibiting their functioning. Branden gives the example of if we imagine an entity who felt pleasure every time it performed an action detrimental to its life, and felt pain every time it performed an action beneficial to its life, we could expect that it could not survive for very long. It just so happens that the kind of consciousness man has is one that there is nothing biologically wired in us to make the right value selections. In order to have congruence between positive emotions and positive actions, it takes an act of choice, and that's where the Aristotelian idea of ethics as the science of good-living comes in. Because we have to do our own programming, we are capable of tangling it all up. And because this programming directly effects our motivations to action, it's so important that we don't tangle it up, and that we need a rational guide to action based on the facts of reality and geared to the needs of man's life, instead of just a haphazard mash of nonsense. Otherwise, we end up like that imaginary being that feels pleasure when we do something irrational and pain when we do something rational.

Hopefully that ties it all together for you.

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"What is the Objectivist code of ethics, summarized?"

A quote from Rand: "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."

That's the short answer; the reason we need a moral code is to help us live and be happy. Not happy in a short-term, whim-of-the-moment sense, but in a rational, long-term sense.

The core Objectivist values are:

Reason

Purpose

Self-esteem

The core virtues are:

Rationality

Productiveness

Pride

Independence

Integrity

Honesty

Justice

Reason is the source, the precondition of productive work. Productive work is the purpose of a rational person's life. Pride is the result.

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