Another look at life as the source and reward of value

Tom Burroughes's picture
Submitted by Tom Burroughes on Mon, 2012-08-27 13:00

In a joust with Richard Goode Big smile , I wrote a longish comment that I thought I would repeat here. There is an important point to be made in response to his extraordinary claim that the 9/11 mass murderers were somehow extreme examples of ethical egoism in action. It is also connected to the claim, that Rand famously claimed, that it is possible to move from the choice from whether to live or die to then build up a view of the proper ethics to follow. Richard argues that the choice is a "pre-moral" one (another way of putting it is to think that this is a meta-ethical issue), and as such, has no driving moral force behind it. These are my thoughts; I should add that comments by Marc Champagne, a Canadian philosopher, are well worth reading here:

David Kelley has also addressed this issue, in particular, taking on Hume's argument that there is no way to value the ultimate end in view, but only the means:

"Rand's great insight is that the dichotomy is false. Values are neither intrinsic nor subjective, but objective. They are a function of reality in relation to man's consciousness, including his conscious capacity for choice. The thesis that life is a value because we choose it, therefore, does not imply that the choice or the value is subjective. Since volition is an essential capacity of human consciousness, subject to constraints set by the facts of reality, the value of life-as-chosen is objective.

Anyway, this is the rest of my response:

Her [Rand's] morality is about what a rational human needs for successful life on earth. She is talking about reality. She did not say, “Man has three choices: life, death or an after-life where you get to shag 72 virgins after having blown up lower Manhattan”. A suicidal religious fanatic falls outside her starting point of choosing to live or die, because to crave death in the hope of an after-life is to seek the irrational, the impossible. What is irrational cannot be a goal that a rational person can seek to pursue and cannot be a foundation for morality in this Universe. So to argue, as you try to do, that the 9/11 mass-murderers were somehow living out a version of the Objectivist ethics says more about your own chaotic reasoning skills and unseriousness than it does about such ethics.

Of course, the example of the suicide bomber (or “homicide bomber”, as the late Christopher Hitchens used to describe them) certainly does point to one of the most vicious aspects of belief systems where the unattainable and irrational goal of an after-life can lead. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, or more recent outbreaks of Islamic repression in the Middle East, parts of Indonesia, West Africa, South Sudan, and so on. Or think of the “secular” religions of Marxism and Fascism, which partook of a sort of Millenarian approach of how we were on some “inevitable” journey to a utopian final resting place. Of course, just as acts of unspeakable cruelty are carried out by people who delude themselves about irrational goals in this way, so also are some good acts too, such as the bravery of soldiers defending freedom that they think, mistakenly, are created by God. But while a person can do good for irrational purposes, such an act always operates under a shadow of the irrational starting point and can tip over into horror.

Life is both a source of values and a reward of them; by life, I am not, as Tara Smith likes to say, just talking about not dying. I like how she puts it in Viable Values, page 106: “While `the choice to live,” then, may carry the misleading connotation of a single, momentous decision, what is essential is that this is a choice insofar as a person has alternatives. It is a constant choice. People can and do sometimes choose not to carry on. Suicide is a genuine option, as all sorts of less definitive self-destructive options. While the `embrace’ of life might better suggest the wide-ranging activities that a person is affirming, in maintaining his life, `choice’ conveys the presence of alternatives. The important is, the choice is real. We are not fated, irrevocably, to live.”

The alternative choice of life or death may be "pre-moral", but once made, the consequences are clear. A person who chooses life must act in certain ways; a person who chooses death puts himself outside the bounds of morality, except in the case of a person who chooses to commit suicide because his life is intolerably painful, such as because he is suffering a terminal illness, or is being tortured. In that case, the person's decision that he would prefer to die rather than live a miserable, ghastly existence is a sort of acknowledgement that life, for Man, must be something positive. In the act of forsaking his life, he also honours what a life on Earth can and should be. A soldier who puts his life in danger to protect freedom is saying that it is better to protect life as it can be lived, rather than to live a slave, or beast.

Of course, this argument is complicated, and it took me a while to get to grips with it in all its subtler aspects. I am aware of how ethical egoism repels those who, almost without realising it, imbue morality as a set of commands issued by a certain authority (their parents, their priest, senior teacher, sergeant, monarch, “proletariat”, public “opinion” or whatever). But all these form of duty ethics, whether expressed in the desiccated prose of Kant, or more lyrical form of the Book of Common Prayer, are ethics that ultimately commit the fallacy of argument from authority. And that is not really an argument at all. Rand went outside this realm to ask what morality is for in the first place, rather than to accept whatever is held as moral as a sort of external “given”. And of course this point of views scares some people who wonder what might happen. But given the appalling history of “duty ethics” when, for example, they are combined with the technological powers of a modern, collectivist state and allied with fanatical belief in an afterlife, those who mock Rand’s argument would do well to exercise precisely the sort of humility they like to lecture us about.

Update: the comment thread provoked a lot of nonsense - as I have wearily come to expect. One point that ought to be made is this: a suicidal killer may be "rational" in the narrow sense that he must enact a plan to carry out his act of self-immolation and take heed of certain causes and effects. But those who choose death because they hate the very idea of life on Earth as dirty and corrupt have, in my view, put themselves outside the very realm of morality, since morality is about what living beings with rational minds require. A killer such as Atta did not observe any of the virtues. He did not have pride nor seek it, for that is blasphemous in such a person's eyes; he did not seek to be just, since how can justice be done through indiscriminate slaughter of people; he was not productive, since such people despise wealth and productive achievement on Earth.

A final point. Goode and others might be guilty of what psychologists call projection. In assuming that an egoist could just as easily be a mass murderer as a brilliant hospital surgeon, say, they overlook how egoists, as rational men in love with life, value the process of finding the noblest, finest, most creative people around, and enjoy the nourishing relationships that stem from that. It does not take a genius to realise that the world in which homicide bombers and other thugs operate in produce a world where respect only comes from some of the most vicious and unpredictable people around. No egoist of any consistency would want to surround themselves in such an environment for a second.

And finally, here is a great quote from the Champagne article to which I link at the top:

"The actions of a suicidal maniac who wants to take others down with him in a bloodbath are therefore not at all “neutral” or “amoral.”Much the opposite, since I (Marc Champagne) passionately want to live/flourish, those actions are as bad as bad objectively gets. So if one truly comprehends Rand’s ethical philosophy, it becomes clear that the most appropriate response to a terse objection like “What about suicide bombers?” is a confident and equally terse assertion“But, I don’t want to get blown up.”