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Atlas Neutered: Ari Armstrong’s Straw Man attack on Objectivism

Don Watkins

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One of the developments I’m most happy with is the quality of discussions of Ayn Rand’s ideas, including by critics who take her seriously. Open up the Ayn Rand Society books and in addition to excellent pieces by leading Rand scholars you also see thoughtful critiques by intelligent critics. It’s stimulating fodder for those interested in the questions Rand poses and the answers she gives.

So I was intrigued when I heard that Ari Armstrong was writing a book sharing his criticisms of Rand’s ethics. I’ve been friendly with Ari for years, he has been supportive of my work, and I knew him as someone deeply engaged in the study of Rand and incredibly active in promoting freedom on an Objectivist basis. Whatever he had to say, I wanted to hear.

Ari had offered to send me the book for feedback prior to its publication. I happily accepted, but the manuscript never arrived and by the time What’s Wrong With Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics? was published, the brief summaries I read dimmed my enthusiasm: it sounded like he was repeating criticisms that have been leveled against Objectivism since 1957.

But during a recent Facebook exchange about Ari’s critique, Ari was adamant his ideas were being distorted by critics. And there were definitely cases where views were being attributed to him that I, at least, had never seen him endorse and which were leveled by people who had not read his book.

As an author, I found that behavior (and the venom and vitriol that often went with it) shameful. As an Objectivist, I found it embarrassing.

(There were also, I should note, honorable criticisms of him based, not on his book to be sure, but on his public statements. That’s entirely fair, and I was less than sympathetic with Ari’s response, which all too often amounted to: buy my book, all of the answers lie within.)

So I decided to read Ari’s book, still skeptical I would find much that was new. I was wrong.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics

To understand the nature of Ari’s critique it’s worth reminding ourselves of what it is he is critiquing.

Rand was both a philosopher and novelist. The goal of her fiction, she said, was “the portrayal of a moral ideal.” We see that ideal emerge over the course of her career. In We the Living we learn that the ideal man holds his own life as a sacred value. In The Fountainhead we learn that he achieves and maintains the value of his life by dedication to ideals like independence, integrity, and productiveness. In Atlas Shrugged we learn that these ideals are rooted in reason and are what enable him and all of mankind to survive.

But while Rand believed that “[a]rt is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal,” she also held that this “does not mean art is a substitute for philosophical thought”: we need “a conceptual theory of ethics” to guide our lives and thus achieve a moral ideal. Art provides us the vision of and fuel for a moral existence — ethics gives us the map.

“What is morality, or ethics?” Rand asks.

It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.”

In order to guide our actions, any ethical code must address three interrelated questions: (1) What should be our moral goal? (2) How do we achieve it? (3) Who should benefit? It must identify an ultimate value, a primary virtue, and the proper beneficiary.

In Rand’s philosophic speeches and non-fiction work, she makes explicit the code of values that guides her characters’ choices and actions, and gives the rational grounds for that code. For Rand, the ultimate value is the individual’s life, the primary virtue is rationality, and the proper beneficiary of your action is you.

Life as the Ultimate Value

The foundational issue in ethics, Rand holds, is identifying and providing rational grounds for an ultimate value, “that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means,” and which “sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated.”

Rand argues that the ultimate value is the individual’s life. We’ll return to her argument later. For now the crucial issue is what she takes this to mean.

Rand describes life as “a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.” A living organism’s life is the actions it takes — actions aimed at preserving itself as an action-taking entity. Think of your own life. You engage in a constant process of activities: eating, exercising, showering, working. These activities maintain your life and constitute your life.

But whereas other living organisms take self-sustaining actions automatically, human beings don’t. We don’t know which actions will sustain us and we can even deliberately take actions that will harm us. To say that life is our ultimate value is to say that the only genuine values are those that actually sustain our lives.

This process of pursuing values that maintain and constitute our life, Rand thinks, is an end in itself. The purpose of life is life — or, what amounts to the same thing, the purpose of values is values. There is nothing over and above self-sustaining values that life has to offer or that can have any moral claim on us.

Man’s Life as the Standard of Value

The ultimate value (life) names our proper moral goal. But a goal is not yet a guide. By itself, embracing life as our ultimate value doesn’t gives us sufficient guidance to identify the values and virtues that will sustain us. For this we need a standard of value.

The standard of value, according to Objectivism, is “man’s life,” or “that which is required for man’s survival qua man.” It 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.”

The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value — and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.

The difference between “standard” and “purpose” in this context is as follows: a “standard” is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man’s choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose. “That which is required for the survival of man qua man” is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose — the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being — belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own.

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man — in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.

Rand is often accused of playing bait and switch here: of adding something to the ultimate value over and above survival. But “man’s life qua man” doesn’t add any new information. It specifies what is contained in her conception of the ultimate value — namely, the fact that man’s basic means of survival is reason.

To take an analogous case, when you are told in the voting booth to “cast your ballot by putting a check mark next to the candidate of your choice” you aren’t being told anything different from “cast your ballot.” The content is the same, but by specifying that the way to do it is with a check mark, you have a better set of instructions that will make it more likely your vote is counted. By contrast, if you were told to “cast your ballot by putting a check mark next to Donald Trump’s name,” that would supply information not contained in the instruction to “cast your ballot.” Rand is not saying, “Survive but also do it by reason instead of other ways you could survive.” She is saying, “Survive, which for a human being can only be done by reason.”

By making our means of survival explicit, Rand gives us a lead to the kinds of goals that will sustain life and the kinds of actions that will lead to self-sustaining goals. “Since reason is man’s basic means of survival,” she concludes, “that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.”

The Values, Virtues, and Happiness

What are “the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan”?

Rand names three cardinal values “which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life”: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. She goes on to identify six major virtues, the actions by which one acts to gain and keep values: independence, honesty, integrity, justice, productiveness, pride. All of these virtues are expressions of the primary virtue: rationality.

What emerges is not a list of ethical rules but an integrated way of life: a harmonious constellation of virtues and values based in reason that work together to sustain us.

Existentially, this way of life keeps us in existence — psychologically, it leads to happiness, which is the result, reward, and fuel for living by a rational code of ethics.

As with “man’s life qua man,” Rand’s inclusion of happiness as a component of her ultimate end has led to charges that she has abandoned “life” for some richer end distinct from survival. That is not how Rand saw it.

Rand thinks that we need to experience life as worth living in order to survive, and that happiness (and pleasure more generally) gives us that experience. “Pleasure, for man” Nathaniel Branden writes in Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness:

is not a luxury, but a profound psychological need.

Pleasure (in the widest sense of the term) is a metaphysical concomitant of life, the reward and consequence of successful action — just as pain is the insignia of failure, destruction, death.

Through the state of enjoyment, man experiences the value of life, the sense that life is worth living, worth struggling to maintain. In order to live, man must act to achieve values. Pleasure or enjoyment is at once emotional payment for successful action and an incentive to continue acting.

Rand’s understanding of the role of pleasure in survival led her to a rich conception of the constellation of values that support and constitute the ultimate end of life. Among these, Rand viewed creative work, art, and sex as three of the most important values we need to seek in order to survive. Their legitimacy as values, for Rand, is rooted in two facts: that the source of their pleasure reflects the satisfaction of real human needs (including needs of the mind) — and that the intensity of the pleasure they produce is unparalleled.

For someone who embraces a life-based code and achieves the values life requires, the ultimate reward, Rand thinks, is happiness. “Happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death. Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values,” or, as she describes it elsewhere, “a state of non-contradictory joy.”

Importantly, Rand does not see pleasure or happiness as distinct ends over and above living: they are the forms of experiencing the fact that life is an end in itself — or what amounts to the same thing, they are what the experience of achieving life-sustaining values consists of.

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it. And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself — the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for” — what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself.

In defining a code of values to guide our actions toward life and happiness, Rand’s ethics is egoistic. “The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness — which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man — which means: the values required for human survival.”

The “Survivalism” Straw Man

I noted that Rand is often accused of giving an argument for “survival” and then inflating it to some richer, arbitrary set of values unrelated to survival. Critics charge that Rand’s ethical foundation, if it establishes anything at all, justifies only what Objectivist philosopher Tara Smith has aptly termed “momentary morgue avoidance.” In championing survival, the critics contend, Rand is championing nothing more than staving off imminent death.

Ari has been accused of advocating this straw man. He doesn’t. Though he does characterize Rand’s ethics as “survivalism,” he acknowledges that what she advocates is “robust, long-term survival.” He doesn’t dispute that, in embracing survival as the ultimate end, Rand is calling on us to value everything that strengthens us and to avoid anything that weakens us — not just for the moment but over the whole of our lifespan.

No, Ari’s straw man is subtler. Instead of suggesting that Rand’s ultimate end countenances “momentary morgue avoidance” he drops the “momentary.” Rand’s ethics is not about achieving life-sustaining values, but about an obsessive avoidance of the grave. “Rand is . . . building a survivalist standard — ,” he tells us, “to be moral a person must strive to keep himself as far away from death as possible over the course of his lifespan.”

But this, Ari assures us, is not how most people act and it’s not how they should act.

What it means to value

For one, people often act in order to enjoy life rather than avoid death: “We eat to live but people often live to eat,” Ari explains. But this, he insists, is inconsistent with Rand. When we eat a meal, on her view, we aren’t supposed to do it in order to enjoy the meal. With are supposed to view it as purely a nutrition delivery mechanism, each bite taking us one more step away from starvation.

The same goes for many of our other values. To value sex on the Objectivist basis, Ari suggests we would be focused on its “profound physical benefits.” But “surely people do not have sex solely because of its survival value.”

Alas for Rand, Ari concludes, we don’t view our values as means only — we view them as ends in themselves.

But as we’ve seen, Rand views our values both as the means to and the realization of our ultimate end. And she sees pleasure as both the reward for living and the vital fuel for continuing the struggle for existence.

When we see her heroes eating meals, they are inevitably reflecting on the pleasure of the food or spiritual significance of the occasion — not the food’s macronutrient content.

When she describes the value of sex, she speaks of the metaphysical significance it provides by allowing us to experience pride and admiration in the form of orgasmic pleasure — not of getting a workout.

When Rand argues that life is our proper ultimate value, she does not thereby ask us to constantly view our values as only a means to life (let alone to avoiding death). Instead, grasping the relation of values to life helps us when we reach the stage of self-consciously examining or re-examining our values so that we can formulate a valid value hierarchy. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology she explains:

A moral code is a system of teleological measurement which grades the choices and actions open to man, according to the degree to which they achieve or frustrate the code’s standard of value. The standard is the end, to which man’s actions are the means.

A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes — he must choose the particular goals and values which he is to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly.

Once a person has defined his hierarchy of values and proceeds to “act accordingly,” he is predominantly viewing his values, at least his most important values, as ends. Galt is not in love with Dagny’s survival value, he is in love with Dagny.

Ari knows this is the portrait Rand paints in her novels and acknowledges that fact, but brushes it aside: Rand’s vision of the moral ideal, he tells us, has nothing to do with her moral theory. “Rand’s later metaethical views can best be seen, I think, as an after-the-fact attempt to justify her earlier views, not a logical extension of them.” Her actual moral theory, he suggests, is best represented — not by the image of Howard Roark standing triumphant atop the Wynand Building — but by a Woody Allen protagonist, neurotically obsessed with his own mortality.

Anti-life values?

But, Ari contends, even more damning to Rand’s theory than the fact that people often act without a maniacal focus on death avoidance is the fact that they pursue many values that threaten their survival. They have children, they take jobs that are low paying or high risk, they play Texas Hold ’Em. These would seem to be legitimate values — and yet attempts to portray them as the best ways a person can stave off death can only result in implausible “just-so stories.”

I will concede this much: as someone who has two children, who chose a field that held very little promise of remuneration, and who has played his share of Texas Hold ’Em, I agree that these can be legitimate values.

When Ari writes that “If the apparent value clashes with theory, then maybe we should question the theory and not just the value,” I concur without reservation. A moral theory can demand that we re-examine our values, but if a theory dispenses with much of what makes life worth living, that is a black mark against the theory.

Yet a similar point can be made against Ari: if he finds that his account of Rand’s theory clashes with the vast majority of the values she endorsed, then perhaps he should reconsider his grasp of Rand’s theory. To be sure, it is possible that Rand did not understand the implications of her own ethical code, or was unwilling to fully endorse those implications. It might be true that Ari is more logical or more honest than Rand. Still, if I were him, I would hesitate.

In the end, the plausibility of Ari’s second objection is rooted in the same error as his first: the straw man that Rand’s ultimate end is avoiding death and that all values are seen by a “survivalist” as merely a means to doing so.

In Chapter 5, Ari actually gives some of the reasons why Objectivism would endorse having children, taking risky or low-paying jobs, or pursuing “the simple pleasures of life.” For example, he observes that:

What about taking a low-paying or dangerous job? Presumably Rand would answer that, to live successfully, a person has to do work that he loves. The Fountainhead is largely about the hero pursing his passion, architecture, and for a time he lives in poverty doing that. A person who hates his job is less likely to advance in his career and less able to gain the motivation from work to succeed in other areas of life. People who love fighting fires or teaching philosophy (or whatever) will better pursue their survival overall by pursuing those careers, rather than by picking a safer, higher-paying career they don’t much like.

That is hardly all Objectivism has to say on the matter, but by itself it seems a solid answer to his objection. So why does Ari maintain Rand’s ethics cannot account for such choices? Because in choosing these things, a person is not choosing them “only in order to survive better.” They are, in other words, more than just means to morgue avoidance.

[P]eople do not normally take dangerous or low-paying jobs to maximize their survival. True, people tend to enjoy what they’re good at, but what that implies for the consistent survivalist is that he’d try to become competent doing something relatively safe and high-paying (granting that there can be trade-offs between risk and pay). Furthering their survival is definitely a major factor in most people’s choice of jobs, but it is hardly the only factor.

A straw man? Yes. Should he know it? “[A]chieving life,” Rand writes in Atlas Shrugged:

is not the equivalent of avoiding death. . . . You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive. It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live.

I suspect Ari is familiar with these lines. He does, after all, quote them in the book.

Bad Faith

Straw man attacks on Objectivism are not new. But what sets Ari’s book apart is that he engages deeply with the Objectivist literature — not only Rand’s but virtually every important (and some not-so-important) publication that has dealt with Rand’s ethics over the past 60-plus years. Quite often, Ari references the very essays in which Rand and other Objectivist scholars reveal the error in his own arguments.

For example, Ari’s core distortion is that a “survivalist” sees values not as constituents of the end of living, but as only a means to not dying. Recall his admonishment to Objectivists: “We eat to live but people often live to eat.” And take note of his later insistence (when he defines his own moral theory in contrast to Rand’s) that “certain values helping to constitute our lives, as opposed to purely serving as means to survival.”

What Ari doesn’t mention is that the very works he quotes from make the point that Rand’s ultimate value of life recognizes that values aren’t only a means to life but that which life consists of: for life to be an end in itself, in Rand’s view, means that values are ends in themselves.

For example, Rand addresses this in the essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” which Ari quotes at length. Recall the earlier quote from Rand on the relationship between life and happiness:

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it. And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself — the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for” — what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself.

Or, if that passage is not quite explicit enough, consider this paragraph buried in the appendix to Ari’s book:

In “The Morality of Life” (73–104), Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri retrace Rand’s metaethical arguments from Atlas Shrugged and “The Objectivist Ethics” (76–78). The authors rightly dismiss claims that Rand takes as the moral standard “some particular way of life which is not required for survival.” Such an interpretation “would entirely undermine Rand’s moral philosophy,” they point out (78). Life in Rand’s system must be “understood literally, in terms of the alternative between existence and non-existence” (79). Although proper values and virtues are “essential constituents of a successful and happy life,” the authors note, they are values and virtues “only because each plays a crucial role in enabling a human being to survive” (81).

It’s fair to ask at this point: why raise the issue on Ari’s honesty? Why suggest that Ari is arguing in bad faith and instead just respond to his arguments?

I could say that the honesty of a thinker is fair game because it helps us assess their arguments and determine the best way to respond — for instance whether to engage with them directly or not. True. But in this case there is an added reason: Ari threw the first stone.

Consider one of the arguments we have already addressed: people hold values that seem to run counter to their survival. After dismissing the Objectivist account of how those values can contribute to a person’s life Ari concludes:

Claims that having children, taking a risky job, pursuing life’s pleasures, and enjoying art ultimately serve a person’s survival usually become just-so stories. The effect is to insulate Rand’s theory from objections. If a pursuit is obviously and pointlessly self-destructive, then Objectivists join everyone else in declaring such pursuits immoral. But, within the realm of pursuits that on their face seem sensible, there is no value that an Objectivist cannot defend as “really” about survival, however surprising that may seem to everyone else.

(Yes, Objectivists are desperate to “join everyone else” and endorse whatever “pursuits that on their face seem sensible,” but must have missed the memo when it came to our stance on religion, altruism, laissez-faire capitalism, non-objective art, etc., etc.)

And, in case we missed the point, Ari tells us a few pages later, having raised other cases Objectivists have addressed at length:

At a certain point, efforts to contort things into a survivalist ethic such as dying for a loved one or committing suicide to avoid suffering begin to look like after-the-fact rationalizations, akin to religious apologetics.

Rationalization, Ari explains later, is a form of dishonesty: “the concoction of a set of false reasons a person gives himself to disguise his bad behavior.” Well.

As if all that were not offensive enough, Ari also pauses to reflect on the question: Why does Rand’s theory get “bound up in decades of arcane debates about immortal robots, the meaning of the phrase ‘man qua man,’ the nature of the choice to live, and so on?”

Is it because the issues Rand is contending with are challenging? Is it because her answers are new and radical? Perhaps. “But I think there is something deeper at work,” Ari writes. “It is hard to explain and justify a theory that is wrong.”

This means that attempts to defend Objectivism prove that Objectivism is wrong. It means that the very fact that Ari wrote his book is evidence that his book’s thesis is true.

A Moral Innovator

One of the most peculiar things about the book is that Ari has chosen a polemic to offer the world a new moral theory, which he calls “value integration theory.”

Value integration theory holds “life” as its ultimate value and maintains that all of “his other values help support or partly constitute his life. In this sense, a person’s life is just the total package of his values,” which morality helps him integrate so that they “fit into a coherent whole.” Why bother? “[T]o live successfully and to enjoy the emotional rewards of doing so (happiness.)” What is the primary virtue according to value integration theory? “Reason.” The primary vice? “Evasion.” And, Ari adds, “A consistent value integrator is self-interested,” but value integration theory “recognizes that a person’s interests and values normally encompass the welfare of other people.”

Now you might think, “Watkins, that sounds literally like the Objectivist ethics! I mean, not the fake Objectivist ethics Ari attacks, but the real one!” But there are differences.

Bridging facts and values

published after his book came out, Ari offers this advice to critics of his book:

I encourage Objectivists to stay focused on the essential issue: Is Rand’s metaethics true or false? The pivotal chapter in the book, “The Essential Fallacies of Rand’s Ethics,” is also the shortest. Objectivists who criticize the rest of the book, yet ignore that chapter, will have missed the point. To defend Rand’s theory, Objectivists need to explain how and why Rand’s basic metaethical arguments hold up. They cannot merely argue around the edges of the theory, as though volume of commentary could substitute for establishing the essential point.

This is sound advice. Let’s start by getting clear on what problem Rand is trying to solve. Rand wants to provide a rational basis for morality, so it makes sense to begin with history’s most famous moral gadfly, Hume.

Hume does not think every value judgment is irrational. If you want to go for a jog, reason can tell you that putting on comfortable running shoes is good and that putting on high heels is bad. In relationship to a given end, we have grounds to regard certain means as good or bad.

But, Hume would ask, why is going for a jog good? And that too can be answered by reason, he would acknowledge: the end of going for a jog can also be a means to a further end: say, losing weight.

You see where this is going, right? Hume’s view is that if we follow this means/ends reasoning to its logical conclusion, we ultimately reach some arbitrary desire. For example, “It’s good for me to jog because it will help me lose weight; it’s good for me to lose weight because then I’ll get a girlfriend; it’s good for me to get a girlfriend because I happen to find sex and romance pleasurable.” But why is that good? Here Hume would say: because .

It appears evident that — the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties.

Some philosophers have tried to solve this problem by positing that there are certain intrinsic values: things that just are valuable, quite apart from their relationship to any end. In the extreme form (no pun intended) you have Plato’s view that there is a super-real Form of the Good. Less mystical versions of the intrinsic theory will hold that certain states or experiences are good in and of themselves, apart from any purpose that they serve. But in the final analysis holding that something is valuable “just because” amounts to holding that something is valuable “just because I feel it.”

Rand is going to agree with Hume that all rational moral reasoning will take the form of means/ends reasoning. And she also agrees that this means/ends reasoning must terminate in an ultimate value: “Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility.” But she does not think this will collapse ultimately into subjectivism. How does she get there?

Rand’s foundational argument starts with an examination of the concept “value.” This analysis follows from her theory of concepts. To validate a concept one has to grasp its tie to reality by answering the question: why do we need this concept?

When Rand turns to ethics, then, she starts by asking: “What are values? Why does man need them?”

“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.

Here Rand is reformulating Hume’s point: to grasp value concepts, we not only have to see actions in relation to an end; achieving or failing to achieve that end must make a difference to the entity. In other words, the end must serve some further end the entity is invested in. We see a gazelle trying to escape a lion (action) in order to escape (the end) and we can grasp that escaping is good for the gazelle because of an alternative it faces (it gets eaten or it doesn’t).

Living organisms, Rand concludes, are the only entities capable of having values because they are the only entities that act in the face of alternatives of this sort. What is it about them that allows us to view things this way? Rand’s approach here is inductive: she traces the different alternatives organisms face in virtue of which we can make value judgments and finds that they all reflect a basic alternative: life or death — existence or non-existence.

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence — and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.

Rand goes on to contrast living beings with an immortal robot: such a robot can act, but it can’t be affected by the outcome of its actions. Even if we programmed it so it had something akin to motivations, we couldn’t say that it was better for it to fulfill its motivations than not.

No, it’s only the conditional existence of living organisms that makes the concept of values coherent. “Life,” Rand writes, “can be kept in existence only by a constant process of 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.”

Unlike other values, life can serve as a coherent ultimate value because it is a means to an end — but the end that it serves is only itself. Life is a means to life and only to life. In this sense it is an end-in-itself, every other value is a means to it, and it is a means to nothing further. As Rand summarizes the point:

It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.”

The choice to live

Human beings, of course, don’t have to pursue life as their ultimate end. But, Rand argues, insofar as we pursue any values at all, there is nothing else to pursue. There is no other end that we can have a stake in. Our choice is whether to embrace existence or not — and if we do choose to embrace existence, then the purpose of morality is to provide us with guidance for consistently and successfully implementing that choice. “My morality,” Rand writes, “the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists — and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.”

For Rand, rooting morality in the choice to live is not injecting subjectivism into ethics because of the very nature of the choice. When faced with a choice between A and B we need to have grounds for preferring one to the other. But existence and non-existence isn’t a choice of the same kind: it is a choice between anything and nothing. Or, more precisely, there is only one option open to us at all: to choose to live. We can fail to make that choice but we cannot choose anything else — we can simply not choose.

Rand calls the phenomenon of not choosing drift. In an ethical context it is the form in which a person fails to choose to live. A person needs no guidance to drift: it is our effortless, default state. “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.” To choose to live is to focus our mind and set it to the task of dealing with reality, i.e., of living.

The alternative to the choice to live, then, is not the choice to die. Men can pursue death as a goal, though I don’t necessarily mean suicide. Ari’s confusions on the point aside (read the book if you’re interested), people can commit suicide out of rational fidelity to a life they can no longer live (as with a debilitating illness, a totalitarian dictatorship they cannot escape, or the loss of a crucial value they cannot replace).

It is via the process of evasion — an effortful turning away from reality — that a person establishes death as the goal of their actions. In blanking out reality they are in that moment seeking to blank out their own existence. “To the extent to which he is irrational,” Rand thinks, “the premise directing his actions is death.”

That, then, is the foundation of the Objectivist ethic’s objectivity: it is rooted in facts about the nature of man and existence. The ultimate value is life — life that we embrace through a choice that isn’t arbitrary since it’s precisely the choice to accept reality.

Value Integration Theory

Ari sees Rand’s argument (or his not entirely accurate summary of her argument) as fatally flawed. Much of his criticism I will leave to the wayside as it’s been ably addressed in two blog posts by Eyal Mozes ( and ). But I do want to focus on one crucial point of departure.

Values, Ari maintains, don’t need to be justified by reference to an end that they serve: we need not be able to answer the question “value for what?” to grasp that something is a value.

According to Ari, we can experience things as valuable for their own sake, as ends in themselves, regardless of any relationship they have to self-preservation. “[O]ur experience of certain things as ends in themselves (or valuable in their own right) does not necessarily dependent [sic] on whether our pursuit of such things furthers our survival.”

And it turns out there are lots of things that Ari thinks are valuable for their own sake, apart from any contribution to life or any other goal we have: sex, a good meal, playing with children, helping a stranger on the other side of the globe, etc., etc. Our task not to justify ends in the themselves but to organize them into a harmonious unity. And, indeed, this harmonious unity — an “integrated life” — is our ultimate value, which everyone accepts “at least implicitly.”

To borrow Ari’s favorite word — he uses it on just about every other page — this is implausible.

Rand’s conception of life as an end in itself is grounded in certain facts about life. For our other values, our ability to see them as values depends on our ability to see them as means to some further value. We value our shoes for running, we value running for our health. Life can serve as an ultimate value because it is the only end that is a means to only itself. It preserves the teleological nature of values while also recognizing that there must be an ultimate value since “a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility.”

But life, for Rand, is the values that constitute it, each of which can be valued for its own sake as well as its role in furthering the process of pursuing values. Thus specific values — completing a crucial project at work, playing with your kids, an electrifying conversation with a friend — can all be experienced as ends in themselves: they are in a literal sense the stuff that life is made of. But the proof they are legitimate values rests not in our emotions but in certain facts about their relationship to life.

So how does Ari, having sundered “value” from “life,” decide what values really are ends in themselves? We just know it. Reality, in effect, dumps in our laps a bunch of ends in themselves, which cannot be questioned or analyzed, and all we can do is try to make them integrate.

As an aside, at one point Ari calls it a “fortunate convergence” in Rand’s ethics that survival values produce happiness and says, “even if Rand were right about the relationship between pursuing survival and experiencing happiness (that the two normally perfectly converge), that would not be very satisfying as a moral theory, because it would seem to depend on a coincidence.” I can’t help but point out that it truly would be a fantastic coincidence for him if his plethora of ends in themselves that have no common source happen to integrate.

But I digress. Ari cannot escape the subjectivism of his account. He has severed values from facts and whatever his protests he has no answer for the person who says that whatever he happens to value is an end in itself.

Ari would object: illegitimate values, he would assure us, would not integrate with our other values. But how does he know this? And how would he answer the person who says, “My end in itself of raping, or murdering, or forcing others to follow my moral beliefs, or sacrificing for the sake of others is so intense a value that I’m completely happy to frustrate my other values”? Maybe Ari can invent some “just-so story,” but in actual fact, on his premises, there is no answer. (Again, see on this point, which are devastating.)

One More Thing

Towards the end of his book, Ari delves into some of the literature concerning Rand’s development, highlighting her focus on the need to integrate our values into a coherent sum.

Drawing on Leonard Peikoff’s 1997 lectures Objectivism Through Induction, Gregory Salmieri writes that, after a person grasps that he chooses his values, he can proceed to consciously integrate them:

“Peikoff argues that an intelligent, first-handed [independent] thinker would [at a relatively early stage] be able to grasp that all of his values contribute to his life and his enjoyment of it. . . . In her later writings Rand advocates Man’s Life [as] the standard of value. The joyous life standard which Peikoff discusses in his lectures is considerably more primitive, but it is not subjective like ‘whatever makes one happy.’ Instead of judging goals in isolation by the feelings they evoke, it judges them by how they would fit into a holistic, if imprecise, conception of a happy life.”

Salmieri points out that Prometheus, the protagonist of Rand’s Anthem, essentially embraces such a standard. Certainly Prometheus regards happiness as important: “I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.” Yet, as Salmieri notes, happiness for Prometheus is not hedonism; rather, at the end of the story Prometheus describes a world of prosperity and reason that he intends to help build.

Even in her early twenties, Rand saw the importance of value integration. She held that thoughts and feelings properly come together when a person logically “connect[s] together the things [he] observes.” Rand expressed her ideal: “Every thought should be part of yourself, your body, your nature, and every part of your nature should be a thought.” The opposite sort of existence, a disintegrated life, involves “stumbling helplessly in a chaos of inconsistent ideas, actions, and feelings that can’t be put together.”

Around this time, Rand also seemed to endorse the idea that what matters is life of a certain quality beyond survival; this too is similar to value integration theory. She writes, “Achievement is the aim of life. Life is achievement.” Rand describes a person as truly alive who feels “strong, high emotion” that accompanies “tense, exalted” action. A person is not truly living who does “not hold anything to be very serious or profound,” who does “not know how to value or desire.” In We the Living, Kira says, “Why do you think I’m alive? Because I have a stomach and eat and digest the food? Because I breathe and work and produce more food to digest? Or because I know what I want, and that something which knows how to want — isn’t that life itself?” In a 1936 letter, Rand writes that “any form of swift physical annihilation is preferable to the inconceivable horror of a living death,” such as a life “devoid of the pride and joy of a man’s right to his own spirit.”

You might think these passages are cause for doubting Ari’s interpretation of Rand, for thinking that maybe objections such as that we don’t just eat to live but live to eat miss the mark.

On the contrary, says Ari, “the more natural reading of Rand’s early remarks is that she endorsed life of a certain quality, not life as survival. . . . Rand’s later metaethical views can best be seen, I think, as an after-the-fact attempt to justify her earlier views, not a logical extension of them.”

Indeed, what passages like these tell us is that Objectivist scholars “and Rand herself” have “hinted at” and at times “haltingly step down the path toward value integration theory.” It is time, Ari says, for Objectivists to stop rationalizing Rand’s failed theory and “walk a little further.” Ayn Rand, you see, was merely anticipating Ari Armstrong.

Let me be clear: I’m not criticizing Ari for formulating a new theory using some but not all of Rand’s discoveries. Rand herself, after all, was the first to admit that she stood on the shoulders of Aristotle. And I would welcome nothing more than new philosophic knowledge.

But there is such a thing as decency, and in this context decency begins by acknowledging one’s debts.

Here is what Ari credits Rand for:

I have outlined a different Aristotle-inspired metaethics, value integration theory, that avoids all of the problems of Rand’s theory while keeping intact Rand’s valid findings. Value integration theory shares with Rand’s metaethics the agent relativity of values (everything that is valuable is so because it is valued by an actor, at least potentially), a focus on biology as the starting point of values, an individualist ultimate value that provides objective moral standards, an emphasis on reason and related virtues, a social theory based on mutual consent, and a theory of evil that sees evasion as the key problem.

What about the idea that we need to select values that cohere into an integrated life? What about the idea that these values are both a means to and constituents of our life? What about the fact that to hold life — in whatever form — as our ultimate value entails self-interest and that this self-interest can encompass the interests of other men? Ari champions each of these ideas in contrast to Ayn Rand’s ethics.

Ari’s “theory” is worse than theft. The ideas he appropriates are precisely those contained in Rand’s theory but not in his distorted straw man version of her theory. Ari holds that the Objectivist ethics is false because it does not advocate the ideas he stole from Objectivism.

It is, in its own way, innovative. Let’s try it together.

In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand says that we form concepts through measurement omission. But that’s ridiculous. We can’t pretend there are existents without any measurements. Rand is saying that all of our knowledge rests on denying facts of reality.

What we actually do is see measurements as falling within a certain range — we know there are measurements but we don’t specify them. We’re not leaving anything out when we form a concept, but grasping something more: that a group of entities has the same characteristics which differ only in quantity.

We should stop rationalizing Rand’s wrongheaded theory (have you seen all the arcane debates it’s led to?) and instead adopt my theory, which I call “measurement integration.”

Such is Ari Armstrong’s contribution to philosophy.

Conclusion

Ari wants us to know that he understands Objectivism: he knows the literature and has given it years of careful thought and consideration.

I take him at his word: he understands the Objectivist view — and has chosen to present a grotesque caricature whose refutation is to be found, not in the footnotes of third generation Objectivists, but in the most famous passages of Rand’s most famous works which Ari himself quotes and wishes to appropriate for the sake of establishing his own moral theory.

But there is a positive lesson to be learned from the book: I see this as motivation for Objectivists (myself first and foremost) to strive for a new level of clarity in our thinking and writing about Rand’s philosophy. Not, however, to preempt books like Ari’s (there is no definitive presentation).

While reading Ari’s book I found myself at many points thinking: “Someone who hasn’t spent more than two decades studying Rand full time could be confused by this.” That’s inexcusable.

So instead of patting ourselves on the back that another critique of Rand’s missed the mark, I hope we’ll instead use this as an opportunity to become better.

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