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Stephen Parrish Viable Values

Review of Viable Values (2004)

Stephen Parrish

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Book coverReview: Tara Smith. 2000. Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. 205 pp.

In Viable Values Tara Smith attempts to give Objectivist ethics a rigorous statement and defense. Objectivism is the name given to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the novelist who wrote such books as The Fountainhead[1] and Atlas Shrugged[2]. (Thus this review is not about moral objectivism as opposed to moral subjectivism.) Rand and her associates defend a form of ethical egoism, wherein moral values and ethical behavior for every individual are to be grounded in that individual’s own interests. Ethical egoists believe that what “furthers” one’s own interests is the basis of ethical behavior. Rand and her followers believe that they are providing a rational, secular approach to ethics which shows that ethics is objective–i.e., that there is one moral system obligatory for anyone who chooses to live an ethical life.

Rand never wrote a definitive treatise on Objectivist ethics. Her heir, Leonard Peikoff, has published a book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand[3], where he articulates and defends Objectivist ethics. Other Objectivists have also written on this subject[4]. But as far as I know, Viable Values is the only book-length attempt to argue for the Objectivist position and critique other views at length. The book is mainly a work in meta-ethics, the foundation and justification of ethics, rather than a work on various moral problems.

Smith’s book is composed of six chapters. The first chapter contains an introduction to the problem of meta-ethics with an overview of the argument of the rest of the book. Here Smith makes the case that there is widespread immorality in our society, and that one reason for it is that people have not been given good reasons to be moral. It is this lack that she sets out to rectify.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Why be Moral?” and is an extended exposition and critique of three popular theories of meta-ethics: intuitionism, contractarianism, and rationalism. All of these, she argues at length, fail to provide an adequate ground for ethics. Intuitionism is the view that “all people have direct knowledge of right and wrong.”[5] Contractarianism holds “that obligation is a product of human agreement.”[6] Finally, rationalism holds that “[w]e should be moral because rationality requires it.”[7]

In the third chapter Smith attacks what she calls “Intrinsic Value.” This is the concept that there are ethical values which are inherent in actions themselves, apart from any person’s valuing. On this view, some “things are good in themselves.”[8] Because this theory is widespread Smith spends an entire chapter critiquing it.

Chapter 4 brings us to Smith’s positive case. She argues that morality’s real roots are in life. She claims that it is life–the fact that human beings want to live–that provides the basis for values and thus morality: “Values … depend on the fact that organisms face the alternative of life or death…. The requirements of human life furnish the standard of value for human beings and, derivatively, the basis for all moral prescriptions.”[9] Only living things have an alternative of life or death, and because of this the choice to live will provide human beings with an automatic code of values, and hence provide morality.

The next chapter continues Smith’s argument that the proper outcome of the choice to live is flourishing. That is, she argues that mere physical survival or longevity should not be the goal of human activity, but rather living a flourishing life should be.

Finally, in chapter 6 Smith defends what she calls “Principled Egoism.” She articulates a form of egoism–that all ethical values should, for every person, have the goal of a flourishing life for oneself. She ends by defending her position against possible criticisms, such as the charge that on this view living for oneself may cause one to make another suffer. She holds that “the promotion of one person’s interest cannot make another person suffer; when one individual’s interest suffers, it is never because of another individual’s gain.”[10] With this she brings her book to a close.

Viable Values has virtues. First, Smith is a clear writer, which is always a plus in philosophy. Second, she gives what I believe to be the clearest and most plausible exposition and defense of Objectivist ethics in print. Finally, she gives what I think are cogent critiques of some of the alternative ethical positions to Objectivism, such as contractarianism and intuitionism.

Having said that, there is also much to criticize in Smith’s book. One major lapse is in her choice of what alternative theories to critique. In the beginning of Viable Values Smith mentions (but then quickly dismisses in two sentences) religious ethics (such as divine command and natural law theory), utilitarianism, and Kantianism[11]. Given the historical importance of these theories, plus the fact that they are still quite influential (especially religious ethics), virtually ignoring them leaves her critique incomplete.

More to the point, however, is that Smith’s main line of argumentation fails. The first concept to note is that according to Smith, the choice to live, and hence accept morality, is itself a nonmoral choice. If one does not choose life, then one places oneself outside the whole realm of morality. Thus, the choice to be moral is itself amoral.

This has some disturbing immediate consequences. For example, the terrorists who hijacked planes and then flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, on Objectivist theory, not acting immorally because they had chosen to die, in spite of the fact that they killed many innocent people.

However, if one chooses to live, then one automatically must adopt a code of ethics. The fundamental reason is prudence. As an illustration, think of a man who wants, more than any other option at the time, to wake up at 6 AM the next morning to do something important. He knows that the only way that he will do that is to set his alarm clock. In these circumstances, the only prudent and rational thing to do would be to set the alarm clock.

Similarly, if one chooses to live, and makes it one’s ultimate good, then it would be irrational not to do those things which would enable one to live. It is from this that Objectivism derives its theory of obligation. But it can be seen to be a very tenuous theory of obligation, for it depends upon every individual’s choice. At any time, a person could decide not to live, and thus be free of any moral obligation.

However, there is a larger problem. Like Rand and other Objectivists, Smith argues that the choice to live or die must be the fundamental choice that everyone faces: “No alternative end could replace life as the source of value because no alternative end could be achieved by means that do not respect life’s requirements.”[12] In short, life must be the ultimate end for a person because if he was not alive, he couldn’t do anything else. If what you really want to do is to go bowling, then you must try to stay alive, for the simple reason that if you’re dead, you can’t go bowling. Or at least you wouldn’t enjoy it.

There are at least two problems with this line of argumentation. First, although the vast majority of goals that people aim for involve them being alive, not all of them do. For example, a man may take out a life insurance policy to provide for his family when he dies. Wills are usually made for the same purpose. So one can have values that do not entail that one must be alive. One may deeply desire that one’s own family have continued prosperity long after one is dead.

The second and more important reason is that although it is necessary to be alive to enjoy other values, this does not mean that life itself must be the supreme value. All that it means is that life is a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of any values. One may only choose to live because it allows one to enjoy other values.

For example, suppose that your favorite activity in life is bowling. The thought that you may never bowl again would drive you to suicidal despair. Most of your waking hours are spent either bowling or thinking about bowling. Nothing else matters to you very much. If this were the case, it would seem that you would want to live so that you can go bowling. Deprived of the pleasures of rolling a ball at a bunch of pins, you see no reason to live. On the other hand, because you can actually bowl a lot, you are filled with a zest for life.

If this were the case, then would you really need to choose life as your ultimate value? It seems not. For you, life would merely be an instrument to what you want to do. Bowling would be your ultimate value, and since this is so, to be rational you would have to consider the ways in which you could do the maximum amount of it. Life would be, like a bowling alley, merely a means to an end.

In essence what Smith is doing is arguing thus: if you want to do any A, you must have B, so therefore B has to be your ultimate value. This seems obviously fallacious and shows the real nature of the argument. Smith makes an illicit move from the fact that life is a necessary precondition for doing most of what we want to do to the conclusion that it is thus what we must choose as our ultimate value. But there is no reason why life should be given the status of an ultimate value for anyone. What Smith’s argument really shows is that if we value X more than anything else, we should arrange our lives so that we may realize X.

But in this case the theory of values becomes very relativistic. Whatever is one’s ultimate value is what one aims for and rationally attempts to realize. Objectivism turns into pure moral subjectivism, for what one values then becomes what one ultimately holds. And since the choice of ultimate values is arbitrary in the absence of what Smith calls intrinsic values, any choice is as good as any other. Of course Smith does not want to adopt moral subjectivism, but that is where her theory inevitably leads given the failure of her argument that life and physical longevity must be chosen as ultimate unless one wants to die.

Smith doesn’t really believe that herself. For in the next chapter arguing that life must be one’s ultimate value, she subtly changes life as physical longevity to life as “flourishing.” A flourishing life is a happy, productive life. This, she writes, is the reward of morality.

In a sense I think that Smith is right. Few people really want to live no matter what the circumstances are. Imagine a situation where you are told that you will have a lifespan of 120 years, but that you will be in extreme pain the entire time. Would this make you happy? Not unless you are very strange. By bringing in flourishing, Smith is admitting that life in itself, mere physical longevity, is of little value in the absence of anything that makes life worth living.

The problem for Smith then becomes that life as survival and life as flourishing are two different things. She writes that “[l]ife, as the source of and aim of ethics, is flourishing.”[13] The trouble with this statement is that it is obviously not true. One can survive and not flourish. One can live for 100 years and be miserable the entire time. Of course this is not usually the case, but the scenario is logically possible.

If the arguments that Smith makes for the necessity of choosing life as one’s ultimate value were sound, then they would only show that one must choose to survive because otherwise one cannot enjoy any values. One does not have to flourish to have values. The two concepts are logically distinct, and Smith is really using a classic “bait and switch” tactic. First put out the necessity of choosing life as survival, and then switch to life as flourishing.

There is one other major criticism to be made here. That is to be at least plausible, Objectivist ethics must show that there are no genuine conflicts of interest. Otherwise on egoism people would be entitled to behave in ways that seem blatantly immoral. For example, if it is in your best interest to obtain ten million dollars, and a practically risk-free opportunity to embezzle that much money arises, then on egoistic principles, where every ethical action is governed by what is best for the individual, it would seem that the ethical thing to do would be to embezzle. And this seems obviously wrong.

To avoid this Rand and Smith have the notion that there are no genuine moral conflicts. For example, suppose that Al and Bob both want the same good job: high paying, prestigious and in pleasant surroundings. They have to take a test to compete for the job. Suppose that the only available alternate job is working in a smelly, dangerous chemical factory at minimum wage. There is a greater risk of having a shorter lifespan at the factory than at the other job. Both men are qualified, but the company’s tests show that Al would be only 99% as good at the job as Bob would. On Objectivist principles, the company would be wise to hire Bob. Now it can be easily seen that the company would be better off if it had hired Bob, and Bob would be better off, and in some sense even the entire community would be better off, but Al would not. Let us also suppose that Al has the opportunity to switch the tests, so that his name is on Bob’s and vice versa. He can do this with minimal amount of danger of being detected. If he switches the tests he will be hired and poor Bob will be relegated to the noxious factory job.

The question is, if Al is an ethical egoist, why should he not do this? Is it because it involves him lying and cheating? But if this leads to Al having a longer, more flourishing life, isn’t this all that matters on ethical egoism? To restate Smith’s theory, ethics is a matter of choice, the choice to live. All ethics flows from this original choice. Therefore, the only justification that Smith has for acting ethically is to fulfill the original choice to live. Things are only “bad” for an individual because they would lead to a shorter or less flourishing life. Therefore any behavior that is normally considered immoral–lying, cheating, stealing, betraying, and murdering–is only immoral for an individual if is “lessens” his or her life.

To avoid these counterintuitive results, Smith argues that there are no real conflicts of interest among rational people. In the above example, she would have to say that if Bob gets the job, it is not only in the best interest of both the company and Bob, but it is also in the best interest of Al. The problem with this is that it just seems plain wrong. Al is not better off being relegated to the local chemical factory.

Let us grant that acting in an ethical manner is usually in one’s best interest. The problem for Smith is that she has to demonstrate that is always in one’s best interest to act in that manner that is commonly thought to be ethical. In essence, she has to show that it is a necessary truth that if one act in this manner, this will “further” one’s life. Otherwise, she will be forced to say that while it is usually the case that one is better off if one does not lie, cheat or steal, still there are times when one is better off to do so. Not to do so in such exceptional cases would be unethical on egoism.

“So what?,” one might say. Every ethical system has extreme cases where it is difficult to say what the right thing to do is, or where principles seem to conflict with each other. For example, there is the old problem about too many people on a life raft. The problem with Smith’s theory–and with Objectivism in general–is that it is not just extreme cases that one has to worry about. If one can “greatly further” one’s longevity by embezzling money, and the odds that one will be caught are minimal, wouldn’t it be the moral thing to do to go ahead and embezzle? To avoid this, Smith needs to show that it is always in one’s best interest to not to do so, not merely that there is always a cost to doing so. I believe that this is an impossible task. Indeed, while Smith and the Objectivists deny that there are any real conflicts of interests among rational people, to most of the rest of us they seem to be a common occurrence. The burden of proof here is on Smith; she must show that it is never the prudent thing to do to act in a manner most would call immoral. This, I believe, cannot be done.

In essence, Smith reduces ethics to prudence. While prudence is an important virtue, it cannot carry the whole load itself. For one thing, as I argued above, prudence may tell you how to best achieve your goals; but it cannot tell you what goals you ought to have. In theory, then, being a cannibal or a hit man are just as worthy goals as Smith’s goal of “flourishing longevity.”

I will make one final criticism. There are many critiques of Objectivism in print.[14] For example, Charles King[15] and John Robbins[16] both make extended critiques of Objectivist meta-ethics. Yet Smith ignores them. It is not good scholarly practice to simply ignore criticisms of one’s position. Smith’s book would have been better if she had interacted with the critics of Objectivism.

In conclusion, Viable Values is a good introduction to Objectivist meta-ethics, probably the best in print. It also makes concise and valuable critiques against several popular meta-ethical theories. However, I think that Smith completely fails to make the case for Objectivism. The Objectivists still have not made their case.



[1] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobs-Merrill, 1993 [1943]). By the way, Ayn rhymes with pine; it is not pronounced Ann.

[2] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Dutton, 1992, [1957]).

[3] Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), 206-349.

[4] For example, David Kelley has written two books on aspects of Objectivist Ethics, Unrugged Individualism (Poughkeepsie, New York: Institute for Objectivist Studies, 1996), and A Life of One’s Own (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1998). For presentations of Objectivist meta-ethics by philosophers who are sympathetic to Rand, see Tibor R. Machan, Ayn Rand (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 57-101, and Allan Gotthelf, On Ayn Rand (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 79-93. Rand’s own classic statement of her meta-ethics is “The Objectivist Ethics,” in Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1962), 13-35.

[5] Tara Smith, Viable Values (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 20.

[6] Ibid, 28.

[7] Ibid, 38.

[8] Ibid, 61.

[9] Ibid, 83.

[10] Ibid, 186.

[11] Ibid, 2.

[12] Ibid, 95.

[13] Ibid, 125.

[14] A variety of books from different viewpoints include critical discussions of Rand and Objectivism, such as: O’Neill, William F., With Charity Toward None: An Analysis of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1971; Robbins, John W. Answer to Ayn Rand: A Critique of the Philosophy of Objectivism. Mount Vernon Publishing Co., 1974 and Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System. The Trinity Foundation, 1997; Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Rasmussen, Douglas B., eds. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. University of Illinois Press, 1984; Yang, Michael B., Reconsidering Ayn Rand. Winepress Publishing, 2000; Erickson, Peter, The Stance of Atlas: An Examination of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand; Herakles Press, 1997; Nyquist, Greg S. Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Writers Club Press, 2001; Ryan, Scott, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality. Writers Club Press, 2003. For a more personal attack on Rand and her followers, see Walker, Jeff, The Ayn Rand Cult. Open Court, 1999. Of course, some of these works were published after Smith’s book, so she can hardly be blamed for not responding to them. Other of the books, however, were available to her.

[15] J. Charles King, “Life and the Theory of Value: The Randian Argument Reconsidered,” in Den Uyl and Rasmussen, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, 102-121.

[16] John W. Robbins, Without a Prayer, 144-179.

This review is a condensed version of a paper I published, “A Critique of Objectivist Meta-Ethics,” in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 2003, 305-320.

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