Ethics and Morality

I will now begin to set the framework for us by outlining some basic ideas from Ayn Rand on ethics and morality.  A good deal of Rand’s thinking that I directly incorporate into my own is in the form of her definitions and other basic distinctions.  Accordingly, I start with definitions as found in her excellent collection of essays called “The Virtue Of Selfishness,”  which can be found as a Signet paperback in just about all major book outlets.

I enthusiastically endorse this book for anyone interested in serious ethics or morality. Rand set the context of ethics like no other writer ever has.  I would not expect the reader to go along with every single word, but even one should only agree with a tiny fraction of what she writes about, that fraction is likely to be of more ethical import than all other writers one has encountered, combined.

The book’s central essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” explores the fundamentals of her thinking.  While other books of hers also make ethical points, especially her novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” her essay here puts it together and makes new points.  I should note that this paperback collection also includes eighteen other related, worthwhile short essays taken from “The Objectivist Newsletter” which was her publication on philosophic issues at the time.

What I write assumes much of what Rand wrote, but I urge the reader to read her works for himself, as my interpretation may not be how the reader interprets her thought and, with a topic this broad, that would be no small thing.

Rand defines morality and ethics on the first page of her essay:

 What is morality, or ethics? 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.

Let us amplify on this.  What is a code?  A code is a constructed system of concepts about a given area of thought or actions which allows, or should allow, for all possibilities within that area.  Rand has her own justification of the needs for ethics and morality elaborated in the essay.  As for me, I would just like to observe that we are all finite beings with virtually an infinite range of possible actions open to us.  We cannot do everything and some things we must do to simply stay alive, not ot mention a whole slew of things that make our lives worthwhile.  Without some system to condense the considerations of choice in actions and prioritize such actions, we would be simply paralyzed or, possibly, reduced to animal urges for determining what we do, thereby making our lives nasty, brutish, and short.

The definitions of her ethics and morality depend on her definition of the term “value,” which is a central concept for us in ethics, which Rand defines three pages later:

“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.

This is a deceptively simple definition, but I really have found no other writer that even tries to define “value.”  It becomes a building-block for all other discussion of ethics. The term not only helps us understand what ethics and morality is about, but this definition also serves as a razor-sharp tool for analysis of many human phenomena, both philosophically and psychologically.  It can highlight many previously unclear relationships and dissect many fallacies.  It is a major tool I use in my thinking.

She adds this about value, which I think requires additional discussion on its own:

The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?  [Emphasis in original]

The definition of the term “primary” and its context must be addressed in regard to ethics generally, which I will do later with additional tools.

Rand defines the term “good” in her philosophy, which she named “Objectivism,” further on:

Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

I think that these ideas of good and evil are fairly well supported by Rand’s essay.  The essay is largely a discussion of how her basic concepts, in the context of man’s life, imply these definitions of good and evil.  There is much more in the essay and I will return to this essay a number of times as I develop my thinking and writing, as well as introduce new tools and concepts for ethical development.  For now let us just note that, aside from the much greater context she gives to support her definition of value, she largely sets up what seems to me as a sort of natural science context for ethics.

Rand is properly critical of hedonism, Nietzschean “selfishness,” as well as god-based or society-based ethics.  We will address those same concerns later, after more development in my presentation.  She also addresses some virtues that, again, we will re-visit later.

I will also, over time, address many fields which might seem far afield from ethics, but which inexorably flow from implications that we discover, including issues within the fields of politics, psychology, and esthetics.

In my next post, I will turn to Viktor Frankl.

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One Response to Ethics and Morality

  1. Rog says:

    “The term (value) not only helps us understand what ethics and morality is about, but this definition also serves as a razor-sharp tool for analysis of many human phenomena, both philosophically and psychologically. It can highlight many previously unclear relationships and dissect many fallacies.”

    This I believe is the issue at hand. If you can flesh out much of what is involved in this quote of yours, I believe it will be of huge benefit in illuminating much of Rands’ basic ideas and your own interpretation of those ideas, not to mention your own ideas.

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