Again I say the good is that which preserves or expands the meaningful life of a rational being. As to the character of a person, that person we would say is good whose true values are good. Is it possible to have evil values within a personality and, therefore, end up with an evil personality or soul? Oh, yes indeed! However, evil is the lack or contradiction of the good. Therefore, to identify evil, we must first identify the good in detail. This is crucial to morality because it gives positive guidance, as opposed to listing a series of things that are prohibited or to avoid. Guidance uses our own consciousness to address the indefinitely large array of choices in our lives. A list does not.
In consideration of what I have written before, let us expand our understanding of the good as found in a personality on the basis of rational meaning. To be a good person, that person must engage in a continuous process of defining/discovering, selecting, and additional actions to gain or keep meaningful values. That process or processes comprise what is virtue. This is a dynamic process that must proceed as long as we live. There is never a point where we have been being good enough so that we can suspend pursuing meaningful values or engage in the destruction of meaningful value.
So long as we have breath, we are good if we strive to pursue the meaningful values in our given context. This is true not only on our death-bed, but also whenever we find it necessary to repent from our past evil. We may act to be good, even if our resources are few and, furthermore, even a monster can mitigate his or her past evils by consciously choosing meaningful values. Repentance may not balance the moral scale, but it might still reduce evil and, in this capacity, we can say that the person is acting for the good.
Rand said that the precondition of a value is the existence of the actor, which is to say a living person. Therefore, the pursuit of meaningful values requires that the actor be able to act, even if it is quite temporary. We would conclude that any attempt to define morality without consideration of the actor is a metaphysical contradiction in terms. Thus any would-be moral code which defined its purpose as self-denial as the ultimate principle, is just so much gibberish. There is quite an array of such nonsense to be found all over the world and throughout history. Why this is so, I will address later.
The first part of virtue is the discovery and/or definition of a value or values. Some of our concrete values we share with other living things, such as food, water, and so forth. For the most part, this is a process of discovery or identification of values based in the biochemical reality. Now our abilities go beyond a simple perceptual awareness of concrete values, even in regard to those concrete values. Animals are pretty much limited to perception. However, human beings via concepts can, say, plant food, build dams for water, and perform other actions based on our conceptual power to envision the possible futures, such that we can choose to gain infinitely more of those material values than any animal can grasp.
While many values can be discovered as ones already present in nature in some form or potential, by far the overwhelming majority of our values, especially in modern times, are those which must be first DEFINED by us. Unlike natural values, these man-made values are primarily CONCEPTUAL rather than concrete as such. As man emerged from the mammalian perceptual consciousness, his concepts evolved into language and simple tools, furnishings, and clothing.
While animals might have certain fixed signs of communication, man gained the power to extensively describe with words various cognitive realities or impressions, including both physical situations and emotional ones. Furthermore, practices of culture were generated that vastly expanded language and knowledge generally. While an animal might use a stone or stick to get something or use as a weapon in a specific situation, man went on to the conceptual to pass tool-making from one person to another, and build new tools on the base of old ones.
The expansive nature of language and toolmaking are conceptually based and have no real parallel in other species. These items reflect the existence of a conceptual consciousness, or reason. By innumerable steps of conceptual creation over many thousands of years, we see the eventual development of philosophy, airplanes, music, particle accelerators, literature, medical regimens, Roberts’ Rules of Order, agriculture, and much more. None of this is possible to a perceptual consciousness, but is only possible to reason.
Given the myriad array of choices and values in our current conceptual culture, it seems obvious that not only is reason our primary tool of survival, as such it is our primary means to cognize values and be moral. This is why I emphasize the Rational part of Rational Meaning. Without a basic understanding of the crucial role of reason in morality, discussion of values becomes incoherent. Indeed, a failure to use reason correctly, generating logical errors, is the root-cause of most of mankind’s misery today. Let us find out how this is true.
In social terms, we know that logical errors can bring about tragedy in such events as criminal trials. Our legal system attempts to minimize such errors. Logical errors can also be quite devastating in politics. However, most fundamentally, within our own minds logical errors have very negative value and emotional consequences. What is not understood is that most emotions are directly influenced by our judgments. Here is an example of how this is so, taken from one of the writings of Nataniel Brandon, one-time associate of Rand. This is my paraphrasing and modifications:
Imagine a room where a father and his very little child are sitting. Suppose three men enter quietly, dressed in black and carrying weapons. The little child may not be particularly moved, while the father becomes scared to death. Why is this so? Because the father’s judgment is that danger is perceived and it causes fear, while the child, having no such judgment, remains serene.
Now imagine the same father and child sitting with some balloons. Suppose one of the balloons burst close to the child and father. The child, perceiving an abrupt bang, is frightened. The father knowing the balloon to be harmless is not really upset.
We can see that in some cases judgment, good or bad, affects one’s emotions. But we now have a body of scientific evidence of this fact by the growing school of Cognitive Psychotherapy, which seems to verify that nearly all negative emotions not explained by actual realities (such as the loss of a loved one) are in fact due to logical errors in a patient’s mind. Cognitive Psychotherapy was launched with the publication of “Cognitive Therapy And The Emotional Disorders” by Aaron T. Beck, M.D. in September of 1975. Here is a link:
This started the entire school of psychotherapy which now boast at least hundreds of books and scientific studies that validate the data and includes the experiences of thousands of practitioners as effective therapy for many, many people.
It has been found that the great majority of emotions not consistent with clear causal value factors are in fact due to logical errors. This evidence leads to both psychological insights, but also philosophical insights. The implications are that there is no viable conflict of thought versus emotions, since emotions are actually reactions to earlier thoughts or judgments. The idea that we can follow emotions as such to address value issues is akin to a dog chasing his tail. This is circular, to say the least.
The only resolution to inner conflicts is, then, to investigate the facts as we see them at present, as well as the roots behind our emotions. Most of the time, we are likely to realize a conflicting emotion is due to past error. I should also note that sometimes what is behind a given emotion may be rooted in reality while our current perception is in error. Sometimes people will even call this situation some mystic “intuition” but that itself be an error. No, there is nothing mystical about this. The true resolution is to look at the facts logically, that is to say, rationally.
Thus, we conclude that reason must be our guide in ethics or morality, knowing that emotions are reactions, not a guide or proof. To be moral, we must be on guard against irrational errors.
Reason is certainly in play when discovering or defining values. It also plays a role in choosing or prioritizing values. It does so as a complex computation of the worth of each value and value-chain. Since all values are related to other values in a value system or morality, one change or one addition of a factor can cause a radical re-ordering of the structure. It is, in effect, mathematically CHAOTIC, where a small change can make for very large differences. Such changed factors or new information might very well come from the sheer act of reconsideration of a value structure, which is starkly different from animal value-systems.
A animal might have some pre-programmed values such as we see with mating behavior. We might also see mammalian stimulus-response patterns, and all such actions are fairly predictable or “deterministic.” This is why in history some regarded animals as a sort of “machine.” With reason, at any moment human being can radically revise their entire value system due to reconsideration or simply new information. Again, it is CHAOTIC mathematically and cannot be predicted or “determined.” This is the very essence of free will.
I would like to add that the old concern of free will versus determination would imply that we somehow could not be morally responsible for our choices due to predetermination or that we could not somehow express our true nature due to determination, when the fact is, that what we do is because of who we are and the meaning of our values. Again free will is supreme.
I will continue this discussion in my next post on “The Good And Meaning.”