Friday, May 15, 2009

"Atlas Shrugged", "The Objectivist Ethics", And Exalted Moments

The sales rate of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is triple the rate of 2008. Given the attention of the novel, it is important to understand Miss Rand's point in writing it. Many think it was "prophecy". Many think it was to organize a strike ("Going Galt").

Many would be surprised to hear Miss Rand's answer: "Exalted moments."

In a letter to a fan, she said of "Atlas Shrugged" and exalted moments:

You ask me about the meaning of the dialogue on page 702 of Atlas Shrugged:

"'We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?" she whispered. "'No, we never had to.'"

Let me begin by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book, because it is the condensed emotional summation, the keynote or leitmotif, of the view of life presented in Atlas Shrugged.

What Dagny expresses here is the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man's existence on earth, are the meaning of life—not the pain or ugliness he may encounter—that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering—that happiness matters, but suffering does not—that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life—that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain.

So how does one "live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience"? An excellent place to start is with Miss Rand's essay "The Objectivist Ethics" which was published in her book "The Virtue of Selfishness", and is now available at the Ayn Rand Institute web site.

The purpose here is not to summarize Miss Rand's ethical system. You can read her words. Instead I will focus on the structure, explicitness, and completeness of her stunning contribution to the field of ethics -- while providing a few examples. And then, I will tie it back to "exalted moments".

Her essay opens with her explicit and novel definition of morality and 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.

Is it not wonderful to have a writer explicitly define her terms?

She then takes a logical step-by-step building of the case for her ethical system. One could imagine Miss Rand, at her desk, questioning each of her own statements until she came up with a consistent, complete, and objective structure. She was not content with providing a list of commandments to be obeyed under some threat. She was not content with presenting a set of concocted whims. She instead asked "Why?" And in particular, she asked "Why?" in the context of human life.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?

Her starting point is not "Thou shalt or shalt not". Nor is it, "You must value this and that". The starting point is "Should I value -- and why?"

She strips her answer away from "personal emotions, social edicts and mystic revelations". Instead, she again lays down her terms by providing a definition of "values". And she provides the necessity of values to living things. She builds the case that life, your life, is the ultimate value.

Miss Rand's case for her ethics is built in the classic structure of philosophy as set forth by Plato - metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. This is not solely an essay on ethics. "The Objectivist Ethics" is a shining example of how to write by creating a structure where each statement is logically based upon the previous -- with no unconnected assertions.

With regard to epistemology, Miss Rand makes clear the fundamental differences between plants and animals. And then, she provides the fundamental distinctions among various types of animals and how they obtain their knowledge. Most importantly, she explains how human beings are different from all other animals in how they gain their knowledge.

Man, the highest living species on this earth- the being whose consciousness has a limitless capacity for gaining knowledge—man is the only living entity born without any guarantee of remaining conscious at all. Man’s particular distinction from all other living species is the fact that his consciousness is volitional.

She provides definitions for "reason" and "consciousness". She explains why human beings must have goals.

Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.

With regard to ethics, she builds her system not out of arbitrary mystical assertions, social conventions, or upon whim. Her system is based upon her view of a human being and what is required for a human's ultimate value -- life. Her ethics are built upon human epistemology -- the basis of man's maintenance of life.

The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.

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.

Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.

Miss Rand then provides an explicit and structured presentation of the values and virtues of the Objectivist ethics. Again, these are left to the reader to investigate at the above link. The bottom line of the Objectivist ethics is that they are not built on the premise upon the mystic's arbitrary claim of a duty to the service of God and of everlasting life. They are not built upon the skeptic's claim of human failing and of duty to others. They are not based upon personal whim.

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—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.

Having completed her foundation of epistemology (how do I as a human gain knowledge) and ethics (how do I choose and act as a human), Miss Rand then follows with man in the social context. She provides the values that an individual gains from living with others -- and what are the proper and improper means of dealing with another. This then naturally flows explicitly into her thoughts on politics.

Note that many readers of "Atlas Shrugged" focus upon Miss Rand's politics -- either praising or damning them. To both I say, "Please shift your focus". Miss Rand was not primarily a political analyst, nor a prophet, nor a strike organizer. She was a philosopher-novelist with an integrated system of thought -- of which politics was a consequence of her foundation of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. As Miss Rand was fond of saying, "Check your premises". Her premises did not begin with politics.

Miss Rand's "The Objectivist Ethics" provides us with a complete view of how and why a human gains knowledge, how (and why) he or she should act on that knowledge, and how we should act with others (and why). She not only identifies "why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell", she provides the antidote. It is yours for the taking -- not to save the world, but rather for your ultimate value -- your life. "The Objectivist Ethics" is a remarkable essay -- for its content, explicitness, structure, and completeness.

And this brings us back full circle -- to exalted moments. When she wrote of exalted moments, she stated "that happiness matters". "The Objectivist Ethics" addresses this in more detail:

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.

May you live for the sake of exalted moments!

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