Problems with Ayn Rand’s Derivation of Ought from Is

One of the features of Ayn Rand’s writing that first interested me was its claim to overcome David Hume’s argument that one cannot deduce ought from is, to reach normative conclusions based only on the objective facts of reality. Looking over her argument as presented in John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged, I found it rhetorically impressive but logically mistaken. To show why, I will go through the argument step by step.

1. Existence as the value sought by living things:

“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. … But a plant has no choice of action; … : it acts automatically to further its life, it cannot act for its own destruction.

An animal … . But so long as it lives, … it is unable to ignore its own good, unable to decide to choose the evil and act as its own destroyer.”

The claim here is that living things other than human beings automatically act for their own survival. That claim is false. A male mantis, for example, mates, even though the final step of the process may consist of being eaten by the female. Female mammals get pregnant even though doing so substantially reduces their chances of survival. If one is going to ascribe values to non-human living things, the purpose of those values, on both empirical and theoretical grounds, is not survival but reproductive success.

Of course, survival is usually a means to reproductive success, so most living things most of the time are trying to survive. But a living being that put survival above everything else would not reproduce, so its descendants would not be around for Rand to use as evidence in deriving oughts.

Some philosophies might dismiss the facts of evolutionary biology as irrelevant to metaphysical argument. But Objectivism claims to base its conclusions on the facts of reality, and the purported fact with which Rand starts her argument is false.

2. Life or death as the fundamental value choice:

“Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death.”

Consider someone following a value other than Rand’s—a utilitarian, say, or a nationalist. His life is not the motive and goal of his actions, but it is usually a means to the achievement of his goal. If he is not alive he can neither have utility himself nor act to increase the utility of others, and similarly if his goal is the triumph of his nation. So such people usually take the actions required by their own survival. But their life is not their goal, as becomes apparent when they have an opportunity to achieve their goal at the cost of their life—assassinate Hitler, say, with the knowledge that they will die in the process.

It is not true that there is a specific course of action required for life and any other course will destroy it. There are a great many different courses of action which preserve life with varying degrees of success. Rand’s statement, taken literally, is contradicted by the facts of reality. If such people were acting on the motive and standard of death they would commit suicide at the first convenient opportunity and there would be nobody but Objectivists left. That has not happened.

A more charitable interpretation is that Rand means that if you do not take your life as your goal, you are choosing a little death—a slightly higher probability of death, a somewhat shorter life expectancy. That is a true statement, but the equivalent is equally true for any value one might propose. The utilitarian could argue that a non-utilitarian, by not acting in the way that maximizes human happiness, is choosing a little misery. A utilitarian Galt could go on to assert that “A being who does not hold the happiness of all men as the motive and goal of his actions is acting on the motive and standard of human misery.” His argument would be as good, which is to say as bad, as Rand’s.

3. The shift from life to life as man qua man:

“Man’s life is the standard of morality, but your life is its purpose. If existence on earth is your goal, you must choose your actions and values by the standard of that which is proper to man—for the purpose of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life.”

(this passage actually precedes the one I quoted for point 2)

This seems fairly clear. My life is the purpose of my morality, so the reason that I must choose a certain sort of morality is that that sort of morality is the best way of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying my life. The puzzle is where “fulfilling and enjoying” come from, given that the argument hinges on the choice of existence or non-existence. By the logic so far, “fulfilling and enjoying” belong in the argument only as means to the goal of preserving. If I can show that your physical survival is enhanced by an act that makes your life less fulfilling and less enjoyable then, according to the argument up to this point, you should do it. A means cannot trump the end it is a means to.

“No, you do not have to live as a man … . But you cannot live as anything else—and the alternative is … the state of a thing unfit for existence, no longer human and less than animal, a thing that knows nothing but pain and drags itself through its span of years in the agony of unthinking self-destruction.”

At this point, Rand is using passionate oratory to obscure a shift in the argument. She is claiming that someone who lives a full lifespan “in the agony of unthinking self-destruction” is not really acting for his life. But the fact that he lives a full span of life is evidence that he is not in fact destroying himself. Somehow, something extra has been slipped into the argument to convert “life” into “the kind of life Rand thinks you should live,” where the latter is not deducible from the former.

4. The shift from surviving by reason to Objectivist ethics:

“Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, become the enemies you have to dread and flee … .”

According to Rand, values are things you act to get and keep; in that sense cash obtained by fraud is obviously a value for some people. If we interpret “value” in this passage as meaning “value for your life,” hence “value of the sort Rand is arguing you should seek,” it is still puzzling. Money obtained by fraud will pay for just as much food or medical service as money obtained honestly.

The rest of the quoted passage is a highly colored exposition of a true point—that if you defraud people, you have to worry about being detected. The problem is that Rand is drawing an absolute conclusion that her argument does not justify. Different opportunities to defraud people have different risks of detection; victims vary in their ability to retaliate against fraud if they detect it. The implication of the argument is not that one should always be honest but that one should be prudent in one’s dishonesty, which is not, of course, the result Rand wants.

“To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death … .

“To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun … is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.”

Using force against someone reduces his ability to use his reason to preserve his life. Reality implies that the victim is less likely to have a long and healthy life. But the coercer is not trying to defy that reality. His objective is not his victim’s life but his own.

I have pointed out what appear to me to be gaping holes in the chain of reasoning by which Rand starts with the facts of reality and ends with a specific set of ethical prescriptions banning force or fraud. Over many years of argument, I have not yet found anyone able to fill them in. My conclusion is that it cannot be done.

For the nearest approximation I can offer, an argument that explains moral behavior but does not, philosophically speaking, justify it, see the next chapter. For my best attempt to justify my moral beliefs, see the chapter after that.