The Objectivist Ethics — Ayn Rand (search link)
Value, a Product of Life
The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.For a moral system named 'Objectivism,' I find it interesting how she starts by writing off the notion of just-out-there-in-the-world value. She is limiting 'value' to what is often called instrumental value, and only for goals acted on by living beings (as opposed to potential instrumental value).
Why the focus on living beings? Because, supposedly, living beings are the only entities which exist under threat of non-existence:
Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death.She doesn't only mean life capable of intentional action, or even conscious life, but 'all living organisms, from the simple to the most complex' which includes 'the single cell of an amoeba.' Unless she thinks amoebas have minds, however, I don't see how she can claim her fundamental distinction is 'objective' rather than an arbitrary metaphysical view. Why is an amoeba under the threat of non-existence but a star is not? Why do the active processes of an amoeba count but those of a star do not?
Life, the Goal of Life
On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms [...] are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life[....] It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action.This boils down to the claim that there is only one fundamental kind of goal in the universe: every living being's goal of remaining alive. All other goals are ancillary to that. And since value can only exist with reference to a goal, the only things of value to a living being are those which extend its life.
An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.So there you have it. Objectivist metaethics hold that moral terms only properly refer to what helps or hinders a living being's own continued state of being alive.
How 'objective' vs. 'subjective' is this? These are fuzzy terms, but I will say Objectivism is objective in the sense of being attitude-independent and in the sense of there being a fact of the matter whether something will extend a given living being's life. Objectivism is subjective in the sense that which things are valuable, good, or evil are entirely relative to each individual living being and in the sense that Rand's way of distinguishing life from non-life is idiosyncratic and arbitrary.
Next time, I'll look at how Objectivist ethics are applied to human action in particular.