This article is from TOS Vol. 4, No. 3. The full contents of the issue are listed here.
How Morality is Grounded in Reality
In chapter 2, we encountered the problem known as the “is–ought” dichotomy, the notion that moral principles (principles regarding what people “ought” to do) cannot be derived from the facts of reality (from what “is”). We also saw that this problem persists for lack of an observation-based, objective standard of value. Here we turn to the solution to that problem. First, we will discover just such a standard; then, we will discover a number of objective moral principles—principles in accordance with that standard.
To begin, note that the basic fact that makes morality such a difficult subject is the very fact that makes it a subject in the first place: free will. As human beings we have the faculty of volition, the power of choice; we choose our actions. This fact gives rise to our need of morality. Indeed, the realm of morality is the realm of choice. What makes the issue complicated is the fact that our choices are guided by our values—which are also chosen. This is why it is so difficult to get to the bottom of morality: Human values are chosen—every last one of them. Consequently, peoples’ values seem to differ in every imaginable way.
Some people choose to play soccer; they value footwork, teamwork, and winning. Some choose to dance ballet; they value grace, poise, and flight. And some choose to attend church; they value sermons, faith, and prayer. A person who goes hiking values the scenery and exercise. One who goes fishing values the nibble and catch. And one who takes heroin values the so-called “high.” A person who steals jewelry values “free stuff.” One who makes jewelry values craftsmanship. A sculptor values the process of creating art. A software developer values that creative process. A student who cheats on a test values “getting away” with it. One who studies for the test values the knowledge he gains thereby. A doctor specializing in internal medicine values the process of curing disease. A terrorist specializing in biological warfare values the process of spreading disease. A man who treats his wife with respect values certain qualities in her. One who abuses his wife values having power over her. A General who fights for mandatory “volunteerism” values involuntary servitude. One who fights to defend individual rights values freedom. And so on. Different people act in different ways; they value different things.
So the question is: How do we know if our choice of values is good or bad, right or wrong? What is our standard of value?
As we have already seen, if we do not consciously hold something as our standard of value, then we have nothing by reference to which we can determine what goals we should or should not pursue—how we should or should not act. And if we do not hold something rationally provable as our standard of value, then we default to some form of subjectivism—personal, social, or “supernatural”—which can lead only to human sacrifice, suffering, and death. If we want to live and achieve happiness, we need a non-sacrificial standard of value that is grounded in perceptual evidence—facts we can see.
In search of such a standard, the proper approach is to turn not to personal opinion or social convention or “super-nature,” but to actual nature and ask, as the American philosopher Ayn Rand did: “What are values? Why does man need them?” . . .