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Secular, Objective Morality: Look and See

Giuseppe Bertini, Galileo Galilei Showing the Doge of Venice How to Use the Telescope

“Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is . . . the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know.” —Ayn Rand

You’ve heard it countless times and in various forms: “If there is no God, there is no objective morality”—“If there is no God, anything goes”—“If there is no God, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have no objective meaning”—and so on.

But that notion is demonstrably false and morally disastrous.

Objective morality does not depend on the existence of “God.” And that’s a good thing, too. Among other reasons: (a) There is no evidence for the existence of God, which is why no one has ever provided such evidence. And (b) according to the scriptures of each of the three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—God commands murder, commits mass murder, condones slavery, authorizes rape, and sanctions other atrocities.1

Further, morality based on commandments is not objective but subjective; it is based on assertions issued by the alleged ruling consciousness; thus, whatever that consciousness commands—whether to love your neighbor or to beat your wife or to murder unbelievers—is “moral” simply because he said so. That is the very essence of subjectivity.

Objective morality comes not from revelation, faith, or divine commandments—but from observation, logic, and the laws of nature.

Morality (or ethics) is a code of values intended to guide people’s choices and actions.2 This is true of all moralities, whether religious or secular. As to which morality is objectively correct, that depends on which one corresponds to the facts that give rise to the need of morality.

Either we need morality, or we don’t. If we don’t need it, then we don’t need it, and there is no point in pursuing the subject at all.3 If, on the other hand, we do need morality, then identifying the reason why we need it will help us to understand which values are objectively correct and which are not.

Because morality is a code of values, in order to understand why people need it we must first understand what values are and why people need them. This is why the philosopher Ayn Rand began her inquiry into morality with the questions: What are values? And why do people need them?4 We’ll follow Rand’s approach and take these questions in turn.

What are values? Looking at reality, we can see that values are the things one acts to gain or keep.5 For instance, you act to gain or keep money; you value money. Students act to gain or keep good grades; they value good grades. Churchgoers act to gain or keep a relationship with “God”; they value that relationship. People act to develop or sustain fulfilling careers, to establish or maintain romantic relationships, to gain or keep freedom, and so on.

The key concept here is: act. Values are objects of actions. If someone doesn’t act to achieve good grades, or to develop a fulfilling career, or to establish a relationship with God, then he doesn’t value the thing in question. He might want the thing. He might dream about it. He might tell himself or others that he values it. He might feel that he should value it. But if he takes no action to gain or keep the thing, he doesn’t truly value it. This is why, if a child leaves his bicycle out in the elements to rust, his parents properly say that he doesn’t value the bicycle. A value is that which one acts to gain or keep.

Broadening our view, we can see that values pertain not only to people, but to all living things—and only to living things. Trees, tigers, and people take actions toward goals. Rocks, rivers, and hammers do not. Trees, for example, extend their roots into the ground and their branches and leaves toward the sky; they value minerals, water, and sunlight. Tigers hunt antelope and nap under trees; they value meat and shade. And people act to gain their values, such as food, education, and friendship. This pattern continues throughout the plant and animal kingdom: All living things take self-generated, goal-directed action.

Non-living things, on the other hand, take no such action. They can be moved, but they cannot act in the self-generated, goal-directed way that living things do. A rock remains still unless some outside force, such as a wave or a hammer, hits and moves it. A river flows, but its motion is not self-generated; water moves only by means of some outside force—in this case, the gravitational pull of the earth. And a hammer does not, by itself, smash rocks or drive nails; it does not generate its own action. Even a robot programmed to engage in some purposeful activity, such as vacuuming a carpet, does not take self-generated, goal-directed action. Rather, a robot acts only as it mechanically must, given that someone built and programmed it to act that way. In this case, the self-generated, goal-directed action is that of the programmer or the person using the robot.

Living things are unique in this respect: Only they take self-generated, goal-directed action. Only living things pursue values.

Why? Why do living things pursue values? What are values for?

At this point we can see, as Ayn Rand observed, that “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.”6

A tree faces the alternative of reaching water and sunlight—or not. A tiger faces the alternative of catching and keeping its prey—or not. And a person faces the alternative of achieving his goals—or not. To whom does the alternative matter? It matters to the organism taking the action. The objects a living thing acts to gain or keep are its values—values to it.

That answers the question: “to whom?” The question “for what?” remains.

What difference does it make whether an organism achieves its goals? What happens if it succeeds? What happens if it fails? What ultimately is at stake?

This question takes us to the very foundation of values, where we can see how rational morality is grounded in perceptual reality. As Rand observed, and as we can too:

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. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value” possible.7

The reason why living things need values is: to live. The answer to the question “for what?” is: for life.

Life is conditional: If a living thing takes the actions and achieves the values necessary to remain alive, it remains alive. If, for some reason, it fails to take those actions or fails to achieve those values, it dies. And human beings are no exception to this principle. We need values for the same reason plants and other animals do: in order to sustain and further our life.

An organism’s life is its ultimate value—the ultimate goal or end toward which its actions are the means. Consequently, an organism’s life is its standard of value—the standard by reference to which all of its other values and actions can be objectively evaluated.8

Each form of life has its own specific needs as determined by its nature. And the requirements of a given organism’s life constitute its standard of value. Nutrients, sunlight, and water are good for a tree—why? Because they serve its life. Meat, shade, and water are good for a tiger—why? Because they serve its life. And so on. For any given organism, the good is that which sustains or furthers its life, and the bad is that which harms or destroys it.9

Now, as human beings, we have free will, the ability to choose our values and actions, and this aspect of our nature adds a layer of complexity to the issue.

The ability to choose is what gives rise to the field of morality: Morality is the realm of chosen values. If we couldn’t choose our values and actions, there would be no point in a science (or even conventions) dedicated to telling us which actions we should and shouldn’t choose.10

Whereas other animals act automatically or instinctively to further their lives, people do not. A person can choose to act in ways that are contrary to the requirements of his life—as some people tragically do. For instance, a person can choose to consume harmful quantities of alcohol, opiates, or other drugs. Or a person can choose to do nothing but sit around and be unproductive, even though doing so will not advance or support his life. A person can even choose to commit suicide. Free will makes life-harming or even life-destroying action possible. Further, free will makes possible the choice to adopt a morality that is contrary to the requirements of human life, a morality that calls for people to sacrifice their life-serving values for the sake of “God” or others—as the morality of altruism does.11

So free will adds significant complexity to the question of values. But this complexity is substantially simplified by reference to a crucial observable fact: People don’t need to take anti-life actions; nothing in nature necessitates or warrants such actions; there is no reason to act self-sacrificially.12

The fact that people can choose a course of action or even a code of values that is contrary to the requirements of their life does not change anything about the objective standard of value. Whatever anyone’s choice, these facts remain: The only reason we can pursue values is because we are alive, and the only reason we need to pursue values is in order to live.

This observation-based, two-pronged principle is the key to grounding morality in reality, so it is worth emphasizing: Only life makes values possible (non-living things cannot pursue values), and only life makes values necessary (only living things need to pursue values). Put another way: You have to be alive in order to pursue values, and you have to pursue values in order to stay alive.

In accordance with this observation-based principle, the choices and actions that promote one’s life are objectively good, and those that harm or destroy one’s life are objectively bad.13

Observe, in this connection, that people generally regard matters of life and death as the most important matters of all. It is no coincidence that this commonsense idea corresponds to the very foundation of objective morality. The alternative of life or death—existence or non-existence—is the fundamental alternative that makes possible all other alternatives that matter. It is the basic alternative that gives rise to the possibility and need of values—and thus to the need of ideas such as good and bad, right and wrong, matters and doesn’t matter. If it weren’t for life and the goal of sustaining it, nothing would or could matter at all.

Ayn Rand’s seminal discovery here is that life is the standard of value because life is the very reason why values exist. And human life—life in accordance with our nature as human beings—is the standard of moral value: the standard by reference to which we can determine which choices and actions are good or bad, right or wrong for human beings. As Rand put it, this observation-based standard encompasses “the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.”14

As Rand specifies, the standard here pertains to the survival requirements of a rational being because that is what man is: a being who possesses—and survives by means of—the faculty of reason. That we possess the faculty of reason does not mean that we always or inevitably use that faculty. (Clearly, many people do not use reason regularly or even frequently.) Rather, it means that we can use reason if and when we choose to use it—and that using it is our basic means of living.15 This makes our choice to use reason our basic life-serving virtue.

Using reason—observing reality, applying logic, identifying causal connections, and acting in accordance with the full context of one’s knowledge—is objectively moral because doing so is essential to understanding reality and thus to living and prospering in reality. By contrast, refusing to use reason—turning away from facts, rejecting logic, pretending that causal connections are not real, and acting in disregard of what one knows to be true—is objectively immoral because doing so contradicts the requirements of human life.

We can see the consequences of rationality versus irrationality on every level of human life, from personal to social to political. Compare the life of Jeff Bezos to that of Bernie Madoff, or the culture of New Zealand to that of Saudi Arabia, or the political system of South Korea to that of North Korea. All else being equal, to the extent that individuals or societies proceed rationally, they progress, prosper, and flourish. To the extent that they proceed irrationally, they stagnate, suffer, and perish. These are causal relationships. Using reason sustains and advances human life; refusing to use it throttles and destroys human life. Thus, rationality—the commitment to use reason as a matter of principle in all areas of life—is the fundamental objective virtue.16

Likewise, being productive—creating goods or services for consumption or trade—is objectively moral because doing so is essential to human life and prosperity. Refusing to be productive is objectively immoral because it flies in the face of such facts. People who refuse to produce goods or services either die or exist parasitically on those who do produce them. Being productive is essential to human life and prosperity. Thus productiveness—the commitment to being productive as a matter of principle in life—is an objective virtue.17

Similarly, judging people rationally, in accordance with the available and relevant facts, and treating them accordingly, as they deserve to be treated, is objectively moral because doing so is essential to establishing and maintaining life-serving relationships—whether friendships, romantic relationships, business engagements, or political ties. Refusing to judge people rationally is objectively immoral because it is contrary to the requirements of life-serving relationships. People who fail to judge others rationally suffer life-throttling relationships and enable rights-violating political systems. Judging people rationally and treating them accordingly is vital; thus, justice, the commitment to doing so, is an objective virtue.18

The basic political principle supported by objective morality is worth emphasizing: Respecting people’s rights—which means refraining from initiating physical force against people (whether direct force, such as a bullet to the head, or indirect force, such as fraud or extortion)—is objectively moral because people must be free from coercion in order to act in accordance with their own rational judgment and thus to live fully as human beings. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind. Violating people’s rights is objectively immoral—and properly illegal—because it stops people from acting on their judgment: their basic means of living. (For more on this point, see “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society.”)19

The foregoing is merely a brief indication of how an objective standard of moral value along with corresponding moral principles and virtues are derived from and grounded in perceptual reality. But that much is sufficient to show that a secular, objective morality exists.

The controversial nature of this rational approach to morality escalates when we acknowledge the observable fact that human beings are individuals—each with his own body, his own mind, his own life.20 This fact gives rise to the principle that each individual’s own life is his own ultimate value. It means that each individual is morally an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others.21 It means that the individual has neither a moral “duty” to sacrifice himself for the sake of “God” or others (as religion and altruism claim he does)—nor a moral “right” to sacrifice others for his own sake (as thugs and predators pretend they do).

In accordance with secular, observation-based, objective morality, neither self-sacrifice nor the sacrifice of others is moral, because, on principle, human sacrifice as such is immoral.

Human life does not require human sacrifice. It does not require people to give up their values for the sake of “God” or other people or some “greater good.” Nor does it require people to attack others or to steal their belongings or to rape or otherwise assault them. People can live together rationally, civilly, peacefully. They can produce life-serving values and trade them with others by mutual consent and to mutual advantage. They can refuse to sacrifice themselves or others. And, if people commit to acting rationally, in a consistently life-serving manner, they can live and flourish in harmony with each other.

But, given the role of morality in human life—given the fact that the morality people accept as true substantially guides their choices and actions—in order for people to live in a consistently life-serving manner, they must embrace the morality that advocates living this way. They must embrace the secular, observation-based code of values we’ve been discussing: the morality Ayn Rand called “rational self-interest” or “rational egoism.”

Rational egoism is not hedonism or subjectivism or predation. It does not call for acting on one’s feelings, or doing whatever gives one pleasure, or sacrificing other people for one’s alleged benefit. Those are caricatures of self-interest pushed by people who aim to discredit this morality but know that they can’t unless they misrepresent it. Such caricatures are not logical arguments but straw men—and confessions of intellectual impotence, cowardice, or both.

Every thinking adult knows that the mere fact that someone “feels” like taking some action—or that he would get “pleasure” from taking it—or that he would get a “benefit” from taking it—does not mean that the action is in his self-interest. This is why rational parents strive to help their children learn the importance of thinking—observing reality and taking into account the available and relevant facts—before they act.

As rational parents know—and as rational egoism elaborates—there are proper and improper ways to treat one’s feelings, to pursue pleasures, and to seek benefits. It is, of course, vital to acknowledge one’s feelings, but one should always act in accordance with one’s rational judgment—because feelings are not one’s means of knowledge; reason is. It is good to pursue pleasures, but only if the pleasures are in concert with one’s long-term self-interest—as judged by one’s reasoning mind. And it is crucial to pursue benefits that will enhance one’s life—but sacrificing or abusing others does not work toward that end; thinking, producing, trading, and engaging rationally with others does.

Again, the observations and integrations here are just an indication of the secular foundation and principles of objective morality. There is a great deal more to it—including the principle that the meaning of life is a function of one’s chosen, life-serving purposes; the principle that for a virtue to be objective it must account for both the material and spiritual requirements of human life; and the principle that to make one’s life the best it can be one must organize one’s values hierarchically, according to their relative life-serving importance, and pursue them respectively. But the purpose of this short essay is not to examine every aspect of secular, objective morality. Its purpose is simply to show that such a morality exists and makes sense. (For a fleshed-out presentation of the foundations and principles of objective morality, see Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, or my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.)22

People are free to continue claiming, “If there is no God, there is no objective morality.” But they are not free to do so honestly. Ayn Rand’s derivation of morality from reality is too clear and too accessible for anyone interested in this subject responsibly to neglect. If people think her reasoning is in error, they should point out where and how they think she erred. But to ignore the existence of Rand’s ideas while asserting, “If there is no God, anything goes,” is to engage in evasion: the refusal to think, the refusal to see, the refusal to know. Such evasion is akin to the Church’s refusal to acknowledge Galileo’s proof that the Earth orbits the Sun—except that those who evade Rand’s proof have much more knowledge and, consequently, much less excuse.

It is time for everyone who cares about human life, happiness, and freedom to repudiate the nonsense that objective morality depends on God. Objective morality depends on reason—and, if we’re willing to look, we can see that it does.

Related:

Endnotes

1. For example, in the Bible, God deliberately drowns practically everyone on earth (Genesis 6:7); calls for the murder of blasphemers (e.g., Leviticus 24:16), infidels (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:6–9), homosexuals (e.g., Leviticus 20:13), and children who curse or disobey their parents (e.g., Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21); and condones slavery (e.g., Leviticus 25:44, Deuteronomy 15:12) and rape (e.g., Deuteronomy 22:28–29, Numbers 31:15–18). Likewise, in the Koran, God calls for the murder of unbelievers (e.g., 2:191, 9:5) and for making sex slaves of their wives and daughters (e.g., 4:24, 33:50).

2. See Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 13.

3. Recognition of this fact is the death knell of the entire duty-based approach to ethics advocated by Immanuel Kant and his followers. If man needs morality or values, then he must need them for some life-serving purpose. What else could “need” mean? If man doesn’t need values, then there is no point in telling him which values, much less which code of values, he should adopt.

4. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 16.

5. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 16.

6. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 16.

7. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 16.

8. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 17.

9. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 17.

10. Observe, in this connection, that people who use moral terms—such as “good” and “evil,” or “should” and “shouldn’t”—while denying the existence of free will commit the fallacy Ayn Rand called “concept stealing,” which consists in using a concept while ignoring or denying a more fundamental concept or fact on which it logically depends. If people have no choice in their actions, if they are predetermined to act as they do, then moral terms have no referents in reality. What could “ought” mean if a person has no more choice in what he does than he did about whether or not to be born? What could “evil” mean if everything people do is as out of their control as the fact that water is wet? The existence of morality depends on the existence of free will. Thus, to use a concept such as “morality” or “virtue” or “should” or the like while denying the existence of free will is to rip the concept away from its foundation and the context that gives it meaning. For a particularly egregious example of this fallacy, see Sam Harris’s denial of free will in conjunction with his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010). In that book, Harris sets forth his views on how we can know what is moral and immoral and how we should and shouldn’t act. However, he also says that “free will is an illusion” and that “you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world” (104). Well, if people don’t have free will and are not responsible for their thoughts or actions, why write a book about how people should and shouldn’t act? If they have no choice in the matter, they have no choice in the matter.

11. See my essay “The Creed of Sacrifice vs. The Land of Liberty,” The Objective Standard, Fall 2009.

12. See my article “Altruism: The Morality of Logical Fallacies,” TOS Blog, May 22, 2006, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2006/05/altruism-the-morality-of-logical-fallacies/.

13. Whereas the broadest, most basic definition of the concept “value” is, “that which one acts to gain or keep,” once we have used this basic definition in conjunction with various other observations and integrations to arrive at the objective standard of moral value (i.e., the requirements of human life), we can then see that a morally correct value is defined as, “that which one rationally acts to gain or keep for the purpose of sustaining or furthering one’s life.” For more on these two definitions, see Leonard Peikoff, “Unity in Epistemology and Ethics” lecture (New Milford: Second Renaissance Books, 1997); and my book Loving Life, especially chapters 3, 4, and 6.

14. Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 26.

15. The choice to use reason or not to use it—to think or not to think—is, as Rand observed, the locus of our free will. Free will “is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.” Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), 127.

16. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 28.

17. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 29.

18. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 28.

19. The Objective Standard, Fall 2011.

20. For more on the nature of individualism and its opposite, collectivism, see my essay, “Individualism vs. Collectivism: Our Future, Our Choice,” in The Objective Standard, Spring 2012.

21. See Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” in The Voice of Reason (New York: Meridian, 1990), 4.

22. The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964); Loving Life (Richmond, VA: Glen Allen Press, 2002).


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