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Objective Moral Virtues: Principled Actions

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 2.

Author’s note: This is chapter 6 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), which is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism. Chapters 1–5 were reprinted in prior issues of TOS.


Having considered the basic values on which human life depends, we now turn to the question of virtue. While a moral value is an object (or thing) by means of which one promotes one’s life, a moral virtue is an action (or choice) by means of which one does so.1 Thus, we actually have been discussing virtue for some time: The faculty of reason is a value—the act of thinking is a virtue; one’s career is a value—productive work is a virtue; self-esteem is a value—acting to gain and keep it is a virtue.

Generally speaking, since man’s life is the standard of moral value, the kinds of actions that promote his life are virtues; the kinds of actions that harm or destroy it are vices. As Ayn Rand put it: “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.”2 The moral status of an action is determined by reference to this principle.

Virtues are the basic types of actions proper to the life of a rational being; thus, they are discovered and validated by reference to the nature and requirements of human life. Since human life occurs over a span of years and decades, a virtue must account not only for the present, but also for the more distant future. And since we are complex beings of body and mind, a virtue must account not only for our physical needs (such as food, clothing, and shelter), but also for our spiritual needs (such as self-esteem, friendship, and love).

In Chapter 5, we briefly considered the principle that in order to make the most of our life, we have to organize our values hierarchically (according to their relative importance) and pursue them with respect to that hierarchy. Put negatively, this principle means that we must never commit a sacrifice; we must never surrender a greater value for the sake of a lesser one.3 Of course, life requires that we regularly forgo lesser values for the sake of greater ones. But these are gains, not sacrifices. A sacrifice consists in giving up something that is more important for the sake of something that is less important; thus, it results in a net loss.

Consider some obvious examples. If a collector of baseball cards trades one that means more to him for one that means less, he has committed a sacrifice. If he trades one that means less for one that means more, he has achieved a gain, not incurred a loss. Similarly, if a student has a test in the morning that bears heavily on his long-term well-being, then it is not a sacrifice to put off watching his favorite television show in order to study. The importance of doing well on the test outweighs the pleasure he would get from watching TV; thus, if he were to watch the show instead of studying, that would be a sacrifice. Likewise, if a happily married man finds himself sexually attracted to a woman other than his wife, it is not a sacrifice for him to abstain from pursuing an affair with her. On the contrary, it would be a sacrifice to pursue the affair: These values—his wife, his marriage, his integrity, and his self-esteem—are enormously important; to surrender them for the sake of meaningless sex would be an immense loss. (If a man becomes unhappy in his marriage, he should take rational action to remedy the problem, such as seeking counseling or getting a divorce.)

Virtue is a matter of logic. Just as logic is one’s method for checking the validity of one’s ideas, so it is one’s method for checking the propriety of one’s actions. With regard to ideas, the standard is evidence and the principle is non-contradiction. With regard to actions, the standard is the hierarchy of one’s values and the principle is non-sacrifice. In each case, the principle entails consistency with the rational standard. The first regards allegiance to reality and its laws; the second regards loyalty to the requirements of one’s life.

Is a given idea consistent with what one knows by way of evidence to be true? Does it fit without contradiction into the network of one’s observation-based knowledge? If so, it is valid; if not, it is not. Is a given action consistent with the hierarchy of one’s values? Will it promote rather than sacrifice one’s life and long-term happiness? If so, it is proper; if not, it is not.

If one’s ideas are to serve one’s life and happiness, one must accept only rational, observation-based, non-contradictory ideas; and one must reject all others. Likewise, if one’s actions are to serve one’s life and happiness, one must choose only rational, life-promoting, non-sacrificial actions; and one must refuse all others. In order to live one’s life to the fullest, one must integrate one’s ideas, convictions, and values into a non-contradictory, non-sacrificial, unified whole; and one must act accordingly—as a matter of principle.

We have seen that rational thinking and productive work are our two most basic action requirements. By our nature, we have to think and produce in order to live and prosper. Thus, rationality and productivity are major virtues. And since rational thinking guides productive work, not vice versa, rationality is the more fundamental of the two. In fact, since thinking is the most basic chosen action underlying and making possible all of our life-promoting activities, rationality is the primary moral virtue.

Rationality is “the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.”4

If we want to live, we have to think, judge, and act rationally; but this is a very broad concept, and to make practical use of it in everyday life, we need narrower, more specific guidelines. Enter the derivative virtues of productivity, honesty, integrity, independence, justice, and pride. Each of these is an application of rationality to a specific aspect of life. By considering each of them, we will advance our understanding of the nature of virtue and thereby increase our ability to achieve our life-serving values and happiness.

Productivity (or productiveness) “is the process of creating material values, whether goods or services.”5 Since we have already seen the fundamental importance of this virtue, we will not spend much time on it here. Suffice it to say that a person either produces the values required to sustain and further his life, or he dies. Of course, if other people are willing to serve as his host, he can exist as a parasite. But this is not a third alternative; it is merely a version of the second. To borrow the words of psychologist Edwin A. Locke: “There are two kinds of dead people: the dead-dead and the living-dead.” Psychologically speaking, people who are parasites are not alive (which is why they are so boring to talk to). For human beings, living consists in thinking, creating, and enjoying the fruits of one’s own efforts. Productiveness is central to the process. This is why, as we have seen, productive work is properly one’s central purpose in life: It makes life both possible and interesting.

In short, productiveness is a virtue by nature of the fact that human values do not come ready-made in nature; if we want to live and achieve happiness, we have to produce the material values on which our life and happiness depend. Recognition of this fact is simply a matter of honesty, which is our next virtue.

Honesty “is the refusal to fake reality—i.e., to pretend that facts are other than they are.”6 It can be described as the flip side of rationality: Whereas rationality is the commitment to think, judge, and act with respect to the relevant facts, honesty is the commitment not to do otherwise.

Since reality remains what it is regardless of any efforts to ignore or deny it—since facts are facts and cannot be wished away—the consequences of recognizing reality can only be positive, and the consequences of evading it can only be negative. The following examples will bear this out.

Generally speaking, a job applicant who presents his actual qualifications, and does not pretend to possess qualities he does not have, will be able to perform his responsibilities successfully if he is hired. Thus, he will likely be retained and might even be promoted. But an applicant who misrepresents his qualifications, by pretending to possess qualities he does not have, will be unable to perform his responsibilities successfully if he is hired. Consequently, he might be demoted but more likely will be fired.

Similarly, if a married man maintains fidelity to his wife, and lives his life rationally in all other regards as well, he will know that he is a faithful husband and a good person. Consequently, he will be able to respect himself and enjoy his marriage—which, due to his honesty, will be intact. By contrast, if a married man cheats on his wife, regardless of whatever else he does, he will know that he is a lying adulterer. Thus, he will be unable to respect himself or enjoy his marriage—which, due to his dishonesty, will be in tatters.

Of course, there can be circumstances in which an extramarital affair does not involve dishonesty. For instance, if a woman’s husband is in a coma for some length of time and she loses all hope of his recovery, falls in love with another man, and decides to move on with her life, she is hardly dishonest for doing so. Likewise, if a married man wants to divorce his wife but she or the government will not allow him to do so, it is not dishonest of him to have an affair with another woman. Nor is a person being dishonest if he has an extramarital relationship to which he, his spouse, and the third party agree. Such choices and actions are not dishonest, because they do not entail the pretense that facts are other than they are.

Brief and straightforward examples about honesty versus dishonesty can be multiplied end over end, but there is more involved here than such examples can reveal. To better understand the meaning and implications of honesty, we need to consider a few examples in greater detail and from several perspectives.

Let us compare the life of an honest bank manager to that of a dishonest one. The honest manager acknowledges his commitments, works hard, reconciles his books, and refuses to take money that does not belong to him. Thus, he is able to face his associates and customers with a clear conscience—knowing that he is doing a good job, upholding his chosen obligations, and treating everyone fairly. Further, since he has nothing to hide, he is able to talk about his work to his family and friends without having to worry about what he says or to whom he says it. Whether at work, home, or play, he is able to live his life openly and fearlessly with no need to “cover his tracks.” By being honest, he is living in harmony with reality and reaping the consequent rewards.

The dishonest manager takes a different course of action. He “cooks” his books and embezzles from his customers. He is acting in conflict with reality—that is, against the fact that he does not own the money he is taking. Consequently, he has big problems. Besides the fact that he might get caught and thrown in jail for embezzlement, in order to maintain the illusion of his innocence he will have to engage in additional acts of dishonesty to cover up the initial one. Then he will have to tell even more lies to cover up the cover-up lies, and so on. Each act of dishonesty will necessitate further lies in an ever-expanding web of deceit. The following are, in pattern, just some of the kinds of lies he will have to tell as a result of his one act of dishonesty.

If his family or friends ask about the nature of his financial “success,” he will have to lie to them about it. If he tells them that he got a raise, he had better hope they never run into his boss and mention the alleged achievement. If they do, the liar will then have to lie to his boss about why he lied to his family and friends about getting a raise; and he will have to lie to his family and friends about why his boss claimed to know nothing of it. If, instead, he tells his family and friends that he is working a second job, he had better hope they don’t ask “Where?” If they do, he will have to tell them something. If he makes up a company, he had better hope they don’t try to contact him there. If they do, he will have to lie about why the company is “unlisted” or “top secret” or something like that. If, instead, he names an existing company, he had better hope they don’t call looking for him there. If they do, he will have to lie about why the receptionist has never heard of him. If he knows the receptionist, and if she is willing to lie for him by also pretending that he works where he does not, he will be at her mercy thereafter—and we already know the nature of her character. If over the course of his cover-up efforts he tells different lies to different people (as he will have to do), he had better hope they never communicate with one another about anything having to do with him. If they do, he will have to lie again to all of them about why he lied to the others. And so forth.

Each new lie will require the dishonest manager to tell additional lies in order not to get caught in his previous lies. Of course, there is no way to predict the specific lies he will have to tell, since they will depend on the particular circumstances surrounding his various attempts at deception. But what is certain is that if he wants to avoid exposure, he will have to lie again and again. What is also certain is that he will not be able to escape the consequence of his dishonesty: self-destruction.

Until and unless the dishonest manager decides to change his ways, atone for his wrongdoings, and start doing what is right, each lie he tells will further chip away at any remnant of self-esteem that might be left within him. And he will be lying more often than one might suspect. He will be lying a lot. He will be lying to his customers when he tells them that their money is in “good hands” (chip…); to his subordinates when he reminds them of his alleged standards (chip…); to his boss when she asks, “How go the books, Joe?” (chip…); to his date when she asks, “What do you like most about your career, Joe?” (chip…); to his friends when they marvel at his “lifestyle” (chip…); to his future employer about his past “performance” (chip…); even to the grocer when he exchanges a dollar he does not rightfully own for a banana he does not actually deserve (chip…).

The point is twofold: 1) Dishonesty cannot be contained, and 2) its effects cannot be escaped. Once a person begins lying, his dishonesty spreads like cancer throughout his life, creating anxiety and destroying his self-esteem. While he might not get physically “caught,” his need to continuously “cover his tracks” combined with his irrepressible knowledge of the fact that he is a fraud will spiritually thwart every significant aspect of his life.

Just as a person cannot wish facts out of existence, so he cannot wish knowledge out of his mind. He cannot expel what he knows to be true. He can ignore or evade his knowledge—that’s precisely what dishonesty is—but he cannot get rid of it. He cannot un-know what he knows. Reality won’t let him.

Until and unless a dishonest person stops lying, makes appropriate reparations, and commits himself to being honest, he will continue to destroy himself, lie by lie, chip by chip.

Another telling angle on the vice of dishonesty is that it puts a person in the position of relying on peoples’ inability to discover the facts surrounding his so-called life. While to an honest person, a friend or colleague’s keen eye and good judgment provide a benefit—to a dishonest person, these same qualities pose a threat. A dishonest person has to surround himself with people whom he can deceive, and he has to avoid those whom he cannot. In other words, his character trait of choice in others is their gullibility. The only people who qualify for partnership, friendship, or romance with him are those whom he, a degenerate, can delude. As Ayn Rand put it, a dishonest person is “a dependent on the stupidity of others . . . a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling.”7

That fact alone speaks volumes. But there’s more.

Perhaps the most revealing fact of all regarding the selflessness of dishonesty is that the time and energy a dishonest person puts into deceiving the deceivable could have gone into achieving the achievable. It could have gone toward creating values rather than fooling people. It could have gone toward promoting his life rather than retarding it—which is all that dishonesty can do.

If a person attempts to gain a value by means of dishonesty, even if he appears to “get away” with it, he actually does not. The ill-gotten gain does not and cannot bring him happiness; it necessarily creates spiritual conflict, anxiety, and self-contempt. Since he was dishonest to get the “value,” he will have to continue being dishonest to keep it. And since he knows that he gained the “value” dishonestly, he also knows that he is not worthy of having it. Consequently, the “value” cannot serve its intended purpose; it cannot promote his life; thus, it is not—in the moral, life-serving sense of the term—a value. It is a disvalue; it can only thwart his life and work against his happiness.

To understand why this is so, we must bear in mind the fact that a person can value something that is not in his best interest. He can act to gain or keep things that harm or destroy his life—such as an abusive spouse or a heroin “high.” And we must acknowledge that, morally speaking, such things are not legitimate values, because they do not and cannot promote human life; they can only harm or destroy it.

In the broadest, goal-directed sense of the term, a value is anything that one acts to gain or keep. But in the narrower, moral sense of the term, a legitimate value is a value that actually promotes one’s life.8

For instance, if a person earns money and buys a car with it, the car is a legitimate value; it can promote his life, and he can enjoy driving it. His possession of the car is a result of his virtue; thus, it is a reward and a reminder of his accomplishments. But if a person steals a car, the car is not a legitimate value; it cannot promote his life, and he literally cannot enjoy driving it—not unless chronic fear and self-doubt are the hallmarks of joy. His possession of the car is a result of his vice; thus, it is a penalty in the form of a reminder that he is a thief. In addition to the fact that he might get caught and thrown in jail for stealing the car, driving it will always remind him that he is a parasite, and anything he uses the car to “accomplish” will be tainted by that fact. If he picks up a deceivable date, even though she may not know it, he will know that she is getting into someone else’s car with an incompetent who can’t earn money to buy his own. Likewise, if strangers admire the car, the thief will know that they are admiring someone else’s hard-earned accomplishment, which he (the thief) could only muster the “guts” to steal.

Now, the thief might say that he is enjoying the car. But his words cannot reverse cause and effect. Genuine joy comes from achieving values, not from stealing them. Happiness is an effect—of which personal achievement is the cause. No one—no matter how stupid he might be—can make himself “believe” that he has achieved something when he knows that he has not. The one person no one can fool, in this respect, is oneself.

Dishonesty cannot lead to values. Reality won’t let it.

To further illustrate this point, consider a student who cheats on an exam. Even if he does not get caught and expelled from school, the cheating cannot promote his life. For starters, since higher-level knowledge is built on lower-level knowledge, if he has not learned how to write a sentence or do arithmetic, how will he learn to write a paragraph or do algebra? And if he cannot write a paragraph or do algebra, how will he ever write an essay or do calculus? He won’t. Like the book-cooking bank manager, he will have to cheat again to cover up his initial cheating, and then again to cover up that cheating, and so on. And like the car-stealing incompetent, if the cheating “gets” him a “good” grade, since he will know that he did not earn it, every “accomplishment” built thereon will be spoiled by his irrepressible knowledge of the fact that he is not an achiever but a deceiver.

For instance, if his cheating gets him into a college, then in addition to being ill-equipped to do the necessary schoolwork, he will know that he does not deserve to be there in the first place. If he continues cheating throughout college and that gets him into a law school, then in addition to being ill-equipped to do his coursework, he will know that he does not deserve to be there, either. If he persists and cheats his way through law school and into a law firm, then in addition to being ill-equipped to do his casework, he will know that his entire “career” is built on a pile of sham. What kind of life will he then have? Will he be genuinely happy? Or will he be spiritually eaten by his knowledge of the fraud that he actually is?

Dishonesty is incompatible with life and happiness for the simple reason that it pits a person against the very source and realm of values: reality.

Morality is a matter of the immutable laws of identity, causality, and non-contradiction. An action either promotes a person’s life and long-term happiness or it does not. If it does, it is virtuous; if it does not, it is not. For someone to “get away” with being dishonest—for dishonesty to “promote” a person’s life—would literally take a miracle: a violation of natural law. In other words: It can’t happen.

Ill-gotten gains are not and cannot be values; they are and can only be disvalues. They are not rewards, but penalties. They do not promote one’s life; they thwart it—and they do so every time. Thus, not only is it true that honesty pays; the deeper truth is that only honesty pays. Such is the nature of reality.

In the above examples, the acts of honesty and dishonesty are rather obvious. But the requirements of honesty are not always so easy to discern. Consider another kind of situation.

Suppose a robber walks into a store, points a gun at the owner, and demands: “Empty your cash drawer into this bag, or I’ll blow your head off!” Fearing for his life, the owner complies. The robber then demands to know if there is any more money on the premises. Here is the tricky part: Since the owner keeps a few hundred dollars hidden in the back room, is he morally obligated to inform the thief of this fact—or can he lie and still maintain his honesty?

To answer such a question we must bear in mind the purpose of morality. The purpose of morality is to guide a person in living as a human being. The purpose of moral principles is to guide a human being in gaining and keeping his life-serving values. Thus, in order for a moral principle to be valid, it has to serve that purpose. With this in mind, we can begin to answer the question.

For a person to be able to keep his values, he must also be able to protect them from people who wish to steal, harm, or destroy them. And for honesty to be a virtue, it has to allow for such protection. Thus, honesty cannot mean “never, under any circumstance, tell a lie”; it cannot be the virtue of “always telling the truth, no matter what the consequence.” Such a “virtue” would not permit a person to protect his life-serving values; thus, it would defeat the very purpose of morality.

If honesty required a person to “always tell the truth no matter what,” it would be opposed to life; in other words, it would not be a virtue. What honesty does require a person to do is to account for all of his knowledge—and to ignore or evade none of it.

Honesty means never faking reality in order to gain a value. It is the virtue of refusing to pretend that facts are other than they are. As such, it requires recognition of all the relevant facts of a given situation—and only the facts.

Given the purpose of morality, honesty does permit a person to lie—if the lie is intended to protect a legitimate value from a person (or group) that seeks to steal, harm, or destroy it.

Thus, unless the storeowner has reason to believe that doing so would further endanger his life, lying to the thief would not be an act of dishonesty. On the contrary, it would be an act of honesty. He would be accounting for all the facts and only the facts—including the fact that his money is rightfully his—and excluding the fiction (the non-fact) that the thief has any right to take it.

Honesty requires that one take into account the full context of one’s knowledge. Dishonesty consists in ignoring or evading some aspect of one’s knowledge. In attempting to steal the storeowner’s money, the thief is trying to gain a value that is not rightfully his by ignoring this and other relevant facts. In lying to the thief, the storeowner is trying to keep a value that is rightfully his by acknowledging this and all the relevant facts. The thief is placing his fantasy over reality; the storeowner is placing nothing over reality.

Whether one should tell the truth or not depends on the context of the situation in question. Lying to a friend in order to lure him to his surprise party is not a breach of morality; the context makes such a lie morally appropriate and thus perfectly honest. Nor is it dishonest to lie to a person who is unjustly prying into one’s private life. If the snoop has no morally legitimate reason to be asking certain questions, one is morally entitled to answer as necessary to thwart his unwarranted inquiry.

The broader point here is that morality is not a matter of categorical imperatives or contextless commandments. Rather, it is a matter of purposeful principles and contextual absolutes: principles formed for the purpose of making human life possible—which are to be applied absolutely with regard to the full context of one’s knowledge.9

The full context of one’s knowledge is simply the sum of one’s knowledge—all of what one knows. A person is morally responsible for acknowledging all the relevant items of his knowledge pertaining to any given situation with which he is faced.

Should I store the Drano in the lower cabinet or the upper one? It depends on the context: Is there a toddler in the house? Can the lower cabinet be locked? What are the surrounding facts? To ignore the context would be immoral. If my refusal to think rationally and act accordingly leads to the death of my child, I am morally responsible for his death. I am morally responsible for the consequences of my choice to be rational or irrational.

Take another situation: Should I enter the burning building or not? It depends on the context: Is someone in there? If so, who? Is it possible for me to save him—or is the building already fully engulfed in flames? What are the conditioning factors? Again, to ignore the context would be immoral. It would be quite a sacrifice to risk my life in order to save the life of a person who is clearly already dead. And it would be an even greater sacrifice to risk my life in order to save the likes of Joseph Mengele, Pol Pot, or Osama bin Laden from the flames they so richly deserve.

One more example: Should I get the money out of the drawer before I go? It depends on the context: What drawer? Whose money? What are the relevant facts?

You get the idea.

Questions of good and bad, right and wrong can be answered only by means of moral principles in reference to the context surrounding and conditioning the given situation. Honesty requires that we always account for that context—in full.

With this in mind, let us turn to our next virtue: integrity.

Integrity “is loyalty in action to one’s convictions and values.”10 It is the virtue of walking one’s talk, practicing what one preaches, living up to one’s standards. In a word, it is the virtue of being principled.

Integrity is a matter of consistency: consistency in thought to that which one knows to be true, and consistency in action to that which one knows to be good for one’s life as a rational being. It is the virtue of integrating one’s convictions, values, and actions by reference to the facts of reality and the requirements of one’s life and long-term happiness.

Thus, integrity does not mean merely “acting on one’s convictions.” The fact that a person acts on his convictions does not in itself render him a man of integrity: It depends on his convictions; are they rational, life-promoting convictions—or irrational, life-thwarting ones? Regardless of the fact that Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”) acted on his beliefs, he is not a man of integrity; nor was Joseph Stalin, nor Adolf Hitler, nor Timothy McVeigh, nor Mohamed Atta, nor Jack the Ripper, nor Mother Teresa. A person can have integrity only if he advocates rational ideas and pursues selfish values—ideas and values that can be upheld and sought consistently. Put negatively, a person cannot uphold his “standards” or be loyal to his “values” by acting against his most basic ones: life and reason.

Since a person’s life is his ultimate goal, and since human life is the standard of moral value, a person who willfully acts in a manner contrary to the requirements of human life is thereby acting hypocritically; he is betraying his most fundamental choice—his choice to live. Likewise, since reason is man’s means of knowledge, and thus his most essential life-serving value, a person who ignores or evades what he knows to be true is acting hypocritically; he is betraying his greatest value—his basic means of survival.

Integrity consists in loyalty to life-promoting values and rational principles—not their opposites. And it could not be otherwise: Neither irrationality nor selflessness can be upheld consistently; only rationality and selfishness can. A person who “believes” in placing feelings (or faith) over facts can believe it all he wants; but he cannot act on that belief consistently, or he will soon die. Merely to remain in existence he has to act rationally to some extent. For instance, he has to stop at Stop signs. Likewise, a person who “believes” in sacrificing himself for the alleged sake of others can believe it until his last breath; but he cannot act on that belief consistently, or that last breath will come quickly. Merely to stay alive, he has to act selfishly to some degree. For instance, he has to eat.

Now, it is important to bear in mind that moral virtue is not an end in itself. One does not think rationally and act selfishly in order to have integrity; one does so in order to live—one’s ultimate goal is one’s life. So the crucial point is not that only a rationally self-interested person can have integrity; this is true, but it is not the principle. The principle is that only a person of integrity—a person who is loyal in action to his rational convictions and values—can live and achieve genuine happiness.

A person of integrity seeks logical answers to the questions he knows to be important to his life; and he commits himself to acting rationally, in accordance with the truths he discovers. He works to keep his ideas connected to reality and to keep his actions and emotions in harmony with the facts, because he wants to live and be happy. In the event that he finds himself feeling like doing something he knows to be wrong—such as sneaking into a movie theater, cheating on an exam, or writing a bad check—he introspects to see what is causing the problem: “Why do I want to do that? What ideas have I accepted that are causing me to want to act against my self-interest?” In other words, he tries to identify and correct the contradiction that is causing the spiritual conflict. A person of integrity works to keep his knowledge, values, feelings, and actions integrated. Hence the name of the virtue.

An obvious example of a person of integrity is an employer who claims to promote his employees on the basis of their merit, and then actually does so—without exception. An employer who makes the same claim, but then occasionally promotes his employees on some other basis—such as seniority, race, gender, or “favors”—is thereby engaging in hypocrisy. What are the consequences? Since people of ability tend to prefer working for people of integrity, principled employers attract competent employees, and the hypocrites get stuck with the incompetents.

Notice that the above example is also an instance of justice versus injustice. As will become increasingly evident, all (rational) virtues imply and entail each other.

For instance, integrity requires honesty; a person of integrity never pretends that facts are other than they are. Not only does he practice what he preaches; he also preaches only what he has reason to believe is true.

To illustrate this point, consider an honest person engaged in a debate who comes to realize that his opponent’s position is right and that his own position is wrong. Since he is honest, his entrance into the debate served as his word that he is actually after the truth and thus willing to concede his position if shown that it contradicts the facts. Consequently, when he discovers that he is mistaken, he acts with integrity; he admits defeat and changes his position; he discards what he now knows to be false and embraces what he now understands to be true. In so doing, he walks away from the debate having corrected his error, having gained new knowledge, and having fortified his self-esteem.

Now compare him to a dishonest person who enters into a debate intent on maintaining his position and “winning” irrespective of any logical arguments or observable facts to the contrary that his opponent might present. When the dishonest debater comes to realize that his opponent’s position is right and that his own position is wrong, he hypocritically continues to assert it nonetheless. Instead of discarding the false and embracing the true, he smugly spouts such lines as: “That’s only logic” or “There’s more to truth than just facts” or “You’re a good debater, but you’re still wrong and my professor could beat you any day.” Consequently, he walks away from the debate having maintained his error, having denied his own knowledge, and having lost another chunk of his self-esteem.

Which person is the better for his actions?

As the virtue of being principled, integrity requires that we monitor not only our physical actions, but also our mental ones—not only what we do with our body, but also what we do with our mind. It requires that we identify our convictions and values, and that we check the validity of the thought processes that give rise to them. Are my beliefs consistent with observable facts, or do they contradict the evidence of my senses? Are my values consistent with the requirements of my life, or do they betray that ultimate value? Did I arrive at my conclusions by means of observation and logic, or did I accept them uncritically, without a process of rational thought? Integrity requires that we check our beliefs for consistency with reality, that we check our values for consistency with the requirements of our life, and that we work to correct any contradictions we discover.

For instance, if a person acknowledges the principle that an individual’s character should be judged not on the basis of his race or genetic lineage, but on the basis of his choices and actions, integrity demands that he live up to that conviction. Thus, if he finds himself advocating some practice that contradicts that principle, such as “affirmative action” or “racial quotas,” integrity requires that he correct the contradiction. If he refuses—if he continues to act against what he knows in principle to be true—he is engaging in hypocrisy.

When a person of integrity discovers a contradiction in his thinking, he looks at the facts and exerts mental effort to clarify in his mind which of his conflicting ideas corresponds to reality and which does not. Then he commits himself thereafter to advocating the true idea and acting accordingly, as a matter of principle. If he discovers that neither of the ideas is true, he ceases to advocate either of them. If the issue is important, he exerts the mental effort necessary to discover what is the truth of the matter. Whatever the case, since he knows that he is responsible for his method of thinking, for the contents of his mind, for the actions he takes, and for his own life and happiness, he always conducts himself rationally.

Having integrity is not easy. It requires a lot of extrospection—the process of directing one’s mental attention outward at the facts of external reality and observing the perceptual truths that are the base of one’s knowledge. And it requires a great deal of introspection—the process of directing one’s mental attention inward at the contents of one’s mind (one’s ideas, beliefs, values, and emotions) and monitoring the mental processes by which one acquires, holds, and experiences them. In a word, integrity requires a lot of hard mental work. But as Spinoza said: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

Whereas integrity is the virtue of acting in accordance with one’s rational convictions and values, our next virtue, independence, pertains to the source of such convictions and values: one’s own observation-based thinking.

Independence “is one’s acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind.”11 Since we have already discussed productiveness, let us focus here on the issue of forming one’s own judgments.

To begin, consider a person who grows up in a devoutly religious family, but then, as an adult, rejects religion on the grounds that there is neither evidence for God nor rational justification for human sacrifice. Compare him to a person from the same family who never questions the religious dogma, and thus continues to “just believe” and act selflessly for the rest of his life on the grounds that: “That’s just how I was raised” or “What would people think of a selfish atheist?” The first person is relying on his own mind and his own judgment; the second is expecting others to think and judge for him. The first person is putting his own mind in first place; the second is putting the views of others in first place. The first person is an independent thinker; the second is a conformist and what Ayn Rand called a second-hander, because he places the views of others above and before his own perception of reality and the judgment of his own mind.

Now, a third person might reject the existence of God and the morality of sacrifice on the grounds that they are “traditional” notions accepted by other people and because he wants to be “different” or avant-garde. But, then, he too is a second-hander: Like the conformist, he is putting the views of others in first place; however, in his case, rather than accepting ideas because others do, he rejects ideas on that basis.

The conformist and the “non-conformist” are not fundamentally different, but fundamentally similar. Both look to others rather than at reality in order to determine what their beliefs and values should be. Neither is an independent thinker; each is a second-hander; each maintains a primary orientation toward other people, not toward reality.

An independent thinker’s primary orientation is toward reality, not toward other people.12 He is guided by the use of his own mind, not by the views of others. He puts his own observations and judgments in first place; he faces reality directly and deals with it first-hand.

An independent thinker demands rational evidence for every idea he accepts. He does not accept (or reject) ideas on the grounds that others believe them to be true (as do religionists, social subjectivists, and second-handers). Nor does he accept ideas just because he wants them to be true (as do personal subjectivists). Rather, he accepts ideas only if he understands them to be true—by means of his own reality-oriented, logical thinking.

If he can integrate an idea, without contradiction, into the network of his observation-based knowledge, an independent thinker accepts it; if he cannot, he does not. If he is aware of some evidence in support of a relevant idea, and of no contradictions to disqualify it, he considers the idea further but suspends his judgment until he gains sufficient evidence to draw a rational conclusion. If he later discovers that the idea entails a contradiction, he then rejects it as false. And if an idea is put forth arbitrarily, that is, with no supporting evidence whatsoever—such as: “Maybe there is a God” or “Perhaps some people are psychic” or “There might be flying monkeys on Mars”—he simply dismisses it as unworthy of his consideration, noting that to assert “maybe” is not to present evidence.

In sum, an independent thinker considers ideas only insofar as they are relevant to his life, are supported by some degree of evidence, and do not contradict anything he rationally knows to be true. His own logical assessment of the facts is his guide in all matters.

This is not to say that an independent thinker slights the value of experts. On the contrary, he consults them when and as needed—but always on the basis of their merit, intelligence, knowledge, ability, and character as judged by his own mind.

For instance, if he wants to buy a computer, he might call on an expert in the field, but not for the purpose of relinquishing his judgment on the matter. If the expert recommends a certain computer on the basis of sound reasoning, including demonstrable features and evident qualities, the independent thinker takes this advice into account. But if the alleged expert recommends a computer solely on the grounds that “Everyone who knows anything about computers is buying this one. I’m telling you—I’m an authority on computers—you don’t need to look any further. This is what you want . . . ,” the independent thinker does not reach for his wallet.

Similarly, if he becomes ill, he might visit a doctor, but not for the purpose of blindly accepting the doctor’s diagnosis or recommended treatment. Rather, he visits the doctor in order to gain knowledge so that he can make an educated decision. If the doctor’s diagnosis makes sense and the suggested treatment is reasonable, the independent thinker will take them into consideration. But if the so-called doctor says, “Dude, because of a conflict in a previous life your karma is out of whack, and to realign it we’ll have to perform a séance . . . ,” the independent thinker does not start lighting candles.

Likewise, if he hears a scientist explaining a new way in which nature can be used to lengthen or enhance human life, an independent thinker might become fascinated and begin asking questions about the discovery. But if he hears an alleged scientist preaching about the “intrinsic value” of nature, or the moral imperative of “protecting” the environment, or the looming dangers of “depleting” natural resources, an independent thinker asks himself the correspondingly appropriate questions: How can nature have “value” apart from a valuer and a purpose? Morally speaking, how can anything matter apart from its usefulness in sustaining and furthering human life? What does “protect” the environment mean? Protect it from what? From man? If nature is to be protected from man, how is man supposed to live? And how can natural resources be “depleted” when the world is nothing but natural resources? After all, what is the earth but a gigantic ball of them? And what are the other planets but a whole lot more of the same? Given a) the size of the earth, b) the immensity of the universe, and c) the fact that matter is indestructible (it can change forms but cannot go out of existence), how can we ever “run out” of resources—so long as we are free to reshape nature according to our needs? How can we ever have too little of anything—except the freedom to act on our judgment, as human life requires?

An independent thinker wants reasons—not appeals to “authority” or “other dimensions” or “intrinsic value.” He never passively, blindly, or uncritically accepts the claims of other people. He may learn from them—if they are rational and have something to teach him. He may take their suggestions into account—if they are relevant and make sense. And he may listen to their arguments—so long as they present evidence for their claims, proceed logically, and hold human life as the standard of moral value. But he always makes the final judgment on the basis of the available evidence and by means of his own use of logic. In other words, he recognizes and accepts the fact that his own reasoning mind is his only means of gaining knowledge, judging values, or assessing claims.

There are essentially two kinds of people in the world: independent thinkers and second-handers. The first faces reality and thinks for himself; the second faces other people and expects them to think for him.

An independent thinker does not place anyone or anything above or before the judgment of his own mind, because he does not regard anything as more important than the facts of reality. Since he wants to live as a human being, to pursue his values, and to enjoy his life, he deals with reality directly, by means of his own observations and logic. When faced with a question, he looks at the facts and uses his own rational judgment to discover the truth of the matter. Since he chooses to think for himself and to form his own judgments, he is a purveyor of spiritual values—values such as rational ideas, self-esteem, friendship, and love. And since he chooses to support himself, to live by the work of his own mind, he is a producer of material values—values such as software, sculpture, skyscrapers, and medicine. In short, an independent thinker respects his psychological needs as well as his physical needs, and he does so regardless of the approval or disapproval of others. In a word, he is thoroughly selfish.

Not so, the second-hander. He regards the views of other people as superior to his own and as more important than the facts of reality.13 He does not deal with reality directly, but indirectly, through other people. When faced with a question, he does not turn to the facts and use his own rational judgment to discover the truth of the matter; instead, he turns to other people to see what they say about it. He first wants to know what others believe, so he can then decide what he will believe. He first wants to know what others value, so he can then decide what he will value. He first wants to know what others think, so he can then react—either in compliance or in defiance, depending on whether he is a conformist or a “non-conformist.”

If others say that there are no absolutes, or that God exists, or that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal, or that nature must be protected, or that some smear on a canvas is a profound work of art—the second-hander does one of two things: If he is a conformist, he thoughtlessly nods his head in agreement; if he is a “non-conformist,” he thoughtlessly shakes it in disagreement. Either way, he has relinquished his mind. He is not an active thinker, but a passive reactor. He is not a person on a mission, but a puppet on a string—a string held by any person or group from whom he seeks to gain or avoid approval.

In sum, being independent consists in being fact-oriented regardless of what other people think, say, or do. Put negatively, it consists in not being people-oriented in disregard of the available and relevant facts.

While independence is the virtue of maintaining one’s proper relationship to reality in the presence of other people, our next virtue, justice, pertains to one’s proper relationships with other people in light of reality.

Justice “is the virtue of judging men’s character and conduct objectively and of acting accordingly, granting to each man that which he deserves.”14 It is the virtue of evaluating and treating people rationally.

The most important thing to keep in mind about other people is that, like you and I, they have free will; they choose the actions that form their character. They choose to think or not to think,15 to face reality or to evade it, to act on the basis of facts or to act on the basis of feelings. This means they can be good or evil or anywhere in between—depending on their choices.

If we want to establish and maintain good relationships—relationships with good people, people conducive to our well-being—then we have to observe peoples’ choices and actions, evaluate what they say and do by reference to the full context of our knowledge, and treat them accordingly. This is the basic principle of selfish human interaction. And justice is the virtue of upholding this principle; it is the virtue of being rationally self-interested in regard to human relationships.

To live happily, we need to develop good relationships and avoid bad ones. We can benefit enormously from productive people, but not from parasites. We can trust honest people, but not dishonest ones. We can count on people of integrity, but not on hypocrites. We can learn from independent thinkers, but not from second-handers. In short, we can gain a great deal from those who choose to live and pursue rational, selfish values; but we can gain nothing from those who do not.

To the extent a person acts rationally (in a selfish, life-promoting manner) he is potentially, if not actually, helpful to us. To the degree a person acts irrationally (in an unselfish, life-negating manner) he is potentially, if not actually, harmful to us. Thus, if a person has any significant impact on our life, it is in our best interest to judge him accurately and treat him accordingly.

Of course, not all of our judgments of people pertain to their moral character; some pertain to other qualities such as their ability, knowledge, potential, or compatibility. For instance, we might need to know what skills a person has or how well he can perform under pressure, such as in the case of an employer evaluating a potential employee. Or we might need to know if a person is capable of teaching us anything of importance, such as in the case of a college student assessing a possible professor. Or we might need to know whether a person has sufficient interests and goals in common with us to warrant friendship or romance. But whatever the case may be—whether in regard to moral character or to other qualities—our only means of judging people is by way of reason applied to the available and relevant facts.

Note that the only other “possibilities” are our feelings (personal subjectivism) or the views of others (social subjectivism or second-handedness). Since feelings are not our means of knowledge, and since others cannot do our thinking for us, if we want to know a person’s moral character or other qualities, we have to judge him objectively—on the basis of facts and by the use of our own mind.

Examples to validate this principle can be found wherever people interact. Take any kind of human relationship and observe the consequences therein of rational versus irrational judgment. If a businessman judges people rationally, he will be positioned to hire productive employees; if he judges people irrationally, he will find himself surrounded by incompetents, or worse. If a coach judges people rationally, he will be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of his players; if he judges them irrationally, he will be unable to do so. If a woman seeking a romantic relationship judges people rationally, she will look for someone who is thoughtful, productive, and respectful; if she judges people irrationally, she might pursue someone who is thoughtless, parasitical, and abusive. If a teacher judges people rationally, he will be able to evaluate his students’ knowledge accurately and prepare their lessons accordingly; if he judges them irrationally, he will not know what they know or what they need to learn (and God knows what he will teach them). If the dominant trend in a culture is to judge people rationally, a monster like Hitler will not get elected to the highest political office in the land; if the dominant trend is to judge people irrationally, he very well might—and did. And if the leaders of the free world judge people rationally, they will not tolerate, much less aid and abet, terrorist regimes that seek to erase freedom from the face of the earth; if they judge people irrationally, they very well might—and have.

The rational evaluation and corresponding treatment of people is an objective requirement of human life; and moral judgment is an essential aspect of this principle. This is why the motto “Judge not, that ye be not judged” is utterly absurd, and the moral principle to adopt in this regard is, as Ayn Rand put it: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?16

There is only one kind of person who has anything to fear from moral judgment; the rest of us can only benefit from it. Being just consists in acknowledging this fact and acting accordingly, without exception, as a matter of principle. In any particular case, our means of judging people objectively is our own use of observation-based logic; and our standards for doing so are the life-promoting values, principles, and virtues we are discussing here.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that justice is not primarily about condemning and punishing the bad; it is primarily about recognizing and rewarding the good. Certainly, the bad should be damned and, when necessary, retaliated against as they deserve to be and as human life requires that they be. But first and foremost, the good should be praised and, when necessary, allied with as they deserve to be and as human life requires that they be. This order of precedence is crucial, because it is the good who make human life possible. They are the thinkers, the producers, the creators of life-promoting values; thus, the chief concern of justice is that they be treated accordingly.

Whether a person writes the Declaration of Independence or a brilliant novel, whether he develops life-saving drugs or time-saving software, whether he makes beautiful sculptures or perfect jump-shots, whether he discovers a cure for cancer or a solution to a crucial philosophic problem—if he selfishly creates rational values, he is morally good because of it. And we who wish to live as human beings owe such people not only our candid praise and moral allegiance, but also, when appropriate, our direct thanks.

While the virtue of justice is a matter of being rationally self-interested in regard to one’s relationships with other people, our next and final virtue, pride, is about being rationally self-interested in regard to one’s life in general.

Pride “is the commitment to achieve one’s own moral perfection.”17 As the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged put it: “Pride is the sum of all virtues.”

Moral perfection is not infallibility, but an unwavering commitment to choose and pursue only selfish, life-serving values. It is not based on impossible or unachievable standards, such as “omniscience” (complete knowledge of everything) or “omnipotence” (the ability to do anything), but on the entirely possible and thoroughly achievable standard of choosing always to act on one’s best judgment. Moral perfection is not the absence of mistakes, but the presence of an uncompromising commitment to living rationally.

To be proud is to strive to achieve one’s highest potential in one’s character and life. It is to be fully and consistently self-interested. It is to seek one’s life-serving values with passion by resolving to use reason in every area of one’s life—as a matter of principle. It is to be morally good all of the time. How does one do this? By actively seeking to discover what is in principle morally right, and by diligently upholding and applying the moral principles one understands to be true. In the words of Ayn Rand, one does so

by never accepting any code of irrational virtues impossible to practice and by never failing to practice the virtues one knows to be rational—by never accepting an unearned guilt and never earning any, or, if one has earned it, never leaving it uncorrected—by never resigning oneself passively to any flaws in one’s character—by never placing any concern, wish, fear or mood of the moment above the reality of one’s own self-esteem. And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.18

Moral perfection is achievable. But only to those who accept human life as their moral standard; personal happiness as their moral purpose; and reason as their only source of knowledge, judge of values, and guide to action.

Observe that while pride is commonly confused with self-deception and the refusal to stand corrected when proven wrong, such actions are logically incompatible with pride. As the commitment to achieve moral perfection, pride requires and entails all the  moral virtues, including honesty and integrity. Thus, a proud person acknowledges his abilities and inabilities, his accomplishments and failures, his potentials and limitations; he does not attempt to deceive himself or others about who he is, what he has done, or what he can do. And he is positively eager to stand corrected if presented with rational evidence that is incompatible with his position, because it means the expulsion of a contradiction and the acquisition of new knowledge; it means that he is better fit to live, to pursue values, to achieve happiness.

So where does the so-called virtue of humility fit into the picture? It doesn’t. Humility is belief in the notion that one is “inherently bad” or “corrupt by nature”; it is the idea that moral perfection is impossible. But in light of observable facts, that makes no sense at all: Human beings have free will; we choose the actions that shape our moral character; we are good or bad depending on the choices we make.

The idea that humility is a virtue stems from the notion that people are “inherently depraved” or “stained by original sin” or some such fiction; and just as these are myths, so is the “virtue” of humility.

Humility is not a virtue but a vice. It is the vice of accepting any form of the idea that one is by nature debased. It is the vice of believing oneself to be morally imperfect in the absence of any evidence to that effect. In other words, it is the vice of “just believing” or having faith that one is morally corrupt.

If a person actually does something morally wrong, he experiences not humility, but the logical consequences of his wrongdoing. For instance, if a man is dishonest with his lover, he feels rotten not because it is inherent in his nature to be dishonest, but because he chose to be dishonest. What is inherent in his nature is not corruption, but free will. Thus, if he wants to live as a human being and achieve genuine happiness, he needs to reevaluate his moral policies, correct them, and adjust his practices accordingly; he needs to start accepting only rational ideas and begin taking only selfish actions.

To contrast the virtue of pride with the vice of humility, compare two men, one of each persuasion. The man of pride recognizes that he has free will, because this fact is directly available to his mind every time he makes a choice. Since he is a man of pride, and since he knows that he chooses his values and actions, he strives always to act rationally—in a manner that promotes his life and happiness. Consequently, he continually gains and fortifies his self-esteem; he continually makes himself more fit to live and love life.

The man of humility, on the other hand, “just believes” that “something” about his nature “somehow” makes him “somewhat” immoral. He accepts the notion that no matter what he does, he cannot be fully good. But he faces this problem: He, too, knows that he has free will, because this fact is directly available to his mind every time he makes a choice. Thus, since he simultaneously knows that he has free will and “just believes” that he is inherently depraved, he continually deprives himself of the self-esteem he could earn if he would stop “just believing” that he is naturally corrupt and start acknowledging that his character is shaped solely by the choices he makes.

Pride is a virtue by nature of the fact that we are born neither morally good nor morally bad, but with a moral blank-slate and a lifetime of choices ahead of us. The fact that we have free will means we choose the actions that form our character. We can choose to be good or evil or anywhere in between. But if we want to live and achieve happiness, we have to be good; and to do so, we have to discover and uphold rational, life-serving principles. If we want to make the most of our life, we have to commit ourselves to the achievement of our own moral perfection: We have to think rationally; we have to live selfishly; we have to be proud.

We have, in the preceding pages, examined the essential nature of virtue, the basic types of actions that qualify as moral. Broadly speaking, virtues are actions that support and promote our life; vices are actions that retard or destroy it. In assessing the propriety of an action, we must bear in mind not only our material needs, but also our spiritual needs—and not only for the present, but also for the more distant future. To be self-interested, we must observe reality and think; we must take into account the full context of our knowledge; we must reject contradictions; we must make life-serving value judgments; and we must act accordingly, non-sacrificially, as a matter of principle. Such are the personal requirements of a proper morality. In Chapter 7, we turn to the social requirements: What conditions are necessary for people to live together in a society?

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1 Cf. Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 121.

2 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,”  in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 25.

3 See Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 50.

4 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 27–28.

5 Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), p. 292.

6 Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 267.

7 Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 129.

8 Cf. Leonard Peikoff, Unity in Epistemology and Ethics, taped lecture (New Milford: Second Renaissance Books, 1997).

9 Cf. Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 274–76.

10 Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 259.

11 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 28.

12 See Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 251.

13 See Ayn Rand, “The Argument from Intimidation,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 165 (social metaphysician is another, more technical term Ayn Rand used for second-hander).

14 Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 276.

15 See Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 127.

16 Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 82–83.

17 Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 303.

18 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 29–30.