Objective Moral Virtues: Principled Actions

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. . . .

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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.

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