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The Is-Altruism Dichotomy

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 8, No. 2.

This essay is part of a compilation ebook, Objectivism, available at or free with any subscription to TOS.

A dichotomy is thwarting moral thought. Call it the “is-altruism dichotomy.”

You’ve probably heard of the “is-ought dichotomy” or the “is-ought gap”—the idea that you cannot derive moral principles (principles regarding how people “ought” to act) from facts of reality (from what “is”). This idea originated with the Sophists of ancient Greece, who held that all moral views and values are subjective or mere opinions.1 It was later popularized in terms of “is” and “ought” by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume.2 Today the idea is widely regarded as a fact beyond question. Outspoken scientist and atheist Sean Carroll sums up the view: “Attempts to derive ought from is are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.”3

The “is-ought dichotomy” is now affirmed, implicitly if not explicitly, by virtually all intellectuals; and taught, in some form or other, to practically all college students.4 This is why so many educated people subscribe to moral relativism. If morality can’t be grounded in reality, who’s to say what’s right?

Widespread acceptance of the “is-ought gap” not only breeds moral relativism; it also lends credence to claims that in order for objective morality to exist, there must be a divine lawmaker, a “God,” who issues objective moral laws or commandments. “If moral standards are not rooted in God,” says popular talk show host Dennis Prager, “they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than ‘yummy’ and ‘yucky.’ They are simply a matter of personal preference.”5

But the idea that we can’t derive moral standards from observable reality is demonstrably false. We certainly can—but we must first understand why man needs morality at all. If man needs morality, then the reason he needs it—the ultimate end it serves—logically sets the standard for determining the validity of moral principles and values. If man doesn’t need morality, then he doesn’t need it, and there is no point in discussing or even pondering the subject.

This is why the American philosopher Ayn Rand began her inquiry into ethics with the questions, “What are values? Why does man need them?” and “Why does man need a code of values?”6 By looking at reality and pursuing answers to these and related questions, Rand discovered that values are the things one acts to gain or keep. For instance, we seek to gain or keep knowledge, food, wealth, relaxation, romance, and freedom. And she discovered that the ultimate reason we need values is to live—to sustain and further our lives. If we gain and keep values, we can live and prosper; if we fail to gain and keep them, we will suffer and die.

Rand discovered that man’s life—meaning, the requirements of an individual’s life and happiness on earth—is the standard of moral value: the ultimate standard against which we can judge good and bad, right and wrong, should and shouldn’t. That which sustains and furthers man’s life is the good; that which harms or destroys it is the evil. On this standard, moral virtues are the principled actions by means of which individuals pursue life-serving values.7 For instance, looking at reality, thinking, producing goods or services, being honest, being just, trading value for value, advocating liberty, and the like are good because such actions serve and promote human life. Refusing to look at reality, refusing to think, acting parasitically, being dishonest, being unjust, engaging in theft, advocating tyranny, and the like are bad because such actions throttle or thwart human life. On the basis of this demonstrably true standard of value, Rand developed a secular, observation-based, objective morality—rational egoism—according to which each individual should pursue his own life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. (For elaboration, see Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, or my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It.)

But Rand’s rational, life-based approach to morality is far from the norm; very few people understand and embrace it. Even among those who have read her books, few recognize the virtue of selfishness. Why?

When people think about deriving morality from reality, what they usually have in mind is not “Why does man need values or morality?” This question implies that the purpose of morality, if it serves a purpose, is to enable man to gain or keep something; the question aims to discover a need-oriented standard of value—a standard that serves man’s self-interest. If people were to ask and begin answering that question, they would soon see, as Rand did, that man’s life is the standard of moral value, the ultimate reason he needs to gain or keep things; they would see that men need moral principles to guide their thought and action so they can live and prosper; and they would soon proceed to the next question: “What, in principle, are the requirements of man’s life and happiness?”—which they would have no difficulty answering. They would simply look at reality and see that certain ideas, actions, and conditions are necessary for man’s life, and that others are inimical to it, and they’d be on their way to grasping a fact-based morality. The problem is that when people approach the issue, they typically have in mind some form of this question: “How can the idea that you should selflessly serve others be derived from the facts of reality?” This common approach is a consequence of a fallacy Rand termed the fallacy of the frozen abstraction.

The fallacy of freezing an abstraction consists in substituting a particular conceptual concrete for the wider abstract class to which it belongs.8 In the case at hand, it consists in substituting a specific morality, “altruism,” for the general class “morality.” This substitution is fallacious because, although altruism is a particular type of morality, it is not the only type of morality; it is not morality as such. The concept of “morality” is a broad category subsuming several kinds or codes of morality—altruism, egoism, hedonism, utilitarianism, and others. To substitute the concept of “altruism” for the concept of “morality” is to exclude from the broad category of “morality” all of the other moral codes that are properly included under it. Of course not every morality can be valid, but the question of which code is demonstrably true is a separate matter. Just as we do not treat “math” as the equivalent of “algebra” and thus exclude “geometry,” “calculus,” and other kinds of math from the field—just as we do not treat “religion” as the equivalent of “Christianity” and thus exclude Judaism, Islam, and other religions from the field—and just as we do not treat “government” as the equivalent of “theocracy” and thus exclude “democracy,” “constitutional republicanism,” and other types of government from the field—so we should not treat “morality” as the equivalent of “altruism.” It is not.

When people freeze the broad abstraction of “morality” at the level of the narrower concrete of “altruism,” they thereby preclude themselves from grounding morality in reality—because there simply are no facts to support the morality of altruism.9 To see why, we must grasp the essence of the code.

Altruism is the idea that you should self-sacrificially serve others. Importantly, altruism does not hold that you should serve others in a way that results in a net gain on your part, as in selling a good or a service to a customer. Rather, altruism holds that you should serve others in a way that results in a net loss on your part, as in providing them with goods or services in exchange for nothing. Otherwise we’d have to regard Michael Dell as more altruistic than Mother Teresa, because he has served millions more people than she did. Dell, of course, serves people by employing them or selling them computers—that is, by exchanging value for value, an exchange in which both sides gain. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, served people by giving them her time and effort for nothing. That is a big difference. And it is an essential distinction regarding the nature of altruism. “Altruism,” as New York University professor Thomas Nagel clarifies, entails “a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives”—“ulterior motives” meaning personal gains.10 Princeton professor Peter Singer further clarifies, “to the extent that [people] are motivated by the prospect of obtaining a reward or avoiding a punishment, they are not acting altruistically.”11 Altruism calls not for pursuing gains, but for incurring losses; it calls for giving up your values (time, effort, wealth, etc.) in exchange for something less or for nothing at all. It calls for self-sacrifice.

A sacrifice is, as Ayn Rand put it, the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser value or of a non-value.12 If you spend your time selflessly serving strangers at a soup kitchen and thus forgo other uses of that time that would better serve your life and happiness—whether writing a novel that could launch your career, or snuggling with your lover, or camping with your friends, or exercising to maintain your health, or the like—then you are committing a sacrifice. You are giving up something more important to your life and happiness for the sake of something less important or unimportant. You are incurring a net loss. If, on the other hand, you spend your time maximally enhancing your life and happiness by always pursuing your life-serving values with respect to their relative importance toward that end, then you are not sacrificing; you are living selfishly.

Importantly, a choice or an exchange that results in a net gain cannot logically be construed as a sacrifice. Consider what such an equation would mean: “After due diligence and much negotiation, I paid the seller $90,000 dollars for the summer home of my dreams—what a sacrifice I made!” The reason that sounds wrong is that when I buy a house from a seller, both of us profit from the exchange. The house is more valuable to me than the money I exchange for it, and the money is more valuable to the seller than the house he exchanges for it. Such an exchange is not a sacrifice but a trade—a mutual gain.

Take another example: “I spent the day golfing with my best friend on our favorite course rather than golfing with a casual acquaintance on a lesser course. Just call me the sacrificial golfer!” Again, this is silly. If I forgo one outing in order to partake in a different outing because the latter is better for my life and happiness, I have not committed a sacrifice; I’ve upheld my hierarchy of values; I’ve steered my life in a self-interested manner; I’ve sought to maximize gains. To call this a “sacrifice” is to abuse words.

One more example: “Mother Teresa was clearly just out for personal gain. Look at all the sacrifices she made; imagine all the rewards she reaped. That’s why the Church canonized her—because she was out to fill her life with goods and maximize her own happiness.” Again, that just doesn’t make sense—and Mother Teresa would have been the first to say so. Mother Teresa served people not for personal gain, but because she held that being moral consists in serving others self-sacrificially—serving others at a net loss—and because she wanted to be “moral” in accordance with that standard.

Gain-oriented actions and loss-oriented actions are essentially different kinds of actions, so we need different terms to denote them. We have perfectly clear terms for the kinds of actions that result in or are intended to result in net gains; they are “gains” or “trades” or “investments.” And we have perfectly clear terms for the kinds of actions that result in or are intended to result in net losses; they are “losses” or “forfeits” or “sacrifices.”

Altruism calls for you to surrender greater values for the sake of lesser values. It calls for you to self-sacrificially serve others—that is, to serve others at a net loss.

Now, given what altruism is, what facts of reality give rise to the need of it? None do. There is no such thing as a “need” to surrender greater values for the sake of lesser ones. Human life does not require self-sacrifice—or any kind of human sacrifice. Human life requires net gains in value, not net losses in value. It requires rational thought, productive effort, voluntary trade, political and economic freedom, and many other things; but it does not require sacrifice. The only thing that can be “accomplished” by means of sacrifice is suffering or death. And to “achieve” that end, a person need not do anything; he can just stop acting and he’ll be miserable or expire in short order.

In contrast, what facts of reality give rise to the principle that people should pursue values and achieve net gains? When we look around, we see plenty of facts that give rise to this principle. Look at reality and your life. If you want to live fully and happily, you must pursue life-serving values—and you must refuse to surrender those that are more important for the sake of those that are less important. For instance, you must choose life-serving career goals and work to achieve them; you must engage in recreational and leisure activities that bring you joy; you must establish and maintain relationships conducive to your life and happiness; you must work to establish and maintain liberty so that you can act on your judgment. To the extent that you take such actions and succeed, you can live and prosper; to the extent that you don’t, you can’t.

Self-interested action is essential to a life of happiness, self-sacrificial action is detrimental to it, and reality is full of facts to support these truths.

If moral principles or “oughts” are ideas to guide our choices and actions in service of our life and happiness (and they are), then we certainly can derive them from the facts of reality. And we not only can; we must—that is, if we want to live and prosper.

The reason contemporary philosophers and intellectuals—including “New Atheists” and “secular humanists”—have been unable to bridge the “is-ought gap” is that they have not been trying to derive morality from reality. Rather, they have been trying to derive altruism from reality—and there simply are no facts that give rise to the need of self-sacrifice.

The dichotomy at hand is not between reality and morality, but between reality and altruism. You can’t derive altruism from facts. And thank goodness for that.

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1 See Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, trans. Kathleen Freeman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 125; and Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), vol. I, pp. 91–94.

2 See David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), Appendix I, esp. pp. 287–89, 292–94; and Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Book III, esp. pp. 457–59, 462–70.

3 Sean Carroll, “The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate,” Discover, March 24, 2010,

4 Although some contemporary intellectuals are open to the possibility that moral principles can be derived from facts of reality, to my knowledge none (other than Ayn Rand) has shown how this can be done. In the absence of specific knowledge of how it can be done, intellectuals are effectively in the position of conceding that it can’t be done. The “is-ought dichotomy” goes by other names as well, including the “fact-value dichotomy” (the notion that you can’t derive values from facts) and the “naturalistic fallacy” (the notion that you can’t define “good” in terms of natural properties). There are trivial differences among the variations, but they’re essentially the same problem. Below I explain a major cause of the widespread confusion.

5 Dennis Prager, “Why Young Americans Can’t Think Morally,” September 20, 2011,

6 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), pp. 13–16.

7 Of course, people have free will and thus can pursue values that are contrary to the requirements of their life, but the fact remains that they don’t need to pursue such values. If they don’t want to live, they can simply stop acting and they will soon die. For more on this point, see Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1982), pp. 95–101; and Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), pp. 43–52.

8 See Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 94.

9 The error of equating morality with altruism is not the original reason philosophers had trouble deriving morality from reality; the original reason is that philosophers observed correctly that we can’t perceive “value” or “moral principle” or “ought,” and they assumed that these things must therefore just be ideas detached from any fact in reality. (I address this aspect of the problem in a chapter titled “The Is–Ought Gap: Subjectivism’s Technical Retreat” in Loving Life.) But the idea that we can’t derive morality from reality persists in large part because people equate morality with altruism. Observe that few people doubt the existence of “precision” or “ambiguity” or “religion” or “economics” or the principles of physics or those of medicine or countless other things we can’t see. The principles of morality remain elusive today largely because of the widespread practice of freezing the broad abstraction “morality” at the level of the narrow, concrete morality “altruism.”

10 Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 79.

11 Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 56.

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