In my previous post on discussing love, what it is and why it is conditional, I had written that values are objective. Today’s post will delving more into the topic surrounding values, ethics and their roots with epistemology necessarily being attached to it. Here I discuss the two major schools of thought that currently dominate the sphere and examine them from the Objectivist perspective. I will also provide an explanation behind values and why they are objective.
As a note, I am not explicitly discussing what is or isn’t good or the is ought dichotomy – rather, I approach this from the very start of how ethics are formed.
The Intrinsicist and the Subjectivist
In the realm of ethics, there are two schools of thought that dominate the sphere – the intrinsic and the subjective.
The intrinsicist school of thought is the mystical; the school that may (but not always) recognize that reality is real and objective, but where we derive morality and how we know things is from either a divine entity such as God, another plane of existence beyond us, etc. Ethics and what gives rise to them are therefore out there, so to speak. They are given or inspired into us through a mystical intervention, whether it be from intense fasting, to a sudden rush and unknowable feeling, etc. They exist just as, and we have to find them.
The subjectivist school of thought is the reverse. The subjectivist’s question the nature of reality. They question its validity, whether our senses can be trusted to understand it, and whether or not we live in two dimensions, or four, or six, or maybe in a popcorn box. Who knows? From this point, subjectivist’s therefore claim that the realm of ethics is subjective, and all that it covers, by extension, is also subjective. They are formed from the basis of what you feel is correct. Morality or values cannot be objective as nothing can truly be objective.
The errors made here are epistemological and metaphysical respectively. The intrinsicist may recognize that reality is what it is, but does not understand how we acquire knowledge or form concepts. They make an epistemological error, in that they cannot rationally define their values and root it into reality. It must come from a floating abstraction – whether it be God, “enlightenment”, the feelings of elation, etc. This is the error in epistemology. There is also a preceding error which is the rejection of the law of identity. I elaborate on this later on.
The subjectivist makes the error on metaphysical grounds. From the start, they question the very nature of existence (AND our ability to understand it), and they place consciousness above existence. This is known as the primacy of consciousness – the belief that for reality to exist, one must be conscious. Descarte’s quote “I think, therefore I am” is precisely what subjectivist’s take to the extreme. The subjectivist corrupts epistemology by extension however, as the rejection of the metaphysically given (the facts of existence) leads to a total collapse of epistemological validity – and leads an individual closer to non-existence, rather than being in harmony with existence. You can recognize subjectivist’s through the modern day skeptic.
These types of thought are not explicitly recognized by the individuals that think in such ways. But when one observes the discussion of ideas among intellectuals, one can recognize the distinguishing characteristics that define them as such thinkers: the recognition of God as the primary, the rampant skepticism of knowledge and reality itself, the pursuit of a “higher meaning”, etc. I can give examples of such thinkers and groups but I don’t sanction what I consider to be arbitrary (intrinsicism) and invalid (subjectivism). It isn’t hard to recognize these premises when one focuses.
Intrinsic -which from here on I will call mysticism- thought fails to hold any merit in the realm of knowledge, precisely because the premises have no basis in reality. Existence exists and A is A. The law of identity makes it explicit that things are what they are. A can not be B and A can not be Non-A. Everything that exists has an identity of a certain nature, and the means to understanding existence is by our use of reason.
Now let’s consider the terms that the mystics present us with; you are to understand morality, values and the world based on knowledge that comes to you via intervention or some kind of enlightenment. This suggests a being or entity beyond the scope of what humans understand – some entity that transcends all of reality and knows all. It plans and builds a universe, and sends down intermittent transmissions to a particular group of witch doctors, who then dictate to others what is and isn’t good. How do we know these doctors receive the transmissions? Through intervention, of course!
Yet all of this can be rejected as arbitrary, because none of it can logically exist in reality to begin with. If a divine being is able to shape the very laws of reality as is, then nothing can ever be certain, nothing can ever be true, and knowledge passed down to you via intervention can be changed at a whim, thereby invalidating its truth. A flick of the divine wrist will reset what’s real and what’s not.
But A is A. Mysticism in itself is a contradiction of existence. Divinity cannot be all encompassing because everything has a certain identity. A cannot be B, just as god cannot be A, B and C all at once. Therefore, one can from the roots, cut down the mystical premises and classify them as arbitrary – something that is not of any value to your mind and life. None of it exists, and that is an absolute certainty. The onus lies on the mystics to present the fact of divinity to you, but any thinking mind can understand that you cannot prove a negative.
On the other end, the subjectivist position -which I’ll refer to as the skeptic from now- rejects that one cannot ever be certain of anything, that reality itself and its properties are only defined by a consciousness and are therefore subjective. I will grant, however, that there are the ethicists who would admit to the objectivity of reality as is, but make the proclamation that knowledge, and by extension values, are subjective. An error of lesser degree, but still an error nonetheless.
But let us consider the implicit contradiction to this thought process. The skeptic makes the claim that nothing is certain, except for the explicit certainty the statement just made assumes. How is one certain of nothing being certain or true? The contradiction is thus laid bare and invalidates all preceding statements.
But beyond this point let’s pretend that everything is subject to change or lacking in any objectivity. How does one survive in such a climate? If one cannot ever be certain that something is food or poison, or if an animal is dangerous or playful, then one simply falls over and dies at some point. You cannot feel your way through existence. Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty – the ability to form concepts and plan long range, as I had discussed in a previous write up. Through this process, one is forming concepts from his perception of concretes in reality, and then further deducing the method of survival in such a world through the use of his mind.
Skepticism is therefore an invalid form of thought, as, like the mystics, it is corrupted at the roots. Contradictions cannot exist in reality, and thus abstractions that lead to contradictions are invalid.
The Objectivist position purifies the corruption of skepticism and rips out the magic of the mystics. Objectivism holds that reality is what it is. Metaphysically, existence exists, and A is A. Everything has an identity of a certain nature. The metaphysically given facts, such as the law of gravity, will always remain the same and cannot be something else. There is objectivity.
The primacy of existence principle indicates that in order to be conscious of something, one must be conscious of some thing. Consciousness, therefore, comes into existence. Whether one is alive and reading this or a blank out that never existed, everything else in existence will still be here. It is independent of consciousness.
Epistemologically, man knows what he knows through his use of reason and his capacity to form concepts. One can, from his percepts, observe reality and form concepts via induction, then through a process of deduction, can validate his knowledge and define it objectively. The senses and the mind are therefore valid and necessary in order to survive and flourish in the human context. If you have interest in learning more about the method of concept formation devised by Ayn Rand, I recommend this book.
Through this, man can rationally form a system of ethics based on objectivity. The first question is not “What is good for man?”, but rather “What gives rise to the need for ethics in the first place?”.
From this point, one can deduce that the starting point is human life as the standard. Without life, there is non-existence. From life comes the definition that man is a rational animal, and in order for one to survive one must use his mind to orient himself to prosperity. Thus, values must necessarily be life serving, and that which pushes man closer to death is a disvalue. Man is also an independent thinker, which gives rise to the need for an ethical system that champions self-interest.
Values are relational in that they must require a valuer, and they must also be life-serving. Subjectivism would rely on one’s feelings as determining what is a value or not, so it rejects the notion that they can be objective. Mysticism on the other hand determines that values are derived from divinity, and sets rules according to whatever intervention one gets. As I wrote above, just by roots alone these are both wrong. So let us define them properly.
Consider that a man -assuming he is in a free society- is intensely passionate about playing the piano, and quits his current job to pursue his desire to become a professional pianist. While the journey to achieve his values might be difficult, his self-esteem and pride would skyrocket, because he is recognizing and moving towards his highest values. For him, this is his top goal in life.
Consider what his friends would see. They would recognize that he is tirelessly working towards his dream and while he goes through hardship, he looks more alive than he had ever been. He is pursuing life serving values, and they recognize that the goal of being a pianist is an objective value to him. While they may not value it as such, they recognize its validity just on perception alone.
Now consider the opposite. A man ignores certain facts about his abusive partner and marries her out of guilt. He can recognize the fact of his abuse but chooses to evade it, as in his upbringing he is taught that divorce is “immoral”. This is clearly a disvalue and pushing him closer to death. Friends may recognize this fact easily, too – they see the abuse and the neglect, and identify that his wife is a disvalue, objectively.
You are Capable
Values, therefore, are individually chosen, but objectively identifiable. But before one can achieve or discover what is valuable, one must adhere to the facts of reality and have certainty in their ability to perceive it. Hence, the rejection of the mystics and the negation of the subjective is a necessary step towards a focused life.
Don’t doubt your mind or your senses. Recognize reality for what it is and use your mind to navigate through life and pursue the values important to you. To finish this post, I’ll end it with one of my favourite quotes from my favourite book.
“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”Chapter I, pp. 18-19 ; Howard Roark to the Dean