Philosophical Reflections XIII
From the facts that reality exists and that we exist in it, derive the ethical consequences that our life is our fundamental value and that rationality is our fundamental virtue.
The pursuit of life demands the particular values of reason, purpose and self-esteem. Rationality implies a number of particular virtues including honesty, justice, integrity, independence, productiveness and pride.
Those virtues may be divided into personal and social virtues, the former applying even in isolation, and the latter concerning relationships between people. The social virtues can usefully be summarised by a single principle, which defines the only moral relationship between people, in that it is the only relationship that enables and fulfils all the virtues. That relationship is voluntary trade.
Duality (consciousness existing in physical reality) implies three fundamental and linked requirements for our lives: thought, action and property. A rational being must be able to use its mind: because thought is the fundamental tool of survival for any being with the faculty of reason. Thought – reason – is central to our ability to understand the world and to choose the values and actions that enable us to live in the world. A rational being must be able to act on its thoughts: because reason is our fundamental tool of survival solely because it tells us how best to act in the world. Thought without action can achieve nothing in the real world. And a rational being must own, must have the right to keep, the fruits of its thoughts and actions: for thought and its resulting actions underpin our lives solely because of their effects, solely because of the values they create (or the disvalues they destroy). Thoughts and actions robbed of their results are futile.
Consider a man in a cold wilderness. If he does not think (or use the results of someone else’s thinking), he will die. If he reasons out how to build a fire yet fails to do so, still he will die. If he builds a fire but is robbed of it, again he dies. Thought – action – property: all three are inextricably linked with our lives, by the nature of Duality. We must decide what to do, and must be able to do what we decide.
All three are the product of volition. You can decide to think, or not to think. To act on your thoughts, or not to act. To use the results, or not to use them. All are aspects of the fundamental choice in the universe: to be, or not to be.
It is by these things that you are happy or unhappy, that you live or die. From this derive the fundamental good and evil for a conscious being. The power of a conscious being to live derives from volition, from free will. Without that, it is powerless to affect reality, for good or ill. This is why rationality is the fundamental virtue: because reason is the link between volition and the nature of reality; it is what guides volition to make the correct choices. And this is why the fundamental evil is force: because force is the one thing which renders volition impotent.
Your thoughts may be wrong, your actions might fail in the face of hard reality, your products might be inadequate to the task. But that is reality. That is why consciousness exists (viewed from an evolutionary perspective); that is why life is a value, not just a gift; that is why rationality is a virtue, not just a game. Reality is neither moral nor immoral: it just is. Morality pertains only to the actions of conscious beings. And the only action that can stop someone from using their mind is force; the only way to stop them acting according to their conclusions is force; and the only way to steal the values they produce is by force. And when your thoughts or actions are forbidden or controlled under threat of physical force, when your products are stolen: then your power to live is attacked at its root. You can no longer look at reality and live by your own judgment: you become the victim or slave of another.
The essence of rational consciousness is this: I can see the world; by reason I can choose what to do in the world to preserve and improve my life; I can do it. If you use force against me, you attack me at the most fundamental level. Thus is force the ultimate evil. Many things are immoral, such as injustice, dishonesty and irrationality. But the initiation of force is a higher order of evil than those, because it strikes at the very root of conscious life.
The question might arise, “So what?” If it is my own life which is my highest value, what do I care about doing evil to someone else? The answer is all the reasons why justice is a virtue. Briefly, from the nature of things people will trade: good for good, evil for evil. If you want others to respect your rights: you must respect theirs. If you trade with others, then you are a value to them, because you benefit their lives. If you do evil to them, you are a disvalue to them, a drain on their lives. Your life is best served by sustaining the sustainers of life: not by making enemies of the best of men.
Who Started It?
Note that it is the initiation of force which is evil. Force used to defend against force is perfectly moral. This is inherent in the reasons why force is evil: it attacks the fundamental power of rational life to live. If a fundamental attack on your life is evil, then it is evil to allow it. Life must be defended, and where persuasion fails the only defence against force is force. Therefore resisting force with force is moral.
It follows that pacifism as a principle is evil. Of course, whether one fights or not depends on context, and persuasion is preferable: but it is not moral to refrain from force when force is appropriate, as rationally determined. Morality consists of defending life, not standing back to let evil run unchecked.
It is important to define who is the initiator of force. It is not defined by who first raises his fist, but in the context of thought, action and property as discussed above. For example, if someone tries to come into my house to take my TV, he is the initiator of force and I am entitled to use force to stop him. On the other hand, if I left my TV unattended and someone walked off with it, then I have a moral right to enter his house and take it back: he has no right to stop me, and if he tries to stop me, he is the initiator of force.
That is, the initiation of force is defined not by possession but by ownership. Ownership is determined by the principles of justice, which is to say, by who has earned it. Earning is defined by the principle of thought-action-property: what you produce by your mind or effort you have thereby earned. This means: it is yours by right. Ownership can validly be changed only by the permission of the owner.
Fraud is an aspect of force, because in essence it is a fake trade. The victim of fraud has given a value in exchange for a supposed value: then it is revealed that the value he received (if any) is not what was represented. Therefore, the trade has not gone through. Therefore, ownership still belongs to the defrauded person. Therefore, the defrauder has no right to the item, no right to stop his victim from taking it back: and if any force ensues from restoring the item, is the initiator of that force.
Note that fraud involves force only in the realm of objects, where the value exchanged is a physical thing which can in principle be regained. There can be no force, therefore no initiation of force, with regard to fraud in the spiritual realm, such as regarding friendship or love. Such fraud is of course immoral, but it is not valid to respond to it by force. The correct response to non-force fraud is the same as to any immorality not involving force: the withholding of future values (e.g., refusal to trade further in anything, spiritual or material).
Those are the basic principles of a complex issue. A full analysis of what is and is not fraud, what kinds of fraud do or do not involve indirect force, and what the valid and invalid responses are, are beyond the scope of this article.
Violence is the ugliest manifestation of physical force: the use of force to cause actual injury or destruction.
It is important to note that it is force which is the fundamental evil. Violence makes force worse, but the absence of violence does not make force better. The mugger who beats you up; the hold-up man who robs you at the point of gun but does not harm you; the bureaucrat or other protection racketeer who wants your “voluntary cooperation”, when it is in fact “obey me or else”: all are equally guilty of the initiation of force, of the fundamental crime against your life.
From your life as the fundamental value follows force as the fundamental evil, and from those two it follows that the trade of value for value is the only proper relationship between people. The only alternatives are sacrifice of yourself to others, or sacrifice of others to yourself, and neither can be moral.
Since your life is your fundamental value, self-sacrifice is immoral. By self-sacrifice I mean the voluntary giving up of a value for a lesser (or no) value. Values are the things you seek to have and hold, whose priority (when rational) is determined according to the needs of your life and happiness. Rationally, then, it is not possible to engage in sacrifice, as it is inimical to your life.
It is important to note in this context that many things often regarded as “self-sacrifice” simply aren’t. It is not sacrifice to give gifts to your wife, nor to spend your hard-earned cash on your husband’s hospital treatment: not when you value them more than the money. And indeed, that is what a normal person assumes: that such gifts are a consequence of their worth to you. “You aren’t worth it, but I’ll spend the money on you anyway” is not likely to endear you to anyone worth being endeared to!
The key is your hierarchy of values. Rationality requires that this hierarchy be correct, for the sake of your life: and that hierarchy serves no purpose, makes no sense, if you do not live and trade accordingly.
There are two kinds of sacrificing others to yourself. These are the use of force, and persuading others to sacrifice themselves to you: what Ayn Rand called looting and mooching.
The looters have already been dealt with.
Mooching is morally indefensible too. As a rational morality is founded on the value of one’s own life, it is not possible validly to persuade someone to sacrifice themselves to you: since self-sacrifice is morally indefensible. So the moocher must attempt a con-job, usually using his or her need as a claim on the life of another. No such claim is valid. What each person produces by their mind and body is theirs by right: and someone else’s need, want or envy cannot take that right away.
That is the fundamental evil of mooching. Its incompatibility with virtues such as independence, justice, productiveness and pride is a natural consequence.
Value for Value
Rationally, human beings will willingly give up a value only in order to obtain a greater value. If someone has something I want, I must offer him or her something in exchange, something that I value less and he or she values more. That is the only way values can change hands, in the absence of force. That is the definition of trade: the voluntary exchange of values for mutual benefit.
The simplest expression of trade is in the production and trade of the physical necessities of life. That arises because even if everyone was capable of producing everything they wanted, it would not be in their interests to do so. This follows naturally from the fact that human beings depend on production for their quality of life. People have maximum productivity if they specialise, whether on the basis of talent, training or simply geography (access to natural resources). Since the total productivity is then much higher, everyone benefits if they do what they do best, and trade the surplus for the other requirements of their lives.
It cannot be stressed too much that the only relationships between people that can be moral are voluntary ones, and therefore all moral relationships are based on trade. Reality, rationality and virtue demand this: that you neither demand nor give unearned values, which means, you must give value to get value.
Nothing is given to life except its powers to live. All that life requires for its continuation must be acquired by activity of some sort, even at the most primitive level. The same holds for us. All that a human being needs to live must be sought or made by someone, by someone’s mind, by someone’s effort. This is fundamental to life in general, and to volitional life in particular.Therefore, all you want must be earned: by someone. It is a crime against your victim to seek an unearned value: because all values arise by effort, and the one who expends the effort owns them, or has become a slave. To take the unearned is a fundamental injustice against human life. The only way to earn a value is to create it (or at the most basic level, use the initiative and effort required to go and find it): or to create another value which you can offer in exchange. Mind for mind, creation for creation, effort for effort, value for value.
Only the currency varies. I can trade anything of value to someone else, whether it be my time, goods, skill or money: for anything they are willing to give in return, be it food, tools, money, art, music or a nice cold beer on a hot day. As another example, take cooperation. Rationally, two people will cooperate in an endeavour if it is in their interests to do so, i.e., their skills or assets are complementary or synergistic. The currency of that trade is their skills. Or consider the giving of a gift. Ignoring the trivial case where you expect one in return, this too is a trade: you give it because you value the recipient’s life and happiness.
It is equally true in the spiritual (pertaining to consciousness) realm. Rationally, you do not seek out the evil and corrupt to be your friends: you seek those whose lives reflect your values. Friendship and love, properly defined, are your response to the virtues in others, not their vices; they are what you give people in return for the good in them, and for the pleasure you gain from their company. It is especially true of love: the one you love should embody your highest values and you, theirs. To ask for unearned love is as low as you can go: to demand someone’s highest affection and deepest emotional payment, for nothing. It is quite right to want to be loved for what you are: if what you are deserves to be loved.
Above I developed the argument that the only moral relationships between human beings are those based on voluntary trade of value for value, and the most fundamental evil you can commit against a person is the initiation of physical force.
These principles follow from the nature of consciousness, namely we are free-willed beings who must live by the judgment of our own minds. This in turn follows from fundamental reality: the duality of physical reality and conscious life.
Now we will examine some of the implications of these principles for moral behaviour and common views of morality.
Win-Win or No Deal
Books on human relationships often support the principle of “win-win or no deal” in our personal and business dealings with others. This is a correct principle, following directly from the moral principle of voluntary trade.
“Win-win”, meaning both parties gain from the transaction, is the essence of trade: it is whypeople trade. “No deal” means either party can walk away: the absence of force. Because “win-win or no deal” is simply a formulation of the principle of voluntary trade, any other type of transaction is immoral: whether exploitation (win-lose), self-sacrifice (lose-win) or destructiveness (lose-lose). Destructiveness is so clearly and fundamentally against both the value of life and all its derivative virtues that it needs no further discussion. However, the others are widely misunderstood and further analysis is desirable.
“Win-lose” is the essence of exploitation: the driving of an unjust bargain from a position of strength. Like all denials of justice, exploitation is against your interests on principle. This flows on to concrete effects, as all violations of rational principles must. At the least, exploitation leads to the loss of valuable people, who will cease dealing with you as soon as they can; and at the worst, to active sabotage by your victims.
It is important to note that trade is based on voluntary judgments of value by the traders. It is not exploitation to give someone less than they think they deserve: only to give them less than youthink they deserve. From the other side of the fence, if you are offered less than you think your offer is worth, then you must decide if it is still in your interests to proceed with the deal: naturally, taking into account whether you think the other person is trying to exploit you or simply honestly disagreeing.
Slavery is the worst kind of exploitation: one achieved by physical force. However, it is very important to note that not all exploitation involves the initiation of force. Whenever I use the term “force”, I mean physical force. Being “forced” to accept a bad deal because of desperation is not physical force. You are not being forced to act against your judgment: if you accept a bad deal because it is the best you can get, then it is because you value what is being offered enough that you prefer accepting it to walking away. It is still a trade, you are still voluntarily accepting value (albeit lesser) for value. The exploiter is acting immorally: but has not stooped to the evil of initiating force against you. We will return to the implications of this later.
Self-sacrifice was dismissed briefly in Part A. However, it needs more detailed treatment, because it is the essence of what most people wrongly regard as the highest moral ideal: altruism.
In previous articles I have attacked two other widely held “moral ideals”, humility and mercy. These and altruism share a common essence.
Altruism and humility have in common the submergence of the self. Altruism tells you to sacrifice your selfish interests for the interests of others. Humility tells you that your self is unworthy. Altruism and mercy have in common the evasion of justice. Altruism tells you that people should be rewarded, not according to what they have earned and deserve, but according to their need. Mercy tells you to abstain from justice by not punishing the guilty.
How can the submergence of the self be regarded as good? How can evasion of justice be good? In a rational philosophy, such issues not only do not arise, but are absurd. The value of one’s life and the good of the self are inextricably linked. The need for justice derives directly from duality: reality exists, and to live, life must be consistent with what exists.
The essence of altruism is that man has no right to live for his own sake, but only for the sake of others: that his justification for existence, his greatest virtue and highest value, is service to others, not his own life as a thinking being.
How could a claim so baseless gain such currency, when it is so alien to the supreme value of your own life, the foundation of ethics? What underlies altruism and its ilk is the ancient false dichotomy: that the moral good and the needs and wants of the self are opposites. And the deeper essence underpinning that is the belief that one’s interests lie not in the good, but in the evil, which means: there is no rational basis for ethics.
Mercy can have a good name only when “justice” means the arbitrary exercise of power by the strong. When justice is rational, based on what a person deserves, on reality: then the only person who wants mercy not justice is he who wants to get away with evil unpunished, or wants to appropriate a value properly earned by someone else.
Humility can have a good name only when you accept that people are worthless in themselves, no matter what they are or have done: and so all pride is mere vanity and arrogance. Yet to live we need pride in the sense of self-esteem. And from that follows the virtue of pride, in the sense of an acceptance that self-esteem to be owned must be earned, and can be earned.
Altruism’s good name also stems from a falsehood. When one’s selfish interests are supposedly to rape, loot and kill, then “clearly” one must sacrifice one’s own good to the good of others. For if we’re all selfish, life becomes the law of the jungle: but if we altruistically suppress our selfish desires, we can live together in harmony. But implicit in that “clearly” is the truth of the matter: it is not good for life, therefore not selfish, for the ruling principle between men to be force and plunder.
The viciousness of that doctrine is apparent when you explicitly name its assumptions, and hence identify the message it gives to a thinking being. It tells you that your interests are to rob and kill. And if you love your life, and decide to be selfish, to value your own life: then there is no difference between living by justice, and living by plunder.
The answer to human evil is rationality, not self-sacrifice. Selfishness is not evil, but good: when properly understood. The selfish man or woman loves his or her own life, and that love and that life are best served by rationality. And the rational life is one of justice, honesty, integrity, productiveness, independence and pride, a life based on the trade of value for value. The highest morality between human beings is not altruism, but justice. Justice is acting in accordance with reality: it is treating people according to what they are. And trading value for value is no more and no less than the principle of justice in action.
A Helping Hand
Are there then no circumstances in which you should help anyone outside of the terms of an immediate trade? Does every act of kindness demand cash in advance? If we reject self-sacrifice and altruism, do relationships between people degenerate to coldness, meanness and strict accounting? The opposite is true.
True kindness and generosity rest not on self-sacrifice but on individual rights and the trade of value for value. That is the only sound foundation on which goodwill between people can be based. When you have an inalienable right to the products of your mind and hands; when you are the person with the absolute say in the disposal of your goods, with no-one having the right to demand them of you; when a stranger is not a potential looter or moocher, but someone from whom you can expect values; when the people you meet are productive individuals who can be expected to treat you with justice and be a benefit to your life; when friends are those who share your highest values of the spirit: then people are a value to you, productive beings whose lives enrich yours, and kindness and generosity become the default currency of human relationships. But when everyone shouts that their need gives them a moral claim on your time, your property and your life; when the extent of your success in life is the measure of your guilt for having more than your neighbour: then others become not a value to you but a drain on your life, and nothing can be expected to spring from such injustice but a guilty meanness of spirit.
The basic principle of helping others derives from the nature of trade: never sacrifice a higher value to a lower. Obviously, someone who is very precious to you — who enriches your life immensely — will be worth far more to you than many hours of your time or many dollars of your wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, to help someone who you know is morally worthless, especially to help them escape the consequences of their worthlessness, is thoroughly immoral. Then you are not only sacrificing a value (be it your time or money) to a disvalue, but are betraying justice itself by supporting evil.
The same principles apply to strangers. You should only help someone where the benefit you gain exceeds the cost. As noted above, where individual rights are respected, other people are a value to you: productive individuals whose existence benefits your life. Thus, if a man is down and out and you judge that he is a victim of circumstance who can become a productive person if you help him out, then it may well be moral to provide assistance. From the assumption of the positive value of others to your life, it also follows that your willingness to help should increase as the benefit to them increases and the cost to you decreases. For example, to refuse to save a drowning stranger at no risk to yourself is contemptible. And of course, it is always in your interests to fight injustice against others when feasible in the circumstances.
So who decides what level of assistance you should give, and to whom? As with all these things, philosophy can guide you but the final answer is: you. But whatever you decide, one thing is completely clear: you have no right to force your decision on anyone else.
Sticks and Stones
It cannot be stressed too strongly that it is the initiation of physical force which is the lowest evil. Many things are immoral but force is inappropriate in dealing with them except in response to force. Everyone has the right to do what they will, no matter how irrational it may seem to be, or indeed be in fact: provided that they are not initiating physical force.
Insults are not force. Verbal abuse is not force. Paying someone a lower wage than they deserve is not force. Discriminating against someone by refusing to deal with them for any reason including race, sex, religion or hair colour is not force.
The test of force is simple: Can you walk away? Thus, a slave is a victim of force: but a worker who is paid less than he wants, but stays on because he chooses to, for whatever reason, is not. A press-ganged sailor is a victim of force: a person who is treated like dirt at his place of work, but chooses not to leave, is not. Economic necessity does not equate to force. If I stay at a job I hate, or one that is underpaid, or one where my life is made a misery when I could leave if I decided to: then I am not a victim of force. It matters not that I stay because I need the money, or I can’t get another job: that does not mean my employer is forcing me to stay. All it means is that I value his money more than I value escaping from the bad conditions. It is my value-judgments, my choice. I have the right to leave but no right to use force against my employer because I don’t like the deal. That I so desperately need the money he pays me — that I so desperately need him to live — does not somehow grant me the right to force him to deal with me on my terms.
The moral response to a bad deal is to reject it. If I must accept a bad deal because of circumstances, then what that means is simply this: I am better off accepting the little that is offered me than walking away. Which means, the other person is still a net value to me! If he pays me too little, or makes offensive colourist jokes about my brown eyes: then I either put up with it as part of the terms of the trade, or leave. Nothing can justify the far greater evil of initiating force against someone to make him or her accept my preferred terms of trade.
The most basic principle of justice is that you cannot retaliate against the bad with the worse. Force is the most fundamental evil you can commit against a rational being. Therefore, all relationships between people must be by voluntary agreement, and nothing can justify the initiation of force.
I must stress that financial or emotional exploitation is wrong. Abusing, insulting or harassing people unjustly is wrong. But none of these are as great an evil as the initiation of force, and to use force in retaliation is morally outrageous. The principle of human relationships is win-win or no deal: not win-win or I’ll get my gang to stick a gun in your face.
And that leads us to possibly the greatest influence of philosophy on our lives: politics. The type of government we live under, its powers and limitations, are all consequences of a philosophy: whether explicit or implicit, whether our philosophy or that of whoever controls the most guns. What a rational philosophy implies for the proper functions of government will be my next topic.