The Good Life
Philosophical Reflections XII
We are conscious beings with the faculty of reason, living in an objective reality. As shown previously, the ethical implications are that our own life is our highest value, and rationality is our highest virtue.
Philosophy should be a guide for living. So one of its central purposes is to particularise these broad abstractions. What other values are required if life is your highest value? And what particular virtues comprise rationality?
It is the task of each individual to determine what external things are his or her concrete values. It is the task of philosophy to determine the central values pertaining to conscious life, which provide guidance in the choice of those concrete values, thereby enabling the achievement and enjoyment of life.
Life is your fundamental value. But for a being of volitional consciousness to pursue life as a value, first it must be competent to do so, and second its life must in fact be worth living. This defines the central values: the things that make you competent to live, and that make life worth living. The philosophy of Objectivism identifies three such values:
To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason Purpose Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged).
The central value of reason follows from the same bases as the virtue of rationality. Although the basic tools of reason are inbuilt in our minds, reason is a value to be sought because its use is not automatic, and its proper use must be learned. The latter involves the rules of valid and invalid reasoning and evidence, whose elucidation is the role of epistemology.
Reason makes you competent to live. It is how you determine what is real, what your values should be, and hence what is actually good for your life. Without it, your beliefs and values are arbitrary, reality itself becomes your enemy: and the achievement of values and happiness is beyond your control.
A being of volitional consciousness leads a life of continual choice. To do so it must have criteria of choice. Therefore it must have some kind of overall approach to life, a basic assumption or program of how it wants to live.
There is no choice in this matter. In the absence of an explicit program, you simply default to an implicit, unexamined one. If you have no explicit long-range goals, then your implicit life program becomes “I will drift along until I retire”, or “I will live without direction, following the lead of my group and the whim of the moment”, or some such unfocussed life.
In the context of life as the fundamental value, of having a life worth living, it is clear that aimless drifting is no way to live. To value your life is to make the most of your life, to live it and enjoy it to the full. For that, you have to be in control of your life. To do that, you have to know what you want and how to get it. You need an explicit life program, an explicit direction: a purpose.
In the context of rationality as the highest virtue, the need for purpose also is apparent. Rationality requires explicit identification and validation of your values: to drift is to leave unexamined the most critical decision of your life, namely how you intend to live it. To default on choosing your life’s program, to let it simply happen to you, is to betray your own life.
In the context of practical living – the seeking of concrete values – purpose is needed for rational decisions. Purpose provides the criterion for evaluation, being the overriding value which integrates and orders all your other values according to their importance and precedence. Its absence leaves you adrift in a sea of random values with no firm foundation of choice. The consequences are unresolvable inner conflicts between potential values, wasted time and effort, and no way to judge what is truly best for your life.
A human being can live without a purpose: but not if his or her life is their standard of value.
Your purpose can be anything your interests, abilities and circumstances allow: within the context of being rational and pro-life. To be a creative scientist, a good parent, a top athlete, a skilled labourer or a productive industrialist are all valid purposes. To be an expert con-man or an iron-fisted dictator are not. In essence, a valid purpose is some kind of productive work: the application of your mind to produce something of value, be it symphonies or steel. Such a purpose is pro-life both materially, in producing the things which sustain life; and spiritually, in requiring and exercising the virtues required by rationality.
This leads naturally to the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” This question derives from the human need for purpose. But it usually seeks its answer in the external universe, as if expecting someone or something to provide one: a meaningless notion. Life is its own end, and its meaning is what you make it: for a being of free will, the meaning of life is the purpose you choose for yourself.
To be competent to live, you must know that you are competent to live. To hold your life as your highest value, you must know that you deserve to be your highest value. Thus the critical importance of self-esteem.
The need for self-esteem stems from the nature of volitional consciousness. To live to your best you must be rational, and to be rational is to live by the judgment of your own mind. But how can you do that, if you do not trust your own mind? And for a being to act, it must have motive: and if you do not believe that you deserve to live and to be happy, then how can you seek those as your fundamental values?
So how does one achieve self-esteem? You must be competent to live: which means, be rational. You must deserve to live: which means, be virtuous. Which derives from rationality. Thus, the key to self-esteem is a life of unbreached rationality. Then you can trust your mind, because your use of reason is uncompromised. Then you are virtuous, because all of the virtues are expressions of rationality.
This path to self-esteem is self-reinforcing. Once you choose to live by reason, you become more rational – more capable of living – a better person – more confident that you deserve life and happiness: and so on in an upward spiral of rationality and self-esteem, quality of consciousness and quality of life.
Given the nature of self-esteem, it cannot be faked. You cannot achieve it unless you do in fact deserve it: unless you are competent and deserving to live. To seek unearned self-esteem it is to evade reality, which is to cripple your means of living and compromise your virtue: which is to undermine the very things self-esteem depends on.
Self-esteem is not dependent on talents beyond your control. Rationality does not require high intelligence or other talents you cannot change. Its requirement is purely volitional: the focused use of your tool of survival, your mind. It is not what you have, but how you use it. For any person capable of independent life, all that rationality requires is an uncompromising reliance on reason to whatever level he or she is capable. People make errors, factually and morally: but those who live by reason retain the power to correct them, while those who don’t lose that power, and with it lose any hope of achieving true and lasting self-esteem.
The derivative virtues are expressions of rationality as applied to your personal behaviour and relationships with other people. As they are all aspects of rationality, they are not a list of arbitrary rules, but an integrated way of life. Each virtue requires and supports all the others.
As abstractions derived from the requirements for living in reality, the virtues are principles by which to live.
Just as in the realm of values people must have some kind of purpose, so in the realm of virtues people must live by some kind of principles. Again, a volitional being has no choice in this matter. To attempt otherwise is simply to choose consciously or unconsciously to live by the principle of what seems expedient each moment, what you can get away with, what wins the approval of your peers, or what gratifies your whims. The only question is which principle(s) to live by: examined or unexamined, rational or irrational, pro-life or anti-life.
The only answer is to live by rational virtues. A prime purpose of philosophy is to determine what those are. We’ll now examine the major and some minor virtues. The major virtues are primary derivations of rationality: honesty, justice, independence, productiveness, pride and integrity. The minor virtues derive from or support the major virtues: e.g. tolerance, ambition, self-discipline, patience and courage (I do not discuss the last two). The minor virtues are not less important, just less fundamental.
The principle of honesty is that you should be truthful. To be truthful is not to deceive: deception by omission or clever words is morally the same as direct lies.
Honesty is a virtue because reality exists. To evade reality is to evade what is, or to pretend that what is not, is. But it is reality that can preserve your life, or end it; that allows you a long, happy, productive life, or makes life a misery. Reality cannot be exploited unless you know what it is; it cannot be changed by evading it, but only by understanding it. So if you value your life, you must value consistency with reality.
There are three types of dishonesty, which evade reality in distinct ways. They are self-deception, “white lies” and fraud.
Self-deception is evading the facts of reality in your own mind, for example if they are unpleasant to contemplate. Unfortunately, the facts of reality don’t care what you feel about them. That such intellectual dishonesty is immoral is implicit in the fact that rationality is the highest virtue, and needs no further discussion.
White lies are meant not to defraud but to “protect” the person lied to, for example, by hiding an unpleasant fact to avoid hurting his or her feelings. However, it follows from the virtue of honesty with yourself that such lies are immoral. If the person wants you to lie to him, you are aiding and abetting self-deception: thus encouraging the irrational, which is never good. If he wants your honest opinion, you are defrauding him: which is unjust. Thus you undermine your own integrity and consistency with reality: to achieve a disvalue. And you harm one of your own values, if the person is one. For your lie rests on the false assumption that not knowing the truth can be better for a person than knowing it. Evading reality because it is unpleasant is the surest way to not fix it.
Fraud is lying to someone in order to gain or keep an unearned value. By committing fraud you make reality itself your enemy: because you are relying on someone believing your falsehoods, when reality is out there in flat contradiction. The more complex the fraud, the more facts contradict it; the more you try to protect the fraud from discovery, ditto. The best in people – knowledge, intelligence, reason – becomes your enemy; while you make yourself dependent on the least in people – ignorance, gullibility, folly. And the good among men – the people of honesty, integrity, independence and justice – become your enemies; and people like yourself, your only friends. One might sometimes get away with fraud, as one might sometimes get away with murder: but it is no way for a rational person to live. Not only will you fail to get away with it, on average and over the long term: but the supposed value you seek is poisoned, because it is bought at the expense of your independence, your integrity, your rationality, your self-esteem, your life. A value is something which is actually good for your life. Nothing obtained by fraud can be one.
To be just is to treat people in accordance with the facts of reality. That means to treat others as they deserve. It is the principle of giving people what they have earned: and neither giving nor seeking the unearned.
You must judge all things rationally, and that includes people. Justice is especially important in relation to men’s moral character: but similar arguments apply to all human relationships. You must be just in all your dealings with other people: from trade and financial rewards, to approval, to friendship, to love.
Justice consists of two parts: judgment and action.
To deal successfully with someone, you must evaluate their skills and especially their character. Ignorance and evasion do not alter the facts of reality: whether you are dealing with the physical world or with human beings. So rational moral judgment is a necessity for anyone who values their life.
Having judged, you then must act accordingly. A reward is a value given, and a punishment is a value withheld or a disvalue given: material, personal or social as appropriate. Justice consists of rewards and punishments in proportion to the virtue or vice, the value or disvalue. This is so because ethics are based on reality.
Virtues are virtues because, over the long term, they are consistent with the requirements of living in reality. If you withhold justice or act unjustly, then by definition you punish the virtuous and reward the vicious: because it is the good who gain by justice, and the evil who gain by its opposite. Thus, if you do not act justly, you are setting human rewards and punishments in opposition to the requirements of reality. You make virtue – which in reference to reality is the way to life – a disadvantage; you make vice – which in reference to reality is the way to death – an advantage. Thus you undermine the requirements for volitional life, at its moral root. You do not change reality: in the long term, the result of such practices is destruction. Witness Eastern Europe. But what you have done is to promote that ultimate destruction, by encouraging and sustaining the destroyers until that sustaining is no longer possible.
From these arguments, it follows not only that the rational person practises justice, but that justice demands consequences in proportion to actions. Disproportionate rewards and punishments differ in degree, not in kind, in their opposition to reality. Similarly, in mixed cases you must reward the good and punish the evil: neither giving blanket condemnation because someone is not perfect, nor giving blanket approval because someone is partly good.
This is the ethical root of the virtue of justice. It is also validated by its consequences.
When dealing with the virtuous – the rational, honest, just etc. – you can expect to gain; when dealing with the vicious – the irrational, dishonest, unjust etc. – you can expect only to lose. Thus for the sake of your life, you must encourage the good, and discourage the evil. This is true not only of those with whom you are directly dealing, but in general: for all good people are an indirect or potential benefit to you, whereas all bad people are an indirect or potential loss to you.
To not judge, and to refrain from rewarding the good and from punishing the evil, is to withhold your sanction from the former and to allow the latter to continue unopposed. To be just is to uphold the good, the rational, those who uphold life; to be unjust is to betray them, and hence life. If you value life, you must support those who sustain it. It is impossible to hold your life as your highest value, and not practise the virtue of justice.
If justice is a virtue, then mercy is not. By definition, to act by mercy is to commit injustice. Mercy has a good name because it is often confused with justice: because “justice” has all too often meant irrational judgment or judgment according to anti-life principles, with “mercy” providing an escape. To not punish someone with the full force of the law, when the law is not in accord with the facts of reality or the rights of men; to take all the circumstances into account, not just the letter of the law; for the powerful to refrain from robbing or assaulting the innocent: these are justice, not mercy. Justice is not defined by laws, whims or power: it is defined by reality and rights (what human rights are will be a later topic). Justice is not defined by actions according to any principles: only rational principles.
Your mind is your tool of survival. This means: your mind. No one can think for another. It is your own mind which must judge what is true or false: the virtue of independence is the recognition that this is your responsibility.
The core of philosophy is reality – consciousness – reason. It is reason which connects consciousness to reality: reality is the primary thing which consciousness must understand and act upon. There are many values one can obtain from other people: but only if they flow from consistency with reality. And the only way to know whether they do – whether they are true values – is by the use of your own mind. You cannot interpose people between your consciousness and reality. You need to know the truth and what is true is true, regardless of what other people say. You cannot be rational and not independent.
The independent person uses his or her own mind: and lives by it. As you cannot think through the minds of others, so you cannot live off the work of others: not if you value life and self-esteem. To be independent is to create value from the world by the creative use of your mind: dealing with men, not as an overlord, nor as a beggar, but as a trader of value for value. And just as independence in mind leads naturally to independence in the world, so its lack in the world leads to its lack in mind. The adult who lives off others cannot be independent in mind: to live, he must concern himself primarily not with truth and reality, but with what his victims want or feel. No virtue not honesty, not justice, not pride is possible without independence.
The opposite of independence is dependence on other people, whether they are rational or irrational, good or bad: with no way to judge which, since you have given up independent judgment. The dependent person is not motivated by what is right, true or logical: but by what other people feel, want, or can provide. Faith, not truth; prestige, not self-esteem; influence, not productivity; force, not trade: these are the bases of his life. Rather than living by the judgment of his own mind, he follows the authority of his tribe, priest or ruler. Such have been the sustainers and then the cannon-fodder of every dictator in history. Rather than creating values to trade with other men, by productively applying his mind to reality, he seeks to live by using or enslaving other men. Such has been every dictator in history.
Independence does not mean that you should not admire others or think highly of their ideas. It means that no matter how great another is, it is your mind which is the final arbiter of what you accept or reject. Independence does not mean that you spurn other people. It means you deal with them as neither a parasite nor an exploiter, but a trader. There is no better way to live, and no other way to self-esteem.
The other face of independence is tolerance. You cannot extol the independent mind in principle, then despise it for disagreeing with you in practice!
Like all virtues, tolerance derives from rationality. Hence it only applies in the context of rationality and virtue. It does not mean to refrain from moral judgment or to sanction evil ideas: that would be a denial of justice. It does not mean to pretend to agree: that is dishonesty and lack of integrity. It does not mean to tolerate wilful evasion: that is to encourage the irrational. In essence, tolerance is the recognition that rational people can honestly disagree. Since truth is truth, they must examine their beliefs, seeking to resolve the issue: but meanwhile they should agree to disagree.
Tolerance also derives from justice. If a person is basically rational and honestly seeking virtue, then it is unjust to condemn him totally as a person for making some errors.
Tolerance is the recognition of the sovereignty and worth of each man’s independent mind. The intolerant man values not independence, but conformity: or believes himself and others especially himself to be infallible and omniscient, so there is no such thing as honest disagreement. Neither is rational.
(for more on Tolerance, see my article “Tolerance”).
Ambition is the virtue of seeking a better life. Having identified rational values you wish to pursue, it is pursuing them.
I mean ambition in the broad sense: “material” ambition, putting effort towards attaining worldly success; enterprise, having energy, daring and courage in achieving your goals; and aspiration, seeking to attain something higher, or beyond normal expectations.
Ambition is a virtue with regard to worldly success because when life is your ultimate standard of value, you cannot have “too high” a standard of living, or “too much” happiness. Like everything else, this has to be considered in the context of a rational life. Ambition to be rich at any cost; or successful at the price of your higher values; or popular without integrity; or powerful by the use of force or fraud: these are the opposite of virtue. Or, your life’s purpose might not allow significant worldly success, temporarily or permanently. In that case it is perfectly valid and virtuous to seek your goal at the expense of worldly success: as far as is consistent with life and virtue.
Being enterprising is a virtue because if your purpose is valid, it is worth doing all in your power to achieve it. If it is your ultimate purpose, then it is worth risking lesser values and goals to attain it.
There is no limit to what you may aspire to: physical or spiritual, within the context of reality and virtue. There is no goal too high to aim for when life is your ultimate standard of value.
Self-discipline promotes the virtues of productivity and integrity, and the values of reason, purpose and self-esteem.
Amid the vicissitudes of life, it can be tempting to evade reality, to lose direction, to drift rather than think, to do what is easy not what is best, to do what gratifies your immediate desires not what achieves your long-range purpose. The virtue of self-discipline derives from the fact that no matter how attractive such things might appear at the moment, in fact your life is best served by consistent rationality.
Thus, to be productive and to achieve your purpose, you need to retain focus and action. To have integrity, you must resist illusory temptation for the sake of long-range principle. If you value reason, then you must remain in focus and not shut down your mind. And you cannot gain self-esteem, if you allow yourself to drift and let yourself betray your own purpose, your own principles, and your own ideals.
Self-discipline does not mean a life of perpetual labour. Rest and recreation are a vital part of a happy and healthy life: in the context of your life and its purpose. Indeed, it may take self-discipline to break away from your work and have some play! Self-discipline is the virtue of retaining your long-range goals and ideals in focus: so your actions, be they work, rest or play, promote rather than hinder them.
Human life is based on the application of our minds, on adapting what we find to our needs, changing things as they are into things more useful to us: that is, by some form of productive work.
There is no limit to this. Further discovery aids human life by increasing our understanding of reality. Inventions and production aid human life by making it better, safer or longer. Human life can never be long enough, safe enough or happy enough: not when that life is the standard of value.
Because life is the value which defines virtue, productive work is not a mere physical necessity with no moral worth: it is a moral virtue.
Productiveness is an expression of Duality: reality and consciousness. Any productive work requires the use of your mind, to create something. Neither a genius who composes symphonies in his head that are never written down or performed, nor a drone who operates a machine by rote rules with no mental input on his part, are productive. The former produces nothing. The latter produces, but it is not his productivity. A further implication is that there are no rational occupations which are “spiritual” vs. “material”: all valid fields require thought and action. Productive work of any kind requires rationality, creativity, independence, effort and purpose: the applied virtues of a rational being.
As with purpose, the field of endeavour is not relevant, it is how you do it. The productive person seeks always to learn more, to improve efficiency, to find better ways to do things, whether he builds roads or rockets. The unproductive drifts along, following the rules and waiting for the weekend. He survives. The former lives.
Pride is a virtue in the sense of taking pride in your life, analogous to taking pride in one’s appearance or in one’s work. It is to recognise that you are worthy of living: and to aspire to perfection. It is to recognise that you are your highest value: and that you must earn that right.
Man is a volitional being. Thus he shapes his own character. To live, human beings require virtue: and pride is the virtue by which a person shapes his or her character to achieve all other virtues. To live, we need self-esteem. And it is by the virtue of pride that we seek moral improvement and perfection: which is the origin of self-esteem, of knowing that we deserve to live, that we deserve to have our life as our own highest value.
The proud person does not accept an irrational code of ethics: but lives for life, by rational values and virtues. The proud do not accept unearned guilt; and if guilt is earned, correct it. In a rational code of ethics, perfection is possible: because it is practical. So the proud man does not accept flaws in his character passively, but actively seeks perfection. Aristotle called pride the “crown of the virtues”, rightly. It is the virtue which makes all others possible.
The opposite to pride is the vice of humility. To be humble is to regard yourself as unworthy and incapable of perfection. To regard as virtue the attitude that you are not competent to live, that you are unworthy of the good things in life, and that the good is to grovel in the dust, is to pit morality against life and make morality and life impossible. Humility can only be a “virtue” in the context of a philosophy which is anti-reason and anti-life.
(Price and humility are debated further in “Humble Pride”).
A rational person must decide on principles and virtues by which to live. But such a decision is of no value to you, if you do not then live by those principles. That defines the virtue of integrity: loyalty to your own convictions and values. If a principle is true but you do not follow it; if a virtue is good for your life but you act otherwise: then you act against your own life.
Thus integrity is a virtue: but how much integrity? The answer is crucial to ethics. At issue is whether the good is a life of unbreached principle, or of “principled opportunism”. Do you live by principle always, or only until some advantage can be gained by making an exception? The question reduces to this: is it ever better for your life to act against principle? If so, morality does not demand unbreached principle, indeed, may demand a breach: for principles derive from what is best for your life, and so cannot supersede it.
The present discussion is in the context of being free to act, free to choose and seek your values, with reality your only arbiter. It does not apply when you are under compulsion, in the power of the irrational. I discuss that case later.
In this context, the good is a life of unbreached principle.
Principles are determined by what is best for the life of man, given the nature of man and the nature of reality. This is a long-range, or average, determination. Consequences can never be guaranteed: a good man can die in a random accident, and an evil man might prosper. However, the rational person does not pick a fight with reality. Principles derive from what is: they tell you which actions accord with reality and reason by the nature of things. So to do otherwise is alwaysto pit yourself against reality: in the hope that you might get away with it this time. It is like looking before crossing the road – usually.
The principle behind a life of principle is this: though the particular consequences may not be certain, the implications are. All acts of dishonesty put you in conflict with reality. All injustices help the evil and harm the good. All evasions of independence compromise your rationality and self-esteem.
This holds no matter what the value of the thing in question. The smaller the matter, the less the risk it will backfire on you directly: but you compromise your virtue and integrity for something trivial. The larger the matter, the more you must come into conflict with reality, and/or the greater the injustice you must perpetrate. And these are not single events: we are talking of the principle by which you live. If your ruling principle is opportunism not integrity, then no matter where you draw the line, you draw it against reality. The smaller the matters on which you are willing to compromise, the more often the circumstances will arise, and you end up in a web of conflict with reality. The larger the matters, the fewer the events but the more severe the breach with reality each time. Either way, you cannot expect to win.
A further classification of the virtues is also relevant.
Virtues may be divided into two classes: personal and social. The former include rationality per se, ambition, pride: the virtues which you need even if alone on a desert island. It can never be good to compromise on these, for you can never gain by betraying yourself. They concern how you deal with reality, direct: and you cannot con or rob reality. The question of compromise really only arises with the social virtues, such as honesty and justice: the virtues of dealing with other people. Then one might hope to obtain a value, by conning or robbing a human being.
This reveals the core: all breaches of social principles involve a breach of justice. Any unprincipled act committed against another person is an attempt to get an unearned value by taking it from the person who has earned it: whether you try it by fraud, direct injustice, theft or parasitism. And it has already been shown that injustice can never be in your true best interests.
The principle behind that is: for the sake of your life, you must encourage the good and fight the evil. This was discussed under justice, but is important enough to warrant further consideration.
The good can be served only by consistent virtue. This follows from the nature of good and evil. The evil – the dishonest, the unjust, the parasitical, the unproductive – cannot survive in and of itself. That is only possible by adherence to reason, reality and virtue: which is the province of the good. It is the good which is rational, honest, independent and productive: it is only the good which makes life possible. So to survive, the evil needs to plunder the good. The irrational needs the rational; the thief needs his victim as the parasite needs its host. But the good neither needs nor wants the evil.
Thus, if the good refuses to support the evil, the evil withers and dies. The good may be unable to refuse: when you are looking into a gun, virtue is impossible. But to encourage and support the evil when you have a choice is against all rational values: the voluntary sacrifice of life to death.
You cannot compromise on principle because to do so is to encourage the evil. If you live honestly except when you think you can get away with a lie; if you live by justice except when it doesn’t suit you: then honesty and justice are not the principles you are living by, but opportunism. Thus you encourage the evil in yourself: and undermine your own rationality and your own life. And thus you encourage and nurture the evil in others: by showing by your actions that the evil is OK, when it is convenient and that it succeeds, to the extent that you succeed.
As in principle, so in practice. It is in your interests that other people be virtuous because then you gain by dealing with them, whereas you lose by dealing with the opposite. Hence it is in your interest to be virtuous: both directly, because the people you deal with tend to treat you how you treat them; and indirectly, because your actions and sanction affect general society. If you lack integrity, then the people you most need to deal with will not trust you and you will have to deal with people like yourself. If you lack integrity, then you help shape the society you live in into your own image. And the longer you manage to avoid the consequences, the more “successful” you seem to be: the more you spread the poison. If you have the skill to pull it off for any length of time how much better your life would have been, had you lived virtuously.
It is impossible to be in your long-term interests, ever to succour the evil. Hence the virtue of integrity.
A person of integrity may be tempted, but will not succumb: because he knows, whatever the appearances, that his life depends on his integrity. No man will drink his favourite drink, if he knows it is poisoned. Similarly, a rational person does not seek values by acting against principle: because nothing so obtained is a true value.
Virtues in Context
Virtues are not principles delivered from on high which must be obeyed mindlessly regardless of whether they promote life or destroy it. They are principles which must be applied rationally to concrete situations.
For example, how you apply the principle of honesty depends on circumstances. If you disagree with what someone is saying, then you might refute it point by point, or simply state that you disagree, or even keep silent: depending on the context. Honesty does not require offering unsolicited opinions: it requires truthful answers. Honesty does not require being brutally honest: one can be tactfully honest. Nor does it require that you tell someone something private that they have no right to know. Similar considerations apply to other virtues. Principles guide you in your thinking: they do not remove your need to think.
Virtues are expressions of rationality. Rationality is a virtue because it promotes one’s life, the highest value. Stephen Covey wrote, “To value oneself and, at the same time, subordinate oneself to higher purposes and principles is the paradoxical essence of highest humanity” (Principle-Centered Leadership). I categorically reject that attitude. I say: to value oneself you must live by purpose and principle: and this is the rational essence of highest humanity.
Principles and virtues are not things which we must subordinate ourselves to. They are subordinate to us : they are virtues because they are good for us. It is meaningless to place virtue above the requirements of human life: because they are defined by the requirements of human life.
This provides the crucial context within which virtue is virtue. It is virtue when it upholds the requirements for human life. It is never right to act contrary to principle in an attempt to gain or retain an unearned value: for all the reasons that integrity is a virtue, in the proper meaning of “virtue”. It is not because virtues are intrinsic absolutes more important than our lives, but because any such “value” is not a value. That is, it is not a rational value: it is not actually good for your life in its full context, no matter how attractive it may appear on the spur of the moment. Any attempt to gain a value whether it be money, food or love by unprincipled means, negates the potential value. The cost to your life is always higher.
This defines the one time at which a virtue is not a virtue: when practising it aids and abets the evil, when it supports the destroyers of life. If a mugger demands all your money, then not only do you not have to mention the $500 in your shoe, but you have a moral obligation to directly lie to him (if you are confident he won’t search your socks). This is not to compromise principle, but to uphold it. This is not to lack integrity, but to practise it. When you are staring down the barrel of a gun, or otherwise dealing with a person seeking to take a value by evil means: then the only way to uphold virtue is to fight the evil, in so far as you are able. There is a line from the movie SpaceBalls along the lines of: “That’s why evil will always win: because good is stupid.” Good is not stupid: not when it is defined rationally.
It is when you are in the power of the irrational that ethics becomes the most difficult, that choosing the best course of action requires the deepest thought. In the absence of force, the best course is always to act on principle. But when you are dealing with the irrational, from the teacher who will fail you for disagreeing, to a valued person making unreasonable demands, to a dictator: then life gets complicated. Is the good best served by visible integrity, or will that just be futile martyrdom? There are times when you must take a stand, when the price of not fighting is the destruction of your values: yet there are times when you must bide your time, and live to fight another day. The choice is difficult, but the underlying principle is clear, from the foundation of all principles: always uphold life, the kind of life required by a rational being.
In the ethics of Immanuel Kant, principles are mystical absolutes which men must obey no matter what the consequences. If the SS asks you if you are hiding any Jews you must tell the truth, though it sends you and them to the death camps: such is your duty. Such is abhorrent to any rational ethics: not because virtue can ever be compromised, but because it can never be compromised. This is the difference between a philosophy founded on reality, reason and life: and its opposite.
Just as mystical as Kant’s “duty” is the dominant ethics of our age, pragmatism. Pragmatism pretends to be hard-nosed and reality-based, defining what is right as “what works”. Explicitly, it denies principles: which means, it denies the self-consistency of reality, which ultimately means evading the objectivity of reality. Implicitly, the pragmatist must operate according to some principle or other, because there must be some criterion of “works”. Necessarily, that principle is ill-defined, hidden from examination, and irrational: since the pragmatist denies any principle.
Thus is the false dichotomy presented by mainstream religions and philosophies: mystical, absolute duty which crushes your life, versus unprincipled opportunism. Sacrifice is good, versus greed is good. But from the undeniable foundations of philosophy – reality, consciousness, reason, life – derive both the need and the fact of valid principles, principles which define how a human being should live. There is no dichotomy. There is no choice between life and morality. There are principles, but they are not mystical absolutes: they are rationally defined by the requirements of life. And these rational principles are what works, and are the only things that canwork: for a free-willed consciousness living in objective reality.