The Highest Virtue

Philosophical Reflections XI

Life is the primary goal of all living things, and the fundamental value of a rational consciousness (one which possesses and uses the faculty of reason). As virtue is behaviour which helps you achieve a value, it follows that the highest virtue is that which most assists in the maintenance and improvement of your life.

The fundamental value of life follows from Duality: the existence of consciousness and of external reality. From Duality it also follows that we must learn about the world because that is critical to our lives (Prime Principle), and that the central behavioural guides we need are objective values and virtues. As shown previously, reason is our most fundamental tool for learning about the world; reason is the origin of free will, from which derive the possibility and necessity of choice; and reason is our central tool for deciding the objective values and virtues by which we should live.

Therefore, the highest virtue for a human being (or any rational consciousness) is rationality : the consistent use of reason.

The consistent use of reason involves the integration of all your beliefs, values and sensory data into a non-contradictory whole. The rational person is not ruled by emotion, or by convention, or by whim: but lives by the uncompromising use of his or her own mind.

Ethics & the Arbitrary

Man lives in a real world which he can understand through his faculty of reason. Ethics are his guide for how to live. Thus ethics must be grounded in reality and reason. In reality, because that is what we live in, inescapably and undeniably. In reason, because that is what connects our consciousness with the reality in which we live.

It follows that the arbitrary has no place in ethics. By definition the arbitrary cannot be validated by reference to facts, and is not integrated with either our other knowledge or perception. Therefore it is contrary to the very nature of reality, of reason, and of man. Therefore it has no place in ethics, whose purpose is as a guide for men to live in reality.

The arbitrary includes any claim that cannot be validated by reason and perception (either directly, or indirectly by reference to higher-level concepts ultimately based on perception). Beliefs inherited from parents, religious claims, “cultural heritage”, myths, and feelings or ideas that pop out of your own subconscious, are all arbitrary and therefore without value if they cannot be validated by reason.

The invalidity of the arbitrary is shown by the simple question: how do you know whether it is for good or for ill? To borrow a religious analogy, how do you know whether the internal voice is from God, or the devil? The only way is to judge it in the light of your other knowledge. And in the context of consistent reason, this means ultimately in the light of observed reality.

This is not to say that “received wisdom” should be despised, nor that ideas which pop unbidden from your brain must ipso facto be ignored. It is simply to say that every idea must be examined in the light of reason: the test of consistency with all your other ideas and with the direct evidence of your senses. Only then can you know whether it is right or wrong, consistent with reality or not, a help or a hindrance to achieving your values.

The Ethics of Faith

Among arbitrary grounds for ethics, faith deserves special mention due to its historical and continuing influence.

I am referring to faith held up as a virtue in itself: the idea that belief in the absence of evidence is good, or worse, that belief contrary to the evidence is good. In essence, the doctrine of faith answers the question, “why should I believe?” with the reply, “because there is no good reason”; culminating in Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd.” Nothing could be more calculated to disable the mind of a human being, which means: to cripple his prime capacity to achieve life and happiness. Which means: to undermine his highest value. By disconnecting evidence from belief, it replaces reason with the arbitrary authority of men. For all the talk of faith “in God”, what it really means is this: unquestioning acceptance of the unsubstantiated claims of men.

As rationality is the highest virtue, it follows that this kind of faith, this attempt to disconnect truth and hence ethics from reality, is one of the lowest vices. This is true on principle. Although the ethics historically spawned from faith are ugly – from the stoning of blasphemers, to the burning of heretics, to wars against the Infidels, to death sentences on unpopular authors – a faith may expound some genuine virtues. Any arbitrary system may, usually in so far as reason and the value of one’s life in this world have influenced its ethics. Faith stands condemned not merely for its fruits: it is evil per se, because it is anti-rational, therefore at root anti-life.

Faith usually allows men some use of their minds, for their day-do-day lives. It must, for its adherents to live at all. But faith bars from reason the very things most important to the life of a free-willed consciousness: its values and virtues, the foundations upon which it builds and lives its life.

The oft-made claim that only religion can provide an objective standard for ethics is actually an assertion that there is no rational basis for ethics, but by proposing an arbitrary belief system somehow the ethics you derive from it are objective! For if there was a rational basis, “faith” would not be needed. Unfortunately, a system derived from arbitrary claims is itself arbitrary, because it has no connection to the facts of reality: as the branches of a rootless tree have no link to the earth. So the essential moral claim of faith is this: “there are no rational ethics, but if you just believe, then you will have a guide for living”. And that is just another way of saying “ethics are arbitrary”: a fine idea, if your aim is to disarm men’s minds and pave the way for the first demagogic thug who comes along.

Emotions and Rationality

Although the rational person is not ruled by emotion, rationality is not the absence of emotion. This follows from the value of life and the primacy of reason.

Emotions are the psychological analogues of the physiological reactions of pleasure and pain: they exist for the sake of your life. Negative emotions such as fear, disgust and anger protect your life, by promoting the avoidance or elimination of things dangerous to your well-being. Positive emotions such as love, admiration and happiness promote the seeking of things which are good for you, and also are a large part of what makes life worth living, because they enhance the enjoyment of life. As your life is your fundamental value, it follows that the existence and enjoyment of emotions are important values to a rational person.

The above requires an obvious qualifier: it is only appropriate emotions which are good for your life. An animal cannot judge its emotional reactions: they are determined for it by instinct or conditioning. But a human being can judge the appropriateness of his or her emotional responses by reason, by reference to reality: we can determine objectively whether our emotional responses are good for our lives, or bad. Therefore it is rational emotions that are values to a human being.

“Rational emotion” is not a contradiction in terms. Emotions are not causeless: they are your response to an event according to subconscious values and judgments (hence different people can feel quite differently about the same event). If something happens which accords with your values, then you respond positively; if it is contrary to your values, then you feel a negative emotion. Therefore, rational emotions are those which follow from rational values, and which objectively promote the achievement of those values: such emotions are in accord with reason and reality.

The rational person values his or her emotions, but knows they are effects and not causes. Emotions are not tools of cognition: they are the results of cognition, rapid automatised responses to reality based on values. They are responses that must be checked against conscious values: but when so checked, should be heeded or enjoyed as appropriate. The rational man is neither an emotionless robot nor a slave to unexamined feelings: but an integrated personality who both thinks and feels, and whose thoughts and hence feelings are life-affirming and valid.

The Moral and the Practical

Life is your fundamental value and rationality your prime virtue. That one sentence eliminates the alleged dichotomy between the moral and the practical: between doing what is right, and doing what you must to get along in the real world.

That dichotomy arises only in response to irrational ethics: ethics cut off from reality, from reason, from life. When you are told that virtue is to believe and obey, not follow the judgment of your own mind; when you are told that virtue is to give away your possessions, which are the products of your labour and the requirements for your life; when the good is to sacrifice happiness in this world, and the evil is to seek what is good in this world: then how can a man live, and be moral? If he lives for himself, seeking the values which promote his life, then he is evil: but how else can he live?

Such ethics are bad enough in religion, when the justification allegedly is still the value of your life: unfortunately once removed, to an imaginary next life. They really plumbed the depths with the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his ethics of “duty”. In this, the moral is precisely that from which you gain no benefit of any kind; and if you seek any benefit, material or spiritual, then the action is neutral or immoral. In this, to save your child’s life out of abstract duty is moral, while to do so because you love him is not. Such ethics can take root only in a philosophy severed from reality, one which sunders the absolutes at the core of valid philosophy: one which sets consciousness against reality, virtue against value, value against life, and morality against reason. That it had and still has pervasive influence is a sad testimony to the state of philosophy.

The results of ethics such as these are not hard to see. When the “moral” is that which hinders your life and happiness, then morality is removed from life. If you can either be moral or live, then to live you must live amorally. And having been convinced of that, what defence do you have against the truly immoral? And if you want to be moral and to live, then what life can you live but one made up of a mixture of expedience and guilt?

“Morality, to you, is a phantom scarecrow made of duty, of boredom, of punishment, of pain… a scarecrow standing in a barren field, waving a stick to chase away your pleasures… since pleasure cannot be moral.

If you identify your actual belief, you will find a triple damnation of yourself, of life, of virtue in the grotesque conclusion you have reached: you believe that morality is a necessary evil.” (Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged)

But when ethics are restored to the realm of reason and reality, when they promote the furtherance of your life, then the moral is practical. The moral is what is good for your life: and the practical is what succeeds in the context of absolute reality. Questions such as short-term benefit vs. long-term principles become not moral dilemmas, not choices of life vs. morality: but questions of what is actually best for your life.

The Foundation of Virtue

The foundation of philosophy is that we are conscious beings who exist in reality. From that follows the foundation of ethics, that our life is our fundamental and highest value. And from these three things follows the highest virtue, rationality.

From this foundation – reality, life, reason – all ethics derive. Ethics are not arbitrary: because they derive from reality, life and reason. The moral is the practical: because both derive from reality, life and reason. The virtues a man should live by can be defined objectively: from the needs of his life in the context of reality as determined by reason. What those virtues might be is my next topic.

© 1993, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.