Our ethics are the Objectivist ethics described in the essay of the same name in Ayn Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness.
The following is an introduction to this branch of Objectivism. While every effort has been made to describe Ayn Rand’s formulation faithfully, the reader should verify the following summary – and gain greater clarity – by referring to Ayn Rand’s books, and also to Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Self-sacrifice and Business
For centuries thinkers have said that it is wrong to be selfish, that is it is moral to be selfless. Self-sacrifice has been held up as the moral ideal.
What do we mean by a ‘moral ideal’? We mean that according to a specific code of morality, a set of moral values, self-sacrifice is the proper way to live our lives. The closer we can come to this ideal the more moral we are. By traditional morality, people like Mother Theresa are the epitome of virtue: and deserve to be saints.
Although most people do not believe that they should renounce their worldly possessions and enter a life of holiness, this view of moral perfection affects the way they see their careers in the following ways:
- it affects their feeling of self-worth - since they cannot ever attain this kind of moral perfection in the business world, it diminishes the pride they would otherwise derive from their achievements;
- it can lead to feelings of guilt: on the one hand they are building status, power and wealth for themselves, but on the other hand they are feeling that they would be better people if they were devoting their lives to helping those less fortunate.
Let us examine this claim that it is moral to be selfless. What is a moral value?
If we look at other animal species, we see that they have values, although these cannot be described as moral values. If we define ‘value’ as ‘something one acts to gain or to keep’ , food and shelter are values to animals.
Of course they are values to humans also. But why do we speak of them as values? Why are we motivated to pursue them?
We pursue them because our lives require that we do. So animals pursue food, and food is a value to an animal, because in order to sustain its life, it needs to eat.
Clearly food and shelter are physical values for humans for the same reason. But why do we need moral values?
The Need for Moral Values
Unlike the other animal species, we are not born with an automatic means of living our lives. We need to acquire the knowledge that living requires, ourselves. And because of the complexity of our civilisation – for example, the many careers we can choose between, and the infinite number of ways we can improve our lives - we are faced with many choices in our lives.
We therefore need to know in fundamental terms how to make these choices. This is where moral values come in.
Let us take an example here to illustrate the meaning of ‘moral value’. Throughout our lives we face many choices as to whether to lie or to tell the truth. To guide us in these choices we rely on a principle: it may be that our principle is to always tell the truth, or for the dishonest, to lie whenever they can get away with it.
To say that we should adhere to the principle of living honestly is another way of saying that honesty is a moral value - meaning that it is a fundamental value accepted by choice. It is fundamental because it determines the many choices about whether to lie or to tell the truth that we make throughout our lives. It is ‘by choice’ because unlike the physical value of food, it is possible for us to live (although not very effectively in the long term) without accepting honesty as a value - we can choose not to see honesty as a value.
Now back to the question of why we need moral values.
To summarise the explanation so far:
- We face many choices in our lives and we need a set of values to guide us in those choices. We need moral values to help us to make decisions.
- Just as we need to pursue or keep physical values in order to live, so we need to pursue or keep moral values in order to live.
Therefore the purpose of a code of values is to help us to live effectively.
The Objective Standard of Value
Now that we understand why we need a code of values, we can get closer to understanding which moral values we should follow: we can be in a position to judge whether or not a particular moral code fulfils this need. In other words, this need for values - the sustenance of our lives - determines the nature of the code of morality we should adopt.
Actually, it is the standard of value. We can judge whether or not something is a moral value by the standard of whether or not it helps us to live effectively. Thus the good is anything that helps us to live effectively, while the bad is anything that threatens our lives.
For example, we live most effectively by producing the goods that we need. Of course, with division of labour there is no need for each of us to grow our own food, build our own houses, and make our own clothes, but each of us must produce in order to trade for these. So by the standard of life, productiveness is a moral value.
The fact that life requires that we pursue values is the only fact that gives rise to the need for values. It is therefore only life that can properly be the standard of value. Ayn Rand illustrated this point by having us imagine an indestructible robot. Since this being would not face the constant alternative of life or death, there would be no motivation for it to purse values. Nothing could be of value to it. It is only the fact that our lives are conditional that gives rise to the concept of value.
Ayn Rand identified 3 supreme values that we need to hold in order to live effectively: reason, purpose and self-esteem.
“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. These 3 values imply and require all of man’s virtues…” 
She identified 7 virtues as the actions or policies required to gain and sustain these values: rationality, productiveness, pride, independence, integrity, honesty and justice.
If we accept that the purpose of morality then is to enable us to live effectively - that is, successfully and happily - the claim that it is moral to be selfless makes no sense. To live successfully we need to achieve and to create, not to give away. We need to be concerned primarily with our interests and with the interests of those we love, not with the interests of those we do not even know. Moral actions are the actions of rational productive people who are working towards their goals and safeguarding their futures.
Now this is not to say that it is never proper to help those in need. It is quite natural to want to help strangers in emergencies, since we can easily imagine ourselves being in similar trouble and would want to be helped if we were. It is also quite natural for successful, happy people to want other people to be happy too; quite natural for them to hate the sight of privation and suffering. Provided one is not placing oneself in danger or acting against one’s own interests by helping those in trouble, there is reason to help. But the primary focus of morality is to help us to live effectively.