A Dialogue on Metaethics, Moral Realism and Platonism from an Objectivist Perspective

Plato points upward in Raphael's fresco, "The School of Athens." Plato was a Platonic "moral realist." He believed that a "Form of The Good" resided in extra-mental reality.

Plato in The School of Athens

What is the basis for an objective morality in under 1000 words? Where does mainstream Moral Realism go wrong? What error did Plato make that has negatively affected philosophers’ ethical assumptions even into the 21st Century? What is the meaning of modern, moral “error theory?”

If you are interested in any of these questions, I think you’ll want to see the answers given in the dialogue contained in this post.

First, a bit of context: I posted this article on the philosophy section of reddit: Answering Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”. The first comment below is responding to and quoting that posted article. I respond to that comment, and another poster responds to me, starting the dialogue. I am “Sword_of_Apollo” in this dialogue:


Some of these facts may be apparent, animals certainly seem to prefer warm, comfy shelter and food to the cold, and starvation, but others seem to be fairly dramatic assertions, that would be much more convincing with argumentation.

For instance

“The basic problem with all variants of utilitarianism, including Harris’s, is that there is no reason to act for the well-being of other conscious creatures, apart from how doing so redounds on one’s own well-being.”

This is a bold assertion. I don’t see this as being obvious in the slightest. Indeed, I’d say there’s no reason to only value my own well-being, when I have every reason to believe that I’m the same sort of being as other humans*. If my well-being is important, then why shouldn’t their’s be as well?

*also, don’t animals deserve moral consideration, at least to some degree? I mean, you don’t have to be vegan or whatever, but kicking a puppy doesn’t really seem morally neutral.

Continue reading

QuickPoint 4: It Is Not Racist to Judge One Culture Superior to Another

A culture is a set of ideas and practices that constitute a general way of thinking about the world and a typical way of life. Ideas can be correct or incorrect. Practices based on those ideas can be conducive to human life, or destructive of it. In short, ideas and practices can be objectively good or bad for people.

The judgment of certain cultures (ideas and practices) as better than other cultures is entirely separate from the phenomenon of racism. Racism, broadly, is the idea that one’s race, genetics, or ancestry is a determining factor in the content of his or her consciousness. Consequently, it is the idea that one can determine something about what someone believes by studying his genetic or ancestral lineage. This often takes the form of moral value judgments based on race or ethnicity.

There are some cultures that have historically been associated with large numbers of people in certain genetic groups, such as “Jewish culture” and “American Black culture.” But there is no necessary connection between genetics and culture. Anyone can be a part of any culture, according to his education and personal choices. Thus, a judgment of “American Black culture” as inferior to “Chinese-American culture” is not a judgment of an African lineage as inferior to a Chinese lineage. It is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that the cultural ideas and practices that have traditionally been accepted by large numbers of African-Americans are less conducive to human well-being than those that have traditionally been accepted by large numbers of Chinese-Americans. (It is this difference that is reflected in vastly different crime rates between the two groups.)

The irony here is that it is actually racist to consider a person’s culture to be determined by his genetics. Thus, it is actually racist to consider the evaluative ranking of cultures “racist.”


Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

Why Morality is Not “Evolved,” But Defined and Chosen

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

ayn_rands_normative_ethics_the_virtuous_egoist_300Note: I recommend reading the entire article, but if you really need just a summary, scroll down to the bottom of the post and see the “Summary” section. Also, the image on the right is not meant to imply that this article is from Dr. Smith’s book. This is my essay.

Many people today–especially in the atheist/skeptic/naturalist subculture–think of ethics as a set of rules that applies only to interactions with other people. They don’t think that primarily personal decisions can be considered immoral, but only actions that harm (or don’t help) others.

One will find, however, that a great many historical philosophers considered ethics to encompass a complete way of life; both the personal and the social aspects. Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand all regarded ethics as defining the proper way to live. Indeed, the dictionary definition of ethics as “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of actions and the goodness and badness of motives and ends,” does not specify that “goodness and badness” must be “social.”

Were all these philosophers wrong in their idea of the basic place of ethics in human life? Were they fundamentally misguided in their whole approach to ethical questions? Is the dictionary definition of ethics wrong? Here I will examine the facts of the case for morality as a set of principles that provide guidance for a complete way of life, versus morality as a set of rules for promoting “proper” social interaction. Continue reading

A Philosophy Professor Discusses Ayn Rand in his Ethics Class

Dr. Gregory Sadler of Marist College recently discussed Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness in his Spring 2013 Ethics class and posted the video to YouTube:

Dr. Sadler is not an Objectivist, but he gives what is, in my view, a good introductory presentation on Rand’s ethics. I encourage anyone interested in the broader study of Rand in academia, to watch this video (at least in part) and leave polite comments on the YouTube video page.

My main critiques of Dr. Sadler’s presentation have already been voiced in the page comments. They are the following:

Overall, this is a very good presentation of Rand’s ethics. Thank you, Dr. Sadler.

Just a few points: Contrary to 52:48, Rand wouldn’t say the choice of friends is arbitrary, but ought to depend on their objective virtues/values. Vicious people harm one’s own life when you’re involved with them; virtuous people typically benefit one’s own life.

Also worth emphasizing: Man *creates* wealth/values (material and spiritual) by acting on proper reasoning. There isn’t a fixed “pie.”

Also, Rand regards virtues as eminently practical. A breach of integrity has very real, self-destructive consequences in the long-term. There is no gap between morally principled action and practical action. (Practical for achieving long-term flourishing.)

Finally, “Ayn” rhymes with “mine.” : )


Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

After a brief introduction to Atlas Shrugged, this essay provides a very good overview of the alternative between altruism and egoism. While not a work of technical philosophy, it is substantial: it quotes philosophers and textbooks that explain the meaning of altruism and clearly differentiates what rational egoism means for one’s life, versus what altruism means. It also generally outlines Ayn Rand’s argument for life as the standard of value and for rational egoism.

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism by Craig Biddle

The book-length version can be found here: Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle

Recommended technical works are here: Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Some short points about the Objectivist ethics of rational egoism (1):

  1. If human beings wish to live, they need morality because only certain types of actions will lead to successful life as a human being, while others will necessarily lead to suffering and toward death; yet human beings do not automatically choose life-promoting actions, and they do not automatically know what is life-promoting for them, especially in the long term.
  2. A certain fundamental happiness is the marker of a flourishing life, and the fullest, long-term happiness is an individual’s proper purpose in adhering to moral principles. What serves his own flourishing life (and thus, long-term happiness) is what defines an individual’s self-interest, (i.e. his proper values.) Interactions with others are part of morality, but are not the central concern; the central concern is the reality of the individual’s condition with respect to the attainment of life-sustaining/enriching values.
  3. Rationality is the fundamental virtue that subsumes all other virtues. Its being the fundamental virtue means that reason is the means by which an individual discovers what is in his self-interest, and that action based on reason is the only means by which he can achieve his proper values, (thus building happiness.)
  4. The six subsidiary virtues that Ayn Rand identified are aspects of rationality. They are: honesty, independence, productiveness, integrity, justice, and pride. Pride is not boastfulness or foolhardiness, but a dedication to excellence and moral self-improvement.
  5. Attempting to sacrifice the rational interests of others as a means to one’s own happiness, whether done through force or deception, is doomed to fail. One’s own happiness cannot be built on the robbery or enslavement of others, because human life depends on the production of values that sustain it. Those on whom the parasite feeds are worn down or destroyed, and find it in their rational interest to sabotage and get rid of the parasite. By using force or deception, the parasite is working to sabotage the victims’ motivation and rational judgment, and it is their motivation and rational judgment in the production of values on which he is depending for his livelihood.
  6. The rational interests of individuals in everyday life in society do not conflict, because life-sustaining values are not a static quantity to be fought over, but are created by effort based on reasoning, and are thus variable and potentially unlimited.
  7. Human beings are a combination of the physical and mental, and an individual’s self-interest includes psychological values. Self-interest is not to be reduced to only the physical, such as money. Other people can be of tremendous psychological value (i.e. friends, lovers, children.) That an individual’s ultimate standard of value is his own flourishing life does not mean that he disregards others, or that he simply uses them for material gain. He can gain major psychological benefits from contact with other people of good character who reflect his values.
  8. Objectivist moral principles allow for a vast range of optional values within their practice. They allow for different career choices, (including full-time parenthood,) different tastes in art (literature, movies, music) and different amounts and types of social contact. One’s own emotions about different options are typically among the relevant factors to consider in deciding which optional values to pursue.
  9. A basic (non-self-sacrificial) benevolence toward others is in one’s own interest in an essentially free society. This typically includes being courteous and respectful to strangers, and considerate to friends. This is due to the fact that others are potential values to oneself, whether as trading partners, friends, lovers, or simply as general innovators whose ideas can improve one’s own life. In a free, rights-respecting society, strangers are much more likely to be allies than enemies, in fundamental terms, and it’s not in one’s interest to push such people away without good reason. (Business competitors are not enemies; see Atlas Shrugged.)
  10. Just like principles of physics and free-market economics, principles of morality are contextual absolutes. This means that they are not like Biblical commandments that are supposed to always apply, no matter the situation. Proper moral principles apply only within certain circumstances, but when they do apply, they are absolute, and cannot be violated with impunity. For example, the principle that “the initiation of physical force is immoral/evil (destructive to human life)” does not apply in the face of an immediate physical threat to someone’s life. Initiating force to push one’s unsuspecting friend out of the path of a falling boulder is a good act. In ordinary circumstances, when human life depends on the free exercise of each individual’s mind, the initiation of force is evil because it destroys and/or paralyzes the minds of victims and subverts the mental functioning of the perpetrator, to the extent it is initiated.

For those who don’t have backgrounds in philosophy, but want to learn more about this moral code, I recommend reading The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand and Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle. For those who are more philosophically oriented, I also recommend Viable Values and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Dr. Tara Smith.


(1) Dictionary definition of: egoism1. the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest; selfishness (opposed to altruism). … 3. Ethics. the view that each person should regard his own welfare as the supreme end of his actions [Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, 1973]


Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same