Thursday, July 16, 2009

Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It

I have recently finished reading Craig Biddle's book, "Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It" and loved it. I think it should be compulsory reading for any just-discovering Objectivist who is looking to understand and integrate the philosophy of Ayn Rand into his life. I've read a lot of Biddle's articles from his quarterly journal,The Objectivist Standard and think of his work as completely awesome. He specializes in bringing complex abstract problems to the readers in extremely simple terms. This book was the first book of his I've ever read and really enjoyed it.

I had written sometime earlier that, "What we need today is not just a defense of the free market from economists; people like Henry Hazlitt and Von Mises did that decades ago but we still see socialism and fascism around us every day. It is the notion of altruism that we need to dismantle and bomb away. Until it is accepted that a person has a duty to live for somebody else, the growth of the mixed economy will not stop nor the growth of regulations until we get to a point of no return. To fix it, its not just free market economics we need but cultural change that will show that a person should be selfish and pursue his chosen values as he sees fit."

Craig Biddle does exactly that. He demonstrates that morality is not a matter of divine revelation, social convention or personal opinion-but, rather, is the factual requirements of human life and happiness. My favorite parts from his book are the early chapters where he is setting the context of the rest of the book. He starts off by explaining the false alternative of religion v. subjectivism and very plainly and clearly reasons that both – religion and subjectivism – uphold sacrifice as the moral virtue and selflessness as the moral ideal.

But what I take away from the book – the thing that made the cut – was his explanation of the is-ought problem and the nature of values. I had never been aware of the is-ought problem or David Hume's theory until now. The theory says that one can never go from the realm of facts to the realm of values – that there is nothing in the what is that tells us the what we ought to do. As Biddle puts it, "But reason allows us to identify facts and only facts, which alone does not seem to tell us about anything about what we morally ought to do. There simply is no fact labeled "ought" out there." If one witnesses a murder, then the relevant facts are that one man is stabbing the other while the other is trying to resist or run away. Hume asked, in essence, where is the notion or concept good in facts? How does one get from facts to values? By analyzing such a premise, Biddle sets a context to the discovery of Ayn Rand and why her discovery was so fundamental in nature. The answer to the is-ought problem lies in the nature of values.

Biddle notes that Ayn Rand did not start out by asking what are values but asked why does man need values in the first place? The need for values arises from the fact that life – any life is conditional. The notion of good stems from acknowledging this fact and doing everything that sustains and promotes life. The only morality that grasps the fact that genuine happiness comes from the achievement of one's values is Ayn Rand's theory of selfishness. The notion of value is not a primary; it presupposes the questions: value for what? and value to whom? Rocks, for example, don't value staying in one piece or not whereas I definitely do. I value food and shelter precisely because my life is ultimately at stake. It is precisely because one's ultimate value -- life -- is at stake – that at each moment one may or may not exist – one has to take life affirming actions if they seek the stuff of good living. The standard for which one judges a thing to be good or bad is: man's life. Thus, all that promotes man's life is good for man and everything hinders it is bad for man.

The other question a value presupposes is a value to whom? I was always unclear what value to whom precisely meant and Biddle gave me a lot to chew on and process. Biddle writes, the question value to whom, put another way is asking: Who should be the beneficiary of values? Should the beneficiary of values be the subject himself or some other person or entity? If we are to take actions that promote life we must grasp the fact that life is the attribute of an individual. To promote life, the beneficiary of a value should be the individual himself. The morality that holds that the individual himself is the beneficiary of values is the morality of rational egoism.

Resolving the is-ought gap, Ayn Rand wrote, "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do." In other words, she said that concept of values like all other concepts is the grasp of certain facts: it is the fact that life is conditional that make the transition from facts to values possible and necessary – if one chooses to live.

If one chooses to remain in existence, then one must use the faculty of reason that arranges the data gathered from our senses in conceptual form, by the method of logic. Reason, like life, is the attribute of the individual since it is only the individual who can observe, think, make deductions and understand the world around us. If the individual chooses to sustain his life, then, in short, he must be productive. I really enjoyed Biddle's desert island examples to concretize higher abstractions. On the point of productivity, if one were on a desert island one would have to produce to live, the relationship with reality doesn't change even in a specialized society because one still has to produce to live. Other lively examples involving desert islands scenarios occur when he explains the nature of rights and the requirements of a civilized society. Desert island examples, I think, reduces the perceptual data one has to hold in their RAM thus making the reasoning easier to follow.

The chapter on Objective Moral Virtues is wonderfully written and is filled with examples underlying the principle that one can never fake reality and get away with it. The primary virtue is rationality. As Miss Rand puts it, "it is the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values and one's only guide to action." Since rationality as such does not offer specific guidance, it is narrowed down into other virtues like independence, productiveness, integrity, justice, honesty and pride Examples given range from the dishonest manager who occasionally promotes his employees on the basis of seniority or gender or race and to the "selfish" activity of cheating on a test. The book does a great job of analyzing higher level abstractions and concretizing them into great examples.

Loving Life engages and introduces complex principles for readers who have no prior knowledge of philosophy. If anybody is looking for a genuine book on self-improvement, this is it.

[Update: The first two chapters of the book are available for the subscribers of The Objectivist Standard here and here.]


Objectiveman said...

Very nice post. Thanks for giving the links to the chapters of the book.

The quality of the writing has really improved, as promised. I have really enjoyed your last few posts.


khartoum said...

Thanks mate!