Ari Armstrong on the Objectivist Ethics

Ari Armstrong, in his book What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics, argues for what he sees as essential problems with the foundations of Ayn Rand's ethics; specifically with Rand's identification of survival as the ultimate end and as the standard of value.

Objectivists have become jaded with critiques of Objectivism that attack ridiculous straw men, with no attempt to understand what Rand actually said; and who throw out any argument they can think of, no matter how obviously fallacious, in the hope that something sticks. Armstrong's book is a refreshing exception. Armstrong has read Rand's writings, and the literature discussing her ethics, with close attention, and for the most part presents Rand’s philosophy accurately, more so than many of those who claim to defend it. He devotes a lot of time to explaining Rand's ideas and arguments, correcting common misconceptions about them, and discussing and ably answering many of the weak criticisms of Objectivism that have appeared in the literature, before presenting his own criticisms. The result is a very interesting and thought-provoking book, which, if it gets the attention it deserves, will be an important contribution to the literature on Objectivism.

But does Armstrong succeed in pointing out problems with Rand's ethics? And does he succeed in providing a promising alternative? As I discuss in this essay, I believe he fails in both.

Update: Armstrong has posted a reply to this essay, and I have written a follow-up reply.

Armstrong's arguments against Rand's ethics

Armstrong's basic case against Rand's ethics consists of two arguments:

1. Rand's understanding of biology, which forms the foundation of her ethics, is wrong.

2. Survival can't be the ultimate end, to which all other values are means, because people have many values that they experience as valuable for their own sake, not as means to survival.

Armstrong presents these two arguments in reverse order, presenting argument 2 in chapter 3 of his book and argument 1 in chapter 4; but argument 1 is the more fundamental one, which is why I listed it as no. 1 and will address it first.

Was Rand wrong on biology?

Rand believed that all action by non-human living organisms has the ultimate goal of supporting the organism's survival. This is the foundation for her identification of survival as the ultimate end and the standard of value in ethics.

Armstrong argues that Rand's understanding on this is wrong. He points out that reproduction does not support the individual organism's survival, and is usually detrimental to it by diverting the organism's energy and resources; and also that there are many examples of animals taking actions that risk their own survival, or even lead to certain death, in order to reproduce or in order to protect their offspring or their close genetic kin. Following the generally accepted consensus in modern philosophy of biology, Armstrong argues that such examples demonstrate that the ultimate goal of living action, in non-human organisms, is not the survival of the individual organism, but rather the survival and propagation of its genes.

The Objectivist rebuttal, to the use of such examples as an argument against survival as the ultimate goal of the actions of non-human organisms, was provided by Harry Binswanger, in his book The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (Los Angeles, CA: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1990). Armstrong discusses Binswanger's book, but fails to address Binswanger's basic argument on the issue.

Binswanger's basic argument is that when an organism's actions are deterministically controlled by its genome, the consequence is that the organism must act in the same way that its parents, and other close genetic kin, have acted in similar situations in the past. This is the point that Armstrong misses in his response to Binswanger's argument:

When a male praying mantis mates with a voraciously hungry female, when a bee stings an enemy of the hive, when a parent bird draws the attention of a fox, when a spider reproduces and ends up consumed by her offspring, these are not really examples of self-sacrificial behavior, suggests Binswanger; they are cases of individuals doing the sorts of things that made their existence and hence their survival possible. But the salient fact is that the individual organisms end up dead because of their functions or actions. The mantis loses its head, the bee loses its vital organs, the bird gets munched by the fox, the spider becomes food for her babies. An organism does not serve its survival by doing something that causes it to die. (Ari Armstrong, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics, pp. 58-59)

In all these examples, given the deterministic, genetically-controlled processes that generate the animal's behavior, it is impossible for the animal to act differently from the way its parents and other close genetic kin have acted in a similar situation in the past. The only possible way a male praying mantis could avoid mating with a hungry female - barring mutations that affect this specific behavior, which are necessarily extremely rare - would be if its parent also didn't mate with a hungry female; and that would obviously be detrimental to the individual praying mantis' survival, since it would prevent it from being born. The only possible way a bee could avoid stinging an animal threatening the hive, is if other bees from previous generations of the same hive, who were its close genetic kin, also didn't sting an animal threatening the hive; and that would be detrimental to the individual bee's survival, since it would be very likely to result in the hive being destroyed long before it was born. Ari's final sentence in the above paragraph is therefore wrong; given the necessity of acting in the same way as the organism's parents and other close genetic kin have acted in similar situations in the past, the organism does, in many cases, serve its survival by doing something that causes it to die.

The distinction, between acting to support individual survival or the propagation and survival of one's genes, only becomes meaningful because of human free will; for organisms whose actions are generated by deterministic, genetically-controlled processes, it is a distinction without a difference. An organism acting to support the survival and propagation of its genes is necessarily also acting to support its own individual survival, and vice versa. The idea of gene survival and propagation, as the ultimate goal of living organism behavior, has become entrenched in modern philosophy of biology; but it is not in fact any more helpful in understanding animal behavior than individual survival as the ultimate goal.

Contrary to Armstrong, then, Rand's understanding of the ultimate goal of non-human living action is correct, and forms a valid foundation for her ethics.

Values experienced as ends in themselves

Armstrong second basic argument is that we have many values that we experience as valuable for their own sake, not as means to survival. Armstrong writes:

If a person experiences anything as valuable for its own sake, as an end in itself, apart from its contribution to survival (whether or not the thing valued also furthers survival), then Rand’s case is false. So, for example, if someone experiences, as valuable for its own sake and not for the further end of survival, listening to a piece of fine music, watching his child develop, having sex with a loving partner, enjoying an exquisite meal, watching a beautiful sunset, playing a fun game, or reading a finely written work of philosophy, then that demonstrates conclusively that Rand is wrong about the relationship of values. (Armstrong, p. 45)

This argument is based on taking a person’s experience, of values as valuable for their own sake, as infallible; if someone experiences the values Armstrong lists as valuable for their own sake and not as means to survival, this "demonstrates conclusively" that the actual role of these values in his life is as ends in themselves and not as means to survival.

Consider how the same logic would apply to physical pleasure and pain. The human physical pleasure-pain mechanism operates in the same way as the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of other animals, and evolved for the same goal. If you were convinced by my argument in the previous section, you would agree with Rand that the goal of the human physical pleasure-pain mechanism, like that of other animals, is supporting individual survival. If you were not convinced, then you would instead agree with Richard Dawkins and with the consensus in modern philosophy of biology, that the goal of the human physical pleasure-pain mechanism, like that of other animals, is supporting the survival and propagation of one's genes.

However, Armstrong, to follow the logic of his argument, has to disagree with both Rand and Dawkins. By Armstrong’s logic, if we experience physical pleasure (as we obviously do) as valuable for its own sake, not as a signal of what is helpful to survival or to gene propagation; and if we experience physical pain (again, as we obviously do) as bad in itself, not as a signal of threats to survival or to gene propagation; this demonstrates conclusively that both Rand and Dawkins must be wrong about the goal of the pleasure-pain mechanism, and that its actual goal must be to provide pleasure for its own sake.

The fallacy in both these parallel arguments is the same; a person’s experience of the goal served by physical pleasure and pain, or by his emotional reactions to the achievement and loss of his values, is not infallible. The physical pleasure-pain mechanism evolved to guide animals to act in support of their own survival; its function is to make animals experience what is helpful to survival as valuable in itself, in the form of pleasure, and experience what is threatening to survival as bad in itself, in the form of pain.

Rand regarded the emotional capacity as an extension of the pleasure-pain mechanism, aimed at the same goal; providing a signal of what is for or against one's survival. On this view, it is to be expected that the emotional capacity would generate experiences parallel to those generated by the pleasure-pain mechanism; i.e. make a person experience the achievement of his values as valuable in itself, in the form of joy, and the loss of his values as bad in itself, in the form of suffering. If we accept that the physical pleasure-pain mechanism is aimed at an ultimate goal other than providing pleasure for its own sake (whether you believe that ultimate goal to be survival or gene propagation), then the fact that values are also experienced as valuable for their own sake is not an argument, let alone a conclusive demonstration, that they are not also aimed at an ultimate goal.

Survival as the standard of value

A person has very little control over his physical pleasure-pain mechanism. What he finds physically pleasant or painful is, with very few exceptions, fixed from birth. For the most part, physical pleasure and pain automatically guide his actions towards supporting his survival, by causing him to find pleasure in what helps his survival and pain in what threatens it; with some exceptions, mostly caused by the fact that the pleasure-pain mechanism evolved in an environment very different from the one in which we live today. But in all cases, whether the pleasure-pain mechanism guides someone’s actions to support his survival in a particular case or not, it is not under his control.

The fundamental argument of Rand's ethics is that the emotional capacity, as an extension of the pleasure-pain mechanism, has the same goal; guiding one’s actions towards supporting survival. A person experiences happiness at achieving his values, and suffering at losing them; and so to the extent that his values are aimed at survival as the ultimate end, his emotional capacity will perform its function, guiding his actions to supporting his survival; to the extent that he holds values that are inconsistent with survival, his emotional capacity will malfunction, guiding his actions to self-destruction.

However, unlike physical pleasure and pain, a person’s emotional responses are not fixed from birth; they are based on his values, which are in turn based on the thinking he has done in the past, either by active and deliberate thinking or by passive absorption of the values he was taught by parents or teachers or others in his culture. And he can rethink and change his values. He can reject values that he previously experienced as valuable for their own sake, and teach himself to no longer value them, or reduce the degree to which he values them; and, conversely, adopt new values, teaching himself to experience as valuable for their own sake values that he did not value before. Values are therefore not automatically aimed at survival. For each person, whether his values are aimed at survival or not depends on the extent to which he had engaged in active thinking to examine and choose his values; and, to the extent that he did not, on the health of the culture he was raised in that was the source of the values he passively absorbed.

(Armstrong discusses Rand's theory of emotions on pp. 70-71, and points out that there can be cases in which emotional states such as depression or mania are the result of physiological problems, rather than of value judgments. This is certainly true; but Rand's theory of emotions applies to the normal case, and the fact that the emotional faculty, like any physiological function, can malfunction as a result of physiological problems, is not an argument against it. As I understand Armstrong's statements, he does agree with Rand that in the normal case emotions are the result of value judgments, based on past thinking.)

This is the significance of Rand's identification of survival as the ultimate end. The point of this identification is not that a person should experience his values as means to survival; the point is that this is the standard a person should use for examining his own values, identifying whether he is holding the right values, experiencing the right things as valuable for their own sake, or whether he needs to work on changing his values.

Armstrong objects that almost anything that someone already values can be rationalized with a story about how it is aimed at survival:

Claims that having children, taking a risky job, pursuing life’s pleasures, and enjoying art ultimately serve a person’s survival usually become just-so stories. The effect is to insulate Rand’s theory from objections. If a pursuit is obviously and pointlessly self-destructive, then Objectivists join everyone else in declaring such pursuits immoral. But, within the realm of pursuits that on their face seem sensible, there is no value that an Objectivist cannot defend as “really” about survival, however surprising that may seem to everyone else. (Armstrong, p. 69)

There are two problems with this objection. First, it is clearly contrary to fact to claim that "everyone else" agrees that obviously and pointlessly self-destructive actions are immoral. Such actions are often admired. For example, the actions of islamic terrorists are obviously and pointlessly self-destructive; and yet there are many who admire them and regard them as heroes. In western countries, most people recognize that the islamic terrorists are wrong and dangerous and must be stopped; but many concede that their unselfish dedication to their cause is still admirable. Rand's ethics serves as a crucial corrective to such thinking, a corrective that many people do need. (In contrast, as I discuss below, I think Armstrong's value-integration ethics fails to provide such a corrective, failing to provide a clear foundation for evaluating actions such as those of islamic terrorists as wrong.)

Second, the fact that a philosophical idea can be twisted to rationalize whatever one feels like is not an argument against it. Any philosophical idea can be twisted to rationalize whatever one feels like; and for any idea that many people accept, you will find some who do twist it in this way. Yes, there are those who regard themselves as Objectivists and who will come up with "just so stories" to justify as aimed at survival whatever value they feel like supporting. But in doing so they are twisting Rand's ethics.

The intended use of Rand's ethics is for each person to honestly and carefully examine his values, and the past thinking that they are based on; and use this understanding to identify the extent to which his values actually support his survival, and therefore where he needs to work on changing them. The importance of Rand's principle of survival as the standard of value, and its practical function as a guide to one's life, is in providing the standard for such self-examination.

Arguing on specific implications

The rest of Armstrong's arguments against Rand's ethics consist of two types of arguments. Some of his arguments – such as his discussion of Rand's thought-experiment of the immortal robot, and his discussion of the pre-moral choice to live - directly apply, and depend on, his two more basic arguments I discuss above. If I have provided answers to Armstrong's two basic arguments, in chapters 3 and 4 of his book - as I believe I have – this also answers many of his subsequent arguments.

The second type of argument that Armstrong presents is considering specific cases, and arguing that Rand's ethics would have certain implications in these cases. Armstrong considers various types of specific situations, and argues that Rand's ethics implies that a person should act in a certain way in these situations; or considers various specific values, and argues that Rand's ethics cannot justify them.

However, in none of these discussions of specific implications does Armstrong provide any argument for why the implications he points out are a problem; why the actions, that he argues are implied by Rand's ethics, are wrong; or why the values, that he argues Rand's ethics cannot justify, are justified. Armstrong's implied argument, in all these discussions of specific implications, seems to be that he feels that there is something wrong with the action, or that the value is justified; and that his feelings, or the feelings he expects the reader to have, are a sufficient demonstration of a problem with these implications of Rand's ethics.

All arguments of this form are committing the fallacy of appeal to emotion. And if Rand is correct in her view of emotions, as resulting from one's value judgments, then it is also circular reasoning; using one's emotions to demonstrate an alleged problem with an ethical theory is justifying values by nothing other than the fact that these are the values one currently holds.

Such appeals to emotion are even more fallacious when discussing a revolutionary philosophy like Rand’s. Since we all grew up in a culture that is in many ways hostile to Rand's philosophy, we are all likely to have absorbed from our upbringing some value judgments that go strongly against it. It is therefore to be expected that even those who come to accept much of Rand's philosophy will often still have some remaining subconscious opposing value-judgments absorbed from their upbringing, causing them to feel some of the value implications of her philosophy as wrong. Such emotional reactions can be corrected through self-examination, but their correction is not automatic, and many never achieve it completely. The fact that someone has such reactions can't be taken by itself as a valid argument against Rand's ethics.

Many of the situations Armstrong discusses are either extremely rare and abnormal situations, that no one reading his book or this essay is likely to ever encounter; or situations that were common in the past but no longer exist today, at least not in modern western countries, and so again no one reading Armstrong's book or this essay is going to encounter. To Armstrong's credit, unlike many other critiques of Rand's ethics, he does not confine his discussions to only these types of situations; some of his discussion is about specific situations and specific values relevant to our actual lives. But in those of his discussions that are about abnormal situations, or situations of the past no longer relevant today, the appeal to emotion becomes an even bigger problem. Emotional reactions are formed from one's past thinking based on one's experiences; even when such reactions are based on valid thinking, they are not a reliable guide to evaluating situations completely foreign to real-life experience.

Armstrong's arguments, about the specific implications Rand's ethics, vary in their validity. On some of his examples he makes a good case that Rand's ethics would indeed have the implications he claims; on other examples he does not. But all his arguments about specific implications fail because of the same basic problem: Armstrong's failure to provide an argument to demonstrate that the actions that he claims are implied by Rand's ethics are wrong, or that the values that he claims Rand's ethics can't justify are justified.

In the rest of this essay, I will address the two issues on which I believe there are remaining important points to be made regarding Armstrong's arguments: Armstrong's arguments regarding Rand's case for non-initiation of force and for rights; and evaluating Armstrong’s proposal for an alternative ethics.

Non-initiation of force and rights

As I noted above, while I believe Armstrong fails in his arguments criticizing Rand's ethics, he does succeed, for the most part, in presenting it accurately. However, chapter 7, discussing Rand’s case for non-initiation of force and for rights, contains some unfortunate exceptions, several confusions and misunderstandings about Rand's positions and arguments. Before we can evaluate whether Armstrong has demonstrated any weakness in Rand's ethics on this issue, we need to clear up these confusions.

Confusing between non-initiation of force and rights

The most fundamental confusion Armstrong commits is one committed by many others who have commented on Rand, and which I have been pointing out for over 25 years (See Eyal Mozes, “Deriving Rights from Egoism: Machan vs. Rand,” Reason Papers, Summer 1992, no. 17; and Eyal Mozes, “Flourishing and Survival in Ayn Rand: A Reply to Roderick Long”, in Objectivist Studies 3, ed. William Thomas, Poughkeepsie, NY: Objectivist Center, 2000): confusing between Rand's principle of non-initiation of force and her concept of rights.

For Rand, non-initiation of force is both a principle of interpersonal ethics, holding that an individual should not initiate force against others; and a principle of politics, holding that a social system should be organized to protect people against initiation of force. This principle forms the link between ethics and politics. Rights, in contrast, are strictly political principles; principles defining the freedoms of action that a social system should protect. The two are, of course, closely related; the non-initiation-of-force principle, in its political application, is the foundation for Rand's theory of rights. But the two are not the same; of the two, non-initiation of force is the only one that applies to the actions of an individual. Conflating these two principles has led to much confusion regarding Rand's arguments.

This confusion leads Armstrong to attribute to Rand the argument that an individual should observe the principle of non-initiation of force for the purposes of being intellectually consistent, and of helping to maintain a rights-respecting culture. He supports the attribution of this argument to Rand by quoting, and misinterpreting, a passage from Rand's talk "The Wreckage of the Consensus" (In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, New York: Signet, 1967, p. 227; quoted by Armstrong, p. 110), in which Rand was addressing the organization of a social system, not the actions of an individual. This is a passage I've discussed in a previous essay, so I will quote my discussion here:

[This passage] is from “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” a discussion of military conscription, and in that passage Rand criticizes those who defend military conscription by the statement that “rights impose obligations.” Rand is arguing that a social system should be organized to enforce consistency, demanding of each person that he respect the rights of others in return for having his own rights recognized and respected; and further, that this should be the only obligation that a social system enforces. (Eyal Mozes, “Flourishing and Survival in Ayn Rand: A Reply to Roderick Long”, p. 92)

The context is made clear in the paragraph immediately preceding the one Long [and Armstrong] quotes: “One of the notions used by all sides to justify the draft, is that ‘rights impose obligations.’ Obligations, to whom?—and imposed, by whom? ... Logically, that notion is a contradiction: since the only proper function of a government is to protect man’s rights, it cannot claim title to his life in exchange for that protection.” (ibid., p. 100, footnote 17)

Armstrong later argues that in supporting the principle that an individual should not initiate force against others, "it is not clear how such an argument about rational consistency can be tied to a survivalist ethic; it seems more Kantian in nature" (Armstrong, p. 118). That is correct; but it does not demonstrate a weakness in Rand's arguments, since that is not Rand's argument.

Emergencies and institutional force

Armstrong goes on to attribute to Rand the idea that emergencies, and institutional force, in some cases nullify some of the normal moral principles; and specifically create situations in which the principle against initiation of force does not apply. Armstrong considers this a weakness in Rand's case for rights.

Can we attribute this idea to Rand?

We can debate whether Rand's ethics really leads to such a conclusion; in my view - as I have argued before, in a passage that Armstrong cites (ibid., p. 94; cited by Armstrong, p. 120) - it does inescapably follow from Rand's ethics that in some extremely rare life-threatening emergencies, initiating force to save one's life is not wrong. But we need to recognize that we are debating our own conclusions about the implications of Rand's basic principles; we have no evidence of what Rand's view was on this question, and should not attribute this view to her.

Armstrong supports his attribution of this view to Rand with two quotes; one from The Ayn Rand Answers (ed. Robert Mayhew, New York: New American Library, 2005, p. 114; quoted by Armstrong, pp. 120-121), and one from a 2010 statement by Leonard Peikoff about immigration (Leonard Peikoff, “What Is the Proper Government Attitude Toward Immigration?,” July 5, 2010; cited by Armstrong, p. 126). Both of these quotes, however, are completely worthless as evidence of Rand's views.

The quote from The Ayn Rand Answers is, again, one I have discussed in a previous essay, so I will quote my discussion here:

The quotation, however, suffers from the same problem as do all quotations of Rand’s statements published posthumously in works edited by ARI-affiliated editors, who have proven themselves to be highly unreliable, often changing Rand’s words. It is highly problematic to use any quotation, attributed to Rand in any book edited by such editors, as evidence for attributing to her any philosophical position.

In the specific case of Ayn Rand Answers, the problem is even worse. Robert Mayhew, in his introduction to the book, states that “some (but not much) of my editing aimed to clarify wording that, if left unaltered, might be taken to imply a viewpoint that she explicitly rejected in her written works.” (Ayn Rand Answers, introduction, p. x) So we know that some of Rand’s statements in the book were not just changed, but specifically changed to imply different philosophical viewpoints from Rand’s original words. The quotation Smith [and Armstrong] cites is supposed to be from the Q&A period of “Of Living Death,” Rand’s 1968 Ford Hall Forum speech. However, when a tape of this speech was offered for sale during the 1980s by Second Renaissance Books, it included only the speech itself, not the Q&A period, so there is no way to check what Rand actually said in answer to that question. There is no way to know whether Rand said that morality is fully applicable to life under dictatorships, or whether Mayhew decided that this “implies a viewpoint that she explicitly rejected in her written works”—and so changed the words to say the opposite.

If tapes of the Q&A period are ever released, and if we ever find out what Rand actually said, it would still be an off-the-cuff remark Rand made in response to a question, without time thoroughly to consider the question and formulate her words carefully. It would not be at all clear that Rand would have said the same thing if she had written about it in an essay. (Eyal Mozes, "Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: A Positive Contribution to the Literature on Objectivism?", Reason Papers 35, no. 1. July 2013, pp. 130-131)

Regarding Leonard Peikoff's statement on immigration: beginning with Peikoff's disgraceful attack on David Kelley in 1989, he had turned further and further away from Rand’s philosophy. This was already evident in 1991 in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which contained many distortions of Rand's positions and arguments, and several interjections of Peikoff's own Hegelian philosophy, which is completely foreign to Rand (I point out many, though certainly not all, of Peikoff’s distortions of Rand's ideas in my review, Full Context, February 1992). Peikoff's treatment of Rand's ideas continued to go downhill from there, and within a few years he had taken to parroting Rand's statements with no attention at all to their meaning, twisting them to rationalize positions that would have horrified Rand. Peikoff specifically lost any interest in Rand's ideas about rights, and twists Rand's statements to rationalize total contempt for the rights of the targets of his hate. The statement about immigration that Armstrong cites is one example, though far from the worst one; the most egregious and shocking example I am aware of can be found here as an audio file, here as a transcript.

Quoting Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand to explain Rand's philosophy requires great care; it requires carefully considering each statement one wishes to quote, and not simply taking it for granted that it accurately represents Rand's ideas. But there is still a lot in the book that does accurately represent Rand's ideas, so quoting it in a discussion of Objectivism can be helpful if done carefully. The same is true for other statements and publications by Peikoff up to the mid-1990s. However, nothing that Peikoff said or wrote more recently than that can be expected to have any consistency at all with Objectivism, and certainly none of it should ever be cited as evidence of Rand's views or of their implications.

Is there a weakness in Rand's case for rights?

Having established that we cannot attribute to Rand the idea of exceptions to the non-initiation-of-force principle, the question remains: has Armstrong successfully established that such exceptions follow from Rand's ethics; and if so, does this represent a weakness in Rand's case for rights?

Armstrong provides two examples which, in his view, illustrate how in some cases, in a society that institutionalizes force, it would be in a person's self-interest to initiate force against others. One of these examples I frankly find puzzling. Armstrong suggests (p. 122-124) that the standard of survival implies that it may be in a person's self-interest to make no effort to support himself through productive work, and instead live as a parasite on the welfare state. This is puzzling because Armstrong earlier (pp. 104-105) provides an accurate explanation of Rand's argument for the virtue of productiveness, and for why this virtue is justified by the standard of survival; he does not present any answer to these arguments. He seems to have forgotten this 18 pages later.

More generally, I think Rand conclusively demonstrated that when living in a free society - not just in an imaginary fully free society, but also in a mostly free society, such as the modern, western countries of today - everyone's self-interest, by the standard of survival, is to live peacefully and productively, dealing with other people through reason and trade and not through force. We may be able to imagine some outlandish life-threatening emergencies that would be exceptions to that, but these would be the only exceptions. I don't think Armstrong has presented any argument to the contrary.

Armstrong's other example is a slave-owner in the pre-civil-war US south. On this Armstrong makes a convincing case, that Rand’s ethics would not motivate a slave-owner to unilaterally free his slaves.

However, this is not relevant to Rand's case for rights. As I discussed above, rights are, in Rand's system, principles for guiding the organization of a social system, not the actions of an individual; except when the individual is acting to influence the operation of the social system, such as when advocating political ideas or when voting. So in considering Armstrong's example, the questions relevant to Rand's case for rights, and specifically to how the standard of survival supports a case for rights, are: was the institution of slavery in the south detrimental to the survival of its people? Did the abolition of slavery benefit the people of the south and support their survival; benefitting not only the freed slaves, but, in the long run, the former slave-owners as well?

I think the historical evidence clearly demonstrates that the answer to these questions is yes; and as I understand Armstrong's discussion, he seems to agree. To the extent that an individual in a slave-owning society can influence the society’s development, and to the extent that he accepts anything like Rand's ethics, it would motivate him to exert what influence he can towards abolishing slavery. So this example actually is an illustration of the strength of Rand's case for rights, and of how the standard of survival supports that case. (As I discuss below, I think when we consider how Armstrong's value-integration theory applies to this example, it illustrates a serious problem with Armstrong's theory, and its incompatibility with rights.)

Given that this example does not demonstrate a weakness in Rand's case for rights, does it still demonstrate some weakness in her ethics? The principle I discuss above, regarding all of Armstrong's arguments about specific implications of Rand's ethics, applies here: it does not demonstrate a weakness unless Armstrong can present an argument for why the implications he has pointed out are bad; why unilaterally freeing one's slaves would have been the right thing to do. My emotional reaction in thinking about this situation is that this would have been very much the right thing to do; I expect that that would also be the reaction of most readers. But emotional reactions are based on one's experiences, and the neither I nor Armstrong not any of our readers have experiences of anything resembling being a slave-owner; while I'm convinced that in this case the emotional reaction is based on valid thinking, it is not a reliable guide to the right thing to do in a situation so completely foreign to our experience. Without an argument to demonstrate that unilaterally freeing one's slaves would have been the right thing to do, Armstrong's claim to have demonstrated a weakness in Rand's ethics commits the fallacy of appeal to emotion.

If Armstrong can present an argument for why, for a slave-owner in such a society, unilaterally freeing one's slaves would be the right thing to do; or if he can come up with some other example on which he can present a convincing argument that the standard of survival would justify an individual in initiating force against others, and also a convincing argument that initiatiing force in that situation would be wrong; then he would have a claim to have demonstrated a weakness in Rand's ethics. But such a weakness would have no relevance to Rand's case for rights; and, as long as the situation isn't one that any reader of Armstrong's book or of this essay is going to ever encounter, it would be a weakness of very little importance.

Armstrong's value-integration alternative

Armstrong proposes an alternative to Rand's ethics, which he calls value-integration theory. In Armstrong's proposed ethics, there is no one ultimate end; all the values that a person experiences as valuable for their own sake are ends in themselves. There is, however, a standard of value: an integrated life, in which one's values fit together as well as possible.

Can value-integration function as a standard?

As I discuss above, the practical function of Rand's ethics as a guide to one's life is in providing the standard for examining one's values, and identifying when and which of them need to be changed. Can Armstrong's value-integration theory serve the same function?

It is possible for someone to recognize that his values don't fit well together, and so, by the standard of value-integration, need to be changed. But in such cases, does the standard also provide guidance on which of one's values need to be changed? I don't think it can.

Consider one of Armstrong’s examples: "Just because eating is inherently pleasurable (in normal contexts) does not mean we should descend into gluttony" (Armstrong, p. 161). Armstrong does not explain how value integration theory would support this judgment. If someone puts great value on the enjoyment of food, to the point of gluttony, and also values his health, then this would represent a lack of integration in his values; by the standard of value integration, he would need to change them. But which of his values should he work on changing? He could improve the integration of his values by learning to place less value on the enjoyment of food, and to enjoy food in moderation; but he could equally well improve the integration of his values by learning to care less about his health. Which of these possible changes to his values is better? By Rand's ethics, accepting survival as the standard, the answer is clear. In contrast, by value integration as the standard, either change to his values would seem equally helpful, and I see no way the standard can provide guidance.

Reasonable beliefs, value-integration, and evasion

Armstrong writes that "Integrating our values means doing the best we can to pursue them individually and as a whole guided by reasonable beliefs rather than by unreasonable ones" (Armstrong, p. 156). It seems clear from the context that Armstrong intends to use the concept of "reasonable" in the same sense that Rand used it; meaning primarily correspondence to the facts. However, he provides no explanation for what correspondence to the facts means for values that are ends in themselves. Armstrong here needs to answer the classic is-ought question: means can be evaluated based on the facts, because the question of whether they help the ends they are aimed at is a factual question; but what is the relevance of facts to evaluating ends?

Rand's ethics answers this question, first, by identifying an ultimate end, survival, so evaluating all other ends consists of determining whether they support survival, a factual question; and second, by recognizing that the starting-point of ethics, the choice to live, is not itself subject to moral evaluation. But on Armstrong's proposed ethics, with many values that are all ends in themselves, what does it mean for these values to be guided by the facts? If the standard is value integration, that implies that they should be guided by beliefs that are internally consistent; but this seems like the only meaning of "reasonable" that this standard supports. Armstrong provides no explanation for how the facts are relevant.

Perhaps Armstrong can come up with some explanation of what it means for ends-in-themselves to be guided by the facts. But if he can do so, that would seem to make the facts an obstacle to value integration, rather than a help to it. Commitment to the facts requires constantly and actively working to learn new facts; and especially working to overcome confirmation bias, by actively looking for facts that can be evidence against one’s own beliefs. But when a person actively looks for evidence against his own beliefs, that makes it much more likely that he will find such evidence, and therefore have to question his beliefs, and question the values he holds that are guided by these beliefs. This would make him more likely to go through periods in which he is changing and re-thinking his values, and therefore in which his values are not well integrated.

Armstrong agrees with Rand's view about the nature of evil, holding that evil arises essentially from evasion. He claims that "Rand’s theory of evil ... readily attaches to value integration theory" (Armstrong, p. 165); but I don't see any argument to support this claim. By the standard of survival, going through periods of questioning one's beliefs and values based on new evidence is a benefit; by re-thinking his values based on new facts, a person is likely to adopt new values that will more successfully support his survival. But if value integration is the standard, then he would want to avoid going through such periods; so once he’s achieved a set of values that are internally consistent, guided by beliefs that are internally consistent, it would seem better to protect the integrated state of his values by shutting his eyes to any new facts that might make him question them. This is, of course, not merely a thought-experiment; it is a description of the way many people go through life. Value-integration theory seems to justify living this way.

Armstrong opens his discussion of evil and evasion with the following example:

If someone believes that, by blowing up a café full of strangers, he will help spread God’s kingdom on earth and also receive vast rewards in Heaven, he might claim that he pursues his values in the best way possible. Yet his actions are rooted in self-delusion. His imagined deity does not exist, he will receive no rewards in an afterlife, and what he pretends is God’s kingdom on earth is really a brutal theocracy. (Armstrong, p. 165)

If the standard is integration of one's values, then why does it matter that the deity does not exist, or that there will be no rewards in an afterlife? Armstrong has provided no argument for why that prevents the terrorist from having all of his values fit perfectly well together; and I don't think there is any such argument.

As for the fact that the society he is fighting for is a brutal theocracy, it is very likely that most islamic terrorists are perfectly aware of that; a theocracy imposing their religious laws on everyone, and brutally punishing or killing anyone who does not completely accept their religion, is what they value. There's ample proof, through conclusive arguments and through overwhelming empirical evidence, that theocracies are a danger to everyone's survival; but if value integration, not survival, is the standard, then Armstrong has provided no argument, and I don't see any argument, why one can't value such a society, and experience fighting for such a society as valuable for its own sake, within a set of values that fit together perfectly well.

Is value-integration theory compatible with rights?

In discussing his view of values as ends in themselves, Armstrong lists many examples of values that can be experienced as valuable for their own sake. All the examples he lists are of values that would appeal to those who accept Rand's normative ethics (probably because he lists values that appeal to him personally). But Armstrong ignores the elephant in the room: the value that many people place on imposing their morality on others.

To most people, a society in which their moral values are followed by everyone, and forced on anyone who disagrees, is an important value, experienced as valuable for its own sake. Those who fully respect other people's rights are a small minority (and most of them, if they are not full-fledged Objectivists, have still been influenced by Ayn Rand). The vast majority support anti-sodomy laws, or anti-drug laws, or anti-discrimination laws, or some of the many other laws to forcibly stop or punish whatever behavior goes against the particular person's moral values; and experience the imposing of their morality on everyone through such laws as valuable for its own sake.

If Armstrong wanted his list, of values that can be experienced as valuable for their own sake, to be a realistic portrayal of what most people value, rather than just of what he personally values, then imposing one's morality on others should have been high on the list. I believe Armstrong's failure to consider this important fact, and to include this value that so many people hold, causes him to miss a crucial weakness in value-integration theory, which makes it completely incompatible with rights.

Does value-integration theory provide any basis for resolving conflicts of value by reason rather than by force? Armstrong has said nothing on this question. It is possible for people to each have values that fit together perfectly well and still completely oppose the others' values; in that case, by the standard of value integration, there is no possible way either side could convince the other. To the extent that they all accept survival as the standard, they can still agree that living and letting live, with neither one trying to impose his values on the others, serves the survival of all of them better than fighting over the matter by force. But if the standard is value integration, then to those who value something strongly, it would seem to fit in well with this value to also value imposing it on others, by force if necessary; in contrast, the willingness to live and let live with those who oppose this value would seem like a bad fit and a lack of integration.

Consider, for example, how value-integration theory would apply to Armstrong's example of the slave-owner. Many slave-owners in the pre-civil-war south were ideologically committed to slavery, regarding it as an important moral good; and experienced being a slave-owner as valuable for its own sake and central to their self-identity. I see no basis for arguing that they did not hold this within an integrated set of values that fit together perfectly well.

Armstrong believes it is a weakness of Rand's ethics that it would not have motivated these slave-owners to unilaterally free their slaves. As I argued above, I don't agree that this is a weakness of Rand's ethics; but whether it is or not, the implications of value-integration theory for this situation are much worse. By the standard of value integration, these slave owners not only had no motive for freeing their slaves, they had strong motives for fiercely resisting any attempt at abolishing slavery. The historical record of the civil war demonstrates that slave-owners did fiercely resist any attempt at abolishing slavery, and many of them were willing to sacrifice their lives to defend it; as long as owning slaves was an important value to them, experienced as valuable for its own sake, and as long as it fitted well with their other values, value-integration theory would justify them in doing so.

For an example closer to home, of relevance to our lives today, consider the controversies in recent years in the US over the rights of same-sex couples, and of business owners such as bakers or florists who disapprove of same-sex marriage.

Rand's ethics provides a clear basis for respecting everyone's rights on these issues. Rand's general case for rights fully applies, and with equal force, to the right of a same-sex couple to get married, and to the right of a business owner who disapproves of same-sex marriage not to provide services to the wedding. Rand's definition of rights also provides a basis for sorting through the claims about conflicting rights, and rejecting the bogus conflicting "rights" that people assert, such as the "right to have the sanctity of marriage respected" and the "right against discrimination". Survival as the standard of value is an essential foundation for the case for respecting everyone's rights; the case is based on recognizing the fact that a same-sex couple getting married is not a threat to anyone's survival; that a baker or florist unwilling to provide services to a same-sex wedding is likewise not a threat to anyone's survival; while a society that allows some groups the power to impose their moral values on others is a threat to everyone's survival.

Can value-integration theory similarly provide a basis for respecting everyone's rights in these cases? I see no way that it can. “The sanctity of marriage" - meaning preventing marriages one disapproves of - is an important value to many people, who experience it as valuable for its own sake. "Preventing discrimination" - meaning closing down businesses whose choices about what services to offer one disapproves of - is similarly an important value to many people, who experience it as valuable for its own sake. I see no possible argument why people can't hold either one of these values within a perfectly well-integrated set of values. Those who respect the rights of both sides are the ones who routinely get accused, by both sides, of being inconsistent, and who would intuitively seem to have values that don't fit well together. The only resolution that the value-integration standard can lead to on this issue, as far as I can see, is to urge the people on both sides to fight to force their values on the other side, and have the matter settled by having whoever can get more political influence force their values on everyone.

In sum, I think Armstrong's proposed ethics is not at all a promising alternative to Rand's. It fails to provide any actual guidance in choosing and changing one's values. While Armstrong would clearly like to defend a commitment to the facts, his proposed standard of value integration logically leads to the opposite result, to justifying evasion. It also provides no basis to people of conflicting values for dealing with each other through reason rather than force; and, consequently, is incompatible with rights.


I very much hope Armstrong's book gets the wide attention it deserves among Rand scholars. If it does, its explanations of the principles of Rand’s ethics, corrections to common misconceptions about it, and answers to many of the common weak criticisms of Rand’s ethics, will serve as a valuable resource in improving the quality of debates over Rand's ethics, and helping both those who agree with Rand and those who disagree with her to clarify their thinking.

In the end, however, I think I have demonstrated that Armstrong's arguments fail. Rand's ethics withstands Armstrong's criticisms. The Objectivist ethics remains the theoretically justified approach to ethics; the best guide for an individual's life; and also the only ethics providing an effective basis for defending individual rights.