To say that many people are confused about morality is an understatement. Yet, our lives depend on getting morality right. As an example of the confusion, consider the recent column by Peter Foster in which he deservedly praises Alex Epstein’s new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (see my post about Epstein’s book here). But Foster criticizes the book, wrongly, for failing to deliver on the promise of its title, because “making a rational, practical case is not synonymous with making a moral case …”

Let’s analyze the source of Foster’s confusion. He doesn’t actually define morality but makes some revealing statements: “Moral issues are ultimately about how we treat each other;” “Morality is based on feelings, which means that it doesn’t make people think veryclearly or logically. In fact, it often stops them from thinking at all;” and “[Epstein’s book] raises issues that demand much further and deeper analysis of our ‘moral sentiments’.” These statements show that Foster’s idea of morality is vague: it has to do with feelings and how we treat each other.

But let’s be precise. What is morality, or ethics, and why do we need it? In Ayn Rand’s definition, morality is “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions, choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” This definition is consistent with the ancient Greek view of ethics as the guide to good life, a set of guiding principles. These principles provide guidance to all our choices and actions and are more fundamental than merely “how we treat each other.”

Why do we need such principles? Why not just live in the moment, like animals do? We need moral principles because we do not know automatically what goals to choose and which actions to take to achieve those goals. Unlike animals that have been programmed by evolution to preserve their lives, we have to discover, by thinking, the knowledge that our survival and flourishing requires—a very practical goal indeed. Living in the moment and ignoring the long-term consequences of our actions is hazardous, as those indulging their whims today and starving tomorrow come to realize. The fundamental knowledge we need is condensed in moral principles (although other, more specialized principles, such as those of agriculture, engineering, medicine, nutrition, also contribute to our survival and well-being).

Moral principles, such as self-interest, rationality, honesty, justice, integrity, independence, productiveness, and pride, are not based on feelings but on facts. They are based on the factual requirements of human survival and flourishing and on the premise that that survival and flourishing is the ultimate goal of each individual. Moral principles are based on the observation (formalized by Aristotle who defined man as “the rational animal”) that human beings survive primarily by using reason: observing facts and applying logic. This observation makes rationality—the use of reason as “the only source of knowledge, the only judge of values, and the only guide to action” (quoting Ayn Rand)—the primary moral virtue.

There are moral principles that people might feel are right and that may even stop them from thinking logically, or at all—for example, those promoting self-sacrifice to serve the needs of others. However, only the principles that are based on facts—such as the ones I mentioned above—that can be shown to be consistent with the requirements of long-term survival and flourishing of human beings, are valid and can guide achievement of our values.

Because the purpose of morality is to guide us to live a good life—to achieve our values, such as meaningful work, a successful business, a happy romantic relationship—it must be based on the recognition of the facts on which such achievement is based. Morality is not based on feelings. While important, emotions are not primaries; they are responses to our values, which are based on facts. We feel angry when we experience injustice, for example, or joy when we achieve a long-pursued goal, such as a university degree or a dream job. Emotions are not tools of cognition, and they should not guide action, such as taking revenge on someone that has been unjust to us (as opposed to seeking justice through rational means).

Moral principles, validated by facts, guide us to think logically to survive and flourish. Nothing could be more practical—as those who abandon rationality and other valid moral principles and act on impulse and unexamined emotions will unavoidably discover.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent post. The more reasonable and logical this subject is, the more most people don’t want to understand it. And the worst part is that they all benefit from reason, logic and selfishness(sshhh). They even use it to disregard it. For them is more important to stay consistently wrong, then to dare challenge their beliefs.

  2. Great article, Jaana.

    Sad that Foster, who is above average for media in digging for information, doesn’t get a basic.
    You offer some non-oil I suppose, hopefully he will apply it like a “bracing” aftershave lotion and think about what you say.
    Both Epstein’s relatively short book and Foster’s relatively short column open the door to more discussion.
    Indeed, Alex provides some additional discussion of morality, in http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexepstein/2015/01/29/a-humanist-approach-to-environmental-issues/?inf_contact_key=e2c3eef21ae24f08381325abe42260c4cccc97fcdfa81a9073213ed3e7d0d91a, in part responding to an economist who mostly praised the book but .

    • Thanks, Keith, for your comments and the link to Alex Epstein’s forbes.com column.–I think the idea that the rational and the practical conflict with the moral is widespread, thanks to altruism.

  3. I question whether the average person has the slightest idea what morality really is.

    BTW, just found your blog from Alex Epstein’s website. It’s good to see another Objectivist from Calgary!

    • Thanks, Mark, for the comment. I disagree with you about the average person’s understanding of morality. Most people get morality in the sense that they make the distinction between right and wrong and realize that choosing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ has consequences. However, they may take the source of morality for granted (e.g., religion, what their parents taught them, the majority opinion) without realizing the importance of such moral rules shaping their lives–which is probably what you refer to by “not understanding what morality really is.”

      You can contact me via the website if you want to discuss further (I am not the only other Objectivist in Calgary…).

  4. “Most people get morality in the sense that they make the distinction between right and wrong and realize that choosing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ has consequences.”

    Many people certainly do, but many of them have not been exposed to a solid source of values. That and muddled thinking in general makes them suckers for people like the package deal of the Progressives (a term coming back into vogue) – the pitch that to be fair you have to accept control. (Of course they aren’t that clear.)

    In the history of ideas, the notion of a conflict between the moral and the practical comes from the mind-body dichotomy that results from Plato’s two-worlds attempt to explain our mind’s use of concepts. Alex and you explain why there is no conflict is values for human life are understood. Aristotle – a student of Plato’s – got the answer right: one real world, A is A.

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