Moral Relativism. There exists a great deal of confusion over the issue of moral relativism. Most people—including Rand and her followers—equate moral relativism with moral subjectivism, which is to say, with moral nihilism. While people can define terms as they please, it is important to note that, philosophically speaking, the most coherent account of moral relativism eschews the subjectivism of social relativists and instinctive hedonism. This brand of moral relativism assumes (in the words of Santayana) that the "only natural unit in morals is the individual man." Moral values arise out of the relation between natural dispositions and capacities of the individual on the one hand and the occasions for satisfying those dispositions in external circumstances on the other. Such dispositions, capacities, and occasions are all "objective" facts well beyond the control of subjective wishful thinking. But as these factors may differ from individual to individual, so moral values may differ from individual to individual. The good for Peter may not be identical to the good for Paul.
This brand of moral relativism is the only morality fully consistent with naturalism. Its main alternative and rival is moral absolutism. The most coherent form of absolutism assumes the existences of a transcendent moral law imprinted on the universe by the will of God. Less coherent forms of absolutism have been attempted on secular grounds, but have not fared well. G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell were the last big name philosophers to attempt a fully consistent secular form of absolutism in the opening decades of the twentieth century, but their ethical pretensions were decisively refuted by Santayana.
Given Rand's vehement hostility to religion and the supernatural, we might expect her to be hostile to any form of moral absolutism. Unfortunately, she also despised any morality based on natural disposition, because such dispositions are emotional in content and therefore "irrational." She also assumed that an "objective" ethics must be a "universal" ethics, and that any ethics that was not universal must be "subjective," and hence morally abominable. She was also well aware of some of the shortcomings of absolutism, even in its secular guise, as her criticism of intrinsic morality demonstrates. So what was she to do? She decided, in effect, to embrace a form of moral eclecticism, drawing whatever features she liked from each system and then declaring, in her usual ex cathedra manner, that her morality constituted a third alternative which she called "Objectivism." The problem with doing this is that, without realizing it, she was throwing together incompatible elements. What Rand claimed of "intrinsic" moral theories is true of all absolutist theories. "The intrinsic theory," she wrote, "holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved." But this is true all absolute moral theories. Once we begin talking about the consequences of moral actions and the benefits and injuries of individuals, we are speaking in relativist terms. Benefits and injuries can only be determined in relation to natural dispositions and capacities. Since these dispositions and capacities differ from individual to individual, they cannot play a role in any absolutist moral system. Rand's criticism of intrinsic moral theories borrows from and assumes moral relativism. It is not consistent with the absolutist and universalist strains in her system.
Now Rand adopted several strategies to try to circumvent the contradictions that arose in her ethics as a result of her embrace of moral absolutism. To begin with, she adopted a standard of value destitute of ethical content. She asserted that the standard of value is man's life. But what could that possibly mean? Since most moral decisions have, at best, only a negligible and uncertain bearing on life, such a standard is not very useful. So Rand added the qualification "man's life qua man," or, as it is sometimes interpreted, man's life as a rational being—alas, an even vaguer standard! The practical effect of a vague standard is that you wind up with no standard at all. This allows one to surreptiously adopt some relativist standard (such as eudaemonism) while pretending all along to be an absolutist. Or, even worse, one can project a morality based on one's own moral dispositions on the universe at large, claiming that your values ought to be everyone else's.
Another strategy Rand adopted to evade the difficulties inherent in moral absolutism was to qualify this absolutism by calling it "contextual." This is her most unequivocal concession to moral relativism—though only a partial one. Contextual absolutism embraces only one side of the moral equation: it admits that external circumstances play a role in formulating moral precepts. "Internal" circumstances—i.e., the natural dispositions and capacities of the individual—continue to be ignored and disparaged as "whims." For Rand, ethical conduct has to be (per impossible) controlled entirely by "reason." Hence the contradiction in the Objectivist ethics between the naturalistic strains in her thought and the absolutist strains.
A naturalistic morality must be based on natural dispositions—on human nature in the traditional sense of the term. As Santayana put it: "Morality—by which I mean the principle of all choices in taste, faith, and allegiance—has a simple natural ground. The living organism is not infinitely inelastic; if you stretch it too much, it will snap; and it justifiably cries out against you somewhat before the limit is reached. This animal obstinacy is the backbone of all virtue, though intelligence, convention, and sympathy may very much extend and soften its expression."
When, however, some moral philosopher, in pursuit of absolute moral ends, extends his moral precepts "beyond their natural basis, [his morality] not only ceases to be rational in its deliverances, and becomes fanatical, but it casts the livid colours of its own insanity upon nature at large.... No true appreciation of anything is possible without a sense of its naturalness, of the innocent necessity by which it has assumed its special and perhaps extraordinary form. In a word, the principle of morality is naturalistic. Call it humanism or not, only a morality frankly relative to man's nature is worthy of man, being at once vital and rational, martial and generous; whereas absolutism smells of fustiness as well as of faggots." [The Genteel Tradition at Bay, 54-55, 73-74]
Is Rand in fact guilty of casting the livid colors of her own insanity upon nature at large? In one respect, yes, she was guilty. Rand's moral absolutism helped to justify her moralism, which will be the subject of my next post.