Life as the ultimate value. Despite all the fine noise Rand made on behalf of logic, she could contradict herself with the best of them. Her favorite type of contradiction involves equivocation. She would begin reasoning with some very broad abstractions—so broad, in fact, that the equivocations she accomplished with them have gone unnoticed by her denizens. One minute, she'd be saying one thing with them; the next, something else. She equivocated to draw causation out of identity, certainty out of fallibility, and dyophobia out of realism. We find her up to her same old tricks in her ethics. Man's life, she asserted, is the ultimate value. This suggests a survivalist ethic. Life über alles. And if there be any doubt on this subject, at least as far as orthodox Objectivist opinion is concerned, consider the following extraordinary statement, compliments of Leonard Peikoff: "An action without effects on man's life (there are none such) would be outside the realm of evaluation." ("Fact and Value," emphasis added)
Could Peikoff have really meant that "there are none such" actions without effects on man's life? Not if we interpret man's life in the survivalist sense suggested by its introduction in Rand's ethics. In the survivalist sense, the statement is largely false; and whatever small element of truth may linger in the statement is incalculable. In other words, even though there are some actions that marginally increase the risk of mortality, it's very difficult to specify precisely what that risk is (particularly when its very small). It may well be, for example, that adultery increases, if ever so slightly, one's risk of mortality, either because of increased risk of a murderously jealous spouse or the increased risk of venereal disease. But these are, admittedly, very negligible risks—so negligible, that it is not clear that they exist at all. Which is precisely the whole point: most human action does not contain any clear, verifiable risks in terms of mortality. And those few actions that could be calculated in terms of risk would not normally be given any moral significance except in extreme cases. Is hiking in the mountains immoral? Who would dare say so? Yet it is clearly more risky to go hiking in the mountains than to stay at home. The risk is very small, but it is there nonetheless. Indeed, it's probably greater than the risks involved in committing adultery. But who would dare say that hiking in the mountains is more immoral than adultery?
Rand was well aware of the shortcomings of a survivalist morality. In her Playboy interview with Alvin Toffler, she said: "If the value is great enough, you do not care to exist without it." Well now wait a minute! If life is the ultimate value, how can any value be great enough so that you would not wish to live without it? There are other passages sprinkled throughout the orthodox Objectivist canon where Rand and her apologists back of from the survivalist implications of her life-as-ultimate-value morality. This retrenchment is rationalized by the fundamental equivocation in her ethical system. Thus in Galt's speech Rand wrote: "The standard of value in Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good and evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man." Now this little man-qua-man qualification changes everything. It's not just any kind of survival, but a very a special type, that we are to pursue. What precisely it is, though, remains somewhat nebulous. Rand clarifies "survival qua man" with the phrase "that which is proper to the life of a rational being." But since this is supposed to be part of an argument explaining how rational values are justified and generated, this will not do. Observe closely, for we are here confronting as good an example of circular reasoning as one is likely to find. When we ask Rand and her orthodox followers, How are rational values discovered? they answer By determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being!
So all that stuff about life and death being man's only fundamental alternative was just window dressing! It has nothing to do with her conclusion, which is merely a vague standard that has no relation to anything and which, precisely because of its indeterminate nature, is no standard at all. Rand has failed to achieve her stated goal of delivering a rational ethics. Is, then, a rational ethics even possible? That will be the subject of my next post.