Notorious is an ethical argument imagined by Rand and still admired by her disciples. It is Rand’s argument that “man’s life” is the “ultimate value,” and there are plenty of Objectivists who pretend to understand the logic behind it, though they can never make it clear to anyone who insists on remaining in touch with both logic and reality. Many followers of Rand have accepted her argument in order to retain their personal morality and yet be free of the necessity of having it depend on a personified deity. Of course, morality may be made to depend upon Jupiter, upon the God of the Christians, upon the God of Mohammed, upon the will of that most estimable demoiselle Milady Nature, or upon the “Objectivist” ethics of Rand. Whatever it is, it is all the same thing. Rand expresses the conclusion of her argument in a phrase, to wit: “Man’s life is his ultimate value, or man’s life qua man.” A customary trait in all such formulae is that they are so vague in meaning that one can get out of them anything one chooses. And for that reason it would have been a great saving of breath to say, “Act in a way pleasing to Rand and her disciples,” for “man’s life qua man” will in the end be dispensed with anyhow.
The first question that comes into one’s mind as one tries to get some definite meaning into the terms of Rand’s formula is (1) whether the phrase “man’s life” means that the individual values only his own life; or (2) whether "man’s life" refers to all human lives, irrespective of who is doing the valuing. In other words, is Peter supposed to value only his own life as the ultimate end, or is he also supposed to regard the lives of all human beings as ultimate values?
To judge by Rand’s commitment to egoism, she seems to accept the first interpretation, even going so far as to insist that a man’s “own life” is “the ethical purpose of every individual man.” Yet this violently contradicts the whole purpose of Rand’s ethics, which is to provide an “objective” morality based on “reason” (after all, it is the Objectivist ethics, not the Relativistic ethics). Something that is “objective,” like an “objective” fact, is true in the same way for anyone who grasps it. If, for example, the date of Christopher’s Columbus’ discovery of America was different for different people, this date could not be regarded as an “objective” fact, since it’s truth would be different for different people. The same analogy would appear to hold with an “objective” value: this, too, also has to be the same across the board. But if the individual’s life is only an ultimate value to himself, man’s life, in this sense, cannot be regarded as an “objective” value; for every individual would have a unique “ultimate” value (Peter’s life would be Peter’s ultimate value, Sarah’s life would be Sarah’s ultimate value, Paul’s life would be Paul’s ultimate value, but Sarah’s or Paul’s life would not be an ultimate value for Peter). How can an objective value, whether “ultimate” or otherwise, be different for every human being?
Rand’s phrase “man’s life” contains yet another ambiguity which we must attempt to resolve. The term life can, and frequently is, used in several different senses. It may mean, for example, merely “being alive” (i.e., survival); or it could refer to the period in which a person or organism has or will be alive; or it could refer to a person’s activities or fortunes or manner of existence. What sense of the word life is Rand using when she declares her ultimate value?
Rand seems, at least initially, to subscribe to the survivalist sense of life. Throughout the first portion of her essay, she discusses what is necessary for “man’s” survival. She even goes so far as to suggest that ethics is a science that tells human beings how to survive. “What are the values [man’s] survival requires?” she asks. “That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics.”
Nevertheless, after giving us “man’s life” (in the survivalist sense) as the ultimate value of her ethical system, Rand begins presenting us with other ultimate values, which come bobbing up no one knows from where: "[M]an’s survival qua man ... does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. [But wait a minute! Here Rand is qualifying what she means by man’s life. It’s not survival after all, but something else!] It does not mean the momentary physical survival [isn't all survival physical?] of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull [what about the "mindless brute" whose survival is longer than "momentary"?]. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as “survival at any price,” which may or may not last a week or a year. [What about “survival at any price” that lasts for decades?] 'Man’s survival qua man' means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice. "
As usual with ethical arguments of this sort, they end up raising more questions than they answer. To begin with, where did this “survival of a rational being” come from? Why wasn’t it mentioned earlier? And why is the survival of a rational being the only type that can qualify as an ultimate value? Why should non-rational men be excluded? Is it because only rational men can survive? If so, then rationality is merely a means to survival. So isn’t it redundant to suggest that only a rational man’s life is the ultimate value? And how is one supposed to distinguish a rational man from a non-rational one? If the non-rational one’s don’t survive, this suggests that everyone alive must be rational. Or does Rand merely mean to suggest that non-rational individuals will not live as long as the rational ones? But how does she know this? Where is her evidence?
It is rare for Rand to provide evidence for any of her assertions, and when she does, the evidence is usually vague or dubious. Human beings, she writes “cannot survive by attempting the method of animals by rejecting reason and counting on productive men to serve as their prey. Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of the moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. [Why does she suggest (or imply) that all looters necessarily reject “reason,” or that they seek to destroy their victims?] As evidence, I offer you any criminal or dictatorship.”
Well that certainly narrows it downl! She offers us “any” criminal or dictatorship! But in doing so, she immediately forfeits her case. For history is replete with dictators and even criminals who, despite Rand, refuse to destroy both themselves and their victims and live well beyond the range of the moment. Plenty of criminals, gangsters, autocrats, dictators have thrived to a ripe old age and prospered despite all their plunderings and assorted villainies. The aristocracies of Europe were essentially formed from sanguinary marauders. Many a great fortune, even among Rand’s favorite class of capitalists, is founded, at least in part, on some shady dealing or another, little distinguishable from outright plunder.
To complicate matters further, we soon find Rand shifting the ground of her argument once again. She tells us, without batting an eye, that “the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.” Since she earlier insisted on man’s “own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man” and “man’s life” as his “ultimate value," how can happiness be seen as “man’s highest moral purpose”? What possible difference can exist between “ultimate value” and “highest moral purpose”? Such inconsistencies are not noticed, because people reason on sentiments and not by logic.
In order to get around these equivocations in Rand’s ethics, one would have to reason as follows and say, “Although man’s life qua man may be his ultimate value, please do not let yourself be deceived by such phrases as ‘man’s life’ or ‘ultimate value.’ To say ‘man’s life’ and ‘ultimate value’ is just Rand’s way of saying. In reality, man’s highest moral purpose is his own happiness, which he can best attain by trying to survive in a ‘rational’ manner—that is, by forming concepts in a ‘proper’ way and pursuing many other fine virtues that will be explained to you at the proper time and place.” That much granted, one might just as well, from the logico-experimental standpoint, do away with “man’s life qua man” altogether, for it is thrown overboard in any event. But not so from the standpoint of sentiment. The appeal to “man’s life” serves the purpose of flattering egoistic sentiments and giving the hearer or reader the satisfaction that there should be an absolute norm which is superior to captious wranglings and petty human altercations—something established by Nature and “reason”; and then that sum of sentiments whereby we vaguely sense the utility of the principle that the decisions of judges should be made with reference to such rules and not against or in favor of any given individual.
The larger point in this exercise is to demonstrate that Rand’s ethics appeals, not to logic or fact, but to sentiment. No one who is intent on fact and logic will ever be convinced by the string of equivocations and non sequiturs that passes for the Objectivist ethics. Those who are convinced by such reasonings are led astray by their own sentiments, which blind them to the glaring weaknesses in Rand’s arguments. From these considerations we can conclude that the Objectivist Ethics is a mere derivation from sentiment; and as such, must be reckoned a secondary factor behind an individual's conduct, with little power, on its own initiative, to affect the social or political order.