Life and Value in Ayn Rand's Ethics


Essay by
William H. Stoddard


May 2002

We assume here that you have read
Atlas Shrugged,
the huge and complex 1957 novel
by Ayn Rand.
There are major plot spoilers herein.


Ethics as a science
One of Ayn Rand's philosophical goals was to establish ethics as a science. She proposed that the validity of ethical principles could be assessed by identifying the biological function served by ethics, and asking what principles serve that function. This is a promising idea and makes Objectivism a fitting name for her philosophy, by contrast to such schools of ethics as Christianity, which makes ethical principles the commands of God (accepted on faith), or utilitarianism, which accepts any preferences whatever as equally valid and makes ethical principles neutral tools for achieving them two approaches reasonably described as ultimately subjective.

But the devil is in the details. A careful reading of Rand's statements on ethics, especially her essay "The Objectivist Ethics", shows that its arguments and conclusions are inconsistent with actual biological facts. Rand herself does not apply those principles consistently in her fiction, which attempts to portray people living by her ethics. Actually carrying out Rand's project requires a more accurate understanding of biology and leads to conclusions different from hers.

The coin of survival

Rand's most basic statement on ethics is that "It is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible" (John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged; quoted in The Virtue of Selfishness). She views valuing as a function of a living organism; and she asserts that "the functions of all living organisms ... are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism's life" ("The Objectivist Ethics", in The Virtue of Selfishness; quoted further below). Based on this, she identifies the organism's life as its standard of value, and she amplifies the organism's life as meaning "that which is required for the organism's survival."

Earlier in the same essay, Rand says that value is "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." In her view, then, organisms act to gain and/or keep their own existence. In fact, it's not just the case that in Rand's ethics organisms naturally value life; it's that living is valuing. All the functions of a living organism are modes in which it acts to gain and/or keep its own life and the things on which its life depends. If it stops valuing, it's dead.

But a living organism can only preserve its own life by acquiring the things its survival depends on. So it values its life by valuing the things that nourish and support it. Those things are values too. But they're values in the sense in which a check or a promissory note or a bank balance is money. Most people don't go to the bank and convert their entire balance into cash at once; but it's the possibility of getting the cash that makes the bank balance valuable. And a healthy, flourishing organism may have goods whose value goes beyond its immediate survival, such as a bear's body fat at the end of autumn; but the payoff in survival is what makes them count as values. Rand describes this by saying that an organism's life is the ultimate goal or end in itself in relation to which every other value is a means. And conversely, if something does not have a potential payoff in survival, it can't have value.

This explanation makes ethical values one example of the broader category of values generally. A plant attains values such as sunlight and water by tropistic movements and directional growth, without any consciousness of its biological functions. An animal has some consciousness of benefit or harm, which Rand calls "the pleasure-pain mechanism". A human being chooses values through a cognitive process. Values chosen in this way are the ones Rand considers to be the concern of ethics. But she situates ethics in the larger context of life in general being the pursuit of value.

This is a powerful and suggestive analysis; it invites us to look at the living world and see a constant striving for benefits, and it says that ethics is a natural function of a healthy human being. But it also places certain limits on what actions can be said to be ethical. Does Rand actually believe in those limits?

The death of the Wet Nurse

One of the most interesting of Rand's fictional characters, for many readers, is a minor character in Atlas Shrugged, a bureaucrat assigned to regulate the steel mills owned by Rand's industrialist hero Hank Rearden. His name is Tony, but the reader only learns that in his very last scene; in all his earlier appearances he's called "the Wet Nurse", supposedly a sarcastic name given to him by Rearden's steelworkers. Rand shows him originally coming to Rearden Steel to ride herd on Rearden; but during the course of his stay there, he learns to admire Rearden, and ultimately to change his loyalties. That change costs him his life; when he proposes to warn Rearden of a plot to seize or destroy his plant, the plotters beat him and throw him down a slag pile, mortally injuring him.

Rearden discovers this as he returns to his plant and sees a hint of motion by the side of the road. He goes down, picks up Tony, and carries him back to the plant, hoping to save him — but the hope isn't granted. Tony lives long enough to deliver his warning, and then dies, saying that this must be how it feels to want something very badly and to attain it.

This scene is one of Rand's most moving. But by her own statement of the logic of value, Tony's actions have no value.

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand (3d) The ultimate value is one's own survival. But Tony knows he's dying; he has no hope of anything past living long enough to give his warning. The effort of giving that warning costs him dearly, in pain and struggle, and may very well shorten his life by consuming his last strength. And where is the payoff? Rearden's continued possession of his mills, or even Rearden's life, won't prolong Tony's life, and after Tony is dead it certainly won't cause him to survive or flourish; so it can't have any value either. Tony is giving up some of the last fragments of value he will ever have — a few moments more of life, and a chance to minimize his own pain, the most direct possible experience of disvalue — in order to gain something whose payoff will only come after he's past caring. How can this make sense?

It's possible, of course, to say that if Tony did survive, then Rearden's friendship and respect for him would be a great value, and that by acting as if he were going to survive, he gains a few last moments of living as he ought to, as a being who pursues values. But the sense of oneself as a being who pursues values surely depends on one's actually pursuing values. If Tony's feeling that he cares intensely about Rearden is sufficient to make his devotion to Rearden a value, then values are subjective, and Rand always denied this. But the standard she proposes as an objective measure of value says that Tony is not attaining an objective value: his own survival or anything that can contribute to it and therefore, any joy he takes in his own action is unfounded. It's like taking joy in having a banknote from a bank that has failed, rather than considering it a worthless scrap of paper.

But I've never found it possible to read of Tony's last moments unmoved, or to think that he would have been better off huddled at the base of the cliff, waiting to die, or that his final happiness was meaningless. Rand the storyteller knows better than Rand the logician. But where did Rand the logician go wrong?

What is life?

In fact, Rand is wrong in one of her basic statements. She says that every function of a living organism is directed toward a single goal: the organism's survival. But this isn't, in general, true. Living organisms have reproductive organs, and the functioning of those organs is not directed to the organism's survival. In fact, most living organisms spend a significant part of their lives doing what Tony does: living for the sake of something that will happen when they are no longer there to care about it, that something being the survival and reproduction of their descendants.

It's possible to disregard this in relation to human beings. For one thing, human beings can and do engage in non-procreative sexual activity, whose payoff is physical pleasure or emotional bonding. For another, human reproduction does not directly cost the lives of the parents; in fact, since human beings are mammals, successful reproduction requires the prolonged survival of the parents after procreation. But neither statement is true of living organisms generally, and Rand claims that her ethics is founded on a logical relation of life and value that applies to every organism.

Consider, for example, a drone bee on its nuptial flight. During that flight it will inseminate the queen, and then she will emasculate it and it will die. In terms of pleasure and pain, the tradeoff looks quite dubious; in terms of survival, mating has no payoffs, and in fact it ends the drone's life. Yet the drone certainly acts to gain the chance to mate, which is therefore a value, and it has reproductive organs and behaviors that enable it to mate. So there is a value for the drone that is separate from its own survival. And in fact, since drones don't collect their own food, or maintain the hive, or do anything else that maintains the survival of bee qua bee, their entire lives amount simply to a means to reproduction and are stripped of everything that might serve any other purpose. Survival, for the drone, isn't an ultimate end at all, but only a means.

Obvious examples could be found in many other species. But more basically, current investigations in evolutionary biology point more and more to the idea that how long an organism lives, and how fast it matures, form part of a reproductive strategy and are shaped by evolution to optimize its reproductive success. In other words, while it's obvious that survival is a means to reproduction for drone bees, it's just as true for living organisms in general; it's just not as obvious.

A key principle of Rand's epistemology, and a useful one, is that the proper definition of a concept is in terms of fundamentals. That is, out of all the characteristics of entities subsumed under a concept, the defining characteristics are the ones that best explain the entity's other characteristics. (This is why Rand considers it legitimate for definitions to change as knowledge advances.) But the characteristics of living organisms are best explained by reproduction, not by survival.

Evolution, action, ethics

To make this clearer, let's engage in a brief metaphysical fantasy. Suppose that, in some distant solar system, there are two planets similar to Earth. On one planet, entities come into existence that act to prolong their own existence; on the other, entities come into existence that act to make copies of themselves. What happens?

The entities that prolong their own existence will do things that keep them going. But, over time, accidents will happen; survival is never guaranteed, as Rand points out. So, one by one, these entities that seek survival will fail, and cease to exist, until their planet is empty again. If we call them "living", then their world is a dying one.

The entities that make copies of themselves will not, individually, last as long. But so long as they make enough copies, their numbers will increase. (Mathematically, if they live N days, then 1/N will die each day; if more than 1/N make copies each day, then their numbers will increase.) And if, by sheer random chance, one of them develops a trait that makes it more likely to continue existing, and passes that trait on to its copies, more of those copies will survive long enough to make further copies, and so the trait will become more common. This could mean purely passive traits such as mechanical, thermal, and chemical durability; but it could also mean active traits such as moving to more favorable locations, collecting and storing materials or energy sources, or the like. Differential reproduction will ultimately cause the reproducers to become survivors as well. In addition to acting to gain copies of themselves, they will act to keep their own existence. But their own existence will not be an ultimate end, but a means to the existence of entities of their kind. At this point they will be living, and as their planet will increasingly fill with entities like them, it will be a living one, like Earth, and not a dying one.

Rand's own definition, in fact, gives this away, looked at closely. A value, she says, is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. It's clear that an organism acts, much of the time, to keep its own existence. But when and how does it act to gain its own existence? Obviously, if it exists, then it doesn't need to gain its own existence; and if it doesn't exist, then it can't act to gain its own existence. The entities that act to gain an organism's existence are its parents, and thus its existence must be a value to its parents. Rand's focus on survival obscures this; to paraphrase John Galt's speech, "The organisms are here. How did they get here? Blank-out."

Rand's statements about the nature of living organisms may well reflect her training in Aristotelian philosophy and Aristotelian metabiology. For Aristotle, the telos of an oak tree, the that-for-the-sake-of-which the oak tree exists, is the full grown tree. But Aristotle's biology has been replaced by Darwin's, in which an oak tree is an acorn's way of making more acorns. And Darwin's theory has more explanatory power than Aristotle's. If Rand is claiming to base her ethics on the actual facts of biology, she's picked the wrong statement of those facts.

The Galt's Gulch boys

Does this philosophical and scientific error have any substantive effect on Rand's view of the world? One way to examine this is to look at Rand's fiction, and in particular, at her example of an ideal society of just men and women, Galt's Gulch. What features of real human life does she consider it necessary to include in Galt's Gulch, and what does she feel free to omit?

Galt's Gulch has, to start with, a singular shortage of women. Ronald E. Merrill ingeniously suggests that Rand's mention of thirty-six specific individuals as residents of Galt's Gulch reflects, more than coincidentally, the Jewish legend of the tzaddikim, the thirty-six just men for whose sake God preserves the world. But of these thirty-six, the only women are Dagny Taggart, Kay Ludlow, an unnamed fishwife, and an unnamed mother who came to Galt's Gulch to practice her profession of motherhood. John Galt's teacher, William Hastings, went away to Galt's Gulch every summer for years, until he died, but he never told his wife where he was going, still less invited her to join him — though on Rand's stated views of sex and marriage he presumably loved her and she presumably shared his values. It looks very much as if the bar of virtue is set too high for most women; no more than one-ninth of the Just are female.

One of the more curious bits of Aristotelian biology is the principle that organisms are constituted by matter and form, and that form comes from the father and matter from the mother; that is, the human essence is male. As a result, the true human form is male, like that of the father. No normal, fully realized human being is female; women are the product of a failure to develop properly, a species of deformity, but one that fortunately can nurture the growth of a new generation of men. Rand does not endorse this outmoded embryological hypothesis, but her evaluation of human life seems to reflect a comparably low estimate of women, perhaps because she adheres to the same metabiology.

An army without families?

In a curious way, the population of Galt's Gulch resembles an army, a resemblance that becomes marked in the climactic chapter when virtually all of them fly to New York to rescue John Galt from his torturers. Like an army, they include few women in their numbers. And like an army, they are living and facing peril for the sake of a future victory against their enemies. But unlike an army, they seem to spend little time thinking about the women whom they will see when their battle is won; only Francisco d'Anconia and John Galt seem to have such dreams. And unlike an army, they are not standing "between their loved home and the war's desolation"; any women they care for are apparently being left outside, unprotected, amid the horror of a dying civilization. This doesn't suggest a strong concern with reproduction, or even with sex, for all the intense sex scenes.

Nor is reproduction a common activity in Galt's Gulch. Apparently there is only one woman there who practices the profession of motherhood, just as there is one man who grows tobacco, and one man who makes machinery.

This is perhaps a heavy load to place on Atlas Shrugged. It's an adventure novel, if one on a grand scale; its literary characteristics are those of pulp fiction. If it presents a band of hypercompetent men to whose number a few extraordinary women are admitted, this isn't very different from Doc Savage having his five male companions and his cousin Patricia join his adventure, or from the Second Stage Lensmen including four males of disparate species plus Clarrissa MacDougall. The pleasures of such fiction are their own justification. But adventure fiction isn't a complete image of human life. Of course not, Rand might say, it's a stylization, it includes the interesting and important and leaves out the dull and trivial — and it just happens that women are mostly trivial, that sexual love (except between titans) is mostly trivial, that reproduction is mostly trivial, and that the ideal man has no childhood or family background worth recounting.


Is this relevant to Tony? Hank Rearden isn't his child (symbolically, Rand suggests the reverse). The appeal to biology may show that survival isn't the ultimate value of an organism's existence; but that doesn't show that whatever Tony gains or keeps either is or serves any ultimate value.

To start with, though, even for an organism that values the coming into being of (partial) copies of itself, this doesn't have to take place through the organism's reproduction. Anthills and beehives are full of sterile workers that care for the queen's other offspring. Since they share the queen's genetic makeup, her offspring are equivalent to theirs. Darwinian natural selection doesn't insist on direct reproductive continuity.

But beyond that, human beings pass on more than their genes to their offspring. Children are also shaped by their parents' ideas. In fact, it's possible to have a sense of inheritance and continuity toward an adopted child who shares only one's ideas. Some biologists refer to heritable ideas as "memes", by analogy to "genes". But ideas are, if anything, more freely transferable than genes; they can pass from person to person by a process comparable to contagion, taking on something like a life of their own, mutating and evolving. But for an idea to succeed it has to induce the person who holds it to pass it on to other people. Since all human beings are shaped by ideas as well as by genes, a human being can have heirs of the mind as well as of the body, and this provides another way to leave a legacy.

Ideas can also be embodied in capital, in the form of a business venture that outlives its founder and continues to operate under new ownership. And an idea can be embodied in the form of a worthy and memorable deed, one that will be remembered and honored after the death of the person who performs it, a form of inheritance highly esteemed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This last seems to come closest to Tony's case.

A legacy ethics

What I propose, then, is that the proper ethics for human beings is a legacy ethics. Surviving and flourishing are necessary intermediate values in this ethics, but we are not and cannot be permanent. But we can love something that will outlive us, and live to help it do so. Indeed, this is the only form of ethics that can provide us with guidance, or a sense of meaning, for as long as we live. For ethics operates on the conceptual form of evaluation, and the role of concepts is to integrate past, present, and future, offering us a long time horizon. But the old have less and less personal future ahead of them, and therefore, if personal future is all that matters, less and less need of ethics and less and less sense of meaning; in the end they will find themselves adrift, with no ethics and no need of ethics. To retain a sense of meaning, they have to look forward to their ethical values outliving them, being carried forward by others.

Is this a retreat from Rand's affirmation of selfishness, back to self-sacrifice? Rand herself seemed not to think so. She offers the example of the parent paying for expensive medical care to save a child's life as a form of selfishness, as opposed to paying for medical care for someone else's child at equal expense. And in her fiction, she shows, for example, Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead looking forward to Howard Roark's career, which Cameron will never see and which, by her strict logic, can have no value to him. Rand's theoretical formulation knows nothing of legacies and has no room for them; but Rand's examples say otherwise.


 © 2002 William H. Stoddard

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