In an article appearing in UVA’s Cavalier Daily entitled “Gotta Have Faith,” Ginny Robinson expresses anxiety over trends of growing recreational drug use and casual sex. Her attitude toward this lifestyle is most likely shared by many Americans who don’t think that these choices constitute a good life. Many would explain their attitude by referring to religious texts. For many, religion offers the only source for ethical principles by which one ought to live. But it’s worth asking, how well do religious rules succeed at identifying principles that allow one to make choices resulting in long-range success and happiness?
Consider the topic of sex, which many religions regard as shameful. Their guilt allows them to see little difference between in-the-moment hook ups and passionate lovemaking. Even married couples are bombarded with sermons about how sex is appropriate only for procreation, not as a way to experience pleasure and happiness for oneself.
It’s also worth visiting the virtue of honesty, which is regarded by religious morality as a duty to God and others always to speak the truth. But does someone have an obligation to speak the truth even to those who seek to rob or kill them? Doesn’t honesty involve more than merely how one speaks, but also how one upholds the truth in one’s thoughts and actions?
Many tenets of religious morality are incompatible with man’s quality of life. Followers try to apply religion’s rules and eventually end up experiencing guilt, self-denial, and confusion. But they’re told not to worry about these negative results and that faith will numb their sting.
One philosopher, Ayn Rand, provided an alternative morality founded on the premise that the principles required for living a good life could be demonstrated on the basis of observable facts. Instead of thinking that we should accept mandates from an ancient text on faith, Rand argued that virtues and vices could be shown to be beneficial or detrimental to our long-term happiness in the same way that nutritious and poisonous substances help or harm our physical health.
For example, Rand also argued that honesty is a virtue, but for different reasons. She argued that living an honest life is good because it is practical for living, not because it is a blind duty. We cannot decide a plan of action by attempting to fake reality, nor can we productively deal with other people through lies and manipulation. We ought to be honest if we want to be happy and effectively coexist with others.
Put differently, honesty is a virtue because it can be proved to enhance man’s long-range life. By the same token, the popular trends of indulging in wanton sex and drugs can be demonstrated to be immoral precisely because they are destructive behaviors in the long run.
Heroin may deliver temporary stimulation, but no amount of short-term pleasure can make up for permanent, self-imposed brain damage. Casual sex may provide in-the-moment pleasure, but no number of partners had can provide one with a sustaining amount of self-respect and pride.
The whimsical pursuit of pleasure is not the standard of healthy, long-term happiness. To live a flourishing human life means a fulfilling career and the resulting sense of personal efficacy, not the life of a bum or a playboy.
There are right and wrong answers to how people should behave if they are to achieve happiness. In other words, there are objective principles that constitute good living. Both faith and hedonism are opposed to reason; both disvalue the importance of deriving good and evil from the nature of reality itself.
As Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “If you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality—you who have never known any—but to discover it.”