Do you lead a moral life? To many this may sound like an old-fashioned question. To them, the idea of “morality” connotes a series of stale, burdensome rules, usually urging chastity, renunciation, and tithing. Most people, of course, will refuse to break certain moral taboos, usually because of social pressure. But few thirst for living a moral life, which is thought to be impractical and at odds with modern life.
One thing is for sure: morality as it is understood conventionally is at odds with life, modern or otherwise. The advocates of conventional morality—preachers, prophets, and professors—have always embraced the impracticality of the moral life, urging that a willingness to sacrifice and suffer is precisely the mark of a superior character.
But why? Why would anyone regard the embrace of impracticality as a “superior” thing? Why does conventional morality require self-sacrifice? The answers have always been the same: God demands it, or society dictates it, or this is what your mother raised you to believe.
But why assume morality is defined by somebody else’s commandment? To live a moral life is just to live a good life, insofar as it is open to your choice. One philosopher, Ayn Rand, thought that the principles of leading a good life could be formulated in much the same way that principles of good health or good nutrition are formulated: on the basis of natural, observable facts, rather than arbitrary edicts. On this basis, she argued that while we do not need conventional morality, we do need a new, unconventional one.
Ayn Rand observed that water and sunlight are good for a plant, that food and shelter are good for an animal. In general, an organism’s action is good whenever it results in that organism’s survival. She proceeded to apply this insight to the question of the human good. This unconventional approach resulted in an unconventional moral code, one that upheld self-interest, not self-sacrifice: “The purpose of morality,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”
Morality, on Rand’s view, is not a set of arbitrary, useless commandments, but a code of practical principles required for human life. But living practically is not as simple as embracing indiscriminately whatever money or sex conventional moralists have asked us to renounce. Rand reminds us in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: “Man cannot survive, like an animal, by acting on the range of the moment. . . . [He] has to choose his course, his goals, his values in the context and terms of a lifetime.”
Most people already realize that in some parts of life, we must act on definite principles if we want to achieve a long-range goal, such as health or nutrition. But human life requires more than good health and good nutrition. We need not only a healthy body, but also a healthy mind, to aid us in creating our many physical necessities. We need a central productive purpose, to channel our many efforts efficiently. And we need sense of own efficacy, to sustain our motivation. Rand summarized this, again in The Virtue of Selfishness: “The values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life-are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem.”
Understanding how these values are not only means, but components of a human life, we can begin to see how Rand could regard selfishness as a virtue. Once we grasp that human life is more than health and nutrition, we see that some principles of action required for living selfishly are recognizable as long-cherished virtues, not as commandments, but as practical means to achieving selfish ends. Productiveness is a virtue because human beings survive by altering their environment, not by adapting to it. Honesty is a virtue because we cannot retain a healthy mind while faking reality, as by expecting others to produce for us. Justice is a virtue because we cannot live, learn, or prosper in a society without rewarding others for doing the same.
So who needs morality? Nobody needs the conventional morality of self-sacrifice, and its advocates have rarely pretended that anyone does. But Ayn Rand formulated a new code of morality, one that rejects the stale edicts of convention, while embracing the new responsibilities required by reason, purpose, and self-esteem. This is the kind of morality we need, the morality of rational selfishness. “If you wish to go on living,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “what you now need is not to return to morality-you who have never known any-but to discover it.”