By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
[Note, after getting some feedback on this original essay, a few Objectivist friends pointed out that I was a bit too narrow in my outline of how to determine ahead of time if something is of value or not. It is not necessary to observe others, if you know enough about the item being evaluated, and you can make the evaluation simply by related the item to your own life and take it from there. So, the issue becomes one of context, which I am incorporating into the reworking of this essay. I also wasn’t as clear on the concept of objective value as I wanted to be, so a re-work was in order.]
In Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy, there is the concept of “objective value” that needs to be explored in order to be better understood. After mentally understanding and integrated what she knew about human beings -- their physical, biological, mental, and cultural facts – she arrived at the conclusion that a proper, fact-based, idea of “the good” or “of value”, was that which was beneficial to man qua man was the good, meaning that which benefited man by his factual nature was the good or of value. So things like health, freedom, technology, food, shelter, mental consistency with reality, and the like are good for man based on the facts, and are therefore “objective values.” In other words, instead of starting in some out of context idea of “the good” or of “value” , like so many other philosophers do, by contemplating the idea without reference to the facts of reality or the facts of man, she focused on what she knew about man regarding the facts of what he is and how he could better live his life and decided to formulate an idea that took those facts into account and proposed what man ought to do – he ought to pursue those things which are beneficial to him based upon his nature as a natural and biological living entity. This idea of an objective value and the fact that man has free will and can either pursue or avoid certain things by his own free will, is the basis for the Objectivist Ethics; in essence, the first fully rational approach to ethics or morality in the history of man.
Under this type of ethical system – that which benefits man is the good or of value and ought to be pursued – one can come to certain conclusions based on observations, of what will be of benefit to oneself, in the context of your own life and purposes, and thus decide ahead of time, what to pursue and what to avoid. And because man is a conceptual animal, he makes these decisions of what to pursue and what to avoid in a conceptual, principled manner. Ayn Rand refers to this as using man’s life as the standard of what is good or what is of value. It’s an abstract consideration, because it is arrived at by observing man in general (as an abstraction), including his entire history and his similarity to other living entities, and pulling out or focusing on the fact that some things benefit man and some things are detrimental to man.
Given the history of mankind and how he was able to live before the Industrial Revolution, Ayn Rand could conclude, contrary to others, that the Industrial Revolution was a huge benefit or a huge good for mankind, as it gave the individual longer to live and more beneficial goods and services he could use to further his life. In this context, an automobile for getting around at long distances is much better than a horse, in that it is cheaper, easier to upkeep, and less prone to breaking down and cannot get a disease and such. Under this type of system of ethics, the factual nature of man is the basis for what is right and wrong, as a general principle. In Objectivism, capitalism (including the Industrial Revolution) is good or of value or moral, due to the factual benefits that it brings to the individual living in that capitalist society.
Deciding which particular things to pursue and which particular things to avoid is highly contextual to the individual person. One can make general observations about man and what benefits many individuals (“social value”) or what benefits the most rational individuals (“philosophic objective value”), and one can predict that it will be of benefit to oneself, and therefore pursue it. But it is not always necessary to take into account what may or may not benefit others, even inductively, so long as you have enough context about the proposed value to make the decision on your own without consulting what effects it has on others. A friend of mine, for example, knew he wanted an internet ready cell phone when they first came out, even though he hadn’t seen one being used by others; and as he pointed out, the inventor of the internet ready phone had to figure out ahead of time if such a thing could even work and be of value to individuals, without taking into account what it actually did to others who used it, because no one was using them before he invented it. While the method of relating a particular item to oneself is the same in all cases – you have to decide if it will benefit you in particular or not – sometimes you can observe others using something and make a generalization, while at other times you can observe the item and make a decision based on those facts alone.
For example, one can know enough about the automobile to decide if driving one will benefit oneself or one can observe the value that others get out of driving one, to better make a better decision as to getting one of your own or not. But while an automobile is of great benefit to man in general (it is a social value or even a philosophic objective value), it is not of much benefit to those living in a huge city, like New York, in which there isn’t much room to park a car or it is very expensive to park or drive a car. Consequently, in order not to have a contradiction, whereby a supposed value doesn’t actually benefit the individual who is supposed to pursue it, the context of the individual must be taken into account regarding whether getting a car is good for oneself or not. In other words, while “man’s life” is an abstraction based upon what one knows about man in general, the facts and context of the individual must always be taken into account. Out in the suburbs, having a personal car is great, as you can go where you want to and when you want to, because parking and driving is not that expensive. But for those in NYC, owning a car would be a detriment to their personal lives, for the most part, because property within the city is so valuable that setting aside even a small parking space for drivers is very expensive; I’ve been told over $300 per month to rent a space. So, it would not be correct to ethically advise such a person to get a car because cars are good for man, since if he got one, he could be driven to bankruptcy just to be able to park it. Objectivism is an individual oriented philosophy, and it would not propose, out of context, that an automobile is of value to everyone in particular and therefore that everyone ought to run out and buy one, even though it can be shown that the automobile (including transportation trucks and such) does bring benefits, like goods and services to people who live in a city.
As another example, I can acknowledge that having a smart cell phone that has continuous access to the internet is beneficial in the general consideration when compared to an old-fashioned phone which can only connect to people via voice signals, but it would not be of benefit to me in the particular because I cannot afford the price of such a phone nor the monthly service fees associated with such a phone. A smart cell phone for me would not be a benefit, given my current economic conditions and my purpose in living my life within my means.
So, while one can make either general observations inductively about what benefits one’s fellow man, or one can observe the item to be evaluated and make a decision that such and such is objective value in an abstract consideration, it is always necessary to bring that consideration “down to earth” in the sense of figuring out ahead of time if you, as an individual, will benefit from having that item or not, in the full context of your life and circumstances. In other words, unlike the Platonists or the religionists, Objectivism doesn’t go about claiming certain things are values when they do not benefit the individual supposedly pursuing them objectively (according to the facts).
It is in this context that proposed systems of values must be analyzed and identified, taking not only abstract principles into account (because man is a conceptual being), but one must bring the consideration all the way down to a personal level, or else all the facts are not taken into account and one will wind up with a contradiction – a value that is not a value. It would be like saying that cow’s milk is good for man, and therefore the individual who is lactose intolerant ought to drink a glassful of milk every day.
One of the big mistakes made by many politicians or political theorists these days is trying to say that such and such is of value to society (as an attempt to consider the abstract determination of values), without taking into account what such a consideration or proposed system will do to the individual. One might be able to say, for example, that getting health care insurance is beneficial, because in cases of medical emergencies or the high cost of some procedures, one will be covered financially should something like that happen to oneself. But to come to the conclusion that “everyone ought to get health care insurance” is not applying all the facts to the individuals involved. In my case, for example, paying out an additional $200 per month or more for health care coverage, as ObamaCare will force me to do, will not benefit me in the least bit. Currently, I pay for such expenses out of pocket, and it is not costing me $200 per month, even though I do have a running tab with my local health care providers. In fact, if I do wind up having to pay out $200 more per month just to satisfy the law, which is trying to force a proposed value onto me, I may very well be driven to financial bankruptcy because I simply cannot afford to pay all my current bills and paying out additional money every month for health insurance. In the supposed name of “providing everyone with health care coverage” under ObamaCare, this means that I would have to choose between paying the rest of my bills or complying with the law. So while ObamaCare is presented as some sort of proposed “universal value” to society as such, it will likely bankrupt many low-income individuals, and is therefore not a value in any objective sense of the word because it is contrary to the facts of their lives.
In conclusion, while one must be conceptual in deciding what is and what is not a value going by the facts in an abstract manner with an abstract standard (man’s life), in order to be fully objective one must take all the facts into account, including what such proposed values will do to the individual in his pursuit or use of them. By taking all the facts into account, it is possible to have a fully objective (or scientific) approach to the issue of values, the good, and morality.