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Rand's Morality of Life

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#1 Stephen Boydstun

Stephen Boydstun


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Posted 27 August 2009 - 09:58 AM

Rand’s Concept of Biology – Part 1

Rand was not a biological teleologist, in the traditional sense of teleology. She took functionality in biology to be the result of efficient and material causes; no final causes operate at the non-conscious, physical level.

A plant must feed itself in order to live; the sunlight, the water, the chemicals it needs are the values its nature has set it to pursue. . . . There are alternatives in the conditions [a plant] encounters [heat or frost, drought or flood], but there is no alternative in its function: it acts to further its life (AS 1013).

From Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics”

Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.*

*When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term ‘goal-directed’ is not to be taken to mean ‘purposive’ (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term ‘goal-directed’, in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of the organism’s life. (VS 16)

In “Causality v. Duty” Rand contracts the Aristotelian concept of final causality to animals, specifically, animals who engage in conscious ends-means cognition (PWNI 99). To reject teleology in vegetative biological nature is not necessarily to embrace biological evolution. The naturalist Buffon rejected biological teleology without embracing an evolutionary biology.

In “The Missing Link” Rand said she was not sufficiently informed to be either an opponent or an exponent of “the theory of evolution” (PWNI 45). She indicated, however, that she had had a certain conjectural picture of the long human past, and it was an evolutionary picture.

There is an enormous breach of continuity between man and all the other living species. The difference lies in the nature of man’s consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty. It is as if, after aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies.

To that point of her paragraph, Rand was talking uniformly about the human species. She then abruptly begins talking about individual development:

The development of a man’s consciousness is volitional: no matter what the innate degree of his intelligence, he must develop it, he must learn how to use it, he must become a human being by choice.

Would Rand have been thinking about species-evolution in a Lamarckian way, in which acquisition of useful abilities by learning during an individual animal’s life could be transmitted to progeny by sexual inheritance? Most likely she was thinking more along the lines of Baldwinian evolution (1895–96, 1902), which comports with Darwinian evolution. “Baldwin suggested that learning and behavioral flexibility can play a role in amplifying and biasing natural selection because these abilities enable individuals to modify the context of natural selection that affects their future kin” (Deacon 1997, 322; see also Richards 1987).

The link between human individual development and human species evolution is missing in Rand’s paragraph. In The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon, a researcher in neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, has put forth a theory of the evolution of human, conceptual consciousness. This is a theory that can deliver what Rand was groping for in that fractured paragraph.

This book began by considering the curious lack of natural symbolic systems in all nonhuman species, the limited capacity to gain symbolic understanding in most, and the failure of domesticated animals—immersed in the dense web of human interactions—to discover more than a few rote associations of words and phrases. What are the implications of this species difference and its associated neurological basis?

Evolution has widened the cognitive gap between the human species and all others into a yawning chasm. Taken together, the near-universal failure of nonhumans and the near-universal success of humans in acquiring symbolic abilities suggest that this shift corresponds to a major reassignment of cognitive resources to help overcome natural barriers to symbol learning. Other species’ failures at symbol learning do not result from the lack of some essential structure present only in human brains. As we have seen, chimpanzees can, under special circumstances, be brought to understand symbolic communication, though at best on a comparatively modest scale. The difference between symbolic and nonsymbolic communication may be a categorical difference in semiotic terms, but the neurological basis of our symbolic advantage is not due to a categorical difference in brain structure, only to a quantitative rearrangement of existing parts. Nevertheless, this shift in proportions spans a critical learning threshold that stands between indexical associations and symbolic reference. Although it is possible for other species to cross this threshold by learning and unlearning sets of associations in just the right way, it is incredibly unlikely. Yet in humans, a restructuring of the brain has acted like a catalyst, making the immensely improbable nearly inevitable.

In evolutionary terms, it would be accurate to say that the genetic basis for symbol-learning abilities has been driven to ‘fixation’. In other words, it has become a universal trait of the species. Though there may be variations in this ability among people, essentially all of this variability is above the threshold necessary for acquiring symbols. Whenever most variation of a trait is eliminated, we can usually assume that selection for it has been and still is immense. There must have been some very significant reproductive advantages to symbol acquisition, and severe reproductive costs in cases of failure to acquire symbols. An individual born into a symbolic culture with an ape’s bias against acquiring symbolic associations would be deprived of access to most realms of know-how and social influence, and have little chance to reproduce successfully. The ancestral lineages that succeeded best and left the most progeny were those in which symbolic abilities were able to develop despite a wide range of interfering influences. Language acquisition had to become fail-safe. After 2 million years it has clearly reached this status.

The simplest way to make something fail-safe is to design it far beyond the basic requirements. . . .

This symbol-learning insurance policy is provided by a comparatively overdeveloped prefrontal cortex, whose connections have gained the upper hand in numerous synaptic competitions throughout the brain. The extraordinary extent of this disproportional feature reflects its overdesign. . . . (Deacon 1997, 411–13)

Related Works

James Lennox on Darwinism, including Selection, Adaptation, and Teleology

Aristotle on Teleology
Monte Ransome Johnson
(Oxford 2005)

“Aristotle’s Conception of Final Causality”
In Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology
Allan Gotthelf
(Cambridge 1987)

The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts
Harry Binswanger
(ARI Press 1990)

Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered
Bruce Weber and David Depew, editors
(MIT 2003)


Mindy Newton asks "About what part of biological evolution Rand would have held suspicions?" I do not know what reservations Rand had about the correctness of contemporary theory of evolution.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra reports (“The Rand Transcript” JARS 1(1), p.9) that Rand took a course in biology in the spring of 1922 at St. Petersburg University (Petrograd State University). He thinks her teacher was likely Lev Semenovich Berg, who was the author of Theories of Evolution (date?).

Robert Campbell has noted that in 1981, a year before her death, Rand remarked at a public forum:

I must state, incidentally, that I am not a student of biology and am, therefore, neither an advocate nor an opponent of the theory of evolution. But I have read a lot of valid evidence to support it, and it is the only scientific theory in the field.

Careful Reading

Science in Russian Culture
Chapter Nine: Biological Evolution: Facts and Controversies
Alexander Vucinich
(Stanford 1970)

Ayn Rand and Evolution by Neil Parille

Note – Ellen Stuttle

Objectivist Ethics: A Biological Critique
Ronald E. Merrill
(Objectivity 1997)

Ascent to Volitional Consciousness
John Enright
(Objectivity 1990)

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 27 August 2009 - 03:28 PM.

#2 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 10:26 AM

Rand’s Concept of Biology – Part 2

Kant observed that growth is characteristic of the type of self-preserving action that is essential to the concept of life. He also observed that growth is characteristic of the type of self-generating action that is essential to the concept of life.

A tree also produces itself as an individual. It is true that this sort of causation is called merely growth; but this growth must be understood in a sense that distinguishes it completely from any increase in size according to {only} mechanical laws: it must be considered to be equivalent to generation, though called by another name. [For] the matter that the tree assimilates is first processed by it until the matter has the quality peculiar to the species, a quality that the natural mechanism outside the plant cannot supply, and the tree continues to develop itself by means of a material that in its composition is the tree’s own product. For though in terms of the ingredients that the tree receives from nature outside it we have to consider it to be only an educt, still the separation and recombination of this raw material show that these natural {living} beings have a separating and forming ability of very great originality . . . . (371)

In a watch, one part is the instrument that makes the others move, but one gear is not the efficient cause that produces another gear; [and hence] even though one part is there for the sake of another, the former part is not there as a result of the latter. That is also the reason why the cause that produced the watch and its form does not lie in nature (the nature of this material), but lies outside {that} nature and in a being who can act according to the ideas of a whole that he can produce through his causality. It is also the reason why one gear in the watch does not produce another; still less does one watch produce other watches, [by] using (and organizing) other matter for this [production]. It is also the reason why, if parts are removed from the watch, it does not replace them on its own; nor, if parts were missing from when it was first built, does it compensate for this [lack] by having the other parts help out, let alone repair itself on its own when out of order: yet all of this we can expect organized nature {living nature} to do. Hence an organized being {a living being} is not a mere machine. (374)
(Kant 1790; square-bracket entries are from the translator; curly-bracket entries are from me.)

Eight decades after The Critique of Judgment, we find the distinguished embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer writing:

Without doubt the organism is a mechanical apparatus, a machine, which builds itself. The life process runs under uninterrupted chemical operations. Therefore the organism might also be called a chemical laboratory. But it is also the chemist in that it assembles the materials necessary for the continuation of the chemical operations from the external world. If it cannot have them, life ceases. However great the progress has been made in recent times in understanding the individual operations in the life process, something has always remained behind which guides them and which controls the physico-chemical processes: life itself. (Timothy Lenoir’s translation, pp. 272–73)

Rand wrote of values within plants and functions within plants. She did not write of plants acting in teleological ways. Rand reserved the term teleological to stand for intentional acts, for conscious actions of animals having an end in view. Plants do not act in teleological ways in that sense of the term. In many of the other senses of the term, too, Rand was not a teleologist in her conception of plant life.

A plant must feed itself in order to live; the sunlight, the water, the chemicals it needs are the values its nature has set it to pursue. . . . There are alternatives in the conditions [a plant] encounters [heat or frost, drought or flood], but there is no alternative in its function: it acts to further its life. (AS 1013)

Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.*

*When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term "goal-directed" is not to be taken to mean "purposive" (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term ‘goal-directed’, in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of the organism’s life. (VS 16)

Rand took functionality in biology at this level to be the result of efficient and material causes; there are no final causes at the nonconscious, physical level. In “Causality v. Duty” she contracts the Aristotelian concept of final causality to animals, specifically, to animals who engage in conscious ends-means cognition (PWNI 99).

Nevertheless, Rand spoke of self-generated, self-maintaining, goal-directed action as essential to all organisms. These characteristics distinguish living action from inanimate action, and they are the fundamental characteristics of living entities as living. In Rand’s journal The Objectivist (1968), Robert Efron maintained that there are “fundamentally different principles of action (causal factors) found in living as contrasted to inanimate entities” (7). He is highly doubtful, moreover, that all of the actions of a living entity can be entirely “accounted for, described by, and deduced from those laws of physics [and chemistry] which are entirely derived from a study of inanimate entities” (7).

Goal-directed vegetative actions would include not only the tropisms, such as the gravitropic root, but the development of a multicellular individual organism from a seed or single cell. For tropisms and development, and all other vegetative functional activities, in Rand’s view, goal-directed designates not a teleological principle operating in insentient nature, rather “the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of the organism’s life” (VS 16).

The goal-directedness of vegetative actions under Rand’s conception is not the Aristotelian concept of organic final causality. Allan Gotthelf asks: “What, precisely, does Aristotle mean when he asserts that the coming-to-be (or any stage in the coming-to-be) of a living organism is for the sake of the mature, functioning organism which results?” (1987, 207). For Aristotle, in complete generality, changes are to be explained by the nature of the entities involved and by their specific potentials for being changed and for inducing change (209–11). Prof. Gotthelf argues that for Aristotle:

The development of a living organism [say, from an acorn to an oak] is not the result of a sum of actualization of element-potentials [specific potentials of earth, water, air, fire] the identification of which includes no mention of the form of the mature organism, but is in fact the actualization primarily of a single potential for an organism of that form, an actualization which incorporates many element-potentials, but is not reducible to them . . . . The irreducibility to element-potentials of organic development is the core of the meaning of the assertion that the development is for the sake of the mature organism, and thus the core of Aristotle’s conception of final causality. (213)

(Although essential specification of element natures and potentials “does not make reference to the form or nature of the living organism as a whole,” Gotthelf is inclined to think that for Aristotle “the elements have (irreducible) capacities to be worked up into such wholes, and that such capacities may be seen as part of their natures as the elements they are” (231).)

Rand evidently doubted the full reducibility of biological explanations to principles of physics and chemistry. In that her view was similar to Aristotle’s. But she had the lay person’s modern physics, chemistry, and biology in her conceptual framework. She did not accept Aristotle’s general conception that changes such as motion are to be seen as passages from potentiality to actuality nor the division he makes between form and matter (ITOE App. 286). So Rand should reasonably resist much of Aristotle’s account of vegetative goal-directedness as actualization of a target potential.

Subsequent to the Scientific Revolution, one formulation of teleology and final causality in vegetative life was the idea of a vital force emergent from the forces of physics and chemistry, an emergent force that effects organic organization and goal-directed action. Examples would be Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s Bildungstrieb (formative drive [1781]) or von Baer’s Gestaltungskraft (whole-force [1827]). (See Lenoir 1982; Richards 2002; Huneman 2007.)

In The Fountainhead Rand once used (here) the phrase vital force. But in writing about her developed ethical theory, inaugurated in 1957, she never uses that phrase in characterizing its biological bases. She relies on the term function. Vegetative functional activities can be seen as markedly different from the physics- and chemistry-activities of inanimate matter giving rise to those functional activities, without postulating a new kind of (teleonomic) force emergent from the forces of physics and chemistry. Furthermore, the development of an acorn into an oak does not require postulation of teleological potentials in the acorn (ITOE App. 267, 284–86). The seed has biotic structure. Non-teleological physics and chemistry within that structure can precipitate growth and new structure having functions in the current and future survival of the developing organism.

Carl Bergmann and Rudolph Leukart, researchers in anatomy and physiology, write in their monumental text of 1852:

Within plant life, conditions are offered which permit the affinities between carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen to come together to form organic compounds. In plants and animals, organic matter is everywhere chemically transformed in regular patterns, because the conditions for its breakdown and transformation are provided in the proper sequential order. At the same time, this process is a requirement of the plan of the organism within which the organic matter is formed and for which it is purposeful [zweckmässig]. (Lenoir’s translation, p. 174)

Zweckmässig could also be translated as functional.


Efron, R. 1968. “Biology without Consciousness—and Its Consequences.” The Objectivist (Feb):5–14.

Gotthelf, A. 1987. “Aristotle’s Conception of Final Causality.” In Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology. Cambridge University Press.

Huneman, P., ed. 2007. Understanding Purpose: Kant and the Philosophy of Biology. University of Rochester Press.

Kant, I. 1790. Critique of Judgment. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett

Lenoir, T. 1982. The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in Nineteenth-Century German Biology. University of Chicago Press.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.
———. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet.
———. 1969–71. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Appendix. Meridian.
———. 1982. Philosophy: Who Needs It. Signet.

Richards, R.J. 2002. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. University of Chicago Press.

Related Works

From Embryology to Evo-Devo
Manfred Laubichler and Jane Maienschein, editors
(MIT 2007)

How Life? (How Value?)

Biological Order and Thermodynamics: A to B

Modeling Biology
Structures, Behaviors, Evolution
Manfred Laubichler and Gerd Müller, editors
(MIT 2007)

Future Reference
New work on Kant's theory of biology – Tubingen 12/10*

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 11 September 2010 - 07:47 AM.
Future Reference

#3 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 10:44 AM

Vegetative Robots and Value

Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged: “It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil” (1012–13).

In Rand’s view, all living organisms have values, and it is only living organisms that have values.

In her later essay “The Objectivist Ethics” (1961), she tried to strengthen the case for her thesis that it is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible. She invited the reader to engage in a thought experiment. “Try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose.”

Thought experiments are notorious for pre-packing the point to be demonstrated into the setup to be contemplated. In an essay in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (1984), Charles King raised just that sort of objection to Rand’s robot gedanken: Rand invites us “to think that the robot is not affected in any way whatever. The example is plausible if, in thinking the robot cannot be affected in any way whatever, we mean that the robot either does not know or does not care what happens to things around it. But, of course, if the robot neither knows nor cares, the example seems uninteresting” (109).

I do not agree that the robot gedanken is without interest if the robot is devoid of thought and feeling. I will here extend Rand’s gedanken in such a way that it can inform the concept of purely vegetative value.

More than one intellectual acquaintance of mine has remarked that Rand’s indestructible robot is an impossible entity from the get-go. A machine (or an organism) that was indestructible would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics. Every organization of matter capable of mechanical work will decay into disarray eventually. All machines are in fact destructible, and they will not last forever.

I suggest therefore that we can most charitably see Rand’s indestructible, immortal robot in a way analogous to the way we look at a perfect heat engine or a perfect refrigerator. Because of the second law of thermodynamics, there are no actual heat engines or refrigerators having the efficiencies of those ideal devices, but we can gauge the efficiencies of our actual devices by their nearness of approach to those ideal devices.* Similarly, let us take Rand’s robot as an ideal limit, approachable but not attainable, with respect to durability.

Imagine building a robot of finite durability. Require that any other characteristics we wish to put into the robot be physically constructible, but not made of living cells. Then imagine building and rebuilding the robot on and on, with ever greater finite durability. Ask if its other characteristics are still so easily constructible as the iteration continues. Compare such a robot, ideal in the limit with respect to durability, with its corresponding kind of living organisms.

To support Rand’s thesis that the concept of life makes the concept of vegetative value possible, I will describe a plant robot of finite durability. As its durability is increased to that of Rand’s robot (an ideal limit in respect of durability), its similitude to a living plant will be seen to vanish. Beyond the scope of the present reflection, it might be argued that without vegetative values, no appetitive values nor intelligent values are possible.

For the living plant, in Rand’s summary, “nourishment, water, and sunlight are the values its nature has set it to seek.” Let the plant robot require soil minerals to repair itself in limited ways.

I am here presuming a systemic-capacity conception of functions in living things and in our corresponding robot. The overarching functions of the operations of the various systems of the plant robot will be like the overarching functions of an actual plant’s functioning systems: some mix or other of individual self-preservation and of reproduction.

Let the plant robot require water and sunlight to produce electrical energy to operate itself. On the basics of how this would work, see Science News 9/11/04 and 10/30/04.

Suppose the plant robot gets its soil minerals and water from something like roots, but not roots made of living cells. Suppose the plant robot has the self-preservation capability of an actual plant having gravitropic roots. When uprooted both robot and real plant can align their roots with the direction of gravity and extend them so as to be more likely to reach soil minerals and water.

Now we iterate. The question is, as we make the robot plant more durable against all sorts of wear, decay, and disintegration (all due to the second law of thermodynamics), what are the ways in which it become less and less feasible, technically, to construct a plant robot having the sorts of functioning systems with which we began?

An important portion of the answer to this question is not far from view. Our plant robot will need instrumentation-and-control systems. For any sort of instrumentation-and-control system, we can discover how its performance characteristics decline as we increase the durability of its components on and on. One decline I see already is in the sensitivity of instruments. An instrument with zero sensitivity is no longer functioning. We are beginning to see the richness of reasons that an indestructible plant robot could not have the values of an actual living plant, the reasons it is unable to act in teleological ways.


Neil Parille remarked that a couple of Rand’s critics (notably Charles King) have argued it would be better to compare an actual human being to an immortal human being, rather than to an immortal, indestructible robot.

Mr. Parille reflected further: “If I became immortal, I might not need a ‘code of ethics’, but I would still be confronted with a range of choices. I imagine that many of the virtues I now practice (such as honesty) would remain important even though my life in no sense depends on it.”

That second point has been developed in detail by Kathleen Touchstone in her Objectivity essay “Can Art Exist without Death?”

Concerning the first point:

Yes, to show the factor of vulnerability in human life as supporting the thesis that without the concept of human life the concept of human value would not be possible, one could try to imagine either an indestructible, immortal human-like robot or an indestructible, immortal living human.

Neither sort of immortal entity would be possible, strictly speaking, for the reason I gave in the article: Such an entity would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

My argument, in which I modified Rand's robot into an unattainable thermodynamic limit of a sequence of successively more durable robots, can be run not only for a plant robot (as I did), but for a snail-like robot or for a man-like robot. That is, the thought experiment in this general form can be run for the purpose of illuminating not only vegetative values, but appetitive values, and even intelligent values. (The life of a human being consists of all three, as Rand observed in her essay.)

In constructing the gedanken for a snail robot, there may appear new ways, not in play in the plant robot, that the concept (appetitive) value is not possible without the concept (animal) life. Still more new ways in which (intelligent) value is not possible without (human) life may appear, when one constructs the gedanken for a man robot.

I ran the gedanken, using my iterative method for it, for the case of a plant robot. Could I just as well run the gedanken using a sequence of ever more durable living plants instead of robot plants? I think so. Energy supplies, repair materials, and instrumentation-and-control systems are engineering aspects essential not only to machines, but to all living organisms.

Consider gravitropism in certain living plants. Recall that that is the ability to respond to being uprooted by redirecting growth of a plant's roots in the direction of gravity. This redirection occurs a half hour or so after the plant is uprooted. Redirection is not a passive response to gravity, unlike an arrow shot into the air.

Researchers have found that the initial detection of the new direction of gravity with respect to the root occurs in the core of the root cap, the terminal half-millimeter of the root. (In some gravitropic plants, there may be additional detection farther back along the root.) The cells composing the core, or collumella region, of the root cap are rich in dense amyloplasts, organelles which are filled with starch grains. In the normal, vertical root, the amyloplasts reside at the lower end of each collumella cell. When the plant is uprooted, within seconds, amyloplasts in the collumella fall and settle along the new lower wall of each cell. This detection step is evidently the only step of the gravitropic response in which gravity directly pulls down a component (amyloplasts) of the root system.

I will stop the story of the gravitropic response there. I will not go on to describe how the new residence of amyloplasts on the lower sides of the collumella cells leads to a differential growth rate on the upper and lower sides of the non-vertical root near its tip, which results in the root growing in a curved way, downward, in the direction of gravity. What concerns us just now is the instrumentation in the instrumentation-and-control system that gives the root its gravitropic capability.

Zooming in on the instrumentation for this response in the living plant, we look for its failure modes. That is, we look for the ways in which the amyloplast triggering system can be made ever more durable against failure. Sensitivity of the instrument will decline with ever greater increase in durability. Or so I expect. At complete insensitivity, this instrument system of the living plant is no longer functioning. Here again, we find support for the thesis that without the concept plant life—vulnerable life—the concept vegetative value is not possible.


Related Works

Thank Your Lucky Cells

Plant Allometry
The Scaling of Form and Process
Karl J. Niklas
(Chicago 1994)

The Evolutionary Biology of Plants
Karl J. Niklas
(Chicago 1997)

#4 Stephen Boydstun

Stephen Boydstun


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Posted 31 August 2009 - 03:46 PM

Rand and the Greeks

In the “The Objectivist Ethics” Rand stated: “Aristotle did not regard ethics as an exact science” (14; see also a, b, c). “He based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise” (OE 14). Insofar as Aristotle’s approach was indeed as described in the preceding quotation (see e.g. NE 1140a24–25), Rand stakes ethics in a dramatically different way. Rand aims to ground an ethics in something more firm, namely, in biology.

In the soul, Aristotle marks three divisions: passions, faculties, and states. He argues that excellence, or nobility, cannot be a passion nor a faculty, and so must be a state. In particular excellence “will be the state which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well” (NE 1106a22–23). More particularly still, excellence “is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (NE 1106b36–1107a2).

A number of thinkers sympathetic to Rand’s rational, life-centered ethical egoism have argued that, in a variety of ways, her ethics is closer to Aristotle’s than she had expressly gauged it to be. One of the additions Rand made to the exposition of her ethics in “The Objectivist Ethics” beyond the exposition in “Galt’s Speech” was her introduction of the phrase ultimate value. As we have noticed, Rand rejected the Aristotelian conception of vegetative and non-conscious animal activities as being due to some sort of “teleological principle operating in nature” (OE 16). Like the early moderns Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza, like we moderns today, Rand held the domain of Aristotle’s final causation to be confined “only to a conscious being.” Final causation in its only reality is “the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (CvD 99).

Taking that modern layout for understood, Rand wrote:

In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life. Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organisms life.

An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are to be evaluated. (OE 16–17)

The only such ultimate value, the only end in itself, is the life of the individual organism, in Rand’s view. In the vegetative and appetitive organizations within the human animal, that end is supposed by Rand to be their healthy overarching one. Those systems run that way automatically. But the human individual is fundamentally free to choose how far he keeps his mind and actions set upon that same ultimate end, the preservation and fullness of his own life. There is a parallel here with Aristotle’s conception of the mature human ability to craft deliberate virtues upon natural virtues (see Lennox 1999). Then again there is the glaring difference that Rand would not have philosophical contemplation to be the overarching end driving a human life taken to be happiest of all other human lives (NE X, 7).

In his 1975 work Human Rights and Human Liberties, Tibor Machan argued that “only if a specifically human goal can be identified—one shared by all people just in virtue of being the kind of thing they are—could an identifiable standard for moral valuation be found. If there is nothing on that order that human beings ought to achieve, no summum bonum, then the idea that they ought to achieve it could not be meaningful” (71). Rand had argued that “it is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of ‘value’ is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of ‘life’” (OE 17; see also Den Uyl and Rasmussen 1984a, 65–67). What goes for value goes as well for the Aristotelian coins excellence, success, and doing well. Life—the physical phenomenon of life—is their original and perpetual grounding context (cf. Kelley 1992, 58).

Professor Machan went on to endorse an argument by function-explanation put forth by Eric Mack (1971) to the conclusion that “the end of the objective function” of an individual’s choices and actions “is the sustenance of his life” (72). (Cf.) Machan then linked Rand’s summum bonum, as defended by Mack, with Aristotle’s idea that “the proper goal of each person is his own success as a human being, his own happiness” (72). Tightening the link, Machan observes: “The happiness discussed by Aristotle is far broader than what people usually mean by the term ‘happiness’. It is closer to what Ayn Rand has characterized as ‘a noncontradictory state of joy’. The main feature of this state is not pleasure, fun, or excitement. Instead it is a self-acknowledgement of worth, a sense of being a successful living entity of the kind human beings are” (73; see further, Lawrence 2006).

There is considerable difference, nonetheless, I should say, between what Aristotle and Rand conceived the human mind and life to be and between what they took as the source of ethical norms. (See e.g. Long.) Aristotle argued for happiness as the unique final end; Rand found life as final end-giving end of happiness. Moreover, Rand conceived happiness, with its self-sufficient quality, to be integral with, not aloof from, the pleasure of human animal life (see Frede 2007, 264–67, on Aristotle; cf. Saint-André 1993, 152, 159–66, and Branden 1964, on Rand).

Among others stressing the kinship of Rand’s ethics to Aristotle’s would be Jack Wheeler in his contribution “Rand and Aristotle: A Comparison of Objectivist and Aristotelian Ethics” (1984; also Michaud). Similarly, Peter Saint-André stresses that Rand’s project, and Aristotle’s too, is “at root metaphysical,” both projects dealing with “‘what is possible’ to the human individual” (1996, 209). He objects to Rand’s representation of Aristotle as only “sifting through what the noble and the wise say and do” to uncover norms. That may be what Aristotle sometimes says he does, but, Saint-André would have us look at Nicomachean Ethics I, 6–7, “wherein Aristotle investigates the ontological status of the Good and derives the nature of happiness from the ergon or ‘characteristic work’ of man quo man” (1996, 210; see also Seddon 2008).

In his 2005 paper “Ayn Rand as Aristotelian: Values and Happiness,” Fred Miller observes that Aristotle’s presentation is open to interpretation among noted scholars. John Cooper, Terence Irwin, and David Reeve read Aristotle along the lines read by Machan, Den Uyl and Rasmussen, and others, which allows one to see Aristotle as near Rand in pattern of meta-ethical reasoning. Gabriel Richardson Lear reads Aristotle along those lines in her deep study (2004, 121–22, 145–46). Sarah Broadie dissents from the Grand End reading of Aristotle (1991), though she takes Aristotle as having practical reason discern right action, rather than constituting it (2006, 348). John McDowell finds Aristotle more like Rand found him: “Rather than giving a criterion that works from outside the ethic, [Aristotle] says that such things are as the virtuous person determines them to be” (1998, 35; quoted in Miller 2005). In any case, biological existence is not among the candidates for external ultimate criteria for ethical norms various scholars have drawn from Aristotle’s text.

Professor Miller draws attention to Rand’s remarks on Aristotle a couple of years after her critical remarks on Aristotle’s ethical theory. Rand approved of Aristotle’s conceptions of life and knowledge as naturalistic facts. She viewed Aristotle as giving “living entities, the phenomenon of life,” a central place in his philosophy (1963, 10). “Life—and its highest form, man’s life—is the central fact in Aristotle’s view of reality. The best way to describe it is to say that Aristotle’s philosophy is ‘biocentric’.” (The same can be said for Protagoras, who influenced the Cyrenaics and Epicurus, I would note.) Rand continues: “This is the source of Aristotle’s intense concern with the study of living entities, the source of the enormously ‘pro-life’ attitude that dominates his thinking” (11).

When it comes to his ethical writings, however, I do not find Aristotle bringing biology expressly to bear. I do not see he has any understanding that the physical phenomenon of life, and its continuous self-generated struggle for continuation, is the source of all value.

Happiness is not ordered to life by Aristotle in the express and deep way it is ordered to life by Rand.

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. (OE 27)

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. . . . When one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: ‘This is worth living for’—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself. (OE 29)

Aristotle recognized that there is no desire, no valued thing, where there is no life (EE 1281a26–27). That is short of seeing that and how the concept value, or goodness, presupposes the concept life. Aristotle observed that pleasures complete competent activities “as an end which supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age” (NE 1174b31–33). Life is desirable, and pleasure completes the activity that is human life (NE 1175a10–21). Moreover, the life of the virtuous is pleasant, and its pleasures are harmonious because they are pleasures taken in things that are by nature pleasant (NE 1099a6–14). But Aristotle does not proceed expressly from pleasure to joy to happiness, and on the steps life, life, life.

Aristotle held that eudaimonia is a complete thing, an end in itself (NE 1097a30–35; 1176a36–1176b5; EE 1219a24–39; see further, Richardson Lear 2004, 69–71). He held it to be something of a self-generated achievement (NE 1114b30–1115a3; EE 1215a15–19). One barrier to Aristotle fully seeing happiness as emblematic servant of life itself, morality’s true ground, is perhaps this: Although he recognized the self-generated dimension of life, he “did not clearly identify that a living organism’s existence depends on this activity” (Smith 2000, 119n11).

Born nine years after Aristotle and living five decades beyond him was Epicurus. He promoted a form of eudaimonistic hedonism, directed by the reins of physical life, which life dwells in a world devoid of Aristotelian natural teleology. That Epicurus keeps ethics close to biology is fast upon his view that “the soul is a body [made up of] fine parts distributed throughout the entire aggregate, and most closely resembling breath with a certain admixture of heat . . . . All of this is revealed by the abilities of the soul, its feelings, its ease of motion, its thought processes, and the things whose removal leads to our death” (Ltr. To Herodotus 63). Human nature “was taught a large number of different lessons just by the facts themselves, and compelled [by them]; . . . reasoning later made more precise what was handed over to it [by nature] and made additional discoveries” (H 75).

Good and bad arise only within sense experience. So death cannot be the root of that which is bad (Ltr to Menoeceus 124–25). “The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death” (M 126). Among natural desires, “some are necessary for happiness and some for freeing the body from troubles and some for life itself” (M 127). As for the first two, Epicurus writes: “The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if someone has these things and is confident of having them in the future, he might contend even with [Zeus] for happiness” (Vatican Collection 33).

Epicurus held to a conceptual primacy of pain over pleasure—the latter is only the absence of the former—although plenty of harmonious pleasure is possible in life if one keeps ones desires limited to what is necessary for a modest style of life (M 128–32; Principal Doctrines III–V). “One must not force nature but persuade her. And we will persuade her by fulfilling the necessary desires” and the natural but unnecessary ones, provided they are not harmful (VC 21).

Epicurus anchors happiness to absence of bodily pains and harms. This suggests he takes physical life to be the basis of right desires. In addition, as seen in the paragraph before last, some right desires are necessary “for life itself,” in the view of Epicurus. I do not find in Epicurus the insight that it is the concept of life, with its fundamental perpetual alternative, that makes the concept of right desire possible. Still, it should be clear that on the relation of moral values to life itself, there are precursors of Rand’s pages in the writings of both Epicurus and Aristotle. (See further, Shelton 1995, 1996, and Saint-André 1996.)


Aristotle 1984. The Complete Works of Aristotle, volume 2. J. Barnes, editor. Princeton.

Branden, N. 1964. The Psychology of Pleasure. In Rand 1964.

Broadie, S. 1991. Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford.
——. 2006. Aristotle and Contemporary Ethics. In Kraut 2006.

Den Uyl, D. J., and D. B. Rasmussen 1984a. Life, Teleology, and Eudaimonia in the Ethics of Ayn Rand. In 1984b.

Den Uyl, D. J., and D. B. Rasmussen, editors. 1984b. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. University of Illinois.

Epicurus 1994. The Epicurus Reader. B. Inwood and L. P. Gerson, translators and editors. Hackett.

Frede, D. 2006. Pleasure and Pain in Aristotle’s Ethics. In Kraut 2006.

Kelley, D. 1992. Post-Randian Aristotelianism. Liberty (July).

Kraut, R., editor. 2006. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Blackwell.

Lawrence, G. 2006. Human Good and Human Function. In Kraut 2006.

Lennox, J. G. 1999. Aristotle on the Biological Roots of Virtue: The Natural History of Natural Virtue. In Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. J. Maienschein and M. Ruse, editors. Cambridge.

Long, R. T. 2000. Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand. Objectivist Studies. No. 3.
The Objectivist Center.

Machan, T. R. 1975. Human Rights and Human Liberties. Nelson Hall.

Mack, E. 1971. How to Derive Ethical Egoism. The Personalist (Autumn):736–43.

McDowell, J. 1998. Some Issues in Aristotle’s Moral Psychology. In Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge.

Rand, A. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics. In Rand 1964.
——. 1963. Review of Randall’s Aristotle. In The Voice of Reason. 1990. Meridian.
——. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964. Signet.
——. 1974. Causality versus Duty. In Philosophy: Who Needs It. 1982. Signet.

Richardson Lear, G. 2004. Happy Lives and the Highest Good. Princeton.

Saint-André, J. P. 1993. A Philosophy for Living on Earth. Objectivity 1(6):137–73.
——. 1996. Epicurean Pleasure and the Objectivist Good. Objectivity 2(4):205–11.

Shelton, R. 1995. Epicurus and Rand. Objectivity 2(3)1–47.
——. 1996. Parallel Metaethics. Objectivity 2(4):213–25.

Smith, T. 2000. Viable Values. Rowman & Littlefield.

Wheeler, J. 1984. Rand and Aristotle: A Comparison of Objectivist and Aristotelian Ethics. In Den Uyl and Rasmussen 1984b.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 01 September 2009 - 05:00 AM.

#5 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 11 September 2009 - 07:06 AM

Kant’s Wrestle with Happiness and Life

Part 1 – to 1781

Kant began to lecture at the University of Königsberg in 1755, at age 31. Hume’s Enquiry appeared in German in that year. A German translation of Hutcheson’s A System of Morality appeared the following year. German translations of Hutcheson’s two earlier major works on ethics were in Kant’s personal library. Kant remarks on ethical theory within his 1764 essay “Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality.”

Kant maintains in “Inquiry” that there is a lot of work needing to be done concerning the fundamental concepts and principles of morality. His is a search for what distinct and certain knowledge has been or could be achieved in ethics, like his search earlier in this essay concerning mathematics, metaphysics, and natural theology. He had argued that in mathematics, the not-analyzable concepts and the indemonstrable propositions are few, whereas in philosophy, they are innumerable. Nevertheless, in the area of philosophy that is metaphysics, as much certainty is possible as in geometry.

In all disciplines, the formal elements in judgments rely on the indubitable “laws of agreement and contradiction” (2:296). The proposition, “which expresses the essence of every affirmation and which accordingly contains the supreme formula of all affirmative judgments, runs as follows: to every subject there belongs a predicate which is identical with it. This is the law of identity. The proposition which expresses the essence of all negation is this: to no subject does there belong a predicate which contradicts it. This proposition is the law of contradiction. . . . These two principles together constitute the supreme universal principles, in the formal sense of the term, of human reason in its entirety” (2:294).

If the concepts in a proposition can be found identical or contradictory directly, without mediation by some additional concept (the middle term of a syllogism), the proposition is indemonstrable. Otherwise the true proposition is provable. In metaphysics, as in mathematics, there are material concepts and principles that are indemonstrable and foundational. The number of these is greater in metaphysics than in mathematics. Metaphysics is more difficult than Euclidean geometry, though not less secure in its truths. The grounds of metaphysical truths are objective. They are not subjective criteria of conceivability or feeling of certainty (2:294).

Turning to ethics, Kant ponders how necessity of moral obligation might be shown at the most fundamental level of the concept. At least we know this: moral necessity of means to ends derives from ends necessarily right in themselves. Unlike Aristotelians, Kant does not think happiness is an end necessarily right in itself. Whatever supreme source of moral obligation there might be, it will have to be manifest directly, indemonstrably. Otherwise, the purported moral end would be in truth only a means (2:298–99; cf. B613 A585, B662 A334, B868 A840).

Kant will concede, to the Wolffians, that they have gotten hold of a formal ground of moral obligation in their rules “perform the most perfect action in your power” and “abstain from doing that which will hinder the realization of the greatest possible perfection.” But nothing can follow “from those two rules of the good, unless they are combined with indemonstrable material principles of practical cognition” (2:299).

Now enters the influence of Hutcheson and Hume. “The faculty of representing the true is cognition,” whereas, “the faculty of experiencing the good is feeling, and these two faculties must not be confused with each other. “There is unanalysable feeling of the good (which is never encountered in a thing absolutely but only relatively to a being endowed with sensibility). One of the tasks of the understanding is to analyse and render distinct the compound and confused concept of the good by showing how it arises from simpler feelings of the good. But if the good is simple, then the judgement: ‘This is good’, will be completely indemonstrable. . . . Take for example the principle: love him who loves you” (2:299–300). This practical principle is subsumed without meditation under the formal universal affirmative rule of good action. The special perfection in mutual love is not traceable back to the perfection of another perfect action.

That mutual love has a “special perfection” qualifies “love them that love you” as a material moral principle for acting in accordance with the most perfect action in one’s power. Kant takes that much for moral truth, but “to attain the highest degree of philosophical certainty in the fundamental principles of morality, . . . the ultimate fundamental concepts of obligation need first to be determined more reliably” than he or anyone had yet done (2:300). At this stage of his philosophic development, Kant proposes no specific ultimate end in itself from which moral necessity is imputed to moral acts. Certainly such an end in itself cannot be happiness, for in happiness, Kant evidently does not sense or cognize any special perfection by which “pursue happiness” might qualify as a material moral principle for actions that are most perfect possible.

Kant is unsure at this stage, however, whether it is the faculty of cognition or the faculty of feeling that decides the first material principles of ethics (2:300). To hold with the view that morality is based on moral sense or feeling goes radically beyond the safe saying that virtue presupposes feeling. Kant hesitates over taking the radical step. (See further, Kuehn 2001, 183–87.)

Hutcheson is mentioned in this essay. Francis Hutcheson was greatly influenced by Shaftsbury; those two greatly influenced Hume. In his “Announcement of the Character of His Lectures during the Winter Semester of 1765–66,” Kant remarks that “the attempts of Shaftsbury, Hutcheson and Hume, although incomplete and defective, have nonetheless penetrated furthest in the search for the fundamental principles of all morality” (2:311).

There is one thing, besides the framing in terms of perfection, I notice Kant does already at the earliest phase of crafting moral theory that he did not get from the British moralists. Kant puts some serious distance between happiness and virtue. Shaftsbury had taken on the perennial philosophic challenge of showing that private and public interest and happiness are in proportion to one’s moral virtue. Hutcheson had taken the virtue of an alternative to be gauged by greater amount of happiness brought to greater number of people. Hume had thought indifference to human happiness or misery to be, equally, indifference to virtue or vice.

By the time of his Inaugural Dissertation (1770), Kant has set aside the supposition that we have a distinct faculty of moral sense. Morality is still seen in terms of a concept of moral perfection, now taken to be a noumenal perfection. Here the term noumenal means simply the intelligible as opposed to the sensible. “Moral philosophy, . . . in so far as it furnishes the first principles of judgement is only cognized by the pure understanding and itself belongs to pure philosophy {pure, apart from sense}. Epicurus, who reduced its criterion to the sense of pleasure or pain, is very rightly blamed, together with certain moderns who have followed him to a certain extent from afar, such as Shaftsbury and his supporters” (2: 396). (I will use curly braces for my own insertions into quotes and square brackets for insertions by the translator.)

For what error is Kant blaming Shaftsbury and other ethicists of moral sense or feeling? Shaftsbury had faulted hedonism, such as Epicureanism, for failing to provide a noncircular criterion for selecting which pleasures are virtuous. (To make this charge stick in the case of Epicurus, one would need to show he supplied no criterion for distinguishing necessary pleasures from unnecessary ones.) This criticism is familiar to readers of Rand. That is not the fault Kant is pointing to, in 1770, in both hedonism and moral-sense ethics. Kant has now come round to his settled view, for both theoretical philosophy and fundamental practical philosophy, that sense and sensibility should be kept radically distinct from intellect and intelligibility. Perfection is grasped conceptually. Fundamental principles of moral judgment are wholly an affair of the intellect. Happiness is partly sensory. Kant now has a systematic reason for keeping distance between happiness and virtue.

Rand once wrote that “the essence of that which is man” is “his sovereign rational mind” (AS 1069). That is a conception of human being common, in a variety of forms, to many philosophies not skeptical. One part of Kant’s variation on this positive theme is his view, expressed in 1781 in Critique of Pure Reason, that every practical purpose is to be tuned to wisdom, prize of philosophy. Why so? “Precisely because wisdom is the idea of the necessary unity of all possible purposes, it must, as an original and at least limiting condition, serve everything practical as a rule” (B385 A328).

Kant observes that there is an analogy between systematic organization by reason and the organization of animate nature.

Under reason’s government our cognitions as such must not amount to a rhapsody; rather, they must amount to a system, in which alone they can support and further reason’s essential purposes. By a system, however, I mean the unity of the manifold cognitions under an idea. This idea is reason’s concept of the form of a whole insofar as this concept determines a priori both the range of the manifold and the relative position that the parts have among one another. Hence reason’s scientific concept contains the whole’s purpose and the form of the whole congruent with this purpose. The unity characteristic of a purpose, to which all the parts refer and to which in the idea of the purpose they also refer among one another, makes possible the fact that every part can be missed if the remaining parts are familiar, and the fact that there is no place for any contingent addition or indeterminate magnitude of the whole’s perfection . . . . Hence the whole is structured . . . and not accumulated . . . . It can indeed grow internally . . . but not externally; i.e., it can grow only like an animal body, whose growth adds no member but makes each member stronger and more efficient for its purposes without and change of proportion. (B860–61 A832–33)

Kant does not see that the essential purpose of reason and understanding is the making of that systematic unity that is life for the human animal. Rather, in Kant’s view, one essential purpose of reason is to make our cognitions systematic. Another essential purpose of reason is to be a self-justifying moral legislator. Kant does not see that reason is given its purposes by human animal life, even though he knows that “everything in the animal has its benefit and good intent” for the life of the animal and its kind (B868 A840).

“Essential purposes are not . . . the highest purposes, of which (in the case of perfect systematic unity of reason) there can be only one. Hence essential purposes are either the final purpose itself or subsidiary purposes that necessarily belong to the final purpose as means. The final purpose is none other than the whole vocation of the human being” (B868 A840). What is the whole vocation of the human being in general terms? Happiness? Life? Something beyond them?

At this stage (1781), Kant says the whole and general vocation of the human being is to become ever worthy of happiness. “Do that whereby you become worthy to be happy” (B837 A809). Kant’s system of morality “is linked inseparably—but only in the idea of pure reason—with the system of happiness” (B937 A809).

Happiness is the satisfaction of all our inclinations (extensively, in terms of their manifoldness; intensively, in terms of their degree; and also protensively, in terms of their duration). The practical law issuing from the motive of happiness I call pragmatic (i.e., rule of prudence). But the practical law that has as its motive nothing but the worthiness to be happy . . . I call moral (moral law). The pragmatic law advises [us] what we must do if we want to partake of happiness; the moral law commands how we ought to behave in order to become worthy of happiness. The pragmatic law is based on empirical principles; for in no other way than by means of experience can I know either what inclinations there are that want to be satisfied, or what the natural causes are that can bring about the satisfactions of those inclinations. The moral law abstracts from inclination and from the natural means of satisfying them. It considers only the freedom of a rational being as such, and the necessary conditions under which alone this freedom harmonizes with a distribution of happiness that is made in accordance with principles. (B834 A806)

Notice a superseding dynamic in Rand’s ethical theory. A person’s self-esteem is “his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living” (AS 1018). Self-esteem is a cardinal value for life of the animal who must reason to live. Self-esteem is a feature of the human form of conscious life. The value self-esteem presupposes the ultimate value life. The concept worth, like moral value, presupposes life of the rational animal.

Kant thinks of the world of morality as an intelligible world “in whose concept we abstract from all obstacles to morality (i.e., from inclinations)” (B837 A809). In that world, “a system of a proportionate happiness linked with morality can indeed be thought as necessary. For freedom, partly impelled and partly restricted by moral laws, would itself be the cause of general happiness; and hence rational beings, under the guidance of such principles, would themselves be originators of their own and also of other beings’ lasting welfare. But this system of morality that rewards itself is only an idea” (B837–38 A809–10). Though taken only as a guiding and limiting idea by Kant, such a world corresponds to Leibniz’ kingdom of grace (#15).

“Morality in itself amounts to a system; but happiness does not, except insofar as its distribution is exactly commensurate with morality. This however is possible only in the intelligible {not sensible} world . . . .” (B839 A811).

Because morality delivers rational, necessary commands, moral laws must be connected a priori with commensurate promises for and threats to welfare and happiness in an ideal limit. But such commanding, “the moral laws cannot do unless they reside in a necessary being that, as the highest good, can alone make such a purposive unity possible” (B840 A812). In Kant’s view, happiness is by itself incapable of being the complete good; happiness needs to be united with worthiness to be happy in order to instance complete goodness. On the other side of union, “morality by itself—and with it the mere worthiness to be happy—is also far from being the complete good. In order for this good to be completed, the person who in his conduct has not been unworthy of happiness must be able to hope that he will partake of it” (B842 A814).

To the shortfall of happiness that ought to ensue one’s moral actions, Kant tried to leave open a not irrational hope for happiness in life beyond the limit of the one we know. For such a shortfall, Rand rested with the fully rational consolation of having been touched by the rays of a morally ideal rational world (AS 1068).

The absolute finality and spur of life as moral value, in Rand’s theory, stems from the self-sufficiency of life itself and the absolute stillness and value-void of its cessation. Kant thought that for all areas of science, including biology, all empirical causes of unity are derivative of final absolute necessary unity beyond the empirical world. Though we should suppose it in our research, though we should reach in its direction in our research, this self-sufficient basis of any derivative contingent unities in the empirical world, including the distinctive unities of organisms, is beyond our reach (B644–45 A616–17).

For Kant moral concepts are concepts that surpass the possibility of experience. The concept of what is virtuous will be shown to be to some degree feasible by actual persons, but the standard is the concept, not some actual archetype (B372 A315).

The idea of an organized society “consisting of the greatest human freedom according to laws through which the freedom of each can coexist with that of others (not an organization consisting of the greatest happiness, for this will no doubt follow on its own)” is a moral concept (B373 A316). Kant is here posing a transpersonal archetype within which greatest happiness among persons would follow. It is a perfect arrangement that has never been fully instituted. Although this ideal is only a concept, the closer actual constitutions approach it, the closer human beings come to the greatest perfection possible (B373–74 A317).

At this stage of his thought, Kant understands organisms in the same manner. “A plant, an animal, the regular arrangement of the world edifice (hence presumably also the whole natural order) show distinctly that they are possible only according to ideas” (B374 A317–18). The term idea here means a concept formed by reason from concepts originating (not empirically, but) solely in the understanding and surpassing the possibility of experience (B377 A320). The arrangements within and among plants and animals show that “no individual creature under the individual conditions of its existence is congruent with the idea of the most perfect creature of its kind” (B374 A318). We are justified in rising “from the merely replicating contemplation of what is physical in the world order to this order’s architectonic connection according to purposes, i.e., according to ideas” (B375 A318).

Kant sees that happiness can follow naturally from acting according to ideals other than happiness. He sees that happiness can follow from a certain ideal form of organized human activity. He does not see that life of physical organisms is the ground, the fully adequate ground, of any manifest functions or purposes in their internal and external activities. He does not see that life is the ground of purpose, reason, and happiness.

(Kant/Rand to be continued.)


Kant, I. 1764. Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality. In Walford 1992.
——. 1765. Kant’s Announcement of the Programme of His Lectures for the Winter Semester 1765–66. In Walford 1992.
——. 1770. On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World. In Walford 1992.
——. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.

Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

Walford, D., translator and editor. 1992. Immanuel Kant – Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770. Cambridge.

#6 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 25 September 2009 - 03:34 AM

Kant’s Wrestle with Happiness and Life

Part 2 – towards 1785

In the years 1762–64, Johann Gottfried Herder had been a student of Kant’s at the University of Königsberg. Herder went on to become a clergyman, a renowned author, and Superintendent of Lutheran clergy in Weimar. He was a leading opponent of the Enlightenment* (e.g. Herder 1774). He was significantly under the influence of Rousseau; puffing up the goodness and happiness of primitive peoples; portraying the philosophies he had seen in school as pretentious and damaging to the natural goodness already in one’s soul. Opposition to the Enlightenment set Herder against Kant’s philosophy in both its Precritical and Critical phases. Herder was doubly opposed to Kant’s mature, Critical philosophy (Herder 1799; cf. Peikoff 1982, 44), and Kant was uniformly opposed to the attempts at philosophy by his former student (Kant 1785; Beiser 1987, 149–53; Kuehn 2001, 292–301).

However often he reiterated that his philosophizing was to protect folks from philosophy, Herder’s works show that he was powerfully drawn to philosophy of nature, especially human nature. Shortly after finishing university, Herder writes that his own philosophical approach would be to “dissect the subjective concept of thought and the objective concept of truth, . . . [to] unfold them, and by means of an extensive analysis of the concept, so to speak, seek the origin of all truth and science in my soul” (1765, 10). He would aim for a logic that comprehended not only intelligence, but imagination and sensation. Logic should preserve “the human spirit its natural strength in full vivacity” (11).

The best Herder sees a moralist can do for a person, in a practical way, is not to “preach virtue to his understanding, but preach to his conscience the virtue which he understands, . . . [by this,] merely lend a hand to nature. On the ground of his conscience, the whole field already sleeps, . . . wake it up” (24).

Curiosity is a drive in the human soul, but “a drive composed from self-preservation and self-defense” (16). Beyond defense, taking the offensive, curiosity is a refined artificial drive aiming at pleasure. The drive to extend our ideas is not the first main law of the soul. The drive for extending ideas is taken as first principle by study-philosophers, but they are mistaken, and within each such philosopher, there dwells yet a human being with deeper drives and truer, healthier understanding (16–22; see also 1772, 134–35).

In his famous Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), Herder observes “that the human being is far inferior to the animals in strength and sureness of instinct, indeed that he quite lacks what in the case of so many animal species we call innate abilities for and drive to art” (77–78). To understand rightly the drives to art of animals, and thereby to better see the nature of the human soul, Herder takes the perspective of what he calls “the sphere of animals.” Each animal has a circle distinctive of its kind, a distinctive extent “of their movements, elements, nutrition, preservation, reproduction, upbringing, society,” as well as distinctive “drives and arts” (78).

The size and diversity within an animal’s circle are in inverse proportion to the drives and arts of the animal’s kind. The bee and the spider are artful builders, and their two circles of life are small. However large the circle for any animal, the world beyond its circle is as nothing to the animal. The forces of representation and communication are adequate to the animal’s destiny in its circle of efficacy. The living mechanism tightly ruling their artful behaviors and communications is called instinct (79).

Animals with larger circle have more numerous functions and have to attend to a greater number of objects. “The less constant their manner of life is, . . . the larger and more diverse their sphere is {and} the more we see their sensuousness distribute itself and weaken” (78). Attention and behavior are less rigidly bound for animals with a larger circle of existence.

The sphere of the human being is wide, and far from uniform.

A world of occupations and destinies surrounds him.

His senses and organization are not sharpened for a single thing; he has some senses for everything and hence naturally for each particular thing weaker and duller senses.

His forces of soul are distributed over the world; {there is} no direction of his representation on a single thing; hence no drive to art, no skill for art, and . . . no animal language. (79)

Animal language is wholly inadequate for the human being’s circle of efficacy. Animal language “is an expression of such strong sensuous representations that they become drives. Hence, {animal} language is innate and immediately natural for the animal. . . . How does the human speak by {such a} nature? Not at all!—just as he does little or nothing through sheer instinct as an animal” (80).

Enormous is the circle of efficacy of human beings. For spanning the gulf between his needs and prospects, on the one hand, and his lack of instinct and animal language, on the other, there is a gift of nature “as essential to him as instinct is to the animals” (81). This substitute for instinct is “the true orientation of humanity” (81).

Thought, reason, and human language are the natural gifts essential to human beings. “The human being has no single work, . . . but he has free space to practice in many things and hence to improve himself constantly. Each thought is not an immediate work of nature, but precisely because of this, it can become his own work” (82). If for humans instinct must disappear, “then precisely thereby the human being receives ‘more clarity’. Since he does not fall blindly on one point and remain laying there blindly, he becomes free-standing, can seek for himself a sphere for self-mirroring, can mirror himself within himself. No longer an infallible machine in the hands of nature, he becomes his own end and goal of refinement” (82).

“The rationality of the human being, the character of his species, is . . . ‘the total determination of his thinking force in relation to his sensuality and drives’” (84).

It is their natural reflective awareness that allows humans to invent and acquire human language.

The human being demonstrates reflection when the force of his soul operates so freely that in the whole ocean of sensations which floods the soul through all the senses, it can, so to speak, separate off, stop, and pay attention to a single wave, and be conscious of its own attentiveness. The human being demonstrates reflection when, out of the whole hovering dream of images which proceed before his senses, he can collect himself in a moment of alertness, freely dwell on a single image, pay it clear, more leisurely heed, and separate off characteristic marks for the fact that this is that object and no other. Thus he demonstrates reflection when he can not only recognize all the properties in a vivid or clear way, but his own mind acknowledge one or several as distinguishing properties. The first act of this acknowledgment provides a distinct concept; it is the first judgment of the soul. (87–88)

Herder did not accept the sharp division between the faculty of intelligence and the faculty of sense that Kant had proclaimed in 1770 and had elaborately maintained in 1781 and thereafter. In the best human beings of the past, according to Herder, “cognition and sensation flowed together for human life, for action, for happiness” (1778, 226). Cognition and sensation are living (243). The body is a living machine. Its life is a harmonious rhythm of activity “in perpetual effort and recuperation, right down to the subtlest instruments of sensations and thoughts” (191). The activities of everything in the body are ordered together by a single life force. The human soul is not an existent independent of the living body (193). There is a living formative force in nature, seen in Haller’s research on muscle contraction; seen in tropisms and reproduction by plants; seen in the unification of sensations received by the heart into a single pulse; and seen in the head’s “power to bring sensations which flow through its body into a single representation, and to guide the former through the latter” (194; see further, 205–6).

‘The soul cognizes that it senses” (208). It cognizes nothing purely out of itself (209). Cognition is not only a striving, but a having and a feeling of having. There is no cognition without volition, and there is no volition without cognition (213). Conscience, or moral feeling, is not at odds with cognition (214). “True cognition and good volition are just one sort of thing, a single force and efficacy of the soul” (215).

Volition is “from and full of human sensation” (213). The noble standard according to which we cognize and act is humanity. The living expansion and contraction of our will is expressed in self-feeling and other-feeling. “Loving is the noblest cognition, as it is the noblest sensation” (214). Loving is feeling, in a human way. Virtue is loving, the sure pull towards other human beings and towards “the great Creator in oneself” (214)

The moral end of human being is to be the intelligent sensorium of God, awake to “everything living in creation in proportion as it is related to him,” the human being (214). “Everything feels itself and creatures of its kind, life flows to life” (214). Our human self-feeling is fixed point for our ends, but not our end. Loving ourselves is necessary means to the noble end of loving our neighbor. “If we are disloyal to ourselves, how will we be loyal to others? In the degree of the depth of our self-feeling lies the degree of our other-feeling for others, for it is only ourselves that we can, so to speak, feel into others” (214).

Herder knows that human loving is not possible without a living body; so value is not possible apart from life. He knows a lot about human beings, I would say. He does not know that the order of inanimate nature and living nature obtains without divine craftsmanship and love. He does not know that life is conceptually prior to knowing and loving and that human life is the first and last word of meaning and value.

Kant rightly thinks Herder’s reasoning too intuitive, analogical, and poetic, and anyway contoured to mystical theology. Kant thinks that inferring general moral rules merely from empirical description of certain facts and speculative interpretation of those facts is unsound. Furthermore, we do not need to see all the value in human life, thought, and will as accruing from their relation to God. In humanity itself there is an ultimate self-sufficient value.

In 1784 Kant writes that what is evident from the behaviors and internal organization of animals—that their natural dispositions tend, purposively, to a complete development—is true also for the rational animal. The goal of our predispositions is the use and development of reason. The projects of reason are endless; they span generations on and on. Reason “does not operate instinctively” (8:19). Reason “is a faculty of extending the rules and aims of the use of all its powers far beyond natural instinct” (8:18–19). Though no individual can fulfill the vast natural aim of reason in their limited life, an individual can participate by principle in the larger purpose of reason for the human species.

Nature has given to the human being: reason and “the freedom of the will grounded on it,” with “a clear indication of [nature’s] aim in regard to that endowment” (8:19) Nature has given that the human being

should now not be guided by instinct or cared for and instructed by innate knowledge; rather he should produce everything out of himself. The invention of his means of nourishment, his clothing; his safety and defense (for which nature gives him neither the horns of the steer, nor the claws of the lion, nor the teeth of the dog, but merely his hands), all gratification that can make life agreeable, all his insight and prudence and even the generosity of his will, should be entirely his own work. (8:19; see also 1786)

The human constitution is such that however far a human being may perfect his skill and thinking and thereby approach happiness on earth, he

may have only his own merit alone to thank for it; just as if [nature] had been more concerned about his rational self-esteem than about his well-being. For in this course of human affairs there is a whole host of hardships that await the human being. But it appears to have been no aim at all to nature that he should live well; but only that he should labor and work himself up so far that he might make himself worthy of well-being through his conduct of life. (8:20)

Kant, like Rand, understands that reason is the means to human survival, well-being, and happiness. But he does not see the utility of reason as serving the ultimate end of life of the individual or species. He does not see life as an end in itself, rather he sees fullest development of reason as an end in itself beyond its service to life. As Kant puts it in his 1785 reviews of a work of Herder’s, humans happy simply in their animal life and enjoyments would lack the end essential to being human, “the always proceeding and growing activity and culture” (8:65).

Why is ever-higher development of reason and advancing culture something valuable in itself?

(Kant/Rand to be continued.)


Beiser, F. C. 1987. The Fate of Reason. Harvard.

Forster, M.N., editor and translator. 2002. Herder – Philosophical Writings. Cambridge.

Herder, J.G. 1765. How Philosophy Can Become More Universal and Useful for the Benefit of People. In Forster 2002.
——. 1772. Treatise on the Origin of Language. In Forster 2002.
——. 1774. This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity. In Forster 2002.
——. 1778. On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul. In Forster 2002.
——. 1799. A Metacritique on the Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant, I. 1784. Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim. A.W. Wood, translator. In Zöller and Louden 2007.
——. 1785. Review of J.G. Herder’s Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity. A.W. Wood, translator. In Zöller and Louden 2007.
——. 1786. Conjectural Beginning of Human History. A.W. Wood, translator. In Zöller and Louden 2007.

Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

Peikoff, L. 1982. The Ominous Parallels. Stein and Day.

Zöller, G., and R.B. Louden, editors. 2007. Immanuel Kant – Anthropology, History, and Education. Cambridge.


Before turning to Kant’s major work in ethics Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), I want to add a bit more in preparation.

Firstly, in Kant’s view, the source(s) of moral obligation must be knowable by reason, however ignorant of the world we may be. “What in all possible cases [of action] is right or wrong we must be able to know according to [a] rule, because it concerns our obligation, and what we cannot know we also have no obligation to do” (B504 A476).

Secondly, moral law does not derive from the will of God. This is consonant with the Leibnizian stance that moral law is part of the divine understanding, like the eternal truths of logic or geometry, not open to divine will. Moral laws, according to this tradition, have a necessity durable—they hold fast—under any contingencies grounded in the divine will. “As far as practical reason has the right to guide us, we shall not regard actions as obligatory because they are commands of God, but shall regard them as divine commands because we are intrinsically obliged to them” (B847 A819).

Thirdly, Kant holds there can be no moral rightness or goodness unless agents to whom they pertain are free to follow moral rules. Practical freedom of the will is necessary not only for morality, but for human prudence. In prudent behavior, “the entire business of reason consists in taking all the purposes assigned to us by our inclinations and uniting them in the one purpose, happiness, and in harmonizing the means for attaining this happiness” (B828 A800). We are free in reasoning prudentially to make choices “determined not merely by what stimulates, i.e., by what directly affects the senses. Rather, we have a power of overcoming, through presentations of what is beneficial or harmful even in a more remote way, the impressions made upon our power of desire. These deliberations, however, concerning what is with regard to our whole state desirable, i.e., good or beneficial, rest on reason" (B830 A803). Our deliberations are free in this practical sense, both for prudential and for moral deliberations.

Kant thinks that if the phenomenal world were the only world, then its deterministic natural laws would rule the operations of the practical will. Our free will evidenced in the rational regulation of our actions would then be an illusion, as Spinoza had maintained earlier and as Johann Heinrich Schulz maintained in Kant’s time. Morality then would go out the house of rationality (B562–65 A534–37). Kant will not have that, and anyway, full determinism for rational beings is incoherent (1783). Resolution of this conundrum is one of his reasons for thinking there must be, in addition to the phenomenal world, a noumenal world, from which originating causes, courses not necessitated by natural law, can obtain in the phenomenal world.

Kant, I. 1783. Review of Schulz’s “Attempt at an Introduction to a Doctrine of Morals for all Human Beings Regardless of Different Religions.” In Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. 1996. M.J. Gregor, editor and translator. Cambridge.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 27 September 2009 - 09:04 AM.

#7 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 10:04 AM

Kant’s Wrestle with Happiness and Life

Part 3 – into 1785

In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant tells us that ethics should be conceived as determination of what constitutes a good character, in particular a good will. To be a good person is to have a good will. The sight of someone who is continuously prosperous, but is “graced with no feature of a pure and good will,” does not delight us. Having a good will “seems to constitute the indispensable condition even of worthiness to be happy” (4:393).

Rand gives one of her protagonists in Atlas Shrugged these lines:


To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his own mind and his effort.

Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek. (AS 411)

Prosperity in the absence of the moral virtues of rationality and purpose in one’s values would not engender a sense of being worthy of happiness, and for that matter, it would not make for happiness.

The general distinctively moral purpose of anyone’s life is his own happiness, in Rand’s view. “The achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and . . . happiness . . . is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values” (AS 1059).

Rand writes of men of good will. Where does she locate a good will in morality? The text on money maintains that with a good will a person will respect the sovereignty of other persons’ minds over their values and labors. Having a good will of this kind and to this extent is not morally singular; it is a moral requirement for anyone. Results and marks of failing to have this minimal level of good will would be, for example, takings by force or fraud (AS 1019, 1022–23). Restricting one’s takings to the consensual is an occasion of a minimally good will respecting the minimally good will of others. Then too, with this type and level of good will, one treats others as ends in themselves. “Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others” (OE 27).

The moral person set on his own happiness does not take his pleasure to be the proper goal of the lives of others nor does he take the pleasure of others to be the proper goal of the life that is his (AS 1022). One of good will, however, will find personal pleasure in seeing the value efforts of others (AS 1060). There are “no victims and no conflicts of interest” necessary among moral, rational people (AS 1022). Each can craft his values and desires, while respecting the circumstance that “by the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself.” (AS 1014). There is a lovely harmonious world, a “kingdom of perfection,” in one’s soul and society (AS 1058, 1068).

Good will towards others, in Rand’s view, is only part of human good will. More generally and more deeply, “every act of a man’s life has to be willed” (AS 1057), and the basic act of human will is the choice to think, to focus, or not. The fundamental human question, “the question ‘to be or not to be’ is the question ‘to think or not to think’” (AS 1012). To choose living and thinking is a basic free choice within which all others are arranged. Choosing living and thinking is good choosing, good willing (AS 1017–18).

In Kant’s view, a good will is a fitness to attain various ends, but it does not derive its goodness from those ends. Rather, regarded by itself, it is good in itself. It is “to be valued incomparably higher than all that could be merely brought about by it in favor of some inclination and indeed, if you will, of the sum of all inclinations” (4:394). If unfavorable circumstances prevent attainment of one’s ends, in spite of one’s greatest efforts, with a good will, then “like a jewel, {the good will} would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in itself” (4:394).

Kant puts together a little argument to show that the goodness of a good will does not derive from the ends of preservation or welfare of one’s life. Nor from the end of happiness. If those were the proper ends of a creature with reason and will, what a poor arrangement nature has hit upon for their accomplishment. For those ends, actions would be better marked out more reliably by instinct than by reason. Notice too that people who are highly cultivated in reason dedicated to the enjoyment of life and happiness do not find true satisfaction, but bring trouble upon themselves and multiplication of their needs. Often they end up with some envy of “the common run of people, who are closer to the guidance of mere natural instinct and do not allow their reason much influence on their behavior” (4:395–96). That is not to say that Kant, champion of the Enlightenment, urges a return to the primitive. The upshot is this: There is another, far worthier purpose of one’s existence to which “reason is properly destined, and to which, as supreme condition, the private purpose of the human being must for the most part defer” (4:396).

In Rand’s ethics, a good will, a good character, is necessary for preservation of human life and achievement of happiness. However, in contrast to Kant’s conception, moral goodness is for the purpose of prospering life and happiness. A good character does indeed have its solitary reward of pride, but the value of a good will derives from the value of human life.

Happiness is “complete well-being and satisfaction with one’s life” (4:393). It is the unified purpose of all the purposes we undertake according to natural inclinations (B828 A800), “the sum of satisfaction of all inclinations” (4:399). Kant is cognizant of the connection, made by Greek ethicists, between happiness and physical health. He argues that because of the broad compass of this general concept of happiness and the tenuousness of the link between happiness and health, happiness is feeble as a moral precept. One might act on a present inclination, even though it is against health, unsure that the happiness won by health would be greater than the happiness won by satisfying the present inclination (4:399; see further 4:417–19). What does not catch Kant’s eye is that health might be a clearer and firmer standard of morality than happiness and that a concept of happiness might be sensitively conformed to the concept of health. He does not see that health—better yet, human life—could be the source of moral obligation, a standard to look to through present inclination and through which to see present inclination.

What is wrong with Kant’s argument that if the function of reason and a good will were only to attain life and happiness, we should have been equipped with unerring instinct for such ends, rather than with deliberative reason? This thought supposes that the extensive creative survival behaviors of humans and the wide range of human ways of living could be attained with only instinct and obligatory, non-symbolic animal communication. Herder was right in denying such a possibility. Human life requires language and the reflective awareness that makes it possible.

Kant’s second argument at 4:395–96 was that people more highly cultivated in reason, pursuing only life and happiness, often end up dissatisfied and envious of less cultured folk who are less reflective and closer to being guided by instincts. This circumstance, supposing it true, is to be taken as evidence that the function of developed reason does not lie ultimately in its service to life and happiness. This argument is fallacious, for it trades on an ambiguity in the term instinct. That some people are guided more by feelings than by deliberative reason does not show they have any more instinct than sophisticated people have, where instinct is taken unambiguously as inborn biologically fixed skill.

Rand gets it right. When it comes to the human animal, “a sensation of hunger will tell him that he needs food, . . . but it will not tell him how to obtain his food. . . . He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought” (OE 21). More generally, “a desire is not an instinct” (AS 1013), and a feeling will not tell one how to hunt, farm, or cook (AS 1036, F 737). Kant’s second argument, like his first, does nothing to show that the ultimate function of reason and a good will cannot be to attain life and happiness.

Kant flirts with this current of argument again, in 1788, in his Critique of Practical Reason. He writes:


Certainly, our well-being and woe count for a very great deal in the appraisal of our practical reason and, as far as our nature as sensible beings is concerned, all that counts is our happiness if this is appraised, as reason especially requires, not in terms of transitory feeling but of the influence this contingency has on our whole existence and our satisfaction with it; but happiness is not the only thing that counts. The human being is a being with needs, insofar as he belongs to the sensible world, and to this extent his reason certainly has a commission from the side of his sensibility which it cannot refuse, to attend to its interest and to form practical maxims with a view to happiness in this life and, where possible, in a future life as well. But he is nevertheless not so completely an animal as to be indifferent to all that reason says on its own and to use reason merely as a tool for the satisfaction of his needs as a sensible being. For, that he has reason does not at all raise him in worth above mere animality if reason is to serve him only for the sake of what instinct accomplishes for animals; reason would in that case be only a particular mode nature used to equip the human being for the same end to which it has destined animals, without destining him to a higher end. No doubt once this arrangement of nature has been made of him he needs reason in order to take into consideration at all times his well-being and woe; but besides this he has it for a higher purpose: namely, not only to reflect upon what is good or evil in itself as well . . . but also to distinguish the latter appraisal altogether from the former and to make it the supreme condition of the former. (5:61–62)

It is false to say reason cannot have as its continual and ultimate purpose the attainment of life, and at the same time have its own further purposes that are auxiliary and highly removed from the daily struggle for existence and happiness. Not only can reason make a dinner, it can set the table in a beautiful way. It is also mistaken to think that seeing reason’s main function as for survival of the human animal fails to capture the vast leap of our species beyond the other animals. The “higher ends” of reason that Kant has in mind are not removed from the daily struggle for existence and happiness, of course, for he is here thinking of one’s moral ends. Establishment that there are such ends not identical with the ends of life and happiness is not accomplished by Kant’s argument here.

In Kant’s view, it is good to preserve one’s life, good to be socially adept and beneficent, and good to assure one’s own happiness. But any moral goodness or inner worth to be found in these efforts—and in all other harmonious, beneficial efforts—arises from their being done from a sense of duty. For striking example: “If adversity and hopeless grief have quite taken away the taste for life; if an unfortunate man, strong of soul and more indignant about his fate than despondent or dejected, wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it, not from inclination or fear but from duty, then his maxim [preserve one’s life] has moral content” (4:398).

Contrary to Kant, I say that such a resolve in such a circumstance is morally virtuous so far as the unfortunate man continues to commune with the goodness that is life, however slender has become the possibility for his further original enjoyments. (See further a, b.)

Kant will not have the pursuit of life, nor pursuit of any other object, be the source, purpose, or standard of moral virtue or obligation (5:64). Before digging into Kant’s reasons for standing moral by standing off from life and happiness, I want to point to two precursors of Kant’s mature ideas about ethics in his early education: one from Luther, one from Cicero.

In his early formal education at Königsberg’s Collegium Fredericianum (from age 8 to 16), Kant would have memorized Luther’s Small Catechism and studied the Large. He would know Luther’s explication of the First Commandment. In the Lutheran doctrine, God is the source of goodness in the world. Every good in the world—health, wealth, and family—are gifts from God. Every right gift one might give to another or receive from another, must be seen as a gift from God. It is more than a pleasing coincidence that the words Gott and Güte are so similar. God commands that one’s heart and mind be set first and foremost on God. He will bring good things, temporal and eternal, to people who follow this commandment, and he will bring woe to people who put other goods in first place, higher than God. To keep the true God in first place, one must have the right heart and head, the right faith.

In his secular construction of morality, Kant would give to good will the role Luther had given to right faith. Kant wants to keep with individual necessary reward and penalty for individual condition of will, and he thinks he can find this necessary connection right here in the constitution of human will and reason. Beyond the sure sanctions for a good will is the hope of happiness in this life and hereafter.

At Collegium Fredericianum, Kant had excelled in Latin. Among the Latin works he there read was Cicero’s On Duties (De Officiis). Cicero sees virtue in terms of duty. It is no controversy to say, as anyone should, that moral virtue is a performance of or disposition towards what one ought to do. But when a philosopher such as Cicero or Kant undertakes to cast all occasions of doing the morally right thing as performances of duties, he is giving a systematic and controversial slant to the entire moral plane.

Duties are various things owed, usually in various social relationships. In all things, Cicero is on the lookout for bearings on duties. “No part of life, neither public affairs nor private, neither in the forum nor at home, neither when acting on your own nor in dealings with another, can be free from duty. Everything that is honorable in a life depends upon its [duty's] cultivation, and everything dishonorable upon its neglect” (O 1.4).

Duties are things owed. I think that to reduce the idea of what ought to be done to what is owed is an impoverishment of the idea. A truer way of moral life is to perceive and nurture value. Let value and valuation bring forth virtues and things owed.

Kant’s ethics, like Cicero’s, is an ethics of duty. For Cicero the source of duties is honorableness, which is in contrast to personal advantage. “There are some teachings that undermine all duty by the ends of good and evil things that they propound. The man who defines the highest good in such a way that it has no connection with virtue, measuring it by his own advantages rather than by honorableness, cannot . . . cultivate either friendship or justice or liberality. There can certainly be no brave man who judges that pain is the greatest evil, nor a man of restraint who defines pleasure as the highest good” (O 1.5).

As the source of duties, Kant will replace honorableness with the nature of pure reason and a good will. That replacement understood, the following formula of Cicero will agree with Kant. Ethical systems in which the highest good is personal advantage “say nothing about duty; nor can any advice on duty that is steady, stable, and joined to nature be handed down except by those who believe that what is sought for its own sake is honorableness alone . . .” (O 1.6).

(Kant/Rand to be continued.)


Cicero, M.T. 44 B.C. On Duties. E.M. Atkins, editor and translator. 1991. Cambridge.

Gregor, M., editor and translator. 1996. Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. Cambridge.

Kant, I. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.
——. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. In Gregor 1996.

Rand, A. 1943. The Fountainhead. Bobbs-Merrill.
——. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.
——. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics. In The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964. Signet.



PS - 8/14/14

"Believe in Christ and do your duty." --Martin Luther

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 14 August 2014 - 06:36 AM.

#8 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 22 October 2009 - 06:15 AM

Kant’s Wrestle with Happiness and Life

Part 4 – Moral Worth, Necessary and Free

Many are moved to right beneficent acts, not by motives such as vanity or self-interest, but simply because “they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work” (G 4:398). Such beneficent acts “deserve praise and encouragement but not esteem” (G 4:398). Such beneficence flows from inclination, and though this action on inclination is praiseworthy, it is not action meriting our esteem if it is performed without being motivated by its moral rightness. These views are from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (G 1785).

Suppose another man were in the same position to render assistance in the very same situation. But suppose this man “is by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because he himself is provided with a special gift of patience and endurance towards his own sufferings and presupposes the same in every other or even requires it; if nature had not properly fashioned such a man . . . for a philanthropist, would he not still find within himself a source from which to give himself a far higher worth than what a mere good-natured temperament might have?” (G 4:398). Why, Yes. The man with little sympathy in his heart has a will. Taking beneficence in the circumstance to be a matter of moral law, he might render assistance for the sake of the law, from respect for moral law (G 4:398, 390; see further, Herman 1993, 1–22; Allison 1990, 107–20).

In The Metaphysics of Morals (MS 1797), Kant remarks that nature has given humans a receptivity to the feeling of sympathetic joy and sadness. This is compassion, and there is an indirect duty to cultivate compassionate feelings in oneself. The feeling of compassion is conducive to the free will of practical reason to share in other’s feelings. There is a direct duty of active, rational benevolence towards those worthy of happiness (MS 6:457). Somewhat like the Stoics before him and Rand after him, Kant distinguishes compassion from pity and says the latter “has no place in people’s relations with one another” (MS 6:457).

Morality is more than good inclinations and their rational coordination. From Critique of Practical Reason (KpV 1788):

An inclination to what conforms to duty (e.g., to beneficence) can indeed greatly facilitate the effectiveness of moral maxims but cannot produce any. For in these {moral maxims} everything must be directed to the representation of the law as determining ground if the action is to contain not merely legality by also morality. Inclination is blind and servile, whether it is kindly or not; and when morality is in question, reason must not play the part of mere guardian to inclination but, disregarding it altogether, must attend solely to its own interest as pure practical reason. (KpV 5:118; see also KpV 5:71–72 and 1793 6:4n)

As with sympathy, so with one’s own happiness. “People have already of themselves, the strongest and deepest inclination to happiness because it is just in this idea that all inclinations unite in a sum” (G 4:399). There is an indirect duty to assure one’s own happiness, for “want of satisfaction with one’s condition, under pressure from many anxieties and amid unsatisfied needs, could easily become a great temptation to transgression of duty” (G 4:399; also KpV 5:93).

There is, however, no direct duty to pursue one’s own happiness. Rather, there is the direct duty to pursue one’s own perfection. It would be a contradiction to say one had an obligation to pursue something one does automatically, specifically, pursue one’s own happiness (MS 6:386; KpV 5:37; G 4:415). It seems Kant is here in some contradiction with his talk of the suffering man (in G 4:398) who has lost the taste for life (see Part 3). Rand writes truly “man’s desire to live is not automatic” (AS 1013). Kant’s premise to the contrary is false, and his little case here against a direct duty to happiness would weigh also against an indirect duty to happiness, which he upholds.

Concerning others, it is Kant’s view that one has a direct duty to be concerned for their happiness. But “it is a contradiction for me to make another’s perfection my end and consider myself under obligation to promote this. For the perfection of another human being, as a person, consists just in this: that he himself is able to set his end in accordance with his own concepts of duty; and it is self-contradictory to require that I do (make it my duty to do) something that only the other himself can do” (MS 6:386). Making someone happy, of course, “is quite different from making him good” (G 4:442).

The perfection one has a duty to pursue in oneself is the perfection belonging to a human being as such. Specifically, the duty to self-perfection entails duties to cultivate one’s natural faculties, especially understanding, and to cultivate one’s will such that moral law becomes the incentive to one’s actions. This self-perfection is a species of the teleological perfection of living things in general: “the harmony of a thing’s properties with an end” (MS 6:386). The duty to self-perfection is a duty commanded absolutely by morally practical reason so that the individual “may be worthy of the humanity that dwells within him” (MS 6:387).

The virtue of self-perfection in Rand’s ethics derives from the nature and value of human life. It needs to be recognized

that of any of the achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character. . . [that man] must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining . . . that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection . . . . (AS 1020–21)

In Kant’s analysis, respect is a moral feeling, where now, in his mature ethical theory, moral feeling is not elementary as with the moral-sense theorists, but derives from the intellectual activity of setting aside sensory feelings and self-love for the sake of conforming to moral law in action. This free intellectual redirection is an infringement on self-love, the latter being prior to moral law in us. The resulting moral person has rational self-love (KpV 5:72–76).

Respect is not something one can have towards objects of one’s actions as objects nor towards one’s inclinations towards those objects. “Only what is connected with my will merely as ground and never as effect, what does not serve my inclination but outweighs it or at least excludes it altogether from calculations in making a choice—hence the mere law for itself—can be an object of respect and so a command” (G 4:00). It is in the will of a rational being that “the highest and unconditional good alone can be found. Hence nothing other than the representation of the law, insofar as it and not the hoped-for effect is the determining ground of the will, can constitute the preeminent good we call moral . . .” (G 4:401).

Reason tells us that the commands of duty deserve the highest respect. In each individual, there is a powerful counterweight to the command of duty: “his needs and inclinations, the entire satisfaction of which he sums up under the name happiness. Now reason issues its precepts unremittingly, without thereby promising anything to the inclinations, and so, as it were, with disregard and contempt for those claims . . . [which] refuse to be neutralized by any command” (G 4:405). One’s own happiness and the demands of morality are perpetually at odds, in Kant’s conception.

Kant thinks that “respect is always directed only to persons, never to things” (KpV 5:76). Behind our respect for persons is consciousness of moral duties they occasion (KpV 5:76–81).

Not only can we respect ourselves and other persons, we can love ourselves and others, we can promote the well-being and happiness of ourselves and others. That we will love ourselves and try to win our own happiness is entirely dependable. There is also a dependable natural satisfaction we have in the well-being of others. But there is no need in everyone, such as a sympathetic sensibility, such that as long as one remains a rational being, one is impelled to promote the well-being of others (KpV 5:35).

If I will limit my prudential maxim to pursue my own happiness, my maxim based on inclination, so as to include in it concern for the happiness of others; then my prudential maxim can become an objective, moral maxim, as “obligation to extend my self-love to the happiness of others as well” (KpV 5:35). The feature of obligation derives, however, not from the satisfaction we take in the well-being of others—though their well-being is the object, or matter, of our volition—rather from the form of a maxim of self-love made suitable for universal application by enfolding the happiness of others within it (KpV 5:35; see further, Wood 2008, 34–38, 175-81; Beiser 1987, 190–91; Herman 1993, 45–72; Sherman 1997, 129–30, 141–58).

Duty is the necessity of an action from respect for law” (G 4:400). What is the source and nature of this necessity and this law?

The term duty (Pflict) appears a few times in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (KrV 1781), and all its uses there are ordinary, without a philosophic role distinctive to Kant’s philosophy. In the second edition (1787), the term is added in two places (KrV Bxxxii and B29 [including translator’s note 290]) in its pivotal role in Kant’s mature ethics: as the moral tension pulling action out of direction by inclination. (Cf. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”) It is from this general opposition that consciousness of freedom of rational will arises (KrV Bxxxii–iii; MS 6:380n, 387–88).

The terms obligation or obligate (Obliegenheit, Verbindlichkeit, verbinden) appear several times in the first edition. Most are in connection with epistemological obligations. Five of the uses are in claims about moral obligations (KrV B507 A477, B617 A589, B662 A634, B838 A810, B839 A811). They speak about obligations to follow moral precepts, obligations as issuing from moral law, and obligations as being impositions. In no case is obligation used in the special role for which Kant adopts duty in his additions to the second edition: as the moral pull in free reason against direction of action by inclinations. That specific concept duty had been announced and set in its central place, for Kant’s ethics, in Groundwork, which was between the two editions of the first Critique. The emergence of this concept in Kant’s ethics signals perhaps a further development in his thought about the subject. More surely, it amounts to a shift in his strategy of presentation.

(I shall conclude this comparative study of the ethics of Kant and Rand in §B of Part 4.)


Allison, H. E. 1990. Kant’s Theory of Freedom. Cambridge.

Gregor, M. J., editor and translator, 1996. Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. Cambridge.

Herman, B. 1993. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Harvard.

Kant, I. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.
——. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.
——. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. In Gregor 1996.
——. 1793. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. In Immanuel Kant – Religion and Rational Theology. A. W. Wood, editor. G. Giovanni, translator. Cambridge.
——. 1797. The Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

Sherman, N. 1997. Making a Necessity of Virtue – Aristotle and Kant on Virtue. Cambridge.

Wood, A. W. 2008. Kantian Ethics. Cambridge.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 22 October 2009 - 08:21 PM.

#9 Stephen Boydstun

Stephen Boydstun


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Posted 31 October 2009 - 02:10 PM

Kant’s Wrestle with Happiness and Life

Part 4 – Moral Worth, Necessary and Free

In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant reasoned that if the causal connections lain out in time and space were sufficient to produce any of the phenomena there are, if every particular cause is itself necessitated by other causes, if even a human choice to rise from a chair is necessitated by antecedent causal conditions lain out in time and space; then there are no choices of humans free of necessitation by empirical inputs (KrV B473–80 A445–51, B560–86 A533–58). Then no choices of action by humans are truly originative.

What if there are other conditions, ones transcending the empirical, phenomenal world that set its character, that can never be experienced in empirical, phenomenal ways, that form an ultimate opaque stopping ground of rational comprehension? What if the human being, an empirical being, dwells also in that empirically transcendent realm in all occasions of truly originative rational choices of actions, where these actions effect no results in contradiction of natural laws and where the root cause of these actions is not necessitated by empirical fact? (KrV B566–69 A538–41). What if the phenomenal causal determinism of we human causes is not so determinative that we never make truly originative choices of action, free of coercion by empirical factors? (KrV B562 A534).

Then “the effects can be considered as free with regard to its intelligible cause, and yet with regard to appearances be considered simultaneously as resulting from these according to the necessity of nature” (KrV B565 A537). Then too, we cannot theoretically know we have such freedom nor even that such freedom is a real possibility. But we can conceive of such a freedom without contradiction of the natural order, and we can take such freedom as presupposition for all our moral operations (KrV B568 A540, B575–79 A547–51, B585–86 A557–58; KpV 5:54–57).

From our modern perspective, sensitive to developments in physics and neuroscience of the last several decades, we should realize that Kant is mistaken about causal structure and necessity in the empirical, phenomenal world. Kant’s conception of the physical (and physiological) realm is overly deterministic. He presumes, as do many thinkers of his day and ours, that physical necessitation entails predetermination by past conditions however far into the past one might look.* Complementing that error is another: he presumes that physical causal determinism implies in-principle predictability.* “All actions of a human being are determined in appearance on the basis of his empirical character and the other contributing causes according to the order of nature; and if we could explore all appearances of his power of choice down to the bottom, there would not be a single human action that we could not with certainty predict and cognize as necessary from its preceding conditions” (KrV B577–78 A549–50).

“But if we examine the same actions in reference to reason, . . . we find a rule and order quite different from the order of nature” (KrV B578 A550).

Reason is the permanent condition of all the voluntary actions under which the human being appears. Each of these actions, even before it occurs, is predetermined in the human being’s empirical character. But in regard to the intelligible character, of which the empirical character is only the sensible schema, no before or after holds, and every action—regardless of its time relation to other appearances—is the direct effect of the intelligible character of pure reason. Hence pure reason acts freely, i.e., without being dynamically determined in the chain of natural causes by external or internal bases that precede the action as regards time. And this freedom of pure reason can be regarded not only negatively, as independence from empirical conditions (for the power of reason would thus cease to be a cause of appearances {the manmade}). Rather, this freedom can be designated also positively, as a power of reason to begin on its own a series of events. Reason begins the series in such a way that nothing begins in reason itself, but that reason, as unconditioned condition of any voluntary action, permits no conditions above itself that precede the action as regards time—although reason’s effect does begin in the series of appearances, but in the series can never amount to an absolutely first beginning. (KrV B581–82 A553–54)

That is not so. That we can, in our symbolic, reflective and self-reflective consciousness, contemplate things and relations and possibilities outside the course of nature unfolding immediately before us and within us does not show that power of consciousness to be itself outside the temporal unfolding of nature. We have the freedom of thought and action we have entirely within the one and only world there is: the world of concretes, within which and over which our thought ranges. (On Kant’s theory of free will, see also Allison 1990, 11–82; Bird 2006, 689–718; Wood 2008, 123–41.)

In the Prolegomena (1783), Kant again proffers his way of reconciling the (overly) deterministic conception of nature with human freedom.

The law of nature remains, whether the rational being be a cause of effects in the sensible world through reason and hence through freedom, or whether that being does not determine such effects through rational grounds. For if the first is the case, the action takes place according to maxims whose effect within appearance will always conform to constant laws; if the second is the case, and the action does not take place according to principles of reason, then it is subject to the empirical laws of sensibility, and in both cases the effects are connected according to constant laws . . . . In the first case, however, reason is the cause of these natural laws {adopted maxims} and is therefore free, in the second case the effects flow according to mere natural laws of sensibility, because reason exercises no influence on them; but, because of this, reason is not itself determined by sensibility (which is impossible), and it is therefore also free in this case. Therefore freedom does not impede the natural law of appearances, any more than this law interferes with the freedom of the practical use of reason, a use that stands in connection with things in themselves as determining grounds.

In this way practical freedom—namely, that freedom in which reason has causality in accordance with objective determining grounds—is rescued, without natural necessity suffering the least harm with respect to the very same effects, as appearances. (P 4:345–46)

Kant is using the concept natural laws in the broad sense of constancies or patterns that are necessary. Kant chased the relation of moral necessities to natural necessities across more than three decades, without a clear and stable settlement.

There are practical laws having obligatory force reason cognizes as (not relatively, but) absolutely necessary (KrV B662 A634). In moral life, “there is an absolute necessity that something must occur, viz., that I comply in all points with the moral law” (KrV B856 A828). Having made these moral precepts my operating maxims, required by reason for fruitful operation of reason, these, “my moral principles, . . . I cannot renounce without being detestable in my own eyes” (KrV B856 A828).

We saw in Part 1 that in Kant’s precritical “Inquiry” (1764) he thought moral necessity of an end must stem from something necessarily right in itself. In his mature, critical philosophy, he continued with that general doctrine. Our ends can be unfolded towards a “necessary unity of all possible purposes” (KrV B385 A328). This systematic unity of purposes is an ideal world, intelligible apart from the sensible world, in which there is an exact balance between happiness actual and happiness deserved by free, rational beings who have made themselves worthy of happiness (KrV B841 A813; 1793 8:278n).

We know the necessity in moral obligation within ourselves (e.g. G 4:401; KpV 5:161–62; MS 6:216). The basis of that necessity is the concerted causal effectiveness of free, morally right action taken in a world in which everyone acted only morally, as if their actions “sprang from a supreme will comprising all private power of choice within itself” (KrV B838 A810). The basis of moral necessity is not natural causality alone, under which happiness does not necessarily follow from right action. For there to be a necessary connection between right action and hoped-for happiness, “a supreme reason that commands according to moral laws is also laid at the basis of nature, as nature’s cause” (KrV B838 A810).

In the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant had written: “Pure morality contains merely the moral laws of a free will as such; the doctrine of virtue examines these laws as impeded by the feelings, inclinations, and passions to which human beings are more or less subject” (KrV B79 A55). Kant had realized however that certain empirical concepts must be presupposed in thinking about the pure, a priori principles and concepts of morality. In the second edition (1787), coming after Groundwork, Kant enters the concept duty into an expanded articulation of the relation between concepts of empirical origin and the concepts and principles of pure morality. “Although the supreme principles and basic concepts of morality do not lay these empirical concepts themselves at the basis of their precepts, they must still bring in such pleasure and displeasure, desires and inclinations, etc., in [formulating] the concept of duty: viz., as an obstacle to be overcome, or as a stimulus that is {nevertheless} not to be turned into a motive” (KrV B29; see also MS 6:217).

In 1783 Christian Garve published Philosophical Remarks and Essays on Cicero’s Books on Duties. Garve was influenced by Leibniz and Wolff, but he was influenced much more by Lockean empiricism. Garve published also that year an early critical review of Kant’s first Critique, objecting to Kant’s characterization of sensation and its relation to understanding, to his courting skepticism, to his undermining of common sense, and to his inversion of objects and subjective nature (53–77).

Composition of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) was influenced by Garve’s book on Cicero. Manfred Kuehn writes that publication of Garve’s book “brought home to Kant not only the importance of Cicero, but also his continuing effect on Kant’s German contemporaries” (2001, 278). Kant intended his little book to be accessible, like Cicero’s, to a wide audience. So it is.

Like Kant and many other ethicists, Cicero had upheld an ethics based on reason and in opposition to impulse and hedonism. Kant needed to wrest Cicero’s key concept duty from the eudaimonistic setting given it by Cirero. He needed to reform the concept duty and trumpet it in his inaugural work devoted entirely to ethics, the Groundwork. Cicero had maintained that following duties is ultimately following the tendencies of human nature to self-preservation, to prevention of harm, to procreation, and to protection of offspring. Kant aimed to give duty a new meaning for a new rational ethical theory.

I think Kant had in addition an even greater ambition for Groundwork. Not only did he aim to supersede Cicero and other eudaimonists, he aimed to offer an entire and entirely rational alternative to the ethics of Lutheran Christianity. Kant needed to craft a naturalistic ethics with basic moral force equal the commands of an all-wise supernatural God. That is not to say that what is proclaimed as virtuous or right action in Kant’s ethics are to be roundly at odds with what is proclaimed by Christianity of his day.

A rational being can represent principles and by will conform her conduct to them. A moral necessity is one in which conformity is open to choice (G 4:413). Kant presumes that distinctly moral norms and choices are those affecting minded selves, affecting persons. Choices about the control and treatment of persons, one’s own person or another’s, are the distinctly moral choices. This is the presumed topic of moral principles and necessities.

The most general moral laws, the most general objective practical laws, pertain to “the relation of a will to itself insofar as it determines itself only by reason” (G 4:427). Formulas of universally applicable moral commands of reason, Kant calls imperatives. The Kantian imperative of special interest for the present study is this one: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (G 4:429; see also KpV 5:87).

Here again we see Kant attaching moral necessity in ends to the idea of something that is an end in itself. At the same time, he attaches moral necessity to the purely formal, the non-empirical. Only in one’s reason, and apart from consideration of material incentives and means, is one able to determine oneself by objective moral motives towards objective moral ends. Kant thinks there is one thing, and really only one thing, “the existence of which in itself has an absolute worth, something which as an end in itself could be a ground of determinate laws,” by which he means universally applicable determinate moral laws (G 4:428). “I say the human being and in general every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion” (G 4:428). At bedrock “rational nature exists as an end in itself” (G 428–29).

It is true, I should say, that rational nature is a similitude of an end in itself. That comes about because rational nature is the living nature that is the overarching information and control system of the animal that is man. When Rand writes “I am, therefore I’ll think,” the existence of the thinking self is a living existence (AS 1058). In apprehending that one exists, one apprehends that one lives and that this, oneself, is an end in itself.

We saw in Part 1 that, in his first Critique (1781), Kant had drawn an analogy between systematic organization by reason and organization of animate nature (KrV B860–61 A832–33; cf. B425). Kant knows that living things grow, that they are self-generating in individual development and in species reproduction, that they are self-preserving, and that in their essence they are purposive, or of-functions, in their structure and action (KU 366–71). He knows they are that way naturally, without artifice of intelligence. He does not see the natural purposive organizations that are organisms as ends in themselves. Life is not an end in itself.

“Rational nature is distinguished from the rest of nature by this, that it sets itself an end” (G 4:437). An end that can be the end of a will that is unconditionally good would have to be not some particular end to be effected, but an independently existing end. This end “can be nothing other than the subject {rational agent} of all possible ends itself, because this subject is also the subject of a possible absolutely good will; for such a will cannot without contradiction be subordinated to any other object” (G 4:437). Only rational nature is an end in itself without further qualification.

The internal purposive characteristic of organisms is a matter of objective fact, but for Kant it is an analogical objective fact. The anatomist and the embryologist are rewarded by proceeding under the general hypothesis that the parts and behaviors of organisms have specific functions analogous to our own conscious, rational purposes. Kant does not see it the other way around, the way Rand and many contemporary thinkers see it: conscious purpose is a species of natural animal behavior. This is one reason Kant would not see that life of the organism is an end in itself.

That rational nature is the only real end in itself would make one think Kant would take rational nature as the ultimate end towards which all good ends should be directed. Kant addresses ultimate purposes in a more restricted sense, as “the purpose by reference to which all other natural things constitute a system of purposes” (KU 429). The contrast of nature is to freedom. In Kant’s sense, the ultimate end for humans is the end (presumed single) set by nature for humans. That cannot be happiness. What happiness amounts to is not something determinately set by our animal nature. Rather, happiness is an idea humans formulate for themselves, with great variety and changeability. Even if the concept of happiness were restricted “to the true natural needs shared by our species, . . . [man] would still never reach what he means by happiness, and reach what is in fact his own ultimate purpose, . . . for it is not his nature to stop possessing and enjoying at some point and be satisfied” (KU 431). Moreover, nature “is very far from having adopted him as its special darling, . . . but has in fact spared him no more than any other animal from its destructive workings. . . . In the chain of natural purposes, man is never more than a link” (KU 430).

What nature has done for man, aside from constitution for the pursuit of happiness on earth, is to prepare him “for what he himself must do in order to be a final purpose” (KU 431). Final purpose is distinct from ultimate purpose in Kant’s fully developed ethics. Final purpose is “a purpose that requires no other purpose as a condition of its possibility” (KU 434). If man makes happiness “his whole purpose, it makes him unable to set a final purpose for his own existence and to harmonize with this final purpose” (KU 431). Yes, I say as Rand says: happiness alone is an inadequate standard to guide one’s actions for the purpose of achieving happiness. For us the standard is human life, but as we have seen, that candidate is on the field for Kant mainly in the shadow of happiness. Nature’s ultimate purpose with regard to man is giving him the “aptitude in general for setting himself purposes, and for using nature (independently of [the element of] nature in man’s determination of purposes) as a means [for achieving them] in conformity with the maxims of his free purposes generally. Producing in a rational being an aptitude for purposes generally (hence [in a way that leaves] that being free) is culture. Hence only culture can be the ultimate purpose that we have cause to attribute to nature with respect to the human species” (KU 431).

At the end of Part 2, I asked why, in 1785, Kant had taken ever-higher development of reason and advancing culture to be something valuable in itself. In Critique of Judgment (KU 1790), Kant has set out somewhat more the way in which culture can be valuable—a sort of natural ultimate value—by its relation to the one true valuable end in itself, which is rational nature.

The skills we acquire from culture are not all that is needed in order to have an aptitude to promote purposes generally. We require also our own directing will. Nature through culture liberates “the will from the despotism of desires, a despotism that rivets us to certain natural things and renders us unable to do our own selecting; we allow ourselves to be fettered by the impulses that nature gave us only as guides so that we would not neglect or even injure our animal characteristics, whereas in fact we are free enough to tighten or to slacken, to lengthen or to shorten them, as the purposes of reason require” (KU 432).

As we have seen, Kant resisted the thought that happiness might not be one’s aim when direction of one’s purposes by will is slackened. Rand rightly held that human beings do not automatically desire happiness. More fundamentally, humans do not automatically desire to live; their directive will extends that widely. Kant would hold that were that indeed the case, then Rand’s standard of morality would be profoundly inadequate.

In all of nature, according to Kant, it is only in man’s supersensible, noumenal nature that there is a purpose that is not conditioned on other purposes. Only in man’s existence as a moral agent, where moral legislation is not conditioned by any of the purposes in empirical nature, do we find a purpose not dependent on other purposes. That is unlike every purpose in empirical nature (KU 435–36; 1793, 8:279–80). Life could not be a final end, for it is conditional. It would not do as a standard for morality. Furthermore, if life is subject to continual choice by humans for its continuance, then human life is all the more conditioned and all the less suitable as a standard for morality. Requirements of morality conditioned by the clause “if you want to live,” would fail to have the objective necessity of themselves that Kant thought required of distinctly moral principles (G 4:414). (For more on Kant’s conception of life, see Ginsborg 2001, 246–54; Zammito 2007, 54–56, 67n13; Huneman 2007a, 86–92; Richards 2002, 229–37.)

That conception of moral necessity was wrongly tuned (cf. Rand 1974). The conditionality of life and the circumstance that human life is open to choice has the structure of necessity right for morality. The absoluteness of life or death is the absoluteness of moral necessity. That one freely chooses life, originates life, in thought and action respecting its requirements and opportunities—this is one’s moral glory.


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Bird, G. 2006. The Revolutionary Kant – A Commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason. Open Court.

Garve, C. 1783. Review of Critique of Pure Reason. In Kant’s Early Critics. B. Sassen, editor and translator. 2000. Cambridge.

Ginsborg, H. 2001. Kant on Understanding Organisms as Natural Purposes. In Kant and the Sciences. E. Watkins, editor. Oxford.

Gregor, M. J., editor and translator, 1996. Immanuel Kant – Practical Philosophy. Cambridge.

Huneman, P. 2007a. Reflexive Judgment and Wolffian Embryology: Kant’s Shift between the First and the Third Critiques. In Huneman 2007b.
——., editor, 2007b. Understanding Purpose – Kant and the Philosophy of Biology. Rochester.

Kant, I. 1764. Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality. In Immanuel Kant – Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770. P. Walford, editor and translator. Cambridge.
——. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.
——. 1783. Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science. In Immanuel Kant – Theoretical Philosophy after 1781. H. Allison and P. Heath, editors. G. Hatfield, translator. Cambridge.
——. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.
——. 1788. Critique of Practical Reason. In Gregor 1996.
——. 1790. Critique of Judgment. W. S. Pluhar, translator. Hackett.
——. 1793. On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but It Is of No Use in Practice. In Gregor 1996.
——. 1797. The Metaphysics of Morals. In Gregor 1996.

Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.
——. 1974. Causality versus Duty. In Philosophy: Who Needs It. 1982. Signet.

Richards, R. J. 2002. The Romantic Conception of Life. Chicago.

Wood, A. W. 2008. Kantian Ethics. Cambridge.

Zammito, J. H. 2007. Kant’s Persistent Ambivalence toward Epigenesis 1764–90. In Huneman 2007b.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun, 31 October 2009 - 07:12 PM.

#10 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 06 January 2010 - 11:02 PM

A Rejection of Egoism

Concerning animals and plants, we correctly think that “whatever stunts their growth or threatens their lives is bad for them. They are the sorts of things that can be healthy or diseased, and it is good for them to be healthy, bad to be diseased, to be stunted, to die before they mature. To determine what is good for some living S, we need to know what sort of thing S is—whether it is a human being, a horse, or a tree. If there are things that are good for all human beings, their goodness must be grounded not only in the properties of those things, but also in the properties of human beings” (WGW 88).

“Organic development, health, and proper physical functioning are . . . important components of human flourishing; but for us, faring well includes healthy psychological development and functioning as well” (WGW 5).

“Truths about what is good, when they are made about human beings, are truths about what is good for us . . . and must therefore be grounded in facts about our physical and psychological functioning. A theory about what is good that is applicable to human life must rest on ideas about the healthy development and exercise of the human mind” (WGW 90; further, 92–94, 131–66).

I have been quoting from Richard Kraut’s book What Is Good and Why, subtitled The Ethics of Well-Being. It was issued by Harvard University Press in 2007. (Psssst—This is a very fine book.) The picture composed by those quotations will look familiar to readers who have studied Ayn Rand’s ethics.

One more from Prof. Kraut:
"When we do good, we do good for someone. And so, in addition to our deciding which things are good, we also must answer the question ‘Whose good should one promote?’ There are many simple formulas that propose an answer to that question. The two that are most prominent are egoism and utilitarianism.
“Egoism holds that there is only one person whose good should be the direct object of one’s actions: oneself. It allows one to take an indirect interest in others, and to promote their well-being, but only to the extent that doing so is a means towards the maximization of what is good for oneself” (WGW 39).

Before explaining Kraut’s reasons for rejecting egoism, I want to begin to review Rand’s arguments for her type of ethical egoism. Within the 1957 exposition of her ethics, Rand writes:
“Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. Such a being is a metaphysical monstrosity, struggling to oppose, negate and contradict the fact of its own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain” (AS 1014).
“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live” (AS 1014).
“To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-Esteem . . . . These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues . . . : rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride” (AS 1018).
“Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value . . .—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character . . . —that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man . . . has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational man he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself . . .” (AS 1020–21; see also 1056–58).

In the 1964 Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand observes that “the choice of the beneficiary of moral values . . . . has to be derived and validated by the fundamental premises of a moral system. / The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action . . .” (x). I discern three intertwined strands in Rand’s defense of ethical egoism. I will be focusing on her arguments that move from agent egoism to beneficiary egoism. It is only when the latter is joined to the former that the theory should be called ethical egoism.

Strand One

In Rand’s 1957 presentation, the first move to beneficiary egoism is in the first paragraph of her text that I quoted above. It is there asserted that if one does not hold one’s own life as the motive and goal of one’s actions, one is acting in a self-destructive way. In The Fountainhead Rand wrote that “[man’s] moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others” (740 [hb]). One illustration of the self-destructive path set upon by doing otherwise is Peter Keating’s being dissuaded by his mother from marrying the woman he loves. It will be argued, however, that there are some moral choices in which one’s immediate motive is the good of others, yet that choice is not self-destructive. In ordinary circumstances, I tell people the truth. My immediate motive is often their self-interest, not mine; I don’t want them to be taking up falsehoods.

Kraut articulates this apparent defect of egoism as follows:
“When everything goes well for a child and he has all the emotional resources he needs to interact with his community in ways that are best for himself, he will have some direct interest in some members of that community—namely, those who have manifestly expressed their love for him in ways that benefit him. So no one whose early education is as good for him as it can be will emerge from childhood as a person who is inclined to act as egoism says he should act. So fortunate a young adult will gladly help others for their sake . . . . Egoism tells him to extirpate this desire” (WGW 40–41; further, 48–65, 211–14, 231, 238–43).

I observe that when one chooses to tell the truth in ordinary circumstances or to render aid to others, one is engaged not only as an agent egoist. One is not only following one’s own judgment about what to do. One is also choosing in the particular occasion what is the good state of affairs for individuals in general.

Help another “if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle. . . . Man’s fight against suffering” is a value (AS 1059–60). In this passage, Rand is commending acting on one’s pleasure in a value-operation not one’s own. It seems to me that this is an occasion of egoistic action that is not directly for one’s own sake, only indirectly so. One has the pleasure directly, but the object of one’s intelligence yielding the pleasure is a value-operation not one’s own and a value-operation whose aim is success (e.g., truth or relief from suffering) for one not oneself. Then, strictly speaking, Rand’s is an egoism that falls outside Kraut’s definition of egoism.

Kraut’s definition is more narrow than the usual definition for ethical theory. It is surely correct to call Rand’s ethics an egoism, an integrated agent-beneficiary egoism. (Objectivist conceptions of egoism are usual. See N. Branden, VOS 57; L. Peikoff, Om. // 65, OPAR 230–31; T. Smith, VV 154–55, ARNE 23–24.) Kraut opposes also this theory of ethics, which he takes to be less than full-fledged egoism. Rand holds that one should never sacrifice one’s own true interests to those of another. Kraut observes that “that thesis holds that one has a special normative relationship to oneself. It places the self ahead of others . . . .” (WGW 53). It gives priority always to striving for one’s own good, rather than striving for the good of others. Kraut rejects the ethics of uniform self-priority. “There is no reason always to place oneself first in situations of conflict, or always to refrain from making large sacrifices for the good of others” (WGW 54; further, 180–83, 191–96).

Rand writes concerning sacrifice:
“If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is” (AS 1028).
“If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat” (AS 1029).

As an example of self-sacrifice, Kraut poses the following:
“Suppose a parent, to earn enough money to give his child an expensive education, gives up a job that makes full use of his talents and in its place accepts a post that is intellectually and emotionally deadening and physically dangerous, but provides a large and steady income” (WGW 181).

Kraut counts this as an example of self-sacrifice. To any ethical theory that would count it as not sacrificial, Kraut poses a challenge. Suppose the child who receives the education is an ungrateful child, who says he owes his parent nothing in return, that the parent was satisfying the parent’s own hierarchy of values, so there was no real self-sacrifice in the parent letting go of the career that would have been better for the parent.

It is possible that on Rand’s egoism, a parent who forfeited the better career for the purpose of a better education for the child would necessarily be making an inverted-value sacrifice, the forfeiture of what ought to be valued more in comparison to something that ought to be valued less, though highly. That is, the better career for the parent should necessarily be valued more highly by the parent than the better education for the child. Whether such a conclusion follows from Rand’s ethics, I will leave undetermined.* What is clear is that a Randian should hold the child’s ungratefulness to be prima face wrong for the child and a wrong against the parent because the value of what the parent forfeited for the child’s education was enormous, regardless of the possibility that the parent valued the latter over the former.

I concluded above that Rand’s conception of holding one’s own life “as the motive and goal” of one’s actions and never placing “[one’s] prime goal within the persons of others” does not entail always taking one’s own interests as the direct object of one’s actions. This further undermines the ungrateful child’s rationale. The direct motive for the parent’s momentous choice could be the child’s well-being, even if that choice also serves the parent’s well-being.

Strand Two

The first strand in Rand’s move from agent egoism to beneficiary egoism was the thesis that if one does not hold one's own life as the motive and goal of one’s actions (at least indirectly), one is acting in a self-destructive way. The second strand, wound together with the first, is that if one does not hold one’s life as the motive and goal of one’s actions, one is acting in a disintegrated way, and integrated life is better life.

All living organisms are engaged in continual integrated actions suited to their individual survival or the survival of their species. Deterioration of an organism’s ability to perform its integrated repertoire of actions is a loosening of the tight organization required for its continued life or the continuation of its species. Rand draws attention to the overarching value of the survival of the individual organism that is served by its integrated repertoire of actions suited to its kind. (She leaves out of the frame of attention the overarching value of the propagation of the species that is served by the repertoire of the individual organism.)

Consider the repertoire of the marine snail Pleurobranchea. The nervous systems of these animals are much simpler than the mammalian central nervous system, but they are sufficiently complex to coordinate the behavioral sequences known as fixed action patterns. Those are inherited stereotypical patterns of behavior (such as egg-laying) consisting of several distinct steps that either together form a coordinated sequence or do not take place at all. It has been determined that the fixed action patterns characteristic of Pleurobranchea are organized neurologically into a definite hierarchy: feeding is dominant over righting, gill and siphon withdrawal, or mating; episodic egg-laying is dominant over feeding; escape swimming is dominant over all other behaviors.

Humans have sensations of pleasure and pain. These are signs of the body’s welfare or injury. In addition to bodily pleasure-pain systems, we have emotional systems. Rand conceives joy and suffering as fundamental emotions that estimate whether something furthers one’s life or threatens it. Which particular things emotions will signal as good or as bad will be shaped by one’s unique past experience and value judgments. If one has taken up values opposing one’s self-interest—not only self-sacrifice as a value, but values contradictory, values impossible, or values sheltered from rational assessment—then suffering and destruction will be the results. On the other hand, if one chooses to value the full use of one’s rational mind, to value the possible, the productive, and the self-beneficial, then there is fair promise of life and happiness (AS 1020–22).

Just as the organs and systems of the human body must act in a properly coordinated way if they are to effect the end-in-itself that is the life of the individual organism, so one’s consciously directed actions must be properly organized if one is to achieve well the end-in-itself that is the conscious life of the individual human being. Rand identified seven coordinated patterns of volitional actions necessary for one’s realistically best life. Those are her seven cardinal virtues I listed above. (David Kelley has argued that an eighth cardinal virtue, sister to productivity, naturally issues from Rand’s ethics and conception of human existence. That virtue is benevolence. This addition is argued in his essay “Unrugged Individualism” [1996]). These virtues are defended as general principles, good guides for any individual. Ethical theory, on Rand’s account, tells one what are the main right values and virtues and their rationale. It tells one also who is rightly the primary beneficiary of one’s agency.

Kraut argues that philosophy can help answer “What is good?” but it cannot help answer “Whose good should I be serving?” (WGW 39–65, 208–13, 255–57). He argues that there are many proper answers to that second question, so an ethical theory that purports a uniquely correct answer to it must have gone wrong. The answer that one should always promote one’s own good is incorrect by overgeneralization. He recognizes that there are circumstances in which there is no one’s good besides one’s own that one should promote, but those circumstances are not typical. Contrary to Kraut, I think, as in Strand One, that promotion of the good of other persons can be directly for their sake, yet one can be holding in an integrated way to the overarching good for oneself, the overarching primary good of one’s own life and happiness.

One does stand in a special normative relation to oneself. Mature and healthy individuals are constituted—and Kraut also takes this for true—so as to love themselves, to take care of themselves, and to act for their own benefit. But Kraut allows for the possibility, when one has reached adulthood, of properly turning one’s life into a purely instrumental value serving the good of definite others (WGW 48–53). This extreme possibility is not cashed out in terms of a real-world circumstance in which it would be proper. I think, as Rand thought, that such an agent would not be self-harmonious, so, would not be flourishing.

Kraut does think philosophy can help answer “What is good?” and I want to give at least a peek at the fruits of his labor. Recall that Kraut maintains that the good is the flourishing of living things. The salient components he finds constituting human flourishing are: autonomy (WGW 196–201), cognitive skills (164–66), affects expressing rational assessments (153–58), affectionate relationships (161–63), honesty (192–93, 257–61), and justice (194–96, 225–34).

Strand Three

Rand writes that “man’s life is the standard of morality, but your own life is its purpose. If existence on earth is your goal, you must choose your actions and values by the standard of that which is proper to man—for the purpose of preserving, fulfilling, and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life” (AS 1014).

If one aims to live and live well, then man’s life must be one’s standard of morality. Part of the nature of man’s life, in Rand’s conception, is that it is life of individuals in which each is organized to be an end in himself existing for his own sake. That is how human beings are outfitted by biological nature, and in the ways that are open to their choice, that is how they should organize themselves. The third strand in the cord by which Rand ties beneficiary egoism to agency egoism is the stress she lays on the self-sufficiency of organisms in general and individual humans in particular.

Morality can be put to various purposes. The proper one, in Rand’s view, is to provide “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life” (VOS 13).

Kraut notes that the term moral is often used by way of contrast to terms like prudential, self-interested, and selfish. He allows that it is useful to have the term moral for distinguishing between behavior that benefits others in contrast to behavior that benefits oneself, but he observes that “this way of talking has the unfortunate effect of making self-interested actions and concern for one’s own good dishonorable, or in any case of secondary importance” (WGW 256). He takes both the moral and the prudential to be genres of the good.

The good, in Kraut’s view, is the flourishing of the living. Rand stresses more than Kraut that organisms are organized so as to survive. She also stresses more than Kraut that individual human beings are by nature ends in themselves.

Kraut makes the good point that by citing facts of nature—of plants and animals and the powers nature has given humans—he is not maintaining that “what is good for us is whatever is natural for us, and whatever we are born with must be used” (WGW 146). We might correctly conclude that some of our natural powers are bad for us. But it is not plausible that many or all of them are bad for us.

“It would be foolish to begin with the assumption that whereas it is good for all other living things to flourish, it is not good for us to flourish. After all, flourishing consists in the growth and development of the capacities of a living thing: why should that be good for plants and animals, but not for us? . . . If a theory of goodness can fit its account of human well-being into a larger framework that applies to the entire natural [biological] world, that gives it an advantage over any theory that holds ‘G is good for S’ is one kind of relationship for human beings and a different kind for all other creatures” (WGW 147–48). That merit of Kraut’s theory holds for Rand’s as well.


In the Strand One section, I interpreted Rand as holding to an egoism in which some right actions are not directly for the actor’s sake, only indirectly so. Directly, they could be for the sake of one not oneself, nonetheless count as egoistic. By this interpretation, Rand’s type of ethical egoism would fall outside Kraut’s exceptionally restrictive definition. “Egoism holds that there is only one person whose good should be the direct object of one’s actions: oneself” (WGW 39).

My interpretation of Rand on this point is in some tension with her text that I quoted (AS 1059–60). Further tension is added by other text of Rand’s:
“The rational man . . . . recognizes the fact that his own life is the source, not only of all his values, but of his capacity to value. Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself.” (VoS 46–47)

She goes on, in that 1963 essay, to quote Nathaniel Branden:
“The respect and good will that men of self-esteem feel towards other human beings is profoundly egoistic; they feel, in effect: ‘Other men are of value because they are of the same species as myself.’ In revering living entities, they are revering their own life. This is the psychological base of any emotion of sympathy and any feeling of ‘species solidarity’.” (VoS 47)

Rand’s contrast of secondary to primary might suggest the contrast of indirect to direct. I think, considering the layout of the psychology to which Rand points, that suggestion should be rejected.

What if my interpretation of Rand in Strand One is incorrect on the point of directness-indirectness? It remains that an egoism just like Rand’s except for that one point is a serious possibility that needs to be considered against Kraut’s theory, as I have done.

#11 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 12:27 PM

Calvin commented:

Stephen, may I ask, how is identification initiated on the most basic level? According to Rand, value presupposes consciousness and represents the alternatives of life and death. If any instance of value must originate in a concept, then how is the first concept formed? When does meaning enter into awareness if it is not an intrinsic function of experience?

It would make more sense to me if value came first, and identification commenced as the isolation of value sources. This seems much less arbitrary to me than learning what things are/do before knowing how they relate to/affect oneself. This would entail that value does not presuppose consciousness, but rather a predetermined nature.

The cross-over from unconsciousness to consciousness--do you suppose it happens without a sense of value?

Rand did not maintain that value presupposes consciousness. This is elementary, both in “Galt’s Speech” and in “The Objectivist Ethics.” Crack a book.

Calvin replied:

lol. She said it presupposes the question “of value to whom and for what?”

She said value could not exist without alternatives, and the only alternative in the universe is between life and death. Anything presented with this alternative must not only be alive, but conscious... I've jumped to that conclusion on my own. I thought she was explicit that value could only exist in the face of a choice. Have I misinterpreted her?

Outside of the necessities for life, I interpreted Rand as saying we choose our values by implementing them into our subconscious by updating our premises. I would say that there is a basis for our values, to be built upon only through new associations, but that basis would not change.

I'm just theorizing to help me understand the question of the first concept. How did we identify something for the first time in our lives? If we can't answer how, can we at least answer why (source of value)?

It can't be that we identified parts of a thing before the thing itself, because to identify the parts, or “units”, we would have to already be capable of identification.

I apologize for the elementary question, but I couldn't find an answer in Capturing Concepts--where I looked, as the first concept must be the result of the first instance of identification, right? I have been looking over more of your essays and threads, and they're very interesting now that I have a better grasp of the topics.

Thank you for addressing my past posts, also.

That values of persons are relative to those persons and specific purposes does not entail that values of non-person organisms are not relative to those organisms and specific functions. Aristotle, Rand, and Prof. Kraut too (see preceding post in this thread) all maintain that value pertains not only to persons, but to all living things. Moral values are a kind of value subject to choice, which is to say a kind of value distinctive to humans, those intelligent animals capable of reasoned purposeful action.

Rand was not using alternative in this context as restricted to presentations to conscious organisms. Inanimate objects do not have existence in the additional way that a living thing has existence as a living thing. So water or its absence poses a kind of existence-alternative to a plant that it does not pose to the air. (Nice elaborations on this point, which is subtle, are in Peikoff’s OPAR, 189–93, and earlier in the essay by Den Uyl and Rasmussen “Nozick on the Randian Argument.”)

See also:
Vegetative Robots and Value

From my comment's on Irfan's Ayn Rand Society (2007) paper:

. . .
Lastly, I would like to draw attention to an essential component of Rand's foundationalist ethics that Khawaja does not mention in his paper. Khawaja rightly portrays Rand's epistemic foundationalism as enveloping her ethical foundationalism (FE 23, 26–27, 33–35). He rightly points to perception as the bases for all knowledge, including moral knowledge, according to Rand's epistemology. Perception provides the bases for all abstract concepts and for beliefs (FE 21–27). He mentions that in her epistemology, Rand offers an analysis of the measurement-form of evaluative concepts, which are needed for thought about ethical action (FE 27, 36; IOE 32–37). To this portrait of Rand's foundationalist ethics, there is a further component that I would add.

In a 1966 essay “Art and Sense of Life,” Rand writes:

There are many special or “cross-filed” chains of abstractions (of interconnected concepts) in man's mind. Cognitive abstractions are the fundamental chain, on which all the others depend. Such chains are mental integrations, serving a special purpose and formed according to a special criterion.

Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is essential? (epistemologically essential to distinguish one class of existents from all others). Normative abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is good? (36 in RM [pb])

In her 1965 “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” she had written that for

evaluating the facts of reality, choosing his goals and guiding his actions accordingly, . . . man needs another chain of concepts, derived from and dependent on the first [i.e., on the [i]cognitive[/i] abstractions], yet separate and, in a sense, more complex: a chain of normative abstractions.

While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is normative abstractions deal with that which ought to be (in the realms open to man's choice). (RM 18)

Also in 1965, in “Art and Moral Treason,” Rand had written:

The process of a child's development consists of acquiring knowledge, which requires the development of his capacity to grasp and deal with an ever-widening range of abstractions. This involves the growth of two interrelated but different chains of abstractions, two hierarchical structures of concepts, which should be integrated, but seldom are: the cognitive and the normative. The first deals with knowledge of the facts of reality—the second, with the evaluation of these facts. The first forms the epistemological foundation of science—the second, of morality and art. (RM 145)

Stepping back to 1961, to “The Objectivist Ethics,” we find Rand writing:

Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of 'value'? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of 'good or evil' in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are its first step in the realm of evaluation. (17)

The fact of the pleasure and pain mechanisms of the human body is essential to valuation on Rand's understanding of the human being. Pleasure and pain are mechanisms necessary for human survival, and the experience of them is epistemologically foundational for moral concepts.


“man needs another chain of concepts, derived from and dependent on the first [i.e., on the [i]cognitive[/i] abstractions], yet separate and, in a sense, more complex: a chain of normative abstractions.”

To separate cognitive from normative, and emphasize the primacy of cognitive concepts, to me, says that we'd identify a thing before it meant anything to us. How could it mean something to us if we hadn't identified it? It would have to happen on an unconscious level.
We automatically feel pleasure and pain, but we don't automatically know their sources. The first level of identification must be the identification of a percept, motivated by the sensation of pleasure or pain.

Or would you argue that we identify ourselves before anything else? In which case, the first concept would not be linked to sensation, but rather the perceptual systems themselves. How would we imagine ourselves at that stage, when we are nothing more than “feeling machines?”

Sorry to be such a hassle; especially necessitating thread moves.

Enough material to absorb and integrate. Continue, engaging others if you like, outside my Corner. Much competing work I must do. Many sustained essays waiting for completion. My intellectual work begins each day before sunrise round the year. Our hour was good.

#12 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 05 June 2012 - 10:12 AM

. . .
Future Reference
New Work on Kant's Theory of Biology – Tubingen 12/10*


HOPOS 2012

Ina Goy
(Universität Tübingen)

“Kant on Formative Power”

The notion of a formative power is one of the most obscure in Kant’s theory of biology. Before I discuss Kant’s biological use of the term ‘formative power’, in section I of the paper I provide a list of all passages in which Kant uses the term, claiming that the older meaning of ‘formative power’ in Kant’s writings is an epistemological one, whereas the biological meaning of the term appears not before the mid-1780s. I present and discuss some of those passages in closer detail, and give a precise interpretation of the most central passage in Kant’s philosophy of biology in §65 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment (5:374.21–26). I defend the view that, for Kant, the formative power is a basic and immaterial power in the organism belonging to an account of final causation. As a cause, it does not generate form and matter, or the matter of organisms, but only the end-directed teleological form of the matter of an organism. As an alternative to White’s (1997, 137) claim that ‘form’ means species, and Richards (2000, 28) opinion that ‘form’ is a synonym for ‘archetype’, I defend the view that ‘form’ means the intentionality and (necessary) directedness of the features of a being towards the idea of its purpose.

Reading the formative force as form-giving allows for a more careful analysis of Kant’s famous tree example in §64, and of his central statements on the part-whole relationship in organisms in §65, which I investigate in section II. The self-generation of a tree with regards to its species, as an individual and in its parts, does not imply in general the generation of form and matter of a tree, or in particular the generation of its matter, but only the causation of the form of the matter of a tree. In section III, I briefly outline consequences of my interpretation for a placement of Kant’s position within supernatural preformistic and naturalistic epigenetic accounts of organic generation. I claim that although the formative power as a form giving capacity in the organism is a natural epigenetic power, this does not rule out a supernatural preformistic interpretation of the creation of matter, and also not a supernatural creation of the formative power. The formative power of nature can be read as a secondary cause in support of the primary cause of God’s creation, and Kant’s position as mediating between preformism and epigenesis.


Forthcoming in 2013:

Kant’s Theory of Biology
Ina Goy and Eric Watkins, editors

#13 BaalChatzaf



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Posted 05 June 2012 - 10:22 AM

Just curious. What could Kant have known about biological organisms in 1780. Although the cell was identified by Robert Hook in the late 17th century he did not have the magnifying power in his microscope to determine the function of the cell. The micro-structure and functioning of the cell became known in the 19th century with better magnification and advances in chemistry. Assuming that Kant knew of Hooke's work what could he have said about living things that made any scientific sense?

Ba'al Chatzaf
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#14 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 05 June 2012 - 11:34 AM

Bob, that is an important question. Kant, who died in 1804, had Blumenbach available, but Schwann’s cell theory of life would not arrive until 1839.


Rand, and I also, put our metaethical stock in the modern understanding that cells are the basic unit of structure and physiological process of every living thing. The single-cell organism has internal parts and processes with functions to the result of survival and reproduction of the organism. This type of individual self-maintenance by internal organization scales on up into multicellular organisms, but does not scale on down within the single cell to organelles or to chromosomes and genes. Mitochondria, chloroplasts, ion pumps, ribosomes, chromosomes, DNA, RNA, and genes—components of cells and means of cellular maintenance and reproduction—are biota, but not life.


. . .
. . . The actual biological ever-receding "goal" of "the blind watchmaker" isn't the individual organism's continued life -- or, actually, "the propagation of the species" either -- but the replication of the "selfish gene." Thus the supposed logic of her [Rand] basing her ethics on the facts of biology doesn't really scan, since there isn't biologically the supposed "end-in-itself that is the life of the individual organism" which she posits. . . .


. . .
I worry also, as usual, that the theorist of ethics—Darwin, Spencer, Lanessan, Nietzsche, Guyau, Bergson, Dewey, J. Huxley, Rand, or Nozick—is focusing on those aspects of biology that he will then draw, too conveniently, into his particular ethics grounded in the nature of life. Which focus (or foci) is best warranted in the statement of biological facts pertinent to ethics?
. . .


“Further Reading” tab at Uses and Abuses of Biology

#15 BaalChatzaf



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Posted 05 June 2012 - 01:25 PM

Getting at the details of cells (prior to electronics and quantum microscopes) was a major effort. Hooke saw the crudest cell structure his early microscopes could see, namely the cell structure of cork which is fairly gross. To get down to the microscope details, like the cytoskeleton, the organelles, the interior of the nucleus and such like one need much better microscopes, chemical development of contrasting dyes, precise slicing and dicing techniques and this is just to see what the little stuff looked like. Getting to the molecular level was a major step that had to wait until the 20th century.

This is nuts and bolts chemistry, optics, mechanics and biology. This is not philosophizing. First come the details and the facts, later on come the theories and the grand philosophical generalizations.

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#16 Stephen Boydstun

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Posted 26 October 2012 - 07:43 AM

Rand’s Concept of Biology – 1 & 2

Vegetative Robots and Value

Rand and the Greeks

Kant's Wrestle with Happiness and Life
Part 1 – to 1781
Part 2 – towards 1785
Part 3 – into 1785
Part 4 – Moral Worth, Necessary and Free – A, B

A Rejection of Egoism

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