Your friend does not want to differentiate those two claims, as this is the Objectivist solution to is–ought problem.
However, there are (at least) two issues with the Objectivist solution to is–ought dichotomy.
My answer is a summary (with small additions) of Ayn Rand and the Is-Ought Problem by Patrick M.O'Neil
1. Misunderstanding of Humean problem
Ayn Rand held that:
organism's life [is] its standard of value
And called life:
the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept
by a constant process of action.
Later on, she says:
an animal has no choice in the standard of value directing its
actions: its senses provide it with an automatic code of values. an
automatic knowledge of what is good for it or evil, what benefits or
endangers its life. An animal has no power to extend its knowledge or
to evade it.
Human beings choose X because X belongs to life-sustaining values. So, a definition of morally Good for Rand is:
life-sustaining [thing or activity] freely chosen on account of that standard.
It is clear that when Ayn Rand takes aim at Humean is–ought problem, she misunderstands it, as she states that:
The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between 'is' and 'ought.'
Ayn Rand thinks that Hume denies the connection of facts and systems of moral values. But Hume does no such thing. In Hume's framework, it is possible to derive conclusions from values as such:
- It is wrong to murder children. Joe is a child. Therefore, it is wrong to murder Joe.*
But not like this:
- Human life produces values. Joe is a human being. Therefore, Joe should aim at self-sustainment of his life.
The problem is specifically a derivation of values from facts as in the latter example. Rand does nothing to address this, she merely restates the problem with:
- Man is, therefore man ought to X.
This obviously cannot and does not work for the solution of the problem. For example, the above claim is an open question and is indeed question-begging. For one can always ask "Why?" to which there is no satisfactory answer apart from restatement of the premise that "[because] Man is".
Not only does Rand fail to bridge the is–ought gap, but she makes it even more pronounced. (Mainly due to her ignorance.)
*- (Of course, this syllogism can too create infinite regress as "It is wrong to murder children" is a Moorean open question. But this is beside the example.)
2. Reasons and Rationality
Through John Galt, Rand states that:
Man has to be man-by choice; he has to hold his life as a value-by
choice; he has to learn to sustain it-by choice; he has to discover
the values it requires and practice his virtues-by choice. A code of
values accepted by choice is a code of morality.
But since only rationally sound (according to Rand) choice is to choose anything which is morally life-sustaining, the "choice" here makes little to no sense. If for any good reason there appears a "choice" to either obey or disobey this foundational maxim, then we end up with the assertion that:
- If I want Y, then I ought to do X. I want Y. Therefore, I ought to do X.
Which is a purely subjectivist account of ethics. If I don't do X and don't want Y, then I can just simply claim that maybe I did not want it hard enough, or it wasn't necessary, but it has little to do with objective morality; it merely indicates a "whim".
Besides, are there good reasons for not choosing life-sustaining action? There are. Suppose we are faced with the trolley problem:
- I stand next to the two levers of the trolley track. The leftmost lever will kill all of my family, my kids and my wife. The rightmost lever kills only me but saves my family.
Now, it is perfectly rational to pull the lever on the right. It is even a necessity on the consequentialist account. For one thing, to live in the alternative situation would mean to suffer most of one's life in misery, guilt and the inescapable negative feeling of being a murder of one's own children. Life would be pain; it would have no sense if I committed such an act; it would be torture.
However, Ayn Rand would not allow for such a choice. In fact, she would call this act an irrational one, even though there were much better reasons for pulling the rightmost lever. Yet, it is clearly perfectly rational to save the family and the beloved.
By the way, if Rand insisted that in some circumstances it is fine to sacrifice oneself for rational reasons, then again the Objectivist claim is:
- If one wishes to survive, one ought to X.
And this, again, makes Objectivism a subjective account for ethics, something contradictory to what Rand says, quoted earlier on.
But Rand would obviously have none of that sort of leeway because she adamantly states that:
Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival.
No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required
for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it
The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the
facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can
destroy the wisher.
For Rand, it is irrational to act otherwise, because:
man must act for his own rational self-interest
So, the only rational action is the action of self-interest, even if there are better reasons not to do it. But we have just shown that it is perfectly rational and reasonable to act otherwise, in some circumstances.
No philosophy to date has successfully solved the is–ought problem, including Objectivism.