Rand calls her philosophy Objectivism as she declares this moral philosophy is wholly & entirely rational and that the world has an objective character: It is out there.

Hume, on the other hand dismisses all objective moral philosophies through the is-ought challenge which he described in his Treatise to Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for sometime in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God. or makes observations concernine human affairs: when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not. I meet with no propositions that is not connected with an ought or an ought not....it is necessary that [this deduction] should be observed and explained;...for what seems altogether inconceivable, [is] how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

That is how can one in a deductive manner move from a proposition described using is to a proposition described using an ought; that is to move from the sphere of existence to the sphere of ethics in a deductive manner; in brief, one cannot move from facts to values.

However Rand argues in The Virtue of Selfishness:

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. 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.”

In Aristotelian terms, existence determines ethical essence. That is existence is ethical essence. She doesn't notice this means that the 'living entity' must then come already equipped with its ethics, rather than deducing them from some factual sub-stratum.

The question is how fatal is this to her ethical project? One might suppose that it is no flaw as no other moral philosophy bridges this gap, but then again they do not choose facts as their grounding; for example Kants Categorical Imperative, his foundational moral axiom is an ought.

  • 1
    Hume was apparently unclear in this bit of his writing (see SEP on is-ought ) Though I must add that IMO, Sam Harris makes a much better case of objective ethics than Rand does. – prash Dec 21 '13 at 18:07
  • 1
    @prash - I agree with your assessment, but I am underwhelmed by both of their attempts: they mostly state by fiat that it's not a problem without addressing in detail the arguments for why it is. – Rex Kerr Dec 23 '13 at 17:04
  • @prash: what is your assessment? Humes argument, as far as I see, is clear enough; even if it isn't expressed in wholly transparent terms. The SEP asks are there is propositions that are also oughts; ie whether factual statements are also evaluative - but leaves this question unanswered; this is in fact what Rand is insisting on; but she provides no examples; or arguments that there are such propositions; the majority view is the realm of facts are distinguised from the ethical realm - denial of ethical realism. How does Harris tackle this point? – Mozibur Ullah Dec 23 '13 at 17:16
  • @prash: Given this, no ethical system can be realist; so that Rands system isn't is only a minor point; there may be other justifications - like Harris - starting from different grounds; but one can't say her Objectivism is Realist - that is determined by facts, starting from the ground of the Real; this can only be seen as a species of polemic & rhetoric. Fair enough in my view, as she is (partly/mostly) a pamphleteer in a novel form (pun intended). – Mozibur Ullah Dec 23 '13 at 17:23
  • @MoziburUllah: Sam Harris draws a parallel between an ethical system and a medical system. So, chocolate is toxic to dogs, therefore one ought not feed chocolates to dogs. This is a medical is-ought. Now, can you not make a similar case against clipping ears off random people on a train? Rand makes a similar case, but is not quite so explicit. Rand makes other arguments too. Hume's is-ought makes sense only for a very specific context: a deist cannot justify ethics. Even a Bible or Quran literalist can answer Hume trivially. – prash Dec 24 '13 at 1:49

There are three key concepts involved in Objectivism when tackling the is-ought problem. They are "Man" (referring to mankind, but in terms of the individual person), "Value", and "Morality." Understanding these concepts, in addition to every concept upon which they depend as Objectivists define them, will help you understand how Objectivism dispenses with the is-ought.

Objectivism maintains that concept formation is heirarchical, so these three concepts depend upon a great deal of more fundamental foundational concepts. Defining what every concept that these key concepts depends upon would require hundreds of pages to type out so I'll have to refer you to Leonard Peikoff's work "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand." Specifically look at the first five chapters which cover Reality, Sense Perception, Volition, Concept Formation, Objectivity, and Reason. Chapters 6-9 really would be required reading as well because these lay the foundation for understanding Man, The Good, Virtue, and Happiness.

It's not a very good answer to simply reply "read this book" but because the scope is so broad in this question I've limited the response for the sake of brevity (believe it or not) to the essential interplay between these key concepts at the highest level of abstraction. The important thing to understand is that it is quite impossible to grasp these concepts fully without the prerequisite framework in place upon which Objectivism depends (see Dr. Peikoff's book). Pertaining to the discussion in the comments section of the main question, this is also why Sam Harris falls short of presenting a fully validated framework for an objective ethical system.

The concept of morality Rand describes,

"is 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." [1]

The key phrase in that statement is "code of values." Specifically what is "value?" This concept requires a little unpacking from the Objectivist perspective.

“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible." [2]

Ayn Rand is alluding to an even more fundamental realization when understanding the concept of value above and questions, "of value to whom and for what." Essentially what she means by "where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible" is explained below...

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms... 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. [3]

Now with a rudimentary understanding of how the concepts of morality, value, and life interrelate your initial quote makes a little more sense... what can we say about what Objectivists think about "good and evil" or "moral and immoral?"

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. 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.”

Note the phrase "ultimate value" she describes "for any given living entity is its own life." This sets up a "standard of value" upon which to build a "code of values" (see the first quote again for "code of values").

The specifics of this Morality (code of values) based on the standard of value (Life) can be unpacked further by looking at who we are as a species. What is man?

Man has no automatic code of survival. His particular distinction from all other living species is the necessity to act in the face of alternatives by means of volitional choice. He has no automatic knowledge of what is good for him or evil, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires. Are you prattling about an instinct of self-preservation? An instinct of self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess. An “instinct” is an unerring and automatic form of knowledge. A desire is not an instinct. A desire to live does not give you the knowledge required for living. And even man’s desire to live is not automatic: your secret evil today is that that is the desire you do not hold. Your fear of death is not a love for life and will not give you the knowledge needed to keep it. [4]

To answer your question, "How fatal" I would answer "Not at all."

If human beings are understood as living organisms with specific requirements for survival (obvious), and that a code of values (morality) is a requirement and necessarily must be based on the ultimate value of ones own life (including achieving happiness throughout that life)... then the very concepts of what ought a person do can be easily answered and defended based on individual codes of value, within the context of the ultimate value of ones own life.

Lets better understand another piece of this quote now. My emphasis in bold, and commentary in ellipses.

Thus the validation of value judgments (moral judgments) is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality (the things upon which those values are based, i.e., life).

This is also elegant and flexible enough (I believe) that it can't be interpreted to mean "every human life must turn out the exact same and we must all have the same set of values." The real beauty of Objectivism, in my opinion, is that it's presentation of an objective moral framework accounts for and explains the illusion of moral relativism within the context of individualism (within the context of an individuals conditional and hierarchical code of values based on that individuals own life). While the "ultimate value" is always the same (that being ones own "life"), and the basic biological questions of what sustains survival are the same, farther removal from these more basic questions doesn't diminish Objectivism's ability to underscore an ought among alternatives... generally in the form of "If you value X over Y then you Ought to Z."

All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil. [5]

"Proper" meaning "that which supports the life of a rational being" or "that which promotes the life of a rational being" etc...

  1. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/morality.html
  2. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/values.html
  3. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/life.html
  4. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/man.html
  5. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/good,_the.html
  6. http://aynrandlexicon.com/ayn-rand-ideas/objectivism-the-philosophy-of-ayn-rand.html
  • 1
    Good answer. While I don't think Rand's argument here is 100% bullet-proof, this is a good explanation of it. I tend to think of it in more pragmatic terms... bridging the is - ought gap with an if. "If you want to live, then you ought..." and everything falls in place from there. True, some might not want to live, and those people would have a vastly different value structure; but they would promptly eliminate themselves from consideration. – Ask About Monica Apr 9 '15 at 20:02
  • It's a difficult problem to tackle for sure. This approach only works if... as I said in the answer... you accept literally hundreds of pages of foundational material that build up to this. Rand would probably respond to you by pointing out that choosing "to live" involves a lot more than abstaining from suicide... and that "choosing not to live" occurred a long time before the final act. – Lucretius Apr 9 '15 at 20:46

In Aristotelian terms, existence determines ethical essence. That is existence is ethical essence. [Rand] doesn't notice this means that the 'living entity' must then come already equipped with its ethics, rather than deducing them from some factual sub-stratum.

This is the asserted error raised against Rand in the post. It seems to me that this is a non sequiter, where the existence of objective ethics (as a matter of logic) is conflated with the assertion that humans must come "already equipped" with knowledge of this ethics. Clearly human-beings do not pop out of the womb already having knowledge of the theory of ethics. By the same token they do not come "already equipped" with knowledge of physics, mathematics, etc., but that does not preclude the possibility that physics, mathematics, etc., are objective disciplines.

In view of this, there is no identified error in Rand's philosophy in the question. Rand argues that ethics is an objective discipline (like physics, mathematics, etc.) which can be derived logically from an examination of the nature of man. She certainly did not believe that people are born "already equipped" with this knowledge. Indeed, the very purpose of her writing books on her theory on the subject is because she believes that people don't already know this, and therefore have to learn it.


One mathematical approach to working around Hume, is to mark 'ought' out as 'cardinal modality', and treat modalities as truths in possible worlds. In the case of 'cardinal' modalities, those would be worlds with different power and enforcement structures (If there is a Christian God, If Marx is right about State power, If we really are eventually going to live out the life of everyone else on the planet through reincarnation...).

In Objectivism, the only possible world is the actual one, so one needs to think of the actual different power and enforcement structures that apply to the person making the decision. 'X ought to be' in that context, is just "Such and such a power in your world will be less troublesome to you if you are adequately afraid whenever not-X".

Given that translation, there is no problem with this gap.

  • It was Hume that came up with this distinction; in his theory there is only one world. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 13 '15 at 5:45
  • Right, but Hume lacked the unifying concept of modality. 'Oughtness' vs reality had no clarifying delineation, as seen in lots of ethics between Plato and Hume. People with an 'ought' really are living as if in another world, and you can just shear off their right to do so, if you are Rand, and willing to dictate exactly what it means to be human. – jobermark Apr 13 '15 at 15:27
  • This is Humes point exactly; that the is world is different in a basic way to the ought world; Rand appears to simply ignore it. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 13 '15 at 15:38
  • Right, what ought to be just does not matter to her, a real human being would not need the crutch of fantasy. Hume is, to an Objectivist mind, coddling us all with the idea that ought exists. I think this is incredibly arrogant, but it is Rand, no? What does not make sense 'objectively' is simply wrong -- there is not more to humanity to explore, there are just delusions. (You can't say he thought only one world exists and then contrast two worlds and consider the difference to matter.) – jobermark Apr 13 '15 at 16:26
  • I'd suggest Randian Objectivism is a flavour of Naive Realism; the philosophy according to Rovelli that is main-stream physical thinking; it would be an interesting question to see just how closely these two are correlated. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 13 '15 at 16:37

Rand's "fatal flaw" is that she merely presents a way of looking at things - no different than a poem - to be either agreed or disagreed with depending upon the readers mood. Objectivism is "the world according to Rand", not "the world". Juxtapose a protagonist of hers and of Kafka's and then ask yourself, how can the world be both? The answer is that it is neither. A theory, on the other hand, states the ponderable conditions by which it is falsified or verified.

Compare her tackling of Hume's Guillotine with a counter-example to it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.