Man’s Life is the Standard of Morality
I am analyzing pages 927 – 928 of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – John Galt’s speech.
Ayn Rand continues John Galt’s Speech after differentiating why mankind is above animals and plants:
“Whoever you are, you who are hearing me now, I am speaking to whatever living remnant is left uncorrupted within you, to the remnant of the human, to your mind, and I say: There is a morality of reason, a morality proper to man, and Man’s Life is its standard of value.“
“All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil.“
We’re driving at some of the core concepts of Objectivism here. Ayn Rand is using very direct and simple language to communicate the point. The capacity to reason, according to Rand, is what makes manking unique among the animal kingdom. Reason is not an involuntary animal instinct, however. It must be chosen voluntarily. Man must choose to think, or not to think.
Morality does not cover entities or circumstances that happen without choice.
Therefore, the origin of morality lies within the capacity to reason. Or at least, mankind’s capacity to experience reason also allows him to experience morality.
Rand chooses Man’s Life as the standard of value by which morality is judged. This is logically consistent with the prior passages of Galt’s speech. Humans are the only animal which must use reason to continue living. We are not born with automatic knowledge of what courses of action can fulfill and extend our own lives.
That which is proper to a reasoning being’s life is good – for it. That which destroys it is evil – for it.
To reason is to live, not to reason is to die.
“Man’s life, as required by his nature, is not the life of a mindless brute, of a looting thug or a mooching mystic, but the life of a thinking being—not life by means of force or fraud, but life by means of achievement—not survival at any price, since there’s only one price that pays for man’s survival: reason.“
“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.“
Rand’s love of Enneagram Type 3’s shines here. She’s stating that Man’s nature is to pursue happiness and fulfillment by means of achievement. Positive emotional states must be earned, and are the natural neurological response to creative, productive output. I can vouch this as true in my personal life. When I am productive, fit, creating, and learning, I am very happy. When I am isolated, withdrawn, unproductive, and unfit, I am miserable.
Man’s nature isn’t that of a sniveling government thug stealing from the productive at point of a gun. It’s not of a hypocritical preacher that demands greater tithing in the name of his moral code which he breaks by molesting children. It isn’t Man’s nature to be reduced to a hoodlum robbing and murdering in the streets of Chicago.
Such men have been reduced in their humanity in profound ways. They are blinded to their true nature as generative forces of Good and positive change in the world. Sadly, few escape such conditions as they are self-imposed.
“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 his own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain.
This is one of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve ever heard.
Life requires a specific course of action.
We must have food, water, and shelter. We must not sleep 24 hours per day. We must get up, be productive, and acquire enough resources to satisfy our basic human needs. These are incontrovertible truths hard-wired into the nature of our being human on Earth.
Any other course will destroy it.
Try living without drinking water. Try eating only random outdoor foliage. Try assaulting every person you meet on the street. You will quickly discover that your free will is constrained by physical and psychological laws that restrict your choices to a narrow subset of plausible actions.
By not holding your own life as your motive and goal of your actions, you are acting on the motive and standard of death.
It’s generally stated that an organism can only be growing, stagnant, or dying. An organism that’s stagnant is dying too; time is passing and cellular decay is occurring; an organism stagnant for 1 year is 1 year closer to death. So truly we are only growing or dying. We are pursuing life or death with our actions.
Our actions are informed by our standards, our core beliefs about who and what we are and what we value. If we do not choose to value our own lives, we choose to value our own death.
I think we all experience this viscerally and know it to be true. When I was at my lowest point, so unmotivated to work that I chronically self-distracted with every form of media and entertainment available, so spiritually crushed that I isolated myself and withdrew from those who wished to help me, I was broken. I legitimately wanted to not exist. I didn’t reach suicide ideation, thankfully. But in those dark moments, I was motivated moreso by death than pursuit of life. I wanted non-existence, not joyful existence. I wanted non-pain, not happiness.
And so my path to escape that has been to choose to value my own life. I made a decision to fix myself. I started going to the gym and exercising every single day. I got up earlier. I replaced mindless scrolling on my phone with devouring Atlas Shrugged. I decided I’d start writing about it.
Choosing life over death is difficult. It helps to have good people around you. It helps to ask for help from a power greater than yourself – whether that’s your community or a God you believe in. In our darkest hours, we are often not willful enough to escape ourselves alone. We need others to pull ourselves out of our heads, to be a beacon of light that reminds us that we are loved and cared for even if we don’t feel that for ourselves.
Ayn Rand did the world a great service including this paragraph in the book. Very few people ever come to realize that human beings can be motivated by death. Few who are suffering see it in themselves. And yet this describes the phenomenon of suicide perfectly: choosing to value death over life.