Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Manning Gets Denver Mile-High

I was in Denver, Colorado, over the week-end to witness Peyton Manning’s first game as quarterback for the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. If you follow football at all, you know what happened. Manning was spectacular. Despite a year long hiatus from football, Manning’s performance was near perfect. He earned a remarkable 129 plus quarterback rating as he led the Broncos to a thrilling 31-19 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game itself got the highest TV ratings for any regular season game in many years.

Following the game, the crowd at Mile High Stadium went absolutely bonkers. The next day, the entire city could not stop talking about their incredible good fortune in having a QB of Manning’s amazing ability to lead their beloved Broncos.

Monday morning, a local newspaper columnist posed the question:

The Indianapolis Colts cut Peyton Manning. Can you believe that?

No. I can’t.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Choice to Live Reconsidered

by Dennis C. Hardin, Ph.D.

Since there is no such thing as a pre-existing choice that everyone automatically makes – and if morality only applies to any specific individual once the person has made a choice to live (in some form) – what are we to make of someone who defaults on the precious wonder of life? The person cannot be immoral – he has not taken the step required for morality to apply. Can we say that a person “ought" to choose to live, since “ought" implies the application of a moral principle? Can the person who defaults on the value of life be condemned, since “condemned" implies the person violated moral principles?

What is morality? The principles which guide us to successful living – the guidelines that show what actions favor life and which actions are destructive to life. Why do we need such principles? Because it is not always clear whether this or that action is pro-life or anti-life. What about the overt rejection of life, as such? Do we truly need principles of application for that? I answer no. We don't even need morality for that. The overt rejection of life is evil on a pre-moral basis. Terms like ought and condemn are applicable, but outside the context of morality proper. They apply on the level of the standard of morality – man's life. That is to say, the normative standards that apply are those of good and evil, not the derivative concepts of moral or immoral.

That's the view I expressed in an article I wrote in 1992 for Full Context magazine. Numerous essays and articles have been written on this topic since then. The purpose of the present article is to integrate some of that more recent material with what I wrote in 1992.

Two important articles on this topic appeared in the recent book published through the Ayn Rand Society of The American Philosophical Association: Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue. In that volume, Darryl Wright and Allan Gotthelf contribute articles dealing with the teleological foundations of the Objectivist ethics. Both Wright and Gotthelf contrast their views with those of Douglas Rasmussen as expressed in an article Rasmussen published in 2002 (which itself is a revision of an address given to the Ayn Rand Society in 1990). Rasmussen devotes a good deal of his discussion to an article by Nathaniel Branden that was first published in Who Is Ayn Rand? What follows is an analysis of these four articles as they pertain to “the choice to live."

To begin the discussion, I want to offer a quote from Darryl Wright which I believe succinctly captures the essence of how Ayn Rand saw this issue:

“…Rand seems to treat the fundamentality of her basic alternative not as raising a question about what to seek but as settling this question. . . In this case, it seems, we are to proceed straight from the identification of the basic alternative to a decision in favor of one side of this alternative.” (MEV, p. 23)

The crucial relevance of that quotation should become obvious as we proceed.

In his 1962 essay, “The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged" (from Who Is Ayn Rand?), Nathaniel Branden makes several interesting statements that are relevant to the choice to live. His statements are uniquely interesting from the perspective that we know his expressed views were fully approved by Ayn Rand.

The key paragraph in Branden's article reads as follows:

"If life – existence – is not accepted as one's standard, then only one alternative standard remains: nonexistence. But nonexistence – death – is not a standard of value: it is the negation of values. The man who does not wish to hold life as his goal and standard is free not to hold it; but he cannot claim the sanction of reason; he cannot claim that his choice is as valid as any other. It is not ‘arbitrary,’ it is not ‘optional,’ whether or not man accepts his nature as a living being – just as it is not ‘arbitrary’ or ‘optional’ whether or not he accepts reality."(WIAR, p. 27)

Ayn Rand endorsed these words by Nathaniel Branden. She clearly agreed with the view that choosing life (i.e., making life your goal) is the only rational decision, whatever form that decision actually takes. She clearly disagreed that with any notion that one could be exonerated for taking a pass on life.

What does it mean to say that a person "cannot claim the sanction of reason?" If something is outside the bounds of what is reasonable, it is ipso facto irrational. Clearly Branden (with Rand's sanction) is saying that choosing to live is the only rational choice, and that not choosing to live is brazenly irrational. Further, for Rand, the moral is the rational. “A rational process is a moral process.” (WIAR, p.25)

"Man must choose his values by the standard of that which is required for the life of a human being–which means: he must hold man's life (man's survival qua) as his standard of value." (WIAR, p. 24) This is a narrower point which becomes applicable only after the explicit choice to live. Choosing the goal of life is not equivalent to holding life as your standard. It is obviously possible to choose to live but choose a different standard. In such cases, one’s actual values are revealed in one’s choices and actions. A man who chooses life but does not hold life as his standard of value is clearly immoral.

Branden’s article includes some quotes from Ayn Rand's article, "The Objectivist Ethics," that are relevant to the choice to live:

"…[So] long as it [an animal] lives, it acts on its knowledge, with automatic safety and no power of choice, it is unable to ignore its own good, unable to decide to choose the evil and act as its own destroyer."(WIAR, p. 23)

If a plant or other living thing destroys itself – according to Ayn Rand – it is evil. And here is Rand's summary statement of life as the 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." (WIAR, p. 22)

Needless to say, choosing not to live is destructive to life. It is, therefore, evil. We don’t need morality to tell us that. We need morality to tell us that thinking is good and evasion is evil (i.e., immoral). We don’t need morality to tell us that life is good and that throwing your life away is evil.

I consider that Branden’s essay offers a strong validation of the viewpoint I expressed in 1992. However, before proceeding to analyze the articles by Gotthelf and Wright, I want to offer an elaboration and slight revision of my earlier 1992 position, mainly with regard to terminology.

A crucial issue pertains to the usage of the concept “ought.” Quoting myself above: “Terms like ought and condemn are applicable, but outside the context of morality proper.” With respect to the concept “ought,” this is technically incorrect from the perspective of ethical obligation as well as epistemological hierarchy. The dictionary definition of “ought” is: To be compelled by obligation or duty. Since, according to Objectivism, there can be no unchosen obligations, it would be epistemologically incorrect to say that one “ought” to choose to live. Choice must always come first. The proper ethical formulation for human behavior is: If you want X, you ought to do Y. The goal must precede the imperative.

Epistemologically, the concept “ought” depends on the concept of morality. (All other nonethical uses of ‘ought’ are derivative; without the moral premise that humans should act in a certain way, there could be no other meaningful sense of ‘ought.’) Morality is a code of principles to guide one’s choices and actions, and derives from the conditional nature of life and human volition. To say that one “ought” to choose to live is equivalent to saying one ought to be moral, which amounts to using “ought” as a stolen concept.

On the other hand, it is correct to use “condemn” in this context; i.e., to condemn the choice to forfeit one’s life. Condemn simply means to evaluate something as evil—i.e., as antithetical to life as such. Morality is not required to pronounce such a verdict on the forfeiture of life. The term “ought” presumes debate among alternatives based on a standard. The forfeiture of life amounts to the abrogation of all standards.

I would now rephrase the above statement to read: The choice to live is the only rational decision. To say that one “ought” to live is a meaningless statement. To forfeit one’s life is to condemn oneself as evil.

The articles by Wright and Gotthelf in Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue both reference an earlier presentation by Douglas Rasmussen. Rasmussen's paper was originally presented at a meeting of the Ayn Rand Society in 1990. A revised version of the 1990 talk was published in 2002 in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies under the title "Rand on Obligation and Value." I will offer my own brief comments on this paper before moving on to the essays by Wright and Gotthelf. Since I do not have access to his original talk, this discussion will strictly focus on his article in JARS. Rasmussen sets up the issue this way:

"Of the many issues raised by Rand's comments regarding the nature of obligation, the one that seems to be of primary importance is the claim that moral obligation is hypothetical in character. This leads to a most unusual situation for Rand's ethics – namely, that one can, so to speak, choose to opt out of the ’moral game.’ If all moral obligations are hypothetical in character, that is, if the determination of what we ought or ought not do is only possible if we have chosen to live, then the decision to either live or not to live would seem incapable of moral evaluation by Rand's ethics. No reasons or recommendations could be given as to why one ought to choose to live or choose not to live. Choosing to live or choosing not to live would seem to be an ultimate human option that is beyond the scope of ethics. Morally speaking, the choice not to live would be just as good (or bad) as the choice to live. Or, so it seems.”(JARS, p. 71)

Rasmussen then quotes the sentence from Branden’s essay in Who Is Ayn Rand? in which he states that "the man who does not wish to hold his life as his goal and standard is free not to hold it; but he cannot claim the sanction of reason: he cannot claim that his choice is as valid as any other." Rasmussen then asks the critical question: "Is Branden claiming somehow that one ought to choose to live?"(JARS, p. 72)

Although Rasmussen is asking some important questions and is headed in a promising direction, I found this discussion somewhat rambling and confused. The problem with saying that one “ought” to choose to live is that it drops the context of the concept “ought.” The issue should be beyond any discussion of “oughts,” which designate principles for achieving the goal of life. Epistemologically, this “steals” the concept from its conceptual hierarchy. Further, to say one “ought” to choose to live amounts to an absurdity. It’s similar to saying existence “ought” to exist.

Later in his essay, Rasmussen states that he believes "that something has gone wrong here, and I believe it is the assumption that there can be no obligation without the choice to live." (JARS, p. 74) And: "Further, since life does not exist in the abstract, this means that for any living entity its life is the ultimate end or value for its actions. Nowhere. . . does Rand claim that the existence of life as the ultimate end, goal, or value is dependent on choice." (JARS, p. 76)

Rasmussen proceeds to offer various arguments in support of the view that an act of conscious choice is not required to make a particular human life a goal or value for that individual. I sympathize with that viewpoint. Rather than repeat Rasmussen’s arguments, which strike me as being off the mark, I'm going to offer my own.

In the previously mentioned article by Branden, he repeats the following definition of life given by Ayn Rand: “Life is a process of self-generated and self-sustaining action." (WIAR, p. 22) Needless to say, this description applies at all stages of life, including infancy. An infant is engaged in continuous self-sustaining activity to promote its own life long before it is aware of the need for any explicit choice. In other words, our lives represent values long before we choose them in any meaningful sense. We take action to gain and keep the value of life prior to any self-awareness of doing so. At the point where we make the choice to live, life becomes a conscious value, but our survival is an actual, non-conscious value long before that.

Rasmussen states: "Choice does not determine the ultimate end of choice. This is the result of man's nature as a living being… Yet, if this is so, then we need to re-examine the situation we faced earlier – namely, is it true that no moral evaluation can be made of the choice not to live? The answer now is ‘no.’ Since the goal and standard of human choice is man's life, moral evaluation of this choice, and any choice, is possible."(JARS, p.78)

Once again, Rasmussen is “getting warm,” so to speak, but I can’t offer him a cigar. One cannot logically apply a standard of evaluation to an action that creates that same standard. Morality only applies after the choice to live is made. However, to repeat my previous point, the choice to live or forfeit one’s life can be judged by the more fundamental standard of good or evil.

Rasmussen then proceeds to analyze Ayn Rand's article "Causality Versus Duty,” focusing largely on the difference between not choosing to live (i.e., passivity) as opposed to explicitly choosing not to live. He contends that only the deliberate choice can be evaluated. Rasmussen makes too much of this difference. We are all aware that certain actions are required us if we are to live and survive. Whether we decide consciously to default on that responsibility or evade our awareness of that need, matters little if at all.

In the conclusion to his article, Rasmussen argues that the “choice-worthiness” of life is sufficient in itself to establish the fact that we ought to choose life. This is his answer to Gotthelf's argument that “life is not a value because we choose it, nor do we choose life because it is a value."(JARS, p. 80) Rasmussen calls Gotthelf's view that morality depends on a pre-moral choice the "voluntarist" viewpoint. He sees this viewpoint as amounting to the claim that, in effect, an act of human choice somehow makes life good for human beings. Rasmussen wonders why that which is actually good for human beings has no “directive power" for human beings. Obviously (agreeing with Gotthelf) simply choosing a goal does not make it good.

"What makes life something choice-worthy if it is not life itself? Without life being something that is choice-worthy, something that we ought to choose, there is really no meaning to the ‘choice to live.’"(JARS, p. 82-83)

It isn’t entirely clear what Rasmussen means when he refers to “directive power.” Perhaps this is his way of describing pre-conscious, pre-choice life-affirming (i.e., goal-directed) behavior.

My conclusion from all of this is that Rasmussen believes that for humans, like animals, the choice to live—or one might call it the drive to live-- is in some way hard-wired in humans as it is for lower animals. I can agree with this conclusion. As living organisms, an enormous amount of our biological activity and actions are driven by an innate force—an innate goal-directiveness toward the “will to live”--from day one. (I do not like the nebulous term “instinct.” As Nathaniel Branden pointed out decades ago, people tend to use it as a substitute for a genuine explanation of what is going on.)

The essays by Branden and Rasmussen provide a context for analyzing the two articles in Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue by Gotthelf and Wright. I will begin with Gotthelf's article – "The Choice To Value" – because his essay deals more directly with Rasmussen's article.

Gotthelf begins by summarizing the ongoing controversy in the following way:

“If all moral obligations are grounded ultimately in a choice to live, then the choice to live cannot itself be morally obligated. But if there is no moral obligation to choose to live, then the choice to live is ultimately ‘optional’ or ‘arbitrary.’ There would thus be ‘no reason to be moral,’ and morality would be ‘based on an irrational or a rational commitment.’ On this view, Rand's derivation of ‘ought’ from ‘is’ would apply only to those human beings who have made this ‘existentialist’ or ‘voluntarist’ commitment to morality. The Objectivist morality would then lose the objectivity that many of us think it is Rand's great accomplishment to have established."(MEV, p. 34)

Gotthelf describes the essence of Rasmussen's view as follows:

"Life's status as an ultimate value in no way depends on any choice. It rests, rather, on life's metaphysical nature. The conditional character of life – all life – makes each human life metaphysically an ultimate value for that human being whose life it is, apart from any choices that human beings might make." (MEV, p. 34)

I want to emphasize that I disagree with Rasmussen here. The central point isn't the conditional character of life, but the fact that, as living organisms, we are actively sustaining our lives from the moment we are born. The choice to live merely makes that self-sustaining activity a conscious decision from whatever point explicit awareness kicks in.

Gotthelf captures the essence of Rasmussen's viewpoint as follows: "the choice to live does not ground moral evaluation, and so can itself be morally evaluated."(MEV, p. 35) To repeat my basic point, Rasmussen's mistake is to insist that the evaluation of the choice to live be done in moral terms. Moral values are only one type of value that can potentially be used in behavioral evaluation. There are esthetic values, political values, cultural values, athletic values, etiquette values, sartorial values, hygienic values, scientific values. Pro-life and anti-life are what might be called metaphysical values. The refusal to live must be condemned on the basis of the fact that it is metaphysically evil, not immoral.

One of Gotthelf's key arguments against Rasmussen's viewpoint is that his position constitutes a form of intrinsicism. Gotthelf states: "I think the place to begin is with the prima facie implausibility that Rand would have endorsed the proposition that we have a fundamental moral obligation to live apart from any choice."(MEV, P. 36) Since Rasmussen rejects the need for such a choice, and since Objectivism is incompatible with determinism, Gotthelf argues that the only alternative is to endow life with intrinsic value. In other words, "life has ultimate value for man wholly independent of whether it is aimed at or not, which makes value an inherent or intrinsic property of life, and not a relationship between life and the conscious, living entity that the human being in question is."(MEV, p. 40)

My own argument is that human beings have a metaphysical, not moral, responsibility to live—and no doubt Gotthelf would make the same counter-argument regarding the implied intrinsicism. But to qualify as an intrinsicist argument, my contention would have to be that every human being, without exception, has such a moral imperative to live, regardless of such circumstantial factors as disease or totalitarianism. Having established such exceptions, however, the charge of intrinsicism no longer applies.

In other words, the value of life is always contextual—always “a relationship between life and the conscious, living entity” that is each separate human being. An infant “aims at” the value of life with a brain that functions on the preconceptual level, prior to any conscious choice. Neither my argument nor Rasmussen’s argument qualify as intrinsicist so long as the context (e.g., health and politics) remain relevant.

Gotthelf summarizes Rasmussen's arguments as being threefold:

(1) Life's status as an ultimate value is grounded only in its conditional character;

(2) Ayn Rand's definition of an "ultimate value" in The Objectivist Ethics, where she argues that life and only life can satisfy that definition;

(3) Rand’s viewpoint that all human "choices are judged in terms of the end and standard of man's life."(MEV, p. 41)

Points (2) and (3) simply seem to reinforce point (1).

Gotthelf references the statement from my earlier discussion of Rasmussen's paper: "Is life of value because we choose it, or do we choose life because it is of value?"(MEV, p. 39) It is neither, says Gotthelf. And Rasmussen agreed, but argued that this does not address the more fundamental point: "Does that which is good have directive power for our choice?" To emphasize an earlier point, when he refers to “directive power,” I suggest that Rasmussen may be implying that the choice to live is hard-wired into humans as with animals, a viewpoint I endorse. As I see it, this ‘directive power’ would serve as a strong pro-life influence but not be determinant. In other words, once the issue does become conscious, an individual can potentially reject life as his goal.

A good deal of Gotthelf's case against Rasmussen has to do with the issue of when the ‘choice to live’ is made. Gotthelf contends that many of the specific actions described by Rasmussen—behaviors that reinforce his view that no such choice occurs--are made in pursuit of the value of life by those who have previously chosen to live. I regard such arguments to be pointless speculation. How can we possibly know when, for a given human being, the drive to live becomes a fully conscious, deliberate choice? We obviously perform numerous daily life-affirming behaviors long before that point.

A tangential issue is that of what it in fact means when we choose not to live. Gotthelf argues that the choice not to live amounts to "shutting down," in effect. (MEV, p. 38) This is in contrast to a view expressed by Darryl Wright that the character of James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged represents the negative life decision. At the end of his present article, Gotthelf disclaims the viewpoint just expressed, saying it is no longer his position. I will return to this issue shortly.

Gotthelf concludes his essay with a logical demonstration of how the ordinary meanings of terms such as optional and arbitrary do not apply to this choice to live. He makes some valuable and important points in this discussion, much of which echoes observations by Wright to the effect that this so-called choice is not between competing values. One could argue that the entire controversy rests upon the “theft” (in the sense of Rand’s “stolen concept” theory) of the concept of “ought,” which only obtains in the context of alternative values. If all value is one side, “ought” becomes meaningless.

At one point, Gotthelf directly contradicts the statement made by Branden in Who Is Ayn Rand? that someone who declines to hold life as his goal and standard is being irrational:

"This choice to value is a primary: it is not to be justified by anything prior. Just as in Objectivist epistemology, axioms are neither proved nor unprovable (in the sense skeptics mean), but are the precondition of proof, so the choice to live is neither reasonable nor unreasonable but is the precondition of [anything] being reasonable or unreasonable…"(MEV, p. 43-44)

Here, Gotthelf is clearly adopting a position that is contrary to that of Ayn Rand, since Rand made very clear that the explicit content of Branden's book was fully consistent with Objectivism.

The article by Darryl Wright, Reasoning About Ends, is all about reason and teleology. Wright asks the question: "What makes it rational to value something as an end?" (MEV, p. 8)

The following quotation suggests that Wright, unlike Gotthelf, agrees with Branden's point that the only rational action with respect to the choice to live is to hold one's life as one's goal and standard:

"If all ‘oughts’ are hypothetical, then there cannot be an ‘ought’ directing us to our ultimate ends, the ends we (properly) seek for their own sake and not for the sake of anything further. Nor, for Rand, can these ends be ones we simply desire for their own sakes... In order for Rand's view to achieve its aims, the choice of a (certain) ultimate end thus must be one the for which, in some sense, there are rational grounds." (MEV, p. 8-9)

Wright then devotes several subsequent pages to retracing Rand's derivation of life as the standard of morality. Following that review, he makes the following statement, a portion of which I quoted earlier:

“Rand’s argument for an ultimate value moves from the premise that we face the basic alternative of existence or non-existence to the conclusion that a person’s ultimate value should be his own life…. Yet Rand seems to treat the fundamentality of her basic alternative not as raising a question about what to seek but as settling this question. The fundamentality of the basic alternative is supposed to show that one's own life is the proper ultimate value by which to evaluate other prospective values and courses of action…. In this case, it seems, we are to proceed straight from the identification of the basic alternative to a decision in favor of one side of this alternative." (MEV, p. 23)

Wright proceeds to argue in a way consistent with Gotthelf'’s reasoning about the inappropriateness of applying terms like "optional" and "arbitrary" to the choice to live. "Like any alternative, this one presents us with a slate (in this case, a pair) of possible outcomes. In the basic alternative, however, only one of the outcomes corresponds to a value, that is, to something that is a candidate for being valued. The candidate value is one's life.. There's nothing one passes up in valuing one's life and thus no choice among possible values to be made." (MEV, p. 24)

At the conclusion of this discussion, Wright makes a statement which seems inconsistent with what he said before: "Nor, as we have seen, does Rand defend a categorical requirement either of rationality or morality to value our lives."(MEV, p. 25) Is Wright vacillating on the issue of whether or not choosing to live is rational? It may be that Wright is writing in a way that simply tracks a typical reader’s confusion about this issue, because he goes on to say the following:

“Because of the way in which Rand links reasons for action with the choice to live, her view seems to imply that someone who does not value his life lacks any reason to be moral. One might then wonder what whether such a person is thereby released from all moral obligations, a conclusion that is hard to accept." (MEV, p. 26)

Wright then makes an effort to break away from that perspective in the following way:

"If [Rand’s] arguments about the foundations of morality are correct, then there is exactly one set of moral standards that can be justified as rational and correct. Rand's standards include, for example, respecting innocent life and not being self-sacrificing, therefore, the actions of suicide terrorists and self-sacrificing people conflict with the only justifiable morality and thus can properly be evaluated as morally wrong." (MEV, p. 26-27)

If you’re starting to feel like a spectator at a tennis match—congratulations! You are obviously keeping score. In the next paragraph, Wright questions his own statement above: "But could the agents be said to have any moral obligations?... But that seems analogous to saying that a person has an obligation to pay us some money under a contract he didn't sign." (MEV, p. 27) My own impression is that Wright is deliberately and explicitly weighing both sides of the issue, prior to clarifying his own position in the pages that follow.

At this point in his essay, Wright offers his own example of what constitutes choosing not to live. He uses the example of the character of James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. I only point this out because of the interesting contrast between his example and the one offered by Gotthelf, who argued that choosing not to live would necessitate, in effect, shutting down altogether as a living organism. Wright uses that example to argue that Ayn Rand did not take a neutral attitude toward the choice to live, since she clearly did not take a neutral attitude toward James Taggart.

I completely disagree with Wright here. James Taggart is immoral because he is clearly choosing to live but not acting in a way that is consistent with that goal. He is not, in fact, holding life as his standard of value, whole nonetheless continuing to live. Gotthelf’s notion of shutting down strikes me as the more accurate depiction of what it means to say ‘no’ to the choice to live (even though Gotthelf appears to have disowned it).

Wright uses the James Taggart example as a springboard to another discussion of intrinsicism. As was the case with Gotthelf, I found this discussion lacking in clarity.

Earlier in his essay, Wright properly characterizes intrinsicism as divorcing goodness from beneficiaries and value from the valuer. This subsequent discussion differentiates two approaches to holding life as one's ultimate value: the deliberative and the non-deliberative. He regards the direct positive experience of life as a value to be non-deliberative and, therefore, not manifesting intrinsicism. However, regarding the deliberative approach, he states that Rand would "reject an account of the choice to live as proceeding from the deliberative recognition of such value" (MEV, p.28) because that would amount to endowing life with intrinsic value. In other words, you cannot base the choice to live on a purely intellectual point-of-view. Really? What about those who struggle with debilitating depression yet cling to hope for a future free of such unbearable pain? As with Gotthelf, Wright’s charge of intrinsicism against Rasmussen seems completely unwarranted.

At this point, Wright again makes another argument for judging the choice to live: "The existence of non-deliberative grounds for the choice also supplies justification for a negative verdict on those who (again, in some fundamental way, rather than due to evil circumstances) do not value their lives." (MEV, p. 29) In other words, under normal conditions, the experience of being alive is inherently positive, so there must be something deeply wrong psychologically with anyone who does not wish to live. To that extent, I agree with Wright. This is reminiscent of a key point I made in my original 1992 paper on “The Choice To Live.”

In the last part of his paper, Wright also addresses the views of Douglas Rasmussen. Wright rejects Rasmussen's view that the choice to live is somehow prescribed for us, i. e., that it is something inherent in our nature. As indicated earlier, Rasmussen takes Rand’s statement that "metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself" to mean that, for Rand, "life is a natural (ultimate) end, an end that human nature marks out as one to be pursued for its own sake and as the ultimate goal of all of one's action." (MEV, p. 30) Having rejected Rasmussen's basic premise, however, Wright goes on to imply that he may well agree with some of Rasmussen's conclusions. At the same time, Wright seems convinced that Rasmussen is fundamentally wrong in his interpretation of Rand’s views.

I agree that Rasmussen makes some errors in his interpretation of Rand’s views. However, to the extent that Rasmussen is arguing that Rand believed humans are (under normal circumstances) goal-directed to pursue life prior to any conscious choice, I think he is correct.

Does that mean that the choice to live is somehow “inherent” in our nature, as Rasmussen seems to think? The term ‘hard-wired’ might seem to imply that. It would depend on the exact meaning of “inherent.” Even before the choice becomes conscious, our programming to pursue life as a goal can be overridden. All conscious beings are, in a sense, inherently goal-directed to pursue the value of life. The human animal is unique because of his volitional capacity to reverse that process.

In a Tonight Show appearance with Johnny Carson, in the late 1960’s, Carson asked Ayn Rand what she thought about the fact that children seem to be innocently self-centered and selfish. Her reponse was to say: “I think that’s inherent in everything that’s living.” I would say the same thing about the “inherent” goal-directiveness of wanting to live.

Wright characterizes Rasmussen's depiction of the so-called "voluntarist" position as meaning that "the choice to live is absolutely fundamental, in the sense that: (a) there are no normative rounds for making it or not making it; (b) it is not subject to any form of evaluation (as rational, moral, etc.);" (c) the agent making (or not making) this choice is not subject to any form of evaluation qua making (or not making) it." (MEV, p. 29) According to Wright, Rasmussen sees the “voluntarist” or “orthodox” position as attributing to Rand "the implausible view that the function of human choice depends on human choice." (MEV, p.31) Wright rejects that idea. Wright also rejects Rasmussen's claim that life somehow has "directive power" for a person's actions. (MEV, p. 31)

Wright seems to shy away from any suggestion that Rand would ever argue that life is something we "ought" to choose, although he does say, early in his essay, that Rand argued "that a person's ultimate value should be his own life." (MEV, p.23) That just demonstrates how tempting it is to apply terms like “should’ and ‘ought” on a premoral level. Ultimately, to his credit, Wright seems to argue that, contrary to Gotthelf, choosing to live is the rational choice.

Wright rejects Rasmussen's argument that "life is choiceworthy, something that we ought to choose."(MEV, p. 31) Wright seems to believe that the criterion of "choiceworthy" only applies in retrospect – i. e., “when one finds life to be something choiceworthy, it is from the perspective of one who is already actively involved in it." (MEV, p. 32)

But that applies to everyone at the point where the choice to live becomes a conscious decision – we are already living organisms actively promoting our lives. We begin as infants, then as toddlers and young children – acting unconsciously to sustain our lives long before we decide living is good in any explicit way.

After seeming to shuttle back and forth from one perspective to another throughout his essay, Wright concludes with a statement that clearly puts him in fundamental agreement with Branden and in opposition to Gotthelf:

"Life, for Rand, is a rational ultimate end in two complementary senses: the choice to value one's life is a rational response to the experience of one's life is of value, and it is only for the sake of life that one needs other values at all." (MEV, p. 32) I completely agree with this assessment.

In conclusion, none of the material in the articles by either Wright or Gotthelf appears to conflict with the conclusions I drew in my original article published in 1992. Following my review of these four articles, I had fully expected to have basis for revising my viewpoint. And to some extent I have, in the sense of elaborating, refining and clarifying certain points. However, the various arguments offered by Wright and Gotthelf (as well as Branden and Rasmussen) – both valid and invalid – seem to offer significant support for the original position I adopted at that time.


Dennis Hardin, “The Choice To Live,” Full Context (Newsletter of The Objectivist Club of Michigan), December, 1992

Gotthelf, Allan and James B. Lennox, eds., 2011, Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue, University of Pittsburgh Press (MEV).

Allan Gotthelf, “The Choice To Value,” in Allan Gotthelf and James B. Lennox, eds., 2011, Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue, University of Pittsburgh Press.

Darryl Wright, “Reasoning About Ends: Life as a Value in Ayn Rand’s Ethics,” in Allan Gotthelf and James B. Lennox, eds., 2011, Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue, University of Pittsburgh Press.

Nathaniel Branden, “The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged,” in Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, 1964, Who Is Ayn Rand?, Paperback Library (Random House, Inc.) (WIAR)

Douglas Rasmussen, "Rand on Obligation and Value," Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall, 2002), pp. 69-86 (JARS)

Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 1964, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Books.

Ayn Rand, "Causality Versus Duty,” 1984, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, Signet Books

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Choice to Live

"The Choice To Live" by Dennis C. Hardin

“The whole process of living,” states Ayn Rand, “consists of the achievement of values.”1 Moral values, in particular, consist of those specific things (the three basic ones being reason, purpose, self-esteem) which man must choose to pursue to sustain the life proper to a rational being. To live by the principles required to achieve these values is to earn the medal of moral virtue.

The pursuit of such particular values, however, presupposes an ultimate value: Life. Since the honoring of this ultimate value is also an act of choice, it has become a significant point of contention among Objectivists as to whether this ultimate act of choice is itself something for which one can be judged. Since morality—the rules for successful living—only applies once the choice to live has been made, how, it is asked, can one be judged for this choice? Logically, the argument continues, one can only be held accountable if one, in effect, buys into the game. Those who opt out of life should properly be exempt from condemnation for such forfeiture.

To begin with, we need to ask: what does the ‘choice to live’ entail? I would argue that it entails two essential aspects: (1) the recognition that one’s life is of value, and (2) the willingness to do whatever is required to achieve that value.

For the purposes of this article, let us identify the argument under discussion as the ‘pro-choice’ viewpoint, and its counter-argument—that the premoral commitment to life is itself a choice subject to praise or condemnation—as that of ‘pro-life.’

Advocates on either side of this argument acknowledge that there are specific circumstances, such as terminal illness or political slavery, where one might legitimately conclude that the value of one’s life cannot be properly enjoyed and that, therefore, suicide may be contextually valid. The disagreement pertains to the validity of the option to perish given a normal state of health and reasonable external potential for achieving a successful life.

A secondary issue directly related to this question is the role of morality in human life. In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff describes morality as “man’s motive power.”2 But if morality is simply a means to the end of successful living, the pro-choice argument goes, it is rationalism to elevate moral principles to the status of a primary motivating factor in one’s choices and actions. This is, say the proponents of this view, context-dropping. Conformity to principle can never be invoked as a direct source of motivation. Our motivation must always come, not from the principles, but from their source: our passion to live.

While those who espouse the pro-choice view are asking important questions that are much deserving of attention, the fact remains that their position has problematic implications for Objectivism. By leaving open the subjective possibility that a given individual may legitimately treat his own life as of no value, direct damage is done to the ‘is-ought” connection between the metaphysical facts of man’s nature and what this portends for what he ought to do.

Peikoff states that Objectivism “holds that facts—certain definite facts—do lead logically to values. What ‘ought to be’ can be validated objectively.”3 And once validated in this way, what ‘ought to be’ is what man should do. To hold that the category of what ‘ought to be’ for man includes the option to self-destruct, leaves the entire edifice of the Objectivist ethics dependent on the whim of the individual, and throws it into the realm of the arbitrary.

Morality is a specific application of the Objectivist value theory to the problem of human survival. Values are the key to the survival of all living things, human or otherwise. “An organism’s life is its standard of value,” states Rand. “That which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.”4 Only then does she go on to say (quoting her own fictional hero, John Galt): “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 its virtues—by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality…”5

“The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics [she adds]—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life…”6

Since morality amounts to the mechanics of implementing the value of life, any choice that “preceded” such implementation would not, plainly, lend itself to evaluation as moral or immoral. Such a choice could, however, be evaluated as good or evil by the more fundamental standard of the Objectivist ethics: man’s life. Evil is the more fundamental concept, immoral the derivative concept. Given Rand’s statements above, the choice to reject life would be condemned as evil rather than immoral.

Indeed, the reason the term immoral would not apply is because the outright rejection of life as such would not entail any detailed analysis by reference to derivative principles—it is evil on its face. Morality consists of detailed rules by which one can assess the extent to which one’s behavior is consistent with the requirements of life. The direct, immediate choice of life or death, good or evil, has no need of complex evaluation. The choice of life is good; the choice of death, evil. At this level of evaluation, ethics is pointless.

Morality tells us which choice we are making, by direct or indirect consequence, when we choose productivity over theft, or honesty over deceit. It applies on the level of concretes and details. Direct decisions for or against life do not require such a guide. They are, nonetheless, subject to evaluation as good or evil by the same standard.

In her article, “Causality versus Duty,” Ayn Rand makes the statement that “to live is [man’s] basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.”7 The advocates of the view that the choice to live or not is somehow beyond judgment interpret this passage to mean that Objectivism should properly only apply its evaluative criteria to those who satisfy her precondition. But in no way is this implied by Rand, because, as already indicated, the Objectivist ethics is an application and development of the fundamental standard of good and evil. Ethics has no relevance to the direct acceptance or rejection of life as such, which can be evaluated without reference to derivative rules and principles.

In the passage cited, Ayn Rand is simply stating that if one, in effect, chooses goodness (i.e., life), then this guide is needed and should be followed. If evil and death are your choice, you don’t need a guide. They will find you in due time. There is no basis for claiming, as the pro-choice advocates seem to, that the existence of human volition in any way alters the good or evil represented by the two alternatives.

Further, to the extent to which a man chooses not to follow the guide that ethics gives him, he is acting as though he had chosen evil in the first place: he is acting as though he had no need of a guide. From the Objectivist perspective, when a man chooses to be moral, he is in that act choosing life; when he chooses immorality, he is, consciously or unconsciously, choosing death.

In view of the degree of the rampant discord on this issue, one has to wonder if, when the issue is brought up, one is hearing the real question. Given the crucial importance of the standard of life for the Objectivist ethics, it is hard to see why so many questions would be raised about the goodness or evil of the choice to live, in itself. It seems a likely hypothesis that some other question may well be at the root of this controversy. I will return to this issue.

Another aspect of the pro-choice argument is that it seems to rely heavily on a totally unrealistic view of what is really going on psychologically. The suggestion seems to be that this is a choice one makes at some early stage and from that day forward holds to obediently as if it were a self-imposed, binding, lifetime contract. Taking into account the second half of the breakdown described earlier, the decision to forfeit one’s life would need to be made by an omniscient infant with the ability to weigh the alternative of dying against the price of the effort put forth and suffering endured across a lifetime.

Since we do not happen to be omniscient, either as infants or at any other time in our lives, what is it, exactly, that does happen? To get an idea of how Ayn Rand would answer this question, consider this additional quote from “The Objectivist Ethics”:

“Psychologically, the choice ‘to think or not’ is the choice ‘to focus or not.’ Existentially, the choice ‘to focus or not’ is the choice ‘to be conscious or not.’ Metaphysically, the choice ‘to be conscious or not’ is the choice of life or death.”8 This implies that, for Ayn Rand, the choice to live is one that is made and reaffirmed constantly, in any hour or moment of one’s life, as one chooses to be aware on the human level, or to default on that responsibility.

In “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” Rand argues that a child first deals with issues of life and death in terms of what she calls ‘metaphysical value-judgments’—emotional evaluations of what the child sees as being ‘important’—as he develops the preconceptual equivalent of metaphysics, a “sense of life.” These judgments involve the answers to such questions as “whether the universe is knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not, whether he can achieve his goals in life or not. The answers to such questions are ‘metaphysical value-judgments,’ since they form the base of ethics.”9

One of the things that a rational, mentally active child will naturally come to see as important is, of course, his own life:

“ ‘It is important to understand things’—‘It is important to obey my parents’—‘It is important to act on my own’—‘It is important to please other people’—‘It is important to fight for what I want’—‘It is important not to make enemies’—‘My life is important’—‘Who am I to stick my neck out?’ Man is a being of self-made soul—and it is of such conclusions that the stuff of his soul is made.”10

“To the extent to which a man is mentally active, i.e., motivated by the desire to know, to understand, his mind works as the programmer of his emotional computer—and his sense of life develops into a bright counterpart of a rational philosophy.”11 There will always be vast differences of degree, of course, but the principle involved is, in effect, the more he strives to focus and to be aware, the greater the natural intensity the child will come to attach to his own life.

Such is the reality of how the choice to live or not is made—in the choice to think, to focus, to be aware—whether one is a child, a teenager or an adult. Thus, the more fundamental choice of life or death is actually made in the form of an action that is, clearly, subject to moral evaluation—namely, the choice to think or to evade that responsibility.

In explaining her theory of the nature of sense of life, Rand states that the origin of the particular value-judgments a child makes and the emotions attached to each “lies in an individual’s view of himself and his own existence.”12 The source of the emotional impact of sense of life—like its adult counterpart, morality—derives from what Rand describes as the “enormously powerful integrating mechanism of man’s consciousness.”13

“The transition from guidance by sense of life to guidance by conscious philosophy takes many forms.”14 Properly, the emotional power of sense of life is, as an adult, translated into an explicit philosophy—including ethics—and the two work in harmony, since the one never actually replaces the other. With or without such harmony, however, sense of life and ethics both play the role of powerful motivators within the human mind.

And this is where the criticism of morality as a prime source of human motivation goes wrong. The point is not whether morality should serve the role of prime motivator, but that it does, and irrevocably so. In her article on “Leading A Rational Life in an irrational Society,” Ayn Rand states that “Moral values are the motive power of a man’s actions.”15 By this, Rand is not implying that moral rules acquire some sort of intrinsic importance, independent of the life they are supposed to serve. Rather, she means that morality has a crucial psychological-emotional role to play in human action.

The motivating power of morality was, largely, Ayn Rand’s explanation for the present state of the world. In choosing altruism as his ethical guide, man has turned the power of morality against himself. To achieve the end of human happiness, morality must serve the goal of life. This is in the nature of the biological utility of a code of morality for man. One can, however, set the mechanism against life, and turn idealism into a self-destructive path.

Man’s unique awareness of his own mortality may be directly related to the power of morality over human behavior. This writer would argue that morality serves as the form in which man experiences the significance of his daily choices for the alternative of life or death—that such is the source of its influence on mankind throughout human history. It is not only a means to the end of life but also an inestimably powerful motivational tool for getting there.

If questioning the good or evil inherent in the choice to live does not seem plausible, given Rand’s clearly enunciated standard, perhaps another question is at the root of all this confusion, even to the point of eluding some Objectivists that it is there at all. Consider a somewhat different phrasing of the same basic question: ‘Why should one live?’

In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden states that “the value of life is not to be justified by a value beyond itself; to demand such justification--to ask: why should man choose to live?—is to have dropped the meaning, context and source of one’s concepts. ‘Should’ is a concept that can have no intelligible meaning, if divorced from the concept and value of life.”16

But there are two possible perspectives to that question, and Branden has really addressed only one of them. The fact that one can grasp, theoretically, that life cannot be subject to evaluation by any other standard, must not be confused with the very different internal perspective of each living individual. In the act of becoming fully conscious on the human level, one is making the choice to hold one’s life as one’s own personal standard of value, and one is meeting the requirements described before for ‘choosing to live’: acknowledging the value of one’s life and acting to achieve it.

So the same question can be asked a different way, and with complete legitimacy: Why should I live? Since effort is required to produce the values required for survival, why do it? Such an internal perspective is valid in a way that the theoretical is not, because the internal perspective is, tacitly, assumed for the purposes of the theoretical. Value theorists begin with the assumption that ‘the living like living.’ Problems arise when they proceed to analyze ‘living’ in the abstract, while paying scant attention to the experience of being alive.

Peikoff, the foremost advocate of the pro-life perspective, implies in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand that the logical basis of the choice to live consists of the obligation of things in reality to remain in it.17 This is, however, inconsistent with Peikoff’s willingnness to make exception for those suffering under tyranny or from painful disease. An obligation to sustain one’s existence for the sake of existence would require that this be done regardless of one’s internal experience of existence as positive or negative. But no value is intrinsic, including life. Peikoff’s willingness to allow for unfortunate exceptions implies that there is another relevant criterion—namely, that one’s experience of life be profoundly positive.

The perspective ignored by Peikoff and many other commentators on various aspects of this issue is the internal one: the immediate, tacit awareness of life as the supreme value, validated through direct experience and confirmed by observation of others. That is the only answer to the question: Why should I live? If I am alive, and I am not ravaged by disease or bound in political chains, I am acutely aware of the value of being alive. It is an indisputable fact, but also a fact which cannot be “proven” by arranging a series of hierarchically dependent premises leading to this as the conclusion.

But though, like an axiom, it cannot be proven, there is an objective fact each of us can point to which will establish its truth: our internal experience of being alive. The act of pointing internally no more renders this a subjective judgment than is the entire epistemological category of emotions and introspective concepts inherently subjective. Reality simply leaves us no other means of verification other than introspection and corroboration.

This, however, only addresses the first of the two aspects of the choice to live discussed earlier—one’s recognition of the value of life. Given a normal state of biological health, this is simply not open to reasoned debate. On a moment’s reflection and simple honesty, the deliberation either ends or dissipates into nonsense. It is the second aspect—the willingness to pay the price of achieving the value of one’s life—which the pro-choice advocates appear to be asking us to leave to the whim of the individual. If a man decides he has neither the strength nor the courage to live, according to the pro-choice perspective, he should be beyond criticism by those who do.

Yet it is precisely effort and courage which are the essence of moral responsibility. Those who default are not to be exonerated for their weakness and cowardice. They do not earn innocence by their candor. They are evil. It is that simple.

It may be the abstract philosopher’s natural fear of the introspective question that makes him fall back on the theoretical one—and get lost in so doing. But if one sidesteps the internal experience of life as good, one is left with either Peikoff’s intrinsicism or a borderline subjectivism, tied to a whim—a viewpoint which faults a man for an isolated fraction of the rules, but sanctions with its silence the man who would cast his entire life into the garbage pail.

The argument could be made that, in holding individuals accountable for the “evil” of choosing death over life, an important distinction between two senses of the word “evil” is being blurred. Certain things which are destructive to life—such as earthquakes—can be “evil,” without implying culpability on the part of its victims. In general, for evil to justify condemnation, the responsibility of the acting agent must be demonstrated, and this only occurs where evil is coextensive with immorality.

The specific evaluation of immorality has already been shown to be inapplicable here. And since any given individual’s awareness of the value of life cannot be proven to the satisfaction of doubters, the pro-choice argument implies, culpability at the level of the fundamental choice to live cannot be warranted.

This argument, however, fails on two levels. The first is that, as indicated above, the demand for proof in this context is totally invalid and, in itself, nonobjective. The second is that, having granted legitimacy to the premise that the value of life is somehow subjective (i.e., left to the option of the individual), there is no way to reinject objectivity into the ethical equation. All effort, all achievement, all virtue, are reduced to the metaphysical equivalent of a coin-flip.

The laudable intent of Objectivists subscribing to the pro-choice view may well be, in part, that of liberating the moral agent from responsibility for what cannot be ‘objectively established.’ Once the end is established, they would argue, one can show a direct causal link to that which is required to achieve it, and we can take the guesswork out of the deal. In fact, however, what is set free is morality from objectivity. Further, pro-choice advocates are engaging in the exact same rationalism as those metaphysical idealists at the turn of the century who insisted on “proof” of existence. In the spirit of G.E. Moore holding up two hands, the best one can give to such an advocate is: Pause a moment, and open your eyes to what is staring you in the face.

Without the appeal to internal experience, one has no way of answering the personal perspective on the question—Why should one live? The answer is neither intrinsicism nor subjectivism but two simple words: Look within.

Yes, the choice to live is a crucially important choice, but it is not a choice between two neutral alternatives. All other things being equal, it is a choice between good and evil. The choice to live is, further, the rational choice—the only one in keeping with human nature.

When this choice becomes integrated with a pro-life morality, man places his emotions in the service of his life and happiness, and the result is not a stoical, joyless rigidity, but a profoundly passionate, egoistic idealism.

1. Ayn Rand, The PLAYBOY Interview
2. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (new York, Dutton, 1991), p. 284.
3. Ibid., p. 207.
4. Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet Books, 1964), p.17.
5. Ibid., p. 23.
6. Ibid.
7. Ayn Rand, “Causality vs. Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet Books, 1984), p.99.
8. Ibid., “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 21.
9. Ayn Rand, “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” in The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet Books, 1971), p. 28.
10. Ibid., p. 28.
11. Ibid., p. 26.
12. Ibid., p. 28.
13. Ibid., p. 27.
14. Ibid., p. 29.
15. Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet Books, 1964), p. 73.
16. Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 236.
17. Peikoff, ibid., pp. 211-212.

Dennis C. Hardin has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a licensed psychotherapist in California. From 1986 to 1995, he ran a discussion group in Los Angeles, the Forum for the New Intellectual.

NOTE: This article was first published in the December, 1992 edition of Full Context, the newsletter of the Objectivist Club of Michigan.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

Some expert on post-mortem etiquette once said that if you can’t say anything good about someone who has passed on, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Azeusism vs Atheism

In Greek mythology, Zeus was the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus and the god of sky and thunder. He was the Greek equivalent of today’s generic Judeo-Christian “God.”

When Christianity began to gain in popularity during the first and second centuries, Greek mythology still held sway in The Roman Empire. So, the early converts to Christianity could have been called Azeusists. Azeuzists refused to believe in Zeus. Atheists refuse to believe in a generic God.

Conservative Romans, understandably, looked upon Azeusists with disdain, just as the religious conservatives of today regard atheists with contempt. Secularism and atheism are wrongly blamed for all manner of atrocities, from Hitler and the holocaust to the horrors of Soviet-style communism. No doubt the early Christian Azeusists had to endure similar abuse from the conventional “believers” in the first and second centuries.

The truth, of course, is that both Nazism and communism are brazenly irrational ideologies rooted in the philosophical traditions of emotionalism, subjectivism and collectivism. Their essence is every bit as anti-reason as any God-based religion. To blame atheism for their atrocities is to ignore the actual source of those evil ideologies. Azeusism is not the basis of Christianity (or Judaism) any more than atheism was the basis of Nazism and communism. The absence of a belief in a particular God says nothing fundamental about the actual content of a belief system.

Christians (and Jews) need to realize that, in terms of unconventional radicalism, their early adherents shared something in common with the atheists of today. Christians rejected Greek mythology in the name of Jesus.

Rational atheists reject all mythology in the name of reason.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Abortion Rights and Fetal Viability

Following the murder of Kansas abortionist George Tiller on May 31, 2009, public attention has again focused on the issue of partial birth and late-term abortion. Tiller’s assassination was a heinous act; that much is clear. His murderer should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But the issue which Tiller’s death has brought to light is not that of abortion rights. It is more specifically the issue of late-term abortion.

Scott Holleran, an Objectivist writing for Capitalism Magazine (capmag.com), wrote an article-- Abortion and the Death of Dr. George Tiller--in which he never once mentions the fact that Tiller specialized in late-term abortions—abortions where the viability of the fetus was often not in question. He correctly defends abortion as a woman’s right to control her own body, but completely glosses over the fundamental question of fetal viability.

Dr. Mary L. Davenport, M.D., a former abortionist herself, writes that "contrary to the assertion of abortion rights supporters that late-term abortion is performed for serious reasons, surveys of late abortion patients confirm that the vast majority occur because of delay in diagnosis of pregnancy. They are done for similar reasons as early abortions: relationship problems, young or old maternal age, education or financial concerns." Davenport cites a statement by Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, who admitted in 1997 that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions were performed on healthy mothers and babies.

"The very fact that the baby of an ill mother is viable raises the question of why, indeed, it is necessary to perform an abortion to end the pregnancy,” says Davenport. “With any serious maternal health problem, termination of pregnancy can be accomplished by inducing labor or performing a cesarean section, saving both mother and baby."

Glenn Woiceshyn, another Objectivist writing on behalf of the Ayn Rand Institute, made the following statements in several articles dealing with the controversial topic of so-called "partial birth abortion":

" 'Partial-birth' abortion, most commonly known as intact dilation and extraction (D&X), is designed primarily to be used in the case of 5- and 6-month-old fetuses that are dying, malformed, or threaten the woman's health or life... “

"Anti-abortionists coined the term 'partial birth' to suggest that the partially removed fetus is no longer "unborn," and, therefore, Roe vs. Wade no longer applies (so they allege). But linguistic manipulation can't create an essential distinction when none exists. A woman has a right to her own body, and, if she chooses to abort, then all effort should be made to protect the woman from injury. To rule otherwise is to negate this right."

"Banning any type of abortion to 'protect the fetus' necessarily grants rights to the fetus -- an utter perversion of individual rights... Properly, an infant's rights begin after the fetus is removed from the mother's body and its umbilical cord cut..." Ban on "Partial-Birth" Abortion Would Be a Blow to Individual Rights (9-25-03)

The fact is that there are essential distinctions to be made here, but Woiceshyn (and, by his silence on the issue, Holleran) want to deny this. Banning the abortion of a viable fetus in favor of safely removing it from the womb in no way violates the mother’s rights. Anti-abortionists claim that this issue reveals the hypocrisy behind the claims of pro-choice advocates that they want to stand on the principle of a woman's right to control her own body. The cavalier sanction of late term abortion, when the viability of the fetus is in question, suggests that whim-worship, not self-determination, is what the supporters of pro-choice are really defending.

Where a clear threat to the health and safety of the woman can clearly be established, late-term abortion may well be justified. But Woiceshyn defends abortion in a way that implies a woman can blithely choose to destroy the fetus until the moment the umbilical cord is cut. He contends that to do otherwise is to open the door to an eventual ban on all abortions. But there is no slippery slope if the line is drawn at the point of fetal viability.

The opposite is true: the failure to make crucial distinctions regarding the developmental stage of the embryo or fetus totally undermines the pro-choice position, and lends credence to the pro-lifer's contention that all abortion represents the devaluation of human life.

Woiceshyn argues that the opponents of "partial birth abortion" are trying to "create an essential distinction when none exists." Well, since he is writing under the auspices of the Ayn Rand Institute, he might have investigated what she had to say on the subject:

"Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a 'right to life.' A piece of protoplasm has no rights—and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable.” Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Letter, A Last Survey--Part I, Vol. IV, No. 2 November-December, 1975.

Ayn Rand obviously considered the first three months of a pregnancy to be essentially distinct from the subsequent stages. There is every reason to believe she may well have opposed late-term and ‘partial-birth’ abortion.

Is Obama a Friend of Freedom?

Polish dissident Lech Walesa recently said of Ronald Reagan:

“When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can't be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989. Poles fought for their freedom for so many years that they hold in special esteem those who backed them in their struggle. Support was the test of friendship. President Reagan was such a friend…”

The leader of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, gave similar credit to Reagan for his moral support of the anticommunist rebellion in his own country.

Yet President Obama prefers to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude toward the dissident movement in Iran. He wants to know who the winner will be before he takes sides. He does not want to “antagonize’ the brutal dictators who are the major exporters of international terrorism. He wants to be sure they are not upset with him when he eventually sits down across the negotiating table. Years from now, if the dissidents succeed in winning their freedom, they are unlikely to express much fondness for the role Obama played in their struggle against tyranny.

Obama sent Vice-President Biden to Lebanon on the eve of their national election, thus giving a big boost to the anti-Hezbollah forces that prevailed in that vote. Somehow that was not “meddling.” Of course it was—and with good cause. The cause of American self-interest, the security of a key American ally, Israel, and the defeat of international terrorism.

Obama claims he does not want to give the Iranian leadership any cause to blame the United States for the uprising. Well, guess what? The Iranian leadership is doing that anyway. But the dissidents are not responding as expected.

Things have changed in the 30 years since the Ayatollah overthrew the Shah. There was considerable anti-American sentiment then, because the U.S. was seen as propping up the Shah. But today’s Iranian dissidents are singing a very different tune. Most of them were not even born in 1979. What they want is freedom, and they are looking to the leader of the free world for some much-needed encouragement.

This is the moment we have been waiting for—the perfect opportunity to get rid of this oppressive theocracy without firing a shot, and we are choosing to sit quietly on the sidelines. In the name of American self-interest, we should be actively helping the dissidents in any way we can.

The evidence that they want our support is clear. Many of the signs they are holding are written in English. Whose attention do you think they are seeking? Two thirds of Iran’s current population is thirty and under, and they do not want to live their lives under a backward theocratic regime. Many of them are yelling: “Death to the Ayatollah!” They like America because, up to now, we have explicitly declined to endorse their oppressors.

But in his relative silence, Obama is doing exactly that. Would Bush have handled the situation differently? Who knows? He did not speak out in support of the protestors in Tibet in 2008. Nor did he back those protesting the re-election of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2005. But in neither of those cases were the vital interests of the United States as much at stake as they are in Iran.

We can only hope that Obama will reverse course and emulate the unflinching courage of Ronald Reagan. If Obama could successfully rally the international community to the cause of freedom in Iran, he might well earn a place alongside Reagan’s proud legacy.