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Values and Virtues - Von Mises and Rand
Russell Madden

Posted on 07/20/2003 9:00:50 PM PDT by Sir Gawain

Values and Virtues

Von Mises and Rand

by Russell Madden

In an era in which "values" and "virtues" are often said to be tools of oppression wielded by the power elite of our Westernized civilization or rigid, context-less absolutes imposed by a supernatural god, these concepts deserve a reexamination.

In libertarian circles, the two most influential modern writers on these issues are probably the Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, and novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. While their respective works share some similarities, in other ways, they diverge radically from one another. Both approaches lead to different implications for the establishment of a free society.

Ludwig von Mises's magnum opus, Human Action, is his fullest explication of his ideas on why people act the way they do. He labeled his theory "praxeology." In this non-normative theory, " . . . the subjectivism of the general science of human action . . . takes the ultimate ends chosen by acting man as data, it is entirely neutral with regard to them, and it refrains from passing any value judgments." (Human Action, 3rd revised edition, p. 21)

In other words, for von Mises, praxeology is unconcerned with establishing any "absolute standard" for judging that an action or end "X" is better or worse than behavior or goal "Y." He tells us that, "The teachings of praxeology and economics are valid for every human action without regard to its underlying motives, causes, and goals." (p. 21)

Ethics is irrelevant to von Mises's purposes in explaining human behavior since ethical theories involve a ranking of choices external to the desires of any particular individual. For him, "Choosing determines all human decisions . . . All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another." (p. 3)

People act in order to satisfy their desires. "There is no standard of greater or lesser satisfaction other than individual judgments of value, different for various people and for the same people at various times. What makes a man feel uneasy and less uneasy is established by him from the standard of his own will and judgment, from his personal and subjective valuation. Nobody is in a position to decree what should make a fellow man happier." (p. 14)

This subjective theory of value tells us that what a person wants or values is determined solely by himself. Austrian insights in this area can be very useful in attempting to fathom human behavior.

Divorcing ends from the means used to obtain those ends is, moreover, supposed to forestall any government intervention into other people's lives. After all, if no one can legitimately state or "decree" that one value or goal is "better" or "greater" than another, one person will have no reason to impose his will upon his neighbor.

But this theory of value is ultimately self-contradicatory. Stating that all ends subjectively chosen cannot — or should not — be judged by others is itself a value judgment, no more and no less than any other. Worse, if one cannot judge another's goals, then what of a person whose goals include subjugating other people? The proponent of "subjective values" devoid of ethical import can say nothing. Rather than holding the tyrants at bay, a subjective theory of value implicitly invites the ruthless to reach for their goals since the "noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row," and dictatorship is just as neutral as any other end.

There is no route here for resolving goals — such as freedom and slavery — that are mutually exclusive. In attempting "compossibility" — everyone being able to act upon his principles at the same time — subjective value theory actually achieves the opposite.

At first blush, Ayn Rand's writings on "value" and "virtues" seems to suffer a similar weakness.

Rand says that, "'Value' is that which one acts to gain and/or keep . . . It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative." ("The Objectivist Ethics," in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 15)

Taken alone, this definition seems to echo von Mises. People are purposeful and must make choices between one option and another. This definition says nothing about what someone values, i.e., about what they act to obtain or hold on to.

Her definition of "virtue" likewise appears to leave a gaping hole for unwanted implications:

" . . . 'virtue' is the action by which one gains and keeps it [value]. 'Value' presupposes a standard, a purpose and the necessity of action in the face of an alternative." (Atlas Shrugged, p. 939)

Taken barefaced, these sentences suggest that Hitler was "virtuous" because he acted "to achieve his goals"!

Is this really what Rand wanted for her theory of Objectivism? To label dictators as virtuous and mass murder as a value?

Rand frequently pointed out that, in order to judge ideas, one must examine the widest context available, whether in the realm of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, or politics. As we trace the metaphysical and epistemological roots of "value," then, we can see that crime as a value and criminals as virtuous are not really conclusions consonant with either reality or Objectivism.

For Rand, "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." (AS, 939) Before there can be something identified as a "value," there must be a living entity that exists prior to values, in general or in particular. Whether plant, insect, or animal, each has values determined by the nature of its own life.

Life leads to value.

"It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself . . . Epistemologically, the concept of 'value' is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of 'life.' . . .

" . . . 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 . . .

" . . . [A person] has no choice about the standard that determines what will make him experience the physical sensation of pleasure or of pain. What is that standard? His life." (TOE in VOS, p. 17)

The next question then is: what leads to life as opposed to death? (And for this discussion, we will limit ourselves to human life.) What actions, what goals are required to sustain human life, to allow an individual to flourish to his greatest capacity? What is constructive of a human existence, and what is destructive of human life?

While Rand would agree that all people make value judgments, make choices among alternatives to satisfy felt desires, the kinds of goals they consider and decide upon are important. After all, one goal is often merely the means to yet another end. The distinct differences between ends and means implied by the subjective theory of value do not, upon closer examination, ring true.

While all people are motivated to act, not all such motivations or actions are conducive to the furtherance of life. "Values are the motivating power of man's actions and a necessity of his survival, psychologically as well as physically." ("Our Cultural Value-Deprivation." The Voice of Reason, p. 102) But a person's psychological and physical survival will be compromised — if not ended — if the motivating values are, in fact, disvalues, i.e., destructive of human existence in the long-run.

Rand is careful to state that:

"The objective theory of values is the only moral theory incompatible with rule by force . . .

"If one knows that the good is objective — i.e., determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man's mind — one knows that an attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man's capacity to recognize the good, i.e., his capacity to value . . . Values cannot exist (cannot be valued) outside the full context of a man's life, needs, goals, and knowledge." ("What Is Capitalism?" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal., p. 23)

People may treat certain goals as "values" — they may make judgments/identifications about aspects of the world that they then call their "values" — and act accordingly (i.e., they mimic the pursuit of values) but (objectively) what has been misjudged as a "value" (either through ignorance or irrationality) is not — in reality — a value, at all: "values" that do not correspond to the full context "cannot exist," i.e., are not real, are not values. At best, such "values" are "values" only metaphorically. Our judgments (and our concepts) must conform to reality, the ultimate standard. Reality does not have to conform to our judgments.

On a fundamental level, then, only those things that further human existence can legitimately be "values" (since value depends upon life, and life depends upon acting in accordance with reality, i.e., acting rationally, objectively; any action seeking to contradict reality can only be destructive of life and thus cannot be a value).

The behavior involved in pursuing rational, life-affirming values is virtuous behavior. And since, "Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue," (AS, p. 983), the virtues of rationality and productiveness and pride, of honesty and justice and integrity and independence flow from that primary decision. Any behavior that violates the basic choice of "to think or not" (i.e., to focus one's thoughts on the widest conceptual level) cannot — in reality — be virtuous or useful in obtaining a value.

While it is intelligible in a general way to talk of criminals pursuing "values" (or stealing the concept of value . . . ) or of people experiencing emotions based on "value" judgments, in the sense of what reality demands of us, criminal goals are not actual values, and emotions formed on invalid judgments are not valid guides to what is or is not good for us. An epistemological error does not trump the metaphysical standard (one's life and the objective needs it has) for determining whether X is a value and whether the action to obtain X is a virtue.

Misidentifying one's emotion of infatuation or lust as "love" does not make it love. Misidentifying taxation and prior restraint laws as "freedom" does not transform such immoral acts into freedom. People who misidentify and pursue destructive X's or Y's are merely kidding themselves that such are values. Acting to obtain something that has the potential to destroy the very foundation of any value, i.e., their lives, is hardly virtuous.

While it might be helpful to append "subjective" and "objective" to the concept "value" when we discuss these ideas, this is akin to saying "individual rights" when rights refer solely and exclusively to individuals. Talking about "group" rights, for instance, will not cause others to stare at you in bewilderment (though would t'were the case . . . ), but, in reality, talking about "group" rights is discussing a void, a null, the nonexistent.

Or consider ethical theories: altruism is a guideline to action and thus, at one level of understanding, an ethical theory. But on another level, altruistic behavior is unethical. Likewise with "objective value": what is truly of value are only those things that are actually beneficial to one's life. Those who "value" coercion, theft, obesity, or rape are trying to obtain the opposite of what a value is. Pretending such can be "values" may mask their destruction; it most assuredly does not help liberty.

Only the real exists. "Values" or "virtues" that flow from destruction are, in a strict sense, meaningless. In a similar vein, Rand often spoke of "society" in a way that some people interpret as treating society as a separate entity. But "society" as "separate entity" is meaningless, an invalid concept, i.e., not really a concept, at all. We can treat "society" as an entity in a kind of epistemological shorthand, but only as long as we remember that ultimately only individual people and their relationships exist.

A real value — one that actually exists — is not "whatever I say it is." A real virtue — one that actually exists — is not "whatever I do" to obtain my "values."

Many people today say that our government-dominated way of life is a "value," that "public service" is virtuous. They spend inordinate amounts of time obtaining what they want, but they seek a fantasy, a delusion, a ghost. In doing so, their "freedom" makes slaves of us all. The last thing such people are is virtuous.

Do not be fooled into thinking that their debased currency represents either value or virtue. Don't confuse fool's gold with the genuine article.

See Russ Madden's articles, short stories, novel excerpts, and items of interest to Objectivists, libertarians, and sci-fi fans at

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: aynrand; rand

1 posted on 07/20/2003 9:00:51 PM PDT by Sir Gawain
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To: AAABEST; Uncle Bill; Victoria Delsoul; Fiddlstix; fporretto; Free Vulcan; Liberty Teeth; Loopy; ...
2 posted on 07/20/2003 9:01:11 PM PDT by Sir Gawain (Politics is the art of lying)
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To: Sir Gawain
bump for later reading.
3 posted on 07/20/2003 9:43:47 PM PDT by lelio
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To: Sir Gawain
Truth as a matter of featherbedding. Nice.
4 posted on 07/20/2003 11:03:31 PM PDT by nunya bidness (sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas)
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To: nunya bidness
"You must have the right and responsibility to own yourself"
Dennis Murphy
5 posted on 07/20/2003 11:59:25 PM PDT by steelie (Still Right Thinking)
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To: Sir Gawain
Very good article. Thanks for posting it.
6 posted on 07/21/2003 5:20:49 AM PDT by PGalt
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To: Sir Gawain
7 posted on 07/21/2003 1:32:00 PM PDT by society-by-contract
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