In a recent post I argued that moral values cannot be logically derived from facts, and I made a passing reference to the notworthy attempt by Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand to prove otherwise. I say that Rand equivocates - that is, she uses the same term to mean two different things. The term in question is "life," which she takes as the standard for all moral values. Early in her argument "life" means "biological survival," but later (when applied to humans) it suddenly means "the life proper to a rational being." She has smuggled in the concept of what is "proper," what "ought" to be, when all she is entitled to talk about is what "is."
Now, it could be maintained that Rand is not equivocating because, when talking about humans, she established that reason is the way - in fact, the only way - for humans to survive. Thus a life "proper to a rational being" would be the only possible way for such a being to live at all.
Objectivists do, in fact, make this argument. Ayn Rand, they say, proved that reason is man's only means of survival.
I take issue with this. Ayn Rand did not prove any such thing; she merely asserted it. Her assertion, though accompanied by much rhetorical hand-waving, is not backed by any empirical evidence. Indeed, it is contradicted at many other points in Rand's writings. For instance, she often inveighs against the irrationality of "savages" (her term). Yet "savages," however irrational they may be, manage to survive and even sometimes to flourish. In certain circumstances, such as being stranded on a desert island, a "savage" would have a much better chance of surviving than his "civilized" counterpart. If "savages" can survive while being irrational, then rationality, however desirable it may be, is not essential to survival.
Or take an example closer to home. I would be considered irrational by Objectivists, since I hold many anti-Objectivist ideas and, even worse, am a former Objectivist who is now an apostate to the faith. Nevertheless, I am able to survive -- and in fact earn a comfortable living at a job that gives me great creative satisfaction. If I am irrational, and if Rand's assertion is correct, then how can I survive, much less flourish?
Indeed, how can anybody? How did humans ever make it through the Stone Age, or the Dark Ages, or other periods characterized by "irrationality," at least in Objectivist terms? Given that Rand described even modern-day American society as "irrational," presumably none of us should be surviving -- yet we enjoy the highest standard of living in history.
Rand is apparently aware of this problem. She tries to solve it (or, I would say, evade it) by insisting that she is not advocating "survival at any price," but only a worthwhile kind of survival, a survival that allows humans to achieve their creative and intellectual potential. This sounds persuasive, since most of us want to do more than just survive; we want to thrive.
But merely stating what we want to do is not equivalent to a reasoned argument - and Rand is not logically entitled to make this particular jump. She has previously argued that biological survival -- survival of the fittest, which can mean nothing but "survival at any price" -- is the standard for all living things. To be consistent, she must hold that "survival at any price" is the standard for humans as well. To switch to a different standard in midargument is unjustified, no matter how much polemical firepower she employs.
What Rand might have said is that reasoning is among the various modes of survival available to humans, and that in some (not all) circumstances it is the most useful mode. But this more nuanced approach is foreign to her absolutism.
In short, Rand did not prove that reason is man's only means of survival, nor could she have proven it, since the proposition, as stated, is false.
What she did was to assert that reason is man's only means of survival, and then proceed to incorporate, under the rubric of "reason," a selection of attributes she personally approved of: honesty, productivity, pride, integrity, etc. To put it more baldly, she implicitly defined rationality as "agreement with Ayn Rand" -- an approach emulated, I'm afraid, by her more ardent followers even today.
Ayn Rand is admirably clear on what "ought" to be -- but she has not derived it, by any logical proof, from what "is."