Values and the Defense of Freedom
Is faith necessary for defending natural rights, or is reason sufficient?
October 9, 2010 - 12:00 am
In the wake of the recent Values Voter Summit, a worrisome question arises: will the Tea Parties or a reformed GOP be able to champion limited government and fiscal responsibility, without also importing the religious right’s so-called “social values”?
HotAir’s Allahpundit raises this issue, noting that speakers at the summit repeatedly asserted the idea that limited government must ultimately be based on religious beliefs — on the existence of a “Big God.” Uncomfortable with these assertions and searching for a better, secular defense of freedom, Allahpundit asks how Objectivists (adherents of Ayn Rand’s philosophy) would respond.
It’s a perceptive question. Though many recognize Rand as a stalwart defender of freedom, few appreciate how radically her defense differs from that of traditional religionists. Key to her innovative approach is an original conception of values and morality — one which ultimately puts her at odds with much of the religious program.
How then might she respond to the religionists’ claims? Though of course no one can speak for her, I imagine that she might begin by challenging a common misconception, one that can be gleaned from listening to speakers at the Values Voter Summit: viz. that religion has a monopoly on values. According to them, either you’re religious and have values, or you’re non-religious and don’t. But this, Rand would argue, is a false dichotomy. The choice isn’t between Judeo-Christian values and nothing; it’s between various conceptions of values, e.g., values derived from faith vs. values grounded in reason.
As an example of the latter, she’d offer her own system of ethics. Its essentials were first presented in a seminal essay where she began by asking: what are values and why does man need them? Her answer is rooted in biological facts. Values — from the most basic ones like food and shelter; to the most sublime, like love, art, and self-esteem — are necessary for man’s life on Earth. As autonomous rational living beings, each of us needs a whole host of values to live the fulfilling life appropriate to man.
In effect, Ayn Rand argues, values reflect the objective requirements of life; they’re not generated by the commandments and whims of some ineffable being. Accordingly, values can — and must — be rationally discovered, evaluated, defined, and defended.
But though values are objective, they’re far from obvious or innate. Beyond the simplest ones like the need for food and warmth which we recognize through direct sensory feedback, determining our values takes thought and work. Consider, for example, the process of discovery necessary for each of us to decide what type of person would “complete” us in a romantic relationship, or what type of long-term career to adopt. Likewise, the problem of prioritizing and integrating our values requires serious reflection and identification. (Is the value of watching a football game more or less important than taking time to write this opinion piece? Is purchasing a new car more valuable to me than other things I could do with the money?)
Given these questions and challenges, we need a science to help provide us with the knowledge and guidance required to identify, codify, and achieve our values. That science is morality.
Rand fleshes out this new conception of morality with a series of detailed arguments and broad historical observations (like the cultural flourishing of ancient Greece and the enormous prosperity engendered by the Industrial Revolution). From these she concludes that, more than anything else, choosing and achieving values requires unswerving rational thought and productive effort. And what conditions are required to exercise these? The absolute freedom to think and act. This, she argues, is the line of reasoning required to defend freedom and individual rights.