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Values and the Defense of Freedom

Is faith necessary for defending natural rights, or is reason sufficient?

by
Amit Ghate

Bio

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.

As such, Rand is opposed to many modern libertarians who consider freedom to be an irreducible primary, one which justifies the choice of any “values” whatsoever. To her, it’s the other way around: she defends freedom as a consequence of man’s need to pursue rational, life-affirming values.

While the conclusion that values underlie freedom may seem superficially similar to the religious view, Rand’s account of the source and nature of those values sets them diametrically apart. (As an illustration of just how great the difference is, consider that in contrast to the Christian reverence for faith and humility, Rand counts reason and pride among her primary values and virtues.)

Yet her fundamental disagreement with the religious approach doesn’t end here; it also extends to her view of man. Many traditional religionists see the need for a “Big God” because man, in their view, is fundamentally flawed (see the doctrine of Original Sin). Because of his inherent flaws — be they greed, pride, or what have you — man can’t be trusted to do good. He must be kept in place by a supernatural Authority.

Rand, on the other hand, sides with the giants of the Enlightenment in considering man to be morally perfectible. According to her, man has in his possession the means (free will and a reasoning mind) and the incentive (the betterment of his life) to choose and practice the good. Thus, when left free, men will tend to a life of achievement. (This is borne out on a historical scale, where the freest countries were both the most productive and most moral. Think of America and the UK during the 1800s vs. any theocratic or communist state.)

In her view, freedom is both moral and practical. No top-down authority is necessary to keep man in his place, and most laws are written primarily to punish the relatively few who would choose to initiate force against others.

The debate over limited government and fiscal restraint, in Tea Parties and GOP alike, hinges on the grounding and defense of freedom. Does freedom come from the alleged endowments and pronouncements of a Judeo-Christian God, or is its source this-worldly, residing in the nature of man and his faculty of reason?

Ayn Rand offered powerful arguments for the latter view. Moreover, as she once wrote:

[T]o rest one’s case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one’s enemies — that one has no rational arguments to offer. The “conservatives” claim that their case rests on faith, means that there are no rational arguments to support the American system, no rational justification for freedom, justice, property, individual rights ….

Thus Rand not only establishes how to champion limited government without appealing to religion — she also shows why we must. Let’s heed her advice by giving our values and freedom the rational defense they deserve.

Amit Ghate began his career as a mechanical engineer but now trades stocks for a living. In his free time, when he’s not rock climbing or at the gym, he writes and maintains his blog Thrutch. He currently resides in Southern California.
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