Morality, Rationality, Survival and the Law

I was having a bit of a debate with an Objectivist and we got into some questions about morality and rationality. It related to the question of suicide, and I maintained that suicide is irrational but not immoral and that the individual has the liberty to commit such an irrational act. The Objectivist asserted that irrationality is immorality. This doesn't make any sense to me. I'd say that what is moral is inherently rational, but not that what is rational is inherently moral. Likewise, I'd say that what is immoral is inherently irrational, but not that what is irrational is inherently immoral. This is not a paradox when one makes a proper distinction between a vice and a crime or between that which is unethical and that which is merely incorrect or counterproductive. A meaningful distinction between ethics and aesthetics also helps clear up any confusion in this regaurd.

Consider the implications of combining the two premises that (1) that which is irrational is inherently immoral and (2) the law should reflect morality. I can think of endless things that are irrational and harmless to others in and of themselves that should consequentially be viewed as "immoral" and be outlawed under this logic: suicide, not taking a shower, not brushing your teeth, discrimating based solely or primarily on the basis of race, to continue to associate with people who hurt or manipulate you, to smoke cigarettes and do hard drugs, to pray, to go to church, to stay up for 3 days, to starve yourself, to bite your nails, to have promiscous sex with strangers, to have a high time preference, to not take care of one's own property, to not defend oneself and to be boistrous and loud.

All of these things are irrational and many of them are unconductive to either the quality of one's life or its continued existance, but I consider none of them to be immoral and think that all of them should be permissible and legal. It's not conductive to certain ends for me to buy certain products or patronize certain service providers over other ones. It's not conductive to my long-term economic security to borrow and spend lots of money and not save. It's not conductive to my long-term health to eat a certain way. But am I "immoral" for making a mistake in judgement or for merely being stupid or for having aesthetic tastes? That's absurd. It's not "immoral" for me to make bad financial decisions or have bad eating habits. The expression of aesthetic tastes in general could be viewed as irrational. There is no rational way to justify the notion that someone has an obligation to make a certain aesthetic choice because it happens to be the most efficient towards survival or happiness or prosperity, and in the case of happiness there is no way to determine what will make someone else happy. The logical end of this kind of thinking would seem to lead to the legislation of economic preferances in the name of utility.

One might object to this reductio as absurdum by trying to make a distinction between the law and morality, by positing that the law doesn't have to reflect or be in accordance with morality, but one can only do so by opening up a pandora's box of inconsistancy and accepting the evils of legal positivism. This view holds the law to be above morality and consequentially functions as a way to make moral inconsistancies and acceptions. The inevitable consequence of taking this view is that the law is quite blatantly turned into a instrument of immorality. Using such an approach to politics, things that are immoral can be legitimized by merely appealing to its legality. Natural law, in contrast, holds the currently existing and positive law up to an independant standard of justice, derived from reason. Notice that rationality does play a role, but the natural law follows from morality. It's not the case that everything that is rational is moral and everything that is irrational is immoral. Rationality in this context is only an instrumental tool that is used to figure out what is moral and immoral. But it does not follow that everything that is a product of rationality is moral or that all irrational actions are immoral actions.

Rationality can point one to the most efficient means at achieving a desired end and it can point one to the most moral means to a desired end (and the two aren't necessarily always the same thing), but not all questions of persueing desired ends are moral questions. That's the problem. Rationality can suggest that engaging in cooperative industrial production is more efficient to my survival and general well-being to being a hunter-gatherer, but it does not follow that I have a moral obligation to choose the more efficient means. I would assert that one has the liberty to go live as a hunter-gatherer, even if it is self-destructive or nowhere near as beneficial as the alternatives, and hence there is no real moral obligation to choose to engage in industrial production. The question of whether to live as a hunter-gatherer or as an industrial worker or producer is morally irrelevant in and of itself. From my perspective, regaurdless of the utility towards life and prosperity of the choices in question, the individual essentially has free reign to choose whichever alternative they want so long as they aren't violating any ethical or metaethical principles in the process, so long as they don't force anyone else to pursue or not pursue a particular option. These become questions of personal preferance, regaurdless of any objective concerns about their utility.

It seems to me that Objectivists rely too much on the concept of survival in their ethics, which makes it take a sort of utilitarian turn. They use survival, or more broadly the achievement of desires necessary to fullfil the necessities of life, as the primarily justification for actions. That is, Objectivists essentially conclude that because liberty is necessary for survival and the achievement of certain virtues or benefits (such as happiness, prosperity and healthiness), liberty is justified because it leads to those things. However, there are some problems with this view. While liberty is a necessary condition for survival and flourishing, it does not gaurantee it. Someone could theoretically be perfectly free and not violate anyone else's rights yet be unhappy, unhealthy, uneducated and have trouble surviving. So it seems far too demanding on people to proclaim that people have an obligation to do that which is necessary to survive and benefit themselves. People have the liberty to persue their survival and happiness, and it is in their rational self-interest to do so, but they have no such obligation to do so or to choose the most efficient means to doing so.

Yes, it is irrational to not persue the continuance of one's life and improvements upon its quality. But to consider people "immoral" for not doing so or not adequately doing so seems ridiculous. It also seems to me that Objectivists extend ethics way beyond interpersonal relations and into the realm of purely personal decisions. But for me, ethics is interpersonal and thus purely personal decisions are aesthetic at best. Such purely personal decisions can be objectively evaluated as being "good for you" or "bad for you", but there is no way to genuinely make them obligatory or enforcable and an unobligatory and unenforcable ethics seems like no ethics at all. It makes no sense to proclaim that one has a moral obligation to pursue and fulfill their rational self-interest while simultaneously say that they are free to not fulfil the moral obligation. Since I think that people are free to harm themselves or to make bad personal decisions, I have no choice but to consider such actions morally neutral at best. Otherwise, the implication would be that people should be legally required to eat healthy, raise their children in a right way, read the right books and conform to an endless sea of requirements in their personal preferances.

One might object that if what I'm implying is the case, then ethics wouldn't apply to a lone man stranded on an island. My answer is: yes, ethics indeed doesn't apply to a lone man stranded on an island, because ethics has no meaning in such a scenario. There's no one else to steal from, murder, lie to, cheat, and so on. There's noone else to violate the rights of. One could do all sorts of things to further one's own survival and happiness, but morality wouldn't really come into the picture until you start introducing interpersonal relations. The choice of a man stranded on an island "to hunt or not to hunt" or "what materials should I make my home with?" has no moral significance. Such decisions are not moral decisions but purely practical ones. Morality would only come into place with such questions in terms of how it affects the rational self-interest of other people, in terms of whether or not the means one pursues in the persuit of such things violate the life, liberty and property of others.

Another problem with this erroneous conflation of rationality and morality is that it essentially implies that holding irrational thoughts is immoral in and of itself. Thought crimes! It is of course true and important to realize that ideas determine the course of history. But nonetheless it is ultimately the realization of those ideas, or at least the attempt to do so, and the means by which those ideas are implemented that is immoral. Merely believing in false or irrational ideas does not make someone immoral, and neither would they be immoral for pursueing, spreading and enacting those ideas so long as it is on a voluntary basis. Stupidity and ignorance is not immorality. Being misinformed or just flat out wrong is not immoral in and of itself. Believing in communism or the flying spagetti monster is a vice, not an immorality. Forcing communism or the church of the flying spagetti monster onto people is what would be an immorality.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is that the fetishizing of the mind and survival leads to some absurd implications and conclusions if consistantly followed through.


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