Reason as the Leading Motive

Enforcing Moral Values

Posted by Jerry on June 27, 2007

Can a value be universally considered so good that it would be justified to ensure that everyone values it and–if need be–enforce that valuation by legislative force?

For example, if we all realize that religion, irrationality, and mysticism are harmful to human survival, would it be justified to codify the valuation of reason, atheism, and rationality into law? What if we realize that human life is the standard of all values and one’s own life should be one’s greatest value, then should we codify this principle into law–enforce it in such a way that it would be illegal for someone to deny his life as a value or commit suicide?

The answer to each of these questions is, emphatically, No!

Nothing justifies valuation by force, and in fact the two concepts are contradictory and nullify each other. As a value-oriented and value-directed philosophy, Objectivism points out that the concept “value” presupposes an individual’s choice in the matter. There is no value without a volitional agent freely choosing it. A value–by Objectivist definition–is a *chosen* goal or desire; it can be neither enforced nor intrinsic. It is the attribute of choice (volition) that gives rise to the need for morality and ethics and makes a chosen end either a value or a vice in relation to a man’s life.

Having said that, individuals are free to arbitrarily choose this or that as a value–however, they do so at their own peril. The nature of existence and man, and the requirements of man’s nature, impose upon him certain moral obligations to choose only those ends that can further and enhance his survival; these chosen ends can then be properly regard as “values” to him; if he chooses to ignore these metaphysical requirements of his survival, then he is doing it at the cost of his own life.

But enforcing any value–no matter how objectively derived these values may be–undercuts the entire meaning of values in the first place; it is like taking the valuing out of value. If an individual is not the agent of valuation but merely the receptacle of handed-down values, then his actions in pursuit of these values will neither be volitional nor consistent–and those actions could not properly be regarded as virtues.

If an individual has no reason to hold a value other than because it is mandated by law, then he will also have little or no knowledge of how to pursue and maintain that value nor any incentive to discover the reasons; in other words, he will not know what is a virtuous life and how to lead it nor will he care to learn of it. He will seek further mandated guidance in the realm of virtues, thoughts, and actions. This breeding of intellectual laziness entrusts the job of thinking to others; thus, man comes to believe that philosophy and ethics are removed from and unconnected to his life because he is only concerned with the mundane concretes of his daily life.

This encroachment of force in the most personal, moral, and ethical aspects of a man’s life results in the complete invalidation of man as a free and volition being–thus, making man a mindless instrument of enforced morality, which is not morality at all in the first place.

However, this is precisely what is being attempted by legislations across the world. Governments have assumed the role of a moral authority and have begun passing down moral laws–what it considers as being in the benefit of the “greater human family.” The government has replaced the individual as the moral and causal agent. In fact, some intellectuals and lay people consider this the proper role of the government: since man cannot be trusted or is intellectually incapable of making the right choices in morality, he must be forced to do so by law.

This was already attempted by the Communists when they enforced atheism and charity (equitable distribution) by law. This is increasingly being practiced by other governments who try to enforce and monitor morality in free speech communications (e.g., fair speech), television, media, internet, books, blogs, etc. Similarly, there are governments passing laws against gay marriages, pornography, drugs, prostitution, suicide, stem cell research, abortion, and euthanasia; laws extending rights to animals, enforcing health care for everyone, demanding “Corporate Social Responsibility” or “public disclosure”; laws against racist or hate speech; and many others.

These are examples of the government’s infiltration into the domain of man’s morality, i.e., into the realm of his values and virtues. By making it illegal for a person to indulge in drugs or prostitution, the government has already undercut any attempts by him to *choose* a moral or virtuous action in regard to the matter. Thus, even though man could engage in or avoid drugs and prostitution despite the laws, his process of deliberation on the matter is heavily burdened by ramifications outside his internal and consciously chosen moral value system. Thus, for him, his life becomes not a personally and consciously chosen value (for which reason he avoids drugs) but something thrust upon him by external forces–and who is he to deny his own life as a value? He has no right to his own life–neither to live nor to commit suicide. (Of course, when a rational man guided by a consciously rational philosophy chooses to avoid drugs, he does it not because the laws mandate it but because his moral value system does. Such laws are meaningless to him; he is directed not by the laws but by his philosophy, and he properly agitates for the repeal of such laws.)

Indeed, enforced morality breeds intellectual laziness, which results in man becoming more prone to immoral acts; with the lack of principles and a consciously chosen system of values, man becomes incompetent at evaluating the morality of his own actions in the face of every concrete scenario and becomes chronically dependent on the government for guidance–thus, legitimizing and sustaining the government’s claim as a moral authority.

The enforcement of morality reduces the conceptual mind of an adult to the level of a child’s undeveloped mind. Just as a child is given moral commands (do this, don’t do that, don’t say this, don’t watch that, etc.), so is an adult given moral commands to follow with the only reason being “Because we said so.” This command, which attempts to invalidate man as a moral and volitional being is, in essence, the sole justification for the morality preached by intellectuals, advocated by philosophers, enforced by the governments today.

“The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.” Ayn Rand


6 Responses to “Enforcing Moral Values”

  1. mahendrap said

    This is an excellent post! This is a very real, important principle on an issue that needs to be voiced to larger sections of society everywhere.

    Governments are taking morality into their hands, assuming that human beings will act irrationally or immorally, and helping spread intellectual impotence within society.

    I was a bit surprised there were no comments on this important post. Thanks, Ergo, for elucidating it so emphatically.

  2. Ergo said

    Thanks Mahendrap!

    Ya, I think my readers have an extremely high expectation of my posts to make it worthy of their comments! 🙂 But I won’t complain of their silence because these are precisely the kind of readers I like–they push me to set a high threshold of intellectual quality on my posts. It’s better than having a comment thread filled with irrational ramblings or rants (for an example of that, see any comment thread on Desicritics! It’s a cesspool, I tell ya! :))

  3. […] To claim that the government can punish a man for his ideas is to grant the government legitimacy as a moral arbiter. Once this is granted to the government, it is only a matter of a few more rationalistic deductions thereafter to argue that the government should get into the business of ideological advocacy or suppression, i.e., become the thought police of society, or institute a communist state (see “Enforcing Moral Values“). […]

  4. Ergo said

    In a private e-mail, I was asked the following question, which I thought was a good identification of some ambiguity in my post above. Here is the question and my response to it:

    In the 4th paragraph you say that value is a *chosen* goal or desire – but this isn’t true for animal values is it?

    All living creatures have values. An object is of value in relation to the living creature that acts to acquire it or protect it. In this sense, grass is of value to cows. However, note here that the jump from values to *moral* values (i.e., pursuing a value that is good for you in a moral sense of the word) requires some *choice* in the matter; and this ability of choosing values is only unique to human beings. Hence, values are most pertinent to morality in the context of human actions, and morality is only applicable to human beings.

    To the cow, the grass is of value, but the cow has no choice in the matter. Thus, the grass is good (i.e., of value) to the cow in the most generic, life-sustaining sense of the word.

    Morality–according to Objectivism–is applicable only to a conscious agent who has the ability to choose, is *free* from force or threat to choose, and has alternatives from which to choose.

    This is why values are meaningful–in a *moral* sense of the word–only when it is chosen. If we are talking about values divorced from choice (like values pursued by animals), then we are not having discussion on morality, but merely on the *amoral* state of affairs in nature. The title of my post clearly states that the values under discussion here are *moral* values (possible only to human beings), not *amoral* or generic or prudent values.

  5. […] quote, I can’t help but be reminded of my own article, written some time ago, titled “Enforcing Moral Values“. In the article, I explained how the government–by interfering in the private affairs […]

  6. […] have the government enforcing moral values upon you, making moral decisions on your behalf, and distributing a regular monetary allowance to you, then […]

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