The Objectivist ethics begins with a fundamental question: why is ethics necessary?
The answer lies in man's nature as a living organism. A living organism has to act in the face of a constant alternative: life or death. Life is conditional; it can be sustained only by a specific course of action performed by the living organism, such as the actions of obtaining food. In this regard plants and animals have no choice: within the limits of their powers, they take automatically the actions their life requires. Man does have a choice. He does not know automatically what actions will sustain him; if he is to survive he must discover, then practice by choice, a code of values and virtues, the specific code which human life requires. The purpose of ethics is to define such a code.
Objectivism is the first philosophy to identify the relationship between life and moral values. "Ethics," writes Ayn Rand, "is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man's survival—not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life."
The standard of ethics, required by the nature of reality and the nature of man, is Man's Life. "All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil."
"Man's mind," states John Galt, the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged,
is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch—or build a cyclotron—without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.
Thinking is not an automatic process. A man can choose to think or to let his mind stagnate, or he can choose actively to turn against his intelligence, to evade his knowledge, to subvert his reason. If he refuses to think, he courts disaster: he cannot with impunity reject his means of perceiving reality.
Thinking is a delicate, difficult process, which man cannot perform unless knowledge is his goal, logic is his method, and the judgment of his mind is his guiding absolute. Thought requires selfishness, the fundamental selfishness of a rational faculty that places nothing above the integrity of its own function.
A man cannot think if he places something—anything—above his perception of reality. He cannot follow the evidence unswervingly or uphold his conclusions intransigently, while regarding compliance with other men as his moral imperative, self-abasement as his highest virtue, and sacrifice as his primary duty. He cannot use his brain while surrendering his sovereignty over it, i.e., while accepting his neighbors as its owner and term-setter.
Men learn from others, they build on the work of their predecessors, they achieve by cooperation feats that would be impossible on a desert island. But all such social relationships require the exercise of the human faculty of cognition; they depend on the solitary individual, "solitary" in the primary, inner sense of the term, the sense of a man facing reality firsthand, seeking not to crucify himself on the cross of others or to accept their word as an act of faith, but to understand, to connect, to know.
Man's mind requires selfishness, and so does his life in every aspect: a living organism has to be the beneficiary of its own actions. It has to pursue specific objects—for itself, for its own sake and survival. Life requires the gaining of values, not their loss; achievement, not renunciation; self-preservation, not self-sacrifice. Man can choose to value and pursue self-immolation, but he cannot survive or prosper by such a method.
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The Philosophy of Objectivism: A Brief Summary