If God does not exist, everything is permitted – this is the belief of Ivan Karamazov, a fictional character from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” and is similarly held by people who conventionally encounter the issue of morality. When addressing moral systems, particularly in introductory philosophy courses, the alternative presented to students is often the following: Either God’s existence leads to moral facts and principles of right and wrong, or morality is whatever a person or society desires it to be.
But the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism begs to differ, and claims such an alternative is a false dichotomy. There exists an intelligible, objective system of ethics independent of some supernatural or societal will or whim. Though explaining such an ethical system is a task that’s beyond the scope of this article, it is possible to sketch out some aspects of this moral code.
The purpose of morality is to guide human beings on how to live properly and act with certain principles in order to achieve certain goals – thereby advancing their own lives. Since we only live once, morality would guide us in living this life to the fullest.
Establishing what “living life to the fullest” means may be quite difficult, and can legitimately vary among individuals. While the “good life” could be that of a surgeon with a loving family for one person, for another it could be that of an academic philosopher with a few close friends. The long and practically unlimited number of objects, relationships, careers and activities that people think a flourishing life would involve necessitate that we apply our minds to discover what is valuable to us. The ability of our mind to reason allows us to determine what things contribute or detract from our livelihood. From there we can choose to act in order to gain the things that are beneficial and avoid those which are harmful. Rationality – or the use of reason – would then be a key requirement for a rich life.
Rationality insists that we use our own minds – our tool to reason – to determine what is valuable. The rejection of the supernatural, the mystical and all that is arbitrary is essential. Hence, a proper morality is secular. Religions tend to substitute sweeping dictates for independent judgment, which are to be followed on faith. But such independent judgment is crucial for understanding what we individually want out of life. Since we need to judge certain facts to live prosperously, accepting anything on faith would be antithetical to living a life of fulfillment, joy and happiness.
Since morality acts as a guide to live a life of prosperity, its role then is to guide every single one of us in fostering our own self-interests. Hence, such a proper morality supports egoism. An egoist is simply a person concerned with his or her own interests. Egoism is an essential aspect of this morality because it fulfills the self-interests and goals that constitute the good life, whether those interests involve dream jobs, romantic partners or medication for an illness.
The last requirement of the good life and an objective morality is freedom. Freedom here means freedom from force, where force can come in the form of a fist, a gun, fraud or a number of other variants of coercion. Freedom is essential to prosperity because force can halt our ability to act on our thoughts, and in the extreme it can destroy our interests and lives.
Religious faith conflicts with every principle of a proper moral code, whether it’s the blind subjugation to arbitrary dictates or the draconian terror of religious crusades. To discover how and why this is so, the UMSO insists that you attend its lecture “Religion vs. Morality” with lecturer Dr. Andrew Bernstein, which will be presented today at 8 p.m. in Angell Hall Aud. C.
Andrew Sardone is an LSA senior and Roderick Fitts is an LSA sophomore. Sardone is president and Fitts is vice-president of Students for Objectivism.