This essay was originally published in the February 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, in answer to a reader’s submission to the publication’s Intellectual Ammunition Department. It was later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).
There are certain questions that must be questioned — that is, be challenged at their root — because they consist of smuggling a false premise into the mind of a careless listener. “Who created the universe?” is one such question. “Do you still beat your wife?” is another. And so is the question above.
It comes up in many different ways, directly and indirectly. It is usually asked in some formulation such as: “Who decides what is right or wrong?”
Students of Objectivism are not likely to ask this question, but they may hear it from others and fail to understand its nature. I was astonished, however, to find it addressed to this department, in the following form: “Is it intellectual plagiarism to accept and even to use philosophical principles and values discovered by someone else?”
It may not appear to be the same question, but it is — in the sense that it comes from the same fundamental error.
The nature of the error will become apparent if one applies that question to the physical sciences: “Who decides what is right or wrong in electronics?” Or: “Is it scientific plagiarism to accept and even to use medical principles and therapeutic techniques discovered by someone else?”
It is obvious that the root of such questions is a certain kind of conceptual vacuum: the absence of the concept of objectivity in the questioner’s mind.
Objectivity is both a metaphysical and an epistemological concept. It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence. Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic). This means that although reality is immutable and, in any given context, only one answer is true, the truth is not automatically available to a human consciousness and can be obtained only by a certain mental process which is required of every man who seeks knowledge — that there is no substitute for this process, no escape from the responsibility for it, no shortcuts, no special revelations to privileged observers — and that there can be no such thing as a final “authority” in matters pertaining to human knowledge. Metaphysically, the only authority is reality; epistemologically — one’s own mind. The first is the ultimate arbiter of the second.
The concept of objectivity contains the reason why the question, “Who decides what is right or wrong?” is wrong. Nobody “decides.” Nature does not decide — it merely is; man does not decide, in issues of knowledge, he merely observes that which is. When it comes to applying his knowledge, man decides what he chooses to do, according to what he has learned, remembering that the basic principle of rational action in all aspects of human existence, is: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that man does not create reality and can achieve his values only by making his decisions consonant with the facts of reality.
Who “decides” what is the right way to make an automobile, to cure an illness or to live one’s life? Any man who cares to acquire the appropriate knowledge and to judge, at and for his own risk and sake. What is his criterion of judgment? Reason. What is his ultimate frame of reference? Reality. If he errs or evades, who penalizes him? Reality.
It took centuries (and the influence of Aristotle) for men to acquire a precarious hold on the concept of objectivity in regard to the physical sciences. How precarious that hold actually is, can be observed in the fact that most men are incapable of extending that concept to all human knowledge including the so-called humanities, the sciences dealing with man. In regard to the humanities, consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, most people revert to the epistemology of prehistorical savages, i.e., to subjectivism.
Subjectivism is the belief that reality is not a firm absolute, but a fluid, plastic, indeterminate realm which can be altered, in whole or in part, by the consciousness of the perceiver — i.e., by his feelings, wishes or whims. It is the doctrine which holds that man — an entity of a specific nature, dealing with a universe of a specific nature — can, somehow, live, act, and achieve his goals apart from and/or in contradiction to the facts of reality, i.e., apart from and/or in contradiction to his own nature and the nature of the universe. (This is the “mixed,” moderate or middle-of-the-road version of subjectivism. Pure or “extreme” subjectivism does not recognize the concept of identity, i.e., the fact that man or the universe or anything possesses a specific nature.)
Morality has been the monopoly of mystics, i.e., of subjectivists, for centuries — a monopoly reinforced and reaffirmed by the neo-mystics of modern philosophy. The clash between the two dominant schools of ethics, the mystical and the social, is only a clash between personal subjectivism and social subjectivism: one substitutes the supernatural for the objective, the other substitutes the collective for the objective. Both are savagely united against the introduction of objectivity into the realm of ethics.
Most men, therefore, find it particularly difficult to regard ethics as a science and to grasp the concept of a rational, objective ethics that leaves no room for anyone’s arbitrary “decision.”
Subjectivism is the smuggled premise at the root of both variants of the question under discussion. Superficially, the two variants may appear to come from opposite motives. Actually, they are two sides of the same subjectivist coin.
The man who asks: “Who decides what is right or wrong?” is obviously a subjectivist who believes that reality is ruled by human whims and who seeks to escape from the responsibility of independent judgment by one of two means: either by cynicism or by blind faith, either by negating the validity of all moral standards or by looking for an “authority” to obey.
But the man who asks: “Is it intellectual plagiarism to accept and even to use philosophical principles and values discovered by someone else?” is not a sovereign consciousness seeking independence from others, as he wants to make himself appear. He has no better grasp of objectivity than the first man; he is a subjectivist who sees reality as a contest of whims and wants it to be ruled by his whims — which he proposes to accomplish by discarding as false everything discovered by others. His primary concern, in regard to philosophical principles, is not: “Is it true or false?” but: “Who discovered it?”
On such a premise, he would have to make fire by rubbing sticks together (if he discovers that much), since he is not Edison and cannot accept electric light. He would have to maintain that the earth is flat, since Columbus beat him to the demonstration of its shape. He would have to advocate statism, since he is not Adam Smith. And he would have to discard the laws of logic, since he is obviously not Aristotle.
The division of labor in the pursuit of knowledge — the fact that men can transmit knowledge and learn from one another’s discoveries — is one of man’s great advantages over all other living species. Only a subjectivist, who equates facts with arbitrary assertions, could imagine that to “learn” means to “accept on faith” — as this questioner seems to imply.
It is also possible that the motive of such a mentality is the wish not to discard the ideas of others, but to appropriate them. “Plagiarism” is a concept that pertains, not to the acceptance, but to the authorship of an idea. Needless to say, to accept someone’s idea and then to pose as its originator is plagiarism of the lowest order. But this has nothing to do with a legitimate, rational process of learning. The truth of an idea and its authorship are two separate issues, which are not difficult to keep apart.
This particular variant of the question was worth noting only as an extreme example of subjectivism — of the degree to which ideas have no reality and no connection to reality in a subjectivist’s mind. It is an illustration of the extent to which the concept of objectivity is still alien to a great many men, and of the extent to which mankind needs it.
Observe that most modern collectivists — the alleged advocates of human brotherhood, benevolence, and cooperation — are committed to subjectivism in the humanities. Yet reason — and, therefore, objectivity — is the only common bond among men, the only means of communication, the only universal frame of reference and criterion of justice. No understanding, communication, or cooperation is possible to men on the basis of unintelligible feelings and subjective “urges”; nothing is possible but a contest of whims resolved by the rule of brute force.
In politics, the subjectivist question of “Who ‘decides’?” comes up in many forms. It leads many alleged champions of freedom to the notion that “the will of the people” or of the majority is the ultimate sanction of a free society, which is a contradiction in terms, since such a sanction represents the doctrine of unlimited majority rule.
The answer, here as in all other moral-intellectual problems, is that nobody “decides.” Reason and reality are the only valid criteria of political theories. Who determines which theory is true? Any man who can prove it.
Theories, ideas, discoveries are not created collectively; they are the products of individual men. In politics, as in every other field of human endeavor, a group can only accept or reject a product (or a theory); it cannot, qua group, participate in its creation. The participants are those who choose that particular field of activity, each to the extent of his ability and ambition. And when men are free, irrational theories can win only temporarily and only through the errors or the default of the thinkers, i.e., of those who do seek the truth.
In politics, as in every other field, the men who do not care to think are merely ballast: they accept, by default, whatever the intellectual leaders of the moment have to offer. To the extent to which men do think, they follow the man who offers the best (i.e., the most rational) idea. This does not happen instantaneously or automatically or in every specific case and detail, but this is the way knowledge spreads among men, and this has been the pattern of mankind’s progress. The best proof of the power of ideas — the power of reason for men of all levels of intelligence — is the fact that no dictatorship was ever able to last without establishing censorship.
The number of its adherents is irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of an idea. A majority is as fallible as a minority or as an individual man. A majority vote is not an epistemological validation of an idea. Voting is merely a proper political device — within a strictly, constitutionally delimited sphere of action — for choosing the practical means of implementing a society’s basic principles. But those principles are not determined by vote. By whom, then, are they determined? By the facts of reality — as identified by those thinkers who chose the field of political philosophy. This was the pattern of the greatest political achievement in history: the American Revolution.
In this connection, it is important to note the epistemological significance of a free society. In a free society, the pursuit of truth is protected by the free access of any individual to any field of endeavor he may choose to enter. (A free access does not mean a guarantee of success, or of financial support, or of anyone’s acceptance and agreement — it means the absence of any forced restrictions or legal barriers.) This prevents the formation of any coercive “elite” in any profession — it prevents the legalized enforcement of a “monopoly on truth” by any gang of power seekers — it protects the free market place of ideas — it keeps all doors open to man’s inquiring mind.
Who “decides”? In politics, in ethics, in art, in science, in philosophy — in the entire realm of human knowledge — it is reality that sets the terms, through the work of those men who are able to identify its terms and to translate them into objective principles.