This lecture was delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on April 24, 1988, then published in the February 27, 1989, issue of The Intellectual Activist and later anthologized in Why Businessmen Need Philosophy: The Capitalist’s Guide to the Ideas Behind Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (2011).
There is no bromide more common today than the statement that we live in a “complex” world. Whatever the subject of discussion, this claim is routinely offered at the outset as a kind of magic incantation and all-purpose depressant. Its effect is not to inspire people to think, but to induce a sense of helplessness, weariness, hopelessness. It is used not to solve problems, but to assure people that there are no solutions.
The past, our cultural spokesmen often suggest, was different; once upon a time we could find answers to our questions and know what to do, but no longer. Life is just too complicated now for — here is the dread word — “simple” answers. The word “simple” itself has become the basis of a whole new condemnation, contained in the modern term “simplistic.” When I argue with people, I hear all kinds of attacks from them thanks to my Objectivist views — I am selfish, impractical, too idealistic, atheistic — but the commonest attack by far is: you are being “simplistic.”
“Simplistic” is not the same as “oversimplified.” If you accuse someone of “oversimplifying,” you imply that it is all right to simplify, but that one must do it rationally, not leaving out important factors. The modern charge “simplistic” conveys the notion that it is not merely an issue of some omitted factor; it implies that the simple, the simple as such, is naive, unrealistic, bad. The term is an anti-concept intended to smuggle into our minds this idea: you have simplified something and by that very fact you have erred, distorted, done wrong. This amounts to legislating simplicity out of existence. I call this attitude “complexity-worship” — and it is everywhere today.
How should we deal with all the “complex” situations we encounter, according to the conventional wisdom? The answer implicit in today’s practice is: by disintegration. That is: break up the initial problem into many parts, then throw most out as too complicated to consider now, then throw some more out. Keep eliminating aspects until finally you get a narrow concrete left on the table to argue about.
Suppose, for example, that some American businessmen are upset about Japanese sales in the U.S., which they feel are cutting into their own sales, and they go to the government for relief. Of course, if they came to me, I would say: you must decide whether you advocate the principle of free trade or the principle of protectionism. Then I would offer a proof of the evils of protectionism, showing why it will harm everyone in the long run, American businessmen included, and why the principle of free trade will ultimately benefit everyone. That would be the end of the dilemma, and the people demanding tariffs would be sent home packing.
But this kind of analysis would be ruled out today by any congressional committee or academic commission studying economic problems. We cannot be “simplistic,” they would say; we cannot talk in generalities like “free trade” or “protectionism.” How, they would ask, can we possibly make sweeping statements on this level, which involve every country, every product, every group of consumers and producers, every era of history? Life is just too complex for that. What then do we do in the face of such complexity? Basically, they answer, we have to narrow our focus profoundly. We must not talk about free trade in general, but free trade with Japan — and not Japanese industry as a whole, of course, but only Japanese cars; we’ll have to leave computers and TV sets for another committee to wrestle with. And we’ll have to leave trucks out, since that introduces too many tricky factors; automobiles are enough to worry about — but maybe we should include small pickup trucks, because they’re pretty close to cars; let’s farm that one out to a subcommittee to study separately — and of course we’re not talking about forever here or even ten years. We’ll confine ourselves to a year, say, or even just this season, and we’ll renegotiate the issue the next go-round. In the end, the question being debated is not: should we adopt a policy of free trade with foreign countries? but rather: should we place a 30 percent import duty on certain kinds of Toyotas and Datsuns for the next six months?
Now, we are told, the question is not “simplistic.” Unfortunately, now it is also not rationally answerable. How is one to decide what to do in this case, once one has thrown out the appeal to principles as naive? The answer is: you hold hearings, and all the lobbyists involved scream, bribe or make threats, and everybody offers contradictory compromises. The Toyota people say that 30 percent is unfair, but if we cut it to 20 percent they will try “voluntarily” to sell less in the U.S. The Chrysler people insist that this is not good enough, but maybe they can pay their workers more if Toyota is really squelched — so the labor unions jump in and demand a crackdown on Toyota, while the consumer groups are busy demanding more of the cheaper Japanese cars. What finally comes out of it all? Some range-of-the-moment deal — a “moderate” squeeze on the Japanese answered by a new Japanese retaliation against us, a new government subsidy to Detroit, a new agency to help consumers finance auto loans, a bigger budget deficit and another committee to review the whole situation next month or year. After all, we are told, no policy is set in stone. There are no absolutes. We have to be “flexible” and “experimental.”
Philosophically, this is called pragmatism. In this approach, there are no principles, like “free trade” or “protectionism”; there are only concretes, like Toyotas or Chryslers, and groups of people who fight over them with opposite desires. So the only solution is to find some temporary expedient that will appease the loudest screamers for the moment — and then take a drink until the whole mess erupts again.
It is no wonder that people who employ this method believe that life is complex and that there are no answers to any problems. Yet the paradox is that they use this method because, they insist, life is too complex for us to rely on principles.
Some philosophical thought is clearly in order here. Is life complex? If so, does man have a rational (as against a pragmatic) means of dealing with its complexity? If so, do our leaders fail as badly as they do because they are rejecting man’s proper means of dealing with complexity? My answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. My thesis this evening is: life is complicated, enormously so; but man has a conceptual faculty, a faculty of forming principles, which is specifically his weapon for coping with complexity. Yet our leaders, thanks to centuries of bad philosophy, distrust and reject this faculty, and are therefore helpless to lead or to know what to do.
Let us begin by defining “complex.” “Complex” is a quantitative idea; the “complex” is that which involves many elements or units, all tied together or interrelated. The “simple,” by contrast is that which involves one, or at most a few, units. For example: if the officials of the Ford Hall Forum want to attract a large audience, they have to grapple with many different issues: whom should they invite? does he have to be famous? what should he speak about? will he agree to come? can he condense his talk into 50 minutes? how will he fit into the rest of the year’s program? This is a relatively complex problem. By contrast, if the audience is here on the night of the talk, clamoring at the doors, and someone inside asks: what do we do now? — that is a simple problem, the solution being to open the doors and let the people in. Here we have no complexity; there is only one element to deal with.
Now the first thing to note is that human life is inherently complex. Contrary to all the propaganda we hear, this is not a distinctively modern problem. It is not a result of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of population or the fact of worldwide communication. All these developments have brought certain new factors into our lives, but they have also removed problems. They have given each of us in many contexts fewer units to think about and have thus made life simpler. Consider, for example, the utter simplicity of feeding yourself today via a trip to the supermarket to buy some frozen food, as against the situation in medieval days. Think how many different questions and separate tasks would have been involved in that era for you merely to reach the point of having a dinner on the table fit to eat.
Man’s life is complex in every era, industrial or not. He always has countless choices to make, he has the whole world spread before him, he must continually make decisions and weigh results keeping in mind a multiplicity of factors. Even in the most primitive times, the caveman had to decide what to hunt, what risks to take, what weapons to use, how to make them, how to protect his kill, how to store, preserve, apportion it. And he had to do all this long before there was any science, long before there were any rulebooks to guide him in all these activities. In his context of knowledge, stalking his prey was an enormous complexity, no easier for him than our hardest problems in our advanced context are for us to solve.
‘‘Simplicity,” in the absolute sense, is the prerogative only of animals. Animals function automatically to sustain themselves; they are programmed to act in certain ways without the need to work, produce wealth, choose among alternatives, weigh results. They merely react to some dominant sensation in a given situation; a dog, for instance, smells his bone and runs to get it. What could be simpler? But man cannot survive by reacting mindlessly to sensations.
No human being can escape the problem of dealing with complexity and somehow making it simple and therefore manageable. This applies to the modern pragmatists, too, who make such a fetish of complexity. But they try to solve the problem by reverting to the animal level — by narrowing their focus to some isolated concrete, like the dog reacting to the smell of a bone, while evading all the other concretes to which it is connected in reality. They solve the problem of complexity by throwing out vast amounts of relevant information, thereby reducing themselves to helplessness.
The proper, human method is the exact opposite. We need to retain all the data we can — the more facts we can keep in mind in making any decision, the better off we are — but we need to retain all these facts in a form we can deal with. We can’t be expected to read or rattle off to ourselves, before every action, a whole encyclopedia of past human experiences, or even a single volume of tips, rules and practical suggestions. Somehow we must gather and retain a wealth of information, but in a condensed form. This is exactly what is accomplished by the distinctively human faculty, the conceptual faculty — another name for which is “reason.”
Concepts are man’s means of condensing information. They are his means of unit-reduction. They are his means of converting the complex into the simple, while nevertheless losing no information in the process.
If I utter the statement “All men are mortal,” for example, none of you has any trouble in understanding and applying it. You know what it means for your own life, you make up wills and buy insurance policies to cover the practical contingencies it involves, and you know that mortality applies to all men, past, present, and future. Here is a tremendous wealth of data — information about an unlimited number of units, stretching across the globe from pre-history into the endless future, wherever there were, are or will be men; and yet you have no trouble retaining this vast scale of information in the form of the few words “All men are mortal.” Do you do it by elimination, by narrowing your focus to only one or two men and brushing the rest aside as too complicated? Do you merely look at yourself and a few friends, then say: “I can’t deal with the others now, life is too complicated, I’ll appoint a subcommittee to worry about the rest”?
On the contrary, the key is precisely that you take all the units involved in “man” — you retain all the countless real-life instances, including the ones you’ve never seen and never will, and you put them together into a single new unit, the term “man,” which integrates the totality. You accomplish this feat by processing your perceptual data — by asking: what do various entities have in common? what is essential to them? what differentiates them from the other things I see? In the process, you grasp that, in contrast to other creatures, men all share a certain kind of consciousness, the faculty of reason. So you set aside all the differences among men — including height, hair color, fingerprints, intelligence — and you reach the idea of a rational being, and then designate this by a single word. The result is a vast complexity turned into a simplicity, into a single unit. Now you have the ability to focus, in one frame of awareness, on all the cases to which it applies. You can know truths about all of them, and because they come under “man,” they are subsumed by the concept.
Against this background, let us look specifically at principles. A principle is a basic generalization. It is a conceptual statement integrating a wealth of information about all kinds of concretes that we otherwise would be helpless to deal with or keep in mind. Yet we are able to do it by reducing this information to a few words or even just a few letters, like “e = mc2.” A principle is man’s major form of using concepts — using them to reduce the complexity facing him while retaining all the information that is essential for successful action.
There are principles in every field of human endeavor, and men rely on them continually. There are principles of physics, of chemistry, of agriculture — even principles of effective public speaking, which take countless experiences of past speakers and the effects they have, positive and negative, with countless different topics, on countless different audiences, and condense it all into brief, intelligible rules to guide future speakers (such as: “motivate your audience” and “give examples”).
In all these fields, principles are not controversial. Reason has been allowed to perform its proper function and has been seen to be indispensable. In these fields, principles are not asked to compete with tea-leaf readings or with divine revelations.
But in the field of morality, the situation, tragically, is the opposite. In the realm of the humanities, we are still in the age of pre-reason. As a result, people do not see the need of concepts to decide moral questions. They do not see that the reason we need moral principles is the same reason we need principles in every realm.
A moral principle is a basic conceptual statement enabling us to choose the right course of action. A proper morality takes into account all the real-life choices men must make. It tells us the consequences to expect from the different choices facing us. It organizes all such information for us, by selecting the essentials; it integrates all the data into a handful of basic rules that we can easily keep in mind, deal with and live by — just as a single concept, “man,” integrates all its instances into a single unit.
If you had no concept of “man,” you could not decide whether a new entity you meet is a man or not. If he were a lot taller and blonder than anyone you had seen so far, say, you would stare in confusion — until you decided what is essential to being a man, i.e., until you conceptualized the relevant data. The same applies to evaluating an action. If you have no moral principles telling you which acts are right and which are wrong, or what is essential to judging a given situation and what is irrelevant, how are you to know what to do and what to avoid?
There are two opposite approaches to moral questions: the principled approach vs. the pragmatist approach. The one tries to integrate, the other to disintegrate. The one tries to broaden the data an individual works with, to draw on all the relevant knowledge man has accumulated, to gain a larger vision and context for the answer to the question — which can be achieved only by invoking man’s means of condensing data, concepts. The other tries to narrow the data base, to shrink the subject to the animal level, to reduce the units by staring only at some isolated percepts.
Suppose, for example, I ask: should one rob a bank?
In pattern, the conceptual individual thinks: “A bank is someone’s property.” Here we see from the very outset the broadening of perspective — he is looking for the abstraction a bank falls under, the concept that names its essence in this context: property. And he grasps that in this respect a bank is just like a home or a machine or a book or a pair of shoes: it is a creation that does not grow on trees, but has to be produced by somebody. Which at once opens his mind to a flood of new data — to everything he knows about the source of books, shoes, banks and the rest: that they presuppose knowledge, inventiveness, independent judgment, focus, work. All these observations are integrated and retained in his mind through a simple principle: “Property is a product of human thought and effort.” From which it becomes apparent that, if men wish to live, they must have title to their product, they need the right to keep and use the results of their effort. This — the right to property — is another principle, which condenses and subsumes all our knowledge of the destructive results of depriving men of their property, not only through bank robbery, but through a thousand other methods besides: it covers what happens when men break-and-enter private homes, or raid farms, or establish socialist states, or plagiarize manuscripts or steal hubcaps. By the device of conceptualizing the action of bank-robbing — i.e., reducing it to essentials and bringing it under principles — we know how to evaluate it. We know that if such behavior is condoned or permitted, the principle involved will lead in the long run to destruction.
The pattern is clear. We are confronted by a concrete — bank-robbing — and we deal with it by considering only a relatively few units, the few principles I mentioned. Yet these contain all the information we have ever gathered about the relevant requirements of human life. So we reach an immediate, decisive answer.
Now, by contrast, ask a pragmatist mentality: should I rob a bank? — and his first move is not to conceptualize, but to particularize. The immediate question that comes to his mind is: which bank are we talking about? Chase Manhattan? The 42nd St. branch? Let’s not be “vague” and “simplistic” about this. And how much do you propose to steal? he wants to know; a big bank might not even miss $10,000. And who will you use the money for — yourself, AIDS victims, the poor? Now where are we? Having moved in this direction, having disintegrated the question and treated each bank as a unique case, how is he to decide what to do? You know how — precisely the way bank robbers do decide. They ask: can I get away with it? Or, more exactly: do I feel like trying to get away with it today? Once a man abandons principles, once he dismisses as naive generalities such abstract concepts as ownership, property rights, honesty, justice, there is no way to decide concrete cases except by arbitrary feeling — either his own feeling or that of a group with which he identifies. He ends up using the same method of decision as that of the Japanese tariff committee.
Observe the inversion being perpetrated here. The advocate of principles is the man who actually benefits from the vast data bank of life. He is the one who keeps in mind, when making a decision, the intricate network of interrelated factors, including the implications of his actions for countless similar situations. He is the one who truly faces and deals with the complexity of life, yet he is accused of being “simplistic.” On the other hand, the pragmatist, who scoffs at principles — the man who puts on blinders, eliminates most of the relevant data and ends up staring at an isolated case without context or clue, like a newborn baby — he is the one praised for appreciating the complexity of life and for not being “simple-minded.”
If ever I heard a Big Lie, this is it.
The people who reject principles reject the human method of dealing with complexity. But since they don’t have the animal’s means of coping, either, they are left helpless. In the end, they have recourse only to raw feeling or gang warfare. This is how our politicians are now deciding the life-and-death issues of our economy and foreign policy.
If a man lives by principles, his course of action is in essence predictable; you know what to expect of him. But if a man rejects principles, who knows what he will do next?
Observe that all our leading candidates today, Democratic and Republican alike, take detailed stands on every concrete one can imagine; they issue separate position papers filled with clauses and statistics to cover every trouble spot in Washington and the world — yet no one knows what they stand for or what they will do in office. No one can retain all these disintegrated concretes or add them up into a coherent, predictable direction. The candidates offer us an abundance of plans — but there is no connection among their plans, no unifying principles, neither in domestic affairs nor in foreign. Under these conditions, elections become a crapshoot — especially when we remember that our candidates are masters of the pragmatic “flip-flop,” as it is now called. After all, we are told, every concrete situation is unique; what applied yesterday is not necessarily relevant today. The candidates and office-holders themselves do not know what they are going to do or say next. They are not trying to deceive the country by cunningly concealing some devious ulterior motive; they are merely responding to the latest hole in the dike by sticking fingers in at random, i.e., without any principles to give them guidance. Thus: it is an outrage, said one candidate, to capitulate as President Carter did to the vicious Iranian kidnappers — and here is my plan, he said a while later, for shipping the Iranians arms in exchange for hostages. Or: Russia is an “evil empire” that no one should trust, he said — and here is the new arms treaty that I trust them to obey. Or: let’s get rid of some government departments, let’s abolish the Department of Education — and a few years later a new initiative from him, a proposal to create a Department of Veterans Affairs.
Even today’s politicians feel the need to offer the electorate something more inspiring than shifting concretes. Typically, what they do to fill this need is to use abstract words without reference to reality, not as principles but as empty slogans, to be sprinkled through their oratory as garnish, committing them to nothing, yet sounding large and visionary — words like “peace” or “love” or “Americanism” or the “global environment” or the “public good.” The most brazen practitioner of this policy, though certainly not the only one, was Gary Hart, with his periodic invocation of the need for “new ideas” — which no one could find in any of his detailed position papers.
If we are to save our country, what we need is not better politicians, but the only thing that can ever produce them: a code of morality. A proper morality is a set of principles derived from reality, principles reducing the vast complexity of human choices to simple, retainable units, telling us which actions support human life and which ones destroy it. Primarily, the code offers guidance to the individual; then, in the social realm, it offers guidance on political questions. A man who acts on moral principles in this sense is neither a martyr nor a zealot nor a prig. He is a man whose actions are guided by man’s distinctive faculty of cognition. For man, principled action is the only successful kind of action. Moral principles are not ends in themselves; they are means to an end. They are not spiritual luxuries reserved for “higher” souls, or duties owed to God or heaven. They are a practical, earthly necessity to anyone concerned with self-preservation.
If moral principles are to function successfully in human life, however, if they are to play their vital role, they must be accepted as absolutes. You cannot be “flexible” about them, or bend them according to your own or your group’s feelings; you cannot compromise them. This is the opposite of the pragmatist philosophy that dominates our culture, so I want to pursue the point. This will make the role of principles in man’s life stand out even more clearly.
Let’s go back to our bank robber and imagine trying to reach a moral compromise with him. You are the banker, say, and your first response is to tell the intruder to stop because the property in question is yours. The robber says: no, I want your money, all of it. At this point, instead of calling in the police or standing on principle, you decide to compromise; you agree — without duress, as your idea of a moral resolution — to give the robber only part of the money he came to steal. That, after all, would show “flexibility” on your part, tolerance, compromise, the willingness to negotiate — all the things we hear everywhere are the good. Do you see what such a policy would mean and lead to? In Ayn Rand’s words, it would mean a “total surrender” — the recognition of the robber’s right to your property. Once you make this kind of concession, you leave yourself helpless: you not only give up some of your property, but also abandon the principle of ownership. The robber, accordingly, gains the upper hand in the relationship and the power to determine its future. He gains the inestimable advantage of being sanctioned as virtuous. What he concedes in the compromise is merely a concrete (he forgoes some of the loot) — temporarily; temporarily, because now there is no way you can stop him when he comes back with a new demand tomorrow.
The same kind of analysis applies to every case of moral compromise. Imagine, for example, a country with the means to defend itself — e.g., Britain or France in the ’30s — which capitulates, in the name of being “flexible,” to some of the arbitrary demands of an aggressor, such as Hitler. That kind of country thereby invites more demands — to be answered by more “flexibility.” Such a country is doomed from the start (until and unless it changes its fundamental policy). By conceding the propriety of “some” aggression, it has dropped the principle of self-defense and of its own sovereignty, which leaves it without moral grounds to object to the next depredation.
Or suppose you accept the “moderate” idea that individual rights are not absolute and may be overridden by government controls “when the public good requires it” — when the public needs more welfare payments or more Medicare or more censorship of obscenity. In this case, you have agreed with the collectivists that individual rights are not inalienable; that the public good comes above them; that man exercises certain prerogatives not by right, but by the permission of society, as represented by the government. If so, the principle of individual rights has been entirely repudiated by you — in favor of the principle of statism. In other words, in the name of achieving a “compromise” between clashing systems, the essence of one, capitalism, has simply been thrown out, while the essence of the other, socialism, has become the ruling absolute.
Or consider a judge who tries not to be too “extremist” in regard to justice; he decides to “modify” justice by a dose of political favoritism under pressure from the bosses of the local clubhouse. He has thereby dropped the principle of justice. Justice cannot countenance a single act of injustice. What sets the terms of this judge’s compromise, therefore, and decides his verdicts is the principle of favoritism, which permits whatever whims the bosses authorize, including even many verdicts that are not tainted, when this is politically palatable to the bosses. In such a court, a fair verdict is possible, but only by accident. The essence of the system, and its ultimate result, is the elimination of fairness in favor of pull.
Either you accept a proper principle — whether individual rights, self-defense, justice or any other — as an absolute, or not at all.
There is no “no-man’s land” between opposite principles, no “middle of the road” which is untouched by either or shaped equally by both. The fact is that man cannot escape the rule of some kind of principles; as a conceptual being, he cannot act without the guidance of some fundamental integrations. And just as, in economics, bad money drives out good, so, in morality, bad principles drive out good. To try to combine a rational principle with its antithesis is to eliminate the rational as your guide and establish the irrational. If, like Faust, you try to make a deal with the devil, then you lose to him completely. “In any compromise between food and poison,” Ayn Rand observes, “it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”
The reason for this is not that evil is more powerful than good. On the contrary, the reason is that evil is powerless and, therefore, can exist only as a parasite on the good.
The good is the rational; it is that which conforms to the demands of reality and thereby fosters man’s life, along with all the values life requires. Such a policy acquires no advantages whatever from its antithesis. To continue our examples: a banker does not need the help of a robber who is trying to loot him. Nor does a free country need the attacks of an aggressor. Nor does an individual seeking to sustain himself need the jails of a dictator. Nor does the administration of justice benefit from subversion by corrupt bosses. By its very nature, the good can only lose by trafficking with the evil.
The evil is in exactly the opposite position. The evil is the irrational; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality and thereby threatens man’s life. Such a policy cannot be upheld as an absolute or practiced consistently — not if one wishes to avoid immediate destruction. Evil has to count on some element of good; it can exist only as a parasite, only as an exception to the virtues on which it is relying. “The irrational,” in Ayn Rand’s words, “has everything to gain from the rational: a share of its achievements and values.” A producer does not need a robber, but a robber does need the producer on whom he preys. And so do robber-nations need freer countries — which they seek not to annihilate, but to rule and loot. And no collectivists, not even the Nazis or the Communists, want to throttle every act of individual self-assertion; they need men to think and act as individuals to some extent, or their own regimes would collapse. And no political boss seeks to reverse every proper verdict; the boss mentality counts on the appearance of justice, so that men will respect and obey the courts, so that then, when he wishes it, the boss can intervene behind the scenes and cash in on that respect.
Evil is not consistent and does not want to be consistent. What it wants is to get away with injecting itself into the life-sustaining process sometimes — short-range, out-of-context, by arbitrary whim. To achieve this goal, all that it needs is a single concession by the good: a concession of the principle involved, a concession that evil is proper “sometimes.” Such a compromise is evil’s charter of liberty. Thereafter, the irrational is free to set the terms and to spread by further whim, until the good — and man — is destroyed.
The power of the good is enormous, but depends on its consistency. That is why the good has to be an issue of “all or nothing,” “black or white,” and why evil has to be partial, occasional, “gray.” Observe that a “liar” in common parlance is not a man who always, conscientiously, tells falsehoods; there is no such creature; for the term to apply to you, a few venal whoppers on your part are enough. Just as a “hypocrite” is not a man who scrupulously betrays every one of his own ideas. Just as a “burglar” is not a man who steals from everybody he meets. Just as a person is a “killer” if he respects human life 99.9 percent of the time and hires himself out to the Mafia as an executioner only now and then. The same applies to every kind of corruption. To be evil “only sometimes” is to be evil. To be good is to be good all of the time, i.e., as a matter of consistent, rational principle.
This is why Objectivism is absolutist and why we condemn today’s cult of compromise. These cultists would achieve the same end-result more honestly by telling men without equivocation to eschew the good and practice the evil. Evil is delighted to “compromise” — for it, such a deal is total victory, the only kind of victory it can ever achieve: the victory of plundering, subverting and ultimately destroying the good.
Why should one act on principle? My answer is: in the end, men cannot avoid it — some principle always wins. If the right principles, the rational ones, are not conscious, explicit absolutes in men’s minds, then their evil opposites take over by default and ultimately win out. That is why, in our pragmatist, unprincipled age, all the wrong principles are winning. That is why every form of irrationality, cowardice, injustice and tyranny is sweeping the world.
It is not enough, therefore, merely to act “on principle.” Man needs to act consciously on rational principles, principles based on the facts of reality, principles that promote and sustain human life. If you accept irrational principles, such as religious dogmas or mystical commandments, you will find that you can’t live by them consistently, precisely because they are irrational and clash with reality, and you will be driven to pragmatism in despair as your only alternative.
For example, if your moral principle is self-sacrifice, you can’t expect to follow it consistently, as an absolute — not if you want to stay alive. Remember that a principle integrates countless concretes. If you tried to practice as a principle the injunction to give up — to give up your values for the sake of God or of others — think what such a course would demand. Give up your property — others need it. Give up your pursuit of happiness — you are not on earth to gratify selfish desires. Give up your convictions — who are you to think you know the truth when God or society, who is your master, thinks otherwise? Give up your choice of personal friends — you are supposed to love everybody, above all your enemies; that, after all, is an act of real sacrifice. Give up your self-defense — you are supposed to turn the other cheek when Russia takes over Nicaragua — or Florida. Even if you decide to renounce everything — to become like the medieval saints, mortify the flesh, drink laundry water, sleep on a rock for a pillow — so long as you are motivated by any personal quest, even if it is only for joy in heaven, you are still condemned as selfish. Who could obey such a code? Who could follow, day after day, in all the concrete situations of life, such a rule? No one could, and no one ever did. Yet that is what would be meant by accepting self-sacrifice as virtue, i.e., as a moral principle.
What then have men done in the face of such an inverted moral code? Instead of running from it in horror and proclaiming an ethics of rational self-interest, they accept the creed of self-sacrifice — but quickly add that, of course, there are no absolutes and one has to compromise and be “moderate” in order to survive. In other words, they preach irrational principles, then half-practice, half-evade them. No wonder they are filled with terror at the prospect of acting on principle.
If you hold irrational principles, your principles become a threat to your life, and then compromise and pragmatism become unavoidable. But that too is no answer; it is merely another threat to your life.
The only solution is a code of rational principles — a logical, scientific approach to morality — an ethics based on reality, not on supernatural fantasy or on social convention.
This leads us to the base of philosophy, metaphysics, on which ethics itself depends — and to the principle that underlies all other principles. I mean the principle that there is a reality, that it is what it is, that it exists independent of man, and therefore that we must recognize the facts of reality, like them or not, and live accordingly. This is the fundamental which any rational approach to ethics presupposes. Morality consists of absolutes only because it is based on facts which are absolute.
On the other hand, if a man says that there is no reality — or that reality is anything he or society wants it to be — then there are no moral principles, either, and no need of any. In this kind of setup, all he has to do is assert his arbitrary wishes — no matter how bizarre or contradictory — and the world will fall into line. This is the actual foundation of the pragmatist viewpoint. Pragmatism as a philosophy does not start by attacking moral principles; it starts by denying reality; it rejects the very idea of an external world to which man must adhere. Then it concludes: anything goes — there are no absolutes — there’s nothing to stand in our way anymore.
Am I exaggerating here? Last month, I was speaking at a convention of philosophers in Oregon. The man who spoke before me on the program was a philosopher who had moved a few years before to Washington, D.C., to work for the National Endowment for the Humanities. At one point in his talk, he explained to the audience what he called, ironically, the “metaphysical lesson” he had learned from dealing with Congress. The people he met in the halls of Congress, he began, often wore buttons announcing this lesson explicitly. The buttons read: “Reality is negotiable.”
When he first went to Washington, he said, he had thought that people began the legislative process by studying the facts of a given problem, the data which were an indisputable given and had to be accepted. He had thought that politicians debated which policy was appropriate on the basis of these facts. What he observed, however, was that congressmen would come to the bargaining table with their policy decisions long since made, and then rewrite any unpleasant facts to make them fit in with these decisions. For example, if a Republican objected that a new social program would increase the budget deficit, the Democratic aides would be sent off to redo the projections for next year’s tax revenues; they would jack up the expected GNP or project a new rate of interest or come up with some other prediction which would ensure that, in their new calculations, everything would come out as they wanted and no budget deficit would result. The Republicans accepted this approach and operated by the same method.
But what about the real numbers, you ask — the real predictions, the real facts? Who knows and who cares? you would be answered. “Reality is negotiable.”
These buttons are supposed to be an “in” joke. But the joke is that they are no joke: the wearers learned the message they are flaunting in all their Ivy League schools, and they believe it — a fact proved by their actions, which are not merely concrete-bound, but militantly so. Their actions, as we may put it, are not merely unprincipled, but unprincipled on principle.
How do you fight a mentality like this and prevent it from leading you to disaster? You need to begin on the deepest level; you need more than a code of ethics. You need a philosophy that recognizes and upholds reason, a philosophy built on the fact that facts are not negotiable — that what is, is.
In one sense, “What is, is” is the most complicated statement you can utter; it pertains not just to every man, dog or star, but to everything, everything that is, was or ever will be. It gives us, in effect, the results of a tour of the entire universe — in the form of three brief words, which, if you understand and accept them, fix in your mind and make available to you for the rest of your life the essential nature of existence. That is the most eloquent example there is of our conceptual faculty at work, expanding incalculably the range and power of our minds, reducing complexity to simplicity by the power of principle — in this case, metaphysical principle. Nothing less can give men the means to live in the world successfully or the foundation to act on moral principle.
Why should one act on principle? The deepest and final answer is: for the same reason one should jump out of the path of a speeding truck — because if one doesn’t, one will be squashed by an unforgiving nemesis: an absolute reality.