In Ayn Rand’s approach to ethics, I would name four principles which are Rand’s original contribution, and which set her apart from other thinkers, such as Aristotle or the thinkers of the enlightenment, to whom she is otherwise similar. These principles are:
- Life (rather than flourishing, or “the good life”) as the standard of value.
- The choice to live as the base of ethics.
- The principle that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.
- The virtue of productivity, and the moral significance of material production.
My purpose in this essay is to discuss point no. 1 — life as the standard of value — and its essential differences from some neo-Aristotelian views.
Man’s life as the standard of value: Rand vs. neo-Aristotelianism
Like other organisms, man needs to act in order to survive; but unlike other organisms, man does not take the needed actions automatically. Man must choose to act to sustain his own life, and find out how to do so. That is why man needs morality. The standard of moral value, therefore, is man’s survival.
This view is original to Rand. The Aristotelian view takes the standard of value to be flourishing, or “the good life”. Objectivism regards this as a perfectly valid concept (though rather than “flourishing”, Objectivists more often use Rand’s phrase “man’s life qua man”); but for Objectivism, flourishing, or “man’s life qua man”, consists of those principles of action which man needs to act on in order to survive.
Neo-Aristotelian thinkers, who don’t accept a necessary connection of flourishing to survival, have never been able to provide an objective method for telling what the good life consists of, and whether living a certain way is or is not flourishing. Most such thinkers do express strong judgments on these questions; there are debates among Aristotelian thinkers, in which both sides are in complete agreement with each other about the foundations of ethics, and yet reach very different value judgments . The crucial point here is that Aristotelian thinkers have no way to prove their judgments based on facts; ultimately, their method comes down to “you can just see, by observing a person living this way, that he is (or is not) living a good life”; and their debates, as a result, are irresolveable.
Aristotle places great emphasis on the need for experience in virtue; a virtuous person has developed, through experience, his “practical wisdom”, i.e. his ability to judge what actions would or would not be part of his flourishing. But Aristotle never says that a person with practical wisdom would be able to give evidence for his judgments, and explain them to a less experienced person. For me personally, that has always been the aspect of Aristotle’s ethics that I liked the least; it seems to justify the attitude which, as a child, I encountered in many adults and deeply resented, i.e. the attitude that because of their claim to greater experience they know better than I do and have no need to give me any reasons. The use of “flourishing” as the standard of value naturally leads to this kind of approach; it is a standard that does not allow for an objective grounds for giving reasons, and so all that’s left is people’s different intuitions of what the good life consists of, and “experience” as the only semi-reasonable criterion for distinguishing good intuitions from bad ones.
This aspect of Aristotle’s ethics has been corrected by Rand. Rand’s approach provides a principled criterion, based on the facts, for what is or is not part of the good life; something is part of the good life if it contributes to one’s survival. On Rand’s approach, therefore, value judgments are basically the same as medical judgments, and can be argued for and proven the same way: by identifying the evidence for what in fact contributes to man’s survival. Contrary to the Aristotelian approach, there is no need to rely on intuition, or on “experience” without explanation, and disagreements are resolveable by the evidence.
Central to Rand’s approach to ethics is her view of values as objective, rather than intrinsic or subjective. Her definition of the good life, and of the foundation of value, is essential to the objectivity of her approach. The good is not good in itself, neither in the Kantian sense of duty divorced from man’s good, nor in the Aristotelian sense of being an aspect of man’s good life; nor is the good determined by man’s wishes or conventions. The good is determined by the requirements of man’s survival, which are determined by his nature. We discover what is the good life, as we discover all other facts, by observation.
Like all objective concepts, the concept of the good life is open-ended; new knowledge can change our understanding of the good life, or even change some aspects of the nature of the good life (for example, the industrial revolution has significantly changed, and enhanced, the role of reason in man’s survival, and, consequently, its role in the good life). However, the criterion for the good life, and the basic method for discovering it, remain the same.
I: Determining what is needed for survival
How, then, do we determine what is needed for survival?
It is easy to see how by the standard of life, for example, drinking water can be judged as good, and walking into the path of a speeding car can be judged as bad. But Rand’s ethics, of course, contains much more than that; there are many principles and virtues in Rand’s ethics that are not so directly related to survival. The central argument which neo-Aristotelians, such as Douglass Rasmussen and Douglass Den Uyl , and Roderick Long , use against survival as the standard, is that on the standard of survival, productivity, non-initiation of force, the value of art, and many other virtues and values accepted by Objectivists, can’t be justified.
The crucial point, in answer to this argument, is that life as the standard of value does not mean immediate survival as the only goal. As Leonard Peikoff explains: “A self-destroying action need not be immediately fatal. …. It is possible to deteriorate gradually for years, breathing all the while, but increasingly damaged.” And our judgment, of actions causing such drawn-out destruction, as wrong, is still guided by the standard of survival. “The size and form of the damage are not relevant here. No threat to vitality — no undermining of one’s capacity to deal successfully with the environment — can be countenanced if life is the standard of value. The reason is that no such threat can be inflicted safely on so complex and delicate an integration as a living organism.” 
How do we identify actions which are self-destroying, which damage one’s ability to survive, if they are not immediately fatal? And conversely, how do we identify actions which contribute to one’s ability to survive, if their benefit is not immediate?
A living organism can be seen as a complex machine, aimed at its own survival. The role of its various organs and faculties can be understood analogously to understanding the parts of a machine.
For example, an automobile is designed for the purpose of travelling. Some of its parts — e.g. the engine, or the steering-wheel — contribute directly to this purpose. Other parts make only an indirect contribution; the cooling and lubrication systems, for example, do not directly help to move the automobile, but are necessary to maintain the engine’s functioning; the engine’s lid does not directly help to move the automobile, but contributes to this purpose by protecting the engine from rain, falling objects and other hazards .
Similarly, a living organism has many organs and faculties, all having evolved for the same ultimate goal: survival. Some of these faculties contribute directly to maintaining the organism’s life. Others have a more indirect role, protecting the organism from external damage, or helping to maintain specific faculties which, in turn, maintain its life. In some cases, their role may not be obvious withour specific knowledge and thinking about the nature and environment of the organism (just as the role of the cooling system in an automobile will not be obvious without knowledge of the engine’s operation and of the effects of high temperatures on its materials). To understand the value-significance of an organ or faculty in an organism, we need to identify its contribution — direct or indirect — to the organism’s survival .
As an example, consider the lion’s mane. The mane does not do anything directly to maintain the lion’s life, and it might seem, at first glance, that it does not have such a role at all. It is therefore tempting, in analysing the role of a lion’s mane, to adopt the analog of the flourishing standard, and conclude that having a mane is not needed for survival, but is part of the lion’s “good life”; if a lion were to lose its mane, or be born with a small mane, that would not be destructive to its survival, but would make its life less full, less flourishing, or less leonine. Further study, however, proves that the mane does have an important role in the lion’s survival. The lion’s conditions of living are such that it often gets into fights with other lions; it is common, in such fights, for the lion to receive blows to the head. The mane, by deflecting and cushioning such blows, can prevent them from wounding, or even killing, the lion. It is this value-significance of the mane which originally caused its evolution. If a lion were to lose its mane, that would not be immediately fatal; in some cases, it might even end up never bringing about the lion’s death, since the lion might happen to live the rest of its life never receiving any blows to the head. Still, such an event should be regarded as destructive for the lion, because of the mane’s potential role protecting the lion’s survival. 
II: Determining what is needed for man’s survival
What is good or bad for a human being is identified, basically, by the same method. We identify the requirements of man’s survival, by observing facts about man’s biological nature and about the characteristic actions man needs to take to sustain his life. Some of the requirements of man’s survival are obvious; others may only be identified by extensive study, observation and thinking.
The requirements of man’s survival include the needs of maintaining his physical health. If such requirements are not fulfilled, this will not be immediately fatal; however, it will put one’s body in a damaged state, which will make death from injury or illness more likely in the long run. Generally, the connection of physical health to survival is non-controversial, and is obvious to most people.
The central non-obvious fact about man’s means of survival is one which Rand has fully identified for the first time: man’s central means of survival is reason. This identification has crucial consequences for ethics. It is the basis of Rand’s view of rationality as the central virtue. Further, since reason is man’s means of survival, anything which helps to maintain man’s rational faculty is needed for survival. An entire new class of requirements for man’s life is thus opened: psychological requirements.
Rand, of course, was not the first to realize that man’s psychological well-being has requirements; but she was the first to connect psychological needs to survival. These psychological requirements are the ones which neo-Aristotelians find the hardest to reconcile with survival as the standard, and often use to argue that some other standard — the standard of “the good life” — must be used. On Rand’s view, however, such needs can be proven to be necessary for survival; not by demonstrating a direct causal connection, but — analogously to understanding the role of a cooling system in an automobile — by demonstrating their role in maintaining the proper operation of one specific faculty — reason — which, in turn, is needed for survival.
Contemporary medical knowledge about stress-related diseases, and about the effects of one’s psychological state on recovery from illness, provides further confirmation of the relation of psychological requirements to survival. It is now known that man’s psychological well-being is crucial for his physical health. This medical evidence sheds interesting new light on the role of such requirements in survival, but Rand’s argument does not depend on it; Rand connects these requirements to survival through their role in maintaining man’s reason.
Because of the centrality of reason to the requirements of man’s life, and because of the many requirements needed for its proper maintenance, I think the most essential division of the requirements of man’s survival is into two categories: existential requirements — requirements which directly serve man’s physical survival; and psychological requirements — requirements which serve man’s survival by maintaining the functioning of his rational faculty. Some requirements belong purely to one of these categories, while others have elements of both.
In addition to reason, Rand identified two central values for man: purpose and self-esteem. Purpose has a direct, existential role in survival; it is the commitment to using one’s reason for achieving the goals that would help one’s survival. In addition, purpose also has a psychological element. For man’s rational faculty to function properly, it requires a purpose; without such a purpose, man can gradually lose the ability and motivation to fully focus his mind, threatening his success in dealing with future problems. This means that purpose remains necessary for survival, even in those cases in which its existential role in survival does not apply (for example, Rand’s view of purpose implies that if a person has a job which does not challenge his abilities, even if it pays enough to provide for his economic needs, it would be self-destructive for him to remain in that job and not find any more challenging purpose on which to direct his mind).
A corollary of the need for purpose is the need for forming values. Purpose, if it is to guide one’s actions and fulfill its existential and psychological roles, must not be abstract; it can’t consist of general ideas like “I should do what I need to survive”, or “I should be productive”; it has to consist of specific values — central values relating to one’s productive activity, as well as values in all other areas of life — which guide one’s concrete, day-to-day actions. The existential role of purpose implies that such values should be ones that objectively contribute to survival. The psychological role of purpose implies that such values — or at least the most central of them — should be held strongly and passionately, and experienced by the person as extremely important to him.
Self-esteem, in contrast, is a purely psychological requirement. “Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that one’s mind is competent to think and one’s person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living” . Such certainty has no direct, existential role in survival, and it is tempting to conclude that it has no role in survival at all, and should be valued, instead, as an important aspect of the good life. Rand, however, did regard self-esteem as necessary for survival, through its role in maintaining one’s motivation to continuously use one’s reason.
The need to act on principles is, again, both an existential and a psychological requirement. Existentially, principles are the cognitive equivalent of concepts; principles are the means by which a person holds in his mind his entire range of knowledge about the requirements of his life and the means of achieving them . In addition, principles also have a crucial psychological role in man’s life. Self-esteem requires a standard for evaluating one’s own actions, abilities and character; “To live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal” . Survival is much too abstract a standard to apply directly. Moral principles provide more concrete standards, which can be applied by a person in evaluating himself, and are, therefore, a precondition for self-esteem.
Happiness is another central psychological requirement. Rand defines happiness as “a state of non-contradictory joy”; it is a long-range emotional state, which consists of the awareness that one is consistently, in the long run, achieving one’s values. Happiness is therefore not a separate goal; one is acting for it whenever one is acting for any of one’s values. Its relation to the concepts of survival and flourishing can be summarized as: happiness is the internal awareness of that which is, externally, flourishing, and which leads to survival. At the same time, happiness is itself a requirement for man’s survival, like self-esteem, in maintaining one’s motivation to use one’s reason.
Another psychological requirement for man, which Rand has identified, is the need to observe objective, concrete instances of one’s abstract values. This need explains the role of art in man’s life, and is also central to understanding man’s need for interpersonal relationships.
In understanding these, and other, requirements for survival — and, consequently, for the good life — the method is basically the same. Once we have identified the basic faculties which man needs to sustain his life, we observe what is needed to maintain these faculties; and this provides the evidence for demonstrating what is a value by the standard of survival. This is the method for establishing the Objectivist virtues, and all other valid moral values.
III: Hard cases
A common type of argument, used by neo-Aristotelians against the view of life as the standard of value, is examples of “hard cases”, in which the action which Objectivists would regard as moral seems to conflict with survival.
Survival and interpersonal ethics
Such arguments often posit situations relating to interpersonal ethics. A typical question is “why shouldn’t you cheat, or initiate force, when you think you might not be caught”?
To a large extent, this type of question ignores the existential role, in survival, of acting on principle, as discussed above. As Rand demonstrated, the principles of honesty and non-initiation of force are crucial for survival .
I believe that is a conclusive argument against habitual dishonesty or initiation of force. Some more argument is needed to demonstrate why a single act of dishonesty or force is wrong; why, for example, having accepted the principle of honesty, a person should not act against it and act dishonestly just once, if he’s really unlikely to be caught that one time. On this point, the psychological role of principles is central.
The existential role of principles to survival applies in the long run, and might not be negated by an isolated violation of the principle. In contrast, the role of principles in maintaining self-esteem is immediate, and depends on total consistency in following the principle. Once a person has formed his principles, and has fully understood their role in promoting his long-range survival, any violation of them will not only negate their contribution to maintaining his self-esteem, but will reverse it; these same principles will now lead him to evaluate his own actions — and, consequently, his own person — as unworthy. If the violation of the principle is isolated, and minor, then the damage to his self-esteem will be reversible; but his ability to act and achieve his goals will be impaired, at least in the short run, and he will have to spend significant time and energy on restoring his self-esteem. More commonly, he will protect his sense of self-esteem by evading his principles and rationalizing his action, thus making it likely that the violation of the principle will become habitual.
A person forming strong principles, then, has formed his own character so that violating these principles will cause him psychological harm, and so, in effect, created a situation in which even a single violation will be self-destructive. The alternative — not forming these principles in the first place — is even more self-destructive. When taking into account both man’s existential and psychological requirements, it is clear that the only course consistent with long-range survival is forming the proper moral principles and consistently following them.
Survival and uncertainty
Other “hard cases” examples, which are sometimes brought up in arguments against the standard of survival, are examples of people who have acted againat Objectivist principles, and still survived to an old age.
The answer to this type of argument is that the Objectivist ethics is meant to help man survive in a world in which he is not omniscient; an action is judged, not by whether it contributed to one’s survival in hindsight, but by whether it can rationally be expected to contribute to it — which means, whether it follows the principles which generally, in the long run, contribute to man’s survival.
It is possible for a person to act irrationally, causing damage to himself, without this actually shortening his life (just as a lion could lose its mane, without this actually shortening his life, if he then happens to never receive blows to the head). Damage is a threat to one’s life; it can destroy one’s life; but, in particular cases, it may turn out in hindsight that the threat was never actualized. This does not change the fact that the threat was there, and that, if survival is our standard, the person was wrong to inflict it on himself.
Morally risking or giving up one’s life
The most plausible of the “hard cases” arguments are examples of cases in which a person may, consistently with Objectivist principles, knowingly take an action which risks or destroys his physical survival. While such cases are very rare, they do exist. Some examples are: the example from Atlas Shrugged of John Galt, deciding to commit suicide if necessary to keep Dagny from being tortured; a person risking his life to escape a dictatorship; a person deciding to continue his chosen career even after finding out that it is unhealthy for him because of some medical condition; or a person who, consigned to a permanently vegetative state because of some illness or injury, decides to have the life-support machines disconnected.
In understanding such cases, we need to consider the importance for man’s survival — both existential and psychological, as discussed above — of forming values. All of the above are cases in which a person is acting on values which, in general, support human survival; which, at the time that they were formed, were likely to help his survival; but which are now leading him to risk, or even certainly give up, his life.
The point discussed above regarding moral principles applies, even more strongly, to one’s deepest concrete values. Once formed, acting to achieve these values becomes the basis of one’s happiness. Acting in a way which clearly and strongly goes against these values will inevitably lead to the most profound unhappiness, losing the motivation to any further actions to sustain one’s life, and quite likely dying soon in any case. The people in the above examples, therefore — given their situations, and given the values they have already formed — are not actually acting against their own survival; they are either choosing the action that has some chance of allowing them to survive, over the action which, by the psychological damage it will cause, will certainly kill them; or (in the cases of Galt and of the man turning off the life-support machines) are acting in a situation in which survival has become impossible.
The crucial point is that forming strongly held values might, in some rare cases, lead one to take actions leading to death; but in general, such strong values are much more likely to greatly enhance one’s chances of survival, both by consistently guiding one’s actions towards goals that help one’s survival, and through their contribution to self-esteem and to happiness. Suppose a young person said to himself: “I don’t want to find any work that I strongly care about; I don’t want to develop any deep personal relationships with anyone; I don’t want to develop any strong values, and this way I’ll avoid the risk of facing any situations, in the future, in which my values will conflict with survival”. I’m sure the reader has met many such people (though they probably were not quite as articulate as described here). Such a person will live his life with no purpose to guide his actions, and with no motivation for using his mind. Such a person’s rational faculty will gradually deteriorate; he may be driven to various kinds of self-destructive activities to escape from the boredom of his life; and, in the long run, will be much less likely to survive.
Forming strong values, therefore, can be seen as involving a certain risk; but from the standard of survival, it is a risk well worth taking.
IV: Survival and constitutive means
In the previous sections, I have argued for survival as the standard of value; and have explained, in outline, how the values and virtues which Objectivism advocates are derived from this standard. I have contrasted this view with the “flourishing” view, which holds that these values and virtues, as aspects of the good life for man, need not be defended as helping survival.
Advocates of this view, such as Rasmussen, Den Uyl, and Long, refer to the Aristotelian distinction between instrumental and constitutive means. Their view is that virtues are not merely instrumental means towards survival, valued because of their consequences in promoting that end; they are constitutive means towards the good life, valued because they are themselves part of that end.
In this section, I will point out an important grain of truth in this view, and indicate where Rand’s “survival” approach and the “flourishing” approach can find common ground.
Rand defined life as “a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action” . Life is not some goal beyond the actions which sustain it; it consists of the collection of actions, which sustain the possibility of their own continued performance. For an organism to survive means nothing more or less then to continue taking the same actions.
This is obvious regarding the biological actions and faculties of animals. An animal breathes, has blood circulate through its body, is conscious of its sorroundings, moves to find food and run from predators, etc.; all these actions evolved because they contribute to the animal’s survival. However, for the animal to survive means nothing more or less than for it to continue breathing, moving, being conscious, having blood circulation, etc..
Man is different from other animals in that many aspects of his identity, relating to his conscious values and actions, develop, not by evolution, but by his own choices. The same principle, however, seems to apply here also. The values and principles that a person has formed, the character traits he has developed, are part of his identity as a living organism; the actions he takes based on them are living actions, just as much as his lower-level biological actions; they are “self-sustaining, self-generated actions”, aimed at man’s continued ability to take these same actions — i.e. at maintaining his own character, values and principles — as well as his ability to take all of his other, lower-level living actions.
In a crucial sense, then, asking “what if you could survive better by being irrational, or living without purpose” is a senseless question; it is equivalent to asking “what if you could survive better by being unconscious, not breathing, not moving, and having no blood circulation”. All of these aspects of a man’s nature have developed (in the second question, by evolution; in the first question, by the man’s own choice) because of their contribution to survival; but once developed, they themselves become part of survival, and the idea of surviving without them becomes senseless. “[Reason, purpose and self-esteem are] the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life” .
On this point, a crucial distinction must be recognized — analogous to the distinction made in philosophy of mind — between the first-person and the third-person perspective.  From a first-person perspective, one’s own character and values are not experienced as means towards the end of survival (except, perhaps, in some very unusual situations, e.g. when one is experiencing extreme sadness or despondence). A rational person, while acting on his principles, does not experience his action as motivated by the existential consequences of the principles (e.g., a rational person does not consciously consider whether to try to cheat people, deciding not to by an argument similar to Rand’s argument about the fake gold shares). Rather, one’s character, values and principles are experienced as part of oneself, and as ends in themselves. From the third-person perspective, however, we can prove — as I have argued throughout this paper — that the basis of all rational values is the goal of survival.
The same is true of vegetative actions as well. A person does not experience his own breathing as aimed at providing his cells with oxygen; he simply experiences it as an essential part of his life. Only from the third-person perspective, by studying man’s body, we discover that breathing is, in fact, aimed at that end. The difference is that in the case of man’s values and character, to the extent that they were chosen by him rather than adopted passively from his culture, he does need some awareness of their contribution to survival in order to develop them in the first place; this awareness, however, is not — and, if these values are to fulfill their psychological role, can’t be — part of one’s conscious first-person experience while making decisions.
I believe, therefore, that Rand’s statement can be expanded as follows: man values reason, purpose and self-esteem — as well as his more concrete values — because they are the means to his life; and because he values them, they become, and are experienced as, the realization of his life.
On this point, then, the Objectivist and neo-Aristotelian views are in essential agreement. Where they differ — and where Rand’s unique contribution to the issue is — is in the method by which we determine what values can be seen as part of, or the realization of, man’s life. On Rand’s view, since survival is the standard, we must justify all values by demonstrating their direct or indirect contribution to physical survival; only after this has been established, we become justified in regarding these values as themselves part of what survival means for a human being, making them as aspect of “flourishing”, or — to use the phrase that best expresses the concept, Rand’s own phrase — of “man’s life qua man”.
 see, for example, Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Liberty and Nature vs. David Norton’s Personal Destinies, and their very different judgement of the role of material production in the good life.
I: Determining what is needed for survival
 Liberty and Nature
 “The Ethics of Flourishing: Aristotle vs. Rand”, lecture [presented at the IOS summer seminar, 1993.
 Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 216}
 I thank David Kelley for this analogy.
 For a detailed discussion of the value-significance of biological organs and processes, and of survival as the standard of value in biological processes, see Harry Binswanger, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts.
 I thank Irfan Khawaja for this example.
II: Determining what is needed for man’s survival
 Atlas Shrugged, Signet paperback edition, p. 944.
 For a discussion of the existential role of principles, see Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 217–219.
 Atlas Shrugged, p. 947
III: Hard cases
 See, for example, Rand’s analysis of dishonesty, through the example of selling fake gold shares, as related by Peikoff in Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 270–271.
IV: Survival and constitutive means
 Atlas Shrugged, p. 939
 The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 25;.
 I thank Irfan Khawaja for drawing my attention to this distinction.