Mental Action

Chapter 19

One list we are specifically enjoined not to conceptualize is the list of moral commandments. Moral precepts are to be memorized and obeyed. They are to be listed, and followed. They are not to be classified, or arranged hierarchically, or combined logically—because doing such things could lead to questions, and moral laws are not to be questioned.

When you think about it, this is very strange indeed. We tell children two things: that morality is the most important area of all, and that it must never be sorted out.

Fortunately, once mental action is accepted as real action, it becomes obvious that there is no way to think about morality—or anything else—without sorting it out. To think about morality, you mentally sort everything into two piles: morality and non-morality. Then you sort out morality.

To form the concept "morality," you have to be aware of the possibility of measurement so you can find similarity. Let's imagine a way for that to get started.

But you did touch something hot, and got burned. You did eat with dirty hands, and got sent away in disgrace. You did hit, and got hit back. You told the truth and felt good; you lied, and felt bad. The measurement turned out to be obvious: a scale of good and bad. Some things you did could be measured by comparing the results to a scale with "really good" at one limit, and "really bad" at the other. So, without having to actually make every measurement, you could see similarity, and form the basis for classification. It was a primitive start, but in time you could integrate other's actions with yours, make further combinations and refinements, and achieve a skilled grasp of morality.

Most kids are taught to avoid doing that. "No, no!" they are told. "Lying is nothing like burning yourself. The practical and the moral are different." The implication is given that morals are not for your own benefit, but for other people's benefit. Evaluation, rather than similarity, is advanced as a basis for sorting things out. "Why?" asks the child. "Because I said so!" is the reply.

This is not done to children from malice, but from ignorance. The purpose of moral rules is to guide choice. Morality is made necessary by volition. The volition of a child is not fully developed, so guidance must be imposed—somehow. The mistake is to suppose that a crude idea of morality is worse than none. The crudest concept is better than an arbitrary mandate, because it is a live beginning instead of a dead end.

"Lying is bad! It's awful! Never lie. Well, almost never; white lies are okay. Santa Claus is a good lie; every child should believe in Santa. Politicians say they have a right to lie. Spies are supposed to lie. You're too young to understand."

For a child, getting caught lying is like having a hand snatched away from the stove. Lying and touching the stove are both things done more or less on purpose, which turn out bad. The question is: which is worse? A burn is usually a minor inconvenience. A lie is always a major disaster. It is an assault on the conceptual method. The conceptual method depends for its power on always knowing the difference between as if and it is. Every lie pretends that the one is the other. To lie to oneself is to think with a limp—to be crippled for life. Lying to others is a direct attack on their ability to deal with reality, so it instantly destroys your own ability to deal with them. It is much worse than hitting, though hitting usually draws more ire.

In every part of life save one, the child is allowed to sort things out in order to decide what to do about them—to derive a plan of action from identifying what is—to apply the law of causality. You achieve the good and avoid the bad by applying your knowledge of the nature of things. Ayn Rand emphasizes this aspect of causality by saying, "Every is implies an ought."

In every part of life save one. In morality, we claim, the nature of things is not relevant to action. Sorting things out will not tell you how to deal with them. Only an authority can issue rules for action in the area of morality. Objectivity is suddenly impossible; subjectivism must rule. The child is forbidden to use the conceptual method in this area. Not surprisingly, the child tends to get confused about when to apply reason, and when to avoid it.

Which of those are moral, and which are practical? Which ones obey the law of causality, and which ones don't? Those are the questions, supposedly, which are important in the area of morality. Let's repeat the examples, with consequences.

The examples can be telescoped into one: Don't ignore what is—or else. In other words, no matter what part of reality you focus on, the basic rule is the same: do not evade.

When a child is told that morality is not to be questioned, that means stop where you are in sorting it out. That means use for life a childish and primitive idea of morality. Usually, that is a subjective idea, in which the elements are related through a purely personal notion of good and bad. Here is how that can turn out:

Good è ME è rights è ME è money

This diagram shows a subjective attempt to understand the idea of "rights." Rights are good for me. Things I want are good for me. That seems to mean that rights are associated with things I want, like money. So I have a right to money.

No wonder I'm confused! They tell me I have a right to money, but I'm not supposed to take it. If that's stealing, then when people make me pay for things, that must be stealing. I want to be taken care of, so I have a right to be taken care of, but instead of that I end up taking care of other people! It's all a racket!

The reason that adults are stuck with childish views of morality is that they stopped sorting out morality before they grew up. They were told to do good, but left with no method to identify "good."

If one resisted the pressure to evade, how would the sorting out of morality progress? First, by refining the scale. As you grow up, you see that good and bad are used in many ways by many people to mean many things. It is a slippery scale. You need a more adult fundamental: life and death. That is a solid scale, against which every action of any living thing can be measured.

There are three versions of this scale that I could use as a standard: all life, man's life, or my life. All life is too broad, because I'm looking for rules of conduct among humans. My life is too narrow; it is my life that I want to measure. I need a broader principle with which to measure my life. So the standard of morality is: Man's Life.

This refinement of the scale amounts to a revelation. Since man's life requires sorting things out, I already know one basic rule: think. From that I can derive a fundamental rule of dealing with others: don't interfere with thinking. At that point I have broadly sorted out morality, so I can examine details in an orderly way as they come to my attention. I can define virtues by grouping ways of advancing the standard. I can define vices by grouping ways of retarding the standard. The first virtue would be rationality; the first vice, evasion. In dealing with others, reason would be moral. Force, the negation of reason, would be immoral.

From personal morality, I could zoom out to apply the standard to society. A moral society would be conducive to life; an immoral society would interfere with life. I would have a moral right to expect from society that it would not interfere with my life—I would have a right to life. Since sustaining life requires thought and action, I would have a right to freedom. Since life requires food, clothing, and shelter, I would have a right to my property. My moral duty would be to uphold my rights by not killing, enslaving, forcing, or robbing.

If there are people who want to kill, enslave, force, and rob, then that tells me two things: that they don't want to use the conceptual method, and that they don't want me to use the conceptual method. Such people are stuck dumb, so they think they can get an advantage if I am even dumber. To them, morality is murky and mysterious; life consists of taking what you can; action consists of getting away with things. Their actual morality is the smash and grab morality of the naughty child. That scares them, so they demand rigid rules of conduct imposed by force. The idea that human regulation is individual self-regulation seems to them like something from outer space.

Many political leaders insist that people should be treated like animals in society. They designate a strata as pets, and another strata as slaves to sustain the pets. They say there is no alternative, because mental action is inadequate. Oddly enough, they claim pride in their own mysterious mental processes; their contempt is reserved for the mentality of others. They direct scorn at people who presume to analyze ethics by classifying choices according to the rules of similarity, so that logical relationships are made plain.

Such scorn could have an effect on you only if you too think that mental action is not real but metaphorical and mysterious. Using the conceptual method systematically to study choice is called Ethics. Since choice is involved in everything we do, ethics can be called, as Dr. Peikoff puts it, applied epistemology. The study of mental action is not the study of arcane theories, but of survival skills.

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