Mental Skill

Chapter 12
To Do or Not To Do

"Ah, to be only an animal!" say unskilled thinkers in moments of moral decision. "They don't worry about what to do and what not to do. They just do what instinct tells them."

The result of this infallible instinct is easily seen on highway and byway. It is called roadkill. Do humans have a better way of figuring out what to do and what not to do, or must they simply obey moral edicts from on high?

Skilled thinkers have no trouble deriving what they should do about things from the nature of things. They would feel silly stopping before a low doorway to ask, "How should I proceed?" They look, and duck. If the shower is too hot, they know they should adjust it. If the radio hurts their ears, they know they should turn it down.

Not even a subjectivist, one would suppose, could argue for deciding what to do without looking at the way things are. One would be wrong. For the subjectivist, the essential of effective action is not knowing how things are, but knowing how things ought to be. A subjectivist says, "You cannot derive an ought from an is." That is because for him the is already is an ought. When reminded that reality is all there is to get an ought from, he steps outside of reality and gets advice from a supernatural source. To one who wants to apply mental skill, he says, "The moral is not the practical; it's all different; you can't use mundane logic in the moral realm."

Translation: it's better to be roadkill than give up the mind-body split.

To a subjectivist, life is one moral dilemma after another. It must be okay to use some wiles to advance the wish list, but how many? It must be okay to make some demands on others, but how many? It must be okay not to sacrifice everything always, but what when?

When one is assailed by moral dilemmas on all sides, it is easy to lose sight of the actual question, which is: how can I do the right thing instead of the wrong thing? Looking for the essence of the question yields a more fundamental one that unlocks the answer: "The right thing by what standard?"

When you drive the car, how do you know you're doing it right? By comparing your driving to a standard—no tickets, no crashes, no delays. If you go surfing, how do you know you're doing it right? By comparison to a standard—catching waves. How do you know if you are doing the moral thing instead of the immoral thing? By comparison to a moral standard.

The subjectivist nods eagerly, and holds up his wish list as a moral standard. But since it takes no mental skill to obey commands, the question for mental skill is not picking a wish list, but finding a principle so closely derived from basic essentials that it will serve as a universal standard of choice. That will be the moral standard.

Ayn Rand instantly points to the inescapable alternative of all living things: life or death. Since your mind is a function of your body, the right thing for it to do is make choices that preserve and improve your life. The moral standard is life. But not any life, because we are talking about choice, which applies only to self-regulating cognition—rational life.

If you want to measure your life, what do you compare it to? Not to itself. Note the pointlessness of this exchange:

"That's bad."

"By what standard?"

"By the standard of badness."

"My life is good."

"By what standard?"

"By the standard of my life."

Using your own life as the standard would give you wish lists, but no measurement. The only standard that will give you a useful measurement is man's life, the life proper to a rational being.

To check out Ayn Rand's principle, skilled minds want to connect it to direct observation, and fit it in with the rest of knowledge. Thanks to the television camera, you can collect observations from all over the world, covering a wide span of time. You can see people who live more according to reason, and more according to emotion. You can see people who live by trading with one another, and who live by fighting with one another. You can see what kind of life looks proper to man, and what kind of life does not. The trick is to focus on what the camera shows, not on what some announcer says.

To connect the moral standard to all knowledge, you can use the concept virtue. Actions that make life better are virtuous. Using this characteristic as a CCD, you can sort out actions into ranges of helping or hurting life. By omitting measurements within the ranges, you can define virtues and their opposites. Thus honesty is the virtue of dealing with reality as you find it, and dishonesty is the vice of pretending it is something else. Rationality is the virtue of using the conceptual method in an honest manner, and evasion is the vice of refusing to do that. Justice is the virtue of judging people rationally, and injustice in the vice of judging them capriciously. Productivity is the virtue of acting to support your own life, and dependence is the vice of getting by.

When you have classified choices according to the moral standard, then, if the standard is right, you will have an orderly arrangement that will fit with a rational hierarchy of values, and give you clear guidance for choosing what to do and what not to do. If the arrangement is full of moral dilemmas, then either you misapplied the standard, or else the standard is wrong.

That's why the subjectivist is harried by moral dilemmas: his wish list provides a capricious standard that could not be applied consistently if he tried. He knows, for example, that he must not murder, because he does not want to be murdered. But this does not free him from the temptation to murder, because he does not see that even getting away with murder would ruin his own life. He sees it as an option forbidden to him, rather than a destruction of the moral standard that enables him to keep options sorted out. To throw away the standard is to accept mental helplessness—making life a burden and a punishment.

A skilled thinker does the work of checking out the standard and fitting it in. He is confident of the standard, so he is confident of the measurements made by comparison to the standard, so he trusts his moral decisions. He is never tempted to deliberately violate the standard, because he sees how valuable it is to him. If he mistakenly violates the standard, he wants to repair the damage as fast as possible in order to preserve the value to him of the standard. He wants to keep his peace of mind.

The subjectivist checks out a standard of morality by comparing it to his wish list, so virtue to him is not a matter of doing things right, but of fulfilling the wish list. While he knows that some methods for getting things are evil, still the essential thing for him is not method but result. It does not occur to him that getting a value by an evil method could destroy the value.

While part of the subjective mind is wondering if a little touch of evil wouldn't make life smoother, another part is singing a song: "You always hurt the one you love."

If the standard is life, then values are measured by how much they help the one you love. Figure out what made the difference between the way people used to live in their caves and the way they live now in their condos, and you will likely conclude that reason is man's highest value. Your personal values are ranked on a scale according to how much they can improve your life. If your method of living is issuing demands, then reason will not seem all that useful. A way of enforcing demands will seem like it should be a higher value.

That brings the subjectivist to a paradox. Stealing is evil, but on the other hand, it is the most direct way of getting material values. I need shoes. There are some shoes. It should be okay to take them. When I want people to do things for me, it should be okay to use the direct method—force. Why does everything have to be done the long way around?

Aha! The subjectivist suddenly grasps that it is the mind-body split. Evil is efficacious but comes from the devil. Virtue is helpless but holy. You admire what does not really work, and get things done by sneaking in a little of what does.

But this is humiliating. It makes you live as a sneak, praising this but doing that. Mental skill consists of cleverness at sneaking. People who try to live this way end up hating themselves, hating morality, and hating goodness. Eventually, they may look for something better.

Mental skill gets essentials right. It does not form the concept of evil by grouping together things that are said to be wrong, but by grouping together things that can be observed making life worse instead of better.

For example, if told to include selfishness as evil, it asks for a definition by essentials. Is the essential commonality tending to my own interests, or is it demanding that others tend to my interests? In other words, is it self-interest, or subjectivism? If it is just another word for subjectivism, what is the word for upholding self-interest? Traditionally, it is selfishness.

With the definition established, the skilled thinker can make observations and answer questions. How will it make life worse if I tend to my own interests, or make life better if I wait for somebody else to? What if they don't? How can I support my own life without tending to my own interests? Looking for essentials reveals the original demand as arbitrary. There is no basis for calling self-interest evil.

When you form the concept evil by choosing what works against rational life, then you will feel no temptation to secretly admire it. Evil is not a last resort for when you really have to get something done. Evil does harm. To form the concept, you omit the measurements of the degree of harm; it could be anything from paltry to appalling. The essence is not forbidden, but harmful.

Identifying essentials also shows the uselessness of the "direct" action of stealing. How does taking a thing differ from borrowing a thing? If you borrow a thing, do you then consider that you own it? If not, that is because you recognize that the essential of ownership is not where things are but how they got there. That is, the essence is not mere possession, but possession by right. Borrowing things without permission has no effect at all on the right of ownership. But pretending to own borrowed things destroys your sense of ownership. If you own things you take, then why wouldn't a kidnapper own you? He who tries to think of stealing as efficacious loses the very concept of ownership, including ownership of himself.

Objective standards of conduct make it possible to reason about action, and thus stay on course. Giving up the standards makes it impossible to reason about action, so success is random. That is why the subjectivist's wish list is bad even when it perfectly conforms to established morality.

After all, anything on a subjective wish list could be desirable. The trouble is not in the content of the wish list, but in the fact that it is a wish list rather than an action list. The subjectivist does not know and cannot prove that any item on his list is worthwhile, because he is not comparing to an objective standard. He takes the wish list as a given. These are his wishes, and he wants them.

What mental skill demands of the subjectivist is not that the wish list be improved, but that it be converted into a to-do list by asking how. If an item says, "I want always to be honest," then the question is, "How can I always be honest?" That leads to the question, "How can I tell if I am being honest?" That leads to a search for an objective standard. Did what I just say about myself correspond to what I know about myself, or not? Am I responding to this real situation as I observe it, or as I wish it were?

A subjectivist who sees the futility of making demands on reality does not necessarily give up subjectivism. He may switch to making demands on himself. He demands omniscience: "Don't make mistakes!" He demands moral rectitude: "Women and children first!" He demands success: "Failure is not an option!"

A wish list composed of platitudes is still arbitrary, whether it comes from within or without. Empty demands on oneself are still empty demands. The wish list has not been eliminated until the needs of cognition are met. Just as one cannot think about measuring the length of a rug without an objective standard of length, so one cannot think about measuring success in right choosing without an objective standard for choice. Whenever you default on this, your moral commands become a wish list, and your method is subjectivism.

Life is self-generated action. The directive element of action is thought. The final test of mental skill is a life-enhancing answer to the question, "What should I do about this?"


To compare an action to the standard of man's life, you can ask, "Would a truly rational human do it this way?" If you then ask, "Where do I find a truly rational human?" you have discovered the cognitive function of drama.

Television dramas are full of people trying to be reasonable and do the right thing. Heroes invented by people with limited mental skill tend to have limited mental skill. For practice applying the standard, that's not a problem; imitation is not what you are after. What to practice is analysis.

If a character tried to be reasonable, would it have turned out better if the character had not tried to be reasonable? How great was the success in trying to be reasonable, and how could it have been more successful? If a character was unreasonable, would it have turned out better if the character had tried to be reasonable? Was the reason for not using reason a sincere mistake, an intentional evil, or a habit of subjectivism?

Analyzing characters in books and on screen is good practice because they are presented without the complexities of people you know, and it is easier to be dispassionate about them. But life requires that you judge the actions of real people, so that you know what to expect from them. All your plans are made by identifying causes and estimating the effects of those causes. If I do this, then the result will be that. Plans that include people are not different; they must take causation into account.

Human cognition is self-regulating. The causes of human action are the decisions of the actors. Judgment of human action is moral judgment, using the moral standard. In order to figure what a person might do, you can ask yourself: what would a truly rational person do, and how close is this person to being truly rational?

To make this clear, try a contrast. Would you try to predict the actions of an insane person? Specialists might, but others take care not to count on a crazy man. They do count on a sane friend appearing for dinner at the agreed time rather than some random time. The difference is rationality.

When you make a moral judgment, you are deciding what to expect. You expect a liar to lie, a cheater to cheat, an honest man to do neither. That lets you make plans. It lets you make business deals. It lets you get a mortgage and buy a house.

Since you do make moral judgments all the time as a matter of course, practice consists of paying attention and making improvements. Are you comparing people to rational life, an objective standard, or just to your own life—the wish list? To keep a check on that, state the relationship between what you are judging and the objective standard. "Lying just doesn't seem right to me," states neither the standard nor the relationship. Try instead, "Faking reality is to rational living as a match is to dry grass."

Moral skill is like other mental skills: it is acquired by replacing bad habits with good habits. The reward of doing the work is getting rid once and for all of that useless devil temptation. Resisting temptation wastes your time, and giving in to it wastes everything else. Mental skill avoids it by considering each action in full context, including its consequences for rational living.

When doing evil does not cost you your life, it does cost you your capacity to live rationally. The price of doing bad is your mental skill.

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