An Empirical Account for the Validity of Morality and Individual Rights

There was recently a discussion on the Reddit’s Anarchism forum about the nature and origin of property rights. Many people, ironically both Objectivists and the vast majority of anarchists, believe that property rights would not exist in practice in the absence of a state to enforce those rights.

My take is that certain property norms, such as intellectual property, final decision-making authority and exclusive control of a property, would vanish in the absence of a state — and so they should. The first part of my empirical (or fact-based) account for property rights will attempt to substantiate how we can derive prescriptive “ought” statements from descriptive “is” statements, bridging the so-called fact-value dichotomy, and why each individual’s life, morally speaking, is his or her ultimate standard of value. Beforehand, let me define my understanding of a few words.

A value (or goal) is that which one acts to gain or keep. The adjective “objective” means derived from an evaluation of the facts of reality. An objective standard of value would mean that the standard by which the value of an action is determined is based on an evaluation of the facts of reality. Morality prescribes what code (or hierarchy) of values (or goals) one ought to achieve and how those values ought to be achieved. A right is a normative principle defining and sanctioning the proper course of actions for an individual to take in a social context. Property is the ownable means of achieving values.

Deriving ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’

As I said above, morality is concerned with answering rationally and logically which values ought a person pursue and how a person ought to pursue them. The way I would begin answering how to establish the validity of morality is by recognizing that values only have meaning to living beings; dead people cannot act to gain or keep anything. So it stands to reason that for there to be a value, there must be a valuer. The problem is that values are not readily perceptible. What we see when looking around the world are facts. The sky is blue and water is wet. There are no facts labeled “ought” or “should,” so the idea that there are moral principles about how people ought to act seems counter-intuitive. That is, values are not a primary concept. What I hope to demonstrate is that values are different kinds of facts, facts as it relates to the fulfillment or destruction of life. It is not as simple as picking any values (or goal) and identifying the most likely means of achieving that value. The purpose of morality is to identify the proper values to pursue. For morality to be based in reason, moral principles about what one ought to do must be derived from what is — the facts of reality.

A value is a value because it serves some intended end, which might then be used as means to another intended end. This process would go on ad infinitum in the pursuit of higher and higher values unless there were some ultimate value or values to which all other values served as a means. In the absence of an empirically demonstrable ultimate value or values, there can be no empirical basis to judge which values are objectively good and which are objectively bad, as moral judgements would be left to personal discretion. Without an empirical ultimate end, there could be no empirical standard to determine which values are the proper values to pursue, meaning that moral knowledge could not be arrived at objectively. The challenge then is to discover if an empirical ultimate value exists at all.

The most fundamental choice human beings confront (before we can choose which values to achieve and how to achieve them) is the alternative between existing and not existing, between living and dying. To remain alive, one not only has to avoid achieving life-destroying values, one must act to achieve actual life-promoting values. Inaction results in death. There is no neutral alternative because remaining alive is a constant struggle between life and death, with death as the default. Time is a scarce and irretrievable resource. By taking actions that are not life-promoting, one’s life is degraded and is that much closer to death since that misspent energy could have been used in producing life-promoting values instead. For people who do choose to live, it is very possible that they could choose to pursue life-destroying values. After all, people have free will. Moral altruists do that very thing, but they are not able to practice altruism consistently or else they would succumb to death very shortly. For a person who chooses to die, morality and the pursuit of values would be useless because death naturally takes hold relatively quickly if values (such as remaining hydrated) are not achieved. To reiterate, I am not making the case that just because someone is alive, his or her ultimate value is his or her life. After all, a person who chooses to die but is currently alive has no need for a standard of value. I said that if a person chooses to live, his or her ultimate value is his or her own life. It is logically inexplicable to choose to remain alive and have any ultimate value (or goal) other than one’s life. To act contrary to the idea that one’s life is his or her ultimate value is to contradict the choice to remain alive.

For each organism, the principle of life means living as that type of organism. For human beings, just to be clear, the principle of life means living as a volitional, productive and conceptual being — not as a rodent.

To grasp that an entity is a value, one would have to recognize it is a value to something for something. The thing to note is that the concept “value” presupposes, depends on and is derived from the concept “life.” Since the only fundamental choice, which does not presuppose any other choice, is to remain alive or to die, a person’s choice to remain alive logically establishes one’s life as the fundamental value (or goal), directing what one ought to do. To put it another way, all other values I achieve determine what state of life I am in as a human being. But that I am alive determines whether I am in any state of life at all. Life or death is a fundamental alternative; it establishes that all other values are means to it, but life is not means to any higher value. Therefore, the principle of life is an ultimate value, an end in itself.

The principle of life is not only an ultimate value but necessarily an ultimate standard of value too. The corollary conception of value is maginitude-based. In general, a value is judged to be positive or negative by whether it can be used as means to pursue some intended end. It is also the case that evaluations are made, particularly in the social sciences, based on how well a value can be used in the pursuance of an intended end. To evaluate a value’s magnitude, the end intended to be achieved is the standard of value used for evaluation. Since the principle of life is an ultimate value, one’s life is his or her ultimate standard of value as well. That which contributes to one’s life is a life-promoting value and that which hinders one’s life is a life-destroying value. The degree to which these values are impactful are measured by the ultimate standard of value, one’s life.

One common objection to the principle of life as an ultimate value is that there could be multiple ultimate values that are possible, for instance, if the primary ultimate value were not pursuable at a particular time. This objection would fail on two accounts. It is not possible to pause life or take a break from it. Sustaining it requires constant action. The more basic reason that there are not multiple ends in themselves is because life or death is the only fundamental alternative. All other alternatives a person confronts are contingent on the choice to remain alive.

Another objection could be that since human beings have volition, it could be possible to choose another ultimate value (e.g., the welfare of the environment). I do not believe it is possible. In order to answer why the welfare of the environment is a value to that person, he or she would have to appeal to some higher value, which would require an appeal to some higher value, and so on and so forth until he or she concluded with the alternative of life or death. Identifying someone’s ultimate value would require explaining why achieving or not achieving that value makes a difference to that person. To be of value, the use of something must be worthwhile to the valuer. The common denominator in all differences is one’s life. Death means nothing is of value because nothing can make a difference to that person in death. For a person who chooses to remain alive, death is of no value because death cannot be used in the maintenance of one’s life.

(On a side note, this is not so much a rebuttal to any objection but a clarification on a common misunderstanding. Leading a successful life — a life in tune with one’s nature as a human being — does not mean maximizing the number of heartbeats or some such. The genes received from our parents gear our nature to find certain behaviors, such as sex and child rearing, fulfilling. Pursuing important values at the expense of a shorter lifespan would be adding to the value of one’s life. To me, it is reasonable that defending the freedom of one’s family or sparing an innocent person from injustice could be an instance worthy of putting one’s life on the line.)

Not only do we have to be alive to achieve values; we also have to achieve values to remain alive. Put another way, it is not just enough that living entities have values. Values must be pursued and achieved to be of any consequence. Life not only gives rise to the possibility of values; life requires the pursuit of values in a manner consistent with our productive, conceptual and volitional nature as human beings so that those values will be most likely achieved.

For living beings without volition, their values and the means to achieve them are provided innately (or automatically) by their nature. For them, there is no “ought” involved because living entities without volition have no choice in the matter. Humans beings, on the other hand, have to choose which values they ought to pursue and how they ought to pursue them, so for them alone is morality necessary or even possible. An individual has to make the choice to pursue values supportive of one’s nature as a human being if an individual chooses to remain alive. To do otherwise and pursue life-destroying values or no values at all would be reneging on the choice to remain alive.

It is incoherent that a person could consistently as a matter of principle pursue life-destroying values or no values at all and remain alive. It is reasonable to conclude that if a person chooses to live, he or she ought to pursue life-promoting values. People can choose to live and make life-destroying choices or no choices at all (not consistently as a matter of principle though); but if they choose to remain living, what is — Mankind’s requirements for survival as a human being — prescribes what they ought to do to fulfill that choice: pursue life-promoting constituent values and do so in such a way that preserves their lives in accordance with their nature as rational animals.

If it is possible to determine what an individual’s ultimate value (or goal) is (and can only be), he or she can conclude from the ultimate standard of value what ought to be done to achieve that value (or goal). It is not more complicated than that. If a person chooses to remain alive, the reality of Mankind’s nature — what is — prescribes what ought to be done to remain alive. The is-ought false dichotomy is solved this way: if something is of value, one ought to gain or keep it. The science of the study of the values and virtues — the logically consistent and meaningful pursuit of values — required by Mankind’s nature to lead a successful life is called morality.

Empirical Account for the Validity of Rights

Having resolved the fact-value false dichotomy to establish that moral principles guide which actions promote our values on a personal level, likewise we need principles to guide which interactions promote our values on a social level. Those principles are what I call rights. Just as each individual’s life is the fundamental source of values, so an individual’s life is the fundamental source of rights. The fundamental right is the right to life, which originates from the fact that each individual’s life is morally an end in itself, as I explained above. As life exists in individuals and the principle of life is an ultimate value, each individual is his or her own ultimate value, an end in him- or herself. Since this is true of all people, it is neither moral to sacrifice one’s life for another nor sacrifice another’s life for one’s own. Since it is absolute that the principle of life is an ulitimate value, the right to life and all corollary rights are absolute (or inalienable). The right to life means the right to sustain one’s life according to its nature. Since each individual’s life is an end in itself, one person’s rights cannot intrude upon or violate the rights of others to think and act on their own.

According to my understanding, only a being whose life, morally speaking, is his or her own standard of value has a claim to rights (or normative principles sanctioning the actions for an individual to take within society). Since morality only has a bearing on rational forms of life — non-human forms of life are simply amoral beings and subsequently cannot possess rights. (As an aside, that does not mean animals should be cared for recklessly or mistreated. Other animals can provide companionship and be of profound value in other ways.) Although not a cause of its validity, the great majority of people, who believe entities such as a society, a state or a god is the ultimate standard for good and bad, seem to agree with the principle that only ends in themselves have a claim to rights. The well-being of those entities are placed before the interests of the individual, so individual rights are seen more as permissions slips to be revoked and replaced with duties whenever doing so serves the greater entity’s compelling interests.

Returning to how rights originate, a right is a normative principle, which like any principle, is based on certain premises. First being that each individual’s life is morally an end in itself. The other premises are that human beings have the faculty for productive work and have volition for the conceptual faculty to make reasoned judgements, meaning that it is possible for us to live and prosper together without sacrificing one another. (“Productive” in this context means not only being able conform to nature, but also overcoming the need to conform to what is provided by nature.) Taken with what I said before that the principle of rights is contingent on the premise that human beings are capable of productive work, so it would follow that a right to own a value is contingent on having produced the means to achieve that value. As a consequence of each individual’s life being an end in itself, an individual has a valid claim to independence in the exercise of his or her own judgements and is the proper beneficiary of the values he or she achieves. Rights are meant to protect the independent exercise of one’s judgement in the pursuit of values — or what is otherwise known as liberty — the values achieved by those judgments — or what we might call property. Those rights, which are manifested into physical reality through the use of property, are violated through the use of direct or indirect physical force that causally (or deterministically) prevents the achievement (or realization) of those values.

To demonstrate, if I happen upon an unowned apple tree and picked an apple for the purpose of producing a value (satisfying my hunger), I believe I would have a right to the apple for that use (satisfying my hunger) since I, a rational being, have made a physical change to the object and am not interfering with any existing property claim of another volitional being. To reiterate, what makes a value a value is the difference its achievement would have on that person. Those differences are manifested into the physical world, so the interruption of those differences requires the use of physical force.

My right is not to the apple itself, but to the freedom to gain, keep, use or dispose of the apple for the purpose of producing the value (satisfying my hunger) I sought. If someone can use the apple, then or in the future, in a manner that does not interfere with my preexisting right to the use of the apple, that person could make his or her own property right claim for achievement of his or her value. Abandonment of the right would take place when an owner can no longer achieve his or her value with the use of a property and has made no apparent effort to regain that ability.

Accordingly, the logical validity of so-called intellectual property has no merit because the use of non-physical entities, like a concept or a procedure, does not deterministically prevent anyone else’s use of the same non-physical entity in the production of another value. Along those same lines, I think it would be proper to reject the Lockean notions of having final decision-making authority and exclusive usage of a property since others are free to earn rights to use the property in the production of their values so long as no preexisting rights are violated. As a central tenet of a state is its final decision-making authority within its territory, which I have attempted to demonstrate is illegitimate, a state has no moral claim to exist either.

In summation, I have attempted to build a coherent normative secular justification for why morality is necessary and valid, how individual rights (politics) are a logical extension of morality and what those rights entail in the functions of society. A society where those naturally rendered rights were most honored would enjoy the most vibrant forms of social harmony and be of inspiration to others. While a right has never physically stopped someone from being murdered or abused, the ideas behind rights, like all ideas, are what shape our society, to paraphrase the Tannehills in “The Market for Liberty.” That is why they are important and worthy of defending.

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