In “The Virtue of Selfishness” Chapter 1: The Objectivist Ethics, Ayn Rand describes the lack of objective standards when discussing the field of ethics. Ethics were either categorized by the “will of God” or for the “good of society” neither of which are objective measures:
“The avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics. The neomystics replaced it with “the good of society,” thus collapsing into the circularity of a definition such as ‘the standard of the good is that which is good for society.’ This meant in logic – and, today, in worldwide practice – that ‘society’ stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that ‘society’ may do anything it pleases, since ‘the good’ is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And – since there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men – this meant that some men (the majority of any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they desire to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the services of that gang’s desires.” Page 15
The preceding passage made me reconsider the notion of the public good. Who is the public? What is good? Good for whom? The public good is one of those fuzzy concepts that one accepts at first glance, but upon deeper introspection does not stand up to logical scrutiny. If the public or society is nothing more than a collection of individuals (as is any group) than what standard dictates which individual is of greater importance than another? Majority? Intelligence? Physical strength? Appearance?
Ayn Rand continues on to describe the state of philosophy as rejecting reason for faith and other intangibles:
“This could hardly be called rational, yet most philosophers have now decided to declare that reason has failed, that ethics is outside the power of reason, that no rational ethics can ever be defined, and that in the field of ethics – in the choice of his values, of his actions, of his pursuits, of his life’s goals – man must be guided by something other than reason. By what? Faith – instinct – intuition – revelation – feeling – taste – urge – wish – whim. Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it ‘arbitrary postulate’ or ‘subjective choice’ or ‘emotional commitment’) – and the battle is only over the question or whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s. Whatever else they may disagree about, today’s moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason – mind – reality.” Page 15
Upon further consideration it would appear of greater risk to me to accept something on faith than to use my own intellect and rational abilities to investigate information as it is presented. “Reason – mind – reality” are three powerful things, and any idea, concept or person who would ask you to disregard the information gleaned from reason should be viewed with caution. The truth always stands up to questioning.
This lack of objective standards in the field of ethics may be the reason why there are such challenges in the area of business ethics.
1. Ayn Rand. The Virtue of Selfishness: