All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2001

Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Tara Smith

An Excellent Book on Moral Philosophy

Rowman and Littlefield • 2000 • 204 pages • $21.95

A fundamental problem in moral philosophy is the question of why one should be moral in the first place. Although moral philosophers since Plato have been giving answers to that question, it is the sort of question that is good to address regularly, not least because so many people remain unpersuaded each time. Tara Smith’s new book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, won’t be the last such attempt, but it is a very good one. Smith may be familiar to readers of this magazine as the author of Moral Rights and Political Freedom, a solid defense of political liberty. Indeed, the derivation of objective values in this new book makes her earlier argument for liberty that much more firmly grounded.

Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, writes that she intends to “examine Ayn Rand’s thesis that values and morality are grounded in the requirements of human life.” Rand’s approach to the why-be-moral question, which is itself a variant of Aristotle’s, is that the point of being moral is to flourish as the sort of living being one is. Smith’s analysis is characteristically thorough and rigorous, and backed by careful scholarship. She is not merely engaged in Rand exposition, but rather in making an original argument influenced by Rand, and exploring key meta-ethical issues. It is a well-organized, logical argument, written with engaging style.

The basic idea is that to live—not to live well, but to live at all—one needs to interact with the world in certain ways and use one’s faculties to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of one’s life. Beginning with that premise makes the theory an example of what philosophers call “ethical naturalism,” but it is a naturalism that is not unchosen and externally imposed. Morality, on this view, is chosen, but natural in the sense of referring to the way the world works. Since the fact of human life is objective, values are objective. Rationality is our objective tool for discovering and then choosing the right values. With this approach, Smith distances herself from the fashionable subjectivism and cultural relativism that pass for ethics these days.

Smith includes a good discussion of the so-called “fact-value distinction,” a common error in modern moral philosophy. Critics of ethical naturalism claim that one can never deduce a value from a fact (an “ought” from an “is”), and hence a theory of “nature” can be of no use in producing an ethics. On the contrary, Smith argues, ought-claims can be deduced from is-claims: since battery acid is lethal, I ought not to drink any. Since rationality is one of the powers at my disposal, I ought to use it to preserve and enhance my life. Courage might be a genuine value because “[I]f a person is cowardly when his values are at stake . . . he will suffer . . . . Pretending that things are other than they are . . . does nothing to strengthen his ability to navigate the facts that he distorts.” Smith is arguing that life is what makes values possible, but also what makes them necessary. Understanding what life is enables us to discern values, and the point of values is to live (well).

In addition to criticizing the intuitionist, contractarian, and rationalist approaches to ethics, Smith distinguishes her ethical egoism from hedonism and subjectivism. She writes that the “image of egoism as indulgent consumption belies the fact that a person’s life is not sustained without effort. Consumption per se is not the measure of a person’s interest because people do not live simply by consuming . . . . An egoist must cultivate qualities that generate the values that his survival depends on.” Principles aren’t a luxury, but a practical necessity, and violating one’s principles is “an interruption of a person’s progress along a life-promoting path . . . . Deviation from correct principles works against a person’s interest.”

Two criticisms worth noting: First, Smith is promoting a line of thinking that is ultimately derived from Aristotle, even though it is true that Smith, Rand, the neo-Aristotelians, and Aristotle all have their differences. Why not make the Aristotle connections more explicit? For general readers, this would be of minimal value, but many of Smith’s readers will have some philosophical background and may want to see some of this.

Second, I was puzzled by Smith’s argument that “rational interests do not conflict.” She says we need not regard morality as a “zero-sum game,” and hence we do not need to, for instance, sacrifice honesty for convenience. One person’s cultivation of values, living a flourishing life, does not take away from another’s ability to pursue a good life. But does it follow from that that “as long as they are led rationally, . . . people’s lives do not conflict”? It’s true that my pursuit of virtue does not interfere with another’s, but surely my pursuit of some scarce good does. We can all live an honest life, but we cannot all own a home in the Hamptons—even if we were all rich enough to afford one, there just aren’t enough to go around. If the good is scarce, and it is a rational goal for even some people, there may well be a conflict. But this section was the only one I found unpersuasive, and her argument certainly does not depend on it. In any case, these objections don’t detract from what is an excellent book on moral philosophy, which the general reader and the academic philosopher alike could profit from reading.

Aeon Skoble is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at West Point. The ideas expressed here are his own.

  • Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.