Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Biological Teleology of Ayn Rand's Ethics

This semester, I am teaching a graduate seminar on "American Political Novels." Right now, we are reading Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Reading Rand reminds me how Rand's individualist ethics rests upon the sort of biological teleology that I have defended as part of "Darwinian natural right."

The best statement of Rand's ethics is "The Objectivist Ethics," the first chapter of The Virtue of Selfishness. In that essay, she declares: "It is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil." Inanimate entities cannot have any values because they have nothing to gain or lose. But living organisms have values because they have the capacity for self-generated, self-directed action.

"Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism's life.

"An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means--and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."

It is often assumed that modern science denies any teleological conception of nature and therefore denies the teleological basis for Aristotelian natural right. Leo Strauss suggested this, for example, at the beginning of Natural Right and History. But I have argued--in Darwinian Natural Right--that Darwinian science actually supports a modern biological conception of teleology. By natural selection, living organisms are designed for survival and reproduction, and thus they are designed for goals or purposes. Some animals pursue their goals consciously. Human beings pursue their goals through conscious reasoning. As Rand puts it, man is "a specific organism of a specific nature that requires specific actions to sustain his life." "Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil."

The Darwinian basis for Rand's ethics as rooted in biological teleology is elaborated in some of the writings of Harry Binswanger--particularly, his book The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts and his article "Life-based Teleology and the Foundation of Ethics" in The Monist (January 1992). Binswanger shows how ethics presupposes the goal-directed action of all living organisms as products of natural selection, and "where there are goals of any sort, life as an ultimate goal is presupposed." We reach the realm of ethics in the strict sense when we come to human volition. Unlike plants and animals, human beings must deliberately choose to pursue their goals over their entire life-span. And their fundamental choice is between courses of action that are life-denying and those that are life-affirming. The drama of Rand's fiction turns on this choice.

Some of my previous posts on the biological teleology of ethics can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Neil Parille said...


Rand seemed to have some qualms about evolution.

(I could have better summarized Rand's quote on page 467.)

Anonymous said...

Teleology Is Universal

A. Again, the probable reason for life's amino acids chirality:

Darwinian evolution started at life's day one, with the genesis of the first organisms, the replicating oligomers, the pre-archaea genes. It started under yet-unknown energetic conditions, by a serendipitous occurrence, with oligomeric (RNA?) conformations, in a soup containing all their essential molecular progenitors. These conformations happened to maintain balance of energy in the direction of their polymerization to lengths precipitated out of their soup as determined by the nature and conditions of the soup.

The sugars and the nitrogen-based compounds that, together with the phosphates, are the components of genes, of life's organisms, are chiral. There probably is an energetic advantage in homochirality and chiral homogeneity for the self-replication of these biopolymers.

This serendipitous occurrence set up a matrix-field of energy with a potential extended between its source, on-Earth incoming energy, and the precipitating organisms, the genes. This was the genesis of the ongoing formation and maintenance of Earth's biosphere.

And since the biosphere had thus started it could only evolve in the directions of more favorable energy balances-packages and towards stabler energy-packages conformations. Survival was the direction. Earth's biosphere had embarked on the course of its evolution.

B. Some definitions, with "end" replacing dictionary's 'cause' or 'design' or 'purpose'

- tele-, telos end

- teleology = a doctrine explaining phenomena by final end; the fact or character attributed to nature or natural processes of being directed toward a specific end; the referral to the end of universe as an explanation of natural phenomena.

teleonomy = the quality of survival of structure or function in living organisms due to evolutionary adaptation.

C. Teleology exist in all nature's systems, both living and nonliving. It is universal.

Since the Universe (including its sub-systems, also Life) is a continuously evolving fractal system, ergo energy is the base element of everything. Cosmic evolution is evolution of energy. At the beginning of the present cosmic cycle was the energy singularity. At its end there will be a small amount of mass and an infinite dispersion of the beginning energy. In-between, the universe undergoes continuous evolution, consisting of myriad energy-to-energy and energy-to-mass-to-energy transformations.

Evolution ensues from and consists of systems' modifications ("mutations"), inherently ever more of them as more new options arise for the systems, be they non-living or living.

Life systems are temporary packages of energy. On Earth they are components of the grand, temporarily constrained, biosphere energy store. Their 'end' is to enhence and maintain their matrix, the biosphere, bio.

In life systems modifications of genome's functional capabilities can be explained by the second-stratum organism's ubiquitous culture-life-experience feedbacks to its genome, its prime/base organism. The route-modification selection of a replicating gene, when it is at its alternative-splicing-steps junctions, is biased by the feedback gained by the genome, the parent organism, from the culture-life-experience of its progeny organisms. THIS IS HOW LIFE EVOLUTION COMES ABOUT.

For non-life systems there is no mediating culture. The interaction between environments and systems are direct, in the direction towards the 'end' of the present phase of the universe.


Dov Henis