Our Roy Childs table of contents

by Ronn Neff


The Epistemological Basis
of Anarchism:

An Open Letter
to Objectivists and Libertarians


Annotated by Ronald N. Neff


Nearly 200 years ago, [1] the father of both individualist and collectivist anarchism sought to provide a comprehensive case for anarchism, building on what he called "the right of independent judgment." The work was An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness; its author was William Godwin. Though Godwin realized that "to a rational being there can be but one rule of conduct, justice, and one mode of ascertaining that rule, the exercise of his understanding," his case for anarchism was seriously marred by the acceptance of a variant of the altruistic moral code which was so prevalent at the time he wrote. Godwin wrote that "each must have his sphere of discretion. No man must encroach upon my province, nor I upon his. He may advise me, moderately and without pertinaciousness, but he must not expect to dictate to me. He may censure me freely and without reserve; but he should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his.... I ought to exercise my talents for the benefits of others; but that exercise must be the fruit of my own conviction; no man must attempt to press me into the service." [2]

From this foundation, Godwin goes on to justify the right of private property and the sovereignty of the individual. In all this glorious analysis, there is but a single flaw: the assumption that the individual should serve others. Voluntarily, perhaps — but the mistaken premise is still there. The main point, however, is not that Godwin was either correct or incorrect; it is that he thought he could derive anarchism from the right and necessity of independent judgment. Godwin may not have proven his case — but that is my intention here.

My purpose, in brief, is to show how a consistent application of the Objectivist ethics leads inevitably to anarchism, rather than to the conclusion which most Objectivists and "students of Objectivism" themselves reach: limited, constitutional government. Throughout this short essay, I shall assume that the reader is familiar, in essence, with the Objectivist theory of morality and politics. My purpose shall be to extend the first in refuting the second, building on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Objectivist ethics is not a floating abstraction; [3] it is not a code of values without a purpose, without a justification; it is not, in short, something which "just is." Man needs a code of ethics because he needs to choose among alternatives in reality; he needs, in short, to pursue values in order to live; it is only life which makes values or action either possible or necessary: all purposes, all values, are within life; there is no "purpose" or "justification" for life itself. Metaphysically, life is an end in itself; it is the fundamental value without which no secondary, derivative values are possible. Man must both be alive in order to pursue values, and he must pursue values in order to live. This is true of all other animals as well, though man alone is self-conscious, i.e., is aware of fundamental alternatives such as life and death, and can choose his values after a process of thought. In any case, if man needs to act, to pursue values, in order to live, and if life itself is the ultimate end or purpose of action (since there is no purpose outside of consciousness, and hence outside of life), then we may conclude that the ultimate standard of evaluation, that is, the principle which is used in order to judge among alternative courses of action, is that end-in-itself, life. In other words, the preservation and furtherance of life itself, by the very nature of values, sets the standard by which values themselves are to be chosen, for any action or evaluation which serves, existentially, to destroy or make impossible the maintenance of its own foundation, is in effect serving to negate itself, or that which makes it possible. In a fundamental sense, then, any action or evaluation which is not "pro-life" is self-contradictory, i.e., negates itself. [4]

While the purpose of values and hence morality is thus to maintain and further life, this standard of value merely sets the general framework within which, and for the purpose of which, a code of ethics, or principles to guide one's evaluations and actions, needs to be elaborated. Thus, though all of ethics is implicit in what has thus far been said, in the same way in which much of mathematics is implicit in simple concepts of quality, or economics in the concept and nature of human action, it is necessary to undertake complex analysis to spell out the many implications, in order to derive those principles which can in fact by used by individuals in setting the course and choosing the nature of their lives and actions. It shall not be my purpose to undertake complex analysis of such ethical principles here. It shall be my purpose only to derive a fundamental ethical virtue, thinking (or: rationality, or independent judgment), and to prove the validity of that fundamental social principle which makes it possible to extend and practice this virtue, this whole ethical code, in relation to other people, that is, in society. This principle, the principle of rights, or its corollary, nonaggression against nonaggressors, will then be shown to lead to anarchism.

If life is for every acting being the ultimate end or standard of value, then each living entity should pursue this end and all the things which make it possible in principle. This means: every living entity ought to pursue what is in its self-interest, i.e., what in reality (objectively) benefits itself. But since ethics only arises when there are alternatives open to choice (no choice is possible without things to choose between), ethics is not a subject which most living beings are or can be concerned with. They survive by certain patterns of behavior not based on reflection, and hence not subject to conscious control. This is not the case with man, hence ethics is a need of man's nature — that is, man needs a means of choosing between alternatives in reality. That means is a code of values, ethics. But if life in general is the purpose of an ethical code, and if there are in reality different modes of life, then the specific nature of any ethical code must depend on the kind of life which one is talking about. In the strictest sense, the "good" for any organism is anything which objectively benefits its life and well-being; but since different kinds of life exist, we must say that "good" is relative — to the kind of organism which we are talking about. What benefits one kind of organism may not benefit another — since the specific nature of their lives differs. The good for man, hence, is relative to the kind of entity man is, to the nature of his life and the objective requirements for maintaining and furthering it.

Thus, in the case of man, the standard of value by which he should choose all other values, is man's life, that is, that which is required for man's proper survival. "Proper" in this context is defined by reference to the kind of life peculiar to man. The kind of life peculiar to any organism is determined by observing its mode of action, i.e., the scope of the alternatives available to it, and its method of choosing between such alternatives. On a fundamental level, nonliving things have no "alternatives" qua acting beings, since they are not acting beings. They simply are. As we move up the ladder, so to speak, of existent entities, particularly living things, what do we find that determines the alternatives open to an entity? The complexity of the processes which it must go through biologically and (when the faculty of consciousness exists) psychologically in order to perform those actions necessary for it to survive and prosper. When we move into the realm of conscious organisms, we find that the scope of the organism's awareness determines the alternatives open to it. To be aware is to be aware of something — and reality is all that there is to be aware of. The more complex the faculty of awareness or consciousness is in an organism, the more discriminations are possible to it, i.e., the more differentiating and integration between and of aspects of reality it is capable of engaging in. The greater the scope of a consciousness, the more discriminations are possible to it, which means, in existential terms: the more alternatives are open to its consideration, since it is aware of more, and can make subtler distinctions between entities and hence alternative courses of actions with regard to them.

Man's proper survival, hence, has to be defined in terms of his means of choosing among the alternatives available to him in reality, in terms of exercising his basic means of survival, which is, obviously, his faculty of awareness. Man possesses the most complex faculty of awareness known; man is capable of integrating and differentiating between the material provided by his perception of reality, of judging, of abstracting, of forming concepts, of thought, in short, of reasoning. Reason is a faculty (in the Aristotelian sense) which makes possible the identification and integration of the facts of reality, as perceived by man. Reasoning is the process of employing that faculty of awareness. Hence, since reason is man's distinctive method of identifying and choosing between alternatives, it is man's basic means of survival. Man, to live, must think and choose. Thus, the "good" when applied to man is defined as that which is proper to the life of a rational being. This is not a contradiction of the earlier treatment of the good; obviously it is an expansion of it based on a consideration of the specific nature of the organism with which we are concerned: man.

Since reasoning, or thinking, is man's basic means of survival, its employment is the basic or fundamental (i.e., metaphysically it makes the greatest number of other things possible) means by which the "good" for man, for the individual human being, is to be attained. In this sense, defining a "virtue" as the modes of action which are means of attaining the good, thinking, or rationality, is the primary virtue, which makes all of the others possible.

To the next page.

Published by permission of the Hoover Institution Archives, Elena S. Danielson, Ph.D., archivist.

Notice  to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. You should investigate our home page and table of contents.