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

By Skoble, Aeon J. | Ideas on Liberty, April 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Skoble, Aeon J., Ideas on Liberty


by Tara Smith

Rowman and Littlefield * 2000 * 204 pages * $21.95

Reviewed by Aeon J. Skoble

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 socalled "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 .

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