Letting Go of Ought

by Peter Saint-Andre (1997)

First published in Full Context 9:5 (January 1997).


In her essay "Causality vs. Duty" (1970), Ayn Rand offered a strong argument against the moral imperatives and obligations of duty-oriented ethical systems such as Kant's. Yet by no means did Rand renounce the concept of moral obligation or the moral 'ought'. In "The Objectivist Ethics" (1961), she claimed to have found a naturalistic solution to the is-ought problem in ethics. In her writings on aesthetics, she proudly asserted, in a telling misquote of Aristotle, that the purpose of art is to present "what might be and ought to be" -- specifically, "what man is ... and what he ought to be" (1962, ix; emphasis in original). Clearly, Rand was not shy about proclaiming her vision of 'the way things ought to be'.

Yet does the concept of 'ought' have a place in an objective theory of value? On reflection, I have concluded that the answer is an emphatic No.

Two Meanings of 'Ought'

In order to make the case, I first need to clarify what we mean by 'ought' (and its twin brother 'should'). The root of the English word 'ought' is the same as our word 'owe'; similarly, the word 'should' means at root 'I am obliged to'. Thus something that I ought to do or should do is something that I owe or that I am obliged to do; fundamentally, 'ought' and 'should' are imperative concepts.

But how are 'ought' and 'should' used in real life? If I say to you, "You ought to be honest" or "You ought to wear your seat belt", what do I mean? The generous interpretation is that I mean: "It is objectively good or best for you to be honest or to wear your seat belt." The less generous interpretation is that I mean: "I want you to be honest or to wear your seat belt -- it would please me (for any number of reasons) for you to act so." (There is the special case in which that which pleases me is restricted to that which is objectively good for you because my life and my interests are so deeply bound up with yours, but my focus here is on the fact that I want you to do X, not on the potential "purity" of my motives for wanting so.)

On the generous interpretation, I can see no reason to use the word 'ought'. The concept of obligation has no place here, except in the metaphorical sense of "owing something to oneself". If I mean to say that something is objectively good or best for you, it is much more direct -- and objective -- to say just that.

On the less generous interpretation, I am merely asserting my wants and what I think will be best for you. If so, I might as well make the bald assertion and not dress up my desires with unnecessary, moralistic justifications.

Moreover, what I want you to do, or what I think will be good or best for you, is not essential to determining what is objectively good for you. To see why, let's perform a thought experiment. Imagine that you have been thinking about the policies that you follow in life and you have decided that you are going to give renewed emphasis to full honesty. You have independently come to the conclusion that honesty is the objectively best policy -- for the sake of your own success and happiness. You've seen that dishonesty is bad and that honesty is good -- that the former brings worry, fear, and long-term pain, and that the latter brings ease of mind, a direct relationship with reality and others, internal harmony, and long-term happiness.

Now let us say that you communicate your reasons and conclusions to me, as a means of letting me know where you stand. And I say: "That's great! I'm glad you've come to that conclusion, because I agree that it will be objectively best for you to have full honesty as your policy in life. But you know, above and beyond the objective good of that policy for your happiness and success, you ought to be honest. You should live that way."

What does my introduction of 'ought' add to your understanding of how you want to live your life? Absolutely nothing. It's the ethical equivalent of "piling on" -- unnecessary and unseemly.

The Initiation of Ought

Does this "piling on" have further ethical implications? I think it does, for in telling you what I think you ought to do, I have interposed myself between you and reality. I have foisted upon you what I think is best for you or what I want you to do, as opposed to what you evaluate as best for you or what you want to do. I call this interference -- this interposition of my judgment between you and reality -- 'the initiation of ought'. And the initiation of ought can be even more insidious than the initiation of force. To see how, let's look at a specific, albeit fictional, example.

Early in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, there is a scene that captures a moment of ethical interchange between two individuals. Peter Keating has just graduated as the valedictorian of his class from the Architectural School of the Stanton Institute of Technology. Howard Roark has just been expelled from that school. These two young men meet on the porch of Keating's house, where Roark is a boarder. Keating has been offered a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and a job with the firm of Francon & Heyer. And Keating asks Roark for advice: which offer should he accept? What should he do?

It's important to recognize what Keating has done here. In essence, by asking Roark to tell him what he should do, Keating has asked Roark to interpose himself between Keating and reality, to disclose what Roark wants for Keating, what Roark thinks is best for Keating. He has goaded Roark into the initiation of ought. He has handed Roark the club of morality and begged to be hit with 'oughts' and 'shoulds'.

Now, Roark is an individualist and a first-hander, which means that it is against his principles to tell Keating which offer he should accept. Yet Keating has placed the club of morality in his hand. Roark senses the weight of the club, and it feels good. So, despite his avowed individualism, he swings the club -- not in regard to the particular issue facing Keating, but in regard to the general policy behind it. Roark initiates ought and says to Keating, in effect: "You know, I'm not going to tell you which offer you should accept, because I think in making one's own decisions in life. But you damn well shouldn't ask for advice. You ought to think for yourself. How can you not know what's best for you? You should be independent. You ought to trust yourself. That's what you ought to do -- that's the way you should be."

As disappointing as Roark's behavior is here, this conversation is, unfortunately, not the only instance of Roark's interposing himself between Keating and reality. In fact, the very plot of The Fountainhead depends on Roark's repeated assistance to Keating in the area of his creative work. Keating, not trusting himself to create good or original buildings, turns time after time to Roark's independent mind for solutions. And, each time, Roark obliges by showing Keating the way that the building should be, further undercutting Keating's fragile self-trust until Keating is nothing more than an empty shell. Too late, after he blows up Cortlandt Homes, Roark realizes that he has been a willing participant in an even greater act of violence: the destruction of Peter Keating's soul.

Ethical Midwifery

What else could Howard Roark have done? How else could he have acted towards Peter Keating and yet remained true to his individualism? Here are my thoughts.

The essential principle involved here is that of self-trust -- a concept that Rand touches on explicitly in her novel Anthem (Rand 1937, 80) and implicitly in some of her other works. When I initiate ought and interpose myself between you and reality, the message I send is: I do not trust you to do what is best -- you have no reason to rely on or be confident in your own qualities and abilities -- you need my help and advice because you are not competent to deal with reality.

This is an incredibly destructive message -- and it is the message of all ethical systems that are founded on imperative concepts of obligation. But is there a better way to reason about ethics, both in one's own mind and with one's fellow human beings? I think there is.

An objective ethics focuses on what is, in reality, good for the individual. If I converse with you about your course in life, I can proceed objectively and with full trust in you by focusing on your wants, your needs, your goals, your desires, your objective good. What I want for you, what I think will be best for you, what I want for myself from you -- these are of no consequence in this context. What matters crucially is your life and happiness. And the best way for me to focus on your life and happiness is to act as a "midwife" to your happiness, to elicit your thoughts and feelings, and to help you explore your goals and desires -- not mine.

Let's focus this line of thought by applying it to Roark and Keating and their conversation on the porch. If I put myself in Roark's shoes, I can see that it would be best for Keating (and indeed best for the health of my relationship with Keating) not to tell him what he should or should not do or be, but to help him find out for himself what is best for him. Instead of initiating ought, I can ask him exploratory questions such as: "It doesn't matter what I think -- what do you want? Do you truly want to go to the Beaux Arts, or would you rather work for Francon?" If Keating replies "I don't really care" or "I can't decide," I can say: "Peter, dig a little deeper into your soul. What are your true thoughts and feelings are about this choice?" If he still can't decide, I can point out that this may be a signal that the choice does not spark his interest, because neither alternative is especially attractive to him. I can ask: "Do you truly want to become an architect? I'm not suggesting that you don't, but what do you really feel about the profession?" Keating might say: "Well, it's prestigious, and mother says you meet all the right people in architecture." But I can insist on getting to the essence: "Peter, we're not talking about what your mother wants or what society values -- we're talking about what you want and value. Do you love architecture with deep passion -- do you feel that this is what you want to do with your life?" Eventually, through enough ethical midwifery (gentle or tough as the context demands), I shall help my friend realize for himself that what he truly wants is not to build buildings but to paint paintings (as Keating realizes late in the novel -- when, in the words of Roark, it is "too late").

Letting Go

Is the practice of this kind of "ethical midwifery" -- which I consider to be eminently rational and benevolent -- at odds with the ethical theory of Objectivism? Given Rand's critique of duty-oriented ethical systems in "Causality vs. Duty", is there any place for 'ought', 'should', and other imperative concepts in an objective ethics?

Rand criticizes Kant for his concept of the categorical imperative -- the idea that one must do X simply because it is right or moral according to a certain theory of morality. We could call this "theoretical necessity" in order to oppose it to Rand's conception of "realistic necessity" or the "hypothetical imperative". Rand's idea is that one must do X only if one wants to be happy. Thus, in contrast to Kant's focus on what ethical theory demands, Rand focuses on what reality demands.

But can an imperative ethics be an objective ethics? Is ethics a matter of necessities, commands, obligations, and requirements -- with my only choice being who or what will issue the imperatives I follow? Where is the "joy and reason and meaning in life" (Rand 1943, 543) and the "love for existence" (Rand 1957, 1028, 1058, 1067, 1068) in a philosophy that puts its ethical emphasis not on what is good for me or best for the individual but on what reality or morality requires and demands? I think that accepting the imperative assumptions of traditional ethics leads to a desiccated view of life and a joyless existence -- as witness the Objectivist ethics according to Leonard Peikoff, who says things like "rationality ... is the primary obligation of man" (Peikoff 1991, 221). Since when does man have "obligations" to reality?

It is true that rationality, clear thinking, and independence of mind are good policies and principles to follow in life. But the justification of such policies and principles is an objective matter of what is good or best for the human individual, not an imperative matter of the obligations that reality or morality imposes. Letting go of 'ought' by no means implies letting go of principles, policies, integrity, or morality -- only of the morality of obligations.

As Rand notes in "Causality vs. Duty" and David Kelley reminds us in his essay "I Don't Have To" (Kelley 1996), there is nothing that I must do. Instead, Kelley argues that what matters is what I want to do. However, what I want to do, while important motivationally, is not objective. I can want anything -- but not just anything will be good or best for my life. What I want is a matter of desire and emotion -- but what is best for me is a matter of exploration, discovery, reasoned choice, and action. My desire is subjective (in the sense of 'intensely or irreducibly personal') -- what is best for me is objective.

It is best for me to achieve -- and I want to achieve -- a balance between objective and subjective, between reason and desire, between what is best for me and what I want. When what is best for me is what I want and what I want is what is best for me, then I can trust my desires because they are in harmony with my reason. But I cannot reach that level of integration without first letting go of 'ought' and focusing, not on commands and obligations and requirements, but on what is objectively good for me as the uniquely individual human being that I am.

Consistent with that understanding, I do not say that you or I should let go of 'ought' and lay down forever the club of morality. I say simply that it is best to do so -- for the health of your relationship with those you value and, fundamentally, for the sake of your own independence, self-trust, and happiness.


Kelley, David. 1996. I Don't Have To. IOS Journal 6(1).

Peikoff, Leonard. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.

Rand, Ayn. [1937] 1946. Anthem. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers.
--. 1943. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
--. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
--. 1961. "The Objectivist Ethics". Paper delivered at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, February 9, 1961. Reprinted in Rand 1964.
--. 1962. "Introduction to Ninety-Three". Original version.
--. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library. References are to the paperback edition.
--. 1970. Causality vs. Duty. The Objectivist 9(7). Reprinted in Rand 1982.
--. 1982. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: New American Library.

I would like to thank Scott Capehart, Stephen Cox, William Dale, Rick Minto, and Chris Sciabarra for their comments on this essay.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections