The Prophet of Causation

After writing a whole book of essays on Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, I’ve been taking some time to reflect on the new things I learned from this project. It’s a novel I’ve read many times over three decades, and I use ideas from it every day in my life and my work, but formally writing down what I’ve learned about the book and trying to cover many different aspects of it is bound to produce some new perspectives.

A lot of those new perspectives ended up in my book. Part of the reason it took me five years to write it, aside from all of my other work, is that as I was writing I kept coming up with new observations and whole new angles, and suddenly there was another chapter I just had to write.

So there are many new ideas in the book. But in looking back on it some months afterward, there is one big thing that emerges as a new and clarifying perspective on Ayn Rand’s philosophy and her work.

This perspective really opened up for me in the process of writing four chapters in particular: Chapters 14 through 17, “The Operation of the Moral Law,” “The Pathology Report,” “The Curious Adventure of the Man of Reason,” and “The First of Their Return.” Partly it was the process of gathering together these essays and putting them in order, which caused me to look for thematic connections that would lead logically from one chapter to the next. In these four chapters I noticed one issue that ran through them—and the more I look, the farther it reaches. That issue is the concept of causality.

Let me give a brief overview of Chapter 14—enough to give you the idea, hopefully not enough to steal my own thunder. “The operation of the moral law” is an intriguing formulation (the phrase is used by Francisco D’Anconia) for Ayn Rand’s conception of morality as the working out of cause and effect relationships. Here is how I sum it up:

Life is the goal, to which moral choices are the means. The nature of man and the requirements of human survival dictate that certain choices will advance that goal and certain choices will undermine them…. The moral law is the unfolding of the consequences of moral choices, operating with the same inexorability as the laws of physics—or the laws of economics.

This is Ayn Rand’s answer to the challenge of creating a rational, secular code of morality. Morality is a set of principles identifying factual, provable cause-and-effect relationships between the goal of survival and the actions required to achieve it.

In the book, I refer readers to the place where Ayn Rand makes this most explicit: a short 1970 article, later collected in Philosophy: Who Needs It, titled “Causality Versus Duty.” It can easily be overlooked because it appears merely to be Ayn Rand’s commentary on the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Yet it contains what I regard as the most illuminating explanation of the foundations of her own moral system.

In reality and in the Objectivist ethics, there is no such thing as “duty.” There is only choice and the full, clear recognition of a principle obscured by the notion of “duty”: the Law of Causality….

Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know how to achieve them.

In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of…the principle of causality—specifically, of Aristotelian final causation…, i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.

In a rational ethics, it is causality—not “duty”—that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating, and choosing one’s actions.

This theme of causation is crucial, not just to Ayn Rand’s view of morality, but to a whole series of other related issues. In the same chapter, I describe how it is central to her literary method, which consists of showing the unfolding of the consequences of the characters’ choices and actions—not just that good things happen to good people, while bad things happen to bad people, but the specific cause-and-effect chain by which they create those results. This is not merely the background of her literary method but its key focus—as I put it, showing “the operation of the moral law.”

The application of this to politics can be seen in the Taggart Tunnel disaster, in which Ayn Rand presents the corrupt political system that causes the catastrophe as a consequence of the moral and political choices made by the same people who are its victims. The disaster is the terminal stage of a deadly chain of cause and effect.

In “The Pathology Report,” I note how this causal view of morality is also crucial to her critique of altruism.

Morality, in her view, is a cause-and-effect relationship between means and ends, between the ultimate goal of life and the virtues that are the means to achieving it….

Note that sacrifice simply has no place in this chain of cause and effect. Deliberate sacrifice—sacrifice in the proper sense of the term, meaning the destruction of a greater value in exchange for a lesser one—sabotages one’s goals rather than moving them forward. It is a fundamental breakdown of the relationship between means and ends. So a morality of sacrifice requires a repudiation of cause and effect.

I go on to describe Ayn Rand’s argument that altruism actually requires a reversal of cause and effect.

In this same passage, I noted: “Similarly, she identifies emotions as automatized estimates, ‘lightning calculators’ of those cause-and-effect relationships.” In the following chapter, “The Curious Adventure of the Man of Reason,” I examine her idea of emotions, not just as estimates of cause and effect relationships, but as themselves an effect of underlying causes.

Just as emotions are effects of a deeper cause, so is consciousness as a whole. In “The First of Their Return,” I describe how Ayn Rand’s principle of “the primacy of existence” is her fundamental answer to the philosophical errors that undermined the Enlightenment. But if we look at the primacy of existence from the perspective of the role of causality in her philosophy, we can see it as another example of a cause-and-effect relationship. Consider her formulation of the primacy of existence in Galt’s Speech.

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.

This is an identification of the causal dependence of consciousness on existence. Existence is the fundamental cause, and your consciousness of existence is an effect.

Readers who are familiar with more of the details of Ayn Rand’s philosophy may recognize how this is reflected in her defense of the validity of sense-perception. The senses are valid because they are connected to reality through automatic cause-and-effect relationships. For example, light hits the retina of the eye and produces certain chemicals, which then cause the transmission of nerve signals to the brain, which are then automatically coordinated in the visual cortex. The result is valid because it is the end of a chain of physical causes that originate in our contact with reality.

In short, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is a philosophy of causation all the way down.

In “Causality Versus Duty,” she describes the adherent of a rational approach to morality as a “disciple of causation.” If we’re all supposed to be the disciples of causation, then she was its prophet.

That may seem an ironic way to describe her, given that religious revelation implies a non-causal form of consciousness, the opposite of what she argued for. But in its original etymology, the word for “prophet” just meant “messenger” or “spokesman.” Ayn Rand was a messenger bringing us her discoveries about the law of cause and effect and its implications for our understanding of the world and how we live in it.

This new insight is part of my reward for writing the book and one that I wanted to share with my readers. Take it as a guide for how to read Ayn Rand’s philosophy (and how to read my book). Be on the lookout for that recurring theme, which runs through her views on metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, ethics, politics, and esthetics.

Remember that Ayn Rand was the prophet of causation—or better yet, she was philosopher of causation.

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