On some level, you know this. But every day, a thousand different voices scream that it belongs to someone or something else. It's implied that your life belongs to your family, to your community, to the poor, to your nation, to the environment, to supernatural forces.
If you feel the call of these voices, it is because of your sense of morality. You want to live a righteous life and these voices suggest that some higher authority offers a standard of morality. Their assumption is that left to your own devices, you have no moral compass to guide the major choices of your life.
But if your life is your own, your life is your true north, your standard of value directing life’s major choices. Many fail to see this because they think life is something that just happens, not something that has to be owned. But being born doesn’t give you a life. To own your life is to take active responsibility for it, to be the spark and the engine of your ongoing growth.
Owning your life is not easy. It demands ruthless honesty, integrity, and a sense of justice. It means finding and sustaining a productive purpose. It means developing the self-esteem necessary to resist the siren calls of those voices who would have you take the easy path, the path of surrendering your life to others who would live it for you. It demands a moral code.
The Undercurrent is proud to sponsor a series of articles, videos, and campus events organized around the slogan, “It’s Your Life. Own It.” Please sample the offerings on this web site and look to the external sources we recommend to learn more about the philosophical ideas that have motivated us to share our passion for self-ownership and the moral virtues it demands.
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On April 1, 2014 at 6:30pm CST, Don Watkins will join Professor Howard Schweber to debate the question: “Is the welfare state just?” Since both are skilled speakers, the debate is likely to be lively and engaging, with Watkins taking the position that the welfare state is not just and Schweber defending the opposing point of view. Issues that will probably arise during the debate include: the morality of the welfare state and the responsibilities that individuals should have toward others in society. Other points of contention will be the effects of the welfare state on both young people entering the workforce today and those entering retirement.
The debate is being sponsored by the University of Wisconsin at Madison and will take place on its campus. Admission is free and open to members of the public, students are especially welcome.
Information on livestreaming will be posted to this website at a later date.
A recording of the debate will also be posted at the top of this page.
About Don Watkins
Don Watkins is coauthor, with Yaron Brook, of the national best-seller Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, and a fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, where he studies the welfare state and the moral foundations of capitalism.
As one of today’s most vocal champions of laissez-faire capitalism, Mr. Watkins has been interviewed on hundreds of radio and TV programs, and speaks regularly at conferences and university campuses, including Stanford, Brown, the University of Virginia, and the University of Chicago. His writings have appeared in The Guardian, USA Today, Forbes, among many others.
Mr. Watkins’s new book, RooseveltCare: How Social Security is Sabotaging the Land of Self-Reliance, is a moral critique of the welfare state.
In the final installment of Under the Surface, we summarize the implications of the earlier episodes. What one upholds when one affirms the importance of choosing one's own standards, of finding meaning in one's life, and being willing to fight for one's vision of what is meaningful, is a code of morality. But it is a code of morality unlike most conventional codes of morality. It is a code of the morality of self-interest. Subjects interviewed discuss what the self really is, what its interests are, and why pursuing these interest demands a rigorous set of standards. The most important of these standards is that we not sacrifice the interests of the self, not to anyone or anything else.
In the third installment of Under the Surface, we interview people who have fought for their values in the face of adversity and have come out on top. Subjects interviewed discuss conflicts they have faced with parents, coworkers, and mentors, and the attitudes they developed to live through and rise above the conflict. Further they comment on the value of experiencing one's own efficacy in the face of opposition, and the sense of efficacy that comes from resolving conflicts and helping others share one's own values--especially if one does not dwell on conflict and does not regard oneself as one's brother's keeper.
If you like this video, be sure to check back next week for the next installment
In the second installment of Under the Surface, we interview people who find that productive work adds meaning and purpose to their lives. Subjects interviewed explore the parallels between creativity in art and in business, and comment on the importance of loving the doing vs. the rewards that result from doing it. Further they comment on how excelling at a productive career is a form of self-expression and a realization of the pursuit of rational self-interest.
In the first installment of Under the Surface, our new video series, we interview a range of individuals at various stages of their careers who have thought carefully about what it means to set their own standards. Questions discussed include: Should we measure our success by our own standards, or by the standards of others? Are social prestige and popularity sources of real self-esteem? What does it mean to think for yourself?
Morality: Who Needs It?by Valery Publius
Do you lead a moral life? To many this may sound like an old-fashioned question. To them, the idea of “morality” connotes a series of stale, burdensome rules, usually urging chastity, renunciation, and tithing. Most people, of course, will refuse to break certain moral taboos, usually because of social pressure. But few thirst for living a moral life, which is thought to be impractical and at odds with modern life.
One thing is for sure: morality as it is understood conventionally is at odds with life, modern or otherwise. The advocates of conventional morality-preachers, prophets, and professors-have always embraced the impracticality of the moral life, urging that a willingness to sacrifice and suffer is precisely the mark of a superior character.
But why? Why would anyone regard the embrace of impracticality as a “superior” thing? Why does conventional morality require self-sacrifice? The answers have always been the same: God demands it, or society dictates it, or this is what your mother raised you to believe.
But why assume morality is defined by somebody else’s commandment? To live a moral life is just to live a good life, insofar as it is open to your choice. One philosopher, Ayn Rand, thought that the principles of leading a good life could be formulated in much the same way that principles of good health or good nutrition are formulated: on the basis of natural, observable facts, rather than arbitrary edicts. On this basis, she argued that while we do not need conventional morality, we do need a new, unconventional one.
Ayn Rand observed that water and sunlight are good for a plant, that food and shelter are good for an animal. In general, an organism’s action is “good” whenever it results in that organism’s survival. She proceeded to apply this insight to the question of the human good. This unconventional approach resulted in an unconventional moral code, one that upheld self-interest, not self-sacrifice: “The purpose of morality,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”
Morality, on Ayn Rand’s view, is not a set of arbitrary, useless commandments, but a code of practical principles required for human life. But living practically is not as simple as embracing indiscriminately whatever money or sex conventional moralists have asked us to renounce. Ayn Rand reminds us in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: “Man cannot survive, like an animal, by acting on the range of the moment….[He] has to choose his course, his goals, his values in the context and terms of a lifetime.”
Most people already realize that in some parts of life, we must act on definite principles if we want to achieve a long-range goal, such as health or nutrition. But human life requires more than good health and good nutrition. We need not only a healthy body, but also a healthy mind, to aid us in creating our many physical necessities. We need a central productive purpose, to channel our many efforts efficiently. And we need sense of own efficacy, to sustain our motivation. Ayn Rand summarized this, again in The Virtue of Selfishness: “The values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life-are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem.”
Understanding how these values are not only means, but components of a human life, we can begin to see how Ayn Rand could regard selfishness as a virtue. Once we grasp that human life is more than health and nutrition, we see that some principles of action required for living selfishly are recognizable as long-cherished virtues, not as commandments, but as practical means to achieving selfish ends. Productiveness is a virtue because human beings survive by altering their environment, not by adapting to it. Honesty is a virtue because we cannot retain a healthy mind while faking reality, as by expecting others to produce for us. Justice is a virtue because we cannot live, learn, or prosper in a society without rewarding others for doing the same.
So who needs morality? Nobody needs the conventional morality of self-sacrifice, and its advocates have rarely pretended that anyone does. But Ayn Rand formulated a new code of morality, one that rejects the stale edicts of convention, while embracing the new responsibilities required by reason, purpose, and self-esteem. This is the kind of morality we need, the morality of rational selfishness. “If you wish to go on living,” Ayn Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “what you now need is not to return to morality-you who have never known any-but to discover it.”
Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.