Theresa O’Connor

Positive and Negative Ethical Orientations

Not too long ago1, I attended a meeting of the Harvard Objectivist Club with a few friends. Copies of an ARI article, “Environmentalism: A Doctrine of Man-Hatred” were circulated. I was struck by the negative vibe from the article. Upon reflection, I decided to write about the tendency of some to focus on the negative aspects of life, and to describe and defend a positive orientation toward life.

First, a definition. I define the word negativity to mean “an undue focus on the negative.”

What facts of reality give rise to the concept “negativity”? At any time, each of us is presented with many options, each of which offers us a different set and amount of value, and each of which requires a different amount of focus. The key to life is to make the optimal (or near-optimal) choice, and by doing so, maximizing value received. Ethics is the science which guides us in this decision-making process. As humans, we have a limited amount of time in which to live, and thus have to allocate our time as best we can.2 Every minute spent focusing on one aspect of the decision is one that could have been spent focusing on one of the other aspects. Given these facts, it is possible to pay too much or not enough attention to any given aspect in a decision. To rephrase this, each aspect of the decision-making process has an associated amount of focus required, and the amount of focus allocated need not equal this.

The negative in life is real, and as something real, it does demand some attention. As Mark Sulkowski put it in an excellent OWL post, “[i]t is not true that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. In order to be successful in Reality, we do need to be aware of negatives in order to avoid them or conquer them.”3 But, being the negative, it is anti-life and anti-value. Given this, it is appropriate to spend the necessary amount of time considering the negative, but no more. Now this is not to say that the negative is to be avoided or even (dare I say it) evaded. Hence the presence of “undue” in the above definition. Again, Mark Sulkowski:

“[…]it does not pay, psychologically, to dwell on the negatives. Dwelling on a thought does not mean merely recognizing the existence of some aspect of Reality. It means an unhealthy and unwarranted repeated focus on a thought, to the expense of thinking about other more worthwhile thoughts[…]”3

A friend and fellow intellectual traveler wrote in objection to the inclusion of “undue” in this definition that “[n]o one thinks they focus on evil too much; some people just think evil is more important than it is.”4 And while I can see his point, I hold that “undue” is grounded in context and thus applies to anybody presented with the same choice. I reject the subjectivist stance of having everybody base their conception of “undue” on whim. It’s important to recognize the fact that, for a given context, there is some amount of focus that must be directed toward the negative out of necessity, and that this is all it is due. Remember that, while it is important to see the negative for what it is, and to respond appropriately, evil is impotent and not worthy of extensive attention.

Since there is so much value to be gained, I don’t see the point in wasting my time constantly pointing out what’s wrong with the world today. I would much rather spend my time creating value. I don’t mean to imply that the state of the world is great, nor do I mean to suggest that it is appropriate to sanction evil. What I’m saying is that, in many situations and on many subjects, I find the best policy to be one of simply saying “I disagree” and proceeding on to better things. Consider the following passage from The Fountainhead, when Ellsworth Toohey confronts Roark at the mangled Stoddard Temple:

“Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

“But I don’t think of you.”5

Roark is primarily concerned with having a good life, and doesn’t waste his time dealing with Toohey. You don’t see him running around yelling that Toohey is a man-hater.

At a salon meeting I recently attended6, Bob Bidinotto made a distinction between what he called “value-seeking” and “virtue-seeking” moralities.7 Essentially, a value-seeking morality is one whose major focus is the achievement of values. Similarly, a virtue-seeking morality is one whose major focus is living virtuously. Now, this is not to say that a value-seeking morality is one in which values are pursued by any means necessary and that virtue-seeking moralities lack values that the virtues are geared toward achieving. This is an identification of what aspects of the moral code are focused on by the practitioners.

A value-seeking individual looks at the world and sees tremendous good to be had, magnificent happiness to be obtained, and that a great life is within his or her grasp. Because there is a large amount of value in the world, he or she has a fundamentally positive orientation toward life and living.

The virtue-seeking person looks at the world and sees it falling apart, victim of the evil within people. This individual sees evil as rampant, as a potent force in the world, and wants nothing to do with it. Because this individual is primarily concerned with the virtuous qualities of his or her life and the lives of others, and there are many people who lack (or seemingly lack) the virtues in question, his or her impression of the world is predominantly negative. Mark Sulkowski points out that

“[d]welling on a negative blows it out of proportion compared to the positives. The positives shrink away out of view and are effectively forgotten…indeed, they are 'negated' out of conscious awareness.”3

Negativity can be a product of virtue-seeking morality. If you’re overly concerned with your own virtuous nature, you can make yourself look better by continually pointing out the lack of virtue of others. Christopher Baker touched upon this in an O-L post a while back: “It’s in part motivated by a need to feel superior. Don’t you feel superior when you label someone negatively? It’s the most common form of pseudo-self-esteem practiced. And by purging people one labels negatively, one protects one’s judgment of them.”8

There are also significant differences between value-seeking and virtue-seeking moralities in regard to the nature of principles. Imagine the set of possible actions facing an actor. Let’s picture this set as the following rectangle:

A box labeled “set of possible actions”

A principle is something which partitions this set like so:

A box divided into “moral” and “immoral” halves

A negatively-oriented person would tend to see the nature of a principle as something which tells us what not to do, by classifying a bunch of possible actions as immoral. When principles are used in this way, they tend to be not much more than rules. And as David Kelley asked about rules, “After you have refrained from doing these 'Don’ts,' what then? What values will you seek in life?”9

A positively-oriented person holds that principles help us to find the best thing to do by focusing our attention on the preferable subset of possible actions. Or, for those more mathematically-inclined readers, think of a principle as a gradient for a surface: for any action, it tends to tell you how to pick a better action best.10

The virtue of benevolence is a manifestation of a positive orientation toward life and the world, and of a value-seeking morality. If you expect to succeed in the world, if you expect to be happy, and if you recognize that this is the case for others as well, you tend to treat others benevolently. If, on the other hand, your focus is toward avoiding the negative, you will tend to shun others.11

A friend once asked: “Why be wrong? Being right is far, far more fun.”4 Similarly, I ask: Why be negative? Being positive is far, far more productive and rewarding.

Notes

  1. Thanksgiving, 1999. As of this writing (early December 1999), this was, in fact, “not too long ago.”
  2. As Theophrastus said, time is the most valuable thing that a man can spend.
  3. Mark Sulkowski. “Focus on the Positives.” Posted to on 2 December 1999.
  4. William Sullivan. Personal correspondence with the author.
  5. Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead.
  6. The Boston Objectivist Network salon meeting at Kirez Korgan’s house, 20 November 1999.
  7. He gave a lecture on this subject at one of the IOS Summer Seminars. TOC has tapes of this lecture available. I haven’t listened to this lecture, but it’s on my list of things to do.
  8. Christopher Baker. “Repressive Objectivism.” Posted to on 15 January 1999.
  9. David Kelley. “Ruled or Principled?” IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 6, February 1997.
  10. Or even think of it as a slope field when you’re dealing with differential equations. There are lots of neat things in math like this. Isn’t math great?
  11. See David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism for a much more in-depth discussion of benevolence and how it relates to life.