There’s nothing like throwing Ayn Rand into a conversation on-line to stir up controversy, but here goes…

Ayn Rand was a big fan of Aristotle, but criticized his ethics for being merely descriptive — for not inquiring into the reasons why certain things are virtues, but instead merely cataloging the characteristics Aristotle noticed in people who seemed to be thriving.

Rand felt that virtues have a basis in values: the virtue is the behavior that enables you to achieve your value. One way to put this is that in contrast to Aristotle who thought that practicing the virtues was the way of living a flourishing life, Rand thought that practicing the virtues was the way to obtain the values that a flourishing life demands. These values are freely chosen by each individual in order to serve that individual’s perceived interests, and such a choice can be more or less rational (that is, corresponding to reality and actually effective in serving the individual’s interests).

Ethics to Rand was an objective necessity for living in the world as a human being. We are not sufficiently equipped to live by instinct or unconscious mechanism as animals and plants and microorganisms may. We must choose values and act rationally to achieve them if we are to survive and thrive.

People are free to choose any set of values, but most people choose poorly, and they suffer for it. The correct three values, according to Rand, are reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Once you’ve got those straight, the corresponding virtues come naturally: rationality, productiveness, and pride. That makes for about the shortest list I’ve found so far, neck-and-neck with (but not particularly harmonic with) St. Paul’s Christian virtues of “faith, hope, and charity.”

Self-esteem means that you accept that you are responsible for the care and flourishing of yourself, and you acknowledge that this is a worthy thing to care about. Pride Rand also calls “moral ambitiousness.” She (in)famously contrasts this with altruism, which she characterizes as a vice — a variety of masochistic self-immolation: treating oneself as a sacrificial animal on the altar of society or of other people.

By rationality, she means a relentless drive to see reality as it really is, and deal with it on its terms. It implies virtues like awareness, focus, independent thought, honesty, responsibility, skepticism, and integrity.

And by productiveness she means “the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability… [with] the fullest and most purposeful use of [one’s] mind.” It includes the virtues of ambition, creativity, assertiveness, endurance, and dedication.

Rand also emphasized that just as you should see yourself as the measure of your values, you should expect others to do likewise and should never expect them to sacrifice themselves for you or your plans. “[E]very living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others.” So there’s a sort of respect for others that also sneaks in as an important virtue in Rand’s scheme.

Because the values of Rand’s philosophy — “Objectivism” she called it — are in one’s enlightened self-interest, enacting the virtues that pursue those values is productive of pleasure, of the good life. People whose values are out-of-whack, on the other hand, develop self-sabotaging virtues that cause them to seek for pleasure in self-harming ways that destroy the means of pleasure.

“The Objectivist Ethics” is a good introduction to Rand’s ideas about virtue.