Ethics provides “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” Value, according to Ayn Rand, is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” Value presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where there is no alternative, there are no possible goals and values. The fundamental alternative of life or death is the precondition of all values. This shows that life should be our ultimate value, something to be pursued as an end in itself, the standard for all other values.
“Goal-directed entities do not exist in order to pursue values; they pursue values in order to exist.” They do this because tacitly or not, they recognize life as their ultimate reason for acting. Only man came up with “anti-reasons” not to live qua man, not to remain in the realm of reality. Accepting life as the ultimate value is accepting reality as primary.
Man, therefore, must look at reality to discover the values his life requires. The good is an aspect of reality in relation to man that must be discovered, not revealed to him or determined by what pleases him most at the moment. Man has to choose his own course in life through an evaluation of the facts of reality by his own consciousness according to a rational standard of value — his own life. The purpose of morality is to guide him in this process. Values, then, are not intrinsic to “things-in-themselves” or subjective according to the whims of man: they are objective.
But if values are objective, as well as concepts, they must be formed by the integration and abstraction of perceptions, ultimately, from the complete context of one’s knowledge. Man can only retain all this knowledge, keeping it ready at hand, through principles. A principle is a general truth upon which other truths depend. Moral principles identify the relationship between man’s survival and the various basic human choices, allowing man to act and choose focusing on the long run. The only alternative to action governed by moral principles is action expressing a short-term impulse. But the short term, viewed from a long-term standpoint, is self-destructive. Man’s life means life according to the principles of human survival, that is, long-term rational values.
To act in principle is in itself an expression of rationality; it is a form of being governed by one’s own conceptual faculty, of acting according to one’s own rational conclusions, and to do so for the purpose of maintaining and enjoying one’s own life. Objectivism, therefore, defends egoism — the pursuit of rational self-interest. This means keeping man’s life as the standard of value that defines “self-interest” and rationality as the main virtue that defines the method of attaining it.
But egoism, by the objectivist meaning of the term, is not doing what you want to the detriment of all others. Rational and responsible social existence is a great value for the life of man. Egoism can never equate to the evasion of principles. Much less can it equate to doing what you feel like; the fact that you feel this does not necessarily make an action compatible with your own interests, at least not with your rational, life-promoting ones. The Objectivist “good” is to act guided by rational and moral principles — the integration of objective, reality-based values — in order to sustain one’s own life.