I wanted to provide an update. I don’t expect any particular replies to this – it’s an interim update.
I reread some of the first chapter of Philosophy: Who Needs It. I didn’t remember how relevant it was. Major takeaway so far: ‘what is moral’ is derived from values and principles we choose to pursue.
I have a different interpretation of Galt’s speech now. Like I think I understand why the man on the desert island needs morality. (Note: it seems like even a crude morality in this crude situation would suffice, but it needs to work.) Particularly wrt something I wrote in the OP: “Sometimes those projects/decisions only impact a single person, in which case they’re probably amoral – that’s okay” – is it the case that the stranded man’s actions are amoral just because he’s the only one affected? No – “reality will show him that life is a value to be bought and that thinking is the only coin noble enough to buy it.”
Here are some quotes I saved from PWNI-ch1 as relevant:
if you don’t look, you won’t have to know that you are, perhaps, too far from the earth and no return is possible; so long as you don’t know it, you are free to believe what you wish—and you experience a foggy, pleasant, but somehow guilty, kind of hope.
The third branch—ethics—may be regarded as its technology. Ethics does not apply to everything that exists, only to man, but it applies to every aspect of man’s life: his character, his actions, his values, his relationship to all of existence. Ethics, or morality, defines a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the course of his life.
What is good or evil for man—and why? Should man’s primary concern be a quest for joy—or an escape from suffering? Should man hold self-fulfillment—or self-destruction—as the goal of his life? Should man pursue his values—or should he place the interests of others above his own? Should man seek happiness—or self-sacrifice?
Now ask yourself: if you are not interested in abstract ideas, why do you (and all men) feel compelled to use them? The fact is that abstract ideas are conceptual integrations which subsume an incalculable number of concretes—and that without abstract ideas you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. The difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed.
(note for above: emphasis mine)
Your subconscious is like a computer—more complex a computer than men can build—and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don’t reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance—and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions—which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values. If you programmed your computer by conscious thinking, you know the nature of your values and emotions. If you didn’t, you don’t.
(edit WRT last quote: if you do not choose your values then you don’t have control over them – if anything, the first step is choosing some. before that everything is random and inconsistencies creep in; how do you guard against them? after you choose some values/principles, at least it’s possible to confront inconsistencies. that’s why choosing rationality as a value/principle is so important – it’s that foundation that let’s you build a morality that’s valuable and meaningful. (aside: i have a worry that what i’ve said is mistaken such that it’d be overly judgemental – I think being able to make judgements is important, but erring on the side of not-overly-judgemental seems safer. i’m unsure about that and wanted to put it out there))