[This is the 4th in a series of posts summarizing Ayn Rand's 1961 article, "The Objectivist Ethics". The first post is here.]
Man does not have a built-in code of values which tells him how to survive, he must discover this knowledge. But his mind does not function automatically, it is volitional: he is conscious (or not) by choice.
There are no perceptual mechanisms or instincts by which man may survive; human life requires conceptual knowledge and conceptual values. A concept is a mental integration of two or more concretes, isolated via abstraction and united with a definition. It is by concepts that man is able to grasp facts beyond the range of the moment, and to plan his days ahead, but concepts cannot be formed or used automatically.
The process of concept-formation involves a method of using one's consciousness which can be termed "conceptualizing." It involves an active process of conceptually identifying one's perceptual impressions, and expanding upon one's integrated sum of knowledge. This is the process of "thinking," and the faculty that works by means of concepts is "reason." Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses. Thinking is not automatic: man is free to think or not, to focus his mind or not.
An unfocused mind drifts according to the chance stimuli of an undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and the random associations of the subconscious. An unfocused mind is "conscious" in a subhuman sense, but in the sense proper to man it is not "conscious." When someone chooses to not think, he is choosing to not be alive as a human. Human life depends upon the products of volitional acts of thought, such as agriculture, medicine, and law.
The responsibility for actively thinking includes discovering and using the correct mental methods and acquiring the correct content. A person is responsible for discovering and using logic, for choosing the right goals and values, and for the burden of any errors made.
Man is not given any answers automatically, and ethics is the science which answers the question of which goals and values are right. This is why man needs ethics. The doctrines which say that ethics is the province of the irrational, or of another world or another life, are dead wrong: man's survival objectively requires ethics.