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Goal-Directed Action, Alternatives & Value

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This is an area of confusion regarding Objectivist metaethics that has vexed me for some time. I'm going to refer a bit to OPAR to unpack it a little. Let me preface this by saying that I'm posting this in M&E because I think it is properly a question of metaethics or perhaps the epistemology of value, not a normative ethical question per se.

My issue is that I don't have a clear understanding of what Rand/Peikoff mean by goal-directed action. The working definition given in the text is "Action toward an object" (209). But on its face, this isn't terribly illuminating. Falling objects seem to act in a way which is directed towards an object (namely the ground). Melting ice acts in accordance with its nature to transition into a liquid, given appropriate conditions. Even stars are born, go through various processes of growth and change, and then collapse into some final state. But presumably these aren't goal directed actions in a Randian sense. I tend to think Peikoff would put the entities I described in the same category as "desks and pebbles," entities that "we do not observe... pursuing goals" (209).

Why is this important? Because for Rand the term, "value," is defined empirically on the basis of, "the fact of goal-directed action," as, "that which one acts to obtain or keep" (208). Rand writes that value "presupposes an entity capable of generating action towards an object" (209). So the answer to Rand's question of what kind of entity needs values - and what those values are for - is at least partially dependent on unpacking what we might call Rand's account of agency. Rand/Peikoff maintain that only living organisms are "capable of self-generated, goal directed action - because they are the conditional entities, which face the alternative of life or death". Importantly, Rand is not talking here about what she argues is the exclusively human property of volition. "Goal directed behavior is possible only because an entity's action, its pursuit of a certain end, can make a difference to the outcome. 'Alternative' does not imply choice; it means that the entity is confronted by two possible results: either it acts successfully, gaining the object it seeks, or it does not (and thus fails to gain the object)" (208). This confuses me more than it clarifies the issue. I don't understand how a non-volitional organism is ever confronted by two possible results. Like all entities in the Objectivist metaphysics, it can only act in accordance with its nature. For non-volitional entities, this means that it necessarily acts in a particular way given a particular set of circumstances. Where is the alternative? What does Peikoff mean by saying that there is an alternative without choice?

For instance, let us say that I leave some algae in a petri dish with bright lights and some food. Overnight, the algae consumes the food and the number of organisms doubles. At least intuitively, this seems like it should be a decent example of goal-directed action. But what's the alternative confronted by the algae? They certainly can't choose not to consume the food. The alternative seems to just be the truth of the counterfactual hypothetical sounding something like: Well, if it had failed to eat the food, it wouldn't have doubled in number. But the algae could only have not consumed the food and doubled in number if its nature were different than it is. It seems unlikely that what Peikoff means by possessing an alternative, however, is that an entities nature could be other than it is.

Without a clear notion of goal-directed action, we can't identify what kinds of entities need values and what those values are for. The upshot of the issue I'm outlining is that from an Objectivist perspective (1) I can't figure out a rigorous way to distinguish between inanimate objects and living beings in terms of the goal-directedness of their actions, which threatens to make the category of entities which possess values over-inclusive, and (2) I can't understand the criterion put forward by Peikoff to answer this concern in a way which does not contradict the Objectivist account of causation. I'd be interested in hearing clarifications from y'all.

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Goal-directed action, with goal-directed being one of choice.

Falling objects, melting ice, the lifecycle of a star, or even algae in a petri dish, are not exercising choice, the choice available to a volitional, conceptual consciousness.

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I don't understand how a non-volitional organism is ever confronted by two possible results. Like all entities in the Objectivist metaphysics, it can only act in accordance with its nature. For non-volitional entities, this means that it necessarily acts in a particular way given a particular set of circumstances. Where is the alternative? What does Peikoff mean by saying that there is an alternative without choice?

When a lion is chasing its prey, there are certainly more than two possible results. The alternative of eating, or not is present, but fundamentally it all goes back to existence or non existence, thats the alternative. I also think its important to stress the fact that were talking about "self generated, goal directed action", so that exempts falling rocks and melting ice. The point is, only life can go out of existence, "goal directed action" is action taken to keep that from happening. Mans volition however, introduces the possibility of anti-life actions, but thats just part of mans nature, his identity. Granted, algae cant choose not to eat, but the fact that it is alive (for now) necessitates actions taken to maintain that life (the goal).

j..

Edited by JayR

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But what's the alternative confronted by the algae?

Life or death is the fundamental alternative faced by every living organism. It is like a fork in the road which all other non-living matter doesn't face. Inanimate matter isn't alive so it faces no alternative. But the algae has no choice about whether to act or not. If it is alive it will act -- and then it will either gain the food it needs and live or it won't and it will die. For higher animals not only will they pursue food but they will also act to avoid predators -- and either it will avoid them and live or it won't and it will die.

For man, we face the fundamental alternative of life or death also but we have to choose to act, we can choose to live or die and that is why we need morality. Because once we choose to live, then we need to figure out how to act to achieve life.

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Without a clear notion of goal-directed action, we can't identify what kinds of entities need values and what those values are for. The upshot of the issue I'm outlining is that from an Objectivist perspective (1) I can't figure out a rigorous way to distinguish between inanimate objects and living beings in terms of the goal-directedness of their actions, which threatens to make the category of entities which possess values over-inclusive, and (2) I can't understand the criterion put forward by Peikoff to answer this concern in a way which does not contradict the Objectivist account of causation. I'd be interested in hearing clarifications from y'all.

Distinguish between inanimate objects and living beings on the basis of the union of 'goal-directed' and 'self-generated' applying to the same actions. The term 'self' is derivative from the entity perspective, so it is epistemological. 'Self-generated' is internal causation as opposed to external causation. Entity-based causation certainly applies inside among the parts of an organism as well as outside between organisms, so this is no violation of causality.

Values are necessary for living organisms to continue to exist, where 'exist' means remaining an active process as opposed to inertly disintegrating.

For non-volitional entities, this means that it necessarily acts in a particular way given a particular set of circumstances. Where is the alternative?
The alternative is located in the relationship between the organism and the environment. A simple organism does only one or a very few actions. Those actions may or may not be suited to the environment it finds itself in, 'suited' meaning they result in obtaining what is necessary for continued existence. The way an organism will necessarily act if it fails to obtain the values it needs is to die. Life and death are equally necessary as far as causation is concerned and yet they are different states, different arrangements of the multiple internal parts of certain entities, or in other words alternatives.

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"For instance, let us say that I leave some algae in a petri dish with bright lights and some food. Overnight, the algae consumes the food and the number of organisms doubles. At least intuitively, this seems like it should be a decent example of goal-directed action. But what's the alternative confronted by the algae? "

Modify your experiment. Put the food only in one half of Petri dish, in the second half put the sand. Leave algae in both sides. You will see that algae's "choice" is food and not sand because consumption as such is not its goal. Goal is survival and betterment of an organism. It doesn't matter that such a "choice" is not volitional. It's a result of algae's self-initiated action. The same action on conceptual level of self-awareness becomes volitional choice.

Edited by Leonid

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...The working definition given in the text is "Action toward an object" (209).

..."Goal directed behavior is possible only because an entity's action, its pursuit of a certain end, can make a difference to the outcome. 'Alternative' does not imply choice; it means that the entity is confronted by two possible results: either it acts successfully, gaining the object it seeks, or it does not (and thus fails to gain the object)" (208).

One point of confusion appears to be you are taking the word "object" above to be a noun, whereas in the context you have introduced these quotes it would be clearer to generalize the word to "objective".

I say this because of the sentence: "Falling objects seem to act in a way which is directed towards an object (namely the ground)". Whereas, there would be no confusion about things falling to the ground having an "objective".

This may not answer the whole question, but might be enough to clarify some issues.

Tim

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Distinguish between inanimate objects and living beings on the basis of the union of 'goal-directed' and 'self-generated' applying to the same actions. The term 'self' is derivative from the entity perspective, so it is epistemological. 'Self-generated' is internal causation as opposed to external causation. Entity-based causation certainly applies inside among the parts of an organism as well as outside between organisms, so this is no violation of causality.

Values are necessary for living organisms to continue to exist, where 'exist' means remaining an active process as opposed to inertly disintegrating.

The alternative is located in the relationship between the organism and the environment. A simple organism does only one or a very few actions. Those actions may or may not be suited to the environment it finds itself in, 'suited' meaning they result in obtaining what is necessary for continued existence. The way an organism will necessarily act if it fails to obtain the values it needs is to die. Life and death are equally necessary as far as causation is concerned and yet they are different states, different arrangements of the multiple internal parts of certain entities, or in other words alternatives.

I think you stated most clearly what some other posters were driving at. Can you expand a bit on the distinction between internal causation and external causation? That is, how do we distinguish empirically between the two, identify processes as products of one or the other? The reason I'm interested in this is that given the way Peikoff articulates the nature of value in OPAR, these questions about life appear epistemically prior to ethical reasoning. Rand's ethics is grounded on some level in a philosophy of biology, in a series of propositions about the nature of life its relationship to agency.

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I think you stated most clearly what some other posters were driving at. Can you expand a bit on the distinction between internal causation and external causation? That is, how do we distinguish empirically between the two, identify processes as products of one or the other? The reason I'm interested in this is that given the way Peikoff articulates the nature of value in OPAR, these questions about life appear epistemically prior to ethical reasoning. Rand's ethics is grounded on some level in a philosophy of biology, in a series of propositions about the nature of life its relationship to agency.

The method of difference is the inference that different effects have different causes. Sunlight falls onto a rock and a snake on the rock, warming both. This is external causation because the same external cause (sunlight) brings about the same effect (the warming). But the snake crawled up onto the rock to catch the sunlight, and when it gets too hot for its taste will crawl back under the rock. The conclusion must be that the movements of the snake are not caused by the sunlight, since the rock did not move in response to the same sunlight. If there are no other visible external causes (strings attached to a rubber snake pulling it up and down) the movement is caused internally and attributed to the snake itself.

It could be said that the sunlight caused the snake to move because warming was its goal, but this uses the word cause in the sense of final causation not efficient causation. Final causation assumes an agent that can act, so if you are still trying to identify the agent final causation cannot be employed.

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cmdownes" Can you expand a bit on the distinction between internal causation and external causation?"

Suppose you shoot an animal and it died. In such a case it's obvious that the bullet that killed this animal is the external deterministic cause of the animal's death. But suppose you didn't kill the animal but only wounded it, and the animal finally recovered. It would be preposterous to claim that your bullet is the cause of the healing process. Such a process is self-initiated goal orientated action driven by internal final cause, that is-animal's survival. Sun light is not a cause of snake's action. The cause is internal, but a snake uses sun light in order to achieve its own goals. Suppose there is no more sun light. In such a case most of organisms who depend on it as a source of energy will perish, but some will mutate and use alternative sources of energy. Evolution therefore is also driven by internal cause.

Edited by Leonid

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