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Eamon Arasbard

The Objectivist Ethics

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I just finished reading The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand, and I have a few questions about some parts of it. In one paragraph of the essay (Page 16 of The Virtue of Selfishness) Rand defines life as "a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action." (I believe this same definition is also presented in Atlas Shrugged.) A few paragraphs later (On page 17 of TVoS) Rand states:

 

 

Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action... is the organism's life. ... An organism's life is its standard of value; that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil. [Emphasis in original.]

 

At first, I was going to suggest that this meant Rand's definition of life is the same as her definition of value. Looking at the passage again, it seems a bit more nuanced. It is implied that "self-sustaining action" is necessary to achieve values, for the purpose of maintaining "a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action." I'm assuming the distinction is in the word "self-generated" but I'd still appreciate any input people have to help me clarify this.

 

Rand also states elsewhere in the essay that in her philosophy, the ultimate value (The purpose of existence) is productive work. My question is, why? I agree that everyone should live their life for a purpose, which can certainly be a career that they're passionate about, but why couldn't someone also have a hobby as their purpose in life?

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Rand also states elsewhere in the essay that in her philosophy, the ultimate value (The purpose of existence) is productive work. My question is, why?

I'd suggest you find the place she says this in the essay and read it again, starting a few paragraphs before that point. Read with a particular focus on whether she really says productive work is the ultimate value and if so what she offers as a "why".

 

(Not avoiding your question, but I think a short second reading will give you better context for any possible answer you may get here.)

Edited by softwareNerd

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Reading the section again, it sounds like Rand's argument is that values are what is required for man's survival qua man. And since everything man does for his own survival consists of producing, productive work is the main purpose of an individual's life, and the standard by which his other values should be judged.

 

I still have a few issues with this argument, though. First, why does survival need to be the standard? It's certainly something that's necessary in order to enjoy life, but isn't actual enjoyment of life the point? (I know that Rand also says that enjoyment has to be non-contradictory to constitute true happiness, which I agree with, and of course living one's life in a contradictory manner is acting against one's own survival, but I don't see non-contradiction as the only necessary condition for happiness.)

 

Also, if survival is the reason why productive work is necessary, then why should productive work that isn't necessary for human survival be counted as a value? The human race could theoretically exist without art, literature, music, or public sports, but I don't think Rand would have argued that these things weren't forms of productive work.

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First, why does survival need to be the standard? It's certainly something that's necessary in order to enjoy life, but isn't actual enjoyment of life the point?

In a lecture Leonard Peikoff gave (I think it was "Understanding Objectivism), he made the point that, while philosophy presents things hierarchically, in "real life" all of the issues of philosophy (and all of life) come at you at once. So, you don't wake up and go, "A is A, the floor is there, I'll step my foot out of my bed and begin my day. Knowing this fact reminds me that I am connected to and can understand reality. Movement from my bed to my floor reminds me that I have a purpose, and in turn that gives me motivation to begin my daily actions, slowly culminating in yearly actions, slowly leading to success, and for that I am now happy." What you do is get up and start thinking and feeling, going back and forth and all around, working toward your goals, stopping to smell the roses, etc.

 

So, "survival" is the standard insofar as you can't do anything else until you are at least surviving pretty good on a daily basis. Then you can figure more things out. Hopefully, you figure them out so well over a period of time that you are pleased with how well you've done, and you experience happiness.

 

The Ayn Rand Lexicon has an entry on happiness (and purpose and any other general term you'd like to see Rand write about, all on one page), which includes this quote from Rand:

In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death. Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

Edited by JASKN

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... ... why should productive work that isn't necessary for human survival be counted as a value? The human race could theoretically exist without art, literature, music, or public sports, but I don't think Rand would haveargued that these things weren't forms of productive work.

Art, music, literature... ... are those values to you? Would you agree -- roughly speaking -- that those things feed the mind, at least the "soul" (i.e. the mind's self-motivational engine)?

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It is implied that "self-sustaining action" is necessary to achieve values, for the purpose of maintaining "a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action." I'm assuming the distinction is in the word "self-generated" but I'd still appreciate any input people have to help me clarify this.

What if there is no such distinction?

Considering the fact that all of the best and brightest biologists in the world have yet to define what "life" really means, in a biological sense, I wouldn't be surprised if she had deliberately defined it in terms of one big tautology. Perhaps that's the most accurate way it can be defined, at all.

I agree that everyone should live their life for a purpose, which can certainly be a career that they're passionate about, but why couldn't someone also have a hobby as their purpose in life?

Yes. In fact, if someone were to pay them for the results of this hobby, wouldn't that be a career?

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In a lecture Leonard Peikoff gave (I think it was "Understanding Objectivism), he made the point that, while philosophy presents things hierarchically, in "real life" all of the issues of philosophy (and all of life) come at you at once.

 

 

Yes, it's from there.  To follow up for the OP, Values are simultaneous in day to life and the "truth is in the whole" as each is dependent on each other.  For example, you have to be honest to be successfully productive.  Hierarchy exists more or less as an entomological tool 

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To the OP:

 

The purpose of ethics is happiness.  Productivity is a virtue and it is there to join ethics to the metaphysical fact you have to sustain yourself.  It is not an either/or situation.  If you just focused on productive work you would be living man qua work, not man qua man.  Productivity helps you achieve values and is not an end itself (just like other virtues).  

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Art, music, literature... ... are those values to you? Would you agree -- roughly speaking -- that those things feed the mind, at least the "soul" (i.e. the mind's self-motivational engine)?

 

Yes. So then, if the mind is Man's tool of survival, then art and music would contribute indirectly to human survival.

 

 

Considering the fact that all of the best and brightest biologists in the world have yet to define what "life" really means, in a biological sense, I wouldn't be surprised if she had deliberately defined it in terms of one big tautology. Perhaps that's the most accurate way it can be defined, at all.

 

Maybe. It still makes it a bit of a headache trying to wrap my mind around it, though. I still think it's interesting that she defined values in terms of "self-sustaining action" (To achieve values) but amended her definition of life with the phrase "self-generated action." I'm thinking the distinction is in the word "self-generated," which seems to me like that's the ultimate end being taught.

 

For JASKN's and Spiral Architects posts, it seems like you're saying Rand believed in sort of a holistic perspective, with happiness, survival, and the achievement of values as mutually reinforcing concepts. I'm just trying to figure out how the heirarchy of concepts fits together.

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I think that's a pretty good way to put it. Rand described it as living "qua" man, meaning living with all of the qualities and requirements of men taken into account.

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Yes. So then, if the mind is Man's tool of survival, then art and music would contribute indirectly to human survival.

I think the chapter "Art and Cognition" in The Romantic Manifesto talks about this.

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I think that's a pretty good way to put it. Rand described it as living "qua" man, meaning living with all of the qualities and requirements of men taken into account.

 

Then happiness is the result of living qua man, which in turn benefits human survival, which allows one to act in a manner which will lead to continued happiness -- so are these three things, taken together, the purpose of human action? I guess that would fit with life -- as distinct from the values necessary to achieve it -- being defined in terms of "self-generated" action. So basically, the purpose of achieving values is to continue engaging in self-generated action to sustain the process.

 

Does everyone agree that this is a reasonable interpretation of Objectivist principles? (I'm trying to get everyone else's views to help clarify my own view.)

 

 

Eamon Arasbard, on 10 Feb 2015 - 5:54 PM, said:snapback.png

I think the chapter "Art and Cognition" in The Romantic Manifesto talks about this.

 

I might have to check that one out next, since I'm a fiction writer. (And I also have some interest in making music.)

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Eamon Arasbard, on 06 Feb 2015 - 11:21 PM, said:snapback.png

Yes. In fact, if someone were to pay them for the results of this hobby, wouldn't that be a career?

 

I forgot to reply to this earlier -- and yes, I have considered that position. For instance, if someone is really into snowboarding, then they could learn ways to modify their snowboard to make it more efficient and let them exercize their skill across a broader range, and it might then be worth starting a business selling your own boards, to continue financing your ability to make snowboards for your own enjoyment. Or, of course, you could also become a professional and get paid to participate in public marathons.

 

But what if someone still enjoys snowboarding, but doesn't have the skill to modify their snowboard, and isn't interested in performing in front of a crowd? Does that make that any less valid as the purpose of their life?

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To me the ultimate purpose of life is 'Happiness'. Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden both believed that Productive Work gives the most enjoyment of life, when compared to other forms of pleasurable activities : Human Relationship, Recreation, Art and Sex.

 

Following is the quote from the essay "The Psychology of Pleasure" by Nat Branden. 

 

"One of the hallmarks of a man of self-esteem, who regards the universe as open to his effort, is the profound pleasure he experiences in the productive work of his mind; his enjoyment of life is fed by his unceasing concern to grow in knowledge and ability—to think, to achieve, to move forward, to meet new challenges and overcome them—to earn the pride of a constantly expanding efficacy" 

 

 

The essay can be found in "The Virtue of Selfishness".

 

Now,
 

But what if someone still enjoys snowboarding, but doesn't have the skill to modify their snowboard, and isn't interested in performing in front of a crowd? Does that make that any less valid as the purpose of their life?

 

It is money that helps you realize your Values. If you have enough money already, then perhaps you are free to live your life pursing whatever you 'rationally' wish.

 

But if you are broke, and yet you still spend all of your time snowboarding without any intent of earning money. You definitely don't have your priorities set right to the level of being unthinking 'irrational'. 

Edited by Anuj

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But what if someone still enjoys snowboarding, but doesn't have the skill to modify their snowboard, and isn't interested in performing in front of a crowd? Does that make that any less valid as the purpose of their life?

I don't know explicitly how that fits into the broader conceptual framework but my gut reaction would be that while one has to work, one doesn't necessarily have to make work one's highest goal.

So basically, the purpose of achieving values is to continue engaging in self-generated action to sustain the process.

I think that's an accurate summary. Life is its own purpose, which answers both the "how" and the "why" of any organism's actions. However:

When I drink water, it's not because I want to survive; it's because I'm thirsty. While it's true from a bird's-eye view that my survival depends on regular drinking, that doesn't describe my first-person reasons for actually doing it; I simply feel thirsty, which is an unpleasant sensation, and simultaneously know that a drink will fix it.

So while "life as its own purpose" may literally translate into "working in order to go on working", within the context of human life, it should be noted that this is a bird's-eye description which may or may not match how we actually experience it in first-person.

A better picture of it from that perspective would be provided by Rand's fiction.

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold

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But what if someone still enjoys snowboarding, but doesn't have the skill to modify their snowboard, and isn't interested in performing in front of a crowd? Does that make that any less valid as the purpose of their life?

Valid asks us to judge a purpose. For starters though, do you agree that purpose is an important pre-requisite for long-term happiness? I don't mean "productive purpose", but just purpose: whether it is Rick Warren's "purpose-driven life", or a Jihadi seeking martyrdom, or a kid trying to get to the next level in a game, or Roark building a skyscraper. Though these things are so different, they also have a common thread, which is purpose. The common-denominator of purpose distinguishes them from sitting around doing nothing (and not just as a break), or getting drunk because there's not much else to do (not as some type of bet or challenge), or watching TV even though you feel no desire to do so.

 

At this general level -- which mixes all sort of good, bad and ugly purposes -- do you see the link between purpose and human happiness?

Edited by softwareNerd

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Values are virtually reinforcing to each other.  But it is also important to distinguish between values that are necessary to survive as a man (productive work or honestly) and those values inherit to you as a thinking man of free will (like snowboarding).  

 

Values exist in hierarchy only as an epistomological tool as they really "go off" in real life all at once, and you certainly don't learn them in any order.  Order is simply a matter of proof and conceptualizing.  The truth is in the whole really applies to them. The issue is the subjective part in which you determine the things that make you individually happy.

 

For example, the snowboard from your example is a choice unique to you.  I like other hobbies, like music or games.   We should pursue those as they are values to us individually.  What we cannot do is ignore our job to do it since we have to work to sustain ourselves and that is a metaphysical requirement by being a man that requires self sustaining action.   That would be irrational.  But on the other hand you should not give up snowboarding and work all the time because it doesn't neatly shoehorn into a value scheme strictly defined by your nature as a man.  Then you are working to be man qua work. You work to live, but as a human you also work to gain time to enjoy other pursuits that make you happy.  The fact you have free well and can conceptualize gives you greater needs then an average animal. 

 

In a bit of irony, the phrase Carp Diem, something normally applied to subjective whim worship, if used properly only applies to an objective reality based ethics as it is through observing the requirements of reality can you project the subjective things unique to you and then properly work to them. 

 

Remember, life as defined by Objectivism is to live in the full sense of the word - to thrive.  Ethics, virtue, lets you achieve values,  both the ones required by being a man and the ones unique to you that bring you happiness as a conceptual being with free will.  If not then your simply practicing ethics for the sake of ethics and your life is no longer the standard.  That is a robot.  

 

Does that help? 

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It does of course make sense that you need to work in order to survive. Work achieves survival, but (As we've just discussed) it isn't necessarily sufficient to achieve happiness.

 

I don't think Rand specifically said that work is the purpose of life, but she did say that work is the ultimate standard of value. So the argument is that all other values should be prioritized according to work, because work is necessary to survive.

 

Which, I think, does make sense. Of course you have to plan your life around work. However, when work is not a necessary limitation on one's pursuit of values (For instance, the choice of whether to watch TV or do the dishes), then I think the standard of happiness would be one's enjoyment of life.

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I don't think Rand specifically said that work is the purpose of life, but she did say that work is the ultimate standard of value.

She said that life was the standard. At least in that "Objectivist Ethics" essay. Are you thinking of something different? If you could provide a short quote, that would help.

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Productive work is the central purpose of man's life, the cebtral value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work -- pride is the result.

 

It's on page 27 of The Virtue of Selfishness.

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Thanks for clarifying. The use of the word "standard" (instead of purpose) was what threw me. Here's a quote from a paragraph above your quote:

The difference between "standard" and "purpose" in this context is as follows: a "standard" is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man's choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose. "That which is required for the survival of man qua man" is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose—the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being—belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own.

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.

Of course that does not answer your actual question. Just getting Rand's terms straight.

Productive work is a specific type of purpose. Do you have any thoughts on purpose, more generally? (Ref: post #16 above). Do you think there's a relationship between purpose and happiness?

Edited by softwareNerd

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The use of the word "standard" (instead of purpose) was what threw me.

 

My bad. Yeah, she used the word purpose.

 

Productive work is a specific type of purpose. Do you have any thoughts on purpose, more generally?

 

Just that there can be purposes other than work, which do not relate to work, but are ends in themselves. I guess what she might have meant by saying work is the central purpose is that you have to determine where your other day-to-day goals fit in by comparing them to work -- so if what you live for is snowboarding, you make plans to go snowboarding on the weekend. And ultimately, the reason you go to work is so you can make money to finance your hobby and provide for other daily necessities.

 

Do you think there's a relationship between purpose and happiness?

 

Yes, I think there is. If nothing else, then because if I have a purpose that can make me happier than sitting around looking at random pictures of kittens on the Internet, then it's in my self-interest to choose that over looking at pictures of kittens.

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Leave Rand aside for a moment and put on a biologist's hat, to ask: "What makes this organism's life a happy one"? Roughly, it's going to be food, water, air, absence of disease, a degree of exercise, a feeling of safety, a degree of social interaction,... up to this point, we could be talking about lots of animals. If we think a free-roaming lion (or chicken) is happier than a caged lion (or chicken) we might even add "a degree of autonomy" to the list. 

 

Humans seem to need more. Consider, for instance, Maslow's attempt to come up with a list of human needs. He adds in the need for esteem and "self-actualization". We could quibble with the terms, but let's keep them for now. Perhaps some higher animals have similar needs, but how would a biologist answer this about humans: why do humans have these needs? A biologist would need to integrate these into an understanding of evolution.

 

Humans need food; they feel hunger when their bellies are empty and satiated when their bellies are full. The link to life and to the survival of the species is clear. Similarly, the human body has evolved to find sex pleasurable, because reproduction is an essential component of evolution. IF humans really need esteem and self-actualization, how do we explain those? Or, ask: why are humans curious: what role does that play in the survival of the species?

 

Consider someone who joins the peace-corp and goes off to some under-developed country. He's working with a team of people on a shared and achievable mission: perhaps they're helping to bore wells in villages. His day-to-day life is not particularly comfortable... it's a bit like camping out with bare facilities. He has to walk a bit, where he might have been driving stateside. As the months pass, he sees the fruit of his work: the wells and smiling faces of grateful villagers. At the end of the year, he comes back home, mission accomplished. Can such a year be something that he will always look back on as a happy adventure? If so, how could a biologist explain this, when we know the individual ate less and lived less comfortably than he would have done if he'd stayed home?

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Hey, sorry I've been away from this thread for a while. I got distracted, then I was busy with school and work.

 

Rereading this thread, I think my understanding of both passages is much clearer. Work is the central purpose of one's life, but this is not the same thing as the ultimate purpose. It basically just means that work has to be one's main priority, while one's ultimate purpose is happiness.

 

And as for the difference between self-sustaining and self-generated action, self-sustaining means that you can continue to do it consistently, and it will facilitate your survival. Self-generated means generated by one's own will in pursuit of one's happiness.

 

Now, to answer SoftwareNerd's last post:

 

Roughly, it's going to be food, water, air, absence of disease, a degree of exercise, a feeling of safety, a degree of social interaction,... up to this point, we could be talking about lots of animals. If we think a free-roaming lion (or chicken) is happier than a caged lion (or chicken) we might even add "a degree of autonomy" to the list.

 

Yes. So "life" really means "life in a manner natural to the specific organism in question." (Which I think is part of what Rand was discussing in her essay.) So for a lion, this means roaming the savannah hunting down prey to feed itself. Happiness (Broadly described, to include animals) is the degree to which an animal is able to live its life to fullest extent of its natural capacity.

 

Humans need food; they feel hunger when their bellies are empty and satiated when their bellies are full. The link to life and to the survival of the species is clear. Similarly, the human body has evolved to find sex pleasurable, because reproduction is an essential component of evolution. IF humans really need esteem and self-actualization, how do we explain those? Or, ask: why are humans curious: what role does that play in the survival of the species?

 

That seems pretty straightforward. If man's means of survival is his mind, then curiosity enhances human survival by driving man to engage his mind to the fullest extent of his ability. I also think that humans have greater emotional needs because our emotions are driven by the knowledge that we've integrated with our minds, and satisfying our emotions means increasing the health of our minds and increasing our chances at survival.

 

Consider someone who joins the peace-corp and goes off to some under-developed country. He's working with a team of people on a shared and achievable mission: perhaps they're helping to bore wells in villages. His day-to-day life is not particularly comfortable... it's a bit like camping out with bare facilities. He has to walk a bit, where he might have been driving stateside. As the months pass, he sees the fruit of his work: the wells and smiling faces of grateful villagers. At the end of the year, he comes back home, mission accomplished. Can such a year be something that he will always look back on as a happy adventure? If so, how could a biologist explain this, when we know the individual ate less and lived less comfortably than he would have done if he'd stayed home?

 

I think that biologists explain this through the human instinct toward the preservation of the species -- or, if you want to follow the "selfish gene" model, then the individual is seeking to spread his own genes, and this can be done more efficiently through socialization, in other words developing the instinct to seek cooperation with others. I actually watched a documentary recently by Richard Dawkins explaining how, due to the way game theory works, genes which are oriented toward cooperation are more likely to survive.

 

In fact, the most successful strategy for survival is to cooperate with other individuals at the start, and, going forward, to seek either cooperation or conflict based on the other individual's actions, and traits like empathy and the desire for cooperation are a result of evolution to favor this strategy. Which is interesting, because that's exactly what Objectivism says it is moral for individuals to do -- act benevolently at the start, then treat the other person as they deserve to be treated going forward, all in accordance with one's rational self-interest. So humans are actually biologically predisposed to practice Objectivist ethics.

 

Relating this to the Peace Corp, you feel good after volunteering because you are acting in a manner consistent with your nature as a cooperative being.

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I agree with your post, with one clarification: purpose is deeper and more primary than cooperation. 

Relating this to the Peace Corp, you feel good after volunteering because you are acting in a manner consistent with your nature as a cooperative being.

Imagine you're visiting a wayward cousin. You go out with him and a few of his buddies, and at some point in the evening they think it will be fun to do something destructive: something that goes beyond a relatively "low-cost-to-others" prank. You realize the owner will be really upset at the cost to him. Do you throw yourself happily into cooperating with these buddies, caring less about the unknown owner?

 

If you ditch them and go home, or if you go along, but only  grudgingly... then why? Is it an imagine "cooperation" with the owner rather than with these folk? If so, what explains this differential in cooperation? 

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