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Viable Values by Tara Smith; Life as Standard and Reward

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Viable Values by Tara Smith

Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

11/19/2011

“Viable Values” is an excellent read for anyone concerned with rational values and what code of morality stems from this approach. After surveying modern approaches to values and morality, and dismissing them due to their lack of logic and a rational standard, Tara very thoroughly investigates what is required for something to be an objective value. The topic of the book is meta-ethics – the relationship between the facts of reality and moral codes and values. She demonstrates that only Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism is based on the facts of reality and the facts about man. If logic is the non-contradictory identification of the facts of reality – which I think it is -- then this book is extremely logical, and very thorough in its scope to discuss and analyze the factual basis of the concept “value” and how only life as the standard gives one an appreciation of the concept. The subtitle of the book is “a study of life as the root and reward of morality” and the book lives up to this. Not only is life the standard, but a proper ethical code has life as the reward for being moral. That is, if one is pursuing those things in reality that are in fact beneficial to oneself, then not only is one being rationally moral, but one gets more life out of one’s actions.

There is one drawback to the way the book is written. After bringing up the issue of “Why be moral?” and showing that previous approaches to morality are not logical, she doesn’t answer this question until about page 117. Consequently, I would not recommend the book to those who are novices to Ayn Rand. I would say that “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Virtue of Selfishness, “ both by Ayn Rand, are pre-requisites because these do not get bogged down in other approaches to morality. In “Viable Values” one can become disheartened that there is no legitimate answer to “Why be moral?” and put the book down before Tara gets to the answer, which would be unfortunate.

I also have one philosophical misgiving about her approach to “Why should one live?” and focusing on acting to gain and or keep rational values. She states that such questions are pre-rational – that is, one has to decide to live one’s life before the issue of values and morality become paramount. While I agree with her analysis, I don’t agree with the phrasing. In a sense, all of the facts of reality are pre-rational – they come before reason (this is the Primacy of Existence approach) – but that is an awkward way of phrasing it, since I think it implies that rationality is the fundamental standard. Actually, the facts of reality are the ultimate and fundamental standards – and the starting point. The moon orbiting the earth is a metaphysical fact, it is neither rational nor irrational; it just is. Similarly, the choice to focus one’s mind on living is a fundamental fact about man. That is, free will in man is a basic fact about his consciousness, and like the moon example is neither rational nor irrational; it just is.

But these misgivings are paltry compared to the immense value of the book and how it analysis the concept of “value” and squarely places it into a logical hierarchy.

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I also have one philosophical misgiving about her approach to “Why should one live?” and focusing on acting to gain and or keep rational values. She states that such questions are pre-rational – that is, one has to decide to live one’s life before the issue of values and morality become paramount. While I agree with her analysis, I don’t agree with the phrasing. In a sense, all of the facts of reality are pre-rational – they come before reason (this is the Primacy of Existence approach) – but that is an awkward way of phrasing it, since I think it implies that rationality is the fundamental standard. Actually, the facts of reality are the ultimate and fundamental standards – and the starting point. The moon orbiting the earth is a metaphysical fact, it is neither rational nor irrational; it just is. Similarly, the choice to focus one’s mind on living is a fundamental fact about man. That is, free will in man is a basic fact about his consciousness, and like the moon example is neither rational nor irrational; it just is.

The whole thing just goes back to how we want to describe the choice to live, but I don't think this explanation (primacy of existence, or metaphysical facts as neither rational nor irrational) quite touches on the problem at hand. As I see it, the point is rather Humean about the nature of ultimate ends themselves as derived from the hypothetical imperative. Similar to Rand's epistemology in that the issue is as you indicated having to do with foundations or frameworks on which the theory is built. Perceptual awareness, Rand would say, is pre-conceptual. Conceptual knowledge is limited to being derivable from one's starting points. In the same way, she is saying ethical knowledge, or practical reasoning, is so limited from its starting point, which is a kind of primary choice.

Once you have limited your starting point to a particular class of judgments, the conclusions you reach must also be limited to what you can derive from that class. So sense-perception in theoretical reasoning, and the choice to live in practical reasoning. So the term "pre-rational" makes sense for this view, in that she is literally saying reason can say nothing for or against the primary choice to live. It seems like we want to say the primary choice to live is rational to avoid charges of arbitrariness, but she means what she says: that no judgments can be passed on itt, it's just that you have no other choice aside from those two options (life or death.)

I don't know if this is the best explanation for this, because it seems like from some of Rand's other comments that she wants to say that the choice to live is inherent in the nature of values, and so it would be more like saying "it's not a matter of choice, it's forced on you." But I suppose the point is just that the person could always say, "what if I don't want to live then?" Aristotle seems to say that it's not a choice at all, it's just inherent in aiming at any ends, that we simply have to identify it, and leaves it at that. Rasmussen, den Uyl, Long and others actually don't think of it as a choice at all, and Irfan Khawaja conceives of it like an axiom. Branden in the "Who is Ayn Rand?" book seems to refer to it as axiomatic as well, along the lines of how the law of identity is to thought. You can choose not to do any thinking, but you can't choose to not to use and rely on the law of identity so long as you do. (There was a symposium on this at the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, but I can't find it again.)

The thing is, it seems like in reality, we do never actually face a choice, like a menu pops up and says "Would you like to live? Click 'yes' or 'no,'" so there is a certain oddness to talking about a primary choice to live. It would just be more like the primary choice to make choices itself inherent in volition. So perhaps a better way to phrase this would just be in almost praxeological point that human life involves choice per se, and so is unanalyzable. Still though, it seems like we want to come up with reasons to live, especially once you are already alive and involved in value-pursuit.

Edited by 2046
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In ordinary everyday existence, the choice to live or not to live doesn't usually come up explicitly. It is not as if we wake up each morning and make an explicit choice to live or die, we get up and go through our morning routine. However, I think this would be the choice to live one's life and to pursue the day and the values of the day. In some extreme cases, however, the choice is explicit. If one suffers some horrible illness and cannot enjoy one's life one can say, "I'd rather die than go through this." In fact, people do say that, though without full seriousness for getting things like a very bad case of the flu, for example, or surviving the death of a loved one that is so painful one doesn't know how to go on living with that pain uppermost in one's mind.

In other threads on other forums, I have made the case that like the choice to focus one's mind or not, our fundamental choice, that this *is* the choice to live, since living rationally requires one to focus on the facts of reality with our full mind on the ready. However, in this type of case, one doesn't deliberate, because one cannot deliberate until one's mind is focused. So,like I said, the choice to focus or not or the choice to live or not comes before one will reason about anything. In Tara's view about rationality, it is always purpose driven, and she states that without purpose there is no rationality -- that one cannot focus on the facts of reality with one's full alertness without having some specific purpose in mind. I do think she is correct about this, that rationality has to do with effectiveness (taking the facts into account or not), though taking the facts into account requires a huge context that comes about due to what one wants to pursue -- i.e. purpose. Otherwise the facts are there but so what? She is saying is that we cannot have a purpose until we decide to live and to pursue our lives; and without purpose, there is no rationality. This is the fuller meaning of what she means by "pre-rational" -- there is not necessarily an explicit deliberation about the issue, and we are not taking the facts into account because we cannot do this until we are focused on living purposefully.

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