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Ultimate Value

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Ryan Hacking
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The pleasure/pain mechanism (PPM) is the only guide a non-volitional creature has to how to remain alive.  It is true that the PPM may not be an adequate guide for a given organism or in a given environment, and, as a result it (or its entire species) might perish.  Too bad, but the PPM is all the poor critters have.

Remaining alive is the goal and seeking pleasure is the means.  Where's the contradiction?

But in your example, the pleasure/pain mechanism is not a simply guide for what is required for its OWN survival. It gets pleasure from copulation, which is not required for its own survival, but rather the propagation of its genes. How is organism X's copulation a means to organism X remaining alive?

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No, I'm not saying that.  I am saying that if remaining alive were the goal of all values, why would organisms ever take the risk?  And its not just isolated cases, it happens routinely in nature. 

Except when it doesn't.

Not all living creatures place the lives of their offspring above their own. Many abandon their young doing nothing after they lay eggs or fertilize them. The evidence is that perpetuation of the species isn't their main goal either. Not all organisms reproduce and over 99% of the species that have ever existed on the planet are now extinct, while almost all individual organisms act to further their own lives almost all of the time.

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Except when it doesn't.

Not all living creatures place the lives of their offspring above their own.  Many abandon their young doing nothing after they lay eggs or fertilize them.  The evidence is that perpetuation of the species isn't their main goal either.  Not all organisms reproduce and over 99% of the species that have ever existed on the planet are now extinct, while almost all individual organisms act to further their own lives almost all of the time.

Even if the majority of an organism's time is spent preserving its own life, is that all that its required to prove that survival is an organism's ultimate end? And for organisms that DO place the lives of their offspring above their own, is their ultimate end the perpetuation of their genes?

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The pleasure/pain mechanism (PPM) is the only guide a non-volitional creature has to how to remain alive.  It is true that the PPM may not be an adequate guide for a given organism or in a given environment, and, as a result it (or its entire species) might perish.  Too bad, but the PPM is all the poor critters have.

Remaining alive is the goal and seeking pleasure is the means.  Where's the contradiction?

But in your example, the pleasure/pain mechanism is not a simply guide for what is required for its OWN survival.  It gets pleasure from copulation, which is not required for its own survival, but rather the propagation of its genes.

You know that and I know that, but the poor suicidal arachnid Don Juan doesn't know that.

All his life he has been going with what feels good because that's how ALL non-volitional creatures are automatically programmed to remain alive. Mating is no different. All he "knows" is it feels GREAT, so he does it. It may be the last thing he ever does, but whatta way to go!

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Even if the majority of an organism's time is spent preserving its own life, is that all that its required to prove that survival is an organism's ultimate end?  And for organisms that DO place the lives of their offspring above their own, is their ultimate end the perpetuation of their genes?

While it is true that perpetuation of genes is the result -- IF and WHEN organisms reproduce -- that is not evidence that it happened BECAUSE the organism had that as a goal. Such a claim is a Post Hoc fallacy. (See THIS).

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While it is true that perpetuation of genes is the result -- IF and WHEN organisms reproduce -- that is not evidence that it happened BECAUSE the organism had that as a goal.  Such a claim is a Post Hoc fallacy. (See THIS).

Sure, but nor does the plant convert sunlight to energy because the organism has "getting energy," or further, survival, as a goal. So I guess the basic question is this: how do we prove that survival is an organism's ultimate goal if not by observing how it acts?

(1) An ultimate goal is the final goal for which all other goals are means.

(2) Organisms have the goal of reproduction and protecting their young.

(3) Reproduction and the protection of one's young, is not a means to the organism's survival (i.e. remaining alive).

(4) Therefore remaining alive is not the ultimate goal.

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So I guess the basic question is this: how do we prove that survival is an organism's ultimate goal if not by observing how it acts? 

(1) An ultimate goal is the final goal for which all other goals are means.

(2) Organisms have the goal of reproduction and protecting their young.

(3) Reproduction and the protection of one's young, is not a means to the organism's survival (i.e. remaining alive).

(4) Therefore remaining alive is not the ultimate goal.

Sometimes it's hard to find an answer because you're not asking the right question.

Observe that "What is the ultmate value (or goal)?" was not Ayn Rand's question at all. She came at the subject from a different angle by asking "What are VALUES?" and explored the facts of reality giving rise to the concept. She determined that values require action in the face of an alternative and the only entities in reality that required action in the face of an alternative were living things.

The knowledge of biology required was nothing more than most people have by age ten -- that living things act to gain and keep things and if they don't gain and keep certain things they die.

Once she saw the relationship between life and values, it formed the factual base for deciding which values a creature who had a choice about his values SHOULD pursue. That is all she (as a philosopher and ethical theorist) need be concerned with.

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Betsy,

You wrote: "All he "knows" is it feels GREAT, so he does it. It may be the last thing he ever does, but whatta way to go!"

There is a great range in the capacity of various organisms to feel pain and certainly pleasure. When an amoeba divides, it is not clear that "pleasure", at least as we understand pleasure, is felt. Likewise with your arachnid. The apple tree that expends a great deal of its energy producing apples does not feel pleasure, as we know it, when an insect visits and spreads pollen.

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Observe that "What is the ultmate value (or goal)?" was not Ayn Rand's question at all.  She came at the subject from a different angle by asking "What are VALUES?" and explored the facts of reality giving rise to the concept.  She determined that values require action in the face of an alternative and the only entities in reality that required action in the face of an alternative were living things. 

The knowledge of biology required was nothing more than most people have by age ten -- that living things act to gain and keep things and if they don't gain and keep certain things they die.

Once she saw the relationship between life and values, it formed the factual base for deciding which values a creature who had a choice about his values SHOULD pursue.  That is all she (as a philosopher and ethical theorist) need be concerned with.

Ok, so what are values? "That which one acts to gain and/or keep." Only certain entities, i.e. living organisms, have values. But this merely shows that being a living organism is a necessary and sufficient condition for valuing, not that survival is the ultimate goal of values. So I agree--living organisms make values possible, but we cannot conclude from that alone that the ultimate goal of values is remaining alive. "X makes Y possible" does not entail that "The ultimate goal of Y is X". "Being alive makes values possible" does not entail that "the ultimate goal of values is remaining alive."

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You wrote: "All he "knows" is it feels GREAT, so he does it. It may be the last thing he ever does, but whatta way to go!"

There is a great range in the capacity of various organisms to feel pain and certainly pleasure. When an amoeba divides, it is not clear that "pleasure", at least as we understand pleasure, is felt. Likewise with your arachnid. The apple tree that expends a great deal of its energy producing apples does not feel pleasure, as we know it, when an insect visits and spreads pollen.

That's true and one of the reasons I put "knows" in quotes. Feeling pleasure, as we experience it, requires a developed nervous system which single-celled animals obviously don't have.

For plants, life seems to be simply biochemical reactions. Animals are different because they must move about and seek values guided by conscious awareness, even on a primitive level, of their environment. For simple animals, awareness is merely biochemical reactions and for higher animals it may involve complex sensations, sense organs, neural networks, percepts, memory and, for man, concepts.

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Ok, so what are values?  "That which one acts to gain and/or keep."  Only certain entities, i.e. living organisms, have values.  But this merely shows that being a living organism is a necessary and sufficient condition for valuing, not that survival is the ultimate goal of values.  So I agree--living organisms make values possible, but we cannot conclude from that alone that the ultimate goal of values is remaining alive. 

Right, but that was not the purpose of Ayn Rand's exploration into the source of the concept of "value" nor her conclusion.

She wanted to find out where the concept of "value" came from and IF and WHY man needed a code of values at all. Her conclusions were that values are a requirement of living things and that they need to gain and keep them to live. The concept of "value" outside of the context of what living things require is meaningless. In the case of man, he needs values in order to live, but his values must be pursued by CHOICE. This is all true and well-supported by the facts Ayn Rand cited in her arguments.

She did NOT -- unlike other ethicists -- posit an "ultimate value" and then try to justify it. Instead, she asked why man needs values and defined a code of values that can guide a person to a happy and successful life -- IF that is what he chooses.

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I'm going to be short and sweet with the hopes of jarring readers into a non-mystical revelation: to say that "the propagation of the species" is an actual value to living organisms is an example of the fallacy of reification. Figure out why this is so and you will understand why only life can be the ultimate value.

Thank you!

This is what I was struggling to get at last night when I posted this:

The rejection of life being the ultimate standard of value ends in a series of open-ended actions. The ultimate standard is not then a thing, but the action of preserving the contiuation of the action of propagation. This is a Heraclitean-like concept of life with a never ending series of actions and the entities disappear.

But, the coffee was no longer kicking.

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She wanted to find out where the concept of "value" came from and IF and WHY man needed a code of values at all.  Her conclusions were that "values" are a requirement of living things and that they need to gain and keep them to live. 

Once again, no one is denying that living organisms need values to live. But organisms also need values to reproduce. So the fact that values are a requirement of organisms remaining alive settles nothing, because values are also a requirement of organisms reproducing.

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Once again, no one is denying that living organisms need values to live.  But organisms also need values to reproduce.  So the fact that values are a requirement of organisms remaining alive settles nothing, because values are also a requirement of organisms reproducing.

True, but so what?

Ayn Rand never set out to prove that an organism's own life is its ultimate value (although that is probably almost always the case with lower animals) since her ethical theory doesn't stand or fall on whether that is true or not. In the case of human beings, it is definitely NOT true that their own lives are their ultimate value since, for us, it is a matter of choice.

What she set out to demonstrate is why a person should choose to make his own life his ultimate value and she defined a code of values for doing it. If you would like to challenge any of THAT, please raise your objections.

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True, but so what? 

Ayn Rand never set out to prove that an organism's own life is its ultimate value (although that is probably almost always the case with lower animals) since her ethical theory doesn't stand or fall on whether that is true or not.  In the case of human beings, it is definitely NOT true that their own lives are their ultimate value since, for us, it is a matter of choice.

What she set out to demonstrate is why a person should choose to make his own life his ultimate value and she defined a code of values for doing it.  If you would like to challenge any of THAT, please raise your objections.

So if life is not the ultimate value, why should I hold my life as the ultimate value?

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So if life is not the ultimate value, why should I hold my life as the ultimate value?

You don't have to. That's up to you. But if you do, Ayn Rand has a code of values that will really help you achieve your ultimate value.

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True, but so what? 

Ayn Rand never set out to prove that an organism's own life is its ultimate value (although that is probably almost always the case with lower animals) since her ethical theory doesn't stand or fall on whether that is true or not.  In the case of human beings, it is definitely NOT true that their own lives are their ultimate value since, for us, it is a matter of choice.

What she set out to demonstrate is why a person should choose to make his own life his ultimate value and she defined a code of values for doing it.  If you would like to challenge any of THAT, please raise your objections.

I have always interpreted her argument as saying that an organism's own life is its ultimate value. Is that not the meaning of the following?

"A plant must feed itself in order to live; the sunlight, the water, the chemicals it needs are the values its nature has set it to pursue; its life is the standard of value directing its actions. But a plant has no choice of action; there are alternatives in the conditions it encounters, but there is no alternative in its function; it acts automatically to further its life, it cannot act for its own destruction."

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand page 1013

Now in the next paragraph where animals are brought in.

" An animal is equipped for sustaining its life; its senses provide it with an automatic code of action, an automatic knowledge of what is good for it or evil. It has no power to extend its knowledge or to evade it. In conditions where its knowledge proves inadequate, it dies. But so long as it lives, it acts on its knowledge, with automatic safety and no power of choice, it is unable to ignore its own good, unable to decide to choose the evil and act as its own destroyer."

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand page 1013

Is it not the same thing for life to be the standard of value and the ultimate value?

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Imagine for a second that you had never grasped the distinction between the animate and the inanimate. What would the world look like? Notably, looking at the actions of the animate and not knowing they could die, their actions would not appear to be chosen according to any overall standard. You could form the concept "goal-directed" based on their achieving their subtasks, but the idea of evaluating everything according to an ultimate standard would not be there.

It is only once you have separated the animate out and realized that they can die, that you can start to see the idea of acting to a standard. So the concept of "value" is dependent on the earlier concept of "life" epistemologically. Values simply *are* the things that promote your life. If, having formed the concept, you forget it's epistemological roots and start using something else as the standard of value, then "value" becomes a stolen/non-objective concept.

As a creature with free will you still must choose to value your life, but if you choose anything else it is not the real concept value.

Regarding the procreation question, even if some animals do value copulation over their own lives, it remains that epistemologically it is the inanimate and their non goal directed actions that we must separate out, which means "life" is the dependency. If you hadn't made that separation, it would be a world of indestructable robots...

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Imagine for a second that you had never grasped the distinction between the animate and the inanimate.  What would the world look like? Notably, looking at the actions of the animate and not knowing they could die, their actions would not appear to be chosen according to any overall standard. You could form the concept "goal-directed" based on their achieving their subtasks, but the idea of evaluating everything according to an ultimate standard would not be there.

It is only once you have separated the animate out and realized that they can die, that you can start to see the idea of acting to a standard. So the concept of "value" is dependent on the earlier concept of "life" epistemologically. Values simply *are* the things that promote your life. If, having formed the concept, you forget it's epistemological roots and start using something else as the standard of value, then "value" becomes a stolen/non-objective concept.

Alright, I have several disagreements, but I'll focus on one. You write "The concept of 'value' is dependent on the earlier concept of 'life' epistemologically." Then you write "Values simply *are* the things that promote your life." Is that supposed to be a proof? If so, please tell me how you move from the first statement to the second. The concept of 'X' is dependent on the earlier concept of 'Y' epistemologically. Therefore, X's simply *are* the things that promote Y. That isn't valid.

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Is it not the same thing for life to be the standard of value and the ultimate value?

A STANDARD of value is only meaningful in a human context since lower animals and plants don't need a standard to measure and evaluate and are incapable of using such abstractions. As to what is an ULTIMATE value, I am somewhat wary of using that formulation.

"Ultimate value" is often introduced into arguments to mean an INTRINSIC value or a DUTY. Some interpret Objectivist ethics as advocating the intrinsic duty of increasing the length of one's life at all costs independent of the quality of life or the means of achieving it. Others try to invalidate Objectivist ethics by claiming it rests on the premise that living things always seek life as their "ultimate value" and, if they can find one creature that doesn't, Ayn Rand's entire ethics fails.

It is true that life is as close to an intrinsic value as you can get since "It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible," yet there may be contexts where life is a painful burden and there is no real hope of that ever changing. It is also true that that living things almost always act to preserve their lives since that is the nature they inherited from ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce -- but some don't. Lethal mutations occur all the time and some living things don't or can't act in ways that lead to their own survival.

Ayn Rand actually argued that man, like all living things, needs values to live and that fact, and his specific volitional nature, mandates that IF he chooses to live, then he MUST practice specific rational virtues.

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Ryan Hacking:

You argue well but as Bowzer pointed out you are starting with a fallacious premise. It became clear to me here:

This phenomena of pursuing genetic fitness at the cost of survival is found in virtually all organisms.

and here:

No "creature" aimed all of an organism's goals at reproduction.  Natural selection did.

So it isn’t that you are attributing volition to lower animals as many of us here thought and you denied. It is that you are attributing the characteristics of a volitional, conceptual consciousness to the laws of nature. I think that is what Bowzer was saying here (please correct me if I am wrong):

I'm going to be short and sweet with the hopes of jarring readers into a non-mystical revelation: to say that "the propagation of the species" is an actual value to living organisms is an example of the fallacy of reification. Figure out why this is so and you will understand why only life can be the ultimate value.

Natural selection is a natural process the fortunate outcome of which is survival of the fittest and evolution of higher and higher forms of life. Natural selection can have no aim and can set no goals. This would be like saying that gravity has a goal, it doesn’t, it just is.

Be careful of accusing others of making arbitrary arguments:

First of all, on your theory, if nature has not set an organism's goals, what does?  God?

Since the God of Natural Selection doesn’t exist either.

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I think you understood my point well, Mark. To clarify, reification is "regarding or treating an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence." In this case, the abstraction is "species propagation" and it is being treated as if it was a concrete in nature acting physically on organisms.

What really exists in nature are individual organisms and they live and die in accordance with their actions. Man has observed that, over time, the successfulness of some species relative to others leads to the propagation of organisms of the successful species while the unsuccessful ones die off. But this is a man-made observation, not a physical mechanism in nature. For this reason, "species propagation" cannot be a value to a living organism.

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Betsy,

You wrote: "A STANDARD of value is only meaningful in a human context since lower animals and plants don't need a standard to measure and evaluate and are incapable of using such abstractions."

Yes, thank you! That was my only point: that I thought that Peikoff made a mistake in saying, "An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil", precisely because "an organism" implies "any organism" which is simply not the case. As you point out, the statement is only meaningful when applied to humans.

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Dr. Peikoff’s wording was quite deliberate and quite correct.

Just because animals do not go through a conscious process of evaluation in reaching their standard (nature, in effect, has done this for them) does not mean that a standard is not present. On pages 18-21 of TVOS, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Miss Rand discusses this point:

A plant has no choice of action; the goals it pursues are automatic and innate, determined by its nature. Nourishment, water, sunlight are the values its nature has set it to seek. Its life is the standard of value directing its actions.

If you don’t believe that a standard of value is present in the actions of living organisms, then I don’t see how you can say that living things pursue values at all.

The concept "value" is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.

If there is no ultimate end or standard then what are living things acting for? Do they act for some different purpose on Tuesdays than they do on Thursdays? Nowhere in Objectivism is it said that animals act toward some consciously chosen purpose. Miss Rand takes care to separate her position from anything of the sort:

When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term "goal-directed" is not to be taken to mean "purposive" (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term "goal-directed," in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism's life.
Life is “self-sustaining and self-generated action,” that is, it is goal-directed. To say that life is the ultimate standard for a living organism is just to say that the actions of living organisms are directed at the ultimate goal of life, life is its standard of value.
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