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Ultimate Value

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Ryan Hacking
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Bowzer,

You wrote: "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."

You should be more careful in reading what I write: note that I am simply denying a "standard of value" for SOME living organisms, not ALL, as you seem to suggest in this sentence. Some living things are capable of pursuing values; others are not. That is all I am saying, and Betsy, who obviously is far more knowledgeable about Objectivism than I, appears to agree when she writes: "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." Furthermore, your quotes from Miss Rand also seem to support this: "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." Just how is a plant "capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative"? It can't "decide" to "pursue" any value. No other alternatives exist for it, thus, as Miss Rand says, "no goals and no values are possible". It is programmed by its genetic material to live to reproduce, and that's it. No choice, no values.

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You wrote: "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."

You should be more careful in reading what I write:

Actually you should be more careful in noting that I stated a hypothetical (and nowhere did I imply you in it). If it does not apply to you then do not take heed to what I say.

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Thanks, I'll remember that next time you post.

You wrote: "Dr. Peikoff’s wording was quite deliberate and quite correct."

How could he be correct when he contradicts Miss Rand: "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."

Plants and lower animals have no alternatives, and thus have no goals or values possible. This contradicts Peikoff's broad use of "an organism" in the initial quote referenced.

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How could he be correct when he contradicts Miss Rand: "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."

Plants and lower animals have no alternatives, and thus have no goals or values possible. This contradicts Peikoff's broad use of "an organism" in the initial quote referenced.

I suspect you are thinking of "alternative" solely as a conscious choice, and therefore only applicable to volitional human beings. But the use of "alternative" in the Ayn Rand quote you provide is much broader than that, and "alternative" is mainly noted to distinguish life from inanimate matter. All living enities face the alternative of life or death, and their actions are in furtherance of one or the other. Even non-conscious life, such as a plant, faces such an alternative; goal-directed behavior does not imply purposeful choice. The roots of the plant will grow to seek water; if it finds it, it survives. If it does not, it dies. Contrast this with inanimate matter, such as a rock. The rock sits wherever it is, passively, reacting only to whatever forces impinge upon it. Unlike that which has life, inanimate matter does not face alternatives in regard to action; it does not have the goals and values that are inherent in life.

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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.

I think Peikoff's use of "standard" is contextual rather than mistaken, since other living things don't have standards in the same sense that people do but they definitely have -- and NEED -- values as measured (by us) by a definite standard.

There is an inflexible "standard" setting the rules for living things and that is the Law of Identity. A living thing acts according to its nature -- a nature it inherited from ancestors who were able to act in a way that enabled them to live and reproduce. It did NOT inherit its nature from ancestors who were NOT able to live and reproduce. Reality did the "natural selecting" by the "standard" of identity: an organism that can survive and reproduce can survive and reproduce.

Edited for clarity and grammar.

Edited by Betsy
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Betsy, do I understand you correctly? Are you saying that the decision to choose to live is a meta-ethical question, (an a-moral question), which must be answered before an ethical framework can be built? That for those who do not choose to live, their actions lie outside of an ethical framewok?

Craig

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Are you saying that the decision to choose to live is a meta-ethical question, (an a-moral question), which must be answered before an ethical framework can be built?

A question for anyone: What is meta-ethics?

Is it a branch of philosophy, comparable to epistemology and ethics? Or is it an anteroom, so to speak, between theory of man and ethics? Or something else?

If possible, can someone offer a formal genus/differentia definition appropriate to a study of Objectivism?

I am not asking for a copy of a dictionary list of conventional usages of the term/idea, but the meaning suitable in this discussion.

(BTW, my own dictionary notes that the term arose c. 1950. Does that indicate that the Linguistic Analysts developed the term and idea? If so, does the meta-ethics package, as conventionally used, carry some poisonous elements?)

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I think Peikoff's use of "standard" is contextual rather than mistaken, since other living things don't have standards in the same sense that people do but they definitely have -- and NEED -- values as measured (by us) by a definite standard.

There is an inflexible "standard" setting the rules for living things and that is the Law of Identity.

So, "standard of value" can have either an epistemological (cognitive) referent or a metaphysical ("natural") referent.

P. S. -- These usages of the phrase "standard of value" are akin to the dual meanings of "basic" in Objectivist epistemology, as Ayn Rand describes them in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 45, and, for example, uses the term "basic" on p. 56 ("basic fact").

"Basic" may refer to a certain kind of characteristic of a thing, or it may refer to our cognition of a certain kind of characteristic of a thing. Thus, "fundamental" and "essential" (characteristic) are respectively metaphysical and epistemological meanings of "basic."

"Fact" likewise can have either a metaphysical or an epistemological referent.

Edited by BurgessLau
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A question for anyone: What is meta-ethics?

Maybe this will shed some light on the issue. Chapter 6 of OPAR is devoted to the topic of meta-ethics.

Dr. Peikoff writes about the task of meta-ethics in the opening section of this chapter:

In this inquiry, one is not concerned to discover what is right for man or wrong, desirable or undesirable, good or evil. A view of man is a step on the road to ethics, but the view itself does not include value-judgments. The concern here is a purely factual question: what is the essence of human nature?

He then discusses why the topic does not fall within the scope of previous chapters:

A view of man, however, is not a primary; it rests on metaphysics and epistemology; it may be described as the center of a system of thought, the link between its abstract base and its practical culmination.

Finally, he then tells us why this material deserves its own chapter:

According to Objectivism, however, a philosophic view of man is not exhausted by metaphysics and epistemology, nor does it at every point follow deductively from them; fresh observations are required. But they are observations made within the context of an established philosophic base. Given this context, the further conclusions to be drawn pose little difficulty.
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A question for anyone: What is meta-ethics?

Is it a branch of philosophy, comparable to epistemology and ethics? Or is it an anteroom, so to speak, between theory of man and ethics? Or something else?

If possible, can someone offer a formal genus/differentia definition appropriate to a study of Objectivism?

I am not asking for a copy of a dictionary list of conventional usages of the term/idea, but the meaning suitable in this discussion.

(BTW, my own dictionary notes that the term arose c. 1950. Does that indicate that the Linguistic Analysts developed the term and idea? If so, does the meta-ethics package, as conventionally used, carry some poisonous elements?)

With all due respect to your dictionary, the roots of the term go back before 1950. The first use of the term "meta-ethics" in the philosophical journals appeared in 1938 in The Philosophical Review ("Philosophy in France, 1936-1937" Andre Lalande, Vol. 47, No. 1, Jan. 1938, pp. 1-27).

"To examine the possibility of treating these norms scientifically is the object of Gurvitch's little book, Morale theorique et science des moeurs.[Paris, Felix Alcan.] The very title makes it clear that he does not wholly concur in the conclusions of Levy-Bruhl's celebrated work. While following him in the distinction between ethics and a science of customs, and also in the condemnation of a "meta-ethics," Gurvitch perceives, besides a sociology which describes moral judgments and seeks their external conditions, a moral theory constructed after the fashion of the physical sciences, and based upon analogous data, that is to say, upon moral experience."

Meta-ethics is usually described as the study of the origin and meaning of ethics, but all too often its use in the literature is much more insidious than that. As is the result of many of the "Meta-" prefixes attached to studies in modern philosophies, it becomes, in effect, a way to obliterate rather than illuminate the subject. The "normative" ethics can easily lose its signifcance as being somewhat subjective in the context of "meta-ethical" issues and concerns. In my view the term is best left to the blather of the moderns, and not repeated except with disdain.

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Maybe this will shed some light on the issue. Chapter 6 of OPAR is devoted to the topic of meta-ethics.

I am familiar with Ch. 6 of OPAR. The title, "Man," is a short way of saying "theory of man," which is another term for "philosophical anthropology," a more traditional (and cumbersome) term in traditional philosophy.

I note also that, so far as I can tell (from memory and from the index), Dr. Peikoff does not use the term "meta-ethics."

Do "theory of man" and "meta-ethics" have the same object of study -- that is, the nature of man as it is relevant to deciding philosophically what man should do? In other words, does "meta-ethics" refer to the facts about man from which values will be inferred? It appears to do so.

However, I see "meta-ethics" as a neologism, that is, an unjustified creation of a new term and one naming a questionable concept. (I say questionable because, in traditional philosophy since the 1950s, it may be package-dealed with other ideas, possibly from Linguistic Analysts.) Is there a counter-argument?

[stephen's illuminating, and largely corroborative, post appeared while I was typing. Thank you.]

Edited by BurgessLau
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Betsy, do I understand you correctly? Are you saying that the decision to choose to live is a meta-ethical question, (an a-moral question), which must be answered before an ethical framework can be built? That for those who do not choose to live, their actions lie outside of an ethical framewok?

Craig

I apologize for answering a question directed at Betsy -- I'm sure she will have her own response -- but I would just point out that those who choose not to live won't be around to take any actions.
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However, I see "meta-ethics" as a neologism, that is, an unjustified creation of a new term and one naming a questionable concept... Is there a counter-argument?

I first heard of the term in my classes in the OGC and it stuck in my mind from that point on. I was unfamiliar with the history behind it. Certainly, it is not a well-known term of Objectivism but it is used in the index of TVOS (see "Metaethics").

I don't see a problem in using the word "metaethics" any more than using terms like "metaphysics." That is, we use them despite the modernist butchering of otherwise completely legitimate concepts.

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I don't see a problem in using the word "metaethics" any more than using terms like "metaphysics." That is, we use them despite the modernist butchering of otherwise completely legitimate concepts.

One important difference that I see is that "metaphysics" is a valid branch of philosophy, having its roots in the origin of philosophical ideas. By contrast, "meta-ethics," like "meta-logic" and "meta-principles, to name just a couple of others, is a modern invention which corrupts the foundation of the area of related study.

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One important difference that I see is that "metaphysics" is a valid branch of philosophy, having its roots in the origin of philosophical ideas. By contrast, "meta-ethics," like "meta-logic" and "meta-principles, to name just a couple of others, is a modern invention which corrupts the foundation of the area of related study.

Ahhh, I'm sorry Burgess, I paid no attention to the hyphen. I will be more critical of that pesky little mark in the future, thanks!

If it isn't obvious, I meant "metaethics" in my prior post.

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I apologize for answering a question directed at Betsy -- I'm sure she will have her own response -- but I would just point out that those who choose not to live won't be around to take any actions.

Yes, but there's a key here. If someone must first CHOOSE to live before his actions lie within an ethical framework, then any actions taken without first choosing to live, become a-moral, not immoral. And while we can say that human nature requires that people choose Life as their ultimate value, there is no strict conclusive evidence that this is what they MUST do. Objectivist Ethics START with the choice to live, not before.

Craig

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Yes, but there's a key here. If someone must first CHOOSE to live before his actions lie within an ethical framework, then any actions taken without first choosing to live, become a-moral, not immoral. And while we can say that human nature requires that people choose Life as their ultimate value, there is no strict conclusive evidence that this is what they MUST do. Objectivist Ethics START with the choice to live, not before.

Craig

Any action other than suicide presupposes the choice to live -- you have chosen to live at least long enough to take said action.

Since man possess volition, nothing forces him to choose to live. There is no proof that the choice to live is the only correct choice, because sometimes it isn't. But as long as he does choose to live, man must have values and the right ones at that.

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But back to what I think is Ryan's question: what if the altruist 'chooses' to live for others, and builds an ethical framework accordingly, choosing to live for himself insomuch as it enables him to help others -- Mother Theresa, for instance. If such an individual's life is a secondary value to his primary value, (to help others), then is he acting irrationally? Why?

Craig

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If such an individual's life is a secondary value to his primary value, (to help others), then is he acting irrationally? Why?

One way to approach this problem is to ask yourself this question:

What does "irrationally" mean?

I would like to hear your answer because it might help in responding to your question.

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One way to approach this problem is to ask yourself this question:

What does "irrationally" mean?

I would like to hear your answer because it might help in responding to your question.

I think to act irrationally is to act without reason.

My take on this whole argument is that people need to act in accordance with their nature. People should try to be people, and this is largely undefined. As long as people are not acting against their long-term interests, then they can engage in a whole host of activities. In so far as helping others goes, if someone wants to make a career out of it, and perhaps build some charity, and does it because he wants to see a benevolent society which helps those who are misfortunate -- then I think he's acting in accordance with his long-term interests. On the other hand, if he engages in destructive behavior which adds significant risk to his life, without any observable benefit, then I think he may be acting irrationally in such a case.

In an emergency situation, it seems contradictory to me for someone to choose another life over his own life, as the act of living requires the actor to develop hopes and dreams for a long term life. If he sacrifices himself for another, whom he does not know, then he would be acting against any values and plans he had for his own life, and I see no reason for him to throw his values (and his life) away in this situation. However, if he were ninety years old and in weakening health, then perhaps I could understand such an action.

With regard to sacrificing one's life for one's children, then it seems more logical for a parent to make this choice. A good part of my value structure is to make a good home for my kid. Without the kid, my life seems less significant. So I can understand this, too.

However, trying to determine what is rational and what is irrational for a human seems somewhat arbitrary, and I can't find any hard rule. The only guiding principle seems to be that people should be people, and they should try to guide their lives accordingly. Likewise, the bird shouldn't try to swim and the fish shouldn't try to fly, (broadly, of course).

Craig

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I think to act irrationally is to act without reason.

My take on this whole argument is that people need to act in accordance with their nature. People should try to be people, and this is largely undefined.

However, trying to determine what is rational and what is irrational for a human seems somewhat arbitrary, and I can't find any hard rule. The only guiding principle seems to be that people should be people, and they should try to guide their lives accordingly. Likewise, the bird shouldn't try to swim and the fish shouldn't try to fly, (broadly, of course).

Craig

Craig, have you read "The Virtue of Selfishness" or "Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand"? The statements above make me think that you have not. Miss Rand has defined all of the cardinal virtues required by the nature of man, and they are exhaustively discussed in those two books (as well as being brilliantly dramatized in her fiction).
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Craig, have you read "The Virtue of Selfishness" or "Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand"?  The statements above make me think that you have not.  Miss Rand has defined all of the cardinal virtues required by the nature of man, and they are exhaustively discussed in those two books (as well as being brilliantly dramatized in her fiction).

Yes, I've been studying this philosophy since 1987. I disagree that the cardinal virtues have been exhaustively discussed -- at least not to the point where I completely understand them.

Craig

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Wait a minute. I thnk I've had an epiphany. It seems to me that it may have been mentioned earlier in this discussion, but I just caught it.

Most of this discussion has centered on the idea that there is a disconnect between the idea that "life is the precondition for value" and that "the pursuit of life should be one's ultimate value". I had thought that there was no way to derive the second from the former, but now I think there is. Follow this:

1) It is life that brings about the idea of value. Without life there is no such thing as value.

2) To stay alive, one must pursue values. To pursue a value IS to pursue something necessary for life. I think the disconnect comes when one thinks that a value is simply "that which one acts to gain/keep." While this may be a good definition, the purpose of gaining and keeping anything is to stay alive. This is where the idea of value comes from. This is why the idea 'value' is created.

3) Therefore one must value one's life as one's highest value. To put anything else in its place is to reify a stolen concept. It's the same thing as acting without purpose. Or to work without a goal. It would be like saying, "To live, one needs to eat. Therefore one should eat so that one can drive a car." The purpose of eating is to live. Likewise, the purpose of pursuing value is to live. It can't be anything else without losing meaning.

Does this make sense?

Craig

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