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RSalar

Is Objectivism too difficult to follow?

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I have heard, in various places, that certain people have “dropped out” of Objectivism because it is too difficult for them to implement its principles in their lives. Has anyone experienced this firsthand and/or have a theory of why this may be? (Or why this is wrong) It seems contradictory that an ethical system that is supposedly in one’s self-interest could possibly be too difficult to practice. Any thoughts?

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It seems contradictory that an ethical system that is supposedly in one’s self-interest could possibly be too difficult to practice. Any thoughts?
"in one's long-term self-interest"

Impatient or myopic people could find it hard to do things in their long-term self-interest.

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It takes time, too, especially if your previous epistomology was contrary to Objectivism. I grew up a Christian, had my doubts in my teens, read Rand in college, and declared myself an Objectivist when I was 22. Only after several years did Rand's moral principles really sink in.

For example, I learned Galt's creed the hard way. I found a woman I shared an important value with, then irrationally made her the center of my life. Hoping that one value we shared would trump the rest, I made every decision about her. Eventually, the other values I ignored - mine and hers - came into conflict, and it resulted in ... well, shame on my part. An unrequited love may not be the makings of a great romantic novel, but it was enough to witness an important moral principle manifest itself.

Galt's words couldn't have been clearer to me. I "grokked" what Rand was saying about living for others (and asking them to live for me), and began to actively implement other ideas, not just agree with them intellectually.

Being an Objectivist requires active thought, patience, practice, and some guts to either stand by your moral convictions - or change them if incorrect - when faced with a challenge.

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It seems contradictory that an ethical system that is supposedly in one’s self-interest could possibly be too difficult to practice. Any thoughts?

Peikoff engages this question directly in his lectures on "Understanding Objectivism". Highly recommended.

The essential point is that grasping ideas in a fully-concretized and integrated way is a skill, which many people have not developed. If one does not develop that skill, then one's ability to grasp abstract ideas and figure out how to apply them in practice will be seriously impaired. The abstract ideas will be experienced as conflicting with one's own personal values, or as driving pointless conflict with others, or as simply irrelevant to the process of making day-to-day decisions. Eventually such people either reject Objectivism in the name of freeing themselves to pursue their own values, or in pursuit of social harmony, or as useless.

Peikoff also discusses the specific question "is morality easy or difficult to practice" in one of his lectures on "Unity in Epistemology and Ethics".

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I have heard, in various places, that certain people have “dropped out” of Objectivism because it is too difficult for them to implement its principles in their lives. Has anyone experienced this firsthand and/or have a theory of why this may be? (Or why this is wrong) It seems contradictory that an ethical system that is supposedly in one’s self-interest could possibly be too difficult to practice. Any thoughts?

Objectivism requires you to think for yourself, which people today often find very difficult.

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Peikoff engages this question directly in his lectures on "Understanding Objectivism". Highly recommended.
Thank-you for the suggestion. I did a Google search and think the course sounds interesting. I guess my question boils down to: Is the (perceived) standard of conduct required by Objectivism too demanding? I mean too demanding in the sense that it actually makes people unhappy because they can’t live up to what they perceive this standard to be and feel guilty about it. Sometimes I get the impression that some "Objectivists" enjoy expressing their moral judgment on others, actually getting-off on playing the authority figure and lecturing people. There is almost a tone of anger that may be caused by trying to live up to an impossibly high moral standard. We have all met people who need to prove that they are right in order that they can feel good about themselves. One case in point came up when I did the Google search for the course you recommended. One link found was called, “Understanding Peikoff,” which brings up more of the whole division in the Objectivist movement—with its accompanying finger pointing and name-calling. Don’t these people see the second-handedness in their need to prove (to others) that they are right?

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I guess my question boils down to: Is the (perceived) standard of conduct required by Objectivism too demanding? I mean too demanding in the sense that it actually makes people unhappy because they can’t live up to what they perceive this standard to be and feel guilty about it.

The answer to this lies in why they "can't" live up to their standards to begin with. Is the reason why they "can't" live up to these standards a matter of their choice, or something out of their control? I would say typically it's the former, which is probably the real source of their frustration.

With myself as an example, I have a difficult time managing my weight. I like to eat foods that I enjoy, but they aren't necessarily the best foods for my health or weight. I could also stand to exercise more. Both of these things are within my capability to perform, but sometimes I choose not to do them and take the "easy" way. As a result, I get upset with myself sometimes and I don't feel as good as I'd like. I know what the principles of Objectivism would tell me I need to do, but do I blame those principles, or do I blame myself? I think the answer is obvious, I'm to blame not Objectivism. If you accept that in a very broad sense Objectivism basically says, "Ignoring reality is bad for you", you realize that rejecting Objectivism really isn't going to help solve your problem. Reality will still be there, and it will still demand to be dealt with.

Sometimes I get the impression that some "Objectivists" enjoy expressing their moral judgment on others,
Well, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Proper moral judgment is, well, proper. However, this...

actually getting-off on playing the authority figure and lecturing people.

may be a problem. However, do you think that really has anything to do with Objectivism specifically? I've known many people of other philosophies and religions that behave the exact same way. That is a personality issue, not an Objectivism issue.

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I strongly second Peikoff's lecture-course "Understanding Objectivism". In the first lecture of the series, he takes the devil's advocate position, presenting three major problems people experience after being introduced to Objectivism. He explains them in quite some detail, to show why any one of them could cause a person to throw up their hands and walk away from Objectivism.

In brief, the three issues he lists are:

[This is my own paraphrase, so all errors are mine.]

Objectivism versus oneself: People may conclude that Objectivism conflicts with some of their values. There's the extreme case of someone who thinks that he ought to like skyscrapers and become an architect; but, more realistically, the person may conclude that many other things are bad even though he likes them: whether it is some type of movie, some type of hobby. He might conclude that he is not really a good person because he does not have a central purpose in life, and while he likes various things, none really interests him enough to make it his life's passion. And so on... Such a person might repress his true desires and live with constant guilt, or might simply shrug, having concluded that Objectivism conflicts with his life, and that he would be happier being like the typical man on the street, free of constant self-inflicted guilt from his philosophy.

Objectivism versus the world: People may conclude that they are now at essential conflict with most other people they meet. They might detect evil in previously casual conversations with casual acquaintances. Also, with a heightened awareness of the world, he might conclude that the things that are wrong with the world are fundamental and not easy to change. He might end up pessimistic and friendless.

Objectivism versus life: People might conclude that Objectivism is good as a way to analyse the world and to set direction for their life, but might find that it has no use in normal, day-to-day life.

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I don't know if this is out of place, but would you mind giving a short paraphrase as to what his answers were to those three dilemmas?

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I strongly second Peikoff's lecture-course "Understanding Objectivism". In the first lecture of the series, he takes the devil's advocate position, presenting three major problems people experience after being introduced to Objectivism.
Very interesting --- I can see that these issues do crop up ... and how I have dealt with them:

Objectivism versus oneself: Using reason I came up with a list of my own values -- But then I ask myself, "Am I being too subjective?" -- should my values be subjective or objective -- can they be both?

Objectivism versus the world: I noticed myself getting very negative when my eyes first opened -- but now I think about Howard Roark when he asked the dean: "Who will stop me?" I now see that the world is what it is -- my job is to deal with it. Much easier to fix me than the rest of the world.

Objectivism versus life: I am now working through the "problem" of determining if 1) A central productive purpose would make me happier, and 2) if so, should I focus on my present career or look for something else.

All in all I think I am happier now than I was before I understood Objectivism --- but it sure seems like some people are angry at the world. Maybe I am just more aware of Objectivists but I would think the philospohy would make them happier too.

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Both of these things are within my capability to perform, but sometimes I choose not to do them and take the "easy" way. As a result, I get upset with myself sometimes and I don't feel as good as I'd like.
Do you think it is okay to decide to eat food that you enjoy but may not be the best for you? What if you decide that enjoying the food is worth the health risks involved? This is what I mean by subjective values. Why can't we each choose what we value? Objectivity to me would mean that we would all be like robots --- exercise the exact right amount every day, eat only the healthiest foods, never drink a few beers with friends (not rational while under the influence), etc etc etc. Maybe we should all wear crash helmets while driving our cars – that would be safer than not wearing one (it would be in our rational self-interest). Life is more than just staying alive – it is experiencing all there is – having fun --- going for the gusto --- sometimes maybe we need to let go of all the rational self-interest restrictions we put on ourselves and live life to the fullest (based on what we want out of life).

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I agree that the more damaging your previous philosophy was the harder you will find Objectivism to follow.

This is a very big problem for me at the moment because I still have a rather apathetic mindset and problems with motivation and discipline as my upbringing actively caused me to form a philosophy totally contrary to Objectivism.

As well as reading books on Objectivist philosophy and cognitive psychology I'm considering joining one of the armed forces in the hope that it will instill a sense of discipline in my admittedly sloppy mind!

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Do you think it is okay to decide to eat food that you enjoy but may not be the best for you?

Yes, it can be, IF it doesn't conflict with your higher values. In my case, it is conflicting with a higher value, the desire to be lighter and healthier. Being lighter and healthier will afford me a better opportunity to enjoy other things I like more than eating (like motorcycle riding) for a longer period of time.

Why can't we each choose what we value?
I dont' think that Objectivism ever tells you that can't so I'm not sure why you think this. All that Objectivism assumes is that your life is your highest value, and if you accept that, then there are facts of reality that dictate some other values which are necessary to allow you to live the flourishing life of a man (versus the mere physical existence of an animal). You can choose all the values you want, the question is, are they serving your highest value or are they destroying it.

This is what I mean by subjective values.

The most common mistake I see with this statement is an equivocation of the word "subjective", or at least a variation in the way it is used by Objectivists. When an Objectivist uses the word "subjective", they typically mean "without reason, based on whim." The word subjective in your statement refers to its meaning "personal, or unique to an individual." There is no reason why personal values cannot be derived from objective facts contextual to each individual's life. I enjoy riding motorcycles for several valid reasons, but you may not. Because we all live lives in different situations and environments, there is no perfect one size fits all approach to life, but there are general principles that fit all, at least all who value their life as their highest value. Objectivism tells you what those principles are, and sometimes Ayn Rand breaks down into concretes the application of those principles with regards to particular subjects. Am I clear on how the word subjective is being used two different ways (which appears to create a conflict between terms that is not actually there)? One need not live the life of a robot to live a full, flourishing, individual life of a man.

The other concept you appear to have already gotten your head around is how Objectivists use the term "life". "Life" to an Objectivist does not simply refer to physical existence. The proper view of taking action to further your life does not consist of doing only those things necessary to "avoid the morgue". Rather, to a large degree what you also have to consider is what things make our lives worth living to begin with. The existence of a robot would be dull and unsatisfying though it may physically outlive us by say, a hundred years. Would you personally prefer a longer existence at the expense of actually enjoying your time here?

So doing things that give fulfillment to our lives (or pehaps add value to our lives) quite often means that sometimes we choose to do things which may shorten our physical life span to some degree (as well as having an impact on some or all of our other values), but they increase the quality of the time we have here. The difficulty occurs in deciding how much of the length of your life you wish to sacrifice for the other value you wish to pursue. For instance, is the relatively short term dangerous high of crack cocaine worth pursuing at the cost shortening your lifespan and placing your ability to function as a productive human being is substantial jeopardy? I would say no. However, does the occasional extra slice of chocolate cheesecake have that same negative impact versus the enjoyment you will recieve from eating it?

I would highly recommend the book Viable Values by Tara Smith for a more detailed explanation of what I touch on above.

Life is more than just staying alive
Precisely!!! Objectivism does not tell you otherwise.

sometimes maybe we need to let go of all the rational self-interest restrictions

I hope after reading what I wrote above, you realize that this is a false alternative. Again, consider reading Viable Values, I think it will help you understand this a whole lot better.

I welcome critique or clarification about how I presented this from the members who may be more knowledgeable about Objectivism than myself.

Edited by RationalBiker

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Ah, yes. The "robot" myth. I think there are at least a few who have rejected Objectivism because they think that it somehow means everyone should act like the robots you describe, Rsalar.

I think that error stems from thinking that Objectivism is in favor of Rationalistic absolutes, when in fact it is not. Rather, Objectivism consists of contextual absolutes.

Of course, the empiricism running rampant in our culture shouts that a life without whim is one of lock-step androids. Or at the very least that guy with the buzzcut, thick glasses, and the tie with short sleeves. So if you don't accept the premises of the barking hippies, then supposedly you're doomed to that.

Having seen so many other false alternatives in philosophy, it shouldn't be much of a stretch to suspect that the empiricist world-view is one as well.

Edited by Inspector

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I don't know if this is out of place, but would you mind giving a short paraphrase as to what his answers were to those three dilemmas?
It has been a long while and I've been meaning to listen to the tapes once again. When I do, I'll post more extensively, rather than mangle something from memory.

However, here are some brief points:

1) After presenting the devil's advocate position at length, Dr. Peikoff asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought his arguments had a "momentary plausibility". He then commented: "For the record, a vast majority raised their hands". This to an audience of people paying to attend his Objectivist lecture. I mention this because it would be sadly ironic if one finds oneself agreeing with one of the issues above and uses that fact to beat oneself up as being a bad Objectivist.

2) Dr. Peikoff says that the key to all three is to answer the question: how and why is philosophy useful to me in living my life? I think he did not mean that one should be able to provide a text-book answer, listing off the positives, but rather that one should consider the various facts about ones actual life and the actual way in which philosophy has helped and/or hurt you and ask yourself if it is genuinely useful to you. Using the title of this thread, I'd say, to the extent that the arguments sound applicable to ones life, one should ask oneself why one is following this philosophy that's so difficult to follow? What are the reasons?

3) Much of the course (UO) is about the method by which one understands the ideas of another person, ideas like Objectivism. Much of it is a manifesto against rationalism. Dr. Peikoff takes some examples of Objectivist ideas (e.g. "Life is the standard of value") and walks the audience through various ways in which a person might hold the idea in their mind. He demonstrates that, to understand the ideas, one has go through something like a process of re-discovery, where on re-validates the concepts and re-discovers the validity of the ideas, based on one's concrete observations. [Dr. Peikoff also has another course, named "Objectivism through Induction" where he takes more examples.]

4) The course is approaches these three perceived issues from the perspective of philosophy. As some have pointed out, there are also issues related to past beliefs and habits. There are also psychological issues at play. The course does not address these in any significant way.

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2) Dr. Peikoff says that the key to all three is to answer the question: how and why is philosophy useful to me in living my life? I think he did not mean that one should be able to provide a text-book answer, listing off the positives, but rather that one should consider the various facts about ones actual life and the actual way in which philosophy has helped and/or hurt you and ask yourself if it is genuinely useful to you.

One of my favorite bits in the course was the part where he described some very homey instances provided by one of the students of how philosophy helped him in his everyday life, including "I use philosophy when I miss the bus" and "I use philosophy when I buy a pipe."

In that vein, and as a specific example, a few days ago I used philosophy when maintaining my house. My HOA is going to be painting houses soon, and as part of the preparation for this they have asked me to replace some damaged wood on my garage. I was considering having the garage inspected for termites at the same time, on the theory that any additional wood damage found could be replaced at the same time. I was momentarily tempted not to do the inspection out of fear that some very expensive-to-detect damage would be discovered, and then reminded myself that if such damage existed it would still exist even if I didn't know about it, and that it wouldn't go away by magic. That automatic reaction was a product of having internalized and integrated the philosophical principles of the primacy of existence and the law of causality.

In effect, not having the termite inspection done would have required me to evade the truth of fundamental metaphysical principles, and by implication the existence of all the facts that support those principles -- i.e. existence as such.

That's philosophy in everyday life.

3) Much of the course (UO) is about the method by which one understands the ideas of another person, ideas like Objectivism.

This has a subtle implication that I'd like to draw out. The basic problem that Peikoff is trying to address in "Understanding Objectivism" is a flaw in the automated method many people have internalized for dealing with the relationship between abstract ideas and concretes. But attempts to explain the correct method in purely abstract terms are futile, because the people who have automated the wrong approach will necessarily have to use it to grasp the abstract description of the correct method and translate it into concrete action. In other words, when you explain rationalism to a rationalist, he'll wind up with a rationalistic understanding of rationalism, which doesn't really help.

That's why the first thing Peikoff does after laying out the problem is go into several lectures in which he does concrete illustrations of incorrect thinking methods, and comparisons to better methods. Only then, on the basis of those concrete experiences, does he present the abstract and essentialized description of the two wrong methods, rationalism and empiricism, and the correct method, objectivism.

The impact of rationalism on people's ability to grasp and apply ideas is really striking. One memorable exchange in the course took place when Peikoff asked students in the course to come up with concrete examples of the concept "welfare state". Correct answers are things like "Sweden", "pre-Thatcher Great Britain", "Canada", etc. But there was one guy who kept tossing out answers like "socialized medicine", "public education" and so on, and could not grasp why those were not examples of welfare states.

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One of my favorite bits in the course was the part where he described some very homey instances provided by one of the students of how philosophy helped him in his everyday life, including "I use philosophy when I miss the bus" and "I use philosophy when I buy a pipe."

In that vein, and as a specific example, a few days ago ... ...

Thanks. I think it would be useful to collect such examples in a separate thread; so I started one for the purpose.

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*blows raspberries at Inspector with great difficulty*

Why can't we each choose what we value?... sometimes maybe we need to let go of all the rational self-interest restrictions we put on ourselves and live life to the fullest (based on what we want out of life).
two issues there: what I want and how do I get it.

If you determine a particular ethical standard is the means to your goals, then the standard may be difficult, but it can't be too difficult (so long as it's not impossible.)

Whatever a person wants will have a requisite standard of action, so ultimately a person can't let go of all self-imposed restrictions and still live life to the fullest.

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The other concept you appear to have already gotten your head around is how Objectivists use the term "life". "Life" to an Objectivist does not simply refer to physical existence. The proper view of taking action to further your life does not consist of doing only those things necessary to "avoid the morgue". Rather, to a large degree what you also have to consider is what things make our lives worth living to begin with. The existence of a robot would be dull and unsatisfying though it may physically outlive us by say, a hundred years. Would you personally prefer a longer existence at the expense of actually enjoying your time here?
I agree with most of your post--and I ordered the book that you suggested. But the above quote seems like a potential "slippery slope." It would be easy to rationalize why some activities “make life worth living.” Especially when we define subjective as “without reason.” Some of us can be pretty good at coming up with good reasons why certain things we really enjoy doing (although harmful to our physical existence) make life worth living. It makes sense that we need to weigh the risk and the reward and come up with a proper balance in our lives—but sometimes we think we really couldn’t enjoy life without X activity but in fact we could substitute (if we learned how) a less harmful activity Y. You ride motorcycles—I fly airplanes—someone else drives racecars—then another enjoys base-jumping—you can see where this is going … and where it could lead. When do the risks involved become OBJECTIVELY too great for the amount of enjoyment we SUBJECTIVELY reasoned, “makes our life worth living”?

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It would be easy to rationalize why some activities “make life worth living.”

So some people can rationalize. I don't understand why this makes any difference. Are you saying that just because some people can rationalize, that others cannot live by objectively identifiable standards and values based on truly sound reasoning? If so, this is similar to saying, "There is no good way to live one's life because people can pick bad ways to live life too." Objectivism can't prevent people from fooling themselves.

Some of us can be pretty good at coming up with good reasons
By virtue of the way you phrase this, you appear to recognize that what they say or think may not actually reflect reality.

but sometimes we think we really couldn’t enjoy life without X activity but in fact we could substitute (if we learned how) a less harmful activity Y.

How can you objectively know for a fact that someone else would enjoy Y instead of X? If you can know this as a fact, then you must have derived a way to objectively identify the reality that makes it a fact. Aside from that, I could also claim the slippery slope argument here as well that leads us back to wearing crash helmets in cars that are limited in speed to 10 mph, and walking around in plastic bubbles to avoid diseases, etc. etc.

When do the risks involved become OBJECTIVELY too great for the amount of enjoyment we SUBJECTIVELY reasoned, “makes our life worth living”?

As I alluded to before, that is a difficult decision, and one that would be subject to debate even amongst Objectivists. I use the Steve Erwin example as evidence. I know of no if "x>= y then good decision" formula which one can apply to risk assessment for life decisions. While it may be easier to do that with say monetary investments, it's harder to numerically quantify one's life and heirarchy of values.

However, consider the purpose of one person morally judging another person (assuming no violation of a a third party's rights). We judge people morally for the purpose of determining how it will affect our interactions with them. It's not as one person's moral judgment is going to sentence someone to hell. And generally speaking, there is a risk that the judger must face as well. If one is unjust and judges a person's behavior too harshly or too lightly, the judger risks losing the associations of other people around him (or not severing ones that they should because of the danger the person introduces to their life) that may be of value to his life. Then there's the additional risk of experiencing guilt when we KNOW we are treating someone unjustly but for whatever reason do it anyway. Therefore, it is in one's rational self-interest to be as accurate as one can when pronouncing moral judgment on another person.

Edited by RationalBiker

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So doing things that give fulfillment to our lives (or perhaps add value to our lives) quite often means that sometimes we choose to do things which may shorten our physical life span to some degree (as well as having an impact on some or all of our other values), but they increase the quality of the time we have here. The difficulty occurs in deciding how much of the length of your life you wish to sacrifice for the other value you wish to pursue.
I guess the difficulty I am having in grasping this concept is how what you are saying here is different when one reasons objectively rather than subjectively. I am assuming that Objectivism rejects subjectivity in this matter. In other words Objectivism should be able to tell you with certainty what is in a man's best interest and what is not. If a person is able to subjectively decide what he values there is nothing stopping him from deciding that he values smoking cigarettes. He says, "I love smoking so much that even though my life will be shorter I would rather live a short life with cigarettes than a long one without them.” How can anyone argue with him if he has reasoned this out and made a conscious decision with full knowledge of the facts?

We objectively know that certain activities are not good for human health. You mentioned certain unhealthy eating habits—that’s a good example that we all can relate to. Physical fitness requires a certain amount of “sacrifice” in that we have to sacrifice a short-term desire for a long-term effect. Proper exercise and diet do in fact increase our chances of living longer. But on a subjective basis one could decide that the restrictions in a healthy diet make eating so much less desirable than eating great tasting fatty and sweat foods that life is not worth living that way. One might subjectively reason that exercising regularly and restricting one's diet is not worth the extra time on earth. That same subjective principle can be applied to justify almost any activity. Where is the objectivity in this principle?

Where does objectivity come into play when one prioritizes his values? Or is this process, by its nature, always subjective?

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I guess the difficulty I am having in grasping this concept is how what you are saying here is different when one reasons objectively rather than subjectively.

I'm not sure I can explain this much better, but I will continue in the attempt. However, first I want to clarify with you what you mean by 'subjective' in that sentence so that we are not running into that equivocation I mentioned earlier. If we come to an understanding on that, perhaps we can try to pick a concrete of your choice and attempt to evaluate it.

Second, do you have any issues with the premise that a man's life is his standard of value, his top value, and all other values necessarily exist to further that top value?

Third, I think we see eye to eye on the meaning of the term "life", but if you have any doubt, let's resolve that as well.

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Where does objectivity come into play when one prioritizes his values?

With respect to this question, does the whole premise bother you, or does it only bother you when you talk about values that may be reasonably close?

In other words, do you have difficulty distinguishing (objectively) why (assuming some degree of a normal context) a 30 year old man with a wife, two kids, and a mortgage should generally go to work each day versus playing video games all day?

Or is your objection on a smaller scale such as, why should I drink Coke instead of Pepsi?

Edited by RationalBiker

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If we come to an understanding on that, perhaps we can try to pick a concrete of your choice and attempt to evaluate it.

First the definitions:

Subjective: Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.

Objective: Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

”Second, do you have any issues with the premise that a man's life is his standard of value, his top value, and all other values necessarily exist to further that top value?”

Maybe this is the issue I am having trouble understanding. How do you define “a man’s life?” I assume it means, in my case, MY life. In your case it would mean, YOUR life. All men are created differently—different abilities, different appearance, different intellectual capacity, etc. What is good for me may not be good for you. But all men are created equal—man is man in the same way that A is A.

Applying the definitions to this second issue, I come up with the subjective as being those things that are different about us that cause us to make different choices and the objective as being those attributes that make us the same—we are both human--and we share the same biological needs and requirements.

“Third, I think we see eye to eye on the meaning of the term "life", but if you have any doubt, let's resolve that as well.”

There is and should be a distinction between the terms “life” and “man’s life.” I know the difference between animate and inanimate and how that difference applies here—animate things need to act in a specific manner in order to remain animate. Inanimate things do not have to do anything in order to stay inanimate. Are we on the same track here?

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