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Can someone give me a thorough summary of how ought is derived from is? What I'm looking for is something direct and logical, without quoting Rand (I've had difficulty understanding her writing on the topic). Explain as you would to an advanced high school student who's looking to get into the more technical aspects of philosophy, but hasn't taken any courses in it.

Thanks in advance,

William Clark

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If you are having trouble understanding Rand's explanation, you should purchase "Advanced Topics in Ethics," by Darryl Wright, from the Ayn Rand Bookstore. He takes you step by step through Rand's argument in a way that is crystal clear and will enable you to fully understand the basis of the Objectivist ethics.

That said, let me try to explain Rand's argument is simply as I can.

In "The Objectivist Ethics," Rand argues that there is only one possible ultimate value, life. To reach her conclusion, we need to understand two things: the nature of values and the nature of life.

So let's start with values. In the broadest sense, a value is something an entity acts to gain or keep. A value isn't a primary -- it's not given directly in perception. There aren't entities called "values." To grasp that something is a value, we have to see it as a value to something for something. This is what Rand means when she says that the concept 'Value' " "presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?" (VOS 16). She is saying that for us to see something as a value, we have to see it as something an entity is acting to achieve, and moreover, we have to see the achievement of that thing as making a difference to the entity.

You can validate this point rather easily. Think of anything it makes sense to call a value: money, food, sex, whatever. The reason you can understand those things as values is because you can see that whether or not the entity acting to gain them actually gains them makes some difference to that entity. This is what Ayn Rand means when she says the concept 'Value' "presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative" (VOS 16). An "alternative" means "a difference."

So what does it mean to say that the achievement of some goal (or failure to achieve that goal) makes a difference to the acting entity? Let's take the value "money." What difference does it make to a man if he gets money? Well, if he doesn't get money, he can't buy food. So what? What does it matter to him whether or not he gets food? What difference does it make to him?

Do you see the pattern that's developing? To grasp that something is a value, we have to see it as the means to obtaining some higher value. But there's a problem: if something is a value only if it is the means to obtaining some higher value, then don't we have an infinite regress (or, more precisely, an ultimate progress?)? Doesn't there have to be some ultimate value to which all other values are a means, and which is not itself a means to any higher value? The answer, of course, is yes.

"Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossbility. It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible" (VOS 17-18).

To sum up, then, in order for there to be such things as values, there must be some ultimate value: a value to which all lesser values are a means, and which itself is not a means to any higher value. Is there such a thing?

Let's go back to our previous example. We can see that money is a value because, among other things, if I don't have money, I can't buy food. So what? What difference does it make to me whether or not I get food? Well, if I don't food, I will no longer be alive. So what? What difference does it make to me whether or not I'm alive?

Obviously, it makes every difference to me whether or not I'm alive. If I'm not alive, there is no me. Or, to put it another way, for any other value, whether or not I achieve it determines what state I'm in...but whether or not I'm alive determines whether I'm in any state at all. "Alive or dead" is different from every other alternative: it is a fundamental alternative. It is the only fundamental alternative. All other alternatives exist only in light of the basic alternative of life or death.

Life, therefore, meets the criteria of an ultimate value. All lesser values are a means to it, and it is not a means to any higher value. "It is only the concept 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil" (VOS 16).

But we're not finished yet. We know that only living entities can have values, but just as important: living entities have to pursue values. They must constantly act in a specific way to achieve the things their lives require or else they will die. This means that not only does life gives rise to values -- it necessitates their pursuit.

We can finally answer your question: how does Ayn Rand bridge the is/ought gap? Well, "ought" presupposes another concept: "choice." Unlike other organisms, which automatically act to sustain their lives, human beings don't act automatically. We have to choose to pursue the values that will sustain our life if we choose to live. If we choose to live, we ought to take those actions that will sustain our life.

Now, you might ask, why can't we choose some other value as our ultimate value? Well, that was Rand's whole point. Nothing else can be an ultimate value. To be a value is to be a value to an particular organism for the goal of keeping it alive. That's what value means.

Let's take an example. Suppose you say that your life won't be your ultimate value. Instead, you propose your child's welfare as your ultimate value. Now, certainly you could say, "That's my ultimate value because I said so...because my child's welfare is intrinsically valuable." But we're not talking about that. We're presuming you are offering your child's welfare as a rational end -- you want to prove that it can legitimately be your ultimate value. Well, okay, so let's ask the big question: what difference does your child's welfare make to you? That's a perfectly sensible question, but to answer it, you have to appeal to some higher value, etc., a process that will ultimately lead to the alternative of your life or death. This is true for any ultimate value you propose.

Life has to be our ultimate end. The purpose of morality, a code of values accepted by choice, is to tell us how to achieve that end. It tells us the values and virtues that will enable us to successfully sustain our life.

I hope this helps. It's late and I don't have time to edit this, so if you need any further clarifications, let me know.

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If you have an Objectivist Campus club somewhere nearby, I'd strongly recommend that they borrow Harry Binswanger's video titled "Bridging the 'Is'-'Ought' Gap: How to Derive Morality From Facts" from the ARI. I heard him years ago and it was an excellent lecture.

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Now, you might ask, why can't we choose some other value as our ultimate value? Well, that was Rand's whole point. Nothing else can be an ultimate value. To be a value is to be a value to an particular organism for the goal of keeping it alive. That's what value means.

I get you somewhat on the is-ought question: if you can determine what your value is (and has to be,) you know can then figure out what ought to be done to attain the value.

I question whether life has to be that ultimate end, though. What exactly do you mean child's welfare as the "ultimate value" inevitably leads to the alternative of life or death?

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Can someone give me a thorough summary of how ought is derived from is?

I could explain the facts and I could explain ethics (values) until I was blue in the face. But if I was explaining it to a corpse, i.e. a person who does not care, then it would have no effect.

*YOU* are the one who derives your values from the facts. This only happens because you ALREADY value your life. You already struggle to stay alive. You already try to understand the world in order to figure out how to stay alive.

All that I or others can do for you is to show you how the world works; and thus how you can calculate which actions will benefit you. You have to determine whether what we say is true. You have to decide what you will value and what you will do as a result.

If I were to say "You should sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others.", this (lie) would not help you. If I said "You should try to live.", this would only be telling you what you already know. Most of Objectivism is common sense. You simply have to stop letting people confuse you with religion and false philosophies; and look at the world as it is.

One point which is sometimes hard for people to grasp is that you cannot gain anything from cheating other people.

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I question whether life has to be that ultimate end, though. What exactly do you mean child's welfare as the "ultimate value" inevitably leads to the alternative of life or death?

There are two parts of life that are important; length (continued existence) and quality. If a rational parent is raising a child, then the process will bring the parent great emotional value. This is a quality of life issue.

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I question whether life has to be that ultimate end, though. What exactly do you mean child's welfare as the "ultimate value" inevitably leads to the alternative of life or death?

I mean that a child's welfare can't be your ultimate value because the only way to justify it as a value is by reference to a higher value, ultimately your life. If someone says, "I value my child's welfare," you can sensibly ask him, "What difference does your child's welfare make to you?" It's only when you reach your life that that question becomes untenable.

There are two parts of life that are important; length (continued existence) and quality. If a rational parent is raising a child, then the process will bring the parent great emotional value. This is a quality of life issue.

Not quite. There is no clear distinction between quality and quantity, since each depends on the other.

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Not quite. There is no clear distinction between quality and quantity, since each depends on the other.

I'm not quite sure I know what you mean. Have I been misusing the word quality? After thinking about it, I understand that time is one of the qualities of a life. I suppose I was using it in the sense of "length versus the other qualities." For the rest of this post I will use it in this sense, but I will be more watchful of how I use "qualitiy" in the future.

Some choices for quality of life mean that you will likely not live as long. For instance, an elderly person going on cruises and buying material things at the expense of 6th months of hospital life. Other choices raise both quality and length of life, like long-term health maintenance.

Having a child takes years out of your life. I've heard that women tend to live longer if they have children, but I can't immagine the few years they have added out weighing the years of child rearing. So it seems to me that they have made a choice in this case to spend time to increase the quality of the time they are left with.

Would it have been more correct of me to say, "There are two aspects of your life to consider, it's length and the enjoyment you get out of it. You should work towards the maximization of both aspects- time and enjoyment. Having a child is about increasing the enjoyment you get out of life?"

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I'm not quite sure I know what you mean.

Ugh...I wrote up a lengthy, detailed reply to your comment but it vanished. How frustrating. In any case, I'll try my best to re-write it even though I'm sure it won't be as eloquent...

What I mean is that the quality/quantity distinction is a false one. It is a variant of an error I identified the masturbation thread: it conflates avoiding death with pursuing life.

Life is not static. It is a constant process of action moving in one of two directions: toward life or toward death. You are either enhancing your ability to survive or you are hindering it. You are either living or dying. An elderly man who is immobile, in chronic pain, or losing his faculties is in the process of dying -- as is a dependent like Peter Keating, or a destroyer like James Taggart.

Seen in this light, the quality/quantity distinction disappears. If someone spends their golden years pursuing values at the expense of a few years of slow deterioration, he is in fact extending his life in every relevant sense. He lives longer, regardless of the number of times his heart ultimately beats.

There is no essential distinction between quality of life and quantity of life. Quality is a means to quantity, and quantity is a means to quality. It's the same issue.

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Understood. It was not my intention to draw a fundamental distinction where one didn't exist. In trying to explain how raising a child can add to life's pleasures, I was not as clear as I could have been.

When making a decision to spend your time, you are not "spending temporal capital." You are making a decision not to pursue other values you otherwise could have.

I chose to focus on time because I often encounter people who think of it as the main aspect to life aside from happiness.

Edited by FeatherFall
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Can someone give me a thorough summary of how ought is derived from is? What I'm looking for is something direct and logical, without quoting Rand (I've had difficulty understanding her writing on the topic).

I have some preliminary questions. First, which of Ayn Rand's writings on the is-ought relationship have you studied?

Second, what do you mean by "is" and "ought" -- and are your meanings the same as hers?

Third, with those answers provided, would you explain what aspects of Ayn Rand's discussion of the relationship of "is" and "ought" -- in living entities in general -- you are finding difficult to understand?

Please be specific. Your answers might bring the focused (thorough, direct, logical) responses you are seeking.

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I mean that a child's welfare can't be your ultimate value because the only way to justify it as a value is by reference to a higher value, ultimately your life. If someone says, "I value my child's welfare," you can sensibly ask him, "What difference does your child's welfare make to you?" It's only when you reach your life that that question becomes untenable.

Let me expand on that if I might.

"Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossbility. It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible" (VOS 17-18).
Though it might be proven otherwise later in the argument, would it be correct to say that it might be possible for a single entity to have multiple ultimate values at this point?

Obviously, it makes every difference to me whether or not I'm alive. If I'm not alive, there is no me. Or, to put it another way, for any other value, whether or not I achieve it determines what state I'm in...but whether or not I'm alive determines whether I'm in any state at all. "Alive or dead" is different from every other alternative: it is a fundamental alternative. It is the only fundamental alternative. All other alternatives exist only in light of the basic alternative of life or death.

Life, therefore, meets the criteria of an ultimate value. All lesser values are a means to it, and it is not a means to any higher value. "It is only the concept 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil" (VOS 16).

But every value doesn't seem to require continued action - continued life - beyond initially gaining/keeping the value. A person's value might be to get the someone across a country's border, or to get a child married. It would seem here that life is merely a need for the sake of these values, not necessarily the ultimate value. If after these type of values were accomplished, the person might not have anything they act to gain or keep. Once dead, such a person can't value (of course) but that doesn't mean that, while living, his mortality has to be his ultimate value, or does it?

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Though it might be proven otherwise later in the argument, would it be correct to say that it might be possible for a single entity to have multiple ultimate values at this point?

No, not multiple ultimate values. An ultimate value is a value to which every other value is a means. Why can't you have multiple ultimate values? Because then you would have no basis for resolving conflicts between these values -- you would have no higher value appeal to. This would make ethics inherently subjective since you would have no reason for serving this ultimate value rather than that one.

But every value doesn't seem to require continued action - continued life - beyond initially gaining/keeping the value. A person's value might be to get the someone across a country's border, or to get a child married. It would seem here that life is merely a need for the sake of these values, not necessarily the ultimate value. If after these type of values were accomplished, the person might not have anything they act to gain or keep. Once dead, such a person can't value (of course) but that doesn't mean that, while living, his mortality has to be his ultimate value, or does it?

I thought I explained this point. You can't simply choose any ultimate value you want. You have to explain why that is your ultimate value. What I say is that no answer is possible for any proposed ultimate value other than life. And I offered proof for this point -- or more precisley, Rand offered proof for this point. For something to be a value, whether or not an entity achieves it must make some difference to that entity -- and all differences are ultimately reducible to a basic difference, a fundamental alternative: existence or non-existence, life or death.

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No, not multiple ultimate values. An ultimate value is a value to which every other value is a means. Why can't you have multiple ultimate values? Because then you would have no basis for resolving conflicts between these values -- you would have no higher value appeal to. This would make ethics inherently subjective since you would have no reason for serving this ultimate value rather than that one.

Okay, I see that was a misinterpretation on my part. I thought you were defining "ultimate" as end-in-itself... when you also mean "ultimate" as higher - preferential to all other values?

That said, wouldn't multiple ends-in-themselves be possible, so long as there were a preference in cases where more than one of the values could be pursued?

If an entity had values of A and B, and it pursued A when possible ( B when A's pursuit was not possible) isn't B an end-in-itself even though A is preferential? Especially if B in no way aids (but doesn't hinder either) in pursuing A?

I thought I explained this point. You can't simply choose any ultimate value you want. You have to explain why that is your ultimate value. What I say is that no answer is possible for any proposed ultimate value other than life. And I offered proof for this point -- or more precisley, Rand offered proof for this point. For something to be a value, whether or not an entity achieves it must make some difference to that entity -- and all differences are ultimately reducible to a basic difference, a fundamental alternative: existence or non-existence, life or death.

But by definition, can you explain an ultimate value? Any valid ultimate value would simply be. An ultimate value is an end-in-itself (among other things) and as such, doesn't have a reason for not being a means to other values. If an "ultimate value" did have an explanation, it wouldn't be an ultimate value!

It might just be that I don't understand the argument; what do you mean that "all differences are ultimately reducible to life or death?"

If a person's (sole?) value was to have their child get married (but not necessarily stay married,) how is this tied into mortality? How do you show that such is not an end-in-itself?

Edited by hunterrose
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Okay, I see that was a misinterpretation on my part. I thought you were defining "ultimate" as end-in-itself... when you also mean "ultimate" as higher - preferential to all other values?

Close. An ultimate value is an end in itself that gives rise to all other values. In other words, it's not merely preferable to all other values; all other values are values because they are a means to it.

That said, wouldn't multiple ends-in-themselves be possible, so long as there were a preference in cases where more than one of the values could be pursued?
Sure, and in a manner of speaking that's true. Art and sex, to take two examples, can properly be described as ends-in-themselves. But in a deeper sense, they aren't that. They serve man's life.

If an entity had values of A and B, and it pursued A when possible ( B when A's pursuit was not possible) isn't B an end-in-itself even though A is preferential? Especially if B in no way aids (but doesn't hinder either) in pursuing A?

Theoretically, yes. But if we're talking about life, that doesn't apply. Life is and requires a constant process of action to sustain it.

But by definition, can you explain an ultimate value? Any valid ultimate value would simply be. An ultimate value is an end-in-itself (among other things) and as such, doesn't have a reason for not being a means to other values. If an "ultimate value" did have an explanation, it wouldn't be an ultimate value!
An ultimate value, as I have said, is an end-in-itself, which is not a means to any higher value, and to which all other values are a means. That doesn't mean un ultimate value doesn't have a justification -- it just means that its justification is different from all other values. All other values you justify in terms of the higher value to which they are a means. The ultimate value you justify by showing that it is the soure of all values. You show that, if you choose to live, you must pursue it as your ultimate value or else be engaged in a contradiction.

It might just be that I don't understand the argument; what do you mean that "all differences are ultimately reducible to life or death?"

I mean that to say something makes a difference to an entity is to say it makes a difference to that entity's life. Nothing can make a difference to a rock or a pillow, because nothing is at stake for those things. Living organisms can go from being animate to inanimate -- a rock already is inanimate.

If a person's (sole?) value was to have their child get married (but not necessarily stay married,) how is this tied into mortality? How do you show that such is not an end-in-itself?

By asking them, why is that a value to them? Either they say, "Just 'cause," in which case they are engaging in emotionalism so we can simply discount them, or they answer the question by appealing to some higher value. If they appeal to a higher value, they are saying that getting their children married isn't actually their ultimate value.

But now you can't ask someone, why is your life a value? That question translates to, what difference does it make to you whether you're alive or dead? That is literally a nonsensical question. If you are dead, nothing makes a difference to you, which is to say that staying alive makes every difference to you. If you choose to live, life has to be your ultimate value. You may subvert and contradict it, but you can't replace it.

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I had to think about your post before I could reply.

If you are dead, nothing makes a difference to you, which is to say that staying alive makes every difference to you. If you choose to live, life has to be your ultimate value.

If you choose to live merely as a means to some other value, does life have to be your highest - let alone ultimate - value?

A child's welfare as a value might ultimately reduce to a parent valuing his child's existence higher than anything else - including the parent's own existence. How would this be irrational?

:lol: My questions aren't my stance, for the trigger-happy out there :lol:

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I had to think about your post before I could reply.

If you choose to live merely as a means to some other value, does life have to be your highest - let alone ultimate - value?

A child's welfare as a value might ultimately reduce to a parent valuing his child's existence higher than anything else - including the parent's own existence. How would this be irrational?

Perhaps I'm not articulating the point clearly enough. You can't just assert whatever ultimate value you want. You must demonstrate why it is your ultimate value. So let me ask your hypothetical parent: why is his child's welfare a value? I'll wait for your hypothetical answer.

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I'm sorry that it's taken me this long to respond, I've been really busy.

DPW: Excellent summary, in language I can more than easily deal with. I promise to discuss what I have learned here later in this post.

BurgessLau: I have read Anthem, Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, The Romantic Manifesto, some of The Virtue of Selfishness, some of For The New Intellectual, and The Ayn Rand Lexicon. As I was not reading them specifically looking for information regarding is-ought, I do not know which of these mention is-ought (aside from the obvious ones, The Galt speech, The Lexicon, etc.) It is my understanding that the is-ought problem concerns deriving how man ought to act, based on what is. It is bridging the gap between Metaphysics and Ethics. The part that I was failing to understand is that man's life is his only possible ultimate value. It seemed nice to say that, but I couldn't find the reason for it. "Oh, I guess that makes since" doesn't exactly cut it when you're trying to work out which philosophy to live your life by. Just because I like the end points of Objectivism doesn't mean I want to skip straight through them. I want to understand every step along the way to make sure I've got it right. As far as my current understanding of Objectivism's solution to the is-ought gap goes, values are only values because they help us achieve something, specifically another higher value, which looks like an infinite loop at first, until you see that there must be one end value by which all other values are judged. Since all value roads eventually lead to man's own life, it is the only possible end value. To reject life as the prime value is to reject all values and to choose death, since a constant pursuit of values is necessary to sustain life. Is there anything I'm missing? Anything that needs more elaboration?

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Perhaps I'm not articulating the point clearly enough. You can't just assert whatever ultimate value you want. You must demonstrate why it is your ultimate value. So let me ask your hypothetical parent: why is his child's welfare a value? I'll wait for your hypothetical answer.

I only meant a child's welfare to be a possible end-in-itself, not necessarily an ultimate value.

As far as why a child's welfare might be an end-in-itself (taking an ultimate value to be a person's only end-in-itself,) it might just be that a person is happy by helping his child. If such a person values nothing else as an end-in-itself, the child's welfare would also be the ultimate value.

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I only meant a child's welfare to be a possible end-in-itself, not necessarily an ultimate value.

As far as why a child's welfare might be an end-in-itself (taking an ultimate value to be a person's only end-in-itself,) it might just be that a person is happy by helping his child. If such a person values nothing else as an end-in-itself, the child's welfare would also be the ultimate value.

But you've given the answer yourself: by saying a person values a child's welfare because it makes that person happy, you've made that person's happiness a more fundamental value than the child's welfare. In other words, the reason the person aids the child is because it makes the person more happy--so the child's welfare is not an end-in-itself.

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But you've given the answer yourself: by saying a person values a child's welfare because it makes that person happy, you've made that person's happiness a more fundamental value than the child's welfare. In other words, the reason the person aids the child is because it makes the person more happy--so the child's welfare is not an end-in-itself.

But it goes even deeper than that. Happiness isn't a primary -- the question is, why does your child's welfare make you happy? What evaluation is at the root of that emotion? What you'll see is that, assuming the emotion is based on a rational premise, it's an evaluation that your child's welfare is good for YOU, for YOUR life. Your child's welfare is NOT an end in itself, and you can't simply assert that something is an end in itself. You have to explain WHY it is that. Only life, because it involves the fundamental alternative, can do that.

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You can't just assert whatever ultimate value you want. You must demonstrate why it is your ultimate value. So let me ask your hypothetical parent: why is his child's welfare a value?

Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.

.....

It is only the concept of "Life" which makes the concept of "Value" possible.

Objectivists rarely address the issue of children as an ultimate value.

I think that this is because it makes a simple picture more complex.

The process of life must be understood as extending beyond a single living organism. Your ancestors created your parents who created you. You may create children and thru them grandchildren and further descendants. Your life process extends across these generations.

If one took the narrow view that your life resided only in your own body, then your life would pass away after only one generation.

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But it goes even deeper than that. Happiness isn't a primary -- the question is, why does your child's welfare make you happy?

You're right that happiness is not an end-in-itself either. I should have been more clear that my point was only to show by hunterrose's own justification ("it might just be that a person is happy by helping his child") that caring about a child's welfare relied on something more fundamental (namely, happiness). But, as you say, happiness is still not the end-in-itself we are looking for.

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Your child's welfare is NOT an end in itself, and you can't simply assert that something is an end in itself. You have to explain WHY it is that. Only life, because it involves the fundamental alternative, can do that.

How is life/death fundamental, as opposed to merely necessary?

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How is life/death fundamental, as opposed to merely necessary?

To be a fundamental thingamajig means to be the thingamajig upon which all other thingamajigs depend. The life/death alternative is the fundamental alternative because no alternative is possible except to living things; all other alternatives depend (metaphysically) on the presence of life.

Paraphrasing: A rock cannot go out of existence. It can be broken and cease to exist as a rock, but its matter still remains in existence. This is true of everything in the universe, with one exception: life. Living things are faced with the alternative of existence or non-existence. They must act to remain in existence. If a living thing fails to act, or its actions prove insufficient, it ceases to exist. Like the rock, the material elements remain, but its life has literally been wiped out of existence.

I think it's actually most accurate to describe the fundamental alternative as the alternative betweeen existence and non-existence--an alternative which is available only to living things.

From Atlas Shrugged:

"The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but is life goes out of existence."

Necessit, on the other hand is somewhat different. Even the actions of most living things are performed out of metaphysical necessity, meaning they could not acted any other way. It is only human (volitional) actions that could have happened differently, and are not as they are out of metaphysical necessity.

Does that help?

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