Life: The Ultimate Value

As we've seen in the previous threads, we need to figure out what the standard of value is for Objectivism. The answer is 'life', but that might not mean exactly what you think. I gave a speech on the topic that might shed some light on it. I recommend reading it before continuing.

Rand uses the concept of an "ultimate value". Imagine explaining why you did a particular act. Say you drove to the store and bought a new telephone. It's not enough to say you value new telephones. Why do you value it? What do you hope to accomplish with it? Say you bought it so you can communicate with friends. Why do you want to communicate with them? So you can more easily facilitate spending time with them. Why spend time with them? It's enjoyable and you like the company. Why does that matter? Well, companionship has a number of values to offer, including the possibility of learning from others, seeing the world through a different perspective, doing projects you wouldn't be able to do alone, etc. Why is any of that important? Well...

And it goes on and on. Each value you point to is a means to some other value. You can't really judge any one value unless you know the ultimate reason for pursuing it. For instance, if I try to make money, it's not good in itself. What am I making money for? To buy a battery. What's the battery for? For a new device I'm building. What's the device for? Etc., etc. You can trace a path from one set of values to another, but you can't start judging them until you know what the ultimate purpose is. All of these other steps are just that. Steps towards something. What's your ultimate purpose? What's your ultimate value?

So that's what we mean by ultimate value. It's the value that everything else is geared towards. It's also the benchmark for how you judge the intermediate steps. With life as our standard of value, it is life itself that defines how important the intermediate steps are. We judge our actions and our values based on how well they succeed at achieving our ultimate value. And that's how we manage to get a single standard of value by which we compare all of our other values.

Why life? Rand had a few things to say about this. The first is that metaphysically, life is the only end in itself. Life is a process directed at maintaining itself. If you cease to act towards that value, you will cease to live.

Also, the whole concept of value is dependent on the concept of life. Value doesn't mean anything without life. You don't say that something is of value to a rock, or a mountain, or a river. Value presupposes a living entity. Without it, there is no values. There are no actions or goals. There are no choices.

I think it might help to discuss things in terms of the phrase "good for". For instance, "Eat those vegetables. They're good for you." Or "we need to do what's good/best for the child". These phrases, while sometimes not associated with morality, make sense from an Objectivist point of view. "Good for" in these sentences is usually meant to link an action or value with the life of the person. The vegetables are good for someone because they are healthy and provide nourishment. You would never hear that about something that was not conducive to a person's life. Similarly, doing what's best for a child is an attempt to focus the decision on the well-being of the child. In other words, to focus on the child's life. The phrase is used all the time, in many different contexts, but the meaning is pretty clear.

The point here is that when Objectivist talk about "good", it's not just a random adjective that describes moral actions. It ties the moral judgment to the benefit of the living being. To say something is "good" means that it's good for someone or something, as well as that pursuing it is the right thing to do. This can be confusing at first because the two meanings are conventionally thought to be very different. When self-sacrifice is part of your moral code, what's "good" for you is not always what's "good" to do.

On Objectivist forums, there has long been arguments over whether "survival" or "flourishing" is the proper standard of value. Those arguing for flourishing say that mere survival isn't enough of a standard to explain anything beyond the most basic of actions. If just staying alive was the goal, then we never need to aspire to new heights, use our minds creatively, etc.

The "survival" camp argue that flourishing is not a rational standard of value. How do you know that a person is flourishing, or that an action will help him flourish. It's nice to talk about aspiring to new heights and what-not, but the concept "flourish" is epistemologically dependent on a value judgment, which it's suppose to be providing the basis for. In other words, if you say "the moral thing to do is be the most moral you can be", you're not actually providing any idea of what is moral and what's not. Flourishing is akin to "the good life", or living life "well", both of which require a standard to judge it by.

From my article above, I disagree with the flourishers view of survival as the standard of measurement. I think they interpret it as the static view of life, and of course reject it as incomplete. But their own standard is flawed for the reasons given by the survivalists.

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