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Is life in general an end in itself, or is it only man's life that is an end in itself? How do we know this is true in either case? Are the words "end" and "means" used in this way only valid within the context of values chosen by a volitional being?

asked Oct 17 '13 at 00:21

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edited Oct 22 '13 at 12:46

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

In order to understand what Ayn Rand means by the expression, "end in itself" (and the closely related version describing man as an "end in himself"), one will need to understand the context in which these expressions appear in Ayn Rand's original writings. I can offer a very rough high-level summary of the essential context, but the original sources will need to be consulted for a more complete understanding. The two main original sources are Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, and Ayn Rand's article, "The Objectivist Ethics," published as Chapter 1 in VOS. Useful excerpts from these and other original sources can also be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, but the excerpts alone do not convey the full context of the original sources. Here, then, is my high-level summary of key points:

  • Existence exists. This is known by direct sense-perception and is (by further reasoning) demonstrably axiomatic, i.e., inescapably implicit in all knowledge. (See OPAR Chap. 1 for further details. Also refer to ITOE for further explanation of how man forms concepts. All of man's valid concepts depend ultimately on sense-perception, directly or indirectly, and all knowledge is contextual.)

  • Existence is comprised of existents. Existents include entities, attributes, actions, and relationships. Entities are the primary existents; attributes are attributes of entities; actions are actions of entities; and relationships are relationships among entities, attributes, and/or actions. (Relationships are a very broad category, almost a "catch all," often requiring further subdivision in various discussions.)

  • There is a fundamental subdivision among entities between living and non-living. Living entities are capable of performing internally generated, goal-directed actions; non-living entities are not (except insofar as man-made entities may be endowed by man with a limited capability for goal-directed action as an expression and extension of man's purposes).

  • All living entities face a constant alternative of life or death. To remain alive, they must act in specific ways to sustain their lives. The ultimate goal of all goal-directed living action is to sustain and strengthen the life of the entity. This goal isn't necessarily conscious; it applies to plants as well as animals. And even animals pursue the goal without any conceptual understanding that they are acting ultimately to sustain and strengthen their lives.

  • Living entities other than man act automatically. In man, however, all actions beyond certain automatic bodily functions depend on conceptual cognition, which operates volitionally. In order to act, man needs knowledge of reality and how to deal with it. Man has the power to choose whether to use his conceptual faculty or not, and to choose a course of action in response to life's demands and his knowledge of reality (or lack of knowledge). The concept "value" denotes an object of goal-directed living action. "Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep." This concept is applicable to all living entities, even plants.

  • Man needs to act long range, and for that man needs principles of thought and action to guide all his choices and actions. He needs a code of values in order to live. "Morality" refers to "a code of values accepted by choice." The fundamental reason why man needs morality -- and his fundamental criterion for accepting or rejecting any moral principle -- is to live. In short, man's basic standard of value is man's life qua man. (There is considerable elaboration of this point in the primary Objectivist sources.)

  • "Man's life qua man" refers to man generically, man as a distinctive type of living entity. It is a standard that applies to all men (people), not just some particular individual.

  • Man's basic means of comprehending reality and how to deal with it is reason. Reason cannot work under compulsion; reason requires freedom from physical force. Man cannot survive efficaciously in a system where anyone can initiate physical force against anyone else at any time. Initiation of physical force must be banned from all human relationships, so that man can be free to use reason productively, including voluntary trade with others if there is mutual consent and mutual benefit to be gained. Through the opportunity to specialize one's productive efforts in a division-of-labor economy, man can benefit greatly by voluntary, cooperative trade with other rational producers.

  • Such is the meaning of the formulation, "Man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others." This formulation encapsulates and integrates the foregoing identifications.

  • The concept "value" applies to all living things, not just man. All living action is goal-directed, with the life of the valuer as the ultimate goal or "ultimate value." As already noted, the goal operates automatically in living entities other than man, and isn't even conscious in plants, which do not have the capacity for the kind of conscious cognition and conscious action observed in animals. The de facto standard of value for any living entity is the life of an entity of that type. This standard has no cognitive meaning to non-human living entities; it is meaningful only to man, mainly for the purpose of a more complete understanding and integration of the fundamental relationship between facts of reality and goal-directed living action. It is also useful to man to understand when cultivating and harvesting other living species for man's consumption or other use, such as enjoyment of pets or caring for work animals.

  • The expression, "life is an end in itself," refers to the fact that the life of the living entity that performs an action is the ultimate goal of the action, with no further end or goal for that entity. (Reproductive action, too, can be understood as conforming to this principle in a generation-to-generation perspective.) For non-human species, "end in itself" does not mean that living entities cannot be the means to the ends of other living entities, since non-human animals survive by eating other living things. Man, too, survives by eating non-human species of living things. For man, however, the issue is that man (every man) ought not to be treated as a sacrificial animal for the ends of other men, because of the nature of man as a rational being (volitionally so), and the requirements of man's life (i.e., rational productiveness, along with the trader principle in cooperative dealings with other men). By the standard of man's life qua man, he is also morally entitled to defend himself against human and non-human animals who initiate physical force against him. (Self-defense against other humans preferably should be under objective control through an organized government.)

  • "End in itself" thus is a summarizing integration of hierarchically earlier identifications; it is not a first-level abstraction from direct sense-perception, nor is it a metaphysical axiom, nor a fundamental starting point for all of ethics and politics. To reiterate "end in itself" in ethical and political issues is just to highlight, in highly condensed form, all the antecedent identifications that form the context for deciding ethical and political issues.

  • "Man's life qua man" is an objective standard of value for man because it derives from reality, specifically, the relation between living and acting. It is also the only objective standard, because life or death (existence or nonexistence) is the most fundamental alternative confronting any living entity. There is no further reality-based end or obligation requiring man to choose life rather than death; if a person wishes to die, he is free to do so, and he will actually die if he fails to act to sustain his life. While he is dying, he has no reason or need for anything else -- no reason to act to gain and/or keep anything, no reason to adhere to any code of values nor even to be rational or logical at all, no reason to remain peaceful, but no reason to attack others, either, and no reason or grounds to object if he does attack someone else and the victim fights back. Again, he will not remain alive for long in any case if he fails to act to sustain his life. Once he dies, he is no longer capable of any further internally generated action at all.

(For those who may want a more formal discussion of "teleology" beyond what the original Objectivist sources can provide, refer also to Harry Binswanger's book, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts, which is an expanded version of his PhD dissertation.)

answered Oct 17 '13 at 22:45

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Very concise answer. Thank you.

(Oct 18 '13 at 20:52) Phyxius Phyxius's gravatar image

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Asked: Oct 17 '13 at 00:21

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Last updated: Oct 22 '13 at 12:46