In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand states that "An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means". It is said that life is the only reason man can pursue values at all, but isn't it also the case that any number of other values (say, eating food or making a shelter) are the only reason man can pursue life and therefore that life is a means to these other goals? How then do we know that any one of these other values isn't the ultimate value that should be used as the standard of value?
asked Oct 25 '13 at 22:32
It is said that life is the only reason man can pursue values at all....
Yes. An entity must be alive before it can perform any internally generated, goal-directed actions. If it has died, or was never living in the first place, it cannot perform such actions. (Man-made machines can perform internally generated, goal-directed actions, too, as implementations and extensions of man's purposes.)
It is also true that a living entity must pursue specific values in order to remain alive. All living entities face the constant alternative of life or death, and all except man normally act automatically to sustain their lives. Even in man there are basic actions such as breathing, heartbeat, metabolism, and even sense-perception (including the sensations of pleasure and pain) that function automatically. But the crucial conceptual level of cognition in man does not operate in a life-sustaining manner automatically; it requires man's consciously initiated and sustained conceptual effort (which gives man the corresponding power to detach himself from cognitive errors and eventually resolve the errors).
... isn't it also the case that any number of other values (say, eating food or making a shelter) are the only reason man can pursue life and therefore that life is a means to these other goals?
In other words, life depends on gaining and/or keeping other specific values, but doing that also depends on life. There is a mutual dependency. But there is also a time relationship involved in "life." Action presupposes life; life has to come before action, since an entity has to be alive in order to be able to act. At the same time, however, continued life in the future depends on specific actions in the present. Life makes action possible, and action makes continued life (and, hence, future action) possible.
The alternative of life or death is the most fundamental alternative confronting any living entity, underlying all other issues and actions which the entity faces. As Objectivism points out, life or death is the form in which living entities face the fundamental metaphysical alternative of existence or non-existence. Because man has free will, however, he has the power to choose the moral code and underlying standard of value (i.e., ultimate value) by which he attempts to guide his life. Historically, at various times, man has chosen standards such as service to a supernatural authority, or service to society, or service to others, and/or equality with others, and so on as the core of his chosen code of values. Objectivism points out that any chosen standard other than man's life qua man is self-annihilating. Such standards wipe out the ability of their followers to continue living and acting at all. It is only by breaking such standards (and/or relying on those who do) that the followers of anti-life standards can continue subsisting (precariously) at all as living beings.
Again, the alternative of life or death is the most fundamental criterion by which any course of living action can be evaluated. Of any object of living action, the most fundamental aspect of it is its effect on the life of the entity that performs the action. Is the object life-sustaining, or neither sustaining nor diminishing, or purely life-diminishing? If one pursues some specific value, V, is V pro-life or anti-life? If it is anti-life, its pursuit will be life-diminishing, which means self-diminishing, undermining the entity's future ability to pursuit that value (and any others) in the future. Life is not just some specific value among many others, which man can freely choose; man's choices have inescapable consequences, and the wrong choices (wrong by the standard of man's life) can self-destruct, meaning that they make one's continued pursuit of them increasingly impossible. Man is psychologically free to choose his actions by some standard other than the requirements of man's life, but he is not free to escape the consequences, which can be catastrophically self-destructive.
Now suppose man does happen to choose life-sustaining values, but does so by accident, not by a conscious, primary choice to live. To the extent that his choices actually are life-sustaining, he will live to act again. To the extent that they are anti-life, his choices will diminish his capacity for future living action, either gradually or swiftly. Furthermore, by what standard is man choosing his values? Is his standard inherently (predominately) a life-sustaining standard, or not? If he is trying to make some specific value his highest choice, what about all the other values that his life requires? Is he neglecting them? If so, he won't remain alive for long; his life will deteriorate, either gradually or switfly, depending on the extent of his self-neglect. Because of the fundamental pervasiveness of the alternative of life or death, man cannot escape the need to "take a stand" on whether or not he wants to continue living.
It might be asked: if values A, B, C, etc. are jointly essential for living (L), why can't one choose A as one's ultimate value, then realize that one needs L, and therefore pursue B, C, etc. as well as A as a consequence or corollary of pursuing L? In that case, one is choosing (de facto) to live, and therefore pursuing A, B, C, etc. as a consequence of the requirements of L. To the extent that one believes otherwise and fails to pursue L consistently, one will suffer the life-diminishing consequences. Furthermore, A can't really be a standard of value. It is L, not A, that most directly and fundamentally mandates the pursuit of B, C, etc., as well as A. Man's only choice in reality is to recognize that relationship or not.
Update: Happy Life
A new comment asks about life versus "happiness (long-term)" as "the final goal." For man, life can be either happy or unhappy. He's alive in either case, but far less so in the latter case. Furthermore, he cannot be happy without life. As a standard of value -- i.e., a standard by which to choose specific values, virtues, goals, and actions -- life is the fundamental. Happiness is a very important aspect of life, i.e., of a fully efficacious and thriving life. Happiness can be viewed as man's greatest reward and expression of effective living. The fundamental is life, with everything it requires and makes possible.
Also (in my understanding), Objectivism uses the expression "ultimate value" rather than "final goal" as a synonym for standard of value. The expression "final goal or end" quoted in the original question is merely an approximate synonym to help illustrate what "ultimate value" and "standard of value" mean. The essential issue is: by what standard should man choose the values that he will pursue? Objectivism answers: by the standard of man's life qua man. "Qua man" distinguishes being barely alive physically (aka "bare subsistence" or "survival at any price") from a happy and efficacious life.
Here is how TOE expresses the issue in VOS Chap. 1, excerpted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Ultimate Value":
The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it. And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for”—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself.
Update: Enjoying Living
A further comment by the same commentor indicates continuing confusion over the relation between life and happiness, and even over the nature and meaning of happiness itself. For clarification, The Ayn Rand Lexicon provides a number of useful excerpts on the topic of "Happiness," including the following (from TOE):
Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life. But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless “kicks,” like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment’s relief from their chronic state of terror.
Thus, happiness is not primarily a means to life, but vice versa: living efficaciously can lead to happiness. That makes living a means to happiness; happiness is an expression, result and reward of effective living.
Although a previously quoted excerpt from TOE mentions "pure" happiness as an end in itself, I understand this to mean that a happy life is an end in itself.
The commentor proposes:
If a man chooses to live qua man, both life and happiness are required.
"Required" is confusing in this usage. It might mean that happiness is an aspect of man's life qua man, or it might mean that happiness is a precondition of achieving something higher called "qua man." Objectivism holds the former.
If one is dead, then happiness is non-existence.
The commentor probably meant non-existent. And that would be true only for the dead person, not for any others who aren't dead.
And if one is unhappy, then there's no point to life.
This appears to be a reversal of cause and effect. One cannot be happy before one engages in the process of living and acting to sustain and strengthen one's life, in the future as well as the present. Happiness in achieving one's values presupposes that one already has values and has been acting to gain and/or keep them. The "point" regarding happiness is the potential for it that being alive brings -- if one acts to stay alive, and, over time, to become ever more fully alive.