"The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man." (Ayn Rand, "Virtue of Selfishness")
"Survival," in the main, is a physiological term. But obviously not every wrong choice a man makes threatens his very existence. And, if a person compartmentalizes, he may make an immoral choice, but be rational with regard to the rest of his choices, and thus still be able to claim that he has done enough to survive, and thus meets the standard. It seems that a majority of specific choices a man faces need to be made based on the standard of whether a course of action will enhance or detract from the achievement of his values. Thus, once a man gets passed the minimal, crucial threshold of "man's life," shouldn't the ethical standard be elevated to the flourishing or enhancement of his life, i.e. the achievement of his values?
Ayn Rand's usage of the term "survival" may, indeed, introduce great confusion over what she means. She does explicitly state and explain, however, that the full standard of value is not a merely physical existence. In VOS Chapter 1, she explains (as the question observes):
The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.
The question seems to ignore that final clause, where Ayn Rand emphasizes "qua man." What does "qua man" mean? In VOS Chapter 1, Ayn Rand's presentation continues:
Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.
What does "proper to the life of a rational being" mean? Also, is the term "proper" a form of circularity here? Doesn't the term "proper" presuppose a standard of value?
The VOS discussion continues with the identification of "thinking and productive work" as "the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being." By "proper," here, Ayn Rand seems to mean "consistent with the nature of," i.e., metaphysically proper or appropriate, rather than ethically proper or improper (based on an ethical standard). The ethical sense is a derivative from the metaphysical perspective.
This is followed by paragraphs on attempting to survive merely by doing whatever others do, or by initiating physical force against others, or "by acting on the range of the moment" in any other respect. The discussion concludes:
Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man's survival qua man. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as "survival at any price," which may or may not last a week or a year. "Man's survival qua man" means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan -- in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.
This is followed by a further paragraph explaining that "Man cannot survive as anything but man."
It might nevertheless be asked (as I certainly asked in my own early readings): why does "man's life qua man" mean all that? What makes it objectively valid, rather than merely a personal preference? Is Ayn Rand saying that a person will literally die (physically) if he falls short of "qua man"?
My own answer (so far) is that "life" of any kind includes not only being alive in the present, but also having the capacity for further living action in the future. One can measure one's capacity for future living action. One can identify, as an objective fact of reality, factors that strengthen or weaken that capacity and thereby strengthen or diminish one's life. Any course of action by a living entity which, in reality (objectively identified), weakens its life (including its capacity to continue acting and living) is anti-life; and, likewise, any course of action by a living entity which strengthens its life (including its capacity to live) is pro-life. For man, any course of action that falls short of thinking and productive work diminishes man's life, objectively so, because of his nature as a rational being who depends on reason as his basic means of cognition and survival; and only a consistent practice of thinking and productive work can strengthen man's life over time. (Ayn Rand also identifies self-esteem as one of the three cardinal values that man's life requries, in addition to reason and purpose. How and why self-esteem arises as a cardinal value for living is a separate discussion. The essence of the issue is that chronic self-doubt is severely paralyzing for a rational being. The relation between purpose and productive work also merits further elaboration, which Ayn Rand provides.)
In short, the Objectivist standard of value is not merely man's survival, but man's survival qua man. The shorthand expression, "man's life," means "man's survival qua man," as the VOS discussion explains. One can also find reinforcing discussion of these points in Galt's Speech in Atlas Shrugged and in various other articles by Ayn Rand.
answered Sep 23 '12 at 02:52
Ideas for Life ♦