SURVIVE OR FLOURISH? A RECONCILIATION
by Robert Bidinotto
Published in Full Context, Feb. 1994, pp. 1-5, and in April 1994.
For some time now, a very important debate has raged among Objectivists and Aristotelians concerning the final end in ethics. The key matter under dispute: whether or not the Objectivist ethics [the morality defined by Ayn Rand] -- grounded in the natural requirements of "life" and "self-preservation" -- is sufficient to provide man enough guidance to lead a full, rich, happy and distinctively human life.
The debate was joined when David Kelley critically reviewed (in the July 1992 Liberty magazine) the book Liberty and Nature, by two Objectivist-influenced (but Aristotelian-oriented) philosophers, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. It has continued since in these pages (see, for example, Henry Scuoteguazza's "Man's Life and the Fulfilled Life" in the April 1993 Full Context); and it has spilled over into protracted electronic mail arguments in the Ayn Rand discussion forum that Jimmy Wales moderates on the Internet.
In his review of Liberty and Nature, Kelley summarized clearly the essential differences between the Objectivist position which he endorses, and the Aristotelian position upheld by Rasmussen and Den Uyl. Writes Kelley:
The point of departure for their argument is Rand's insight that values arise from the fact that living organisms must act to stay alive -- to preserve their own existence. Because anything that exists has a specific nature, they go on to argue, the "natural end" for a living thing is to remain in existence as the kind of thing it is. Man is a rational animal -- that is our distinctive essence -- so our natural end is to live as rational beings. In this way, the authors give the Objectivist ethics a distinctly Aristotelian spin. The ultimate value is not life per se, in the sense of survival, but living well, "flourishing," actualizing our potentialities... [A]long the way the authors mention such items as friendship, wealth, and productive work, as well as the exercise of such virtues as rationality, courage, and integrity.
In any case, they regard flourishing as an objective value, with objective requirements for its realization... Moreover reason and reasoned choice is not merely a means to the ultimate end. It is a constituent of the end itself.
Why do Rasmussen and Den Uyl feel the need to depart from Rand? Kelley goes on:
The concept of flourishing is introduced as an Aristotelian amendment to the Objectivist ethics... Rasmussen and Den Uyl are concerned...that life in the sense of 'mere' survival will not give us much of an ethical code. "Flourishing" is supposed to be a richer concept: it means living well, through the realization of a wide range of our capacities.
By contrast, the "Survivalist" camp, represented by Objectivists, argues that "Flourishers" fail to ground their ethics in any objective requirements of nature and reality. "...[H]ow do we determine what is involved in flourishing?" Kelley asks in his review. "In Ayn Rand's approach, every value and every virtue that goes to make up a good life must be shown to have a bearing on survival; in one way or another, it must enhance the prospects for self-preservation... [O]nly the alternative of existence or non-existence can sustain a nonarbitrary normative judgment that something is good, right, or virtuous. So far as I can see, the concept of flourishing is an attempt to skirt the problem. By incorporating all the cardinal values and virtues into the fundamental end, the concept attempts to escape the need of proving that they are necessary *means* to the end."
For their part, the "Flourishers" tend to deny that moral virtues are only a means to any more ultimate end; rather, they are simply part of the end, which is "human flourishing." As one prominent Flourisher put it in an e-mail message to me:
...man's life qua man is a way of living that is defined by the possession and use of certain virtues (they are inherent to that way of living), and that is what one should be doing. Living virtuously -- the life proper to man -- is the good. It is the end in itself, the standard of value. What else could Rand be saying when she says life is an end in itself? There is no necessary pay off in longer life, money, power, pleasure, sex. These things are not bad, and they are usually either means to or results of living the life proper to man, but these are not what human living is all about.
At first glance, most Objectivists would read the preceding paragraph and immediately reject the Flourisher position as an instance of "intrinsicist" or deontologically-based ethics. Flourishers are arguing that there are natural requirements for all entities -- that human virtues and values are intrinsic to human nature. Just as a horse must live qua horse, a man must live qua man. Man is the rational animal; hence man should exercise his rational capacity. It's his nature. The "pay value" of living virtuously is secondary: virtues are not a means to an end, but are part of the end, which is "Man's life." Virtue, in a sense, is its own reward: the reward of being human. We exist not for external rewards, but to be the kind of entity we are.
In sum, Flourishers seem to be saying, "a man oughta do what a man oughta do." However, that is clearly circular. Consider the quotation: "Living virtuously -- the life proper to man -- is the good." Translated, this means: the good is that which is proper, which is living virtuously. This sort of formulation leaves all virtues vulnerable to a single question: Why? To what in reality -- the Survivalists rightly reply -- do such normative terms refer? Where are the Flourishers' "roots"?
In fact, the Flourishers are trying to find some sort of a "natural end" in ethics, some objective grounding. That aim they share with Survivalists. They believe that simply by incorporating human virtues into their definition of human nature, they have done so. Theirs is a strained, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to provide an alternative to the Objectivist, survival-based case for ethics.
But why? Why do Flourishers feel the need to reject the Objectivist way of grounding ethics in survival? Because, they say, rooting ethics merely in "life" or "survival" per se cannot logically lead one to the kind of living -- the "flourishing" -- that Ayn Rand seemed to celebrate in her novels. It is to salvage those qualitative aspects of human life -- life as an heroic, impassioned, fulfilled experience -- that they feel the need to go beyond what her argument offers.
On mere survival grounds alone, man needs just the basics -- food, clothing, shelter, etc. Why, then, should man go for more than that -- as Ayn Rand indicates they ought to? Does man really "need" lobster rather than beef, evening gowns rather than denims, Roarkian architecture rather than a lean-to? Even if we concede Rand's case for basing ethics in the needs of "self-preservation" or "life," how can we go beyond that? Why extol the lives of heroes above that of ordinary people? Why Roark over Guy Francon? Why Rachmaninoff over Elvis? And why have some of her characters take profound physical risks, and contemplate or commit "justifiable" suicides, if "survival" is the only or ultimate end?
How then, on grounds of mere "survival," can Rand go beyond pursuing the basic necessities of survival, to justify and validate the pursuit of these higher-order values?
It's a good question. In his review, even David Kelley admitted that "Establishing these connections is a very large task, and I don't think Objectivists have fully carried it out." Indeed, Henry Scuoteguazza has argued persuasively in his essay, "Is Self-Interest Enough?," and elsewhere, that Objectivism has not yet provided sufficient ethical guidance for many ordinary aspects of living.
So before we dismiss the Flourishers' case out of hand, we should confront the fact that neither side has done a complete job of providing answers to some of the most basic questions of ethics. While Survivalists make a good case that Flourishers haven't properly grounded their ethics, Flourishers reply, with some justice, that Survivalists haven't established the basis for anything more than "brute survivalism."
Can a reading of Ayn Rand's own words on the subject break this impasse? Alas, by selective quotation, she can be regarded as endorsing either side of this debate. Here are her own words, plus words which, though coming from others, she had explicitly endorsed while she still lived, and which may be taken as reliable commentary on her own position:
Ayn Rand Qua "Survivalist"
It is for the purpose of self-preservation that man needs a code of morality. The only man who desires to be moral is the man who desires to live.
-- Galt's Speech, Atlas Shrugged
The reason of man's need for morality determines the purpose of morality as well as the standard by which moral values are to be selected. Man needs a moral code in order to live; that is the purpose of morality -- for every man as an individual....
Man, like every other living species, has a specific manner of survival which is determined by his nature. Man is free to act against the requirements of his nature, to reject his means of survival: his mind -- but he is not free to escape the consequence: misery, anxiety, destruction. When men attempt to exist by a means other than reason, it becomes a matter of little more than chance who lasts a decade and who lasts a year, who is wiped out by whom and who is able to consume some part of his gains before the club descends on him. Man's life depends on thinking, not on acting blindly; on achievement, not on destruction; nothing can change that fact. Mindlessness, passivity, parasitism, brutality are not and cannot be principles of survival; they are merely the policy of those who do not wish to face the issue of survival.
"Man's life" means: life lived in accordance with the principles that make man's survival qua man possible.
-- Nathaniel Branden, "The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged," Who Is Ayn Rand?
Some philosophers ascribed to man, as a metaphysical attribute, a particular desire or conatus; they declared it to be universal and innate; then they stated that an objective ethics, one genuinely based on man's nature, would be one that enabled man to achieve this desire or striving. Aristotle spoke of the universal desire for eudaimonia (happiness or well-being); Epicurus -- of the universal desire for pleasure....
In no sense does Ayn Rand regard any particular value as a metaphysical given, as pre-existing in man or in the universe. She begins by observing the facts that create the need for values. The basic facts of man's nature from which her ethics proceeds, are: that man's life, like that of any other organism, must be sustained by self-generated action; that the course of action required is specific, as it is specific for every species; that man is a being of volitional consciousness; that man has no automatic code of behavior, but must discover the actions and values his life requires; that reason is man's basic means of survival. She answers the question "What are values and why does man need them?" by analyzing man's distinctive nature in the context of the universal class of living organisms. That is the great originality of her approach. She does not advocate a single moral principle that cannot be traced back, by an unbroken logical chain, to the demonstrable requirements of man's survival qua man.
-- Nathaniel Branden, Ibid.
I could go on, but you get the drift. Such statements abound in the Objectivist literature, and their point is that the concept of life is the root of the concept of "value" -- both epistemologically and existentially. All this would seem to buttress a very narrow "survivalist" reading of Rand's ethics. That interpretation has certainly been abetted by more recent formulations, e. g., those of [philosopher Leonard] Peikoff. Consider this:
Goal-directed entities do not exist in order to pursue values. They pursue values in order to exist. Only self-preservation can be an ultimate goal, which serves no end beyond itself.
-- Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 211.
But is this last interpretation a full and reliable one? Consider now...
Ayn Rand Qua "Flourisher"
You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards.
-- Galt's Speech, Atlas Shrugged
Now please compare:
Peikoff: "Goal-directed entities do not exist in order to pursue values. They pursue values in order to exist."
Rand/Galt: "We seek the achievement of happiness...We exist for the sake of earning rewards."
So which is it? Peikoff seems to be saying that the sole point of seeking rewards (values) is to sustain life. Rand's own words seem to say the opposite -- that life becomes worth living as it becomes rewarding or fulfilling. In fact, in other passages, she becomes absolutely explicit about it:
...that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining [emphasis added]... that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice... a soul that seeks above all [emphasis added] to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself.
-- Galt's Speech, Atlas Shrugged
Just as man's physical survival depends on his own effort, so does his psychological survival. Man faces two corollary, interdependent fields of action in which a constant exercise of choice and a constant creative process are demanded of him: the world around him and his own soul (by "soul," I mean his consciousness). Just as he has to produce the material values he needs to sustain his life, so he has to acquire the values of character that enable him to sustain it and that make his life worth living. He is born without knowledge of either. He has to discover both -- and translate them into reality -- and survive by shaping the world and himself in the image of his values. [Emphasis added.]
-- Ayn Rand, “The Goal of My Writing," The Romantic Manifesto
These passages make clear that Rand was concerned with more than physical survival. She argued explicitly that man had to acquire the kind of character values that sustain his life-serving activities, but more: "that make his life worth living." Obviously, to Rand, any life per se was not necessarily a "life worth living." Her fiction lends ample corroboration: the suicides of Andrei Taganov, Gail Wynand and Cheryl Taggart. These characters portrayed lives which could have continued for some time, but which were no longer "worth living." (I include Wynand since Rand had him commit suicide in her film script.) John Galt, Rand's premier exemplar, gives unmistakable testimony to this in the following passage from Part III, Chapter 8 of Atlas Shrugged. Galt is talking to Mr. Thompson, the nation's "leader," who has been making veiled threats about using physical force against Galt, perhaps even killing him:
“Don't you want to live?” [asks Thompson.]
"Passionately” [replies Galt]. He saw the snap of a spark in Mr. Thompson's eyes and smiled. “I'll tell you more: I know that I want to live much more intensely than you do. I know that that's what you're counting on. I know that you, in fact, do not want to live at all. I want it. And because I want it so much, I will accept no substitute.”
"...I will accept no substitute." Can there be any doubt Galt is here acknowledging that -- yes -- if he submits, he may be permitted to continue to exist indefinitely; but -- no -- he doesn't want that kind of existence.
True, it is the need to live that gives rise to the need for values; virtues are simply means to the achievement of life-serving values, and not ends-in-themselves. But observe that there is more at stake than mere physical survival. In Rand's view, enjoyment of life plays a crucial role.
Another part of Galt's Speech makes clear that "The purpose of morality is to teach you...to enjoy yourself and live." And: "Virtue is not an end in itself. Virtue is not its own reward or sacrificial fodder for the reward of evil. Life is the reward of virtue -- and happiness is the goal and reward of life." [Emphasis added.]
For man, happiness -- not just survival -- is the final goal, and reward, of a specifically human life. The ultimate rewards she hoped men would gain from adopting her ethics were (surprise!) emotional. The experience of passionate engagement with life -- of meaning and purpose -- of spiritual grandeur, exaltation, joy...this state, to her, made "life worth living."
Yet Rand did not take the state of happiness and well-being as an irreducible primary. She viewed it biocentrically. In "The Psychology of Pleasure," an essay published in Feb. 1964 under Rand's auspices in The Objectivist Newsletter, Nathaniel Branden writes:
Pleasure, for man, is not a luxury, but a profound psychological need. Pleasure (in the widest sense of the term) is a metaphysical concomitant of life, the reward and consequence of successful action -- just as pain is the insignia of failure, destruction, death. Through the state of enjoyment, man experiences the value of life, the sense that life is worth living, worth struggling to maintain. In order to live, man must act to achieve values. Pleasure or enjoyment is at once an emotional payment for successful action and an incentive to continue acting... Thus, in letting man experience, in his own person, the sense that life is a value and that he is a value, pleasure serves as the emotional fuel of man's existence.
Objectivism is emphatically a biocentric philosophy: it is concerned with the values -- including psychological values -- Man needs to sustain his life. There is no doubt that it is in basic survival that the Objectivist ethics has its roots.
But these roots aren't the entire tree.
There are serious difficulties with both the Survivalist and the Flourisher positions, as usually put forth.
1. Problems with Survivalism
The fundamental problem with the Survivalist position commonly put forth is that it doesn't get us very far down the road of ethics.
First, it's not quite accurate to describe Objectivism as a strictly Survivalist philosophy. If survival alone is the true focus of the Objectivist ethics, then Ayn Rand's emphasis on projecting heroes and exalting human character becomes unintelligible. Billions of people have managed to survive -- not always very happily or well, perhaps, but at least survive -- with no heroes or ideals worthy of the name. Yet this was no peripheral concern of Rand's: it was her raison d'etre. "The goal of my writing," she often said, "is the projection of an ideal man."
Similarly, Rand advocated not just the sustenance of life through a productive career; she held an exalted view of such a career. To survive, an architect surely needs clients; but he doesn't need to produce a Stoddard Temple. To survive, a single woman may need a job; she doesn't need to run a Taggart Transcontinental. Yet Rand's heroes and heroines treat their work not as "a job" -- not even as "an adventure" -- but as a sacred mission. That, in fact, is the view of life I get from virtually every page of Ayn Rand.
What makes her heroes and heroines distinctive is not that they are self-supporting, but rather, how they are self-supporting -- how they see themselves, their lives, their values, their work. It is this exalted sense -- the view of actualizing one's full potential on earth -- that makes Rand's characters, and her ethics, utterly unique. And for Rand, when the quest to pursue exalted human values is impaired in some irreparable way, then life is truly no longer "worth living."
Contrary to base Survivalism, Rand simultaneously argued something more. She acknowledged that there were degrees of pleasure, and that -- ideally -- man's ultimate reward for heroic action in service of human life and values was a state of exaltation. While pleasure had life-serving motivational force (and hence a biological grounding), the kind of intense, exalted pleasure she celebrated also served, for those who earned it, as an ultimate end and reward for successful living.
No, it was not mere "survivalism" that drew to Ayn Rand an audience of millions, especially of young people, yearning for some ideal that made sense to them. She clearly intended something more than a subsistence ethics. Try reading her “Introduction to The Fountainhead” from that perspective -- or her tribute to "Apollo 11" -- or her passage about the radiant joy on a child's face in "Requiem for Man" (in Capitalism the Unknown Ideal) -- or her entire Romantic Manifesto. Try reading the opening passage of Part II, Chapter 8 of Atlas Shrugged -- in which Dagny is trying desperately to "survive" without a long-range purpose, in a cabin in the woods -- and consider the emotional torture she's undergoing. Try reading the part of The Fountainhead where Roark has to abandon his architectural career for lack of clients, and what he emotionally must endure. Physical survival, these passages shout, is not enough.
Thus, I reject interpretations which suggest that Rand's aim was only to improve our long-term survival odds, to move us as far as possible from threats to our survival, or to provide a basic moral calculus for designing survival strategies. I do not see, in her fictional heroes, any cool calculations of careers and actions along such narrow lines.
Does this move Rand into the camp of the Flourishers, then? Not really.
2. Problems with Flourishing
The arguments put forth by prominent Flourishers suffer from circularity and arbitrariness. If we ask, "Why should man reason?" -- it is not sufficient to answer, "Because he's a rational animal" -- which only translates to: "Because he reasons." Answering the question, "Because it advances self-preservation" may not be a fully complete or elegant answer; but at least, it's an answer. Though (contrary to the Survivalists) Rand clearly wanted people to aspire to more than mere physical survival, she also saw (contrary to the Flourishers) that such aspirations required biocentric (survival) roots.
There are other basic problems with the Flourishers' position as well.
One prominent Flourisher wrote to me that "virtue" means "how well a living thing performs its natural function. A living thing's natural function is not merely to live but to live as the kind or sort of thing it is. For a human being this means that one needs to live as a rational animal."
The Aristotelian/Flourisher case, in sum, is this: "Man is a rational animal; hence, in accord with his nature, he should reason." It proceeds deductively from a definition of man that stresses his rational nature, and thus seems to imply a kind of metaphysical imperative to reason. Hence, Man's "natural function" (to reason) may be inferred from his definition ("rational animal").
Put another way, the Flourisher way of "grounding virtue in nature" begins by metaphysicalizing essences: by treating the essential or defining traits of a concept (e.g., rational animal) as if they are actual metaphysical existents "out there" in nature, rather than contextual, epistemological identifications.
On this basis, the "natural function" of a man, a squirrel or a knife is reduced to its defining trait alone. Because the defining trait of man is his rational capacity, Flourishers conclude, in effect, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" -- literally. But as Rand put it in "Causality Vs. Duty," the only thing a man's gotta do is die.
The error here is two-fold. First, treating entities as only their defining characteristics (rather than as the entirety of their attributes); second, viewing those defining traits as a "natural deontology" -- that is, holding that an entity has a kind of natural duty ("natural function") to behave in accordance with its defining (essential) traits.
Definitions consider only selected attributes. These "essences" are not metaphysical; they are epistemological. They do not exist per se in nature, thereby "naturally" obligating the entity possessing them to behave this way or that. Rather, the "essential" or "defining" characteristics of a concept are simply those which human beings have identified as contextually essential for purposes of drawing useful distinctions among concepts. They are human identifications, not metaphysical existents of intrinsic significance.
For example, the concept "man" subsumes everything about him, not just his "essential," defining attribute (i. e., his rational capacity). Among his other attributes is his volitional capacity. Now consider what happens if, in defining "man," we substitute (for "rational animal") the phrase: "a being of volitional, conceptual consciousness." In the appropriate contexts, either definition could be valid, focusing on equally real and significant aspects of human nature. However, by substituting the definition "a being of volitional, conceptual consciousness," suddenly the apparent metaphysical imperative to "be rational" vanishes. A definition that focuses on volition does not suggest that man "should" do anything in particular: volition precludes any metaphysical "shoulds" or "oughts."
Man is also the only creature (to our best knowledge) equipped by nature with esthetic sensitivities. Why can't we say, "man's natural function is to create and appreciate art"? Why can't we also say it's his "natural function" to be musical, to play baseball, or to go out on dates?
Clearly, the aim of the Flourishers is to try to reduce morality, by definitions, to simple commandments of nature. But nature, as such, issues no commandments -- least of all to entities whose "essence" must be exercised by volition. There is no commandment of nature that says that "a man must think." Even if we were to posit, for sake of argument, that "a fish must swim" or "a bird must fly," given Man's unique volitional capacity, he would remain an exception to this list of natural "musts."
To say that "My morality...is based on a single choice -- to live" (Galt's Speech) is very different from saying, "a living thing's natural function is...to live as the kind or sort of thing it is." The latter view of "essences" and "natural functions" is an example of intrinsicist, not Objectivist, epistemology. It is the idea that certain attributes are intrinsically significant to an entity, rather than contextually significant.
3. An Objectivist Synthesis?
Objectivism is a kind of synthesis of both Survivalist and Flourisher concerns: the Survivalists' concern about grounding ethics, and the Flourishers' concerns about providing men with more-than-subsistence moral guidance.
Yet a problem remains. Rand herself obviously meant her ethics to lead us to more than just survival. Why? Because man is more than just a physical body. His "soul" (consciousness) also has a certain identity -- a nature which cannot be ignored or violated with impunity, any more than can his physical nature.
But though Ayn Rand was correct in rooting the Objectivist ethics in human survival, it is a big logical leap from those Survivalist roots, to such Flourishing branches and blossoms as the Stoddard Temple, "man-worship," Apollo 11 and Rachmaninoff. This is the criticism and concern of the Flourishers, and in my view, it's a legitimate one. How, then, do we resolve this problem?
A possible clue can be inferred by juxtaposing two quotations from Rand. The first we have already seen:
It is for the purpose of self-preservation that man needs a code of morality. The only man who desires to be moral is the man who desires to live.
-- Galt's Speech, Atlas Shrugged
The differences between Survivalists and Flourishers exist largely because both sides are interpreting the terms "self-preservation" and "live" only in a physical way. Since both sides assume Rand meant to ground all her ethics in pure life-or-death subsistence, the only choice was to agree with her or not. Survivalists do, while Flourishers don't think that's morally adequate.
But what if their premise is mistaken?
As evidence, consider the second quotation, from Part IV, Chapter 2 of The Fountainhead, where Roark meets Gail Wynand for the first time. Roark is explaining to Wynand the symbolic meaning of productive work. He says:
We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form.
If we take this formulation as giving wider context and meaning to the first, then a question occurs: In using the terms "self-preservation" and "life," what meanings did Rand intend? What if the "self" and "life" Rand alluded to was something much more than one's mere physical survival?
Consider her position on abortion. In that area, she views "selfhood" far more broadly than just a physical life. It is "self" in the sense of "person" -- selfhood in the sense of personhood. Human rights, to her, are not rights of a mindless body, arising from physical processes alone, but rights of selfhood, or of personality. The realm of ethics does not apply to entities which do not possess a human level of consciousness -- hence, neither do rights. That's why Rand regards the mother, not the fetus, as possessing rights: only the mother is truly, fully human (i.e., a "self").
In fact, anyone familiar with the entire body of her work would have to conclude that the "self" at the root of Rand's ethics is not "self qua physical body," but "self qua human being." And if we interpret "self-preservation" in Rand to mean "selfhood-preservation," or "personhood-preservation" -- then the false alternative of "survive versus flourish" simply evaporates, permitting a possible reconciliation or synthesis between the two sides:
A). First, we meet the Survivalists' valid concern about grounding ethics in nature. "Life" is indeed the source of values for all species, including man. But the specific basis for moral values is human life. Rand's formulation about "life being the genetic root of values" was only a broad epistemological linkage; it was never intended to be an ultimate grounding for ethics, whose roots are not in generic "life" per se, but specifically in human life.
"Man, like every other living species, has a specific manner of survival which is determined by his nature," wrote Branden in his authorized interpretation of Rand. Yet for man, "survival" or "self-preservation" is more than survival or self-preservation at the animal level. Man's basic level of survival is -- unavoidably -- a human kind of survival. One cannot reduce "self-preservation" for man back any further, to mere animal-level functioning, because that's simply not man's nature.
This, then, is the key to resolving the survive/flourish dichotomy. Rand's ethics does not begin with plant life, or animal life -- but solely and exclusively with human life. Why? Because subhuman life is outside the realm of ethics. Morality is exclusively a human concern. Put another way: her intention wasn't to reduce ethics back to "life qua life," but only as far back as "man's life."
So, the "self" she referred to in "self-preservation" means: the human self. It does not mean merely saving one's skin; it means preserving one's personhood -- all that one's person has, aspires to or values. Thus understood, the "preservation of Man's life" translates, for each person, into the specific aspects which make his own life "worth living."
For a Roark, "self-preservation" could well include the terms and conditions that would enable him to build a Stoddard Temple -- because if he couldn't, the entity we call "Roark" would no longer exist, or find his life worth living. Likewise, for a Dagny, "self-preservation" would be intimately bound up with the welfare of Taggart Transcontinental -- for without it, she would no longer be able to function happily as the unique "person" we call Dagny Taggart. For others, it would mean those personal values in which they have invested their own "selves": their careers, families, homes, financial well-being, etc. The broad principles of rational self-interest tell us only that these values must be objectively consistent with human well-being; but within those rational limits, the specific values each individual chooses (and thus incorporates into his "self") can vary almost infinitely.
B). Second, we meet the Flourishers' valid concern that ethics guide us beyond mere brute subsistence. Understood expansively, "self-preservation" would include the entire realm of personality: one's ideas, thoughts, emotions, values -- all that contributes to one's "self" qua human being. If Rand meant this, "rational self-interest" or "survival qua man" would thus mean something like: "that which objectively contributes to the survival of a 'self' or human personality -- including its objective interests and rational values." So conceived, Rand would be positing an ethics for survival of the individual person -- which closely resembles the notion of "flourishing."
Under such an interpretation, the distinction between "rational self-interest" and "flourishing" largely disappears -- which means that the distinction between "surviving" and "flourishing" also disappears. The same actions that, for man, advance "self"-preservation, are those entailed by "flourishing." Why? Because for man, "survival" means "survival as a human being" -- and so does "flourishing."
The Flourishers almost have it right. Rand's ethics is very close to their own, except that hers is far more clearly grounded in nature. Rand shares the Flourishers' concern with the activity of being human. But Rand begins by grounding that concern in nature: in that which objectively sustains one's human-ness -- one's "self."
Now -- is Bidinotto saying that the "good" is anything that contributes to the survival of any "self" -- no matter what that person thinks, values, believes, feels, does, etc.? If self-preservation is the core of ethics, is the "self" of a John Galt morally equivalent to the "self" of a James Taggart? Are all "selves" created equal? Or is there an objective basis for Bidinotto's kind of self-preservation?
A "self" is a specific consciousness or identity, and its survival and well-being is not arbitrary. Just as the existence of life is conditional, so is the survival of a self.
Self-preservation, in the human sense, depends on a rational course of action. Some values, ideas, emotions and actions objectively contribute to the creation and sustenance of a self, or a human identity; others demonstrably erode and undermine one's identity, bringing one nothing but confusion, conflict, turmoil, anxiety, pain, guilt, grief, despair and -- yes -- even physical destruction, in extreme cases.
An objection might be raised as follows: "Okay, you've just described what it takes to sustain a rational personality. But suppose I'm an irrationalist and want to stay that way. I'm a malicious fiend, and love it. Clearly, the ideas and values that will sustain my kind of 'self' don't have to be rational ones. In fact, they would have to be irrational ones."
This notion treats an "irrational self" as just another kind of "self." But it isn't. Irrational ideas and values are not just other items on the moral menu. Irrational ideas and values are those which collide with reality. They lead to destruction -- not to some "alternative" kind of life.
Self-preservation ethics is not relativistic about what a self can be. An "irrational self" is a contradiction in terms. It is precisely the absence of a self -- or at best, a self in chaotic disintegration. You either have a personality, an identity, a self, and are working to maintain it -- or you don't and aren't. To continue to flout reality, an irrational person would be guaranteeing the eventual destruction of any remaining remnants of his battered identity. Irrationalism is, psychologically, "self"-destruction.
So it is as meaningless for one to speak of the "self-preservation" of a non-self as it would be to speak of the "preservation of a void." A Peter Keating, for example, is not simply an alternative kind of self: he's the flotsam of a self that was not rationally sustained. He in fact has no identity. He's a non-entity, masquerading as an entity. (For support of this view, see Nathaniel Branden's Psychology of Self-Esteem.)
But there are other interesting implications of this view of selfhood.
"We live in our minds," says Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, "and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form."
Human life, this suggests, consists of the objectification of one's values in the external world -- making it over in the image and likeness of our internal "world." That internal world is the self. By this view, we are each God, in a personal quest to transform the world into the shape and form of our internal world, or self. Projecting, objectifying and externalizing our values gives us pleasure, because we are actualizing our vision of how things ought to be -- remaking reality in our own image and likeness.
We do this in countless ways, through our own creativity. Whether we raise a garden or a child, tidy up our house or our philosophical premises, write a novel or a letter to the editor, we seem to be striving ceaselessly to shape the "out there" in the image of our private "in here."
The life aim of each person may be described as "the objectification of the self." As long as one's self (e. g., ideas, values, ends, etc.) is consonant with reason and reality, what I would call "rational self-objectification" more or less describes the proper human enterprise.
Rational self-objectification may be seen as the Flourishing aspect of life, while "rational self-interest" is the Survival aspect. The survival aspect stems from our need, as biological entities, to create, gain and keep life-serving values; it's essentially based on appropriation of life-serving values from the world. But the flourishing aspect of life goes in the other direction: it entails the projection of our own created values back into the world.
There are still other, more subtle implications of this viewpoint. Consider, for example, how rational self-objectification might modify brute Survivalism.
I have often thought of how I might react if confronted by the sight of a criminal attacking some stranger. I am virtually positive I would get involved, perhaps even at grave risk to my physical survival. But why? In examining my feelings, here's what I come up with.
I view such a matter as a core issue of my personal symbolism about how the world should, and shouldn't, be. The criminal is not just attacking a stranger; he is attacking all that I value. He is attacking my world...me. He fills me with indignation, because he and his sort are undermining the world I wish to create, the world I want. I can't walk past such a sight indifferently; and the fact that I don't know the victim personally is irrelevant. It is not the stranger-victim I so intensely value here: it is my world as I want it.
Similar considerations go into my risking my neck to save a stranger in peril during an emergency. I don't know anything about the stranger. I do know that I am making my personal statement against the triumph of raw circumstances over human life, and over my volition. What jumps into my head is not, "I have a moral obligation to the stranger," but rather, "Not if I have anything to say about this!" You see, it's my world that's under assault.
There's a scene in We the Living, if my memory serves me correctly, in which young Kira sits with a girl who's being mistreated by all the other girls in the school. She explains that she's not doing it so much for the sake of the harassed girl, as she is taking a stand against the behavior of the mob. In effect, she is asserting her own personal view of ethics into the social arena. That is the sense in which I'm speaking here.
Now, some might ask: "Isn't that irrational? By what standard do you project your personal value onto things which, objectively, have nothing to do with your personal survival -- things which, in fact, could actually jeopardize your personal survival?"
My reply would be: "Why do you project your personal value onto your wife, your child, your house, your wedding ring, your pet, or anything else?" In fact, we do this all the time, incorporating all manner of external values, many having only the most remote connection to physical survival as such. We appropriate them, in a psychological sense, making them "part of us" -- part of our world, part of our selves. After all, Objectivism teaches that our lives are not lived exclusively "in here" or "out there": they are a relationship between the two. A man who doesn't project his inner values externally, or appropriate external values as his own, can hardly be said to have a self in the human sense.
I would also ask: "Couldn't Rearden survive without Rearden Metal? Couldn't Roark survive without architecture? Couldn't Dagny survive without Taggart Transcontinental? Why did Dagny intervene and save the bum on the train? Why did Kira intervene on behalf of the abused girl?" If what I'm suggesting grossly misinterprets Rand, why did she have Roark urge Wynand not to give up his final editorial crusade on his, Roark's, behalf -- even though Wynand's crusade, objectively speaking, was harming Roark himself? On strictly Survivalist grounds, this act by Roark is outrageously irrational.
Only if we interpret Roark's "selfishness" in a manner as I am suggesting, does it make any sense: his "self" has incorporated Wynand's well-being as a crucial part of his own well-being. He will be damaged far more by Wynand's destruction than by public outrage, or even a prison term. He is acting, in short, in psychological "self"-defense.
I simply cannot understand the full corpus of Ayn Rand's work -- especially her fiction -- to mean something very different from what I have suggested in this essay. As far as I can see, it is the only interpretation compatible with all that she wrote. And -- unless I'm missing something very subtle -- it is the only interpretation which simultaneously grounds ethics in nature, while extending ethics beyond considerations of mere subsistence.
It's time for a truce between the Survivalists and the Flourishers. Properly understood, Objectivism can bridge the legitimate concerns of both camps.
Our common aim? To offer the world an ethics that is firmly rooted in biological reality, yet rich enough to span all the complex contextual considerations of human life on earth -- an ethics that supports and sustains human life, but which also makes human life worth living.
And what greater gift could we offer the world than that?