Objectivists agree that an individual's ultimate moral value is his own life, that is, his own long-range survival. They agree that the only way an individual man can hope to achieve that individual purpose is by grasping in conceptual form the types of values that an entity of his sort needs and the types of actions that an entity of his sort must take in order to obtain those types of values. Objectivists summarize this truth by saying that the proper standard of value for a man pursuing his own survival is Man's Life. For it is by examining certain facts about human nature generally that one demonstrates why the individual needs certain types of values and must take certain types of actions to obtain them. By the very nature of the process, however, these values and virtues (courses of action) are universal and fundamental, while action must be particular and personal.
But what shall we say about the process by which we make our universal and fundamental values and virtues particular and personal? That is a source of disagreement.
One type of egoist, let us call him "the calculative egoist," says:
Look, faced with our moral purpose (our own survival), we turn to a conceptual standard of action in order to separate out those actions that are most likely to propel us into the future as efficacious human beings. This is the moral standard of Man's Life. And it does, in fact, give us those universal and fundamental principles that separate out courses of action most likely to move us forward as efficacious beings. But those principles can be particularized in innumerable ways, depending on time, place, and personal circumstances. And the moral standard of Man's Life—being universal and fundamental—cannot help us to choose among those particulars.
That, however, does not mean that the choice among particulars is ethically optional. It simply means that, having milked the moral standard for as much as it can yield, we must turn back to the moral purpose: our individual survival. When we do so, the obvious standard for ranking the various forms a fundamental value can take is the same standard that lies behind Man's Life: Which values and actions are most likely to propel us into the future as efficacious human beings and which are less likely to do so?
Admittedly, there is a tremendous problem of knowledge here. Because we can no longer rely on fundamental and universal principles, each of us must investigate his own enormously complex individual situation and evaluate his alternative possible courses at a very concrete level. The difficulty of doing so is not an issue and the possibility that we may reckon wrongly is not an issue. All that is at issue is the standard by which we are going to rank our choices once we have investigated them as well as we can. This is the question that has been posed as: Why does the standard operative at the level of universal and fundamental principles continue to operate at the level of individual choices?
We calculative egoists have trouble seeing how it could be otherwise. After all, we turned to a moral standard in order to separate our actions more likely to sustain us from actions less likely to sustain us. We've gotten part way there, but we are still dealing with broad types of actions. We need to go the rest of the way and select particular actions. Our purpose—long-range survival—remains the same. Therefore, our fundamental standard—the actions most likely to sustain us—should remain the same. Why would we go to the trouble of separating out actions most likely to sustain men always and everywhere from actions less likely to sustain men always and everywhere, if we were going to abandon the standard of life-sustenance when it came to concretizing those actions in our personal lives? Why, having specially sought out the means most likely to succeed, would we choose the least likely of he means selected?
Imaginative Egoism's Rebuttal
This argument draws a rebuttal from another type of egoist, whom we may call "the imaginative egoist." The imaginative egoist says:
Let us distinguish the strategic level of one's life, the operational level, and the tactical level. The strategic level is given by the moral standard. The tactical level is given by the narrow principles applicable to highly specific tasks. 'If you want to balance your checkbook, follow these procedures.' 'If you want to put together this bookcase, follow these procedures.' These are tactical matters. In between these two fields of action lies a vast operational level that involves choosing particular instances of the values and virtues determined by the moral standard.
Now, however you want to characterize the choices made on this level, they are not moral choices, for the good and simple reason that they cannot be evaluated by the moral standard. We are agreed that all the options at this operational level are subsumed by the moral standard approves. And that means: All of them are highly likely to sustain a human life over a normal lifespan. if they were not, they would not be sanctioned by the moral standard. (Argument 1)
The imaginative egoist next turns to two challenges by the calculative egoist: Even if operational-level choices are not strictly "moral" choices, can we not rank them by the probability with which they are likely to sustain life? And, if we can, does not our moral purpose demand that we do so? Replies the imaginative egoist:
Take the first question first. At times, calculative egoism seems to be falling into the 'omniscience' trap, and it is important as a matter of philosophical methodology that we not speculate about what would be the case 'if we could know everything,' or, in today's jargon, 'if our minds were supercomputers.' Our philosophy must be based on human nature as it is, considerable doubt exists about our ability to rank operational-level decisions by projecting their effects over the course of a lifetime to a fine degree of probability.
There are several reasons for this. First, at best, we can assign only ordinal rankings to the different instances of a general value; for example, 'How much rejuvenation would various modes of recreation provide me?' Secondly, pursuing a given instance of one value typically affects one's ability to pursue many other values. For example, earning more money might allow me to pursue more supercharged recreations and to surround myself with fine art (thus offering me more emotional fuel), but the work required might leave me less time to pursue those values. Earning less money would leave me more time, but it would leave me less able to engage in the recreations and acquire the art works that best rejuvenate me. Given these complex interactions, the project of calculating fine differences in overall life-enhancement probabilities at the operational level is simply not feasible. The solution is 'the entrepreneurial life.' What people do, and should do, is to project a total package of moral values that they believe they can carry out, given their circumstances. Like entrepreneurship, this is not a science but an art carried under the guidance of the projective imagination. (Argument 2)
The argument of the imaginative egoist then proceeds as follows:
Now, a major part of this entrepreneurial package is motivation, and this raises another problem with calculative egoism. Life is hard. To maintain the drive needed to pursue a life therefore requires a lot of motivation. Some of that motivation comes from art, but much of it must come from life itself. That is, one's project must not only be feasible and life-enhancing. If it is to succeed, it must also be personally inspiring. To be sure, motivation (which depends on one's values) is to some extent malleable. But there is no need to change one's values and motivations unless (a) one's current motivations prompt one to pursue values that are not morally sanctioned at all; or (b) one believes that there is some optimum set of values that a person ought to pursue and believes a person ought to labor to bring his emotions into line with that set of values. We can all agree on (a), but the calculative egoist seems to be insisting on (b) as well: We should labor to bring our emotions in line with the values that we calculate to be optimum.
But that is not the way things work, nor should they. Consider an analogy: We know that a person needs to experience himself as worthy and efficacious. And we know that other people can provide him with an awareness of himself through visibility. Yet visibility, like art, can be very personal. We can point out to (male) Person A all the values and virtues he shares with (female) Person B. And while it is highly likely that such a commonality of values means he will enjoy her companionship to some degree, and vice versa, it may be that they never become close friends because of the particular fashion in which they embody their shared values and virtues. But just because Person B could offer a high degree of visibility to A if he were a different sort of person does not mean he should strive to turn himself into that sort of person.
The same point applies to moral values. Considered abstractly, journalism is a fine choice as a productive career: potentially remunerative, creative, and satisfying. And any rational individual can grasp in principle why some people are entranced by the prospects of being journalists. Nevertheless, journalism may be the wrong career choice for a particular individual simply because of the way in which it embodies the abstract value of productive work. Another career—becoming a novelist, say—might be the right career choice, even if it is much less likely to provide the person with sustenance over a normal lifespan. One cannot say that such a person "should" choose journalism because it is more prudent. Nor can one say that a would-be novelist "should" seek to alter his value system so that he wishes to be a journalist. (Argument 3)
Calculative Egoism's Rejoinder
Must we say that all options subsumed by the moral standard of Man's Life are moral for all people in all circumstances? Let us, for the moment, reserve the term 'moral' for options that can be evaluated by the moral standard. And let us say, by the way of distinction, that decisions about more concrete values and virtues can at times be evaluated in light of our moral purpose (our life) as being in various degrees prudent or imprudent.
The case for calculative egoism may then be put as follows: It is simply not true that all values and virtues subsumed by the moral standard are very likely to sustain a human life over a normal life span. To produce poetry is to produce a value that can be trade for other values—both material and intellectual. It is a type of productive work and is a fully consistent example of the moral value of productive work. In some times and places, it has been highly remunerative work, and in those times and places it would certainly be a moral career choice. Yet anyone who investigated the matter, in America, in the late twentieth century, would discover that to launch himself on a career as a poet (not a professor of poetry, but a poet) would be an extremely imprudent career choice. If this were a free society, with no welfare state, it is highly likely that the poet would perish in less than a year. Can we not say that, in a matter as vital to one's life as the choice of one's productive work, such a degree of imprudence is immoral?
Argument 2. On the question of knowledge.
Let us, by all means, set aside the standard of 'if we knew everything.' But let us not deny that we sometimes do have knowledge of particular circumstances that (as in the case of the poet) needs to be factored into our operational choices if we are to sustain our life. As this knowledge increases, it may happen that certain actions formerly considered prudent are found to be highly imprudent, and vice versa. An egoist must be alive to the availability of such knowledge.
Argument 3. On the question of motivation.
By the invocation of motivation, the imaginative egoist has unquestionably gained himself some wiggle room, expanding the range of moral optionality in life. An entrepreneur may choose to do project A rather than project B because the former attracts him and the latter does not, and that emotional commitment to the project may be vital to the project's success. But if we are speaking of a true entrepreneur, and not merely a wealthy man indulging himself, the bottom line on the project he chooses will be maximization of profit. Costs and projected revenues will be closely monitored, and everyone involved will be dominated by calculation. So should one's life.