The Objectivist morality, Ayn Rand said, is based on the choice to live. A perennial question in Objectivism is whether (1) life is a value because one chooses to live, or (2) one should choose to live because life is a value.. When the question is posed in this form, (1) is the correct answer.
But what does this abstract issue mean in our actual lives as individuals? At this level, there is truth in both (1) and (2). The perennial search for the meaning of life shows that we do choose our lives because they are valuable. We will explore the sources of meaning in the primary purposes that shape our lives, the role of achievement and experience as elements of purpose, and the consequences of the loss of meaning. At the same time, our purposes can be tyrannical masters unless we choose them. We will explore the choice of the values one seeks to achieve as well as the experience of choice as one renews one’s commitment to those values—and to one’s life—day-by-day.
B. Is the choice to live subjective and arbitrary?
C. The choice to live and the objectivity of values
A. The paradox of meaning and its resolution
B. The content of one’s life
C. Primary purposes as sources of meaning
D. Achievement and experience as poles of purpose
E. The loss of meaning: depression and suicide
A. The tyranny of purposes and bad faith
B. Choosing one’s purposes
"My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these." ( Atlas Shrugged , 944) In these words, in Atlas Shrugged , John Galt announces the new morality that Ayn Rand offered to the world. What is the nature of this choice to live? What is its role in the moral philosophy of Objectivism and in our actual lives as individuals?
For those who are well-versed in Objectivist theory, the choice to live is a familiar concept. Even so, it seems remote. Is it relevant only to someone thinking of suicide? That doesn’t seem like a very promising place to start for a moral code that claims to be universal. When do the rest of us make this choice, and how? Do we make it once and for all, and then get on about the business of life? There is very little in the Objectivist literature that addresses these questions. A few scattered writings on the theoretical role of the choice. And nothing, as far as I know, about its practical meaning for our real lives. Yet I believe that it does have a practical meaning, a vitally important one. So I want to make a start today on understanding the choice to live and its role in Objectivism as a philosophy to live by.
Let’s start with a brief review of Rand’s ethical theory, in order to place this choice in its larger context. Ayn Rand observed that man is first and foremost a living being. As with all living beings the maintenance of his life is his ultimate goal. Life is conditional: any organism has to initiate goal-directed action to meet its needs; if it fails, it perishes. A worm needs soil with nutrients and water; if it doesn’t get these things, it dies. Human needs are much more extensive and complex—they include psychological as well as biological needs—but the same broad principle applies. If we fail to act successfully to satisfy our needs, the result is pain, sorrow, illness, ultimately death. As with all other animals, and indeed all organisms, life versus death is the fundamental alternative that humans face.
Unlike other animals, however, human beings have free will. We have the capacity to think about the range of possible actions that are open to us at a given moment, and to choose which action to take. And so, unlike other animals, we are not entirely creatures of our genes and our environment when we act in pursuit of goals. We are not instinctively committed to the pursuit of any particular goal, not even to that most basic goal of all, our own self-preservation. Human beings can act in systematically self-destructive ways, and even seek death directly.
Because we have free will, we need moral standards to guide our choices. A dog does not need morality because it does not make voluntary choices. And of course it is only because we have free will that we can be held morally accountable for what we do, praised for living up to the standards and blamed for failing. A dog does not choose its actions in the same way, and so can’t be blamed for doing what comes naturally.
What morality does for us is identify our basic needs as human beings, that is, the kinds of values we need to achieve in order to live and flourish, values like wealth and production, love and friendship, character and self-esteem. Morality also tells us the policies we need to follow in order to achieve these values, policies like rationality, honesty, productiveness—that is, the moral virtues. But if a person does not wish to live in the first place, all this is moot. As Rand put it, "Life or death is man's only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course." (“Causality vs. Duty”)
Morality, therefore, is not an end in itself. It’s an instrument in the service of life, a body of principles that tells us what we need to do in order to live well. The principles of morality are like the principles of health, which tell us what we need to do if we want to be healthy: eat right, exercise, sleep. Morality tells us that if we want to live, we need to achieve certain values and follow certain policies. But in both cases, the principles are hypothetical; they are based on a big "if"; the principles of good health apply only if we wish to be healthy, and the principles of morality apply only if we wish to live.
The doctrine that morality begins with a choice has posed a paradox for those who have taken an interest in Objectivism as a theoretical philosophy. I want to discuss this paradox because I think it has a solution, and it's time to put the matter to rest. But a much more important goal is to understand what this issue means in practice, what it means in our everyday experience. What is the relevance of the choice to live for the things that give meaning to our lives as individuals and for the challenges we face as we pursue happiness and fulfillment. To my mind, these practical, real-life implications are more interesting and important than the theoretical issue per se, and I am going to spend the bulk of my time discussing them.
But first, the theory....
- 1) Life is a value because one chooses it; and
- 2) One chooses life because it is a value.
On the first alternative, the choice comes first. Life is not a value for a person until he chooses to live. So choosing to live is a pre-moral choice. One is not morally obliged to make that choice, and if a person does not choose to live he is outside the realm of morality; there is no moral basis for evaluating his choice as wrong, immoral, or irrational. This is the view that Rand appears to espouse in the passages I quoted.
On the second alternative, life is inherently a value because of our nature as living beings. We recognize life as a value by the same means—reason looking at reality—that we grasp any other value. Of course humans must choose their values, since they act by choice, but the point of ethics is to guide our choices in light of the facts of reality. If so, choosing to live is just as much an obligation as choosing to be honest, and a person can be faulted if he does not choose life. Indeed, since life is the ultimate moral value, and since death is a state of nonexistence, there can be no greater fault.
Those who support this second view argue that if the first alternative were true, it would imply that morality is based on an arbitrary choice. If reason cannot tell us how to choose between life and death, then the choice must be subjective. It could be based only on a person's feelings and preferences. How can we have an objective morality if its principles depend on a subjective choice that can't be evaluated as right or wrong? This criticism has been made by Douglas Rasmussen, Eric Mack, and Roderick Long, among others (Rasmussen 2002, Mack 2003, Long 2000).
These critics hold that if option (1) is indeed what Rand is saying, then her morality collapses into the relativism of David Hume. According to Hume, reason can tell us how to achieve a given end, but it cannot tell us that we should pursue that end in the first place, nor can it motivate us to pursue it. The choice of goals, and the motivation to pursue them, come from feelings and desires. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” Hume said. “and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Treatise of Human Nature, I.3.7-8)
Critics have also compared Rand's position with existentialism. John-Paul Sartre held that the act of valuing something is a pure exercise of consciousness, a free, unconstrained choice. He went farther than Hume because he said that even our desires don’t set our goals. Any notion that values are imposed on us by either internal or external factors—any notion that the facts of reality make a goal inherently worth pursuing or that our desires drive us to pursue a particular goal—is an exercise of "bad faith," a failure to take responsibility for choosing our own goals. Isn’t Rand asserting something like that, if she holds that the choice to live is utterly free and unconstrained, a choice we make independently of morality, reason, and facts?
Whether the analogy is to Hume or to Sartre, the point is that if the choice to live is what makes life a value, then the choice is arbitrary and ethics has a subjectivist basis.
On the other hand, adherents of option (2) face their own logical difficulties. If the choice to live is obligatory, what makes it so? What makes life inherently a value, such that we ought to choose it? Is it because life is a means to some higher value? That’s the normal way to establish that something is valuable. We show that production is a value, or reason or love or self-esteem, by showing how they serve the needs of life. But life itself is the ultimate value, the end-in-itself. There is no higher value to which it is the means. And if there were, the same problem would break out. Why should we choose that higher value?
Some advocates of option (2), adopting an Aristotelian perspective, argue that man's natural function as a living thing is to live. That is our intrinsic nature, they say, and we ought to act in accordance with the value of realizing our inherent functions and doing as our nature bids. But the argument has it backwards. It is only because life is a value that exercising our natural capacities for survival is a value. I have the capacity to think and to act, I have the capacity to eat, drink, and produce. These capacities are means to an end, not ends in themselves. I can exercise them to support my survival, but that presupposes that my survival already has some value for me.
Other critics of Rand simply assert that choosing to live is an intrinsic duty. And even some exponents of her view take that view, at least by implication. Leonard Peikoff, for example, acknowledges that life is a value because we choose it, and that this choice is prior to morality. But he also compares the choice to live with the choice to think. The choice to think means a voluntary commitment to existence—the facts of reality—as a standard of knowledge. In the same way, he says, the choice to live is a commitment to one’s own existence, a choice to remain in reality. And he treats both choices as implicit duties, a necessary commitment or loyalty to existence as such. So choosing to live is, after all, subject to evaluation. In Peikoff’s own words, "A man who would throw away his life without cause, who would reject the universe on principle and embrace a zero for its own sake—such a man, according to Objectivism , would belong on the lowest rung of hell. His action would indicate so profound a hatred—of himself, of values, of reality—that he would have to be condemned by any human being as a monster" (Peikoff, 1991).To me, that sounds a lot like a moral evaluation. In any case, there is no room in the Objectivist ethics for any notion of intrinsic duty.
The basic problem here is an implicit dichotomy: the idea that the value of life is either intrinsic, a function of reality apart from our choice; or else subjective, a function of choice apart from the facts of reality. This is a common dichotomy, one that runs throughout philosophy, from epistemology to aesthetics. Rand's great insight is that the dichotomy is false. Values are neither intrinsic nor subjective, but objective. They are a function of reality in relation to man's consciousness, including his conscious capacity for choice. The thesis that life is a value because we choose it, therefore, does not imply that the choice or the value is subjective. Since volition is an essential capacity of human consciousness, subject to constraints set by the facts of reality, the value of life-as-chosen is objective. To see why, we need to look at the underlying theory of value in Objectivism and the nature of the objective context within which the choice to live is made.
Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept ‘value’ is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what. It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. (Virtue of Selfishness, 15)
i) A value is a goal, something that is sought.
ii) A value requires a valuer capable of initiating action for the goal.iii) The valuer must face an alternative: success or failure in achieving the goal must make a difference; achieving the goal must confer some benefit on the valuer and failure must bring some loss.We can observe these features in any case of valuing, no matter how seemingly mundane. For example, you go shopping for a new pair of shoes. The shoes are values i) because they are the goal of your expedition to the mall; ii) because you have to take actions to acquire them; and
iii) because finding the right shoes will make a difference in terms of style, comfort, or whatever else you wanted them for.
According to the Objectivist ethics, these features are inherent in the phenomenon of value as such. In regard to point (ii), Rand observed that all living organisms are capable of initiating goal-directed action, unlike rocks, rivers, and other inanimate things, which act mechanically in response to outside forces. In regard to point (iii), she observed that life versus death is the fundamental alternative that living organisms face, because it is the alternative of existing or not existing—than which you can't get more fundamental. In light of points (ii) and (iii), an organism’s own life is the only thing that can be an ultimate value for it. Any other value, from food and water to play and affection, can be a value only in relation to the more fundamental alternative of its survival.
This is true as well for man. A much wider range of things can be values for us, because of our abilities for reasoning, producing, imagining, playing, and relating to others. We can pursue a vast range of things that other animals can't: art, philosophy, romantic love, hiking, movies, computer games, gossip, and a million other things. But if we ask what makes these things valuable, objectively valuable, we must identify the difference they make in our lives. The consequences of achieving or failing to obtain these particular goods must make a difference, ultimately, in terms of the fundamental alternative of life or death. The facts about value summarized by points (ii) and (iii) are facts of reality, not subject to our choice. If we are rational, we must accept them as facts in the same way that we accept the fact that water runs downhill. And they imply that life is the only possible goal that can be an ultimate value and standard for all other values. We joke about the glutton who eats to live and lives to eat, but it’s only a joke. Eating cannot be an end to which life is merely a means because the difference that food makes—hunger or satisfaction—is significant only in relation to life. And if one eats without reference to that higher goal, ignoring one’s health, then, as Rand put it, nature will take its course.
So we are constrained by the facts of reality. But let's not forget point 1, the basic observation about value. Value is that which one acts to obtain. If an organism does not pursue a particular goal, then it obviously does not value that goal, and there is no basis for saying that the goal is a value. Values and valuing, the goal and the goal-directed action, go together as two aspects of a single phenomenon. It’s true, we can say that something is potentially valuable in the sense that it would serve the animal’s life if the animal could pursue it. To take an extreme example, a can of pepper spray would be a handy thing for a gazelle on the African weldt to use against lions. But you won’t find gazelles producing or shopping for pepper spray—they can’t even conceive of it. Valuable, perhaps, but not an actual value.
What does this mean for life as the ultimate value?
Organisms other than man seem hard-wired to pursue their own survival. They have, so to speak, an automatic commitment to life, a lock on life as a goal. And so points (ii) and (iii) apply straightforwardly: they initiate action within the scope of what they are capable of (point ii) to achieve things that help them preserve their lives in the face of the constant alternative, and threat, of death (point iii).
Even with animals other than man, however, there are exceptions, and the exceptions are instructive. Consider the phenomenon of an animal facing death. Think of an animal, finally cornered by a predator, who seems to give up any last effort to fight or flee and simply waits passively for the death-blow. Again, some animals seem to grasp when old age or sickness have made death imminent, and crawl off into the bush to await the end, making no further effort to keep themselves alive. In such cases, when the animal has stopped valuing its life, its life is no longer a value to it, and neither are the derivative goods—food and water, fight or flight—that sustain life.
For humans, the choice to live plays the same role that hard-wired instinct plays for lower animals. Our own choice is the source of our commitment to life, it is what gives us a lock on life as a goal. If the commitment is not there, if I do not actually value my life, then my life cannot be a value for me. It is not something I act to gain or keep.
Of course I am still subject to the facts of reality, specifically points (ii) and (iii), which imply that life is the only thing capable of serving as an ultimate value. If I try to make something else my highest value—say golf, or chocolate éclairs, or service to the proletarian revolution—just because they give me the most pleasure or inner satisfaction, then I am acting on subjective whim, in denial of the facts of reality. That would be consistent with Hume's or Sartre's theory, because they are indeed subjectivists. Objectivism does not permit this sort of arbitrary and unconstrained choice. But neither does it commit the opposite fallacy of intrinsicism by ignoring the fact and the role of human choice. If I do not choose to live, if it is a matter of indifference to me whether I live or die, then from a moral standpoint there is nothing more to be said. And that, as far as I can see, is the solution to the puzzle and the end of the story, philosophically speaking.
The theoretical issue we have been discussing is of great philosophical importance for understanding and validating the Objectivist ethics. But I also sympathize with those of you who are wondering what all this theory has to do with anything real, anything of importance for our actual lives. What does the choice to live mean in practical terms?
Although I have taken sides on the theoretical issue, defending thesis (1) over thesis (2), both of them have significance for life as we actually live it. There is a real and important truth in the idea that we choose our lives because they are values to us. That value lies in the things that make life seem worth living, the things that give meaning to our lives as individuals. This is the element of truth in thesis (2), as we will see in the next section.
At the same time, there is a real and important truth in the idea that life is a value because we choose it. What this means in practical terms is that happiness depends on experiencing our commitments as chosen, as values we pursue freely and as expressions of ourselves rather than as duties imposed on us by circumstance or need. Choice and commitment are the topic of the third and final section.
The meaning of life has been a perennial question in religion, philosophy, art, and literature. The question goes back to the Greek philosophers, and even beyond, to the earlier systems of religious belief. It’s a question about the purpose, or significance, or value of one’s life (or, sometimes, about the purpose of human life in general) . It’s a question that virtually everyone understands and wrestles with at some time or other. If I ask you what gives your life meaning, what makes it worth living, you understand what I am asking. You might find it hard to answer. Perhaps you can’t answer yet because you are still searching. But you do know at least intuitively what I am talking about.
Yet on the Objectivist theory, this question shouldn't make any sense. Life is the highest value, the ultimate value, the end in itself, with everything else serving as a means to it. So how can some other value make life worth living? Doesn't that imply that that other value is highest, that it's the real end in itself for which life is a means?
This is not a hard paradox to resolve, but the resolution is important to understand.
Most religious worldviews, and a great many secular ones, have held that the meaning of life does come from some higher value. For traditional religions, a human life is meaningful only if lived in service to God; without God, our lives are empty and meaningless. Many secular outlooks hold that we gain meaning from service to society, by subordinating our narrow self-interest to the needs of the poor, or the glory of the Fatherland, or social reform, or revolution, or whatever. These are altruist codes of morality, and of course Objectivism is opposed to them all. Objectivism belongs to the school of Enlightenment moralities, which hold that we should pursue our own happiness in this life. The sources of meaning, the things that make us happy, are to be found within the content of our own lives as individuals, not in something outside or higher than ourselves.
But we still have the question of how to relate life as an ultimate value to the values within our lives that provide meaning. If the things that make us feel our lives are worth living lie within the content of our own lives, not in something literally higher, then how do they relate to the value of life itself and the choice to embrace one’s life as one’s highest value? The answer is that in choosing to live, you are not choosing life in some abstract sense. Nor are you merely choosing to continue the biological functions that are pretty much the same for you as for any other human being. No, you are choosing to continue your life, as a whole, with all its content. Your life is its content, and there’s no difference between the value of your life and the values that make it worth living.
I want to elaborate on this point because I think people who take morality seriously tend to import the abstractness of moral principles into their thinking about their own goals and actions. They tend to forget that the point of these abstractions is to help each of us find the unique constellation of concrete values that can provide meaning, fulfillment, and happiness for us as individuals. So I am going to urge a greater sense of concreteness as we explore this issue of meaning.
I said that in choosing to live, each person chooses to continue the particular life he has, with all its content. What do I mean by content? I mean everything: the entire course of your life, everything that goes to make up your presence in the world during the entire span of your life. I mean everything you have done, every thought and feeling and dream you’ve had, every project you have undertaken, every person you’ve met, every place you’ve been.
Imagine we took a giant map, and on that map we traced the physical path you have taken through life. We would have a line that stretches from the place you were born to the place you are now as you read these words. The line would pass through everything in between: every trip to school as a child and adolescent, every trip to work as an adult, every errand to the store, every night out at the movies, every visit to friends and family, every business trip and vacation, every move to a new home. What an incredibly long and tangled line it would be!—densely layered for your daily commute, thinner for that one trip to France years ago, always circling back to the places you have lived but never quite forming a settled pattern, a visual emblem of the restlessness that stirs in all of us.
But that line is only the most outward measure of your life’s immense content. Think of all the things you did along the way, and all the things you thought and felt, year after year, through all the years. Think of a moment in your childhood when you played with a friend. Think of a teacher who helped you. Think of a bully who scared you…. Think of your first date, and the first time you kissed a lover…. Think of your first job, and your first day on the job. How did it feel to get your first paycheck?… If you are married, think of your wedding. Where was it? Who was there?… Think of a business deal that gave you a special sense of pride, or a piece of writing, or a program you wrote, or any other triumph…. Think of an opportunity you missed—a change in your career that you didn’t have the nerve to take, or a lover you drove away in anger or pride.… Think of the first time you read an Ayn Rand novel. What was your response?… Think of the last weekend when you had a really, really good time.
Everything that has come to mind as I asked these questions is part of the content of your life.
And what about the present? Think of the bills on your desk at home, waiting to be paid. Think of the projects at work awaiting your return…. If you have kids, what do you love most about each of them? What concerns do you have about their education?… Are you happy in your job? What do you like most about it? What do you like least?… How about your marriage or relationship?… How about your home?… Think of the people you socialize with. How do you spend time with them? Whom would you miss if you moved away?
And then there’s the future, the rest of your life. Of course it hasn’t happened yet, you haven’t lived it yet, so it’s not yet part of the content of your life. But even now, your life does include your thoughts and feelings about the future. Are you already settled in a career? If so, do you plan to stay or try something new? If not, do you want a career in the first place?… Do you expect to remain where you’re living now? For how long?… What sorts of things about yourself would you like to change? What skills or knowledge do you want to acquire? What habits would you like to break? What fears do you need to conquer?... . Where would you go for a really, really good meal?
I could ask you a thousand more questions like these and we still would not begin to exhaust the content of your life. But you get the idea. No two of you have traced anything like the same path through life on the giant map I described, and no two of you will have answered my questions in the same way. The choice to live, which I discussed in the abstract before, really means the choice to continue your life, with the content it has. That’s the only life you can choose. Of course you can change direction. You have an open field of possibilities in front of you, some that loom large because they tap into lifelong dreams, others that only glimmer faintly on your horizon. But these possibilities, too, as you conceive of them, are part of the content of your life. The meaning of your life, the things that make your life worth living, are to be found in that content.
But where? Obviously not everything in the content of our lives is of equal significance. Where in this mass of memory and desire, of action, thought, and feeling, will we find the roots of meaning? In a local Department of Motor Vehicles I once saw a poster intended to discourage drunk driving. It was called “50 Reasons for Living,” and the reasons were: balloons, ice cream, hugs, Thanksgiving, flowers…. Despite its sentimentality and superficiality, the list reflects an obvious truth: Meaning is connected with things we find intrinsically satisfying and not merely means to an end.
Think of the last time you attended a lecture or conference. Why did you want to attend? Well, fill in the blank. Perhaps you had a professional need to expand your knowledge. Perhaps you are a layman who finds the subject interesting.
Perhaps your goal was to meet other people who share your interests. Whatever it is that you wanted and hoped to gain from attending, we can go on to ask, Why did you want that? Well, now we’re getting pretty high up in your hierarchy of purposes, because you are going to answer in terms of things like the value you place on your career, on learning and improving your mind, on friendship, on being part of a community of people who share your ideals and convictions.
Now if I ask why you want those things, you’re going to say, “Stop. I don’t want them as means to an end. To me they are ends in themselves, things I value for their own sake, things I want in my life solely for the happiness they bring.” Exactly. Those are the things that make your life worth living to you, that give it meaning. And the process of question and answer that I just illustrated, the process of ascending your hierarchy of values by asking what is a means to what, is the method by which you identify those core purposes. It’s a process you can do by starting with any action you take, no matter how concrete or trivial, and following the chain of means and ends up the hierarchy of goals.
No two people are going to arrive at the same place. Remember, we are talking about the content of your life as an individual person, and that content is concrete and specific to you. Even if you and I both find that our work is a primary goal and source of meaning, your work is not the same as mine. Even if you are a philosopher, as I am, you have your particular projects, interests, and style in philosophy; I have mine.
Still, the core purposes from which people get intrinsic satisfaction, fulfillment, and meaning tend to fall into certain categories. In addition to work and career, people often have core purposes concerning romantic love, family and friends, recreation, and aesthetic experience. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, nor is it universal. Not everyone has core values in each of these areas. But it is essential that we have some core values. I believe that this is part of what Ayn Rand meant in saying that purpose is a cardinal value. Over and above the specific goals we pursue, the condition of having purposes is a “supreme and ruling” value (Atlas Shrugged ). Along with reason and self-esteem, purpose is “the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life" (“The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).
Although she related this cardinal value specifically to productive work, the point can be extended to core values in other areas. Purpose is a cardinal value because of our human need for meaning, purpose, and direction in our lives, which come from the purposes at the top of our hierarchies of values.
Since we are speaking here about purpose and value at a very high level of abstraction, as universal features of human life, it is worth emphasizing again that the actual purposes we pursue are concrete: this career in this profession, this relationship with this person, the raising of these children. One’s hierarchy of values, with core values at the top, is not a hierarchy of abstraction, as in a sequence of concepts such as TABLE, FURNITURE, ARTIFACT, ENTITY. It is a hierarchy of means and ends within the concrete, specific content of an individual’s life. Of course, core values are ongoing, long-range purposes, and we cannot envision the future in full specificity. A doctor who loves medicine and plans to spend his working life in that profession, for example, cannot anticipate every challenge and opportunity he will encounter in the decades ahead, much less the particular patients he will have or the exact hours he will work on each day. In that sense, any purpose has a degree of abstraction in its content; there will be a range of specific outcomes that will satisfy one’s conception of the goal to be achieved. And the range can be a large one. You may want a romantic partner but haven’t found the person, or know that you want a career but haven’t yet settled on one. Nevertheless, what you seek is particular and concrete, and capable of providing intrinsic satisfaction to you, given the specific identity you have as an individual.
We can gain yet another insight into the way core purposes provide meaning in our lives by distinguishing between achievement and experience as two poles of purposive action.
All purposive action aims at a goal, something we seek to obtain, create, or bring about. For conscious beings like ourselves, such action is motivated by a conception of why the goal matters, and achieving it brings the satisfaction of enjoying that value. Pursuing the goal is also a conscious process that requires the investment of thought and effort. Thus purposive action, value-seeking, has two poles: there is the effort to achieve the goal, and there is the experience of it—the experience, first of all, of the process of acting, and secondly of enjoying the successful result. One difference between these two poles is that as achievers, our focus is outward, on the goal we’re pursuing out there in the world; while as experiencers, our focus is inward, on the thoughts, feelings, desires, hopes, and fears connected with the goal and the action of pursuing it. Another difference has to do with time. Achievement has a future orientation. The time scale may be minutes, if the goal is changing a light bulb. It may be decades, if the goal is changing a culture. By the very nature of a goal, however, it lies in the future, and we achieve it by planning out a series of actions to bring it about. But experience occurs in the here and now, as a response to the ongoing process.
I draw this distinction because I believe that if our purposes are to provide us with meaning, we need to attend both to achievement and experience and to maintain a balance between them. In work, for example, it is all too easy to fall into a single-track focus on the goal, on the external results, on the future, and pay no attention to the experience along the way, and even to forgo the feeling of pride and satisfaction that is the reward of success because one rushes on to the next task. Indeed, the problem is so common that we’ve all heard the corrective advice: stop and smell the roses, learn to be in the moment. These may have become truisms, but they are true. And they are important truths. It is possible to be highly productive, and achieve money and respect in abundance, without attending to your own experience. But unless you attend to the experience of succeeding, success will not provide the sense of meaning you need. And unless you attend to the process, you will not know what specific forms of achievement suit you best and provide the fullest sense of meaning.
People who are alert to their experience gain a clearer and clearer grasp of the kind of productive achievement that will provide the most joy and the fullest sense of meaning. People who don’t attend to their experience often arrive in their middle years feeling bored, stuck in a rut, empty and indifferent to what they have achieved, detached from everything that once drew them to their careers. And they wake up one morning in the middle of a midlife crisis, wondering “Is this all there is to life?”
The same distinction between achievement and experience, and the same relationship between them, applies to the other major categories of value.
In the area of marriage and other romantic partnerships, the most common problem is the opposite of that in work: all experience, no achievement. Falling in love, making love, having fun together, anniversary dinners by candlelight—these are the things we associate most naturally with romance. But a relationship that exists over time is not an unconnected series of such episodes. Over and above all the practical things involved in living together, sustaining mutual love is its own achievement. Couples who succeed do so by making time for one another. They commit to helping each other grow as people. They invest themselves in attending to the other’s needs and fears, and in opening up to reveal their own. These things take deliberate thought about one’s goals in a relationship and deliberate effort to achieve them.
Notice that I am using the concept of achievement in a much broader way than is customary in Objectivism, where it is normally associated with productive work. I would define achievement as the creation of value in any realm, whether it is work, relationships, raising children, or whatever. I would argue that the interplay of achievement and experience applies to every realm as well, and that finding the right balance between them is essential if one’s core purposes are to provide a sense of meaning.
If there were any doubt about the vital importance of a sense of meaning in one’s life, or about the role of purposes and core values in providing that meaning, the phenomenon of depression lays that doubt to rest. I am speaking of serious depression, clinical depression, not the bad moods or downers that come and go in the normal course of life. In most cases of depression, perhaps all, chemical imbalances in the brain are among the causes, and to that extent depression is outside the realm of purpose, choice, and value that we are concerned with. It is a medical condition that can and should be treated medically. But I am not concerned with causes here. I am concerned with the inner experience of depression and what it tells us about meaning.
The first-hand accounts of the experience by those who suffer from depression reveal a common pattern of oscillation between active pain and passive apathy, fatigue, and ennui. The passive pole is the one most visible to others, but for the patient himself, the active pain is the essence of the condition. It’s a feeling that its victims find difficult to convey in words.
William Styron described the onset of the feeling this way:
It was past four o'clock and my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnamable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world. (Styron )
Others describe the feeling as a trapdoor that can open beneath their feet at any time, plunging them into a dark understory of the soul, a place of profound bleakness and despair, of longing and loss and pain. The French composer Hector Berlioz, who suffered from bouts of major depression all his life, wrote in his Memoirs:
It is difficult to put into words what I suffered—the longing that seemed to be tearing my heart out by the roots, the dreadful sense of being alone in an empty universe, the agonies that thrilled through me as if the blood were running ice-cold in my veins, the disgust with living….
One element that comes across in such accounts is a sense of emptiness within. Berlioz spoke of “struggling against the crushing sense of absence.” In a famous essay, Freud noted that the symptoms of depression and of grief over the loss of a loved one are largely the same—pain, dejection, loss of interest in the world. But there’s one difference.
Depression involves a fall in self-esteem, and worse, a sense that one’s own identity has disappeared. “In grief the world becomes poor and empty,” he said; “in melancholia it is the ego itself.” (Freud, 1917) A patient in a support group put it more graphically: “I feel as if I died a few weeks ago but my body hasn’t found out yet.” (Solomon, 1998)
Another element is a loss of commitment to many if not all of the core values in one’s life. Work that was once fulfilling now seems dull, a duty that no longer has any meaning. New projects that one used to pursue with a bright joy in the challenge now seem an impossible burden. The home that once seemed so important as a reflection of oneself is now just a place to be, no better than any other. The people one is closest to—spouse, friends, family—may also disappear into the distance; spouses of depressed people often feel invisible, as if they did not exist. For the depressed person, it is bad enough not to be able to respond to or engage with those who love him; what makes it worse is guilt at the inability to respond to their overtures of concern. But the inability is quite real. Toward all his core values, in every area of life, the victim of depression feels indifference at best, and at worst, in the active pole of the condition, an anguished sense of having lost all meaning and direction in life.
Implicit in the experience of depression, then, is a loss of self and a loss of purpose. The intense pain these losses cause is a mark of how important one’s purposes are in giving life its value, and of how important a sense of one’s own identity is, as the one who pursues these ends and experiences the process and the achievement of the goal. In depression, with its empty, aching sense of loss, these things are gone, and life does not seem worth living, it does not seem worth choosing, it may well seem intolerable. Thoughts of suicide are common among depressed patients, so common that they are used as a diagnostic criterion. Death beckons as an escape from pain—not physical pain, but the spiritual pain of a life that feels empty and meaningless. Knowing one can always choose death is the final assertion of control over that pain. Death is the beautiful lover one longs to embrace, except for the knowledge that the first embrace will be the last. You only get to cheat once on your marriage to life.
A suicidal thought is not an intention, much less the act itself. But it can lead one all the way down this path. In the United States, some 32,000 people kill themselves each year. Researchers estimate that for each suicide, there are 8-25 serious but unsuccessful attempts. Not all of these acts are the product of depression, but a majority are. For these people, the loss of meaning in their lives, the sense that nothing makes life worth living, confronts them with the choice to live or not in its most direct form.
There could not be a clearer proof that a person’s commitment to life as his ultimate value depends on his sense that life is worth living. That is what provides a lock on life—one’s own life—as an ongoing purpose. And what makes life worth living are the values one seeks to achieve in each area of life, along with the experience of pursuing and achieving them. In that sense, the claim that we choose life because it is a value is correct. But that’s not because there is some higher or antecedent value that morally obliges us to choose life, or some feature in the nature of life as such that makes it intrinsically valuable. It’s because we have found core values within our individual lives, values that define what it means to live as the particular people we are. The choice to live is therefore not arbitrary. We want to live because we want the things life offers. It is still true, in other words, that there is no universal moral obligation to choose to continue one’s life. The basis for that choice is not morality per se, but the concrete values at the top of the hierarchy, the ones that structure the content of the actual life one chooses to continue. Conversely, if the meaning and joy in a person’s life have deserted him and he is thinking of killing himself, moral injunctions are beside the point. What he needs is to find a way to reconnect with his core values, renew his commitment to them, and thereby regain a lock on his life as an ultimate value.
I have used the concept of commitment to describe our relationship to our core values and the manner in which these commitments must operate in our lives to provide them with meaning. At the level of our core values, our commitments give structure to our lives over time, integrating the days and years into a meaningful whole, a satisfying content. They are deeply embedded in our personalities and character, providing us with a sense of our own identities as individuals. They are stable features of the self, allowing us to project our lives into the future and to act in the present with the confidence that our future selves will carry through. But commitments are chosen. Our core values do not impose themselves upon us; we undertake them freely. And happiness depends on renewing them freely over time. It is vital to happiness that we continue to experience our commitments as voluntary engagements with the world and expressions of the self. So there are two aspects to commitment: the lock we have on our goals as stable, long-term purposes and elements of our personal identity; and the experience of that lock as an act of choice, a lock one could break in order to make a different choice and walk through another door to follow some other course in life. The need for this experience is the practical meaning of thesis (1), that life is a value because one chooses it.
It is very easy, and very common, for people to experience their commitments as projects they signed onto long ago and cannot abandon. They adopted the goals freely, for the happiness they expected those goals to bring. But now they experience their life choices as tyrannical constraints or duties and the whole structure of their purposes as a prison. Their choices to enter a particular line of work have launched them on a career, and, like astronauts after blast-off, they do not feel in control of their trajectory. Salaries and perks, status in the company, professional reputation, the sunk investment in training, the awareness of options forgone—all contribute to the feeling, "How could I leave?" We often think of our daily lives as filled with things we have to do: taking out the trash, taking the kids to school, sitting through a meeting, and so on. But feeling that one has to do something comes at a cost. To say “I have to” is to speak the language of compulsion or duty; the language of values is “I want to” and “I will”: I want this and I will do what it takes to get it. Speaking the language of values instead of duty, want-to instead of have-to, is a daily reminder that we live by choice.
Consider a person who feels he has to attend a boring sales meeting. He doesn't expect to get much from it, but it's part of the job, he's got to go. What if we asked him why he “has to” go? Surely it’s a voluntary action, not a case of literal coercion.
"Well, I have to go, because it'll be a mark on my record if I don't. It'll be hard to get the raise and move up in the company."
“OK, but why do you want to do that? You chose to work in this company. You didn't have to take the job and you don't have to choose to continue.”
"But I have a pension plan. I have got years invested here. I'd have to go out and look for another job and start all over."
“Yes, those are real consequences of leaving a job, to be weighed against the value of not attending any more meetings and not doing any of the other things you don’t like about this job. But it’s your choice.
“But every job has things you don’t like but have to do. And I have to earn a living somehow.”
“Well, that too you could choose. You don't have to do high-powered corporate work to earn what you need to live. You could choose to be a beachcomber. You could choose to live at a lower standard of living.”
The point is: He could choose to leave his job. If practical circumstances permitted, he could choose not to pursue productive work as a core value at all, and seek a sense of achievement elsewhere in his life. It’s his choice. And the same is true for other core purposes, like a marriage that has lost its meaning or a political cause that one no longer cares about. In all of these areas of life, there are tasks we "have to do" to achieve some value that we have chosen, and that value in turn is a means to some higher-level value, and so on all the way to the top of the hierarchy—ultimately to choosing whether to live.
Sartre's concept of “bad faith” is useful in this context. Bad faith is a form of self-deception in which we evade or deny our freedom to choose: We take some feature of ourselves, our lives, or our circumstances that is open to choice and treat it as a metaphysical fact, fixed and unalterable. There is bad faith in saying "I have to do this” when it expresses a categorical rather than a hypothetical necessity. To do so is to evade the context of chosen purposes and plans that gave rise to this particular task in the first place. It's bad faith because one is denying his own freedom and responsibility for having chosen these purposes, undertaking these plans, and continuing to do so. We are not determined by our goals, any more than by our genes. Conversely, the awareness of choosing to live and of choosing our basic purposes carries down through the hierarchy to the tasks at hand. Even the boring sales meeting can become interesting if seen in the light of a chosen commitment to the job. The meeting could become an opportunity to learn whatever one can, to take initiative in pushing discussion in new directions, or at least to learn how meetings shouldn't be run.
But then how do we choose core values? They lie at the top of our hierarchies, providing the fundamental content and meaning of our lives. Although we can show that productive work, romantic love, and other core values do serve the ultimate goal of life, that case is made in the abstract, applying to all humans, all forms of work, all forms of intimate relationships, etc. But within these categories, the concrete values that structure our lives as individuals are chosen and experienced as intrinsically good. We do not adopt them for some higher reason. So how do we choose? Once again, as with the choice to live in general, the claim that they are arbitrary commitments raises its head.
Many conservatives and communitarians have argued that if we seek meaning in life from core values we have chosen, we will experience our lives as arbitrary—and thus meaningless. On matters of core values and identity, they argue, the only alternative to the arbitrariness of personal subjectivism is social. Only by embracing tradition and our diverse roles in a social order can we achieve a real sense of identity; only by living for something larger than the self can we achieve a sense of nonarbitrary meaning. Existentialists say the same thing, in a sense; it's just the other side of the coin. Sartre and others held that life is absurd, precisely because nothing does dictate what core values we should pursue. We freely adopt these projects in our lives, but nothing tells us what projects to adopt. Even if we accept a social source of purpose and identity, as conservatives urge, that is still a free choice on our part. So our projects are indeed arbitrary, and that makes the effort to achieve them absurd. We are all in the position of Sisyphus, whose punishment was the pointless task of rolling a heavy rock up a hill again and again only to have it roll back again.
My view—and I think it’s the only view consistent with Objectivism—is that personal value commitments at this fundamental level come from the self. They come from our saying "I want this.” I want this kind of career, working here. I want this person as a friend, or a lover, or a partner in my life. I want to spend my free time doing this. And so on. Why do I choose these particular values? I might well be able to explain where the commitments come from by tracing them back to early experience, temperament and personality, cognitive style, family background, books I read at a formative time in life, inspiring teachers, etc. This would be an autobiographical answer to the question. As an entirely descriptive account, however, it does not illuminate the normative status of our personal values. Such an account does not explain what justifies the choice of these particular values. Nor does it illuminate the experience of choice and commitment. The experience is, "I want this"; and wanting it makes it a value for me.
If what you want collides with the facts, of course, you have to take the collision into account, and adjust your commitments accordingly. But if we value ourselves, I think it is essential that we be prepared to say, "I'm pursuing these core values because I want them." And to say it as an expression of pride in the exercise of choice, pride in wanting what you do, pride in the self that wants it. In The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand is thinking to himself about his life, and he says,
If it were true, that old legend about appearing before a Supreme Judge and naming one's record, I would offer with all my pride, not any act I committed, but the one thing I have never done on this earth: that I had never sought an outside sanction. I would stand and say, I am Gail Wynand, the man who has committed every crime except the foremost one: that of ascribing futility to the wonderful fact of existence, and seeking justification beyond myself. This is my pride: that now, thinking of the end, I do not cry like all the other men of my age 'But what was the use? And what was the meaning?'I was the use and the meaning. I, Gail Wynand; that I lived, that I acted.
In that sense, you are the meaning of your lives. You are not only the protagonist in the story of your life. You are the author of the story, with the godlike power to create a life.
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