Survival vs. Flourishing

1996-12-12

There's been a continuing controversy over the last few years about survival vs. flourishing in the Objectivist ethics. I'm of two minds about this, because I agree with parts of both the survivalist and flourishing approaches, though I disagree with some of each too. As far as I can see, those who advocate the (perhaps stereotypical) flourishing position do not make a connection to the nature of man. I hold (with Rand) that the human individual has four basic capacities: to think, to choose, to act, and to feel. This is the essential nature of the individual human being. Of course, each person also has individual interests and propensities and energy levels and physiology and so on, but at root each individual has these four capacities. I see ethics as derived from these fundametnal facts about the individual, at least in large degree. By contrast, the flourishers (as far as I can see) try to work much more into their view-point (friendship, etc.) without really basing it on essential facts about the nature of the human individual.

On the other hand, the (again perhaps stereotypical) survivalists' focus on "mere life" leaves their vision of life seeming pretty desiccated, at least to this reader. The survivalists want me to survive, but why? Just because otherwise I'm not living in accordance with the Objectivist standard of value, or because I'll die a little sooner? At least Rand talked a lot (at least in her novels) about the joy of living. Focusing on survival seemingly at the expense of joy and emotion is one of the perils of listening too much to Rand in her more rationalistic moments (emotions are not tools of cognition, we are always reminded). Yet Rand in her more humanistic moments recognized that the capacity to feel is one of the essential characteristics of the human individual. And she knew that the full flourishing of the individual requires a deep emotional experience of life, what she called metaphysical joy or love for existence. At root, this joy in living is an important part of her "philosophy for living on earth" -- and I believe that it is a highly attractive part of Rand's message, especially to readers of her novels. Yet there seems to be little or none of that joy in the survivalists' approach.

Let me try to explain how the four fundamental capacities and cardinal values I have found in Rand tie in here. I'll follow my schema and start with the value of conceptualization. For Objectivism, this value is an expression of the fundamental human capacity for thought or reason, and consists of getting into the habit of asking the question "what is essential?" in one's dealings with reality (including the human reality of other people) and of making conceptual connections and integrations based on one's experience of life. Contra the survivalists, this value is often more reflective than productive of mere survival; contra the flourishers, it is grounded in a fundamental fact about human nature, i.e., the capacity for thought.

The value of self-direction consists of making volition a habit, of expressing in reality one's fundamental capacity to choose, of basing one's thoughts and actions on one's answers to the question "what is important?" and on one's interests in life. Contra the survivalists, the value of self-direction is often not action- oriented but concerns itself with that which I find interesting or personally important in way that is not tied directly to survival; contra the flourishers, the value of self-direction is tied to a fundamental need and capacity of the individual human being.

The value of achievement is straightforward in some sense. The cardinal value of achievement is based on one's answers to the question "what is good?" -- i.e., what is good to me for the sake of my life and happiness, based on what I deem essential and important or interesting about the world? Objectivism ties the value of achievement to the capacity for action; however, achievement pertains to any action taken in the world, including internal action (such the improvement of one's character) and not necessarily survival-oriented action.

Some on this list have talked about self-esteem. I think it is important but not of cardinal importance. Specifically, self-esteem is instrumental in that it paves the way for joy, for the value of joy is not based on any question about reality ("what is essential?", "what is important?", "what is good?") but on the certainty that one is worthy of experiencing happiness -- i.e., on self-esteem. For Objectivism, self- esteem is a basis for the healthy emotional experience of life -- for non- contradictory joy in existence (i.e., in one's own existence) or what I call the cardinal value of enjoyment. As discussed, this value is somewhat lacking in the survivalists' approach, but contra the floursihers it is tied to the capacity to feel, which is one of the essential characteristics of the individual.

I'd like to point out that I focus not on man-qua-man but on the individual. Based on my reading, I hold that Rand was an extreme individualist. This is hinted at in her writings but not always made explicit. While Rand would have no truck with relativism, she was also an individualist in regard to thought and value. True, life is the standard of value in ethics -- that is, human life, the life of man qua man and all that. But there is no human life apart from the life of the human individual. Rand is a metaphysical individualist before she is an ethical individualist. When Rand says that life is the standard of value, she means this not only in an abstract sense but also in particicular reality: your life is the standard of value for you. Of value to whom and for what? To me and for my life as a whole. Thus she says that life is the standard of value (the life of man qua man), but that each individual person's life is his or her own purpose. My mission or purpose is: my own life and what I want to do with it.

I think that a personal mission statement or explicit and specific "constitution" can be valuable in helping one clarify one's purpose in life. And purpose (or mission) is certainly a less abstract formulation than "the life of man qua man". There is no opposition between the two, but it is my purpose that I really pursue in life. Of course, it's best if my purpose is in harmony with human nature. In fact, I would argue that my purpose is my way of living human nature according to the particulars of my own existence: my genetic endowments, the culture and the family into which I am born, the interests I pick up and develop, the people I interact with, the experiences I have, the events I witness, the thoughts I have, the choices I make, the actions I take, the feelings I experience, and so on.

I think there is a lot of work to be done on fleshing out a philosophy for living on earth that unifies life and flourishing, human nature and happiness, standards and values, abstractions and individualism, etc. From my perspective, there's not much value in setting up straw men and criticizing "pure life" and "pure flourishing". I want to live a flourishing life, but I can do that only by fulfilling my nature as the individual human being I am. Achieving that kind of unity in life involves issues that Objectivism has barely begun to address.


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