The Value(s) of Objectivism

by Peter Saint-Andre

"Philosophy should be founded on detailed, positive knowledge of actual processes in the world and not on abstract assessments of human capacities." --Nancy Cartwright, professor of philosophy at London and San Diego

I think that anyone who is strongly influenced by Ayn Rand and who has not had doubts about the value of Objectivism, has not reflected deeply enough on her philosophy. Rand's ideas are radical, provocative, innovative -- yet sometimes sketchy, imprecisely expressed, and even, I do not hesitate to say, wrong (or, to put it more charitably, misplaced in their emphasis). It can be enormously challenging to integrate her ideas into one's life while remaining true to one's own nature and not subordinating that nature to a symbolic ideal. I mean this not only in relation to action, but in relation to thought and feeling as well. Thus by 'the value of Objectivism' I mean both its theoretical importance and its practical importance -- not that the two can be sharply separated.

Essential to the question of the value of Objectivism is the question of the values of Objectivism. What does Objectivism hold out as the core values of human existence, and why? Do these values comport with what you, based on your experience, hold to be most important in life and most reflective of the best within us, of the highest human potential? If indeed the Objectivist values are true or right, does Objectivism offer an internally consistent network or system of values? If so, is the Objectivist value-system comprehensive, or does it leave out key human values and therefore fall short of the ideal?

These are large questions, and I do not pretend that I have answered them all in this essay (or even that I have raised all of the relevant questions). However, I would like to adumbrate my approach to these issues in order to stimulate discussion. My intention is that this essay be a point of departure, not the final destination.

Contra the quote from Nancy Cartwright with which I began this essay, I hold that philosophy can function productively on the basis of 'abstract assessments of human capacities' -- indeed, I think that such assessments are crucial to philosophical psychology and to the foundations of ethics. (Not that I any contradiction between those conceptual judgments and 'detailed, positive knowledge of actual processes in the world'; I simply hold that the abstract assessments we make of human capacities loom large in determining or delimiting what we judge to be core human values.) As far as I can see, there are four fundamental capacities of the human individual:

  1. Thought -- which I would characterize as the capacity for understanding reality
  2. Choice -- the capacity for selectively directing one's attention to those aspects of reality one finds most interesting or important
  3. Action -- the capacity for implementing one's thoughts and choices by creating value in the world
  4. Feeling -- the capacity for emotionally experiencing success (or the lack of it) in applying the three other core capacities

In my essay A Philosophy for Living on Earth, I have adduced numerous passages in Rand's writings to substantiate my claim that Objectivism holds these four capacities to form the core of human nature. [If one comes to different conclusions regarding the core human capacities -- or if one holds that a foundationalist approach of this kind is misguided -- then one will settle on a different list of core or cardinal values than that described in what follows. Here we have a branching point (in fact two), or what W.T. Jones calls a "parting of the ways" in philosophy.]

Based on these four capacities (i.e, as their highest, most positive realization), I see four core or cardinal values in Objectivism:

  1. Conceptualization -- which I would characterize as the existential expression of cognitive efficacy, which consists in the activity of using one's conceptual consciousness to gain knowledge about reality
  2. Self-Direction -- making one's volition efficacious through consciously choosing one's values and honoring one's interests in life
  3. Achievement -- a commitment to the active creation of value in existence, to making one's chosen values real in the world
  4. Enjoyment -- the positive emotional experience of successful conceptualization, self-direction, and achievement

This list is somewhat different from Rand's triumvirate of Reason, Purpose, and Self-Esteem ("The Objectivist Ethics"). Do I intend this four-fold division to supplant the three-fold division that Rand presented? In my essay "A Philosophy for Living on Earth" I fudged this issue somewhat, but today I would say that the four-fold division makes more sense because (1) it is better grounded in an accurate assessment of the core human capacities and (2) it is more consistent with Rand's own assessment, since the textual evidence shows that she held thought, choice, action, and feeling to be the four fundamental capacities of the human individual.

By focusing here on cardinal values, I do not mean to give short shrift either to their foundation in the value of life or to the values of everyday living. Indeed, I see the cardinal values as a bridge between the most abstract level of value (life) and the more particular values that one pursues day-to-day.

Regarding the value of life, I see the core human capacities as fundamentally capacities for ~living~. Thought, choice, action, and feeling enable successful living (often through more particular abilities, skills, and attitudes), as well as the intellectual understanding and emotional experience of successful living.

Regarding the more particular values, I see the cardinal values as broad categories under which those values can be subsumed as instances -- indeed, as dimensions along which measurement of those particular values can take place. Consider: we could make an exhaustive list of particular values (such as reason, truth, honesty, directness, clarity of purpose, expressiveness, openness to emotion, creativity, physical and emotional health, security, property, wealth, love, friendship, etc.). All of these particular values conduce to or can been as instances of one or more of the cardinal values. Let me present a few examples:

  1. Friendship -- I find that friends give me great pleasure, that they support me in my endeavors to create value, and that through my discussions with them they help me understand my own views and life in general. In other words, I can measure friendship (and any particular friendship) along the dimensions of achievement, enjoyment, and conceptualization.
  2. Work -- maybe I'm a workaholic, but work is fun! Work is a prime example of creating value in the world, of achieving goals, of applying values. I find that work gives me an expansive field for self-direction, for choosing what I'd like to pursue in life, for selectively attending to what I find interesting and important. Work also involves a great deal of thought.
  3. Art -- art is a source of great pleasure in life. Personally, I'm actively involved in creating art (mostly music and poetry), which is an example of creating value in the world. Even for those who are not active as producers of art, I think the highest experience and greatest enjoyment of art come from discussing art with others, thinking about it, reflecting on it, selectively attending to what one likes and does not, seeking out art one might enjoy, etc. Here again, the value of art can be measured along the dimensions of conceptualization, self-direction, achievement, and enjoyment.

These are only three examples, but I think you probably get the idea: these four cardinal values yield a framework for understanding the more particular values. But do these cardinal values yield a comprehensive account of human value? I think they do, at a certain level of abstraction. They are 'abstract assessments', conceptualizations that do justice to or allow room for the more particular values of human existence; because of this, the cardinal values provide dimensions along which the more particular values can be measured. I think this is the most we can expect from a system of cardinal values.

Regarding what I call the more particular values, Ayn Rand is famous for having made specific prescriptions. Partly this is because she was a novelist and needed to present characters who had specific measurements along the dimensions I've discussed. Unfortunately, one can conclude from Rand's novels that her characters provide the only consistent set of measurements along those dimensions -- or, further, that some of the more specific (non-cardinal) dimensions along which Rand measured her characters (e.g., their sometimes alarming dedication to work or their unusual disinterest in family) are the only or the most important dimensions of value in life. I think that these conclusions are misguided and concrete-bound, and that a focus on cardinal values can result in a more balanced, healthy, and conceptual perspective on the particular values of everyday life. The key is to see cardinal values as a bridge between "Life" and living -- as categories of thought and dimensions of measurement -- not as distant symbols or ends or values in themselves. It is this conceptual approach to values that I see as part of the enduring value of Objectivism.

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