Why Choose to Live?
Posted by Jerry on August 8, 2007
In the ensuing discussion on Ayn Rand on a liberal blog that I linked to in my previous post, a commentor–apparently sympathetic to Objectivism–made the following remark:
There is nothing that I’ve read in Objectivist literature that suggests that the philosophy dictates that one ought to *want* to live; the philosophy begins after that fact has been decided by the individual. The choice to live is prior to any philosophy (could one “love wisdom”, but not want to live?). But in particular, Objectivism is explicitly a philosophy for living life.
I think this issue needs to be clarified: is Objectivism fundamentally based on an arbitrary injunction to live? Is there no normative injunction to choose life and not choose death? Is the choice to live, arbitrary? If Objectivism is fundamentally based on a choice that is simply arbitary, then doesn’t that bring the entire edifice of Objectivist ethical theory crumbling to the ground?
To my knowledge, this criticism of Objectivism was first raised by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Socratic Puzzles. In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dr. Leonard Peikoff discusses this matter very briefly, concluding that the choice to live is indeed a premoral choice, in that moral evaluation can only function within the domain and context provided by life as the standard.
Another commentor responded to the abovementioned quote as follows:
I believe this pre-moral chioce [sic] is quite wrong for two other reasons:
1) What does the choice to live really mean? Is it the chioce to live as long as possible? Is it the choice not to commit immediate suicide? Is it the choice to carry on as usual? This choice is simply far too vague to yield such a specific set of conclusions as the tenets of Objectivism. It’s like saying that if you want a car, then you have commited yourself to a Toyota.
2) Men have reasons to pursue their existence, that is, there are ends in themselfs that makes life worth living. Thus, the choice to live can be conditioned by the particular reasons people have for pursuing their existence. If morality is dependent on the chioce to live it is also dependant on the reasons people have for making this choice. Thus those reasons (be it becoming a dictator or what have you) are outside any moral or rational evaluation. What is left is pure subjectivism, with as many moralities as reasons for living.
I felt that since even people sympathetic to Objectivism can be confused about this most fundamental and crucial of issues, it is important to examine and explore the fundamental basis of Objectivist morality. What follows is entirely my own understanding of Objectivism, not an exact account of Ayn Rand, although I believe it best captures her intent.
In response to FO:
It is a contradiction to first state that man can make choices in life that make life worth living, and then give an example of such a choice as “becoming a dictator or what have you.” The contradiction is in the fact that choices that make life worth living have to also be consonant with the requirements of life, i.e., life-sustaining or life-supporting.
The agent of action here is an individual, conscious, living being faced with choosing an option that will make his continued survival worth it. Choosing an objectively life-negating option (or at the widest, an option that is not consonant with life-sustenance) undercuts his primary motive of deriving a value from that choice which is supposed to make his continued survival of some worth.
In other words, choosing an objectively life-negating act existentially and factually undercuts (or acts against) his desire to continue living–whether he is aware of this effect of his choice or not.
The requirements of continued survival imposes certain necessary and objective decisions upon the individual; of course, the whole point of ethical theories is to guide the individual towards making choices that are consonant with life-sustaining requirements, thus allowing him to pursue his desire to continue living and acquire values that make living worth it for him.
FO, I argue that the choice to live is actually not pre-moral in the sense that it occurs at some point along a chronological chain of choices. It is a metaphysically given fact that we are living beings–we live from the moment we are born, and this is not a matter of our choice. This is a metaphysically given fact. The ethical choice to continue living and pursue life is a choice that is implicit in the ethical nature and sum of all and every other choices we make in our lives as we go on about our daily lives. This implicit choice to live (or not) is internal to (and made in) every other choice we make in life.
It is this implicit ethical nature of the sum of our choices that need to be brought to the realm of explicit moral evaluation, which can then be scrutinized in accordance to moral theories and standards of evaluation. Rand pointed this out by stating that life qua man’s life is a *standard* of evaluating the moral status of our choices and values.
This does not mean that the choice to live is amoral or is made at some actual moment in our lives–although one can give it explicit, verbal form–but that the choice to live (or not) is implicitly made at every juncture of our daily activities–in our pursuit of values–and is implicit in the ethical nature of those activities; moreover, by making our individual daily choices, we are thereby–inescapably–either upholding the choice to live or the choice to die in the kind of values we choose to pursue. Thus, in a sense, our daily activities, pursuits, goals, values, and choices are various forms of realizing the same implicit choice to live or the choice to die; often, we are even explicitly aware of this fact.
Therefore, if the choice to live or die is indeed a choice that has a moral status, then what is the answer to the question “Why ought we to choose to live?” Or, “Why should we choose to live?” Observe that the question is seeking an answer that needs to lie somewhere outside of the system of life; in other words, the answer should be external to the conceptually hierarchical system of morality and values. Just as existence cannot be evaluated by reference to a standard outside or beyond existence, life cannot be evaluated by reference to a standard outside or beyond itself. Life itself gives meaning to evaluation by providing both a context and a standard.
The logical error being committed, therefore, by raising the question is that of the stolen concept: concepts such as morality, values, and choices are logically dependent upon–and internally related to–the concept of life. One cannot derive morality and values outside of the domain of life. Chairs and tables neither can have morals nor a need for them.
It is only because we have life that the need for a system of morality and values arises. We must realize that the choice to live is internal and inextricable to the morality of the rest of our choices and values, which means it lends meaning to the rest of our choices and values.
Just as it would be a logical fallacy to steal the concept of “cause” out of its logical hierarchy by asking “What caused existence?,” it is a fallacy to steal the concept of “ought” (a normative concept of morality) by asking “Why ought we to choose life?”
[Edit: Some significant edits to enhance the clarity of ideas, and included a reference to Dr. Peikoff's discussion of this matter in OPAR]