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The Survivalist/Flourisher-Dichotomy

ANTITHESIS: Against Strict Survivalism

Section One: The General Problem

In the previous part, I argued that there can be only one standard which serves as an ultimate standard guiding man's actions, and thus it would appear that I am squarely in the survivalist camp. However, I believe that, if we are to properly understand what is meant by the phrase "man qua man" with which Rand appears to qualify the man's life as the standard of value, and thereby understand the source of the flourisher's difficulties with the survivalist interpretation, further analysis will be necessary.

Man's life is the standard of value. To this extent, I agree with the survivalist. However, it is man's life, man qua man-- as a man. Now what is man? We define man as a rational animal. Now in virtue of his being an animal, he is an organism, and as an organism, life serves as his standard of value, and it is his life which serves as the purpose of his actions. However, man is also a rational being, and as a being which reasons, his actions (particularly in the realm of cognition) are subject to another standard, the standard of objectivity. Now the question is, How are these two standards related?

In order to get at the difficulties which might be involved in having two standards applicable to human action (where both are at least potentially applicable to cognition as a form of human action), I will recall a rather odd hypothetical example originally posed by someone else. It was suggested that it is only because rationality serves to promote life that we should be rational, and that if rationality did not serve this function, there would be no real reason to be rational, and thus there would be no question of the morality or immorality of irrational behavior. Or in otherwords, if rationality did not have survival value, then the choice between being rational and being irrational would be a mere subjective preference between one lifestyle and another.

Now in this form, I believe the hypothetical example is rather floating, and as such, needs to be anchored to reality by means of a concrete example or two. Furthermore, in this hypothetical example, we have simply considered the logical possibility of the relationship between the two standards being one of neutrality. Perhaps, with a little work, we can actually dream-up an example in which they are inversely related, so that by acting rationally, one is actually acting to thwart one's life, and by acting irrationally, one is actually acting to promote one's life. After all, as long as we are thinking in terms of logical possibilities, anything is conceivable.

Section Two: Concrete Instances of the Problem

Lets begin with one of the more realistic examples by which to concretize this otherwise free-floating, abstract possibility. Consider the example of someone who is a prisoner in a concentration camp. If the guards are particularly sadomasochistic, they may punish people who observe too much, show any inclination towards independent thought, or otherwise show signs of a living mind. They may in fact kill such individuals, whereas the people who live and act like automatons may be permitted to survive. In such an environment, it seems that rationality will get you killed, whereas irrationality of a particularly passive character might actually tend to promote your survival.

Furthermore, this is, at least according to the flourishers, a particularly good example through which to show that the survivalist cannot defend the virtues of the Objectivist Ethics by reference to the survivalist interpretation of the standard of value. Now at this point, I do not intend to defend the survivalist approach, but merely to point out a potential problem: one may choose to be rational by reference to the standard of objectivity, or one may choose to be rational by reference to the standard of value. Normally, it would not seem to matter which of these two standards one employs, but assuming that the flourishers are correct regarding this example, there is a conflict between acting in accordance with the standard of objectivity and acting in accordance with the standard of value. Which should one choose? By reference to which standard?

But before attempting to answer this question, I would like to consider another, albeit less realistic example, which nevertheless, may be less removed from common experience. Let us say that by being too rational, one is too analytical, and by being too analytical, one lives a passionless life, and furthermore, by living a passionless life, one is less motivated to pursue the values which life requires, and that as a consequence, one lives a shorter life. If this were indeed the case, then by reference to the Objectivist standard of value, one shouldn't be too rational, whereas by reference to the standard of objectivity, one should always aim at being as rational as one can. Once again, it appears that the two standards may be in conflict, and that one must choose between them.

Now as an aside, I do not believe that the two standards ever come into conflict, and that, as such, the two concrete examples are merely illusory problems. However, I think it is essential that we choose between the two standards, granting one priority, and act in accordance with the other only insofar as it is in accordance with the standard to which we grant priority. Which standard should we regard as the fundamental standard by which to direct our actions? Should we be rational because being rational promotes human life, or should we be rational because of a prior commitment to the standard of objectivity? Which standard is more fundamental?

Section Three: The Solution to the Problem

Identification precedes evaluation: one must know what something is before one can evaluate it. Furthermore, the identification of man's life as the standard of value is itself the result of the identification of a causal law, but the principles by reference to which we identify causal laws are themselves the subject matter of epistemology, and as such, a part of logic. Thus while rationality is the fundamental virtue, and we act virtuously in accordance with the standard of value, we should be rational not primarily due to our commitment to the standard of value, but because of our commitment to the standard of objectivity. The fundamental choice which confronts man at every moment of his life is not that between life and death, but between thinking and not thinking, or to be more precise, being in focus or not.

Consider this: if one actually believes that by being too rational, one is engaged in self-destructive behavior, and then grants priority to the standard of value, one will cease trying to be rational, and thus one will be unable to actually consider the evidence or the arguments. However, if one grants priority to the standard of objectivity, one can reconsider both the evidence and the arguments, and thereby correct one's thinking.

There is, in fact, only one imaginable counter-example: where one has become rationally convinced that the correct thing to do is die. In this case, of course, by acting in accordance with the standard of objectivity, one would be unable to reconsider one's arguments. However, by the same token, one would be unable to reconsider one's arguments by acting in accordance with the standard of value.

So, by reference to the standard of value, should one be rational in a concentration camp? Yes, of course one should: otherwise, how is one to know when the guards will suddenly change their minds and decide to kill you for being too passive? If you are rational, you can learn to fake being passive, but if you are truly intellectually passive, you will not be prepared for unforeseen threats to your life. However, it is only by reference to the standard of objectivity --to which one grants priority-- that one is able to discover this solution, and choose the appropriate course of action.

Thus the manner in which we should interpret the standard of value, namely, man's life, man qua man, is man's life-- as a rational being. The standard of objectivity is the fundamental standard according to which he should act. One should always be rational. One should not choose to be objective by reference to the standard of value, rather, one's choice to act in accordance with the standard of value should be the result of one's prior commitment to the standard of objectivity.

In the final analysis, there should be no conflict between the standard of objectivity and the standard of value: the standard of value is an abstract standard, which means-- a high-level principle, and as such, requires logic, not simply in order to identify it or justify it, but to apply it as well. At every step, the standard of value is dependent upon the standard of objectivity. It is, in fact, radically-dependent upon the standard of objectivity. A conflict between the two standards would ultimately reduce to a conflict between the standard of objectivity and itself, which is absurd.

Nevertheless, the standard of objectivity is more basic and deserves one's fundamental allegiance. Given this, I believe that we have the basis for recognizing a third position to those of the flourisher and the survivalist, and the manner in which they are distinct. In the next part of this paper, I will give my characterization of the debate.

General Index


©1996 by Timothy D. Chase. All rights reserved. This article is meant for personal reading. Copies may be made only for that purpose. Do not distribute.