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Watkins on Ari Armstrong’s Account of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics

[A]chieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death. . . . You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive. It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live.” — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Don Watkins has an essay, Atlas Neutered: Ari Armstrong’s Straw Man Attack on Objectivism, that explores some of the confusions in Ari Armstrong’s book What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics.

Writes Watkins:

What Ari doesn’t mention is that the very works he quotes from make the point that Rand’s ultimate value of life recognizes that values aren’t only a means to life but that which life consists of: for life to be an end in itself, in Rand’s view, means that values are ends in themselves.

And later:

Rand’s conception of life as an end in itself is grounded in certain facts about life. For our other values, our ability to see them as values depends on our ability to see them as means to some further value. We value our shoes for running, we value running for our health. Life can serve as an ultimate value because it is the only end that is a means to only itself. It preserves the teleological nature of values while also recognizing that there must be an ultimate value since “a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility.”

But life, for Rand, is the values that constitute it, each of which can be valued for its own sake as well as its role in furthering the process of pursuing values. Thus specific values — completing a crucial project at work, playing with your kids, an electrifying conversation with a friend — can all be experienced as ends in themselves: they are in a literal sense the stuff that life is made of. But the proof they are legitimate values rests not in our emotions but in certain facts about their relationship to life.

So how does Ari, having sundered “value” from “life,” decide what values really are ends in themselves? We just know it. Reality, in effect, dumps in our laps a bunch of ends in themselves, which cannot be questioned or analyzed, and all we can do is try to make them integrate.


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