Rebirth of Reason


Standard versus Goal
by Joseph Rowlands

There's a longstanding debate on Objectivist forums over what is the proper standard of morality. One view, taken by Rand, is that survival is the standard. Others are unhappy with this and promote flourishing as the alternative. Which is the better standard?


One argument made on behalf of flourishing is that survival is too narrow. We don't live simply to stay alive. We want our lives to be deeply fulfilling. We should be seeking the best in life. If we compared two plants, and said one was surviving and the other was flourishing, it would be obvious which is better. Why not use the same approach in our own lives? Why is mere survival acceptable?


The problem with this view is that it confuses a standard and a goal. It's true that survival as a goal is not very good at all. Fending off death is necessary, but life should be much more than that. We should be successful and happy. Our lives should be enriched. If we're talking about goals, flourishing is much better. Instead of hovering on this side of the line with death, it is maximizing your life.


But a standard is not a goal. A standard defines the means of measurement. How do we determine that one course of action is better than another? We need some method of measuring and comparing them.


Flourishing as a standard is not meaningful. What does flourishing mean? It means to grow well, or to live well. But what does it mean to live well? That's a value judgment itself. What standard can one use to determine what it means to live well? What does "well" mean in this context.


Some of those who argue for flourishing come up with some suggestion. Living well means being successful in your job, finding a romantic partner, being intellectually satisfied, being productive, being well-liked by others, being honest, etc., etc. But this isn't a standard. This is a laundry list. If taken at face value, it is a list of intrinsic values, offered with no proof or justification, and with no possible way of determining which is more important than others.


A more reasonable interpretation of this list is that it is a set of values derived or consistent with some unnamed standard. What standard? Flourishing? No. That standard is defined in terms of the list. It doesn't have a deeper meaning itself.


In contrast, survival works very well as a standard. It connects potential values with their impact on your survival. It connects values to needs. The most obvious needs are things like water, food, and oxygen. But as those get satisfied, other needs are revealed. To survive, you need to have the means of producing these values in the future. You need tools, you need skills, you need knowledge, you need cooperation with others. Each need satisfied moves you further from death and more securely towards life. Even values like justice, love, entertainment, and art are connect to survival. Survival works as a standard by measuring all of these values in terms of how they impact your ability to survive. If they increase your ability, they are values. If they decrease your ability, they are disvalues.


The laundry list of values associated with flourishing can be seen as derived from the standard of survival. Each value is valuable to the extent that it improves your capacity to live. So instead of being a set of arbitrary, intrinsic values, they are relational values chosen because they promote survival and valued based on the degree by which they do.


Flourishing makes sense as a way of describing someone who is surviving well. It describes someone who has achieved many values, and values that have genuinely improve his life. It describes someone who is living well. But without a proper standard, like survival, that statement is empty. Flourishing is logically dependent on survival as a standard.


Survival as a standard does not mean mere survival is the goal. Not at all. Each action that you take that better ensures your survival is worthwhile. But the important point is that you have to be able to measure the expected consequence in terms of a standard. You need to know that the action improves your ability to survive in order to take action.


Flourishing, which can be understood as living in a way that best promotes your survival, can be a valid way of describing your goal. It just doesn't work as a standard because it provides no real basis for evaluation. It is itself a product of evaluation. And any attempt to define it in terms of a laundry list will necessarily be incomplete and will sever the actual connection between those values, making them impossible to compare and rationally choose between.

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