Rebirth of Reason


The Steps to Attainment
by Joe Trusnik

Objectivist ethics tells us that we are to work towards our values. This primarily amounts to three steps:  figure out what you want, figure out what you need to do to get it, and then undertake the steps to attainment.  However, each of these require a separate understanding, and it is only through this understanding that our values may be consistently obtained.

What do you want?

This should be the easiest step of the three.  However, this isn’t always the case.

To know what you want is to know your values: i.e., to have an articulated set of goals to achieve that are not mutually contradictory.  For example, when I first went to college, I hadn’t figured out what I wanted with my life. I certainly had interests, but it hadn’t occurred to me to think whether or not I’d go to school for any one of them. Naturally, my classes were nothing but groups of things that I had some sort of interest in, without an overall theme unifying them. Finally I settled on philosophy, not because I was learning anything from the drivel that the contemporary field produces (as well as the two thousand years of mostly-worthless drivel that’s been there all along), but because I did well in it, and found the study of history in terms of ideas to be exciting.  But did I have any desire to become a professional philosopher?  Or any other job for which the field might present an opportunity?  Not really.

Now, I’m preparing to go back to school.  I might finish the philosophy degree, as my new university will let me complete it by taking only a few courses, but only if the classes themselves look interesting.  Instead, I’ve figured out what I truly want to do with my life, and will focus on that.

What do you have to do to achieve it?

Speaking for myself, this follows naturally from deciding what you want.  Indeed, I would say that it is a reflection of it.  To understand what you wish to achieve, you must understand whether or not the steps you need to take to attain your ends are contradictory with any of your other goals.

For example, a person may desire a free nation, but may wish to allow the government to have certain emergency powers during times of crisis, so as to keep the country running quickly and smoothly.  This person knows what he wants, but does not understand that, to have freedom, one must defend it by moral right, and therefore the government is to have no power to declare an emergency directive that curbs those rights.  Emergency powers are nothing but sanctions for the abuse of rights.

To understand what you need to do to achieve a goal, you must understand the nature of reality, and of all entities involved.  A person may wish to set up an economic system, but if he does not understand that production is primarily for consumption, and instead looks at the world, sees that people are producing, and then takes production as a given, the system will, of course, fail.  He doesn’t understand the nature of human beings interacting with one another, so the steps he takes end in economic collapse, thus destroying the advocated system.

It is because we must understand reality to achieve our goals that rationality is a virtue, as is honesty (particularly with the self).  The facts of the situation must be clearly articulated, understood, and accounted for.  If something is left out, it will come back to haunt you.

Take the Steps to Achieve It

Why wouldn’t somebody take the steps to achieve their goals?  Actually, there are a few ways to short-circuit the productive power of a human being.

The first is one that is hard to imagine.  However, at least I can attest to seeing it all the time, in all its baffling glory.  It’s the refusal to translate thought into action.  For some reason, what’s true in the brain, even if taken to be true of the outside world as well, doesn’t carry over to the rest of the body.  What would motivate somebody to this? 

One motivation is fear.  Fear of change.  Fear of the uncertainty involved in movement - in short, fear of being a human being that must undertake action to live.  This fear may or may not be in conscious awareness; it could manifest as cautiousness (“let’s see how things work out”); laziness (“why go to all the trouble?”); or simply a refusal to consider the situation at all in order to leave the fear, and its source, unnamed.

Another motivation is an anti-conceptual mentality.  Because that sort of mind works on the omnipotent Now, what’s decided to be true may not be true in five minutes.  With this sort of person, you could argue, and win, and he may remember the argument, yet not make a single change in behavior.  Thought does not translate into action because the thoughts of such a person are not integrated.  Actions are determined by whatever whim comes to mind, which in itself surfaces due to feelings, fleeting thoughts, the believed expectations of others, or whatever disjoined part of his junk “philosophy” happens to come randomly to mind at that moment.

Another reason that a person may not take the steps to achieve his goals is that he may obey a moral code based on the notion that any taint of self-consideration in his decisions diminishes, or outright destroys, the moral basis for his actions. In other words, to consider himself makes an action “less good,” or even outright evil.  Such thoughts permeate ethics among the mystics (both spirit and muscle), requiring the subjugation of the self to the Other.  If the Other is taken to be the greatest good, then it is the self that must always be subjugated.  Thus, to work towards what you want is, by the fact that you wish it, non-good.  And, if it acts against the Other, it even becomes outright evil.

Finally, there is one more reason why a person may not work towards his goals.  A person who does not think independently may not take the steps to achieve it.  This is related to the translation of thoughts into actions in that it’s motivated primarily by fear, for the same reasons indicated above.  However, the fear itself stems from a lack of sufficient self-esteem, particularly a disbelief in personal efficacy.  The belief that "I can't make a difference" (or even the more general "one man can't make a difference") can, indeed, lead to the "why try?" symptom.

However, when all of these areas come together - that is, when a person with articulated ends has a solid grasp of how the world works and the healthy self-esteem to work towards improving his life - the achievement of his values is not only possible, but also highly likely.  He may encounter setbacks from time to time, but these are the flukes - they are temporary and able to be overcome.  They are, in a word, unimportant, and not worth dwelling on once he brushes them aside.  His self-esteem is constantly renewed, and the resulting enthusiasm for his own life may even inspire those around him.  The rewards he gains may translate into monetary rewards that increase his ability to undertake steps to achieve ever-greater goals.  What better way could a person live?
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