Life as the Standard of Value, Part 1

Post on the second chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", “Life as the Standard of Value”.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is about Lecture Two, “The Role of Philosophy”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Peikoff says we’re now going to plunge into really trying to understand Objectivism. He says the focus is on understanding one particular idea (in this case, life is the standard of value) in your own mind, not winning arguments, or getting the wording perfect, or teaching others, or going off on every tangent or interconnected idea. He has someone read a scripted presentation of life as the standard of value to start:

Life must be the standard of value, because only living beings are confronted by the alternative of life or death, and there can be no values without a fundamental alternative, so there can be values only because of living entities who have to act to sustain themselves.


Peikoff says this is true but too abstract and lacks any examples. It’s just a summary.

Peikoff also says that there’s no statement of the context. He talks about context for a while. For things like basic axioms, there’s no context — you just look at reality. For validity of the senses, small context. For man’s rights, huge context of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics. This is because philosophy is hierarchical structure where each level builds on the preceding step.

Re: specific issue of life is the standard, it’s at the beginning of ethics, so there’s no context before it in that subfield, but since it’s in ethics we are taking metaphysics and epistemology for granted as the context. Peikoff says you need to condense that context into a few words that are enough to remind you of the context but brief enough so that you don’t run into the “crow” issue. He says “reason” and “reality” would be okay words for these fields in the Objectivist context.

Here’s another presentation of life as the standard, which Peikoff says contains a different error:

Life must be the standard of value, because being alive is the precondition of everything else. If you’re dead, you can’t have any values at all. So the first thing must be: stay alive.

IMHO one problem here is that this doesn’t connect “standard of value” to life. It argues that you need life to have values, but it doesn’t argue why life should be the standard of value. (Note that I’ve read some of this material before, so I remember some of it). Peikoff agrees and gives examples — he says an altruist could agree with the statement and say don’t kill yourself because then you can’t serve mankind, or Hitler could say you should stay alive to serve the Führer.

Peikoff says on fundamental philosophical issues, it’s a bad sign if it seems like you can say everything important about it in a couple of uncontroversial sentences. He says that fundamental philosophical issues are almost always very controversial and are not bromides. Another way to think about it is if that these fundamental issues were so simple, why did Rand go on about them at such length? Maybe you found a more elegant way to say stuff somehow, but maybe not…

Another presentation of life as the standard. Peikoff says this has the same error as the previous one but is better:

All right, let me try it this way. I’ve said that life is the precondition of everything else. So what is entailed in being alive? Life requires a definite course of action. For example, life requires that you walk on a steady surface, that you don’t jump off a cliff; life requires that man eat food, nutritious food, not poison; life requires that a man think about what he’s doing. So life requires a definite course of action. If you want to live, you must follow that course of action. That is, you must regard life as your end or goal, and you must select your actions according to what life requires.

(I’m trying to think about each of these on my own before reading Peikoff’s discussion). I think this offers some nice concrete details about what life requires, and so that’s good. But it doesn’t really get into the connection between the requirements of life and why life should be the standard of value, or what that concept even means. There are concretes here but they’re disconnected from life as the standard.

Peikoff says that everything requires a course of action. Building a Nazi state requires a course of action. Peikoff says that at most the argument establishes that life should be an end but not the end, the ultimate goal, the standard you use to judge other value questions. I agree.

Here’s another presentation, which Peikoff says has a crucial error (I wish he’d present the presentations without any commentary first):

I’ll start with an analysis of life. Obviously this is a crucial aspect of the issue; certainly Ayn Rand thinks it’s important. She defines “life” as “a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action.” “Self-generated” means that the source of the action comes from the entity itself, and not from some outside source. An organism gets its fuel from the outside, but it stores it and burns it, or releases it, by itself. Ayn Rand regards life as unique, as different from everything else, in one crucial way: Living entities confront a fundamental alternative of life or death, of existence or nonexistence, which nothing else does. They have to act with the possibility of nonexistence hovering over them all the time. Inanimate entities have no such possibility. Living entities have to act a special way to stay in existence, as opposed to inanimate nature, whose existence is guaranteed. For example, a tree must grow upward to get sunlight, must send its roots downward to get nourishment, or else it dies; an animal must protect itself from predators, or else it dies. As I mentioned earlier, a man must think and eat and so forth, or else he dies. In contrast, a stone or a saltshaker does not face this alternative. They just sit there; they cannot act. And, they cannot be destroyed. They can change forms, but whatever form they take, they remain inanimate material. The fact that living things have an alternative does not mean that they necessarily have choice. The lower life forms do not choose their actions. “Alternative” merely means that they have to act a certain way, or they die, and that they are capable of acting that way; they’re not helpless. This obviously is an essential aspect of the argument. Because of this, life makes a unique contribution to the possibility of values. If there’s no alternative, then no values are possible. Life has the only basic alternative. Therefore, life makes values possible.
Okay, that’s the argument; but do I understand it? Again, life has a basic alternative that nothing else does—existence or nonexistence. But can’t inanimate entities go out of existence? Take a statue, for example. You can destroy it, smash it into a million pieces, and it’s gone. Its elements remain, but its distinctive essence as a statue is gone. Isn’t that exactly like life? If you kill a living being, its life is gone. The elements remain, just like the statue, but its distinctive essence is gone. So where’s the difference? In each case, there’s an entity with a specific unique attribute. In each case, at the end, the elements are there, but the distinctive attribute is gone: The living entity loses its self-sustaining, self-generated action; it becomes inert material; the statue loses its distinctive shape and structure, and becomes crumbled material. I don’t see it—where’s the difference?

IMHO: this presentation was good on concretes but very bad on defining and staying within the scope of the topic. It went off on a big thing about “life” but didn’t even use the word “standard” once. Then it brought up an objection regarding the fundamental alternative stuff, and those points are valid to consider but they are, again, outside the scope of what the discussion is supposed to be about (presenting a short discussion of the key points of “life as the standard of value”).

EDIT: After reading ahead a bit, rereading, and thinking about it, I think I misread the context of the above. I think that it was supposed to be part of a longer sequence or presentation, and so not specifically mentioning “standard” wasn’t a problem. Peikoff actually said before the quote above that “We’re going to assume that he’s established his context and that he understands clearly the conclusion that he’s after.” I think Peikoff could have written a clearer seque.

Peikoff says that some people in a seminar thought this presentation was clear and some thought that it was unintelligible. He says that the presentation had some virtues in terms of defining some key terms. Peikoff thinks the main issue is with the argument in the final paragraph regarding existence or non-existence. Peikoff says he’s focusing on this question:

Does the statue confront the alternative of existence or nonexistence in the same way that life does, the only difference being that it can’t do anything about it?”

Peikoff says no. He says that the error the person makes is equating an entity with its defining attribute. So with the living entity case, you have self-sustaining action as the defining attribute. But Peikoff says that living entities have a great many attributes or differences from inanimate matter. But the mental process in the argument doesn’t capture all those differences. Instead it’s like:

“There are two different things, one has self-sustaining action, and one has the Venus de Milo shape, and they lose them both.”

And that mental process is only possible because the person is dropping a bunch of concretes from their use of the word “life”. They’re focusing on the definition and ignoring the reality. But definitions aren’t equal to their entities. Definitions are “like a sign pointing you to the reality”, not the reality itself. So Peikoff then turns to the issue of what it means when we say that life has a fundamental alternative that inanimate matter does not:

It means nothing more than “there is a fundamental difference between the living and the inanimate.” That’s it. The alternative that a living organism has, if it dies, is that it goes over into the inanimate category. Whereas if an inanimate entity is smashed to pieces, it’s still where it was. Sure, it has lost its shape; it has lost maybe its commercial value, its esthetic appeal; it is still inanimate. It hasn’t crossed that gulf. So, when we say that life has a fundamental alternative, that is simply a conceptualization of the fact that there is a fundamental difference between living organisms and the inanimate, that they are altogether different, and that if they’re to stay in that category, they have to do something; otherwise, they revert to the inanimate. And no such alternative confronts the inanimate. It’s exactly in that sense that a living organism has to be or not to be, and has no equivalent in an inanimate case.

So the correct Objectivist understanding is that life faces the fundamental alternative of remaining in the life category or going over to the inanimate category. If they want to stay on the “life” side of the gulf, they need to follow a specific course of action. If they cross over, they cross over into the realm of inanimate matter. Where the arguer said “In each case, there’s an entity with a specific unique attribute. In each case, at the end, the elements are there, but the distinctive attribute is gone”, they were treating the loss of some thing’s essential attribute (being alive for a living entity, and having a certain shape/form for inanimate matter) as both reflecting fundamental alternatives. But the fundamental alternative we were interested in was the status of being living (or not), not the negation of any old essential attribute. If a person dies, they become inanimate matter. But a chair is inanimate, and if you smash it into a pile of wood … it’s still inanimate. So with regards to the life attribute, there has been no change.

Peikoff says you have to be really wary of definitions. You have to avoid substituting the definition for reality. You have to think about the entities involved when you think about stuff. You don’t want definitions to be your object of thought.

Peikoff presents another example with a floating definition (though the floating abstraction here is not “life”):

Last time I started with an analysis of “life.” This time I’ll start with an analysis of “value.” Ayn Rand defines “value” as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” Things like candy, knowledge, shelter, pleasure—these are all values. Now, she says, value implies a valuer, an alternative, and a standard of value. I’ll break that down. “Valuer”—“something capable of pursuing a value.” If there’s no valuer, there can’t be any value. A saltshaker cannot be a valuer; it cannot act. A river or a volcano can be said to act, but it cannot direct its actions toward any goal or value. “Alternative”—true, if there’s no alternative, if everything is guaranteed, then there’s no need to value, since everything will come out the same anyway. For example, a rock falling to earth—there’s no alternative for it. It cannot value either hitting the earth, or landing softly, or landing in one piece. It’s going to hit the earth hard no matter what, and if it smashes, it smashes. “Standard”—why does value require a standard? Where does the whole issue of “standard” come from?
Value implies a valuer, an alternative, and a standard of value. Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. There’s nothing in the definition that says anything about a standard of value. Why is a standard required? Why not many standards? Why can’t you live, for example, as an egoist one day and an altruist another day? Many people seem to do it. Why do there need to be any standards at all? Why not just live by commonsense rationality? Value requires a standard of value—where does this whole issue come from?

I think that value implies a standard of value because you need some way of deciding what’s a value in the first place. E.g. how do you decide that food, and not poison, is a value? You can’t get that straight from just being a valuer. The fact that you are capable of pursuing values doesn’t give any guidance as to which values to pursue. And you can’t get food over poison merely from the existence of an alternative. You face an alternative between life or death. Okay, but again, which one do you go for? So that’s where you need the idea of a standard of value. Now imagine the result of a standard of value which switches from valuing food one day to valuing poison the next. That’s not gonna end with a happy result. So you can’t actually just switch values day to day — you need some consistent standard of value.

Peikoff says that you have to look at actual values, at how people pursue values. E.g. someone wants a house, that’s their goal. And so they need carpenters, lumber, knowledge. Those things are all values given the goal of a house. If something is a means, it has to be a means to some end. So that’s where we get the idea of a standard of value. And he talks more about avoiding rationalism and staying oriented to reality. He says you need to be able to go back from your concept/definition to its concretes. He calls this “reduction”.

Peikoff talks a bit about how emotions can serve an important role in keeping you in contact with reality. He gives the example of his wife saying that when she thinks of something like “life”, she has an emotional response and mental association with particular living things, and the rationalistic approach seems weird to her.

One more presentation:

I want to show that life is the standard of value. There are two basic issues here: I have to understand value and what it involves, and I have to understand life and what it involves. Value—that which one acts to gain and/or keep. It presupposes a valuer, an alternative, and a standard of value. I’ll break that down. Valuer—value presupposes a valuer. In order to be a valuer, a thing must be capable of pursuing a value. A saltshaker cannot act; a volcano cannot act in a value-directed manner. A living entity can do both. To sum up (per above), value requires a valuer, an alternative, and a standard. Living entities are the only entities that fulfill the above requirements. Only a living entity faces the alternative of life or death, existence or nonexistence. Only a living entity is capable of self-generated, goal-directed action. Only a living entity is capable of having a goal. Only a living entity is capable of acting to remain in existence. The action required is a specific course of action, a value-oriented course of action. There would be no values without life. The need for values arises because living entities face the alternative of life or death. They need values to live. Values are a means to life, the means to life. Life is the standard.

This seemed okay to me. I made a tree.

Peikoff says he has no error in mind and talks about the method here. He says that you want to break up a complex issue into stages or steps or parts, but not too many. Two or three or maybe four. We see that life is the standard of value is broken up into life and value, and then value is broken up into subparts, and then life.

Peikoff says that you need to do careful step-by-step analysis with a consistent reality focus. The rationalist does the step-by-step part but loses the reality focus. You aren’t making up stuff out of the blue, but putting names to stuff in reality. And you’re breaking things down. “Value” and “life” are all there, together, at the same time, in living entities, and we break things down to try to grasp them better. I agree with all this.

Peikoff says “life is the standard” needs proof, and the proof is from induction, which is when you look at reality and form general concepts on its basis. I disagree with this. He doesn’t give any detail as to how induction is supposed to work.