Life and Values Elaborated

by Jason Stotts

I recently wrote a short piece called “Life and Values” where I argued the following:

1. Values are that which contribute to one’s life; disvalues are things that harm or retard one’s life.

2. In order to say that you value X, you mean that you judge that X will improve your life.

If we can find no fault with the above propositions, then it is clear that a reasonable person cannot value his own life.

Now, the post was written on April Fool’s day for fun. You were supposed to agree with the propositions and come to the counterintuitive conclusion that you cannot value your own life (although you could value the life of another). Although the post was written for a bit of sophistical fun, it is absolutely true. Yet, I fear that it’s not as apparent as it needs to be, so I shall elaborate.

The first premise is that: “values are that which contribute to one’s life[…]”. Now, there is a reason I did not say that values are “that which one acts to gain and/or keep” – this is incorrect. Heresy! I know, but Ayn Rand got this point wrong. To declare that values are that which one acts to gain and or keep is merely to describe the phenomenon, not to explain it. Why do people act to gain and or keep them? Further, must I act to gain or keep something for it to be a value for me? Could I not judge X to be a value to my life without acting to gain or keep it? I can see no way in which evaluation necessitates action. Of course, one might call someone who failed to protect the things he declared as values as hypocritical or cowardly, but that does not mean that he could not value them. Imagine a case where I give up a lesser value to save a greater one; which would be the moral thing to do. Does it therefore follow that I did not value that thing since I did not act to keep it? No, that’s absurd. I simply valued it less and made the rational decision to save the more important value.

People pursue values because they think that they will improve their lives: whether the value makes their life more pleasant, more virtuous, more efficient, et cetera. No matter whether their evaluation is true or not, people pursue values because they judge them to be beneficial to their lives in some way. This is the true essence of a value and its defining characteristic. To say that people merely act to acquire them or keep them misses the point. Thus, we can see that my original formulation is correct, whereas Ayn Rand got it wrong.

Premise two of the argument follows directly from the definition of values, which is based on their essential characteristic, and thus is indubitable if the above is correct.

Now, the reason the conclusion follows is that to declare that you value your life means to declare that you judge that your life will improve your life. This, however, is nonsense. Life is the foundational concept of Ethics. Were there no living beings, there could be no Ethics. We can thus understand all of Ethics, at least Objectivist and Aristotelian Ethics, as teleological in nature with the end of the endeavor being life. Of course, the end is not life simply in the sense of continuing to breathe, but flourishing (although this discussion is tangential).

The reason that one cannot value one’s own life is identical to why one cannot prove an axiom: proofs presuppose axioms in the same way that evaluation presupposes one’s life.

Thus, one cannot value one’s own life!

Yet, fear not. This doesn’t mean the end of Ethics or that we should all now seek death. It simply means that we must remove this sloppy saying from our minds. One must still work to become the best person that one can be, if one wishes to live (all of Ethics is predicated upon this hypothetical imperative). Nor does this in any way invalidate the Objectivist Ethics, it simply refines Ayn Rand’s formulation into a more precise (and correct) form.

Now, I expect many comments decrying this heresy, but I’d like to welcome that people judge my arguments on their merits and not simply throw the fallacious appeal to authority. Any true philosophical arguments are welcomed in the comments or to me personally through the Obloggers list or at Erosophia.Blogspot (at)

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