Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Quality vs Quantity of Life

A debate over the value of life that I participated in with a couple of posts is continuing in the comments section of Evanescent's posting Ultimate Value and Morality and db0's posting on A Division by Zer0, Yet More Hypocrisy from Objectivists.

In this debate over the ultimate value of life, an important distinction is getting blurred between the quantity vs. the quality of life.

If life is the ultimate value the it would seem to follow that the longer a life is (the more life a person has had), the more value has been acquired.

Lets take two people – identical twins, separated by birth when people who traffic in sex slaves kidnaps one of the twins shortly after birth. The kidnapped twin, whom we shall call Longella, is sold on the black market to a criminal organization that engages is child prostitution, and the child grows up being abused (while her education is neglected). She is discarded on the streets of some third-world country shortly after reaching puberty, where she continues to live as a prostitute (since this is the only thing she knows) – being arrested several times and repeatedly raped. When she is no longer appealing to potential customers, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence as a homeless person on the streets until she dies at the age of 59.

Longella’s twin went to Harvard business school, where she was nicknamed ‘Shorty’ by her friends. She went on to form her own company, which was later bought out by Microsoft at a sum that put $5.7 billion into her own pocket. With that money she decided to pursue space travel. She founded a new business that established a hotel in space. Later, in a fully privately financed space venture, she became the first person to set foot on the moon since the Apollo missions. Unfortunately, during her second trip to the moon, a tragic accident resulted in her death. She was 58.

Furthermore, Shorty cultivated her love of space travel from a realization that the development of space is the best insurance against human extinction. Whereas she first came to see space travel as a mere tool – a means to human survival – it became an ‘end in itself’ for her, something that she valued for its own sake.

Now, if life was the only thing that has value, then it would seem that Longella has realized more value than Shorty, because Longella had 59 years of life while Shorty died at the age of 58. If life is the only thing that has value, and Longella lived longer than Shorty, then Longella realized more value than Shorty. If we had the capacity to choose which life to live, and life itself is the sole ultimate value, we should choose Longella's life. We would be irrational to choose Shorty's life – the life that realized less of what has ultimate value.

This, of course, is a patently absurd conclusion. Somehow, the "life is the ultimate value" theorist needs to provide us with an account whereby the Shorty’s life is better than Longella’s life.

The way to do this, of course, is to change the definition of 'life'. It requires saying something like, "When I say that a being is alive, I mean more than that its heart is beating and its brain is functioning. I being is not alive in the sense that I am talking about unless the following is also true . . ." followed by an account of what is allegedly required for "life is the ultimate value" to be true.

This has two implications.

First, it requires abandoning one of the primary arguments used to try to prove that life is the ultimate value. This is the argument that, "Life is essential for value to exist; therefore, life is the ultimate value." This argument uses the term 'life' in its traditional English-speaking sense of being alive. When Shorty died, value for her ceased to exist. However, Longella continued to value for another year. Longella acquired more of that which is necessary for value to exist than Shorty did so, on this argument, Longella’s had more 'ultimate value' then Shorty.

Of course, we already had a reason to abandon this argument. It says that life is essential for value to exist. It also says that life is the ultimate value. So, the argument states that life is essential for life to exist. This is true. However, it is also true that my toaster is essential for my toaster to exist. If my toaster ceased to exist, then it would no longer be the case that my toaster exists. The advocate of 'life is the ultimate value' who uses this argument needs to show how 'life is necessary for life to exist' demonstrates that life is the ultimate value, but "my toaster is necessary for my toaster to exist" does not demonstrate that my toaster is the ultimate value.

Second, the strategy of changing the definition of 'life' leaves us with no account of what it is exactly that makes one life better than another. We are now being told that Shorty's life is better than Longella's life because Shorty's life contained more life than Longella's, even though Longella lived longer.

One important conclusion that I want to draw from this example is to deny that all human activity either does nor should direct itself towards maximizing the number of seconds that one is alive. In evaluating different options, it is quite reasonable to sacrifice "number of seconds alive" in one case in order to realize something else of value. We do it all the time, and a great deal of argument will be required to show that we should not to so.

What can 'life' possibly mean in a context that would allow us to conclude 58 > 59?

Until we are given a definition of 'life' in this context, we have not been given a theory of value. We have only changed the words being used to discuss value. In effect, the “life is the ultimate value” theorist has merely changed the spelling of the word 'value' to 'l-i-f-e' without telling us a thing about what it is.

All he does is tell us, "Of course life is the ultimate value. 'Life' means 'ultimate value' and anybody who denies that the ultimate value is the ultimate value is just an idiot unworthy of our time and attention.”

Which is about as meaningful as telling us, "Of course God exists. 'God' means 'the greatest thing that exists' and anybody who denies that the greatest thing that exists actually does exist is just an idiot worthy of our time and attention." This argument certainly proves that God (under this new definition) does exist. It tells us nothing about what God’s properties are. And it gives us absolutely no reason to believe that 'God' as originally described (as an entity that created the universe, knows everything, and cares about us) actually exists. Using this to assert that it proves the existence of 'God' in the traditional sense is simply invalid reasoning.

The same is true with an argument that says that 'life' means 'ultimate value'.

If 'life' in Objectivist-speak means the same thing as 'life' in English, we are lead to the absurd conclusion that the rational person would choose Longella's life over Shorty's life. So, 'life' in Objectivist speech much mean something different from what 'life' means in English. This means that, until the Objectivist has given us the English equivalent of whatever 'life' means in Objectivist-speak, he has not given us a theory of value. He might as well be telling us that 'woweiu' is the ultimate value. Unless and until he tells us the English equivalent of 'woweiu', he is not telling us anything at all.

'Life' as the term is understood in English is not 'the ultimate value'. This would imply that every decision we make should be evaluated according to its impact on the number of seconds we are alive. What should I have for breakfast this morning? Taste does not matter. Only 'effect on the number of seconds we are likely to live' matters. Who should I marry? Love does not matter, only 'who will contribute to my greater longevity' matters.

The Objectivist, of course, will tell us that, according to Ayn Rand, taste and love does matter. But this only goes to the conclusion that when objectivists talk about 'life' they are using Objectivist-speak and not English. They are using a term that looks like a common English word, and in fact they invite us to draw the conclusion that they are, in fact, using the common English word. Yet, this option – that 'life' in the English language sense is the only thing that matters, would then contradict their assertion that taste and love matter. The only way that 'taste and love matters' can be made compatible with the claim that 'life is the only thing that matters' is to be using 'life' in some non-traditional (and yet undefined) way.

The fact is, Ayn Rand contradicted herself. Attempting to make sense of her claims that 'life is the only thing that matters' and 'taste and love also matter' is like trying to make sense of the claim that 'Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct entities' and 'There is only one God'.

Rand herself said, "If your argument leads to a contradiction, then check your premises. At least one of them must be mistaken." And, indeed, one of her own premises is mistaken.

The proposition that 'life' (in the English language sense) is the only thing that matters’ is false. As the comparison between Longella and Shorty above suggests, we are willing to sacrifice life in order to obtain other goods. This only makes sense to the degree that there are 'other goods' that are more valuable than life.

The proposition that 'life' (in Objectivist-speak) is the only thing that matters is empty. It is like saying 'woweiu is the only thing that matters'. Unless and until the Objectivist has given us an English-language equivalent to 'life' in Objectivist-speak, or taken some other action to define the term, it is meaningless, and statements using the term are empty.


Anonymous said...

There seems to be a paragraph missing at the beginning, describing Shortly's life.

Anonymous said...

This is just hilarious:

At comment 10, you said:
I do hold that there are ultimate values - aversion to pain, desire for sex, desire to eat, desire to drink, etc.

then at comment 21, I say:
Absence of pain. Physical and emotional.
After that, all my subsequent comments are deleted.

And now, At comment 39, we read:

Further up, I challenged anyone to disagree with this by providing an example of something else that IS an end in itself. This challenge remains unmet.

Truly mind boggling!

Anonymous said...

As I've told evanescent several times now, the state of merely being alive is not even a value in Objectivism if we want the term "value" to be meaningful or the claim to apply universally.

In Objectivism, value is "that which one acts to gain and/or keep". I act to gain and/or keep dog shit when I step on it. But no, this isn't what Objectivists want! Why? Because it was not my intention to step on the dog shit, and I don't want it! So in what meaningful sense can we interpret their definition of "value"? Oh, how about... an intentional one?

Taking an intentional interpretation, values are things that one intentionally acts to gain and/or keep. This makes the claim that "life is a value" an empirical claim, yet evanescent and Ergo, strangely, fail to comprehend this. It is obviously a false empirical claim.

As you (Alonzo), others, and I have told him, multiple times, the fact that an action, state of affairs, or thing contributes positively to my staying alive does not make staying alive a value, even if the contributing action, state of affairs, or thing is a value.

It really is hard to believe that someone who rejects the proposition "a god exists" on rational grounds can reject the refutations we've given of Objectivist ethics.

Then again, the primary objection Rand had to the hypothetical existence of God seemed to be based on humanity's dignity, or some other non sequitur argument. (And I think she botched her primacy of existence vs. primacy of consciousness thing.)

Steelman said...

Although I stopped reading that thread on Evanescent's blog a couple of days ago, I take it from this post that it stayed dreadfully on topic.

It seems to me that "life" isn't an ultimate value (speaking everyday English here) so much as it's a basic value. A necessary value: one values (wants to maintain) their own life, and finds merit in attributing value to the lives of others, therefore civilization can exist and other values, beyond the barest subsistence, can be realized.

That's why I can't get my head around the way "life" is being used in the Objectivist sense. It seems trivially true, like saying paper is the ultimate value of a book, rather than the book's content. The paper is a necessity, so is the ink, but neither are sufficient for the reading experience. Therefore, paper can't be an end in itself, and I'm not sure life is either; a comatose individual isn't really "living", if you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

In a collection of essays called "A GUIDE TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF OBJECTIVISM" by David King, Mr. King talks about the use of the word "life" in Objectist writings.

* Standard vs Purpose
I observe some confusion in the minds of many Objectivists regarding the proper applicaton of these two concepts. I will see if I can throw some light on the situation.
A standard is the basis upon which rests or which makes possible the existence of a purpose. The two things, while related, are not identical and should not be confused with one another.
Consider a house. Its standard is the foundation which it is built upon. Its purpose is the function of providing shelter for people. You can see that it could not fulfill its purpose without having its standard; but observe also that its standard is not the reason for its existence.
Now consider a man. His standard is his life - the life which is manifested in his biological mechanism. (To be specific, it is the ability to effect a temporary and local decrease in entropy through the use of chemical reactions catalyzed by nucleic acid molecules.) His purpose is also his life - but here "life" is used in a different sense, meaning the process of achieving values. I will refer to these two different aspects of life by the terms B-life and V-life. In the Objectivist writings there is considerable emphaisis on the idea that "man's life is the standard of values." (Here is meant B-life.) There is also much emphasis placed on the idea that "man's life qua man" (V-life) is the purpose of man's existence. Unfortunately, there is too little attention paid to differentiating between the two quite different aspects of the term "life" which are being considered. The result is that many people think in terms of B-lfe when they should be using the term V-life. An example is the man who claims that, if faced with a terrible situation in which he had to choose between saving his own life or saving his wife's (or child's) life, he would, according to the principles of Objectivism, have to save his own life. Because, after all, Obectivism tells him that his own biological existence is the most important value he can hold, doesn't it? This is surely not what Objectivism implies, nor is it what Rand means to say. You will recall Galt's words to Dagny at the time when he is about to be captured:
"But if they get the slightest suspicion of what we are to each other, they will have you on a torture rack.... At the first mention of a threat to you, I will kill myself.... I do not care to see you enduring a drawn-out murder. There will be no values for me to seek after that - and I do not care to exist without values."
This same motivation can be observed in the final scenes of Hugo's TOILERS OF THE SEA. Both Galt and Gilliatt realized quite well that his purpose in living is the achievement of values, not merely the continuance of his physical biological processes.


Anonymous said...

Intruiging! I must admit it sounds good. Does Objectivism have anything to say about what the values that man seeks in his V-life should be?