Monday, June 1, 2009

Values without a valuer

What is "important" in life? A commonly accepted answer is: Getting your name down in history books, bringing progress to humanity, helping people, changing things on a major scale. 
Then, there is a sub-version of what is "important": the idea of what is "successful". "Successful" means being famous, having a triple degree in something, rich, popular, good looking.

Even though this concept of "important" refers to an individual, and what an individual should do - What it fails to consider is the actual individual. It prescribes what is "important" to an individual while making irrelevant the actual opinion of an individual person. 

Ethics taken as duty are experienced as an end in themselves: A person is honest for the sake of being good, he does well in school for the sake of being good, he goes on a diet for the sake of being "successful" etc'.

Philosophically he views morality as duty: as a set of rights and wrongs dictated to him from something outside himself (like society or god). 

 this view of morality puts a wedge between his self esteem and desires; because he needs to choose if he wants to be good and obedient, or pursue his own desires and goals and give up being good (which means to give up self-esteem). 

Philosophically, a proper moral code depends on man's choice to live and achieve his needs. It's opposite, a moral code prescribed as duty, makes personal goals and thinking irrelevant, and is therefore improper as a guide to life (which is what ethics in essence IS).

Psychologically, the distinction between morality from choice or from duty is not between following good morality or bad morality - rather the method by which a man accepts his moral code and why he accepts it. 
Does he choose his moral code to better his life, or does he accept it unquestionably, as something above himself to live up to? 
If a man sees morality as "the good" (i.e. "this is what I should do to be good!") and not as "the good for me" ("I should do X if I want good things for myself") then he accepts morality as a matter of duty, regardless of how good the moral code is philosophically. 

The person with the first approach ("be good!") has no explanation of why these things are important. It seems to him like there is no explanation - those things simply ARE important, even though he never reached this conclusion himself nor recall ever choosing those things. His concept of "important" is divorced from his desires and ideas. 

For many it can be difficult to grasp that a proper moral code actually depends on their choice; Many of us are educated to accept what is "good" or "bad" as irrelevant to our choice and beyond our reasoning.
Kids are taught what is "important", such as; it is important to get good grades, important to keep a safe, traditional path vs. pursuing a "hopeless" dream, important to have friends, not to upset anyone, to "get along". It is important to do "great things", to have money, important to share, important to be modest, nice, etc'. All this is demanded from a child as measurement of how good he is, without providing an explanation what makes these things good 
for the child. Without giving him incentive or reason to choose this course of behavior himself. [Additional note at the end regarding this point]

This sort of "education" sets the psychological state of mind for having values without a valuer. To pursue "important" things that one does not enjoy and that are not part of individual self-fulfillment, rather they stand above one's self, as a test of his worth. 

What kind of psychology leads a man in one direction or the other? I find that the answer lies in the trait of selfishness. 

A selfish person is primarily motivated to achieve his own enjoyment. And unless some enjoyment logically follows in exchange for the effort of acting - he does not move an inch. When there is something he values - he does not give it up. 
A non-selfish person gives up his pleasure and his values easily if he is taught that the good is to do so.  He does not act to achieve pleasure - rather he acts in a "moral" way for the sake of not disappointing himself - for the fear of being bad or the attempt to be good, without any further purpose - without attempting to gain something of personal importance to him, something he enjoys. 

For example: Suppose someone enjoys romantic relationships. And some day he learns that according to an accepted ethical principle, this kind of behavior is bad. If he is selfish he will say: "To hell with this principle, it's taking away my enjoyment. Unless I understand in what way this principle is good for my life, I say to hell with it". 
The person who sees morality as duty, however, will think: "Well, to be good I must give up my pleasure from dating. Being good is more important than my pleasure". 

In what way, then, can morality be selfishly chosen? 

As we grow up we learn that a certain course of action is required to achieve the things we aim at getting. We look for some guidance for the kind of person we want to be in order to deal with the difficulties in our lives and enjoy it, we look for some ideal or role model for guidance of the kind of person we want to be. Most people do not realize that this is their first step to choose a moral code - and not what they were taught to believe is "the good". 

The correct method to choose a moral code is highly personal: It is acting as the kind of person you are inspired to be, for the sake of achieving things you enjoy. And the process of integrating a chosen moral code to one's life goes through one's ability to understand it.


Most of us get educated with one bad idea or another. It is therefore important to make sure what we consider as important actually serves our enjoyment and well being. 

If there is one advice I could offer someone who wants to get rid of morality from duty it would be - focus on your pleasure, use the fullest capacity of your reasoning mind to maximize your enjoyment through the whole of your life. Learn to notice what you enjoy and what you drag yourself through in order to be "good". 
One cannot chose a career or personality that are good for him and yet make him self-alienated and bored.

The purpose of morality compatible with human life is to provide us the principles to guide our lives: to teach us the kind of person we need to be in order to enjoy our lives and sustain them.

Don't give up your life for any purpose less than that. 

[Note: to some degree, a child always acts without fully understanding the benefit of some behavior to his life. It is the role of his parents to teach him to act in a certain way. But the right way to motivate him to do it, while he learns the importance of that behavior for himself, is to give (or take) values, and not by presenting the rule as a gauge of his worth.
For example: You can motivate a child to learn to read by promising a prize. But a bad way to motivate him would be to present the activity as an end in itself: in the form of "if you learn how to read you are good and I will love you, and if you do not you are bad and I will not hug you", which teaches him that "good" and "bad" are impersonal concepts.] 


  1. =) Great post. I owe you twice now.

  2. "If there is one advice I could offer someone who wants to get rid of morality from duty it would be - focus on your pleasure, use the fullest capacity of your reasoning mind to maximize your enjoyment through the whole of your life."

    You know I have been struggling with this, but I have a question on the subject:

    I have something I really enjoy doing but it can't be made into a career, and I don't see it doing much for my long term well-being. I do however have enough saved up to not have to worry about a career for awhile.

    Do you think it makes sense to focus on short term relaxation type enjoyments as one tries to find a more fulfilling career?

  3. Sure. I think relaxation is an important state of mind to be able to make important decisions. Especially if you can do something you enjoy in that time (If you can afford it), it sets a great background for thinking what you want to do/ what is good for you.

    In fact I think in times in my life when I wasn't sure what I want to do I had a tendency to do activities that give short-term pleasure like playing computer games or listening to music. It helps the thinking process.

    You said: "I have something I really enjoy doing but it can't be made into a career, and I don't see it doing much for my long term well-being" - this is an important point; if I were a hedonist I would tell you "cease the moment. Do what is fun now, worry about the future later". But instead the right thing to do is to look long-term into your future and maximize the overall enjoyment that can be had.

    One last note: "short term relaxation/ fun" are a necessary and essential part of life. Without them it would be very hard to cope with a demanding career (and every career requires effort).

  4. I like this article and I've been thinking about it a lot.

    Of late I see a problem with Ayn Rand's philosophy, but I don't know if the problem is real or my own lack of understanding of her philosophy. Maybe you can help?

    Ultimately, if nobody else in the world values me and what I do, I have no means of survival, much less getting what I want from life. I came to a world where there was no such thing as a no man's land. Everything was already owned by everyone else. I have to please them or I won't get anything.

  5. I think Howard Roark's story from The Fountainhead is the answer to your question.
    He did architecture his own way because this was the only way he would enjoy doing it and because he knew his work was good. He refused to change it to please others while compromising on its quality.

    You could ask the same question about friendships: "If I don't act like people want I won't have any friends, so what should I do?". Well, if you act like other people want you, no fun can be had from any friendship. If you stay loyal to who you are and express it eventually you find your kind of people and true friendship you can enjoy. Just draw the parallel to carer choice.

    Just a side note - suppose working your way up to something you want, you have to work at a job you don't like as much as means of survival, like say, fast food restaurants; this is still not living to "please others" - you are still living for your own sake, simply choosing from available options.

  6. This is a case of reciprocal causation.The child who is selfish (read: Independent) comes to his own conclusions.Since pleasure is a concomitant of life, and at his stage it does show him things which are beneficial to him,he becomes an independent valuer. From this stage onwards, all he has to do is persevere in the will to understand.The result is an Ayn Rand or a Howard Roark.

    The selfless child(read:dependent) relies on others for "values", thereby never allowing the concept, "Value" to germinate. There are no intrinsic values.The giving up of the will to understand and his second hand values are one and the same.The result is that pain, the concomitant of death, becomes a spur to action in his case.From then on he corrupts his will to understand.The result is a James taggart or Toohey.

  7. A nice post. The rule based method declares in effect, "Be good!" or "Thou shall not lie". What I find devastating about this method is that it takes away the process e"value"ation from values.

    Once a person falls prey to this rule based method, there is no way for him to really tell what or why a particular thing is good for him having dispensed with the whole field of evaluation itself.

    If a young person attempts it, he will without doubt be filled with a lack of motivation, since the conclusions he accepts were not processed by him in the first place. They would be an ideal candidates for a guilt trip by any professor proclaiming "duty to the good" and any attempt to sneak in self interest would deemed hypocrisy.

  8. "What I find devastating about this method is that it takes away the process e"value"ation from values." Yep. That was my point, well summarized, by the way.

    Most kids learn on their own that lying hurts people: It hurts them when someone lies to them and it hurts others who are being lied to. So kids, I think, manage to understand why lying is bad on their own, even though their parents don't explain to them why lying is bad.

    So this particular example is not the best, but yeah, it illustrates the principle.

    Keating* is a good example of a dependent thinker who accepted his values second-hand. His mom feeds him with: "To be good, my son has to be famous! The most successful architect in the country!".
    He accepts that as an absolute (without any relation to personal goals, desires or ideas), and then spends the rest of his life pursuing that "value", giving up any chance of personal identity and living in misery and emptiness.

    * Keating is a character from the book "The fountainhead" - for anyone reading this comment who is not familiar with Objectivism.

  9. Oh, and thanks for commenting, guys.