Are irrational values of value?

Last night at our monthly GLO meeting, we discussed the first 1/4 of Ayn Rand's The Objectivist Ethics.  One of our members raised the following question:  "Are irrational values of value?"  After almost 30 minutes of conversation, we hardly resolved the issue. The major confusion stems from the dual sense that values is used within Objectivism.  According to Rand, a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.  Based on this sense of value, even a junky pursuing his latest fix is pursing a value - since they are acting to gain something.  However, in the second sense, values must support the objective standard of life.  The concept of life is what makes the concept of value possible. 

Clearly, however, a junky acting to gain a fix is pursing an irrational action because it is ultimately self-destructive.  If the value chosen ends the life in question, it must be irrational.  Yet, humans do sometimes chose self-destructive actions.  Can we call these irrational actions "of value" in the objective sense?

As Rand reminds us, whenever we talk of value, you must ask of value to whom and for what?  In other words, you have to understand the context.  So the question "Are irrational values of value?" must demand an answer to "To whom?" and "For what?"  The full question should be "Are irrational values of value to man for living?"  The answer is obviously "NO!!!"   Is a junky seeking a fix a value to him for living?  No.  However, using a different context such as "Is a junk seeking a fix of value to him for a temporary joy?"  You might answer yes, with a major disclaimer - to what end?  Certain, the fix will meet an immediate desire, but does nothing to help the long-term survival of the individual. 

My take away - the question "Are irrational values of value?" can only be answered by "depends on the context", but according to an objective standard - No.

Understanding the two senses of value is by no means an easy task.  But after last night, I believe I have a better grasp of the concepts involved.  Many thanks to Robert Nasir, Alex Hrin, and the other GLO members who helped me think through this question.


  1. Peikoff answers this in 'Unity In Epistemology and Ethics', if you're interested. There's the pre-ethical concept of value, which is just that which one aims to gain or keep, and the ethical concept, of it being according to an objective standard. Although the latter one is what we really ought to pursue, we cannot understand that latter concept without retaining the previous concept. Unlike expanded concepts of 'apple' or 'architecture', we do not simply over-ride the previous concept. To understand the ethical concept, we actually have to retain the pre-ethical one, such that we can actually describe what someone is really doing when not being moral. Because, afterall, a christian is not pursuing a loose grab bag of multitudinous, range of the moment, flittering little desires -- that is to say that just because he is not an Objectivist is not to reduce him to the level of an animal.

  2. I should have added: we need it when describing actually moral behaviour too. We can only understand this or that as being especially moral by holding in mind what we are differentiating it from, which is just general human behaviour.

  3. Tenure has ably described the issues.

    In past decades, on sites such the Objectivism Study Group, now closed, this sort of problem was call the Problem of Two Concepts, or similar terminology.

    In preparing to write The Power and the Glory, I encountered a similar problem with terms/ideas, such as "virtue" and specific virtues such as courage and productivity.

    In one sense, an irrationalist can be virtuous according to his own nonobjective measures. (In this sense, a "virtue" is a characteristic required for success, but without specifying a context for "success.")

    Likewise, an irrationalist -- such as a Christian mystic -- can be productive, that is, create actual products and services sellable to others, such as books and recorded lectures about mysticism, a nonobjective subject.

    Judeo-mystic and activist Dennis Prager is an example: http://reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2010/08/dennis-prager-mystic-activist.html

    He learned very quickly to sell his books if he wanted readers to take them seriously.

  4. Thank you both for your comments. I have not heard that particular lecture by Peikoff. The pre-ethical/ ethical differentiation captures the essence of what I was missing. Thank you again!

  5. Could you offer a couple more real-world examples of what you mean by an irrational value? A bit more for me to try to get to the depth of meaning more than just the junky analogy. I am not coming from a Randian perspective (I am, in fact, anti-Rand) so that may explain why I'm not picking up on it as easily. Many schools of thought have different meanings to common terms.

    Is there a reason why Christians are often pointed to as "irrational"?

    My response on John's FB, which you may not have seen, was that irrational values often inform people's decisions. For that reason, they have value. "Value" here is a pretty broad term. Perhaps my concept is better placed in a different Randian term. Not sure.

  6. Anti-Rand... Wow, that's a strong stance.

    Well, as I state in the post, Rand uses two senses of the term value. So someone can claim to be pursing a value, even when that "value" is destructive to their own life, hence irrational. I do not doubt that these values or desires inform people's decisions, but not all values in the basic sense are of value in the ethical sense.

    Beyond the junky example, we might point to someone who lies to get money (like Bernie Maddoff), but ultimately hurts their own life. Or we might point to a guy who cheats on a wife he really loves, destroying his marriage and any happiness therein. Or we might observe someone consistently scarfing down twinky after twinky, slowly gaining weight until they die of some cardiovascular disease.

    Do those examples help?

  7. OK, so in the sense used here, "value" has a certain ethically positive aspect to it? More in line with "valuable"?

    I'm thinking more of it in an equation sense--where these beliefs are of value because they contribute to an outcome.

    Why's being anti-Rand any more strong a stance than being pro-Rand? :O

  8. That's hot.


  9. Curtis,
    Sure - values and virtues are major components of ethical systems. Strong stance considering, as you admit, you are not well versed in her philosophy.

    Back at you!

  10. I haven't spent the time to read Rand because she's anathema to my own beliefs. Don't need to get to the nitty gritty to know we're not compatible. Just like I wouldn't expect you to be well-versed in the Niebuhrs or Maguire. :)