The Choice to Live

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. – Galt´s speech.

An objection to this is that one does not explicitly choose to live. We do not choose to be born; that choice was made by our parents (and their ancestors before them). Before we were born, we had no choice about anything.

The only situation I can think where one explicitly chooses to live is if one is seriously considering suicide and then decides against it. But this cannot be what Galt means. It is unimaginable that Galt, or any other Ayn Rand hero or, for that matter, most of the rest of humanity, does this.

My conclusion is that the “choice to live” is an implicit choice: it is implied in all (or most) other choices we make. We make pro-survival choices – and only the suicide candidate (or the mystic, whose standard is death, not life) makes anti-survival choices.

It seems that few, if any, have raised this objection – for the only one I know of who has brought it up and answered it is Tara Smith in Viable Values, who writes:

Admittedly, the embrace of life is not usually crystallized in an unmistakable, do-or-die moment when well-defined options are laid out and a decision is imperative. […]

Rather, we choose life by choosing all sorts of specific things that constitute and further our lives. In embracing countless people, projects, objects and destinations – in loving Megan, saving money, buying coffee, studying French, playing jazz, having a child, building a career, planning a vacation, or planting a garden – a person may be choosing life. By getting out of bed in the morning and having at a day, a person may be choosing life. In setting any life-enhancing aims for himself, be they modest or ambitious, trivial or profound, short or long range, a person may be choosing life. Remember that life consists of a person’s activities, all that he does in pursuing his various ends. Thus, life is not a distinct aim that one can adopt in addition to learning French, saving money, building a career, and so on. To embrace life is to embrace the condition of having specific ends (and more, of having consistent and life-furthering ends). – Viable Values, p. 105.

Which is to say that this choice is implicit rather than explicit.

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On a similar note: Some years ago, there was a person here in Sweden who jumped into every discussion about Objectivism and pestered us with the idea that “life as the standard” means that the goal of the Objectivist ethics is to live as long a life as possible. No matter what I or anybody else answered, he stuck to this idea and repeated it over and over again.

We could answer that there is “quality of life” as well as “quantity of life” – that

it is not the years in one’s life that count, it’s the life in one’s years.

We could quote the following (from “The Objectivist Ethics”):

Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as “survival at any price”, which may or may not last a week or a year. “Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan – in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.

None of this helped. (And since Ayn Rand speaks out against merely momentary survival, What else than “longevity” could be implied? The rest of the paragraph gets lost in such a person’s mind.)

If I said that an implication of this “longevity” idea is that Bertrand Russel must be exactly twice as good as Thomas Aquinas, since he lived till the age of 98, while Aquinas only lived till the age of 49 – he would of course have accepted it.

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In getting this off my chest, I have chosen life – albeit implicitly.

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Addendum: On Facebook, I got this comment.

Moral issues ought to be something more concrete.

Well, “life” is an extremely abstract concept, since it subsumes − how should I put it? − a vast number of concretes. For examples, it subsumes every living organism that lives now, has ever lived, and will ever live. It subsumes the lifespans of every man, and every organism, that lives now, has ever lived, and will ever live. And you may certainly think on other things, as well.

“Choice” also subsumes every choice that is made, has ever been made, and will ever be made. But is is far easier to form this concept, since it only requires a simple act of introspection. If you have ever made a choice or a decision, you know what a choice or decision is.

A good thing about the quote from Tara Smith above is that she gives a few concrete example of what this “choice to live” implies. But such a list could never be made exhaustive, since it would then list every choice that has been made or even could be made.

Take the choice or decision to get out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, as the case may be). One then has to decide to put on one’s clothes, brew some coffee, make a sandwich, go to the bathroom to take a leak, getting off to work, etc., etc.

Most of those choices/decisions are so self-evident that we hardly think of them as choices; they are automatized. It is only if one is very sleepy that one would regard getting out of bed as a choice that require some will-power.

The “choice to live”, most often, is not experienced as much of a choice. That we want to live, we simply take for granted  unless we are extremely disappointed with life or tired of life.

Now, I will make the life-enhancing decision to stop blogging about this and prepare today’s dinner. 😉

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Update November 16: Come to think of it, the word ”choice” is equivocal: it may refer to ”the act of choosing”, but also to ”the thing chosen”, ”the result of the choice”.

Let’s say, to give an example, that there are two women I want to marry. I’m attracted to both of them – even in love with both of them − and both of them are willing to marry me. But, marriage laws being what they are, I cannot marry both of them; I have to choose between the alternative possible wives. But after I have made the choice, I can say: “She was my choice”, and others can say “She was his choice”.

Or take the situation I was in right before writing this down: Should I bother to publish this now? Or should I wait till later on? Or is it too unimportant to even mention it? But now I have made my choice: publish it.

The failure to make this distinction might be one reason why discussions about “free will versus determinism” seldom lead anywhere. I, as a free will advocate, will insist that the choice is actually a choice and that to say it is determined is nonsensical and a contradiction in terms. And the determinist will insist the thing chosen, the result of the choice, as determined by everything that has happened in the past. The point the determinist is missing here is that one determining factor is precisely my act of choosing.


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