Nietzsche v. Rand (Part II)

Stephen Boydstun's picture
Submitted by Stephen Boydstun on Wed, 2008-04-16 22:48

Desire to Live? 

“Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power—: self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of this.” (BGE 13)


Nietzsche is not saying that we and other living beings do not have a natural drive for self-preservation (or an “instinct for self-preservation” in Kaufman’s translation of the passage; see also GS 1, 3, 11). He credits humans with drives and instincts. We have a drive for self-preservation—of the individual and of the commonwealth—but it is not most basic. It cannot exist without another, deeper drive. It is dependent upon and is one manifestation of the deepest drive bespeaking the essence of life: the will to power (Z II “On Self-Overcoming”). When Nietzsche writes of a drive for self-preservation, it is a will of life itself, which he then casts as a will to power (BGE 36, 44, 259; GS 349).


Rand writes: “An instinct of self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess. An ‘instinct’ is an . . . automatic form of knowledge. A desire is not an instinct. A desire to live does not give you the knowledge required for living. And even man’s desire to live is not automatic . . .” (AS 1013). Rand is using instinct in a sense more narrow than simply drive or desire.


Like Nietzsche’s mentor Schopenhauer (WWP I.2.180–81, I.4.350–53), Rand understood some animals to possess instincts, but in the case of man, took instincts to be supplanted by reason (AS 1013, 994; F 737; OE 19–20; FNI 14–17; but see Branden’s Psy S-E 2.2; cf. Peikoff’s OPAR 193–94 and Binswanger’s BBTC 32–36). Rand also denied that man has an “instinct for tool-making.” Rather, man has conceptual ability (AS 1043–44). She denied further that what is called man’s moral faculty, or “moral instinct,” is anything other than the rational faculty. “Man’s reason is his moral faculty” (AS 1017).


In the nineteenth century, as now, instinct was used broadly to mean a natural drive or innate behavioral tendency in animals, but it was also used more narrowly to mean a complex unlearned animal behavior adaptive for a species. Examples of the latter include spiders spinning webs and birds building nests (WWP I.2.136). Schopenhauer had written of instincts in this more narrow sense as “co-existing with animal activities directed by perceptual cognizance and its motives, [but] an activity accomplished without the latter [i.e., without motive of the accomplished end], thus with the necessity of blindly effectual will, namely in mechanical drives that, directed by no motive or cognizance, have the appearance of in fact producing their works in response to abstract rational motives” (WWP I.2.180).


In their moral psychology, Nietzsche clearly credits humans with instincts not only broadly, but narrowly. “‘Instinct’ is the most intelligent type of intelligence discovered so far.” Example: “the unconscious cunning that all good, fat, well-behaved, mediocre spirits have shown toward higher spirits and their tasks, that subtle, intricate, Jesuitical cunning that is a thousand times more subtle than any taste or understanding evinced by [that stupid] middle class in its best moments—it is even more subtle than its victims’ understanding” (BGE 218; see also “instinct for mediocrity” in BGE 206, “feminine instincts” in 239, and “instinct for rank/respect” in 263; also GS 118). When it comes to valuations more generally, instinct is at work under the name faith, which is belief without conscious reason (BGE 191; see also D 58, 22).


Nietzsche maintained, furthermore, that “the greatest part of conscious thought must still be attributed to instinctive activity.” This is instinct in a fairly narrow sense: “Most of a philosopher’s conscious thought is secretly directed and forced into determinate channels by the instincts” (BGE 3; see also BGE 211).


Thoughts themselves, in Nietzsche’s view, are merely relations among our desires and passions, our drives (BGE 36). Rational understanding “is actually nothing but a certain behavior of the instincts toward one another” (GS 333).


Nietzsche did realize, as Schopenhauer had stressed, that rationality is necessary for human survival (GS 76). Furthermore, even beyond the attainment of its continued existence, man’s life is not a waking dream in which free desire attains waking value (GS 59; also 324, 346).


(N v. R series to be continued)



Binswanger, H. 1990. The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (BBTC). ARI.

Branden, N. 1969. The Psychology of Self-Esteem (Psy S-E). Bantum.

Nietzsche, F.

———. 1881. Daybreak (D). Clark and Leiter, trans. 1997. CUP.

———. 1882. The Gay Science (GS) §§1–342). Kaufmann, trans. 1974. Vintage.

———. 1883. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Z II). Del Caro, trans. 2006. CUP.

———. 1886. Beyond Good and Evil (BGE). Horstmann and Norman, trans. 2002. CUP.

———. 1887. The Gay Science (GS §§343–83). Kaufmann, trans. 1974. Vintage.

Peikoff, L. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR). Dutton.

Rand, A.

———. 1943. The Fountainhead (F). Bobbs-Merrill.

———. 1957. Atlas Shrugged (AS). Random House.

———. 1961. For the New Intellectual (FNI). Signet.

———. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics (OE). In The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet.

Schopenhauer, A. 1859 [1819]. The World as Will and Presentation (WWP I). Aquila, trans. 2008. Pearson Longman.

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Rand is consistantly romantic

Frediano's picture

To me, her position romantically disavows, or at least, devalues the baser elements of the hierarchy of what motivates life. She is interested in man as man, not man as animal or reptile. There can be -- not is-- will to not just survive, but to prevail. To not just prevail, but live with pleasure. To not just live with pleasure, but to adhere to a view of ethical behavior while doing so. Pride in how we do so also motivates. At the baser end of that hierarchy of motivation might well be purely animalistic/functional processes that are no more complex(or no less simple, depending on your POV)than the aggregate weightings of our neural network based perceptions of meeting an evolutionary preferential goal: survival, better or worse as a result of what I am experiencing now?

A nematode may simply seek goals with an evolutionary bias for its survival, and what Rand surely romantically declares is, man as man is more than a nematode.

There is another discussion, the 'how' man is able to do what nematodes cannot, in terms of motivating and directing the continuation of his life. We do more than 'seek favorable light, heat, moisture and nutrients.' My sense is, man is an example of a self-reprogrammable neural network, dynamically weighing not just perceptions, but insight, at higher levels of abstraction. While this occurs, the base motivations are still present--we still have the basic wiring, a medullah oblongata, we still have our base level animalistic preservation functioning.

I think what you describe below is a kind of sliding down that motivational hierarchy. If man can slide up, he can also slide down. Sliding down is all to easy. I'm not even saying, 'sliding down by choice.' Circumstances can thrust any of us into 'bare survival mode.' The base motivations are still there, still providing their feedback for survival, but man is possibly unique in his ability to self-weight the neural network feedback and declare "This is not enough; mere survival is not sufficient." As well as, "It is."

As well, mankind is perfectly able to choose to live like a reptile, and deliberately cut off, or at least, never embrace the more abstract elements of that value hierarchy. Or, be purely pleasure driven. (That, to me, is the only way I can explain the behavior of some of my fellow tribesmen.)

I don't conclude from Rand's reasoning on goal driven behavior that there is one and only such goal; not for a single being, and certainly, not one goal for the aggregate of all beings.

Desire for Pleasure

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Pleasure encourages one to life and is a constituent of happiness. However, to be living and still conscious is not necessarily to retain happiness with one’s life or even in one’s core self. Then too, one might come into a condition of suffering in which pleasure and enjoyment are not feasible. These are potential situations for humans.

If the concept of pleasure were stretched to include complex feelings such as respect or esteem, then “pleasure” might be almost enough resource for continuing one’s life come into tremendous trouble. One might be thoroughly unhappy and depressed. One might then find few enjoyments and few pleasures in the usual, narrow sense of the word pleasure. Yet one might retain a bald desire for something future to value, to esteem. One might retain a respect for the possibility of being one who values and know that value is here, among the living.

Respect for the possibility of being one who values is not, however, a conviction that one is able to be such a person any further. With that conviction totally lost, the look back to one’s values and valuing that had been might be one’s final personal touch with value.

The deceased have their value-role, to be sure. Their job is to inspire the living. Still, value is here.

I think this is way too complicated.

Ptgymatic's picture

Pleasure is an end in itself.

Supported Choice

Stephen Boydstun's picture

To those references, in the previous note, on the choice to live: Tibor Machan and by Douglas Rasmussen in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 7(2):257–73, 309–28 (Spring 2006), I can add:

“Choosing Life” by David Kelley

“Values and Happiness” by Fred Miller

In Objectivity we have:

“Beginning – Fulfilling” by James Henderson

“Would Immortality Be Worth It?” by Stephen Hicks

Irfan Khawaja writes in “A Perfectionist-Egoist Theory of the Good” in a Note:

“Can we be said to choose our ultimate value? Or is its (eventual) practical necessity not dependent on its being chosen? I do not have [as of 1997] a fully satisfactory answer, but the most defensible view seems to me Rand’s conception of a primary volitional choice to value.

“‘An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. . . . It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. . . . Life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself’ (OE 17). ‘It is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value” possible’ (AS 1013). ‘No, you do not have to live; it is your basic act of choice; but if you choose to live, you must live as a man’ (AS 1015; cf. Nozick 1981, 555–70 [*]). ‘Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice’(AS 1013). ‘My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live’ (AS 1018).

“On this view, the practical necessity of an ultimate value is dependent on the valuer’s choosing it as ultimate. But it does not follow from this that the valuer can arbitrarily choose anything and make that an ultimate value (à la Sartre), nor does it follow that the agent necessarily chooses the ultimate value under the description of its being the de re ultimate value of a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens.

“On Rand’s view, human action depends for its existence on metaphysical freedom. Qua organism, any human agent’s existence depends on that agent’s initiating goal-directed action. The existence of goal-directed action implies the existence of some terminus. Hence, qua existing, every agent acts for goals, and qua goal-directed, every agent’s action has some unified terminus. Now, a volition, on Rand’s view, is the primary or basic act that activates the agent’s rational capacities (and thereby brings about action); action must be volitional to count as human action in the unqualified sense. So qua human agent, an agent’s goal-directed action must be free (and thereby rational). Rational action requires a natural terminus, an ultimate value—and only an ultimate value makes rational action possible. So the primary choice practically necessitates a terminus that can in fact make rational goal-directed action possible on its behalf. Since the de re terminus of human action qua human is survival qua human, every human agent, qua rational, has overriding reason to make his chosen terminus coincide with his de re terminus: survival qua human. So the ultimate value is obligatory for any agent engaged in goal-directed action—but not for one who simply defaults on the task of engaging in such action altogether. (See also OPAR 55–72).

“. . . . I thank Allan Gotthelf and Roderick Long for helpful discussion on this issue.” (V1N5 133–34)


In Tara Smith’s Viable Values (2000), see in Chapter 4, the subsections on pages 104–11, which are titled:

Is Life a Value or Is Life the Source of Value?

How Does a Person Choose Life?

Is the Choice of Life Justified?

Does the Choice to Live Undermine the Objectivity of Value?

The following remarks of Prof. Smith are also noteworthy:

“Value is neither a readymade given nor created by will. ‘The good is an aspect of reality in relation to man’, Rand writes, meaning that both ends of this relationship are crucial to value. The object in question must possess certain characteristics in order to advance a person’s life, and the person must seek his life, for that thing to be valuable. Elements of the external world as well as of his consciousness (his desire to live) combine to render certain things valuable. Insofar as value marks a pro-life relationship, value depends on a variable and a constant: an individual’s desire to live and human biology and psychology (i.e., his literal needs).[34]” (pp. 98–99)

“[34] . . . . Value is relational in the twin senses that a genuine value must stand in a life-advancing relation to a person, and it must stand in a proper relation to his consciousness; that is, he must come to regard it as valuable through a logical process. / Notice that this expands our understanding of the difference between what is beneficial and what is valuable. . . .” (p. 121)

Choice to Live

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Nietzsche began work on Beyond Good and Evil in June 1885. When he opens §3 with the remark “the greatest part of conscious thought must still be attributed to instinctive activity,” he is in step with a French author he had been studying the preceding month. The rest of §3 is distinctively Nietzsche, but that general opening idea is to be found (albeit with instinct taken in the broad sense) in that new book from Paris: A Sketch of Morality without Obligation or Sanction (1885).

The author Jean Marie Guyau writes that it is erroneous to think “that most of our movements spring from consciousness, and that a scientific analysis of the springs of conduct has only to reckon with conscious motives . . . . Even those acts achieved in full consciousness have generally their beginning and first origin in dumb instincts and reflex movements. Consciousness is, therefore, only a luminous point in the great obscure sphere of life; it is a small lens, gathering in bundles some rays of the sun, and imagining too readily that its focus is the very focus from which the rays start” (S 74).

In that paragraph, Guyau mentions a question then being debated in France and England as to whether “consciousness is, in life, but an epiphenomenon, in the absence of which everything would go on in the same way” (S 74). Nietzsche completed BGE in January of 1886. In the autumn of that year, he composed Book V of The Gay Science to be added to a new edition of that 1882 work. In V he entertains the idea that “we could think, feel, will, and remember, and we could also ‘act’ in every sense of that word, and yet none of all this would have to ‘enter consciousness’ . . . . The whole of life would be possible without, as it were, seeing itself in a mirror. Even now, for that matter, by far the greatest portion of our life actually takes place without this mirror effect; and this is true even of our thinking, feeling, and willing life . . . . For what purpose, then, any consciousness at all when it is in the main superfluous?” (GS 354) Nietzsche conjectures that consciousness is proportionate an animal’s communication capabilities, that these capabilities have had advantages for survival, and that in humans thought-with-language has brought consciousness and self-consciousness beyond what is needed for survival (GS 354).

At the time of Sketch, Guyau was not familiar with any of Nietzsche’s work. There were remarkable affinities between their ideas. In common background, they had knowledge of certain authors and currents in contemporary psychology, biology, and philosophy. Like Nietzsche, Guyau rejected the pessimism that Schopenhauer and his followers had decorated and that, really, had been cultivated as far back as Buddha.

Guyau argued against the pessimistic view of life that condemns pleasure and desire. Guyau looks “not only to psychology, but to biology [to] find out whether the actual laws of life do not imply a surplus value of welfare over pain” and to show that the morality he would uphold on scientific grounds “would be right in wanting to conform human actions to the laws of life, instead of aiming at final annihilation of life, and of the desire to live” (S 33).

“If, in living beings, the feelings of discomfort really prevailed over those of comfort, life would be impossible. . . . The subjective discomfort of suffering is only a symptom of a wrong objective state of disorder . . . . The feeling of well-being is like the subjective aspect of a right objective state. In the rhythm of existence, well-being thus corresponds to evolution of life, pain to dissolution” (S 33–34).

“If the human race and the other animal species survive, it is precisely because life is not too bad for them. . . . A moral philosophy of annihilation, to whatever living being it is proposed, is like a contradiction. In reality, it is the same reason which makes existence possible and which makes it desirable” (S 37).

Guyau concludes “that suffering is not the evil most dreaded by man—that inaction is often still worse; that there is, moreover, a particular kind of pleasure which springs from conquered sorrow, and, in general, from every expended energy” (S 30).

“There are two kinds of pleasure. At one time pleasure corresponds with a particular and superficial form of activity (the pleasure of eating, drinking, etc.); at another time it is connected with the very root of that activity (the pleasure of living, of willing, of thinking, etc.). In the one case, it is purely a pleasure of the senses; in the other, it is more deeply vital, more independent of exterior objects—it is one with the very consciousness of life” (S 77).

Rand writes that her morality of reason “is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live” (AS 1018). The traction she gets in constructing definite broad values and virtues for human life comes from the specific constitution of Man and his Life which is raised as standard for life-affording correct values and virtues. In other words, the traction she gets is in the specific identity of human being per se, including all the conditional relations bearing on human life as well as the possibility that humans can power down and stop making life-affording values operative in themselves. All along the days one is chugging away with those values and virtues functioning in one’s machinery, one is affirming life. But there can come times when one has lost greatly loved persons or projects or one has badly lost some treasured abilities, or one is in great pain. For these times, I appreciate especially that Rand had written “and a single choice: to live” and not “and a single choice: to be happy.” One may no longer remember what happiness was, but one may still see what life is. You may still be able to think on continuance of your self, of your world with you alone in it; and those underlying, basis pleasures, noted by Guyau, may idle you along. In a while, you may choose life anew.



Controversies over the relation of value and choice in Rand’s ethics have been tackled by Tibor Machan and by Douglas Rasmussen in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 7(2):257–73, 309–28 (Spring 2006).

Nietzsche had learned to read French with ease in time for Guyau 1885. An expanded second edition of this book appeared in 1890, two years after Guyau’s death (age 34), one year after Nietzsche’s complete mental collapse. Guyau’s Esquisse d’une Morale sans Obligation, ni Sanction was translated into English by Gertrude Kapteyn in 1898. Hers is a translation of the second edition. Outside the Sorbonne several years ago, I purchased the second edition in the original language for a memento of the trip. So I have been able to verify Kapteyn’s translation. Some years ago, I found the first edition in Regenstein at Chicago. I marked up my second edition to indicate the alterations and additions made from first to second. I have relied solely on what was in the first edition for my discussions of Nietzsche’s Guyau.


Guyau, J. 1885, 1890. A Sketch of Morality without Obligation or Sanction. Kapteyn, trans. 1898. Watts & Co.

Nietzsche, F. 1886. Beyond Good and Evil (BGE). Horstmann and Norman, trans. 2002. Cambridge.

———. 1887. The Gay Science (GS §§343–83). Kaufmann, trans. 1974. Vintage.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

Logic Not Instinct

Stephen Boydstun's picture

In the fourth paragraph above, I mentioned Rand’s denial of a variety of instincts in humans, where instinct is used in the narrow sense. Another human ability from which she would dispel instinct is logical thought. “Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct” (AS 1012).

Nietzsche had wrestled with the origin and place of logic in the biological world (HH I 18) and in Greek and contemporary philosophy (D 544; GS 111). He observed that it is a good intellectual habit by which men at odds can come to agreement (GS 348).

Continuing a quotation above, from Beyond Good and Evil, we have: “Most of a philosopher’s conscious thought is secretly directed and forced into determinate channels by the instincts. Even behind all logic and its autocratic posturings stand valuations or, stated more clearly, physiological requirements for the preservation of a particular kind of life” (BGE 3).

“The project for philosophical laborers on the noble model of Kant and Hegel is to establish some large class of given values . . . and press it into formulas, whether in the realm of logic or politics (morality) or art. . . . But true philosophers are commanders and legislators . . . . True philosophers reach for the future with a creative hand and everything that is and was becomes a means, a tool, a hammer for them. Their "knowing" is creating, their creating is a legislating, their will to truth is —will to power.” (BGE 211 [Horstmann and Norman])

(See also the Preface §4 added to Daybreak the same year as BGE.)

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