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Re-Reprise: Affirming Life
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Sat, 2010-08-14 02:20
[Linz's note—the following is an adaptation of an editorial broadcast on 'The Politically Incorrect Show,' March 8, 2002, in response to the brouhaha provoked by a guide to committing suicide published by the Auckland University student newspaper, Craccum. I'm reprising it now at the suggestion of PC in light of the current debate in NZ over youth suicide and whether it should be reported or not. It's also pertinent in light of the ongoing debates here with Goblians.]
Yesterday's furore about the Craccum "How to commit suicide" article and your comments on this programme about it set me to thinking about the time I appeared on 'The Ralston Group' when we panellists were asked our explanations for the high rate of youth suicide.
I stated my own suspicion that the problem came down to a failure of philosophy. Youngsters were taking their own lives at precisely the time one asks life's big questions and searches for ideals to guide one's conduct. Religion, to which one traditionally repaired for answers, was discredited and had not been replaced with a viable secular alternative—leaving a values vacuum, leading to despair. What youngster would be inspired by the jaded cynicism so manifest in so many once-thoughtful adults?
But is a viable, secular alternative to religion possible? Can life have meaning without an after-life? If there is no god to inspire ideals and prescribe values, can there be any other source? Can man discover it? Theologians and philosophers alike have answered these questions with a resounding, No! Many professional philosophers revel in proclaiming their discipline irrelevant to the conduct of everyday life. The moral status of benevolence, they say, is no different from that of malevolence, creativity from destructiveness, honesty from deception, etc., and a belief in any of these values over their opposites is merely an arbitrary preference, with no objective validity. Ethically, it's deuces wild. The current subjectivist/relativist/nihilist morass may seem unappetising, they concede, but that too is an arbitrary judgement. There are no grounds for seeking anything better—there is no "better."
The Russian/American novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand begged to differ. It is reality itself, she argued, that confronts man with the need for morality—a code of values designed to facilitate the process of living—because it confronts him with alternatives amongst which he must choose (he has no choice about choice). At the most fundamental level the choice is: life or death. If one chooses death, there is nothing more to be said; if one chooses life, the book of morality opens, and one must fill in the pages oneself, making one's choices in the presence of alternatives to the ultimate value of: life.
To the nihilist's gleeful coup de grace, 'Ah! But why should one value life in the first place?' Rand replied: The question is improper. The value of life need not and cannot be justified by a value beyond life itself; without the fact of life, the concept of value would not be possible in the first place. Value presupposes life; life necessitates value.
To the existentialists' lament that without something beyond life, life itself has no meaning, she responded similarly—the very concept of meaning can have meaning only in the context of life. Ultimately, the meaning of life, if one wants to use that terminology, is ...life—one's own life, since one cannot live anyone else's—and what other or better meaning could one conceive?
A creature endowed with immortality, denied the alternative of life or death (and their barometers, pleasure and pain) would have no need of values and could discover no meaning in anything since nothing would be of any consequence to it. It is man's nature as a living, mortal entity, unprogrammed to survive, constantly facing alternatives, endowed with a conceptual/volitional consciousness, that simultaneously makes the need for morality inescapable and the fulfilment of that need possible.
For a human being, is is fraught with "ought"; "ought" is an irresistible aspect of "is"—the traditional dichotomy between them is false. The task of ethical philosophy is to prevent their being artificially sundered. A successful outcome—a morality derived from and consistent with the facts of reality—is, by virtue of those very characteristics, arbitrary (disconnected from reality) but objective (consonant with reality).
Rand went on to argue that a reality-based, life-affirming morality would concern itself not merely with survival, but survival proper to the life of the sentient, conceptual being that man is. While life might be the standard> of morality, happiness, she argued, was its purpose. "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."
In Rand's novel 'The Fountainhead,' a young man fresh out of college, looking for spiritual fuel for the journey ahead of him, is wheeling his bicycle through a forest, when he encounters the architect Howard Roark, contemplating some breath-taking new structures—his own—in a nearby clearing. "Who built this?" he asks. "I did," Roark replies. The boy thanks Roark and walks away. "Roark looked after him. He had never seen him before and he would never see him again. He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime."
To all this country's young people, happy and unhappy alike, I would repeat what I said on 'Ralston': Read this book—and the philosophy that produced it. You have nothing to lose but your doubts; you have your dreams to win. I repeat that advice today.
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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand