More on Central Purpose

 Posted by on 9 July 2012 at 12:00 pm  Career, Children, Ethics, Hobbies, Purpose, Work
Jul 092012
 

In the June 24th episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on parenting as a central purpose. In my answer, I suggested that Objectivists seem to have misunderstood what Ayn Rand meant by “central purpose.” In part, I suggested that based on Ayn Rand’s comments in “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness:

The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics–the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life–are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.

Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work–pride is the result.

That was her only comment on “central purpose” in her novels or anthologies. It doesn’t seem to imply that a person needs to have a central purpose in the sense of an overriding theme of his life, as many people seem to think.

Shortly after the broadcast, someone pointed out that Ayn Rand discussed “central purpose” briefly in her interview in Playboy. Here’s the relevant passage:

PLAYBOY: Weren’t Hitler and Stalin, to name two tyrants, in control of their own lives, and didn’t they have a clear purpose?

RAND: Certainly not. Observe that both of them ended as literal psychotics. They were men who lacked self-esteem and, therefore, hated all of existence. Their psychology, in effect, is summarized in Atlas Shrugged by the character of James Taggart. The man who has no purpose, but has to act, acts to destroy others. That is not the same thing as a productive or creative purpose.

PLAYBOY: If a person organizes his life around a single, neatly defined purpose, isn’t he in danger of becoming extremely narrow in his horizons?

RAND: Quite the contrary. A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and, therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find.

Ayn Rand’s analysis of the life of the man without a purpose is correct: such a life would be terribly disintegrated. However, I’m doubtful that a person must have one single dominant purpose — a theme of his life that trumps all other concerns — in order to live a rational, integrated, and purposeful life. Instead, my thought is that a person’s ultimate integrating purpose is his own life and happiness. Often, that ultimate purpose will be pursued via three to five major values, such as a career, a spouse, children, and a hobby.

Those major values might not be strongly connected to each other. My passion for horse training and skiing has little to do with my love of philosophy. Paul doesn’t join me in those hobbies either, but he’s hugely important to me.

Those major values will come into conflict periodically. A parent, for example, faces constant choices between spending more time at work versus spending more time with his kids. Sometimes, those choices might be painfully difficult, such as during a major crunch time at work.

Even if a person’s career is most important to him, in the grand scheme of his life, that doesn’t mean that his career will always trump his other major values. I could work more hours, for example, but I choose to spend some of that time riding my horses instead. If my horse Lila were injured, my plans for work for that day would be instantly discarded.

A person might forgo certain career opportunities in order to enhance or preserve the other major values. I wouldn’t ever move to New York City — even if doing so would hugely advance my career — because doing so would preclude my pursuit of too many other values. (Hence, I would be miserable in very short order.)

Ultimately, what should matter most to a person is his own life and happiness: that’s the ultimate purpose that properly integrates all his actions. Beyond that, a person needs to cultivate and identify the major values by which he pursues that life and happiness. He needs to know their relative order of importance to him, in the grand scheme of things. He needs to be sensitive to changes in those major values over time.

To go beyond that — to attempt to intertwine all the disparate threads of one’s life into a neat and tidy bow known as a “central purpose” — seems likely to be unhelpful and perhaps even unrealistic for many people. For them, the result of the attempt is not greater clarity or purpose, but only guilt, worry, and sacrifice of values. Obviously, that’s not good.

Ultimately, the goal should not be to force oneself to think and act in terms of a single unifying central purpose of life. The goal should be to live a rational, integrated, and purposeful life — and I see many ways to do that.

  • christopolis

    “seems likely to be unhelpful and perhaps even unrealistic for many people”

    Gist of your argument…

    “I can’t do it, therefore it is unhelpful and unrealistic for others to do it.”

    It can be done. Can you be happy without a central purpose? Possibly. Can you be as happy as if you have one? Probably not.

    • http://www.philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

      No, the gist is: “I (and others) can’t whittle ourselves down to a single central purpose without making ourselves less happy, and that suggests that a single central purpose might not be beneficial for everyone.”

      Your final paragraph is mere assertion — and, in my case, very obviously an assertion that doesn’t fit the facts.

      • christopolis

        Actually you can whittle yourself down to a single central purpose. You choose not to. That is what values require is choice. I have found that people lacking self confidence and self esteem often enshroud themselves with lots of central purposes so they can always have a built in excuse for not achieving their values in one area. Go to most bad restaurants and look at the menu with hundreds of items for an example.

        Also there is no reason to believe someone cannot have a central purpose and hobbies. Hobbies actually play a vital roll in your central purpose. They allow for rest, rejuvenation and the subconscious connection of seemingly unrelated events.

        • http://www.philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

          Please take your unwarranted negative psychologizing somewhere else.

  • Heather

    A central purpose of your *life* would have to integrate both your past and your future — which I think is what makes it so fulfilling for those who can achieve it, yet unnecessary and unhelpful for others. If you can look back on your life and identify a value that has always been a driving force for you, and you can look forward and see a way to build on that background to achieve something greater and deeply motivating, then explicitly naming it as a Central Purpose might be a great benefit to you.

    On the other hand, if you’re looking back on your life from your mid-thirties (or later, or earlier) and see no compelling connection among the events of your life — nothing that you feel strongly about or particularly want to develop and carry forward with you — then you shouldn’t feel that you’re missing out on something that you “should” have. It’s perfectly alright to live with purpose and focus via shorter-term goals. Trying to work from scratch and pre-write your whole future into some supposedly compelling statement of purpose will probably just leave you discouraged, when instead you could be pursuing varied or minor interests into areas that — who knows — you just may become genuinely passionate about over time.

    • http://www.philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

      Heather — Alas, you’ve missed my point. With 3 to 5 major values as primarily constitutive of my life and happiness, it’s certainly not the case that I “see no compelling connection among the events of [my] life — nothing that [I] feel strongly about or particularly want to develop and carry forward with [me].” That might be true of some people — and they might have only short-term goals. That would be very much sub-optimal, I think.

      However, that’s not my situation. I’ve been riding horses since before I can remember. It’s “in my blood,” so to speak, so much so that I’d not be willing to give it up except under the most dire of circumstances. Still, it’s not my most important pursuit, and it’s not what I spend most of my time doing. It’s a part of my life — a hugely important part of my life, and hence, I’ve structured my life and my work so that I can pursue it.

      Hence, my point is that I have more than just one long-range, deeply-held value the pursuit of which defines and structures my life. For me to say that my work is my central purpose would mean that it should take precedence over my horse training — and therefore, that I should be willing to move to a big city to advance my career, if necessary. But that would be wrong to do, because it would utterly destroy my happiness. And that happiness is, in fact, my ultimate purpose. Similarly, on a day-to-day basis, work does not always take precedence over the horses.

      Basically, I’m able to structure my life and my work so as to be able to pursue all my major values — and I think that’s the optimal way for me, not some second-best to having a single central purpose.

      • Heather

        Diana, you seem to be equating “values” and “purpose” (or at least, “purpose” with “direct pursuit of a specific value”), but I don’t think they’re the same thing. I would say that riding horses is a value for you rather than a purpose, because it seems to me that a purpose is what you intend to *do* in order to achieve your values as a set (and in turn, values are what you pursue in order to achieve your life and happiness). So most people have a bunch of values of varying importance based on what suits their personality and their idea of a happy life, but in order to get and keep them they have to pursue some unrelated, productive course of action. Just as you can pursue greater value-density without feeling guilty whenever you sit in front of the TV, so you can pursue purpose-efficiency to a greater or lesser degree as it makes sense to you to do so, and I just think that a well-chosen central purpose can be a way of doing that.

        I think that your purpose(s) is(are) there to serve your values, and your values are there to serve your life/happiness. So even if your work were your central purpose, I don’t think it would follow that you’d have to move to a city because it would be better for your work — what is your work for, if not in part to allow you to afford the value of horse training? Even if your career is a value in itself and not just a job that pays the bills, since when do you only get to pick one value and force everything else to be meaningless next to it? Your *whole* life is the ultimate value, and it comprises the *set* of values that you choose, in the hierarchy that you arrange for them. (Right?)

        I didn’t mean in my post that *you* have a series of disconnected, short-range purposes; clearly that’s not the way to get an advanced degree and moderate internet celebrity status :) But as a person who does have a fairly clear ‘integrating purpose’, your original post helped me realize that it makes sense that it wouldn’t necessarily be a value for everybody or might just be more pressure than it’s really worth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Lewis/100000672376450 David Lewis

    For me, I think this is the most important part of what Rand is saying: “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life”

    I do think it’s possible for everyone to tie things up into a neat little bow, and that bow is some type of productive work. I don’t see how anyone would really be able to get around this – especially when a person starts making goals. To what purpose does a person make goals for with several purposes? How does one prevent those goals from contradicting each other? Happiness is an effect, so it’s not much help as a guide to action.

    A person pursuing horseback riding or skiing or tennis or para-sailing doesn’t necessarily take away from a person being productive. In many cases, it helps in various ways. Though, I do wonder sometimes if a person spends more time doing their hobby than working if they are pursuing the wrong purpose, but I don’t think it’s my place to confront them with (unless they’re paying me for financial advice and it’s clear that that has to be addressed).

    You said: Those major values might not be strongly connected to each other. My passion for horse training and skiing has little to do with my love of philosophy. Paul doesn’t join me in those hobbies either, but he’s hugely important to me.

    My reply: They don’t have to be directly connected. There’s a sort of “6 degrees” of separation going on in a lot of people’s lives. I like playing the piano and singing. What does that have to do with finance? Nothing – directly. However, it’s a way for me to relax and have fun which is crucially important for me if I’m to do my best when I *am* working. Even when it takes additional work to learn a new piano piece, it’s not nearly as demanding as studying new financial regulations, writing about some finance topic, or helping a client put together some sophisticated plan. If it were, then playing the piano wouldn’t be a hobby anymore. It’d be a second career. If it was elevated beyond a career to the importance of a central purpose, it would stand in clear contradiction and hopeless conflict with my other CP. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m doing something other than focusing directly on financial planning.

    You said: Those major values will come into conflict periodically. A parent, for example, faces constant choices between spending more time at work versus spending more time with his kids. Sometimes, those choices might be painfully difficult, such as during a major crunch time at work.

    My reply: I don’t think this precludes the necessity of a CP. In fact, a CP would lay the groundwork necessary to allow a person to clearly define how much time should be spent with kids vs work since the parent wants both a career outside the home and a family life. He needs to determine the hierarchy of his values and the relative importance of them in his life – exactly what Rand argues is the importance and necessity of having a CP.

    You said: Even if a person’s career is most important to him, in the grand scheme of his life, that doesn’t mean that his career will always trump his other major values. I could work more hours, for example, but I choose to spend some of that time riding my horses instead. If my horse Lila were injured, my plans for work for that day would be instantly discarded.

    My reply: How is this even a conflict? Rand’s point isn’t that one should spend his entire time doing physical or mental work.

    You said: A person might forgo certain career opportunities in order to enhance or preserve the other major values.

    My reply: If a person’s career is the most important thing to him, in the grand scheme of his life, he will do whatever is necessary for his maximum long-term benefit in that respect. A pay raise of $10,000 a year might not be enticing enough to move. Maybe it is. Maybe he needs a promotion, a fat raise, and a generous pension plan plus a curtain allowance to help him move. Whatever the case, at some point a career offer is clearly beneficial to a person to such an extent that it would be wrong not to take the offer. Of course, each person decides where that point lies but it doesn’t change the fact that such an offer or opportunity exists. If a person says “no career opportunity would ever make me leave where I live now because I enjoy (insert other value) too much” then the person’s current career isn’t the most important thing in the person’s life in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say that the person’s chosen CP is not the most important thing to him, just his career.

    You said: To go beyond that — to attempt to intertwine all the disparate threads of one’s life into a neat and tidy bow known as a “central purpose” — seems likely to be unhelpful and perhaps even unrealistic for many people. For them, the result of the attempt is not greater clarity or purpose, but only guilt, worry, and sacrifice of values. Obviously, that’s not good.

    My reply: Perhaps you and I are looking at this in very different ways. I don’t see how it would be unhelpful or unrealistic. It might be difficult. Very difficult. But, the alternative is even harder in the long-term. Of course, one shouldn’t sacrifice one’s values. If done properly, I don’t think that would ever happen by defining a single CP. If anything, a person would have a better idea of what his values are and where they belong in his life. I think that’s a very good thing.

  • http://twitter.com/JaredRhoads Jared Rhoads

    There is one more place where Ayn Rand may have provided a clue. During the Q&A of the 1969 Ford Hall Forum, a questioner asked, “What is your purpose in life?” She responded:

    “My purpose is to enjoy my life in a rational way: to use my mind to the greatest extent possible; to pursue, admire, and support human greatness; to make all my choices rationally; to expand my knowledge constantly. That’s a pretty ambitious program, and I’ve achieved most of it.” [Ayn Rand Answers, ed. Mayhew, p231]

    She did not specifically use the term “central purpose,” but I don’t think that changes anything. The interesting thing, to me, is how abstract this particular formulation is. It implies there can be lots of leeway for finding and integrating particular pursuits to serve these multiple themes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Lewis/100000672376450 David Lewis

      She also gives us clues in “The Goal of my Writing.” What I find interesting is that throughout, all of the answers she gives when the topic comes up (which get progressively more detailed to the point where she says she’s “primarily both” in regards to being a fiction writer and a philosopher) seem to be action-oriented which I’ve often thought was not a coincidence given the views presented in the VOS. None of these are a statement of being, but rather a statement of doing. I think that is very significant.

  • James

    I think the important thing to remember is that values are hierarchical, not mutually exclusive. I love geology–but sometimes I need to not do geology, in order to do it better (ever stare down a microscope for 10 hours a day, days on end? You can feel the sanity draining out of you…). Since I can’t persue my primary value, I persue a secondary one–say, jewelry making. If I can’t do either of those, I do a tertiary value–say, playing a videogame with a friend. The value hierarchy prevents moral conflicts, because I’ve got a rational system to determine which values trump which other values. I don’t feel guilty leaving my wife to work in the field for a week, because my career trumps my wife (that conversation went about as you’d expect, but I have gotten her to see my point, and agree with me). This isn’t new; it’s merely a rewording of what I understand to be a central component of the GTD system: know what you’re not doing and accept it. A central purpose doesn’t mean, and CANNOT mean, “the only thing you ever do ever”. Even Rand acknowledged that–Dagney Taggart listened to music; Hank Rearden had that jade vace, family, and a minor friendship; and everyone in Galt’s Gulch had their month’s vacation. For these people the levels of the hierarchy were pretty far apart–Rearden’s family wasn’t CLOSE to the value that his work was to him, for example–but that doesn’t negate the central concept. Each had time they couldn’t spend persuing their main value, and therefore they spent it persuing other values, based on a rational hierarchy of values. In my model, the primary value is your central purpose–it’s the one that trumps everything else. The rest are less central. It’s up to each of us to choose how far from the center a value can be before we stop considering it vital. I guess you could say that how many vital values one has is an optional value–the number can be anywhere from 1 to “all of them”, rationally.

   
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