In this reflection on productive work as a central value, David Kelley discusses the relationship of achievement to other global values in life.
A cardinal principle of the Objectivist ethics is that, in Ayn Rand’s words, “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.”
This principle is distinctive to Objectivism. Most codes of ethics regard work as a mere economic necessity, devoid of moral significance. Ayn Rand was virtually unique among philosophers in making productive work, which plays a central role in most people’s lives, a central value in her morality. At the beginning of Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers recalls a childhood conversation with Dagny Taggart.
To hold achievement as a global value is to take satisfaction in the act of building, making, discovering, solving problems.
“You ought to do something great...I mean, the two of us together.” “What?” she asked. He said, “I don’t know. That’s what we ought to find out. Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains.... The minister said last Sunday that we must always reach for the best within us. What do you suppose is the best within us?”
By the end of the novel, Eddie knows the answer to that question. “I said, ‘not business or earning a living’... but, Dagny, business and earning a living and that in man which makes it possible—that is the best within us, that was the thing to defend.”
Productive work expresses “the best within us” because it reflects man’s basic relationship to reality: the use of reason to create the values his survival requires. Productive work, as Ayn Rand put it, “is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence,” a process “of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values.” Productive achievement expresses “the best within us” because it requires the exercise of intelligence, imagination, courage, integrity, commitment, and every other virtue of a rational ethic. Indeed, the Objectivist ethic can best be described as the moral code of man-the-creator.
The existential benefits of production are obvious. Man’s productive achievements, especially during our industrial era, have made possible a vast increase in health, safety, and comfort for a vastly increased number of people. The psychological benefits are less tangible, but no less real. Insofar as work provides a living, it satisfies our need for a sense of independence and efficacy. Productive work can also satisfy our need to be fully engaged, to be challenged, to exercise our abilities to the fullest. It can satisfy our need for a sense of accomplishment, of pride in creating something we value.
For all these reasons, it is obvious why productive achievement is an important value. But why is it the central value, the value that “integrates and determines the hierarchy of all [one’s] other values”?
Surely this does not mean that one must devote every waking hour to work, nor that art, sex, friendship, and other values can be justified only insofar as they inspire greater productive efforts. Then what does the principle mean? And what reason do we have for accepting it?
I have never been satisfied with the treatment of this principle in the Objectivist literature. As a personal matter, I share the outlook on life expressed by the principle. As a philosopher, however, I have never been convinced that its meaning has been defined precisely, or its truth established by solid proof. It is still too soon to speak of proof. But I think we can shed some light on the issue by considering it from a new perspective.
If we want to know whether or not productive work “determines the hierarchy” of our other values, it would be useful to know what those other values are. Of course people differ tremendously in the particular things they value, as a result of differences in interest, ability, circumstance, and countless other factors. To formulate ethical principles, we need to abstract from these differences, and consider the values we have in common. Even so, there are common values at different levels of abstraction, and it makes a difference which level we consider.
One level of abstraction is suggested by the lines from the theme song of the movie Casablanca:
It’s still the same old story,
A fight for love and glory,
A case of do or die
Love and glory, like fame and fortune, represent a category of important values—a category which also includes such values as art, knowledge, work, recreation, friendship, and family. These are objective and universal values, because they fulfill basic human needs. They are cases of “do or die,” in the sense that, according to Objectivism, they are among the requirements for the survival of a rational being. These values serve as lifelong goals that guide our choice of actions day by day. In addition to their practical utility, they offer intrinsic rewards as ingredients of a happy life.
But is work the most important value on this list? Is it the central value, in the sense that everything else depends on and must be organized around it?
For most people, work does have primacy in a practical sense: without an income, it is impossible to pursue any of the other values. For those who have found a career they love, work may also be the psychological center of their lives, the source and expression of their deepest sense of personal identity. But life is too varied to sustain any universal moral principle at this level. Some people inherit wealth, or achieve financial independence at an early age, or are provided for in some other way that frees them from the need to have a job. Of those who do need to work for a living, some never find the kind of job in which they can invest themselves fully, and turn to other areas of their lives—such as raising a family, or volunteer work for a cause—to find the psychological satisfactions that work might otherwise have provided.
We have to look deeper to understand the meaning of the Objectivist principle. And there is a deeper, more fundamental level of values. The things that we have discussed pertain to specific areas of life. But there are global values that cut across these areas, and that define the particular kind of satisfaction people take in their work, in their families, in the acquisition of knowledge, etc. These global values integrate the different areas of our lives, providing common themes, coloring everything we do and everything we feel.
Global values provide the fundamental level of motivation for the pursuit of specific values. As Ayn Rand pointed out, life or death is the basic alternative we face. The entire phenomenon of values and valuing arises from the conditional nature of life, and life itself is the ultimate value. We rarely face this alternative directly; for most of us, thankfully, life-or-death situations do not occur very often. But as self-directed beings who possess free will, we do have a constant need to maintain and renew our conscious commitment to our lives as ongoing enterprises.
That is what the choice to live means in ordinary contexts, and the content of that choice depends on our conception of what things are worth living for. This is the level at which global values operate. It is the pursuit of such values that makes us feel life is worth living. They give us our deepest, most encompassing sense of purpose. They integrate the different areas of our lives, providing a common theme, coloring everything we are and do. The global values that we hold are experienced as ends in themselves—as self-evident, unquestionable goods.
What do I want out of life?
We can identify such values by asking: what do I want out of life? What is it that gives my life meaning, and would leave me feeling empty and aimless if it were taken away? As a matter of psychological fact, there are a limited number of possible answers to this question. A value must have a certain degree of breadth and fundamentality if it is to provide meaning—even a distorted or irrational sense of meaning—to an entire life.
To illustrate this level of fundamentality, consider these answers to our question, and the associated values:
Power: I want to be in charge, I want to run things, I want to be a leader, somebody who shapes the destiny of others.
Prestige: I want approval and respect from others, I want to be famous, to be admired, to be somebody important.
Enjoyment: I want to enjoy myself, to taste experience, to live life to the fullest.
Virtue: I want to be good, to do the right thing, to be honest and fair, to be a person of unimpeachable character.
Achievement: I want to discover, to build, to create something, to make a difference in the world, to leave my mark.
This list is not definitive, but I believe that it includes the most common sources of meaning in people’s lives. And every one of them can be a legitimate element in a meaningful life, an aspect of what is worth living for. But achievement has “pride of place” among them. Each of the other values is legitimate, and can contribute to happiness, only if it is held and pursued in the proper relationship to achievement. That is the meaning of the principle that achievement is a central value.
To understand the differences among them and the way they underlie and color our pursuit of specific values, let us consider how they apply to life on the job.
It was not the joy of building that sustained Peter Keating in his career, but the expectation of approval and admiration.
In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating works primarily as a means of acquiring prestige. It was not the joy of building that sustained him in his career, but the expectation of approval and admiration, the status he would enjoy in the eyes of others. For Gail Wynand, by contrast, work was primarily a means of acquiring and exercising power. He created his publishing empire as a means of exerting control over others; his motto, “I Do,” was an answer to everyone who had ever told him, “You don’t run things around here.” There are also people who take an essentially hedonist view of work as enjoyment, who play on the job without much concern for the value of what they are doing, and stick with a task only as long as it amuses them. And there are people who work out of a sense of moral duty, who experience their productive efforts as cold and thankless offerings to the Protestant work ethic, or to the Objectivist virtue of productiveness.
Finally, of course, there are people who work for the sake of achievement, who take intrinsic satisfaction in the act of producing and for whom all other rewards are secondary. These are people who understand what Howard Roark meant when he said to Keating, about their secret agreement to build Cortlandt Homes, “You’ll get everything society can give a man. You’ll keep all the money. You’ll take any fame or honor anyone might want to grant. You’ll accept such gratitude as the tenants might feel. And I—I’ll take what nobody can give a man, except himself. I will have built Cortlandt.”
In the broadest sense, achievement means the creation of values. To hold achievement as a global value is to take satisfaction in the act of building, making, discovering,solving problems. If we understand work in the sense of what one does to earn a living, then achievement is a broader, more fundamental value than work. It is an achievement to raise children, to maintain a home, to sustain a happy marriage, to organize neighbors for a civic cause, to overcome a physical handicap or psychological problem. Regardless of the field of activity, an achiever is a doer: someone who projects a goal, who takes responsibility for bringing it about, and who takes pride in doing it well.
To hold achievement as a central value is to give it pride of place among the other global values. Each of the other global values can be a legitimate element in a meaningful life, but only if held and pursued in the proper relationship to achievement. Detached from that relationship, it conflicts with one or more of the requirements of successful living, and is thus incompatible with full happiness. To understand why, let us consider the other values in turn.
Power is the ability to influence the actions of other people. It need not involve the use of coercion; people can be influenced by economic, intellectual, or psychological means as well. Power can be a legitimate goal and object of concern for those whose primary aim is productive achievement. Many enterprises require large numbers of people to work together, over extended periods of time, toward common goals. Ideally, cooperation springs from each individual’s autonomous commitment to the goal and agreement about the proper means. But agreement and common commitment do not occur by magic. They must be deliberately sought and maintained through the use of the arts of power: the ability to persuade, to inspire, to exercise authority, to build consensus and discourage factions. Wherever possible, it is best to lead by persuasion, explaining the reasons for a given course of action. But life does not always proceed at the pace of a philosophy seminar. In a military battle, in a ship at sea in a storm, people must act together as a unit under the command of a leader who does not have time to explain. Most organizations require the exercise of such authority to some extent. The point is that if one’s goal requires the cooperation of others, it is rational to seek the appropriate forms of power.
The pursuit of power as an end in itself, as a central value—is corrupt.
But the pursuit of power outside this context—the pursuit of power as an end in itself, as a central value—is corrupt. The person who makes power his central value sees life in terms of power relationships; he strives constantly for dominance; he lives for the experience of running things, being in charge, shaping the destiny of others. Even if the means he employs are physical, it is ultimately the consciousness of others that concerns him: their willingness to obey, to submit, to give him the experience of control. His power must be maintained by bribes and threats, so he must cater to the hopes and fears of those he would control. In fact, therefore, he is controlled by the contents of their consciousness, which take precedence over his own perception of reality. As Gail Wynand discovered, “a leash is only a rope with a noose at both ends.”
The same pattern can be seen in those who hold prestige as their central value. Prestige consists in the positive opinion of others, in acceptance and approval, fame, honor, status. Peter Keating is the archetype of those for whom this value is central. Like those who live for power, the Keatings of this world live second-hand lives. Their primary business is to discover and conform to the values, expectations, beliefs, wishes, and fears of others, at the cost of their own independence.
The need to act on one’s own independent judgment, however, does not negate the fact that we are social animals, that most of our projects involve interaction with others. For that reason, it is legitimate to want recognition of our accomplishments, as an expression of the fact that others share our standards, that we are not living among ciphers moved by alien beliefs and values, that our social environment is intelligible. On a more practical level, it is legitimate to defend one’s reputation against libel, slander, and other insults; and to cultivate one’s reputation by devoting some effort to making the relevant facts known to those whose judgment one respects. Reputation is an asset that we earn by our past actions, and since we live by trade with others, it is an important source of opportunities for future gain—in all areas of our lives, not merely in our work.
To hold enjoyment as a global value is to operate on the principle of hedonism. This view of life is not limited to those who seek constant stimulation by food, drink, and sex. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said that we should seek enjoyment in serenity, a quiet life of moderate pleasures. Another form of the same basic principle is represented by the adventurer, who seeks the stimulant of risk. And another form can be seen in the connoisseur, who seeks refinement in his pleasures. Thus enjoyment as a central value may take many different forms. What unites them all is the attitude that the meaning of life lies in the enjoyment, the experience, of things that are regarded as values.
Enjoyment pursued as a primary value has a hollow core.
And that is the problem with making enjoyment one’s central value. There is a passive element in enjoyment; it is a response to values. But life is action, and control over one’s life requires active engagement with the world on one’s own terms. Someone who pursues enjoyment as a central value tends to discover at some point that his life has not added up to anything, that he has drifted along without leaving a wake. Enjoyment pursued as a primary value has a hollow core, unlike the kind of enjoyment that is a response to values one has created. It is pleasing to see a beautiful garden, but there is a much deeper sort of pleasure in the sight of a garden one has designed, planted, and cultivated oneself.
Those for whom virtue is a global value see life in essentially moral terms. For a person of this type, the most important thing is to be a good person, to have a good character, to know that he has done the right thing. This attitude is explicitly endorsed by other-worldly religious codes of ethics, according to which the purpose of this life is the purification of the soul through the acquisition of virtue. But there are many secular versions as well, such as the insistence on “politically correct” forms of speech as a sign of egalitarian purity. Indeed, any code of ethics, including Objectivism, can provide the content for virtue as a central value.
It is the act of creating value that reflects the best within us, and is the center of a happy life.
The problem with this outlook is that virtue is not in fact its own reward. Virtue consists in the rules of conduct, the traits of character, that are required for living successfully. To make virtue one’s highest end is to focus inward, forgetting that the purpose of virtue is to help us to live in the world. Virtue becomes a matter of duty, not cause and effect. Such people tend to become crabbed and cautious, more concerned with avoiding moral errors than with getting anything done. This is not to say that virtue is merely an instrument. Because we are beings of self-made soul, because our character is itself a crucial achievement, virtue ought to be a source of satisfaction in its own right—and a matter of concern in any action we take. But it nevertheless must take second place to achievement as a global value.
Unlike power and prestige, whose proper role is largely instrumental, virtue and enjoyment are intimately connected with achievement, and I do not mean to slight their importance. For example, there are many people who are so focused on achievement that they never stop to enjoy life. Always sowing, never reaping, they never fully experience the significance of what they have accomplished. It is equally wrong to cut moral corners in the name of achievement, sacrificing virtue on the altar of creation. Indeed, the art of living well is in large part a matter of finding the proper balance among these three values—a balance that varies among the different areas and periods of one’s life.
In the end, however, it is the act of creating value that reflects the best within us, and is the center of a happy life.
Originally Published in IOS Journal Volume 3, Number 1, March 1993; and Number 2, May 1993
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.