Chapter 3

Essential acts and necessities

I will get to what might be called "potential values" (things that could be values) and a classification of different kinds of values later; but now I want to clear up something that I mentioned at the beginning of the discussion on importance.

Let me begin with a few definitions:

An essential act is one without which a human being cannot be human.

An absolutely essential act is one which, if not performed, results in death.

A relatively essential act is one by which, if it is unable to be performed, the person is dehumanized.

A relatively essential act is more essential if the dehumanization implied in its deprivation is greater.

Dehumanization is being forced to do less than what is implied in one's human genetic potential as human.

A necessity is a means toward an essential act.

An absolute necessity is that without which a person dies.

A relative necessity is that without which a person is dehumanized.

A relative necessity is a greater necessity if it leads to a more essential act.

There is a certain parallelism, as you can see, between essential acts and goals and necessities and values; but there are significant differences. There is no such thing as an "absolute" goal, because all goals are freely chosen, and so the lack of a given goal won't destroy you. But if you can't breathe, for instance, you die.

But before going further into the distinction between goals and essential acts and values and necessities, let me make clear what I mean by "dehumanization," since it is a word that is tossed around pretty freely nowadays; some people even think that if there is any disparity in income, the ones on the short end are dehumanized--and this, I hasten to say, is just not true.

When the unifying energy of the body builds the body, based on the pattern in the human genetic structure, it builds certain organs which have definite functions in relation to the whole. These, of course, are our faculties. The acts we can perform because we have these faculties are our genetic potential.

But the genetic structure of the initial cell is not only the pattern for the faculties we have in common with the rest of mankind, it also determines individual differences like height, metabolic rate, musculature, and so on. The individual differences insofar as they are based on our genes, are our individual genetic potential; but the ability we have to act that is common to human beings as such is the human genetic potential.

In either case, since we are free and these are faculties, we can develop them to a greater or lesser extent--or even, supposing there to be no contradiction involved, choose not to develop them at all, as when a person chooses to be celibate, even though the ability to reproduce is part of the human genetic potential. But this freedom is not the issue here; every exercise of freedom in a social context restricts to some extent others' freedom to develop themselves, and so if it were immoral to prevent any development of another, we could not act at all.

The problem comes in preventing someone from doing what his human genetic potential allows him to do. If you happen to have special innate ability as a pianist or basketball player, you are not being dehumanized if you are prevented from taking piano lessons or participating in basketball. I remember one student at Xavier University I met and asked whether he was still scoring as well as usual. His face became as long as his body as he answered, "I'm academically ineligible this semester." He was not able to realize (for that semester) his genetic potential in basketball; but this was not dehumanization--far from it, in my opinion, given the grounds for his ineligibility.

The reason being unable to fulfill your individual genetic potential is not dehumanization is that this sort of fulfillment deals with not just being human but being the special example of humanity that you choose to be. Hence, this is precisely the realm of self-creativity (in spite of the fact that your body makes certain acts easier than others), and isn't essential to your being human. I talked about this in Chapter 4 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.4, in discussing what life is all about, where I mentioned that the talents we have been given have no imperative connected with them that would make us choose as a goal the life style that they make easy. If you have potential as a basketball player, and you want to do something else with your life, this is up to you; it is just that the talent will give you an edge over normal people if you choose this life style.

But there is a certain minimal development of our abilities that we cannot, generally speaking, avoid choosing without doing positive damage to ourselves; and this is what is meant by the "human genetic potential" as opposed to the individual one. If you refuse to eat, for instance, or refuse to eat a balanced diet, you make yourself sick and cannot do what any normal human being can be expected to do just because he is human; if you put out your eyes and cannot see, you cannot do what a human being can do because he is human.

And if anyone else forces you into a situation like this, he is dehumanizing you.

Conclusion 7: Where depriving a person of being able to do what he is capable of doing becomes dehumanization is where the act prevented is one which any human being could be expected to be able to do just because he is human.

This is still rather fuzzy, because in practice we get the notion of what "human beings can do as human" from what for practical purposes everybody we observe actually does. Hume made much of the fact that we know "human nature" from observation of actual acts of human beings, and that this didn't give us an absolute grasp on it; but he concluded from this that there's no such thing.

But that is silly (as even Hume in practice held, since he said that reason cannot motivate the will based on his--faulty--analysis of what the structure of the human being was). If a person can't see at all, what sense does his having eyes make? If, like my father, his seeing is so fuzzy that he can't recognize people or read anything but a newspaper headline six inches in front of his face, (and consequently has to read through his fingers) then isn't he also blind? The fact that we can't answer the question of when this relative blindness becomes less-than-perfect vision shouldn't blind our minds to the fact that there's a division there somewhere. And the same goes for any other human trait.

Of course, the individual genetic potential is not the formation of some special organ, but only the greater-than-normal strength of some organ like the ones everyone possesses. Hence, there's not going to be an absolute, cut-and-dried distinction between what is hypothetically "essential" if you want to be the distinctive human being you have chosen to be and the essential acts in the sense of those whose deprivation makes you less than human.

What I am saying is that dehumanization occurs at the level of the minimum that can be expected of any human being. And we find this minimum by observing what "practically everybody" can do, and setting this as our "zero" for humanity, saying that below this level, the person is so limited that he is a kind of less-than-human human being. Just as below the freezing point of water, things are considered cold by just about everybody, it makes sense (as the Celsius scale does) to put the zero for heat at this temperature, and consider everything below it as "negative heat" or "coldness," even though, from there down to zero on the Kelvin scale, there ontologically is still heat (molecular motion). We saw this in discussing the problem of evil in Chapter 12 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.12. To say that there's no such thing as coldness because the Kelvin scale doesn't admit of negatives (zero is molecular rest, and there's no anti-motion) is just to be silly. Relative terms have meaning, even though, obviously, not absolute meaning.

But in practice the fact that this positioning of the "zero" for human ability to act, making the dividing line between the human genetic potential and the individual genetic potential (talent) is not objectively fixed (and is not even in principle objectively fixable) means that the point at which dehumanization occurs will vary from era to era and culture to culture.

That is, what "practically everybody" can do in the United States today is something that kings couldn't do as little as a hundred fifty years ago. I once drove with my son to Texas, a trip of twelve hundred miles, which we did in two days, in comfort though the air outside the car was over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and with enough quiet so that we could converse in normal tones with each other; not to mention that we had the world's greatest orchestras at our disposal whenever we didn't want to talk. It was considered enormous hardship that I chose to return on the bus, spending thirty consecutive hours to get back to Cincinnati. Louis XIV should have had it so good. If he wanted to go from Paris to Versailles, it would have taken him almost as long, and the jolting and discomfort would be something no human being nowadays should be forced to endure.

There are certain things, however, which, no matter what age you are in, can be called dehumanization. Blinding or crippling a person is obviously to dehumanize him, irrespective of the culture he lives in; so this zero below which dehumanization occurs is not infinitely flexible, and cannot just be set anywhere short of death.

But above this "relatively absolute" zero which is cross-cultural(1), there is the zero which depends on the culture's development, where for practical purposes everyone in the culture can do something, and consequently forcing someone not to be able to do it is dehumanizing him. For instance, "everyone" in our culture can have a television set if he wants one; and so if a person is so poor that he can't afford even a second-hand television, then he's living a less-than-human life; while in India or Bangladesh, say, having your own television set is a luxury that relatively few enjoy. Hence, depriving a person of one in those countries is not dehumanization, because this wouldn't be preventing him from doing what "for practical purposes everyone" can do, and what he could be expected to do because he is a human being.

A further distinction must be made here, however. It would be strange indeed to say that watching television is an essential act, in the sense that if you don't do it, you are less than human in the present-day United States. If anything, given the quality of programming, it would be the other way round. Still, a person who is so poor that he couldn't watch television if he wanted to is, it would seem to me, in a dehumanized condition.

What is the solution here? Since we are human beings who can set goals for themselves, it follows that it is dehumanizing if a person has no flexibility in choosing what to do, and must spend all his time simply surviving.

Thus, a certain minimum of what is not essential is essential to being human, because otherwise the human being is not in practice free. Hence, while the actual act itself, like watching television, is not essential, it is essential to have a certain minimal set of such acts to be able in practice to choose among, or you have no room to exercise your freedom. You may choose not to have a television set, but may spend your time in the park instead, or reading a book, or whatever, depending on your idea of what yourself is; and, depending on the culture, a greater or lesser number of these options must be available to you or you are dehumanized.

Conclusion 8: It is essential for a human being as free that a certain number of non-essential options be available to him to choose among.

Dehumanization, in other words, is another name for harm or damage. The person who has no options at all beyond bare survival is damaged in his freedom because he is a free person who cannot morally exercise his freedom. Hence, a person who is by circumstances or human agency dehumanized is in that self-contradictory position I talked about in Chapter 12 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.12 in discussing the problem of evil. It is not, as I said, an actual contradiction, because it depends on our standards, which we set up (in this case, with the justification that "practically everyone" can do such-and-such); but, relative to our standards, it is a contradiction. And since each of us is human and therefore does have a human genetic potential in common with others, we have a moral obligation not to force anyone to live below the minimum implied in this human genetic potential, even though it is not possible to fix this absolutely and perfectly accurately--especially since there must be this flexibility in allowing a choice among a certain number of acts which are not in themselves essential.

The culture defines how large this minimal set of options is to be in economic terms.

The poverty level of a given culture is that level of financial resources such that below it the person does not have the minimum ability to choose that "everyone" in the culture has.

We will see in the next section in discussing economics how money is a certain quantification of the ability to act; but since money doesn't pick out which act you are to perform, it is also a quantification of freedom to act. And as we were just saying, a certain minimum level of freedom is essential for human life; and the poverty level in a given culture defines the zero for this aspect of humanity.

Now then, it is pretty obvious (to me, anyway) that no harm was done the young basketball player by keeping him away from the sport for a semester so that he could pass his courses; even though it disappointed him and perhaps even angered him. It might not even be doing to harm to him if he were not permitted to play basketball at all, since he has no right to be a basketball player specifically. Depriving a person of a given one of the non-essential options is legitimate, because if it weren't, then the non-essential option would be essential, which is a contradiction. It is that there must be some set of non-essentials open to a person.

But this set of non-essential options that is essential for people to have does not have to include the particular act that the person "really wants" for himself, because that would imply that a person has a right (can't be prevented) from realizing his choice in this life. But since people's choices often are in conflict (as witness all the candidates who choose to be President in any given election), this would be impossible.

Hence, it is not essential in this life that we realize our goals in order to be free and to set them; what is essential is that we not be put into a position that we have no room to maneuver in this life at all. In fact, one of the effects of not being able to do anything but survive is that a person doesn't set goals for himself, because he realizes that it is futile to do so from what he can see of his life realistically. Given some room actually to choose what he wants to be, then he can recognize what it means to be human, and it is more possible for him to set goals that might not be able to be realized in this life, but will be fulfilled after he dies.

This is a tricky area to sort out in practice; but it seems to me that the basics are true. We don't have a right to become what we want to be, nor do we have a right to "equal opportunity with everyone else" to become what we want to be--because no damage to us as human is done by depriving us of these, notwithstanding what our society happens to think. I will discuss this in terms of rights in the next section. Nevertheless, we have a right to what is essential to us as human, because otherwise we are human beings who can't do what is minimally human.

And here is where we get into the real distinction between essential acts and important ones. There are five fundamental differences between them.

First, we have a right to be able to perform essential acts; we have no right to be able to achieve our goals.

Rights, as we will see later, are based on our self-determination as persons; but the claim of a given right is based on being able to show that a contradiction in one's present being occurs by being forced not to do the act. It is not exactly the same as dehumanization, because, for example, my driver's license gives me the right to drive a car in Ohio; and clearly this is not something I have because of the genetic potential I have in common with every other human being. But the agreement I made with the State of Ohio is contradicted (violated) if I have fulfilled my part of the bargain and Ohio refuses to let me drive.

We will get into this thorny question later, as I said. But since any dehumanization is a contradiction of one's human genetic potential, then, even though not all rights are human rights, every case of dehumanization is a violation of a right (the right we have precisely as human). But essential acts define what is and is not dehumanization; therefore we have a right to perform all essential acts.

But we have no right to be allowed to be the kind of being we want or choose to be. The fact that someone wants to be an actor does not mean that some theater or studio has to hire him; whereas if a person is dying of thirst, to refuse to give him water (supposing that you aren't dehumanizing yourself by doing so) is in effect to kill him.

The point, then, is that when we are talking about essential acts, not to do something positive to enable those acts, supposing that it is in your power to do so is to connive in the dehumanization of the person, and is the same thing, in other words, as actively to injure the other person. And this is morally wrong, as we will see when we discuss ethics.

Clearly, the more essential the act the person is deprived of, the more serious the damage done to him. Depriving a person of breathing kills him; depriving him of sight is not that serious, but is very serious in comparison, say, with depriving him of a television set.

No exact quantitative measure can be put on seriousness of damage done, which is one of the things that makes lawyers rich and manufacturers, among others, nervous. It is the subjective standards of the jury, as things in our country now exist, which determines degree of damage; and a clever lawyer can work on their emotions so that the degree of compensation can be bizarre to most normal people.

I am not proposing any solution to this problem, if indeed it is a problem, and if it has a solution; the point I am making here is that (a) damage can be done from preventing essential acts as well as by some kind of attack on a person, (b) the seriousness of the damage depends on how essential is the act that the person is prevented from doing, and (c) that there is no objective criterion for determining how essential the acts are and therefore how serious the damage is.

There is, or there should be, some set of community standards (analogous to market price in the case of economic values) for assessing when damage is done and how serious the damage is; and if we can do pretty well in the market with quantifying what is in itself not quantified, then there should be some way to get a fairly good consensus on a rough-and-ready quantification of damage done upon a person.

In any case, the second difference between essential acts and goals is that a person may not morally choose to deprive himself of an essential act, except only to avoid depriving himself of something more or at least equally essential. A person may, however, give up any goal he wishes.

Since goals are freely chosen to begin with, they can just as freely be given up, either to pursue other goals, to do something which is essential, or simply because we find we are not interested in them any more. But essential acts are not like this; when we give them up, we are dehumanizing ourselves, or doing damage to ourselves. Just as depriving another person of food and water is to kill him, so to refuse to eat or drink is to choose to die, and, as we will see in discussing ethics, this contradicts our nature as living. Similarly, to refuse to eat a balanced diet, so that you become sick, is to choose to put yourself in a position where as human you can do certain acts which you can't do because of your neglect of your body. That is, it is one thing to refuse to do an act which you have the power to do; it is another thing to deprive yourself of the power to do it. You didn't give yourself the power; and so removing it is a self-contradictory exercise of your freedom.

Now this sort of thing can be legitimate if, using the Principle of the Double Effect (to be discussed when we discuss ethics), the deprivation of the power or the essential act is an unchosen side-effect of doing something that prevents an equal or more serious deprivation. The point here is that in circumstances when this sort of thing is legitimate, you have no way out that doesn't involve damage of some sort, because the act which attempts the avoidance of one type of damage has as its effect the other type of damage. Hence, what you are doing here is choosing away from the greater damage, not actually choosing the damage done, because no matter what you do, there's no way to avoid damage altogether.

So, for instance, you might have to have your arm amputated to get rid of gangrene, which will kill you. You are depriving yourself of your ability to pick up things; but the alternative is to die; so if you don't cut your arm off, you are in effect choosing to kill yourself. Obviously an absolutely essential act is greater than a relatively essential one; and so morally speaking you would have to choose the amputation.

Let us draw a conclusion here:

Conclusion 9: It is immoral to deprive oneself of any essential act, however small, for the sake of achieving any goal, however important.

No matter how important the goal may be to you, it is still something you have freely chosen and may freely give up; but every essential act is out of the realm of your free choice, because its deprivation involves you in self-contradiction; hence, none of them may be given up for any goal. Another way of saying this is that you cannot morally do damage, even the smallest damage, to yourself to achieve any goal, however important it may be. The end does not justify the means. The reason, as we saw briefly in Chapter 4 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.4 and will see again in discussing ethics, is that choosing to contradict yourself implies a self-contradictory goal, and therefore some degree of frustration; but this frustration is eternal, and therefore cannot be compared with the temporal achievement of what you have gained by it (which would be fulfilled eternally if you had it as a goal but could not achieve it here without being immoral).

The third difference between essential acts and goals is connected with what was just said: it is that essential acts are not important; goals are important.

That is, essential acts are not in the same category as goals at all. In the first place, essential acts are presupposed, not purposes to be striven for; every human being, simply as human, can take for granted that he has the human abilities, like being able to breathe, that come with simply being human. What we pick as goals, however are precisely not something that we are bound to have just because we are human, but something that is distinctively our own, making us this human being rather than some other. This latter is what is important to us; the former is just a given. So if we can do the essential acts, we (rightly) do not consider this as of any consequence; it is as if hydrogen would be happy about the fact that it has the spectrum it has. We have the essential acts just by nature, by what we are; we don't "deserve" them as if we had to work to "earn" them; they are the beginning, not the end of human life, as goals are. So for those who can do essential acts, their importance is zero in comparison with goals.

But secondly, when we can't do essential acts, then we must, as I said, give up all goals in order to be able to do them, because no goal or set of goals can be chosen at the expense of performing any essential act; to do so is, as I said, to choose eternal frustration. Hence, if we are deprived of essential acts, their "importance" is infinite with respect to goals.

This is not to say that essential acts are the "most important of all." That would be to put them in same category as goals, and assume that they have a ranking in importance along with goals, except that they happen to be at the top. But this is not true, as I just got through saying, because in that case, we couldn't take them for granted, as we do, and as we legitimately do. To call essential acts "supremely important" makes them ends, not the starting-point we build from, and this refuses to recognize the reality of the situation. Furthermore, goals are given up for goals of greater importance, which means goals that lead me closer to my ideal self, or which increase my fulfillment. Essential acts are given up to avoid losing more essential acts, which means to avoid a decrease in my reality below the human zero. So the reason for giving one up in order to have another is exactly the opposite in the two categories of acts; and, as we saw in the discussion of the preceding point, there is no crossing of the categories in the direction of giving up essential acts to achieve goals; but the categories must be crossed when it is a question of giving up goals to keep or obtain essential acts.

This is another way of saying that importance is meaningless in relation to essential acts. They are neither "very important" nor "unimportant"; they are either more important than very important or less important than very unimportant--which is what I meant when I said that their "importance" is either infinity or zero. And since their ranking is exactly the opposite (increase in one case, greater deprivation in the other) then they should not be talked about as in any real sense the same, however much they might be some sort of mirror image of each other.

Conclusion 10: Essential acts and goals must not be classified with each other; they are in completely separate categories. Essential acts are essential, not important.

It is a failure to make this distinction (and a failure to recognize the corresponding one to be noted below with respect to necessities and values) that has caused much of the confusion in both Marxist and capitalistic economic theories, and has caused in each case much hardship.

But let me state the fourth point of difference. Necessities are in a class separate from values, and must not be classified with them.

This is one of the discoveries I have made that I think is vital for the world to understand, if it is to make progress and avoid human misery in the process.

Necessities are the means toward essential acts. Given this, then by the first point above, it is morally wrong to withhold necessities from people, because people have a human right to necessities. By the second point, it is immoral for a person to refuse a necessity in order to have enough resources to avail himself of any value. And by the third point, the acts enabled by necessities cannot be classified with the acts enabled by values.

What am I talking about? Benjamin Franklin said, "When the well is dry, we know the worth of water." He was wrong. The proverb should be "When the well is dry, we know that water is beyond worth; when the well is not dry, we know that water is beneath worth."

That is, faced with enough water to stay healthy, we don't want more and more of it (drinking water, that is), except perhaps for security purposes, in case the well goes dry some day. Being hydrated (as the physicians say) is in no sense a goal of ours; it is just something essential for life; and so we have a right as human to drinking water, and enough so that we don't do ourselves damage from thirst. If we don't have enough, then we must give up everything we have to get the amount that will keep us alive. If you are dying of thirst in the desert, and someone has a glass of water and says, "You can have this if you will give me everything you have and all your future income," and if there is no other way to get water, you must agree to his "bargain." Why? Because the alternative is death, and what you are giving up is values--and what good are they to you if you are dead? Hence, the glass of water is worth more than everything you have.

Be careful not to confuse what I am saying with the hypothetical necessity of values. A value is necessary for reaching a given (freely chosen goal), but this "necessity-if" you want the goal is vastly different from what I am talking about. You can't say that water for drinking is a "necessity if" you want to stay alive, because you must "want" to stay alive, in the sense that you are forbidden to choose your death. But life, as I have stressed, is not a goal, but simply essential, and taken as a given to be preserved; and hence, we don't "want" it at all; we have to have it. Similarly, necessities like water are categorically necessary for human beings, not hypothetically so (that is, they just are necessary, not necessary-if something-or-other).

Therefore, the "value" of a necessity is either nothing at all or infinity in comparison with values, just as the importance of an essential act is either nil or infinite; and just as in this case, this means the following:

Conclusion 11: Necessities are of no value; they are neither worthless nor extremely valuable, but are in a different class, unable to be compared with values.

As you can see, this has serious repercussions in economics. In capitalist economics, necessities are classed with values as "very valuable," and the price they command is very high--for the simple reason that those who supply them can demand whatever they please, and they will be paid, up to the limit where greater deprivation occurs because of paying for this necessity. Health care is the most glaring example of this in our country at present. Prices for health care have practically nothing to do with supply and demand, but on what the health-care industry chooses to ask for its services; and the reason is that no one seeks health care because he wants to be better off than he is, but because he needs to be less badly off than he is. If there is something wrong with me, especially something life-threatening, I am at the mercy of those who can correct it; I cannot refuse the service, and I cannot therefore refuse to pay whatever they ask.(2)

So a doctor who says, "You need a heart operation, and that will be sixty thousand dollars up front" is not saying that his time is worth thirty thousand dollars an hour; from the patient's point of view, he is saying, "Give me sixty thousand dollars or die." From the patient's point of view, this statement is the same as the robber who points a gun and says, "Give me your wallet or I'll kill you." The only difference for the patient is that the robber is going to do something that will result in his death, while the doctor is going to avoid something that will prevent the death; but in both cases, if the money is not forthcoming, it's curtains.

But does that mean that doctors must provide their services without compensation? Not at all; this would make them slaves of the people they serve, and would dehumanize them in the process of helping others out of dehumanization. So some compensation is morally necessary for doctors and other providers of necessities, like the people who deliver water to your home. The question is how much.

--And I am going to leave this to the chapter on economics, because the issue is not absolutely simple and straightforward. What I am trying to do here is point out that allowing the marketplace to determine the price of necessities treats necessities as if they were just very valuable values, when in fact this contradicts what both necessities and values are; and transactions of this sort are not "freely entered into" by both parties, any more than the transaction of handing your wallet over to a robber is freely entered into, however much it depended on your choice to do it rather than take your chances at fighting or escaping.

From the point, then, of the person deprived of a necessity, it is infinitely valuable, and cannot be compared with any or even all the values the person has; from the point of the person who has a necessity, it is of no value at all, and is beneath comparison with the values that lead to what is important for him.

Finally, the fifth point of difference is that values, though objective, are relative to the subjective goal of the person who has them; necessities are both objective and relative to the objective humanity of the person.

That is, you can make something not a value simply by giving up the goal it leads to; but since what the necessity leads to is really the maintenance of your human nature as such, you can't give this up, and so you can't get rid of a necessity's being a necessity. There is nothing personal about a necessity, as there is about a value.

Now it is true that relative necessities are related to the particular type of humanity that exists in a given culture; and so they will differ, as I said above, depending on the era and the culture. But this still does not make them subjective in any sense. For instance, the poverty level in a given culture is something objective for the people in that culture, because in fact in that culture "for practical purposes everyone" has enough resources to be able to exercise the range of choice implied in the poverty level, and below that the people in that culture are reduced to simply surviving and are less than human in practice. Hence, even though a television set may not itself be a necessity, and so it is not dehumanization to deprive a person of one; it is objectively dehumanizing in our culture to force a person into such poverty that he couldn't choose to have a television set if he wanted one. It is the financial resources (the money) that is a necessity, not some specific item that the money can buy.

I would like at this point to say a few words about Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand. Kant's moral dictum that human beings must be regarded as ends and never as means can be seen now to be valid; and in fact, what is behind it is the reason why slavery is morally wrong, even if the person is willing to sell himself into slavery--or even if he would prefer to be a slave and avoid responsibility for his acts.

Since the goal of any value is the realization of some human's idea of what is "true self" is, or in other words, is the humanity of the person who has the value, it follows that one's humanity is by definition the end of any value one has. But it is self-contradictory to treat an end as if it were a means; and hence, since each person's humanity is the end of all his values, it is self-contradictory of him to make it over into a mere means toward some other person's humanity, or for the other person to accept that what is an end, just as he is, shall be a means toward his own end.

Hence, as Kant rightly says, we are to treat each other as a community of ends, no person being subordinated to any other as a means toward the other's personal fulfillment.

But this is not to say that a person's actions can't be used by another person as means toward the other's fulfillment, as long as the personhood of the other is not so used. But what does this mean in practice?

First of all, it means that the person must be willing to act for the sake of the other's fulfillment, and not be forced to do so. Otherwise, the person is dehumanized in that he has become a slave. Secondly, since a person, in acting for another's goal is subordinating his reality to the reality of the other person, some compensation must be given him for this subordination, so that he can somehow (in practice by using the services of still others) bring himself up to where he would have been if he hadn't been wasting his time for the other's sake. If compensation is not given him, it is not his action that is being used, but his reality, and he is a slave.

Note here that a person may not want or may even not accept compensation for his service. In that case, since he is doing it willingly without compensation, it is an act of love on his part; and his goal is precisely the fulfillment of the other's goal as other. This is perfectly consistent with being human(3). I am not objectively any more important than anyone else, and so there is no objective reason why, just because I happen to be the agent for my acts, my own fulfillment has to be their goal.

I am not denying the possibility of love, then. What I am saying is that to force a person to love (to serve oneself without compensation) is dehumanizing; and therefore, if services are demanded of another, compensation must be offered, sufficient to offset the loss the other has incurred in performing the service, (including the loss of time he could have spent pursuing his own goals).

With those qualifications, the actions of another can then be values toward goals a person has; and of course, depending on the importance of the goals, the actions of one person may be more or less valuable than those of another. For instance, I would imagine that the actions of Socrates would be more valuable than those of the ordinary philosophy professor if you wanted to learn what your life was about; and you might find the actions of a teacher of business administration more valuable than those of any philosopher (certainly many of my students do).

It is in this sense that one person's life can be said to be analogously "more valuable" than someone else's. If more people want what this person has done with his life, then the actions of his life (his "life" in the secondary sense, as I defined it in Chapter 7 of Section 1 of the third part 3.1.7) are of more value than the actions of some other person who has done nothing for others.

Conclusion 12: The greater or lesser value of a person's "life" in the sense of the usefulness of his actions has nothing to do with the person himself as being a value. Persons are ends, and must never be treated as means.

That is, the fact that we can call one life more valuable than another is only because we are talking about the "life" in the secondary sense, not life in its primary sense, which is the existence of the living being (the existence which is the unifying energy). In this sense, the being in question is never (if it is a person) to be subordinated to any other person, because this would be the self-contradiction of a life's being the means for a life.

Now the fact that the person is his life (because the life is the existence of the person) is the reason why Ayn Rand and her followers have said that "life" is the objective purpose of all actions; and therefore, there is an objective purpose or goal for each person: the preservation of his life.

This is why Rand's philosophy was first called "egoism" (and why she wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness) and was later called "objectivism." But I think it misses the distinction between essential acts and goals.

First of all, I don't think that you can establish that "self-fulfillment" or self-preservation is the goal of living beings' acts as distinguished from inanimate beings' acts. All bodies are so structured, as accidental change shows, that they will return to their ground state if possible when this ground state is disturbed; so there is nothing distinctive in this respect in the living body's preserving itself. The only difference is, really that the living body is preserving an equilibrium which is not its own physico-chemical equilibrium.

Secondly, as both living and inanimate bodies show, this self-preservation is by no means the purpose of all acts of the body. Inanimate bodies undergo substantial change when acted on by energy they can't cope with; and so do living bodies. This is just as "natural" as returning to equilibrium when acted on by lesser amounts of energy. At least, you can't deny it without begging the question, and defining what is natural as what is self-preservative, and what is unnatural as not so. Is it objectively unnatural for hydrogen to destroy itself as such when it combines with oxygen to form water? Or is it the natural thing for it to do when confronted with oxygen? There's no objective answer to this question.

Thirdly, living bodies sometimes--often, in fact--show self-sacrifice for the sake of the species or the offspring and so on. Mother birds will risk danger to themselves to lure predators away from the nest, for instance. There are enough instances of this in the living world that it is by no means clear that self-preservation is the objective purpose of the living body. After all, in the insect world drone bees and the male of black widow spiders by nature sacrifice themselves in the act of mating.

But fourthly, this does not automatically mean that the preservation of the form of life is what is the objective purpose of living bodies. If that were so, then as I pointed out in the section on reproduction in Chapter 6 of Section 1 of the third part 3.1.6, it would be unnatural for living beings to eat the offspring they produce; and yet in many species, this is what normally happens. As I also pointed out there, "life" in the sense of the species is an abstraction, and never exists except as some limited individual case of the form of life (with its matter); and so if the purpose of a living body is the "preservation of life" in the sense of the form of life, this is strange, because it would mean to preserve an abstraction.

And that is why, as you will recall, I defined life as essentially equilibrium and as therefore not having a purpose. It is, and its self-preservation and that mysterious "preservation" that comes through reproduction is at best a pseudo-purpose based on the fact that life is physically and chemically unstable, and existence in equilibrium is not possible (as it is in the inanimate realm) without doing something active about it.

So there is a sense in which it can be said that life presupposes self-preservation, given the physico-chemical instability of the living body; but that does not imply that the preservation of it as life is its goal. The beginning is still not the end; and this is what Rand, I think, missed.

But because, in any human being, the goal chosen will in fact be a definition of the particular "life" that is to be the life of this body (a restriction of it down to being "the person who does this and this and this..."), then Rand is right in saying that, at least in this sense, life is the goal of any human choice. But that's tautological. All that says is that, if you are choosing any goal at all, then by defining what life is to mean for you, you are implicitly choosing your life. Now that will preclude picking as a goal a self-contradiction, for example choosing not to live as your definition of what life is to be for you.

But again, that doesn't mean that "life" in the sense of "the preservation of the form of life" is a goal for you. All it means is that you can't set up a goal as achievable if the goal is in principle unachievable. I can't choose to be a female human being, for instance, though that would "preserve the form of life I have," not because being a woman is not legitimate for a human being, but because what is given in my genes to begin with prevents me from actually being a woman. You see, the self-contradiction comes in choosing something that contradicts what we are given in the beginning, not in the goal as such(4).

Further, it is, as I said, not inconsistent with what is given and with our human nature to choose as a goal the fulfillment of someone else's goal rather than our own, much as Rand might hate the thought of this. She was reacting against the "altruistic" perversion that owes so much to Comte and the Enlightenment that held that self-fulfillment was "selfishness" and somehow bad (with the self-contradictory implication that to do what was good for you was bad for you, because it was good for you alone, whereas to sacrifice yourself--do what was bad for you personally--for the "common good" was somehow supposed to be good for you). It is obviously good for you to do what is good for you, and to seek your own fulfillment. But it is not morally wrong to forego your fulfillment for the sake of another's fulfillment, because objectively you are no more important than anyone else. No one and nothing is objectively more important than anything else, as I said.

It would be immoral to do damage to yourself for the sake of anyone else's fulfillment, because this would be to contradict your given nature for a good purpose; but the end, as we will see, does not justify the means.(5) It is immoral to choose your own harm, just as it is immoral to choose anyone else's harm, because you are no less real or a person than anyone else.(6) Objectively you are just one of the many human beings; and just as they have rights against you, so you have, in a sense, rights against yourself; you can't morally harm yourself any more than you can morally harm anyone else.

But beyond that, just as you need not help anyone else fulfill his particular goal, so you need not pursue any particular goal of your own, and you may morally give uncompensated service to other people. In fact, if you are a parent, you must give uncompensated service to your child, since (a) you caused him to begin to exist, but (b) this implies that his existence is your responsibility as long as he is incapable of existing on his own. And so even if he can't repay you, you have an obligation to nurture him until he can make it as human on his own. Hence, parents must love their children. But beyond this duty, the fact that you initiate your actions does not have any implication that your actions must always be directed to your own fulfillment exclusively.(7)


1. Which could probably be described as depriving a person of the use of his faculties, or destroying the organ itself that is the faculty.

2. This recently was my experience when the doctors told me that funny pain in my chest meant that two of my arteries were blocked, and I could either have the operation now or wait until I had a full-fledged heart attack and died. Needless to say (since I am writing this), I chose the former. But the point is, what choice did I have? I found out later that my hospital stay was some 62 thousand dollars, all but $750.00 of which my insurance paid. But if it hadn't, I would still have to have the operation, and would have gone deeply into debt to pay for it.

3. In fact, what it does for the lover is make the beloved's reality as defined by the beloved a goal in his own life, and thus in his spirit, he is "with" the beloved, and rejoices in the other's fulfillment and is saddened by his frustration. Since this "withness" is in the will, then it is there eternally; and it is by this that we are not alone after death. We are "with" (in the sense that we know the reality of and share the enjoyment of) all those we care about for their own sake, which in practice means those whose goals we are willing to subordinate our own for.

4. Of course, "sex-change" operations do not in fact change one's sex; one still has (or has not) the y-chromosome in every cell, and the skeleton, musculature, and so on of the sex one is; the making of a pseudo-organ and removal of one's sexual organ (together with artificial hormones) only allows one to pretend that one is the other sex.

5. You can, however, using the Principle of the Double Effect, permit (others to do) harm to yourself, in order to avoid a greater harm to someone else. In this sense, Jesus was moral to allow himself to be crucified to save everyone else who wished it from eternal damnation. But, as Jesus's actions show, he could not morally bring it upon himself. For instance, he remained silent until the legitimate authority asked him point-blank if he were the Messiah, and he answered in the affirmative, as he had to do a) because he was commanded, and b) because it was the truthful answer.

6. When one uses the Double Effect, as we will see, the choice is away from evil, not for it, even though the evil is foreseen. But this needs considerable explanation.

7. 7If selflessness or love is the principal Christian virtue, it does not follow that it is the principal philosophical virtue; and this is where the perversion that Rand was rightly reacting against came in. Love as something we ought to do is, in a philosophical context, a contradiction, because the "ought" implies an obligation, which means that you will be worse off (punished) if you don't do it. But the motive, as we will see in the section on ethics, for doing something that is commanded, is that you know what side your bread is buttered on, and you are trying to avoid personal harm. But that makes your own self and its fulfillment/non fulfillment the purpose of your choice--which is obviously inconsistent with loving. That is, if you love in order to be better off, you are not loving. This is the inconsistency I see in Buddhism, for instance. As a philosophy, it contradicts itself because it wants people to love for the sake of their own fulfillment.

It turns out that if you love, then those you care about are with you eternally, and this is fulfilling (for the person who wants this expansion of his person); but you can't love in order to have this personal fulfillment.

Christianity avoids this dilemma, first of all by providing someone lovable to love: someone who has demonstrably done the utmost in loving you; hence, to love him and to imitate his love is rather a call than a command. Secondly, the Christian command is hypothetical: "If you love me, keep my commandments; and this is my commandment: for you to love each other as I have loved you." That is, you show your love for Jesus by your love for every other human being. Thirdly, the self-sacrifice of Christian love is not the willingness to do damage to yourself; even Jesus prayed not to have to undergo his ordeal "if it was possible," and so only bowed to the inevitable, and did not actively seek it. Further, Jesus' sacrifice was seen in the context of the fact that he would not in fact be destroyed but would come back to life, just as that of his followers looks toward a time when "every tear will be wiped away." The Comtean kind of self-sacrifice is not this sort of thing at all; it is subordination of one's reality to that abstraction called "humanity"; and it was perfectly right that Rand and her followers should contemn it.

But the point is that Christian love makes sense only in the context of the supernatural life that goes along with it; in the natural sense, while love is no less human than self-fulfillment, it is certainly no more human than self-fulfillment; and so there is no pull one way or the other in the natural realm. Given the supernatural life, however, following Jesus means "a hundred times as much in this life and life everlasting"--which still can't be a motive for loving, but certainly, once one chooses this life, means that it makes more sense than the alternative.