This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 1.
Author’s note: This is chapter 5 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), which is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism. Chapters 1–4 were reprinted in the prior four issues of TOS.
In chapter 4, we saw the life-or-death importance of productive work and, more fundamentally, of rational thinking. We also discovered what emotions are, where they come from, and what they mean. Finally, we observed and contrasted the crucial yet distinct roles of reason and emotion in human life and happiness. We will now capitalize on these truths. In this chapter, we turn to the question of how to make life meaningful. And the key word here is: make.
Life does not come with ready-made meaning; we are not born with pre-packaged purpose. If we want our life to be meaningful, we have to make it so.
Our life is a process of self-generated, goal-directed action—action that, because we have free will, is generated by us toward goals chosen by us. The meaning of our life is a function of the goals we choose to pursue—that is, our purposes.
A purpose is a conscious, intentional goal—a goal chosen and pursued for a desired outcome. A rational purpose is a purpose that promotes one’s life—such as getting an education, developing a career, engaging in a hobby, building a romantic relationship, or raising one’s children. These are the kinds of goals that make life meaningful.
For example, consider a college student who chooses his major carefully, goes to class regularly, and takes his studies seriously. He is selfishly after something; he is acting purposefully toward a life-promoting end. In so doing, he adds meaning to his life in the form of value-achievements—such as increased knowledge, improved judgment, and an earned diploma. By contrast, consider a college student who picks a major at random, frequently skips class to “hang out” in the coffee shop, and studies just enough to “get by.” He is not selfishly after anything; he is not acting purposefully toward a life-promoting end. Consequently, he achieves nothing of value; he adds no meaning to his life. Even if he happens to receive a diploma, it will be meaningless, because he did not put anything into it; he did not earn it. Meaningful values are products of purposeful efforts. They have to be earned.
In regard to career, suppose a young office clerk decides that he wants to manage the company for which he works. He commits himself to learning everything he can about the business, constantly asks himself what can be done to improve operations, develops innovative ideas, presents them to his superiors, and seizes every opportunity to excel. Not surprisingly, over the course of some interesting, action-packed years, he makes his way to the top—where he does not stop: Once there, he strives to take the company to ever greater heights. Here is a person acting purposefully and, as a result, making his days and years exciting, inspiring, and rewarding—filling his life with meaning.
Now, contrast him to a young office clerk with the same potential, but who sets no such goals, takes no such actions, and stagnates as a clerk for the rest of his life. What will be the meaning of his days and years? What spiritual values will he achieve by means of his lethargy? The answer is obvious.
The meaning of one’s life is determined by the choices one makes and the effort one exerts. Whether one’s life is meaningful or meaningless depends on whether or not one chooses to be rational and purposeful.
Of course, irrational choices and actions may be said to have negative meaning—in that they have anti-life consequences. But this does not grant them any moral validity. Taking life-destroying actions is not a means to an “alternative lifestyle.” Acting against one’s life and long-term happiness is not another way to live; it is only a way to die.
Observe further, in this connection, that there is no such thing as a “neutral” goal or value. . . .