Letters and Replies, Winter 2009–2010

To the Editor:

Michael Dahlen’s article “The Rise of American Big Government” [TOS, Fall 2009] is a clarifying survey, in essentials, of the interventionism that has eroded freedom in America for more than a century. But as to the alleged economic successes of Reagan and Clinton, weren’t these funded with deficit financing and inflation? I’d like to hear Mr. Dahlen’s thoughts on this.

Stephen Grossman
Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Michael Dahlen replies:

Both Reagan and Clinton financed much of their spending with deficits and inflation. (They financed the rest of it with taxes.) Their economic successes, however, pertain not to the way in which they financed government spending but to the fact that they reduced it. Reagan cut federal spending from 21.68 percent of GDP in 1981 to 20.86 percent of GDP in 1988, and Clinton cut federal spending from 21.17 percent of GDP in 1993 to 18.35 percent of GDP in 2000. Because they reduced federal spending relative to GDP, the aggregate of deficits, inflation, and taxes necessary to finance their spending was lower than it otherwise would have been. For this, both Reagan and Clinton deserve some credit.

Michael Dahlen
Royersford, Pennsylvania

The Status of the Choice to Live

To the Editor:

In “How Morality is Grounded in Reality” [TOS, Fall 2009], Craig Biddle writes: “Human values are chosen—every last one of them.” Doesn’t this include the “ultimate” value of life? And if life is chosen, doesn’t there have to be something more fundamental, some basis for the choice to live?

Mr. Biddle also quotes Ayn Rand’s statement: “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.” This seems to imply that life is not chosen and that the mere fact of being alive makes life the standard of value.

Is life chosen? And, if so, on what basis? I’d like to hear Mr. Biddle’s thoughts on these questions.

Gregory P. Turza
Skokie, Illinois

Craig Biddle replies:

For human beings, life is chosen. But this does not imply that there is something more fundamental on the basis of which this choice is made. There is not.

Ayn Rand’s statement, “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do,” is only a fraction of a summary (a summary I quote in full in the article) of a highly complex argument, and she phrased the summary and this sentence the way she did specifically to address the proponents of the “is–ought” dichotomy. What Rand means by this sentence is that the nature of a living entity determines what the entity must do if it is to remain alive. In regard to human beings, who possess free will, it means that if a person chooses to live, he must also choose to act as human life requires.

Because people have free will, they choose whether or not to remain alive. We can see this in (among other things) the fact that some people choose to stay alive, but others choose to commit suicide. We clearly do not choose whether to come into existence, but, as teenagers and adults, we do choose whether to remain in existence. And this choice is logically our most fundamental choice. As I wrote in the article:

The choice [to live] underlies and makes possible all of our other choices—and thus all of our other values. We cannot make any choice or value anything apart from the choice to continue living. The choice to do homework presupposes it; the choice to build a business presupposes it; the choice to compose a symphony presupposes it; the choice to go surfing presupposes it; the choice to make love presupposes it; and so on. All such choices depend on the choice to live. But the choice to live does not presuppose any other choice; it is the one choice on which all other choices depend. It is the most basic choice of all.

Moreover, just as our choice to remain alive makes our pursuit of values possible, so it makes our pursuit of values necessary. To continue living, we must act to gain the values on which our life depends, such as knowledge, food, shelter, and medical care. So the point is not merely that we have to be alive in order to pursue values, but also that we have to pursue values in order to stay alive—and, further (since we have free will), that we must pursue values by choice. Put negatively: Just as we cannot pursue values unless we choose to continue living, so we cannot continue living unless we choose to pursue values.

In sum, there is no ultimate goal or value other than life to which a person can pledge his allegiance, because there is no fundamental alternative other than existence or non-existence with which a person is faced. Life or death is it: A person either strives for self-preservation or courts self-elimination. In order to live, he has to pursue values; in order to die, he does not.

In a nutshell, Ayn Rand’s key ethical discovery is the fact that the concept of “value” presupposes, depends on, and derives from the concept of “life.” And since the choice to remain alive (or not) is the only fundamental choice, human life is logically the standard of moral value—and the only possible one.

And just as the choice to live gives rise to the possibility and need of other choices, so it gives rise to the possibility and need of reasons—including the possibility and need of answers to the question “Why?”

To ask the question “Why choose to live?” is to use the concept of “why” in an illegitimate manner. Apart from the choice to live, the question “Why?” has no meaning. We cannot ask it unless we choose to live, and we do not need answers to it unless we choose to live. To ask “Why choose to live?” is to commit the fallacy Rand identified as “concept stealing”: using a concept (in this case “why”) while ignoring or denying the hierarchy of concepts—and, in this case, the fundamental choice—on which it logically depends.

Craig Biddle

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