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Purpose, Value Hierarchies, and Happiness

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 2.


This essay is part of a compilation ebook, Objectivism, available at or free with any subscription to TOS.

Author’s note: This essay is an edited version of a lecture I’ve delivered to various Objectivist community groups. It assumes some understanding of and agreement with the philosophy of Objectivism.

That we live only once is not speculation. This is it. This life is all we have. This fact, however, is not cause for despair; it is cause for action.

To quote a favorite ad, “It’s not that life’s too short, it’s just that you’re dead for so long.” Our time in life is substantial—we might live to eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years old—and we can do a great deal in the decades we have. But we are going to die. And when we do, that’s it. We’re done. So: What to do?

As rational egoists—as people who know that the moral purpose of life is to maximize our personal happiness—we want to fill our days and years with accomplishments and joy. We want to wake up every morning and pursue our values with vigor. We want to thrive in a career we love, in romance, in our recreational pursuits, in our friendships, and so on. In short, we want to make our lives the best they can be.

That’s easy to say. And, in a sense, it’s easy to do: Just think rationally and act accordingly. In another sense, however, it is the single most difficult thing in the world.

Making our life the best it can be is the only project that requires the harmonious use of all of our resources and capacities—physical and mental, personal and social—toward a highly complex goal for the span of our entire life. No other project comes even close to this in terms of its demands. In fact, all of our other egoistic endeavors are subsumed under this one. Whether we are performing brain surgery, or composing a symphony, or building a semiconductor company, or raising children, or learning to hang glide—all such endeavors are only projects within the broader goal of making the most of our life. Everything we do is but an aspect of this grand, all-encompassing goal.

To achieve the greatest happiness possible, we have to unify all of our choices, values, and goals into a single harmonious whole. This requires a great deal of thinking, selecting, planning, prioritizing, coordinating, reviewing, reevaluating, and so on. At every turn, we must gain or apply the necessary knowledge, use our best judgment, and act accordingly—with respect to the full context of our values and goals.

This is a huge subject, and, in keeping with the opening point, we have limited time. So I want to be clear about the scope of my talk. My goal tonight is to indicate the nature and importance of purpose (and related matters) in good living. My overarching point is that understanding and upholding the concept, value, and principle of purpose is essential to making your life the best it can be.

What is a purpose? It’s a kind of goal—specifically, a conscious, intentional goal, a goal chosen and pursued for a desired outcome. Not all goals are purposes. For example, although plants have goals, in that they act to gain or keep things (e.g., sunlight and water), plants are not conscious and thus cannot engage in intentional action. Only certain conscious animals can act purposefully. Nor are all purposes equal in significance or scope. Although dolphins are conscious and may act intentionally or purposefully in a certain respect (e.g., they try to catch fish and may even help people or other animals in trouble in water), such intentions or purposes are orders of magnitude different from the kinds of long-range, wide-range, conceptual goals that human beings choose and pursue—such as, “I’m going to create an institute for the study of the cognitive capacities of sea life.” A purpose in the sense that we are talking about here is a volitional and conceptual goal.

Although the concept of purpose is narrower than that of goal (in that all purposes are goals but not vice versa), purpose is nevertheless a very broad concept—broader than some egoists or Objectivists might think. And grasping its breadth is essential to employing this cardinal value toward maximizing our personal happiness.

Importantly, purpose is . . .

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