Nate Smith

Purpose and Productivity

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This quote can be found under purpose in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

The man without a purpose is a man who drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil, because he is totally out of control of his own life. In order to be in control of your life, you have to have a purpose—a productive purpose.

How would Ayn Rand define "productive"? What makes a purpose a productive one?

For example, let's say someone won the lottery and was set for life financially. Would it be a productive purpose if that person chose to go to college for the rest of his life to learn everything he could? It seems to me that one could make this the purpose of one's life, though I'm not sure I'd consider it productive. What if instead the person decided to make playing video games the purpose of his life? Could these choices lead to a fulfilling life?

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This quote can be found under purpose in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

The man without a purpose is a man who drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil, because he is totally out of control of his own life. In order to be in control of your life, you have to have a purpose—a productive purpose.

How would Ayn Rand define "productive"? What makes a purpose a productive one?

Let's look at someone Ayn Rand considered a supremely purposeful and productive person:

"I don't know what sort of motto the d'Anconias have on their family crest," Mrs. Taggart said once, "but I'm sure that Francisco will change it to 'What for?'" It was the first question he asked about any activity proposed to him—and nothing would make him act, if he found no valid answer. He flew through the days of his summer month like a rocket, but if one stopped him in midflight, he could always name the purpose of his every random moment. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.

Observe that Francisco could not act without a goal and when he did, he acted to achieve that goal. A productive purpose is one who, in fact, achieves a value assuming that value is a real, rational value and of value to the particular person acting.

For example, let's say someone won the lottery and was set for life financially. Would it be a productive purpose if that person chose to go to college for the rest of his life to learn everything he could? It seems to me that one could make this the purpose of one's life, though I'm not sure I'd consider it productive. What if instead the person decided to make playing video games the purpose of his life? Could these choices lead to a fulfilling life?

That would depend on whether, in reality and in the context someone's personal hierarchy of values, the activity actually did achieve net values for him.

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This quote can be found under purpose in the Ayn Rand Lexicon...

How would Ayn Rand define "productive"? What makes a purpose a productive one?

Why stop reading at the word "purpose"? Continue your pursuit by also looking up productiveness in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself. Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values.

Continue reading "The Objectivist Ethics", Galt's speech, OPAR and Tara Smith and you will find much more on the topic.

For example, let's say someone won the lottery and was set for life financially. Would it be a productive purpose if that person chose to go to college for the rest of his life to learn everything he could? It seems to me that one could make this the purpose of one's life, though I'm not sure I'd consider it productive. What if instead the person decided to make playing video games the purpose of his life? Could these choices lead to a fulfilling life?

If he had the financial means he could productively pursue almost any purpose, without doing it to work for a pay check, in the form described in the quote above as long as he maintained a long term dedication to focused use of his mind for living on earth. He must be reality centered, not 'learning' or 'entertainment' centered.

Repetitiously 'going to college' forever does not allow for that. At some point he would have to take the initiative on his own to pursue and organize knowledge about the world beyond perpetual accumulation of introductory knowledge as presented by others. University professors are an example, but certainly not all of them. He would have to choose intellectual goals related to understanding some aspect of reality and with enough depth to avoid superficiality and repetition, and publish or teach or at least record what he learns and organizes in a concrete form (but not necessarily work for a university). Without that he is drifting inside his own mind, not living on earth.

He could likewise also make a productive career in video games or any other form of entertainment, but in producing entertainment, not in simply entertaining himself apart from the world around him as an escape from the world he lives in. A perpetual college student or player of games is perpetual consumption, not productiveness.

One can be "productive" in working hard at any task, but that is not what is meant by the virtue of productiveness in the Objectivist ethics. Detached from productive purpose, no matter how hard the hypothetical person you describe "works", your examples are the 'intellectual' equivalent of mere repetition in a job and worse:

“Productive work” does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.

This is what Ayn Rand said about playing chess as a 'career' in her "An Open Letter To Boris Spassky" in The Ayn Rand Letter Vol. 1, No. 25 September 11, 1972 (read the whole article):

Oh yes, Comrade, chess is an escape—an escape from reality. It is an "out," a kind of "make-work" for a man of higher than average intelligence who was afraid to live, but could not leave his mind unemployed and devoted it to a placebo—thus surrendering to others the living world he had rejected as too hard to understand.

Please do not take this to mean that I object to games as such: games are an important part of man's life, they provide a necessary rest, and chess may do so for men who live under the constant pressure of purposeful work. Besides, some games—such as sports contests, for instance—offer us an opportunity to see certain human skills developed to a level of perfection. But what would you think of a world champion runner who, in real life, moved about in a wheelchair? Or of a champion high jumper who crawled about on all fours? You, the chess professionals, are taken as exponents of the most precious of human skills: intellectual power—yet that power deserts you beyond the confines of the sixty-four squares of a chessboard, leaving you confused, anxious, and helplessly unfocused. Because, you see, the chessboard is not a training ground, but a substitute for reality.

Her responses to questions on chess and epistemology at a Ford Hall Forum lecture and her non-fiction writing course collected in Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, edited by Robert Mayhew, are also interesting. There were no computer video games in her time but the principles are the same.

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