Wrong Answers? No. Wrong Questions.
Certain "profound" questions lead to nothing but grief
A young lady I know once told me of her pet horror: a faceless beast confronts her every day of her life, asking questions she must answer but cannot.
The beast is herself. A beast, because she cannot identify herself with her own ideal of humanity. Faceless, because she cannot make out her own true character. Worst of all, the questions: Who is she? What does she want of life? What career does she want?
She virtually worships the philosophy of Ayn Rand and consequently regards life without direction and purpose as utter immorality. She finds those qualities lacking in herself and passes that verdict of evil on her life. And it does her no good for me, or anyone, to tell her she has more honesty, integrity, and sheer guts—character, in short—than your random dozen anybodies put together. It does no good because it is her honesty, integrity, and courage that are putting her through hell. A person of lesser virtues could refuse to consider such questions or be content with facile answers, but my lady is not so easy on herself. Thus is she rewarded for her virtues—with agony. As are we all, to the extent that we face the same questions and cannot answer them.
Perhaps it isn't fair. Unfortunately, the world is not much concerned with our notions of fairness; it just is. Virtue is not impermeable to mistakes, and when we mistake the way the world is, it has a way of squashing us flat. As in the case in point, some mistakes can even cause our own integrity to behave like a scorpion in fire, stinging itself to death.
A TIME-HONORED QUEST
Where do so many good and honest people go so wrong? Consider, if you will, the questions:
Who am I? (What is my "character"?)
What do I want of life?
What do I want to do with my life?
They have this common denominator: each presupposes that its answer does exist, in each of us. When we find it necessary to ask such questions (when we don't consciously have the answers), we generally suppose that the answers are merely hidden from our awareness, perhaps tucked away in a cozy corner of the subconscious; but we do not doubt their existence. We assume that we can solve all the mysteries of our identity and "true" desires if we are sufficiently diligent in our introspection—or, at worst, we assume they could be discovered through some kind of therapy.
There is an old mystic notion that every person is born possessed of all knowledge but forgets in the trauma of birth and must be reminded of much, if not all, that he "knows." It's a kind of Conservation of Mental Energy theory, positing that no ideas are ever created or lost. A preposterous notion, obviously. Yet how many of us have managed to avoid the same epistemological blunder in the time-honored quests for Identity, Meaning, and Purpose? Isn't our greatest source of dissatisfaction with ourselves our inability to discover our "identity"—by which we mean the mode of being uniquely suited to each of us, including specific goals, desires, and values of character—everything we are, have been, could be, or wish to be? Don't most of us desperately want—and seem always to lack—a sense of true direction, an unequivocal knowledge of where we want to go with our lives? We introspect like demented anatomy students cutting ourselves to pieces, but rarely do we turn up a true heart's desire.
I suggest that our problem is not our lack of answers but a deterministic fallacy inherent in the questions themselves.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Who am I? The answer to this question would be easier if all our character, values, and goals were built into us at our conception or came to us automatically as we grew up. Unfortunately, while man is a creature of myriad and wonderous potentials, the actual self he starts out with has about as much character, sense of values, or purpose as a mud puddle. And the process we call "growing up" most commonly resembles the more or less efficient action of a sewage-treatment plant, considering the offal shoveled at us in school, in church, and over the boob tube. Small wonder so few people ever get far from the mud-puddle stage of character development. The wonder is that any do.
Do you still wonder who you are? Well then, look at yourself. You are whatever you know yourself to be, right now. You are whatever you've made yourself to date, with whatever help you've accepted along the way. You are not an unfinished part of the "real you"—but a complete and sovereign entity. You do have the ability, if you choose to exercise it, to make changes in your self and in your hunk of the world. You also have the ability to select goals and values for yourself. Don't expect values and goals to appear automatically when you introspect; they have to be selected and assimilated first—they are not a free lunch.
What do I want to do with my life? Recall our nascent self, the mud puddle? The myriad things our mud puddle is not born with include: burning desires for (1) a particular career and (2) the achievement of a particular purpose in life. A rational man seeks his own well-being and happiness, but the particular objectives that he identifies with "happiness" are endlessly various.
So where along the track of life does one pick up these great desires?
One lucks onto them: the blind chance of upbringing, environment, and inherited potential, plus the mental baggage of ideas and prejudices one acquires along the way, may incline one to feel a passion for some particular work or cause. Usually it doesn't. And small wonder: before one can desire to pursue a career or cause, one must first have the basic conviction that one is free to act to achieve one's goals. Take a look at the corporate/unionized/bureaucratic monster in whose shadow we live. Yeah, the one sitting on both your legs and one arm. Inspires you with a great sense of freedom of action, huh?
And what if one lucks out? What if one doesn't find a sense of vocation or a mission in life? That's two great pleasures one may never experience. And that leaves only a couple hundred other sources of pleasure in life. No doubt one's life will be totally miserable.
A RATIONAL HEDONISM?
The writings of Ayn Rand abound in brilliant philosophical theses. Which is unfortunate, in a way, because unwary readers who trust in her brilliance usually assimilate, also, her mistakes. For instance: "Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values" (from The Objectivist Ethics). The mind boggles—literally—with the confusion and heartache that proposition can cause.
Productive work is necessary to a rational person's physical and mental well-being and is consequently a central value in life. Granted. But rationality is an equally indispensable value and has at least an equal claim to being the central value that integrates and determines one's hierarchy of values. Neither rationality nor productiveness, however, is a central purpose of life. Ms. Rand has here confused the servant with the master. One is productive and rational for the purpose of sustaining one's life. Life is their purpose, not the other way around. One lives for the purpose of one's happiness.
In fact, Ms. Rand herself says as much, a mere two pages further into the same essay: "The achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose (italics, well-placed, in original).
I submit that if one is not fortunate enough to find a career or cause for which one feels passion and devotion, the rational and moral thing for one to do is as little productive work as one need do in order to finance one's other sources of happiness.
As regards vocation, all that rational people actually need is simply a job that gives one a sense of having earned one's own life, the knowledge that one is self-sustaining. If parasitism necessarily breeds guilt in people, minimal self-sustenance through low production does not. If one chooses to earn one's livelihood by trucking garbage or digging ditches—or working as a switchman for Taggart Transcontinental, perhaps!—one fully satisfies the basic requisite of self-esteem and frees oneself to eat, drink, and be merry, with clear conscience and maximum enjoyment. Rational people do, after all, have other desires and pleasures besides hiking up their productivity.
Make sure your pleasures are consonant with your physical and mental well-being, by all means—don't abandon rationality. We need reason in seeking pleasure fully as much as we need it in work: in this area of human action as in any other, there are important decisions to weigh, costs to count. Most of all, it is our reason that gives us our appreciation of many of our greatest pleasures. Consider how much reason allows us to experience by this negative: sans reason, we are merely naked apes and can know no other pleasures than those known by our furry brethren. Our reason gives us all the rest.
So if you get satisfaction from working to improve the social or political conditions you live under—great! And if your career is fun and rewarding for you—wonderful. But if not, do a bit less of it and more of something you do like. Love, laugh, read, travel, play games, screw yourself silly, see movies and plays—do as you please, literally. Because the important thing, the one principle that comes closest to being a "moral imperative," is to enjoy your life. Go to it.
Mr. Gross lives in Los Angeles, painting houses, reading novels, and dabbling at writing some of his own. He is the author of "The Ethics of Polygamy," in REASON, July 1973.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Wrong Answers? No. Wrong Questions.".