Find Enlightenment

The Categories, Values, and Value Principles

Robert Hartford, Ph.D.

Forum: Enlightenment's First Annual Meeting
This paper will be defended at the June Meeting. Participants are invited to draft written commentaries of this work for inclusion in the published Proceedings of the Meeting.


Ayn Rand has described value as "that which [an organism] acts to gain and/or keep." Visualization of the "that which" is important to understanding the nature of value. What is sought? What is the organism's goal? While Rand's description is true of all values, her description is not a definition. The description leaves out an essential requirement. To be a value for the organism, the goal, when the organism achieves it, must serve the needs of the organism. This paper examines the referents of value and relates the nature of value to its origin in the nature of life and life's needs.


Ayn Rand has stated that, "The first question to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?" [1] But to ask that question presupposes a clear understanding of the meaning of ethics and the meaning of value. This paper examines those fundamental concepts.

The concept of "Value" has been especially problematic in the Objectivist system of ethics. The problem is the multiple meanings of "Value" found in the literature. When Ayn Rand describes value as "that which [an organism] acts to gain and/or keep," [2] value refers to the result of an organism's action as the organism achieves some goal in the service of its life. [3] When Rand speaks of a "code of values," [4] value refers to a principle from the hierarchical set of principles that a person has adopted as a guide to action. A principle to guide action (only applicable to human beings) and the result of an organism's action in the service of its life are quite different concepts. This paper argues that the latter meaning is primary and will restrict the term "Value" to that concept."

Equivocation in the use of a term is a major threat to philosophical clarity. This paper uses the term "Value" only to refer to the result of a life serving action taken by an organism. It never uses the term "Value" to refer to a principle in someone's hierarchical set of principles for guiding action. A moral principle or an action principle will be used to refer to a principle for guiding action. A moral code will be used to refer to a person's set of moral principles or action principles. For the special case when an action principle is aimed at the achievement of a value, the term, value principle is used. This clear separation of the two common uses of value will make the discussion clearer.

Two related terms - moral judgment and value judgment - need to be described. In the context of this paper, a moral judgment is the selection of an action principle to either include in or exclude from one's moral code. A value judgment is an individual's assessment of what is or is not a value or a value principle. This conceptual framework allows one to abstract value judgment from moral judgment and aids consideration of competing ethical systems.

To clarify the meaning of the concepts of ethics and value, we use the techniques in epistemology brilliantly expounded by Any Rand in her monograph, "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology." We first ask, "What facts of reality give rise to the concepts of ethics and value?" After deriving those concepts, we can answer questions such as, "What is the objectively valid foundational principle for building an ethical system?" and "What are the implications of that principle for choosing the object of goal directed action?" The answers to these questions lead us to the theory of ethical egoism that Ayn Rand originated in her novels and in her seminal essay, "The Objectivist Ethics."

To simplify discussion, this paper initially focuses on the meaning of the concept of value in the context of those forms of life that do not have a volitional consciousness. The paper ends with a brief look at the concept of value as it applies to the human organism. The fact that human beings possess a volitional consciousness gives rise to the concept of ethics. The paper, "Objectivity and the Proof of Egoism," [5] examines the nature of objectivity in its application to ethics. The goal of "Objectivity and the Proof of Egoism" is to prove the foundational principle of a valid ethics and discuss its implication for building a moral code.

The Categories

What facts give rise to the concept of "Value?" To place the answer to that question in a fundamental context, we start with the fact of existence and the evidence of our senses.

Our senses provide contact with existence. For the higher animals, five distinct sensory mechanisms have evolved. Brains automatically integrate aspects of the sensory fields into perceptual awareness. Using the visual field as an example, the visual receptors and the motor mechanisms of the body automatically enable a person to follow a visual image as it moves, changes shape, or alters color. The normal person automatically retains a memory of that awareness. The awareness and the memory of it are part of the nature of the functioning of one's perceptual apparatus.

Even at this very rudimentary level, we have what we need to understand the basic categories of existents. An existent is some limited aspect of the totality of existence. The basic categories of existents are implicit in the ability of a person to discriminate features in the field of its awareness. The spatial and temporal variation of a unified region of the visual field, and the relationship to the rest of the visual field, is the form in which the person is aware of the spatial and temporal characteristics of existence. We identify the ontological components that drive this awareness as referents of the conceptual categories of entity, attribute, action, and relationship. The meaning of any value can be traced back to its components as referents of these basic categories.

The four categories arise as a "package deal." Identifying a referent of any one of them implies the existence of the others. The meaning of any one of these concepts is dependent on the meaning of the others. An entity without attributes is meaningless. An action without a causal attribute is meaningless, and so on. Our perceptual apparatus allows us to pick out referents of each category. A discriminated region of the visual field is due to spatial variation in existence. Temporal variation of a region of the visual field can be caused by temporal change in existence. The spatial variation and temporal change are attributes and actions of a part of existence isolated by the visual experience. This is a rudimentary instance of identifying an entity. For the fourth concept, relationship, in order to be a discriminated region, the existence of a region from which it is discriminated is implied. A relationship to the rest of existence is inherent in the existence of the entity. Isolating attributes, actions, relationships, and combinations of them enable us to identify features of the identity of an entity.

Action of Living Entities and Relationship to Value

The concept "Value" is inextricably tied to the action of living entities. [6] To simplify, we will study the origins of the concept of value within the bounds of deterministic action as it manifests itself in lower forms of life.

Life is a process of "self-sustaining and self-generated action." [7] A living organism, given suitable health and environmental conditions, is able to perform the actions required to sustain its life for some period of time.

Although "self-generated and self-sustaining action" captures the essence of life and serves as a suitable definition, it does not fully describe the nature of an organism's life. To narrow one's vision of life to "self-generated and self-sustaining action." can lead one to think of life as synonymous with a lifetime of self-sustaining action, ending when self-sustaining action ends. Life is much more wondrous and exciting than that.

Life is an integrated whole of both quantity and quality. An organism's life is the totality of attributes, actions, and relationships that exist for it throughout the period when it lives. David Kelley presented a very visual depiction of that view of human life in his lecture "Choosing Life." [8] He asks one to imagine tracing one's lifetime on a map, imagining the path to include all your attributes, actions, and relationships while you are located at each point of your life's "path." It's a wonderful mechanism for capturing and visualizing a person's entire life. That mechanism can be used to trace the lifetime of lower organisms as well and aids in taking an integrated perspective on the life of an organism.

Self-sustaining Action and Needs

The existence of a life-path at all depends on the organism's performance of self-sustaining actions. The character of the path depends on the nature of the actions taken and the environment in which the actions take place. What are the requirements for self-sustaining action? The concept of "need" is central to the answer.

In general, a "need" represents some state of affairs that must exist, or must be reached, in order for some other state to be possible now or in the future. As an example in the context of the non-living, a car engine needs to be lubricated in order to run smoothly now and to last for 100,000 miles.

For a living entity, a survival need represents some state of affairs that must exist, or must be reached, in order for the entity's life to continue to exist now and into the future. Satisfaction of a need implies that the required state of affairs exists or has been reached. Need satisfaction is generally dependent on both the action of the organism and the nature of its environment. In some environments the organism can act to satisfy its survival needs, in others its capability to act may be inappropriate or inadequate to achieve the conditions for continuation of life.

For instance, each organism requires an environmental temperature in a certain range in order to live. Expose many organisms to a temperature of 100 degrees centigrade for 20 minutes and their ability to sustain life fails. Sterilization at high temperature works because the organisms cannot take self-sustaining action in that environment. Only a limited range of temperatures is good for the life of the organism. A "good" for an organism is a condition that enables need satisfaction, in this case a temperature in a suitable range. The "bad" for an organism is a condition that hinders need satisfaction, in this case too high a temperature.

An organism has both short term needs for immediate self-sustaining action and longer term needs that are life-enhancing and enable its life to continue further into the future. Satisfaction of those life-maintaining needs make possible the birth to death lifetime of a living organism.

It is important to note that an organism's life is not a "need" for its life. Existing life is a precondition for the concept of need to apply to an organism. Life must currently exist for the concept of need to have meaning in the context of biology. Need satisfaction only applies to the living. A dead organism has no needs, for life or anything else. (There are conditions to be satisfied, needs, for the creation of a living organism, but those are not the survival needs required for maintenance of the self-sustaining action of an organism's existing life. It is important to distinguish between the creation of life and the maintenance of life.)

Deriving Values from Needs

Need satisfaction means that the end result of an organism's action achieves a condition required for the maintenance of its life. In this case, we refer to the goal of the action as a value sought by the organism. If and when the organism reaches the goal, the value is achieved. If the goal is not reached, the organism fails to gain the value. If the goal of an organism's action is not the satisfaction of a need, the organism's action is not aimed at a value.

Need satisfaction is good for the life of the organism whether the need be satisfied by environmental conditions or by the organism's own actions. The subset of need satisfaction that results from the organism's own action is referred to as the organism's achievement of a value. It may be the case that the particular value achieved is one among a set of possible values, any one of which would have provided for the need satisfaction. For example, there are many options for satisfying an organism's need for food.

Ayn Rand described the very general idea of value as "that which [an organism] acts to gain and/or keep." She also showed that the function of a value that is gained or kept is to maintain the life of the organism. To identify the potential values relevant to each organism, we must discover those states of affairs that benefit the organism and that are within the power of the organism to achieve. When the organism acts to achieve that state of affairs, the potential value becomes the goal of the organism's action and a value sought. If the organism reaches the goal, the value sought becomes a value gained.

Just as an organism's life is not a need for its life, the organism's life is not a value for its life. Just as existing life is a precondition for need to have meaning, existing life is a precondition for value to have meaning. [9] Achievement of a value is a means to satisfy needs for the continuation of life.

Referents of Value

What are the referents of value? How do they relate to the basic ontological categories? The goal of achieving some state of affairs that benefits the organism's life is more explicit than the "that which" in Rand's statement of value as "that which [an organism] acts to gain and/or keep." But either view allows for a referent of value to be a referent of one of the categories or some combination of them.

Consider some examples of values. A cheetah pursues and chases down an antelope for food, an entity value. A chameleon avoids a predator by matching the background with a change of its own color, an attribute value. A plant, to capture more sunlight, turns its leaves toward the sun, a relationship value. A shelter, such as a beaver's lodge, is a complex referent of value. It is an entity that also satisfies the beaver's need for a particular relationship to the environment. In all these cases, the organism's action is required to achieve the value. In all these cases, if the organism's action achieves the goal, the value is gained.

Goals and Values

Because achievement of a goal often means the gaining of a value, the two are sometimes confused. If a goal-directed action is aimed at a value but fails to reach it, no value is gained. If an organism's goal-directed action is aimed at some end that is not beneficial to the organism's life, no value is sought nor gained, even if the goal is reached.

Dr. Harry Binswanger, in "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts," [10] (hereafter BBTC) shows that living organisms engage in goal-directed action. He carefully shows that goal-directed action exists because of the operation of natural selection in the course of evolution. He also implicitly recognizes need satisfaction as the function of value achievement by stating that "value" is "one of a family of terms that pertain to the beneficial relationship of things to the organism." [11] But, he treats goals similarly, not adequately recognizing that natural selection can produce goal directed action that is destructive to an organism's life. [12]

A clear example of self-destructive goal-directed action is useful. Consider a male praying mantis successfully copulating with a female praying mantis. This kind of behavior certainly fits the BBTC description of a goal-directed action brought about as a result of natural selection during the course of evolution. But, the praying mantis not only fails to achieve a value, he has put himself in a position to be eaten by the female. This evolved behavior of the male praying mantis may be essential for the continued creation of organisms of the species, but the individual male praying mantis goes out of existence. The male praying mantis' self-sustaining action has terminated. Although his participation in the reproductive mechanism maintains the species, the male praying mantis failed to achieve the values required for maintaining its own life. The achievement of the evolutionarily selected built-in goal of copulation was not the gaining of a value for the individual organism. In this case, built-in goal-directed action is not value-directed action. To equate the two misrepresents and devalues the concept of value and cuts it off from its root in self-sustaining action.

Human Action Involves Choice

Up to now we have considered the deterministic action of lower forms of life. Many human actions are not deterministic, but are a result of choice. Just as genetics can cause an organism to take action that is either beneficial or harmful to its life, a human can choose actions that are either beneficial or harmful to its life. How are the choices to be made? Can we formulate a principle or principles to guide selection among possible actions?

If a goal is established, a course of action can be formulated to achieve the goal and criteria can be formulated for judging its successful achievement. If the goal is to build a bridge lighter and stronger than a steel bridge, we can formulate a plan of action and develop criteria for success. But we are looking at the fundamental issue of establishing a goal in the first place. Establishment of a goal provides a criterion for selecting action. The question of how to select an action in a fundamental sense is the question of how to establish a goal.

It is certainly true that, among the living species that exist, the most common goal-directed action is value-directed action. That fact does not mean the choice of value-directed action is "required by nature." "Required by nature," means a deterministic action, and a choice is not a deterministic action. In any case, we may be faced with a choice among actions, all of which represent value-directed action. How then is that choice to be made?

We must make many judgments in various areas of our lives. Our judgments may be right or wrong. "3 plus 2 = 6 is true." Right or wrong? "Good food and exercise are important to one's health." Right or wrong? "It is false that heating a wire filament inside an evacuated glass bulb produces light more reliable than a candle." Right or wrong?

The truth or falsity of a proposition is determined by its correspondence to reality. If we judge the truth of falsity correctly, our cognitive judgment is right. If we have made an error, our cognitive judgment is wrong. Cognitive judgments deal with "what is." To validate a cognitive claim is to establish its truth.

The Role of Ethics

Ethics deals with normative judgments, judgments regarding "what to do." How is it possible to validate a normative claim? What does it mean to be right or wrong regarding a "what to do" claim?"

A simple case involves normative judgments regarding action as a means to reach a goal. On the condition that a goal is chosen, we can judge whether an action will achieve the goal or not. If the means to achieve the goal does not simultaneously thwart another goal, we can say the action is valid as a means to the goal. But for the action to be fundamentally valid, the chosen goal must be valid as well. Choosing the goal is also normative judgment. How is that judgment to be validated?

Most goals are both the objects of the means to achieve them and also the means to achieve some higher goal. For instance, opening a book is a both a means and a goal. It is a means to the goal of reading the book. It is also the goal of the motions required to open it. But, the goal described, reading the book, is also a means to the goal of learning more of the subject matter it contains. This goal-means tree of normative judgements must bottom-out at somewhere at a lowest level chosen action and top-out somewhere at a chosen goal that is not a means to some higher goal. (This is somewhat of a simplification. There is really a labyrinth of goals and means, means often contributing to multiple goals and goals often contributing as means to multiple higher goals.) Aristotle calls this highest goal a "final end" and Ayn Rand calls it an "ultimate end."

The validation from any goal in the goal-means tree on down the tree is a case of the conditional judgment described above. The validation of the entire tree then hinges on the validation of the highest level goal, the goal that is not the means to some further goal.

Where do we look for that highest goal? Consider the fact that makes goal-directed action possible. Goal-directed action exists as a phenomenon of life. The existence of life, in the sense of a product of evolution, is a fact. That fact is not the means to any goal, it simply is. That fact is the precondition for goals to have become part of existence. The highest level goal then cannot go past the impact on life. Since the existence of life is the precondition for goals to exist, the existence of life cannot be a means to a goal.

Harry Binswanger clearly showed that goal-directed action is characteristic of living organisms. As we travel up the goal-means tree, when we reach the point of impact on the organism's existing life in terms of the option of benefit or harm, we can go no further. This fact leads us, full circle, back to the fundamentality of a dimension of value. The requirement that achievement of a value benefit the organism's life relates a referent of value to one of the options relevant to the highest level goal, beneficial impact on life. [13]

To validate an ethical system as a means for choosing action principles is to determine the nature of the highest level goal and to establish its validity. The concepts of value, value principle, and action principle will be central to that effort.


Competing ethical theories exist because various standards can be used to select action principles. Selection of value-directed action is one possible criterion for choosing the action principles to build into one's moral code. Proving that criterion valid is the goal of "Objectivity and the Proof of Egoism."

Only with a firm grasp of what a value is can we go on to prove that the pursuit of value, which is the essence of egoism, is required for an objectively valid ethical system.


[Note 1] Rand, Ayn, "The Objectivist Ethics," essay in "The Virtue of Selfishness," p.13.

[Note 2] Ibid., p.15

[Note 3] The additional condition that what is "gained and/or kept" must serve the organism's life is based on the full context of the arguments in "The Objectivist Ethics."

[Note 4] Rand, Ayn, "The Objectivist Ethics," essay in "The Virtue of Selfishness," p.13.

[Note 5] Hartford, Robert, "First Annual Enlightenment Meeting"

[Note 6] Rand, Ayn, "The Virtue of Selfishness," p.17. "To speak of 'value' as apart from 'life' is worse than a contradiction in terms. It is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible."

[Note 7] Rand, Ayn, "The Objectivist Ethics," essay in "The Virtue of Selfishness," p.15. Quoted from "Galt's speech.

[Note 8] Kelley, David, Taped lecture from the 10th Summer Seminar of The Objectivist Center.

[Note 9] Rand, Ayn, "The Objectivist Ethics," essay in "The Virtue of Selfishness," p.??. "worse than a contradiction in terms" quote

[Note 10] Binswanger, Harry, "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts," Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1990.

[Note 11] Ibid., p.58

[Note 12] Ibid., p.155 As an indication of the reason for this error, consider the following quotation. "The equivalence of the two ultimate goals – survival and reproduction – is obscured by the fact that 'survival' is usually understood to mean the continuation of the life of a presently existing organism." This and the related discussion obscure the fact that survival of an individual organism and survival of a species are separate, though related phenomena.

[Note 13] Smith, Tara, "Viable Values," p.??