FWD: The Happy Robot

Technotranscendence (neptune@mars.superlink.net)
Wed, 24 Jun 1998 21:22:26 -0400 (EDT)

I'd like to know your response to this.

Daniel Ust

Date: Mon, 22 Jun 1998 23:44:05 -0500
From: Dave Wahlstedt <davew@reell.com>
To: philosophy of objectivism <OBJECTIVISM-L@cornell.edu>
Subject: The Happy Robot

First, I'd like to commend Ross Levatter on his excellently conceived
thought experiment regarding Rand's robot. I'd also like to say "Damn
you for stealing my thunder!" <grin>

I've been working on this essay on-and-off for more than a month now and
finally finished it just recently. Planning all along to post it to the
list, I decided I better take a couple days to catch up on reading the
posts of others before I threw mine in. I was glad to see the suicide
thread continue - which my essay ties into nicely; ditto for the
"morality of smoking" debate. Then I couldn't help but laugh out loud
when I saw Ross Levatter's thought experiment which hit on exactly the
startlingly original (I thought) heart of my essay. Oh well, here it is
anyway. At least I know there is one person on the list who should
agree with me!

By the way, for anyone interested, I'll be presenting the material of
this essay in one of the "participant sponsored sessions" at the IOS
conference in Boulder. I'd appreciate an opportunity to get your
feedback, criticisms, etc. in person there - as well as put faces with
some of the interesting personalities I've met on this list.


I'm a huge fan of Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology - it
was these that opened my eyes to the possibility of actually discovering
important truths by studying philosophy. I am a big fan of the ethics,
too, which show people they should proudly put themselves as their own
highest value. However, as I will show, Ayn Rand's fundamental
assertion that "an organism's *life* is it's standard of value"
(emphasis mine), and therefore man's proper basis for morality and
ethics needs to be replaced with the idea that an organism's *happiness*
is it's standard of value. Ultimately, I agree with her that an
individual should act in accordance with the demands of life, but not
because that is an end in itself - rather, because it is a *means* to
achieve the ultimate value, the true end-in-itself, happiness. Without
happiness, biological life becomes mechanistic and valueless and even
the most perfectly rational animal will find no reason to pursue it.

In this essay, I first hope to establish that, although
metaphysically and biologically it is the alternative of life/death that
resulted in consciousness, volition and the capacity for
happiness/unhappiness in humans, it is the happiness/unhappiness
alternative - however created - that gives rise to all our values.
After unseating life from the pinnacle of our values, I'll reintroduce a
more broadly defined form of life which I call "genetic life" - but now
as a close second to happiness in the hierarchy of values. From there,
I'll briefly trace the Objectivist reasoning with happiness replacing
life. Finally, I'll show how some difficult problems Objectivism has
had, go away when you place happiness in it's rightful spot and put
genetic life as the ultimate value serving happiness. (Although I will
leave happiness as self-evident for the purpose of this essay, if a
definition and description of "happiness" is desired to better
understand what is replacing "life" here as the ultimate value, I would
direct the reader to Ted Keer's essay, "Happiness: Passionate Serenity",
at http://eden-backend.rutgers.edu/~kiaer/essays.html as the best effort
I've seen to date.)

In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand says "To challenge the basic
premise of . . . ethics, one must begin by asking: What are values? Why
does man need them?". (VOS, p16) Since this is, indeed, the challenge I
am making, I will follow her instruction. For the first question, I
accept Rand's answer, and I hope to correct her answer to the second
question. In answer to the first question, Rand says:

"Value" is that which one acts to gain or keep.
The concept "value" is not a primary; it presupposes
an answer to the question: of value to *whom* and for
*what*? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to
achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no
alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.

The alternative she then focuses on is that of life or death. Her
answer to the question "Why does man need values?" is: to stay alive.
For any living organism, "the ultimate value . . . is the organism's
*life*." (VOS, p17 - emphasis Rand's)
To make her point "fully clear", she asks us to "imagine an
immortal, indestructible robot", and claims "such an entity would not be
able to have any values". (VOS, p16) Notice that Rand did not choose a
hypothetical indestructible *organism* but rather an indestructible
*robot*. The significance of this distinction is that the word "robot",
and indeed her description of this entity, make clear that she is asking
us to imagine an entity which, in addition to being immortal, is also
unfeeling (i.e. incapable of happiness or unhappiness). Thus, we have a
contrast between Rand's immortal *and* unfeeling entity, and the mortal,
feeling entities whose source of values we are trying to determine.

But which of these two alternatives, life/death (mortality) or
happiness/unhappiness (feeling) is truly the one that gives rise to
values? Or do values perhaps require both? To sort this out we need
two new hypothetical entities, each with one of these alternatives, but
not the other. One entity would be immortal and feeling - call this
entity "IF". The other would be mortal and unfeeling - call it "MU".
If we can demonstrate that one of these entities has a source of values
(and thus a means for decision making, a way to judge right and wrong
for itself, etc.), and the other does not, then we have identified the
alternative that is the true source of values for humans. If neither
stands on its own then it must be the combination that is required.
First, consider MU: Being mortal implies that certain actions
are required for MU to maintain life, but nothing about life feels good
to MU and nothing about death feels bad. MU is left with no way to
"prefer" life and so has nothing driving any decision. All MU can do is
decide by whim whether it will try to live or not - perhaps by flipping
a coin - and then act accordingly. Or maybe considering that
alternative would never seem very important to it and instead it would
employ it's volition deciding some other randomly selected alternative -
again by flipping a coin since it won't care either way. But then, it
might occur to MU that deciding and acting isn't really all it's cracked
up to be, at which point it might just sit down (or not) and stare
blankly at the moss beginning to grow on it's shady side.
Now consider IF: Although there is no way for its existence to end,
IF does indeed care that painful things do not happen to it and that
pleasurable things do. If it felt pain from heat, it would have every
bit as much impetus to remove it's hand (if it had one) from a hot stove
as you or I would. Also, if it felt a deep satisfaction from developing
relationships with other entities, the fact that it doesn't need them to
survive would not stop it from deriving as much joy from such
relationships as it could. If it got the kind of pleasure from sex that
humans do, it would definitely spend a lot of time at that. Of course
it might also just do heroin constantly - except that simply not dying
probably does *not* make that form of pleasure workable over the long
Clearly, only IF has a way to judge what is right and wrong for it;
MU does not. This means it is, indeed, the alternative of
happiness/unhappiness, the ability to feel, to care, to give a rip, that
drives the need and the use for morality, not the alternative of life or
death. Which in turn means happiness, not life, is the ultimate value,
the end-in-itself toward which every action of an organism is properly
directed. Interestingly, it seems that Rand herself at times saw that
happiness was actually the ultimate value. For example, as part of
Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, she writes: "Life is the reward of
virtue, and happiness is the goal and reward of life." (AS, p.939)
This is a pretty clear statement of the relation between life and
happiness, with happiness being the end-in-itself, with no further
explanation necessary - or possible.

Of course, the fact that all the capacity for pleasure and pain in
humans developed because it furthered "life" in some way means that the
requirements of "life" is a pretty good estimate of what is likely to
make us happy. Consequently, I place "life" second only to happiness in
the hierarchy of values. However, this "life" - the evolution of which
resulted in our happiness/unhappiness mechanisms - is not the life of an
individual organism, which Rand talked about as being its highest value.
It is now a broader form, call it "genetic life", that spans individual
lives and of which an individual life is only a part. Maybe we can
think of it this way: since genetic life needs us as individuals to make
decisions in it's favor, it has created an incentive program for the
volitional individuals which make it up - to make it in *our* interest
to act in *its* interest. The better we understand genetic life and its
requirements, the more likely we are to find pursuing it helpful in
achieving our ultimate goal - happiness.
In this essay, I will stop short of defining precisely what this
"genetic life" is, the pursuit of which will best serve the happiness of
an individual. It may be the genetic code contained in that
individual's cells, it may be the gene-pool of it's interbreeding group
or it's species, or it may be as broad as all life. I personally expect
to find that it is a hierarchy of some sort, where genetic codes more
similar to our own are valued more than, but not to the exclusion of,
codes more distant. We care about our own children, but we also care
about the children of others, animals other than humans and maybe even
insects or plants to a lesser degree. However, it is the job of
science, not philosophy, to define and describe this genetic life that
is the ultimate source of our happiness. Philosophy gets us to
"happiness" as our ultimate goal, but it is the scientific study of
evolution that has to take it from there. In fact, if it turned out
evolution was wrong and we were created by some super-entity (to pick a
contending theory still quite popular today), philosophy would still get
us to happiness as our ultimate value, but the study of that
super-entity and what it had in mind for us to do would rightly replace
the study of evolution as the key to determining how we should live.

So what impact do these changes have on Objectivist philosophy?
I'll follow Rand's reasoning briefly, now with happiness as the ultimate
value, to examine this. Rand argues that "it is only an ultimate goal,
an *end in itself* that makes the existence of values possible." (VOS,
pp17-18) Values, in Rand's formulation, are "that which one acts to
gain and/or keep" (VOS, p16) in pursuit of that ultimate goal. Thus,
they now become those things which, objectively evaluated, further the
organism's happiness, rather than it's life. By "objectively
evaluated", I mean that it is not arbitrary what makes people happy,
that our potential for happiness was created in some particular way, and
with some specific nature which is not a matter of our choice. Physical
pain and pleasure mechanisms are the most easily perceived instance of
this, but I would contend that the love a parent feels for their child
is equally beyond our choice. This is not to say that it is impossible
for someone to not care about their children, only that it is as
unnatural as enjoying physical pain. Morality Rand defines as "a code
of values accepted by choice" (AS p932, OPAR p214), but it now starts
not with the choice to live as she would contend, but with the choice to
be happy. Virtue is still "the act by which one gains and/or keeps [a
value]", (VOS, p27) and I see nothing to contradict her primary virtue
of rationality and six derivative virtues of independence, integrity,
honesty, justice, productiveness and pride. I like David Kelly's
addition of benevolence to the Objectivist virtues as well. However,
I've always liked the virtues of my Christian upbringing (what they call
the fruits of the spirit) of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, too, and I hope to
find that there is reason to give some of these better standing than
they have without the notion of "genetic life" as a rational value for

Sticky problems that Objectivism has - solved!

Many of us find that we really DO care about others who are not
likely to impact our survival, or even our flourishing. Now we can see
that perhaps their life can be important to our happiness independent of
it's importance to our life simply because it is in the interest of the
genetic life of which we are a part. Therefore the well-being of others
could become anchored as an objective source of happiness for us. Note
that I do not claim to have done that anchoring here, only offered the
possibility of how it might be done in the future.

Sometimes in Objectivist reasoning, happiness is considered
impossible except according to objective values and sometimes it is
considered that our emotions (including happiness) are completely
determined by what we value through reason (i.e. we are born tabula rasa
- including our emotions). An example of the first take on happiness
from Atlas Shrugged is: "Happiness is possible only to a rational man"
(p939). An example of the second from OPAR is: "Emotions are automatic
consequences of a mind's past conclusions" (p 161). The first implies
that living according to irrational conclusions will make one unhappy,
the second implies that living according to one's incorrect past
conclusions could make one just as happy until they ultimately resulted
in death. With "genetic life" defining and refining our nature, what
results in our greatest happiness is ultimately beyond our control - but
it turns out that a big *part* of what, according to our nature, makes
us happy is living according to our rational convictions.

With this new formulation, there is no need to explain that when
we say "life" we don't just mean survival, but we mean "flourishing",
"life man qua man" or "life as a complete person". Happiness covers all
of this. (Don't worry, we can keep the "man qua man" formulation if we
really think it sounds cool. <grin>)

Now there is no need to explain the many things we do that are
difficult indeed to tie to our survival. If they make us happy, that is
explanation enough - although it may behoove us to examine the
evolutionary origins and long-term consequences of these sources of
happiness to be sure following them will not lead to diminished
happiness in the future. Our eating habits are a prime example of this.
In our evolutionary past there was no such thing as being "too fat" -
there just wasn't enough food around. (Have you ever seen a truly
rotund wild animal of any kind?) So we developed a natural tendency to
stuff our face with as much fat, sugar, etc. as came within arms reach.
But now, with food as cheap and easily available as it is, many of us
find that our nature misleads us. We have to resist the temptation of
that second or third luscious <insert the name of your particular
fatty-food weakness here> in order to preserve our health and our long
term happiness.

The moral evaluation of suicide is handled rather well with
happiness first. In Objectivist thinking, the choice to live precedes
morality, but now it is the choice to be happy which precedes it. If
you decide not to value happiness, then you truly have no way to judge
what you should do in any situation - including suicide. If you decide
that happiness is what matters to you, then you can evaluate any action,
including suicide. The choice to end your life becomes rational and
right if living an unhappy life is truly the only alternative. For
example, you might find suicide the right thing to do if, after numerous
happy decades of life, you find the only life you have left is
semi-conscious and/or filled with pain and expensive care - eating up
the money you had socked away for you grandchildren's education, say.
More often, however, in the case of people considering suicide, there is
still more happiness than unhappiness possible for them, and seeking
help in finding that happiness is the right choice rather than suicide.

So what does all this buy you? What good does it do us to
understand it? For me, the key realization is that if my life is *not*
my highest value, there are things out there that I should value more
than my own life. Think about that. There are values for you greater
than your own life. Since values are those things which further the
ultimate goal of happiness, that means there should be ways for you to
be happier than you would be if you saved your own life (e.g. if you
were cured of cancer). It also means there are things out there for
which you would be truly and rationally happy to give your life. If I
was going to give people one clue as to how to achieve true happiness it
would be this - "Find something you would die for, and live for that".
If you can't see how that is possible, or doubt that it is, let me offer
one suggestion: children. Have your own or borrow someone elses, raise
them, teach them, and see if you don't come to love them more than you
love your own life. All of our capacity for happiness was created
through evolution, and the cornerstone of evolution is adults raising
successful children. Based on that understanding of our nature, and on
what I've heard parents say, I believe that children (and maybe not only
our own) are a prime candidate to become a greater value for you than
your own life. Of course, this may not apply for everyone, and there
may be many other such values for you depending on your particular
talents, opportunities, vision, etc. But to paraphrase Dr. Martin
Luther King: "If you've never found anything you would die for, then
you've never really lived".

Having philosophized for pages now, there is one thing I would
like to acknowledge in closing. That is, that while philosophy may be
able to determine that you should be seeking your own happiness, and
science may be able to shed light on what is likely to make you happy;
reason is not your only tool in the pursuit of happiness. Developing a
sensitivity to what in life is truly making you happy right now,
learning what makes others happy and trying it for yourself, trusting
what has made people happy for generations, acting on an inspiration
before you know exactly why, etc. are all part of the process as well.
No amount of thinking can replace *all* of what millennia of evolution
have given us - but I believe it truly can put a proper foundation under
what all the experimentation yields and cement it together into a
unified whole. And ultimately, no matter how you get there, living
truly happy is all that really matters.

Nathaniel Branded said recently "you are bigger than
Objectivism" to a standing ovation from his IOS audience. In the same
spirit, I would like to say "you are bigger than life" - but I'll
understand if you don't stand and applaud. : )