Choose Your Roots

People often seek a sense of purpose by participating in institutions more spatially or temporally extensive (i.e., ‘bigger’) than themselves; they feel that their lives can gain meaning or value from playing a part in religious revivals, political movements, scientific progress, and the like.  Some might even find greater meaning in serving with AmeriCorps, it being a program with a history and a large number of (past & present) participants unified under common principles of service.  At the end of training (thus, at the beginning of Round 1) for FEMA Corps, an event was held at my campus wherein the various teams were congratulated for finishing training and wished well on the upcoming projects; one of the ideas shared at this event was that we Corps Members are now part of something ‘bigger’, something with twenty years of history bestowing honor upon all who wear the AmeriCorps logo.  Our lives seemed to be imbued with value by the institution in which we were taking part, until a blasphemous thought entered my mind: what if my class was not deriving value from the program, but rather the program as an institution was more so gaining value from the participation of myself and my class of Corps Members?

Of course, if the institution and its members are viewed as a single entity, one can simply affirm the value of that composite whole and not worry about the primacy of one over the other; the question only arises when one component is said to give the other some value, some meaning, some purpose, some reason.  This is due to the paradoxical way in which, as Kierkegaard puts it, “to defend something is always to discredit it”; to justify something’s actuality (that is, to defend it as honorable or valuable) by appealing to an institution or external purpose is to deny the sufficiency of its own properties for justification in the first place.  Rather than a mere perk or bonus, a real reason for something’s actuality is a precondition of its justification; either this reason is external to it, and the thing is not valuable in itself, or the thing functions as its own justification, which is really to say that it needs no justification.  That which is intrinsically valuable (that is, valuable in itself, regardless of its relations to other things) needs, and thus has, no “reason”; its value is ultimately irrational.

This does not entail that the principle of sufficient reason (basically, the idea that there will always be an answer to the question “why”) has no place in the philosophy of value; not all of ethics is ultimately irrational, but only the roots of intrinsic value (the subject matter of “normative ethics”), from which the value of concrete actions “in context” (the subject matter of “applied ethics”) is derived.  Actions can be justified by reference to that which is good in itself, but that which is good in itself is not justified by reference to anything.  Moral progress is also possible, insofar as we can bring our actions more in line with root foundational principles given the state of the world as it is; what in one state of affairs may be justified by reference to an intrinsic good may not be so justified in another.  Nevertheless, in order for reasons to justify things as valuable, they must ultimately refer back to a standard of value which must be chosen as such, rather than logically derived itself.

If the principle of sufficient reason is never applied to itself–if we ask, “why?” and demand reasons for every action, without asking when we ought to ask “why” in the first place–then every possible standard of value is assumed to be merely extrinsically valuable (that is, valuable only because of its relation to something else); in the same way that the principle of sufficient reason (in the sense of a scientific quest for answers) is necessary for discovering a root order of nature, the principle’s suspension is necessary for affirming root standards of value.  Somebody thinks that their life derives value from participation in national service; from what then does national service derive its worth?  Why is their life not valuable enough in itself?  One can only properly value that which is good in itself by choosing it without reason, and by affirming that very act of irrational choice over and over again.  It appears that a sustainable love of the intrinsically good requires, as a precondition, a love of the absurd.

Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.