"Excellence," anyone?


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With some absorbing threads running on 'morality', which have mainly concentrated on the nature of morality, I've found myself (for the 200th time) musing on the 'ends' of morality.

Essentially, what is the outcome of living a moral life?

I think it's inarguable that the long term practice of rationality rewards one in many ways. Are these explicit benefits all there are? Is there more, and should we want more?

Now I can't recall Ayn Rand ever alluding to 'excellence.'

(Perhaps she did). Of course, Aristotle did in his well-known "We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then, is not an act but a habit."

Do the cardinal O'ist Values of Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem, add up to 'excellence'? (As an uber-Value.)

My only objection to all this, is that just as Utopianism is not desirable, attainable, or moral; the macro version of it, (on an individual level),the ideal of Excellence, may also be.

I do, however, think that there remains a place for excellence - stripped of all former religious connotations ('pure of heart', etc.)- as an aspiration within Objectivism. By the 'doing', a man ultimately becomes something superior,IMO, and so is also the only type of human I would prefer to deal with.

What is the orthodox O'ist view on this?

What are your thoughts?


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I don't know what the orthodox thinks of excellence, but human competence has been one of my gods for as long as I remember.

That competence includes external productive pursuits (and even entertainment and sports), and internal pursuits, like mental control of brain waves, speed-reading and so forth.

I am not much an admirer of the excellence in destructive pursuits and murder of bloody dictators.


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Rand takes the three values reason, purpose, and self-esteem to be together “the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life” (OE 25). Necessary as means to those “supreme and ruling values” are: rationality, productivity, and pride (AS 1018). Excellence permeates the Randian virtues. However, excellence is a normative concept, and the ultimate ground of all valid norms is life, the activity that is the making of life. One’s love of excellence is derivative one’s love of life, though “to lose you ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live” (AS 1020).

On Rand’s view, “man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads” (AS 1069). The roads of man are of unlimited good prospect because of the possibility of men embracing the value of human existence and the virtue of rationality, because of what men will discover and invent, because of their advancing material productions.

The value self-esteem entails “that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit” (AS 1021).

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I haven't yet come across any discussion of excellent per se in my Oist readings, but it has been implicit in everything I have read. I think of it as a side effect of the dedicated pursuit of core values, or as a descriptor of success.

I have heard a saying along the lines of perfection being a path rather than a state. I think that as we continually progress we re-define our goals upward. Our visions of excellence are context dependent; the word always refers to the highest we are able to visualize under our present circumstances.

Stephen: Your post popped up while mine was in preview. Well said.

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This isn't a full answer, but "excellence" and "virtue," as applied to character, are pretty much synonyms, and Rand has had lots to say about the second. Since you mention Aristotle, both these words are common translations of arete, which is probably the word he uses in the quote in #1. If you can give me the citation (e.g. 1024a3) I'll try to look it up.

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I'm going to give a factual scientific answer regarding excellence and ignore Objectivism and personal views here.

Research shows that individuals have "implicit motives" which motivate individuals to act in certain ways. These motives are non-semantic, existing within the subconscious emotional circuits of humans. Theory believes these motives exist to meet fundamental psychological needs.

Three big motives have been identified: affiliation, power, and achievement. Achievement refers to a concern for performing activities with a standard for excellence, irrespective of societal standards or pressures.

Research shows that goal success in domains that coincide with implicit motives generates positive emotions in humans. Goal success in domains that do not coincide with implicit motives do not generate positive emotions. In other words, goal success is emotionally meaningless outside the context of implicit motives.

So if you're looking for values to bring happiness, values must align with implicit motives (another way of saying that values must align with psychological needs). Certain aspects of happiness demand excellence.

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Which research?


Lots and lots of research. Here are a few references:

McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American Psychologist, 40(7), 812-825

McClelland, D. C., & Koestner, R. (1992). The achievement motive. In C. P. Smith (Ed.), Motivation and personality: Handbook of thematic content analysis (pp. 143-151). New York: Cambridge University Press

McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, 96(4), 690-702

Schultheiss, O. C., & Brunstein, J. C. (2005). An implicit motive perspective on competence. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation, (p. 31-51). New York: Guilford Publications

Schultheiss, O. C., Jones, N. M., Davis, A. Q., & Kley, C. (2008). The role of implicit motivation in hot and cold goal pursuit: Effects on goal progress, goal rumination, and emotional well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 971-987

Smith, C. P. (Ed). (1992). Motivation and personality: Handbook of thematic content analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press

Here's a nice blurb from Oliver Schultheiss' research site (much quicker than looking up papers):

http://www.psych2.phil.uni-erlangen.de/~oschult/humanlab/research/causes.htm --- Not to be overlooked. Simply amazing stuff

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  • 2 weeks later...


I'll be reading the site, but probably not have time in the near future for the papers unless I write about this topic and need deeper research. However, your post is earmarked for later use.

At the moment I am reading both Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Buyology by Martin Lindstrom. Both are mind-blowing.

I just got a copy of Who am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities by Steven Reiss that is used by several Internet marketing gurus to frame their copywriting and, on a skim, it looks very good. This one is definitely next on the list.

After I get a good digest of all this, I want to start seeing where there are parallels and connection points with Objectivism. This is a secondary purpose, though. Obviously, since I am moving into Internet marketing full time, I am doing my research for that.

I couldn't find practical information that works on how to competently sell stuff in Objectivist literature. So I looked elsewhere.

To tie into the opening theme of this thread, this should be an obvious step in acquiring excellence for any Objectivist. Do the Objectivism, of course, but do the study and practice, too. And don't be stubborn about seeing where there are no answers (or the answers are weak) in Objectivist literature.


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Would you send me a short list of some of the 16 basic desires? There are many ways of talking about desires and there are many desires; I would like to understand where this book aims.

Funny that you're reading Predictably Irrational. After our Rapaille discussions, it seems we share common reading themes. I enjoyed Ariely's book a lot.. I just started reading a book called Personality Not Included, which discusses branding.

I recently started working as a marketing consultant. I use implicit motives heavily. Right now I'm independently working with two wineries in Napa to understand the emotional triggers related to red wine. In fact I'm hosting a focus group this weekend on the subject. Exciting stuff.

Are you a columnist, tech writer, marketer, marketing writer, self-employed, with a firm....? I'm interested to know more about what you do.


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From pp. 17-18 of Who Am I?:

Here are the 16 basic desires. The order of presentation is without significance.

Power is the desire to influence others.

Independence is the desire for self-reliance.

Curiosity is the desire for knowledge.

Acceptance is the desire for inclusion.

Order is the desire for organization.

Saving is the desire to collect things.

Honor is the desire to be loyal to one's parents and heritage.

Idealism is the desire for social justice.

Social Contact is the desire for companionship.

Family is the desire to raise one's own children.

Status is the desire for social standing.

Vengeance is the desire to get even.

Romance is the desire for sex and beauty.

Eating is the desire to consume food.

Physical Activity is the desire for exercise of muscles.

Tranquility is the desire for emotional calm.

If you are interested in learning how to use these desires and do not require information on how our research was done, you can skip ahead to Chapters 2, 3, and 4, where the 16 desires are discussed in detail. The remainder of this chapter is concerned mostly with the underlying scientific research and philosophical analysis that led us to develop this particular list of basic desires and no other.

I haven't read the book yet, so I cannot comment further on this list as explanation.

As to my own impression, I look at this list and it almost looks like a roll of emotions that were presented intensely in Atlas Shrugged, with most of them clearly present in Rand's heroes as major themes of their characters (to varying degrees and mixes). These worked big-time as suspense enhancers.

My Internet marketing work is as a one-man band. I will be presenting a course on Internet marketing before too long. I am in the stage of building sites, promoting and getting income from them and measuring the results. I am doing it this way because when I present the course, I want to have stuff of my own to point to for the different techniques.

I am studying a lot because that's what I do. I can't seem to half-ass it--and believe me, I've tried just to move faster. But I choke if it isn't good and I don't know enough to fix it with consistency. So I go back to the books and tapes and videos until I not only get it right, I know why.

Try starting over in your 50s. It's a barrel of laughs...

(Can't complain much, though. Not really. Look at what I have been learning!)


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My initial impression is to look to the concept, not the word.

The same word often means different concepts.

EDIT: Anyway, for the purpose of the concept here, think about Dagny Taggart's attitude toward Nat Taggart, her grandfather. Dagny's desire to honor him is certainly there. It has a solid place in her character.

If I remember correctly, Rand used Nat Taggart's statue as a good prop to trigger her reflections and thinking that explore this desire.


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There is a qualification to the 16 desires above that needs to be given. The only ones focused on are the ones that prompt people to act, but define the differences in people's goals. Reiss explains it on p. 27.

We cut out many basic biological needs, such as drinking water, because they are not relevant for understanding who we are. People spend relatively little time drinking water, and the behavior of drinking water is very similar from one person to the next. Our culture says very little if anything about drinking water. Although drinking water is important in biology and essential for life, it is not important in psychology. In contrast, eating is an important topic in psychology. People spend a great deal of time preparing and consuming food, many cultures and religions have dietary rules, and many people have eating disorders. Since our eating habits are important to who we are, but our habits of drinking water are not, we kept on our list the desire to eat but we eliminated the desire to drink water.

This is turning out to be a fascinating read. His purpose is to set up scientific parameters arrived at through testing so that, ultimately, human behavior can be more accurately predicted than by other means.

He has a "desire profile" test that is used to determine which of the 16 desires a person holds more strongly. Each person will only have a few that are really important to him or her and others that are not very important. The rest will be average importance. The predictability (in relation to other people) comes from analyzing the first two.

I don't know how far this thing goes, yet, but I can already see it as a great tool for coming up with self-motivation routines, even if it is woefully incomplete. An intense desire is an intense desire regardless of where it comes from and you can work with it. This will certainly be useful for copywriting if customers can be accurately profiled.


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Hey Michael,

Those 16 basic desires are quite interesting and intuitive. I wonder what would make such a book unique since many authors claim to have lists of basic desires. I think you'll find it a fascinating read, and I think an important consideration when reading such material is to ask: what type of desire is this? For example, Idealism definitely seems to be of a different category than eating.

Just as an aside, tranquility is interesting. Emotional preference has a name in psychology: ideal affect. Ideal affect, a preference for excitement or tranquility, is a function of culture and biology. In Eastern cultures, low-arousal affect (tranquility) is preferred and ingrained into all individuals. In Western cultures, high-arousal affect (excitement) is preferred and ingrained into all individuals. People with high extraversion (biological) tend towards more depression in Eastern cultures, and tend to thrive in Western cultures (and vice-versa).

It's great that you're starting over (at whatever age). I did (am doing really) the same thing. I was in business management for several years at a semiconductor company, then I said "screw this!" and chose to follow a more personally meaningful path. I chose psychology and marketing because I find value in understanding not what sells but what makes people happy in the process. So much of marketing today falls into the category of hedonic-treadmill desires (also another reason why it's important to understand the different categories of human desires), and I'd rather provide people with more of an authentic and fulfilling experience.

By the way, my focus group over the weekend went fantastically well. I have some amazing results about how conscious values interact with psychological needs (again, different categories of human desires!).


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