Rand’s Immortal Robot and “Values”

by Stephan Kinsella on June 23, 2010

in philosophy

From a comment on the Mises blog from a while back:

Stephan Kinsella March 11, 2005 at 2:34 pm

One thing to keep in mind is there is a difference between being immortal and knowing you are immortal. I have noted this before (where, I cannot find) regarding Ayn Rand’s views about the nature of value. In Virtue of Selfishness she writes:

It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil. … To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured, or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals… Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action.

(See this Randian essay on related matters.)

The problem here, it seems to me, is the assumption that IF you are immortal, then you would be absolutely sure of this fact. Because the argument seems to rely not so much on *being* immortal, but in believing you are immortal. (I think the argument is fallacious in either case.)

What really matters, for action, is what one believes to be the case. This seems to me to apply to Rand’s hypo about “valuing” as much as it does this little discussion about time preference. Now in my view, we would still have time preference, and still value, even if we were immortal and knew it.

But even from the perspective of those here arguing about whether immortality affects time preference (or, in Rand’s case, the capacity to have values), the focus has to be on what the actor thinks or believes, not on what is really the case. Suppose A is immortal but does not know it. He only knows he is older than others and has not yet died. He assumes he has some weird gene that makes him live longer but he has no way of knowing or proving he is really immortal. In this case, he would not act as if he is immortal (whatever the implications of that are) since he does not think he is.

Also assume this: A is not immortal but falsely believes he is. Presumably he would act as if he is immortal. But note: today, many people, e.g. Christians, do in effect believe they are immortal; they believe they don’t really “die” but their soul goes to heaven and exists forever. These people evidently are (from their point of view) immortal, yet still value, and still have time preference.

So clearly, this entire focus on “immortality” is doubly mistaken. First, it is not immortality that matters–it is one’s beliefs about one’s own mortality. And second, apparently even a belief in immortality does not undercut the capacity to have values of time preference.


I really think a big flaw in this entire hypo is that no one can ever know they are immortal–even an immortal person could not know it. In fact, it’s probably impossible to be immortal anyway, given entropy and the universe’s ultimate collapse.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Wirkman Virkkala June 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm

And third, life-over-death has nothing to do with why one prefers peanuts to turds for eating, thus valuing peanuts and disvaluing turds. This issue was all covered by the marginalist economists, who never had to cook up an absurd robot to explain the nature of value.

Rand was simply wrong regarding the way she made Life the basis of values.

Life may be a requirement for evaluation, but for reasons Herbert Spencer latched onto when he defined life as the “adjustment of inner relations to outer relations,” and defined conduct as “acts adjusted to ends.” This process of adjustment always engenders values. Life-vs.-death is irrelevant. Rand has nothing to offer us here.


Juan Fernando Carpio June 23, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Both of you are wrong of course, since most of what provides inner guidance is beyond (or rather, below) reason itself. Women have a biological clock and the rest of us can sense (these things called instincts) drives that generate priorities (aka values) to name one realm where they do. In other words, it is the fact that we’re an evolutionarily designed machine that expires that which leads us through hormonal cycles in life, that which ends up being rationalized. Both of you assume the Randian tabula rasa to criticize her…tabula rasa based stance.

The 70′s called, they want their themes back.


scott. June 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm

how does this relate to the argument that death is what gives life it’s urgency and fragility? would you say this argument refutes that or is it irrelevant to it?


Scott F June 24, 2010 at 6:09 pm

I accept your argument that time preference would not be affected by immortality however I reject your argument that it’s impossible to know if your immortal or mortal.

I have developed a counter argument



Steven Swenson November 12, 2012 at 5:52 am

I came across this article while googling for the quote about Ayn Rand’s indestructible robot.

You’re taking Rand’s quote out of context and switching it to a different context in order to make your argument. You’re depending on the context of human beings which already have values in order to argue that an immortal, indestructible robot could have values.

Keep the contexts in line here. Nothing can help or hinder the robot. It has nothing to gain or lose. So it could not come to see anything as for or against it. What -could- be for or against it? Rand didn’t say it was a robot with a conceptual consciousness like what humans have. She simply said that it is a robot. So I think we can leave human spiritual needs (like art and self esteem) out of it. Compare the robot to the lower animals, like cats and dogs. But I suppose even if the robot were capable of human intellect, it could still have no values because it is “unchanging”. Even when humans pursue spiritual values, it is still a mental change they’re after. A benefit to our inner world. If the robot can neither gain nor lose in the outer or inner world, Rand’s argument stands even for conceptual beings.

It is the alternative between life and death that makes value possible and necessary, and which necessitates an objective approach to ethics.


Steven Swenson November 12, 2012 at 6:01 am

Actually, I should elaborate slightly. It is only volitional beings that need ethics, because the lower animals act automatically to pursue their values. We are capable of choosing to pursue or destroy our lives, and we are fallible. So we humans have a distinct need for ethics, and to approach the field of ethics as objectively as we can.


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