FAQ: What is a “Deep Rational Value”?

Series: The Concept of Value

I aim to teach people to think clearly and logically about value-laden issues. As a means to this end, I exhort my Thinking Labbers to identify “deep rational values” [Footnote 1] at stake in every confusing situation. This is critical to your short- and long-term happiness.

This term is introduced in the class on “Emotions and Values 101,” which is in the (free) Thinking Directions Starter Kit, is explained in Do What Matters Most, and is described briefly in many articles, including in the recent article, “Your Reasons Matter.”  However, there has been no single article specifically devoted to explaining exactly what I mean by a “deep rational value.” So, at the request of a new Thinking Labber, here it is.

First I need to clarify what I mean by the term “value” in this context.

Often when I write about values, I mean values in the psychological sense. In other words, I’m referring to values that you as an individual have programmed into your own subconscious databanks by means of your thoughts and actions. (See my article, “How Values Form.”) Values that have been stored in your subconscious are the effective cause of all of your emotions. They are entirely individual.

In contrast, “deep rational values” are values in a philosophic sense. They are not the values you happen to hold, but rather phenomena of general theoretical value because of how they relate to the nature of man, the world, and man’s role in the world.

Your individual values number in the thousands and are of great interest to you, of some interest to those you interact with, and of little interest to those you don’t have a relationship with.

In contrast, deep rational values, being philosophic values, are of interest and relevance to valuers everywhere. They give us a language to understand our own values and to discuss values with others. There are relatively few of them. To explain what exactly they are, I need to take you on a tour of how to think about values philosophically, which I learned from Ayn Rand.

The philosophic starting point for understanding the concept of “value”

Because philosophy concerns all men, it starts with observations that anyone can make. No specialized introspection is required.

Ayn Rand starts her discussion of values with some basic observations: people, animals, and plants take action to get things. Plants grow toward the sun. Cats chase strings. People seek out everything from potatoes to popularity. Her oft-quoted definition based on these observations is that “a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” This “generic definition” (Leonard Peikoff’s term) is a very broad, first cut at what values are from a philosophic perspective.

This “generic” concept of value draws attention to the fact that values are a product of action — specifically of the action of living organisms. Ayn Rand wrote:

“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/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.

…[T]here is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. 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.

AR, “The Objectivist Ethics”

Why values need more analysis for mankind

Notice that plants and animals have life as their inbuilt standard of value. They inherit structures and mechanisms that, to the extent any particular organism is evolutionarily adapted to its environment, cause them to take action that promotes their lives. For them, values are both what they act “to gain and keep” and what they need to survive. Their values and their needs for life are identical. [Footnote 2]

This is different from mankind. We do not have life as a built-in standard for guiding our action. We have volition. Ayn Rand wrote:

Man has no automatic code of survival. His particular distinction from all other living species is the necessity to act in the face of alternatives by means of volitional choice. He has no automatic knowledge of what is good for him or evil, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires…. A desire is not an instinct. A desire to live does not give you the knowledge required for living.

AR, Galt’s Speech

This means that some things that men “act to gain and keep” can be self-destructive. This includes obvious things like mind-destroying drugs and Ponzi schemes, plus less obvious things like trying to control your adult children’s lives or accepting a safe, easy, boring job that’s offered rather than one that will foster your personal growth.

Put more simply, man has needs to sustain his life, as do other living organisms, but he has no inbuilt, automatic way to meet those needs. It takes a volitional mental process to clarify what he needs, identify the actions that will meet those needs, and then initiate the actions necessary to meet them. Ayn Rand explains:

Consciousness—for those living organisms which possess it—is the basic means of survival. For man, the basic means of survival is reason. Man cannot survive, as animals do, by the guidance of mere percepts. A sensation of hunger will tell him that he needs food (if he has learned to identify it as “hunger”), but it will not tell him how to obtain his food and it will not tell him what food is good for him or poisonous. He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available—but to build the simplest shelter, he needs a process of thought. No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools, how to make a wheel, how to make an airplane, how to perform an appendectomy, how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron or a box of matches. Yet his life depends on such knowledge—and only a volitional act of his consciousness, a process of thought, can provide it.

AR, “The Objectivist Ethics”

To sustain our lives, we must figure out how to choose our actions so that they will meet our actual needs. And we must do this reliably, over the long term.

Man’s needs as more complex

That turns out to be rather a challenging undertaking.

Man’s needs are more complex than other organisms. Because he is volitional, he has mental needs as well as physical ones. For example, he needscrow space” to think. This is a real but non-obvious need, which is directly connected to his survival. He needs “crow space” to figure out what his life requires, he needs “crow space” to figure out how to get it, and he needs “crow space” in part to ensure he has the willpower to act in his best interests.

And his mental needs get even more complex than that: happiness is a mental need. Happiness is inextricably connected to life. [Footnote 3]

Take the obvious example: people who are chronically depressed don’t take the actions needed to sustain their lives. They die sooner than they would. They wouldn’t survive long at all if they weren’t in an advanced civilization where they can rely on other people who have sufficient wealth to support them.

In addition, thanks to language and the division of labor, there are innumerable ways that man can meet any particular physical need through trade, innumerable ways to enhance his happiness through interactions with others, and innumerable ways to make mistakes in dealing with some people such that his interactions harm himself rather than further his life. (Harming another person is one of the most effective ways to harm one’s own life.)

As civilization advances, man’s life gets more complex, and the mental load becomes potentially unmanageable — unless you have some way to mentally simplify the complexities such that you can easily figure out what is good for your health and happiness in any situation.

This is the role of principles.

The role of principles

Principles are mental tools for dealing with complexity. A principle is an abstract, general truth, which focuses your attention on the essential causal connections that explain a mass of data. This makes principles both simple and powerful. Think how Newton’s Laws simplify your ability to predict the complex behavior of interacting masses.

Philosophic principles concern man, the world, and man’s relationship to the world. Epistemology (the theory of knowledge) identifies principles you can use to understand the world, i.e., gain knowledge. As epistemology advances, it teaches you how to form valid principles in other important fields. Perhaps the most important is ethics, or morality, which is a code of principles for action, which we call virtues. If life is your standard of value, the virtues name the actions needed for people to flourish. Some examples include honesty, integrity, and justice.

As I did in a previous article, I’m basing this discussion on a specific view of philosophy (Ayn Rand’s). But I am explaining the issues starting with the practical problem, with the goal of showing you the facts of reality that need to be understood to sort out the nature of needs in the case of man. Man is the animal that survives by means of his reasoning mind; it takes both ethics and epistemology to understand man’s mental as well as his physical needs. [Footnote 4]

However, once you get a philosophic framework, if you have life as your standard, you can reach general conclusions about what human beings need to flourish. You can reach conclusions about what you should do in order to be happy. You can validate whether some thing or some action is useful for this end.

We call these things good.

Relatively few of them are good in principle.

Those that are good in principle earn the designation “deep rational values.”

Deep rational values

Consider this table of deep rational values, which I often share: [Footnote 5]

I submit that every phenomenon listed in this table meets three criteria.

1. You can make the case that anyone with life as his standard of value can agree, all things being equal, that having this in your life is better than not having it. It is generally worth pursuing. It may not be the most important thing to focus on at any given time, but it can be shown to aid health and happiness. This is what makes it a value.

2. You can make the case that its value is connected to the faculty of reason being man’s basic means of survival. It supports the complex needs of a human mind. This is what makes it a rational value.

3. You can make the case that its value is a value in principle. The concept is relatively abstract and general, so there are many concrete, specific ways you could achieve it, as a value. Since it is also connected directly to the causal efficacy of the mind, it is in principle good. It’s that it is good in principle that makes it a deep rational value.

For example, let’s take “organization” from the “clarity” category.

  • Organization is better than disorganization, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to find and use things that you are interested in. Less effort expended to get what they need is good for living organisms. (It’s a value.)
  • The reason it helps is that it reduces the number of units you need to hold in mind — it connects directly to the need to avoid crow overload in order to think. (It’s rational.)
  • It’s good in principle. It’s an abstract, general concept that could be applied in many areas. Organization is relevant to anything, from tidying up your desk to clarifying the relationships between people or categorizing your knowledge. (It’s deep.)

As another example, let’s take “support” from the “cooperation” category.

  • Getting support (from another person) is better than not getting any support, because it expands your scope of action. There are many values that can only be created through the joint effort of more than one person. (It’s a value.)
  • The term “support” implies the other person is choosing to offer the support. This reflects the basic mental need to be free of compulsion. Individual choice of both parties is a fundamental mental need of all proper human interactions. (It’s rational.)
  • Support is an abstract, general concept that could refer to anything, from getting help in opening a jar of pickles to receiving a moral sanction or learning from an expert. It’s good in principle. (It’s deep.)

The benefit of identifying deep rational values

Because of these three criteria, especially that it be good in priniciple, there aren’t that many deep rational values. That’s a huge benefit. It means that in any situation, if you are unclear on your values, you can consult a relatively short list of abstract, general terms, and very likely get a lead into what’s going on. They are an indispensable aid to introspection.

This is not to say that the table above is a complete list. It is rather a representative list, suitable for familiarizing yourself with the basic idea. There are many other lists.

For example, in my Rationally Connected Conversations workshops, we usually look at 2–3 other lists of “universal needs,” including this one that I have permission to share. (“Universal needs” is Marshall Rosenberg’s term for these phenomena. See Footnote 5.) Other lists often focus more on social values, recreation, and the value of being emotionally present. My list has more emphasis on productivity and self-direction. I would argue over some standard entries on other people’s lists, but they are worth perusing. I recommend that people go through various lists and come up with their own top 50 for quick reference.

There is much more that could be said about the value of knowing “deep rational values.” If you are curious, simply do a search on my site for the term. But for now, I have accomplished my intent. I have explained what exactly they are.


1. Let this be a footnote to credit and honor Marshall Rosenberg, who originated the idea of “universal needs,” which I have reconceptualized as “deep rational values.” This is my validation, not his.

2. If you are interested in the scientific and philosophic details of how plants and animals are goal-directed without volition, I recommend reading Harry Binswanger’s book, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts.

3. For much more on the relation of happiness to life, see my series on the concept of happiness.

4. The foregoing is guided by the Objectivist ethics and epistemology. In these articles, I do not presuppose agreement with Objectivism, though I use it as my own philosophic framework as I look at reality. In writing, I try to communicate my observations fresh, based on observations you, the reader, can make for yourself or by appeal to your own past experiences, without assuming you already know about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. This article has been particularly challenging in this regard. If you wish I had made more step-by-step connections, I encourage you to read Chapters 6 & 7 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff, “Man” and “The Good.” Or better yet, Chapters 1-9. (Chapter 9 is titled “Happiness.”) Or even better yet, the whole book!

5. Marshall Rosenberg calls these phenomena “universal needs.” I do not use this term because I do not think they are universal. For one thing, not everyone is a valuer, i.e., not everyone holds life as the standard of value. Some people are out for destruction and could not be well-described as valuing any of these. In addition, I don’t refer to them as needs because I reserve “needs” for more basic issues where it is proper to focus on what you lack in relation to what you have. For example, air becomes an urgent need in a matter of seconds if you lack it. Water becomes an urgent need in a matter of hours. “Crow space” becomes an urgent need the moment you get overloaded — you literally cannot think. In the 21st century, in a free country, you could make the case that most of us, most of the time, can pretty easily meet our basic needs. Most of our action concerns gaining values we want that will make our lives even better, not meeting our needs per se. A value orientation is designed to keep the truth of this abundance in mind as the context for making decisions.

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  1. Paula

    Great article. In particular, I appreciate the explicit identification that each item in your table of Deep Rational Values meets the three criteria of aiding life, supporting the reasoning mind, and being good in principle.

    • Jean Moroney

      Thanks, Paula. I’m pleased at making that standard explicit, too. The happiness work helped made mental needs clearer, and that’s what finally unlocked this puzzle, which I’ve been working for, oh, 15 years.

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