Beyond Survival and Flourishing:

The Aristotelian Tripod and the "Fullest Life"


By Roger E. Bissell

August 27, 2005

For some time now, I have been observing the gradual emergence of a three-tiered model of life-centered ethics—survival, flourishing, and generativity.  I think it's appropriate to offer a few words in Aristotle's defense....from his foremost commentator (someone still much-too-neglected by Objectivists and too casually brushed aside for his "floating abstractions"):  Thomas Aquinas.

In his In Aristotelos Librum De Anima Commentarium (ed. A. M. Pirotta (3rd ed; Turin: Marietti, 1948), St. Thomas writes:

Aristotle defines the primary principle of life, which is called the vegetative psyche or soul. In plants, this is the entire soul, while in animals, it is only a part of the soul......To understand his definition, it must be seen that there is a definite order among the three operations of the plant soul. For its first activity is taking food, through which the living thing preserves its existence. [Survival, anyone?] The second and more perfect activity is growth, by which the living thing develops both in size and vital energy. [Flourishers, are you listening?] But the third, most perfect, and fulfilling activity is reproduction, through which something already as it were existing perfected in its own right [i.e., an end in itself] transmits, to another, being and perfection. For as Aristotle observes in Book IV of his Meteorology (c. 1, 4-18), anything achieves its greatest perfection when it is able to make another such as it itself is. Since therefore things are appropriately defined and named by their outcome, whereas the fulfillment of the activity of plant life is the generation of another living being, it follows that it will be a proper definition of the first principle of life, that is to say, of the plant soul, if we define it as what is generative of another like itself on the plan of being alive. [cited by John Deely in Basics of Semiotics, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990, p. 97] [Also see: Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Treatise on Man, Question 78 (On the Powers of the Soul in Particular), Article 2 (Whether the Parts of the Vegetative Soul Are Fittingly Described as the Nutritive, Augmentative, and Generative?).]

Thus, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, there are not two, but three progressively richer ways in which a human (or any living being) can live a full life—through “nutritive” acts (survival), “augmentative” acts (flourishing), and “generative” acts (creation and/or production, including but not restricted to procreation and reproduction). And it's important not to take any of these in too concrete-bound a manner. Just as growth should not be narrowly construed as only or primarily physical development, but instead include various ways in which one can expand one's powers and abilities—neither should the third level or part of full living require that one engage in biological reproduction in order to be "generative," nor in general that one restrict oneself to one particular way of generativity to the exclusion of others.

Generativity, in other words, must be construed more broadly and pluralistically for humans, so that it includes making things that help spread one’s ideas and values through the culture, thus causing others to be “such as one is oneself,” at least in that respect. The principle here follows the familiar Randian formulation: "must exist in some form(s) but may exist in any."

In particular, generativity entails no a priori requirement to have children—or to not have them. So, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far either way in our discussions of how child-rearing relates to the philosophy of Objectivism. All Objectivism says (or should say, as enriched by Aristotelian insights) is that generativity must exist in some form, or one is not living most fully. Survival and flourishing—while they may be all that one can manage in some circumstances—are not enough! They, along with generativity, are the three necessary means or preconditions to the fulfillment of one's own life.

These observations also apply to groups of living organisms, such as hives or nations. In regard to the latter, consider these aspects of a fully viable country or nation. First, the nation is "born" and simply tries to survive. Later, after it establishes its existence, the nation thrives, flourishes, and grows. It expands the boundaries of its being in a contiguous manner. Lastly, the nation tries to replicate or "export" itself into other areas of the world, establishing enclaves or colonies or areas of influence outside the boundaries of its contiguous territory. It seems that those are three features of the "fullest life" of nations that occur always, or for the most part, in healthy nations.

In the remainder of this essay, I am going to reflect on several frequently pondered philosophical questions as they relate to generativity, in order to show the fertility of this idea as an expansion of ethical concerns beyond the survival-flourishing debate.

Generativity and “the Meaning of Life”

I think that the meaning of your life is what you choose to generate. There are things that would be more appropriate for you to choose to generate—e.g., if you are a world-class typist and a world-class surgeon, it would probably be better if you focused on curing a thousand cancer or cardiac patients, than to try to get in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most pages typed without stopping.

But "generativity" or "legacy" is what we give to the world, what we externalize of ourselves. It can be children (and grandchildren, etc.), or books, or buildings, or poems, or performances, or many, many other things. And not just one of them, but perhaps even some of many of them.

Suppose your books were threatened with non-publication, or your buildings with demolition, or your performances with non-attendance and critical disapproval, or your children with severely dysfunctional lives (or even premature death). If one or more of these were at the core of your "legacy", would you not feel that your very being, the very meaning of your life, were threatened, if they were in jeopardy?

Aristotle wrote of the expanding of the self to include the other. "A good friend is like another self." (Nichomachean Ethics) Does this not apply to anything that is felt to be a core part of our selves? Would not the loss of any of these be excruciating—if not fully unbearable? People do go on in the face of crushing loss—i.e., some do—they pick themselves up and go on. They love again, they have other children or foster those who need help, they find another outlet for their creative energies. But it is clear that beneath all that, they are trying to rebuild the self. Or, rather, to expand outward again, to flourish and grow, to generate new legacies to leave the world.

As noted above, Aristotle said that every living being—plants, animals, people—has three essential components of a full life: metabolism (survival), growth (flourishing), and extending oneself outside one's self (generativity). Objectivists often get hung up debating survival vs. flourishing, when it's obvious that it's both, plus generativity. I don't see how a full, healthy life can exist without all three.

Where, why, and how do we obtain purpose? Can we lose it by becoming too absorbed in our reflections, or do we need to just dig deeper? Does it make any real difference what we say is the source of our purpose? Do we need to enter into a "state of forgetfulness" in order to observe ourselves and our interests and activities in such a way that we can come to grasp what our purpose is or should be? Is this prayer? Is our purpose ultimately religious?

What if there was a God and He was "kind" enough to tell us how to live and spare us the anguish of having to figure out for ourselves what our lives' purposes would be? If God tried to do that to me, I'd put on ear plugs! Seriously, I want to figure it out for myself. Plus, it's really not that hard for me to see what I should be doing with my life. What's hard is stripping away all the layers of bad habits, childhood baggage, and other drags on my spirit, so that I can pursue my goals with good energy.

Aquinas endorsed Aristotle's ideas above. That's more than enough religious endorsement for me! As for the methodology, I think it's contemplating, or deeply considering the profound nature of the world and of one's relation to it. You can get this in good art and in good friendship—even, by negative contrast, in bad art and bad relationships. But I think an essential part of it is to be in a frame of consciousness sometimes referred to as the "esthetic [or aesthetic] attitude", in which you set aside your real-world concerns and enter into another "reality" here and now, to see what lessons you can absorb.

It's not an accident that paintings have a frame, stages have a proscenium, statues have a pedestal, etc. It's to help us get out of "regular reality" and into a symbolic mode where we can better focus on the deep issues of life contemplatively or perceptually—"prayerfully”—rather than philosophically and conceptually. Sort of trying to "get it" by being "in your soul" rather than "in your head." Spiritual, rather than cerebral.

But prayer or meditation is a tool, at best, and when one gets sucked into the subculture that does it, there are risks of its good effects being subverted by the other negative stuff. A realist needs to stay connected to this reality—including the inner reality of one's mind and body, of course—and anything that takes you to an alleged other plane of existence is bogus.

Generativity and the “Biological Clock”?

Does the pluralistic view of generativity really work? Are the alternative form of generativity (e.g., books written, compositions, inventions, etc.) really adequate equivalents to the having of children, and do they give the childless the same level of gratification?

It depends partly on whether the childless know what they're missing. I know of numerous feminist and careerist women who aimed in the career/no kids direction for a decade or two, then in their 30s or early 40s had a reckoning with their "biological clocks." Then they had to decide whether to expand their life-projects by accommodating this urging, or instead to work through/past it and continue on their former course. I admit that I don't know that all women go through this conflict or rough spot. Maybe genetics and/or hormones have a lot to do with it.

What of those who have not yet dealt with this issue? Are they warped or lying or self-deceiving narcissists, when they say “I never, ever wanted to have children”? Perhaps some are, but probably not most. And how could you argue with something they have expressed in the past tense? What is more doubtful is when a young woman says, “I never, ever will want to have children.”

Wants, cravings, and desires come not only from one's volitionally chosen values and ideals but also from one's body. If a woman gets through her fertile years without such a face-off between her chosen life course and her physical nature, I think she will be the exception. But if she doesn’t, I would urge her to embrace the situation in all its wholeness and consider anew what feels like the best way to attain the generativity we all rationally and emotionally want out of life.

Nobody says we have to have kids in order to be generative, but nobody says we have to have spouses, or paint, or write poetry, or do philosophy, or play music, or design websites either! And when our context of knowledge and values and passion throws an opportunity up in our faces, it is usually a time to open up our options and reconsider what we want to have done by the time we croak.

A brief word in regard to one’s parents feelings about all this: some people seem perfectly content to have their little dogs or cats or birds and to not need children as more....troublesome ...pets. However, it usually does not wash, when one tries to justify this choice by asking one’s mother to think of one’s cats, for instance, as “substitute grandchildren.” (Ain’t buying that one. Nope!) Nor would her mother have been very wild about the idea, had your mom decided to have cats instead of you. (Not to mention, where would you be?)   

It's difficult for our elders not to consider our choice not to have children as a reproach to them, and in a number of ways: (1) they take it as a statement that they have done something wrong in raising us (all too often true!), (2) they take it as a criticism of their lack of career ambition or for sabotaging their own career success by the added burden and distraction of children, (3) they take it as a judgment that they were suckers for "going along with the program" of having kids to please their elders. Be that as it may, it's their problem. My only suggestion is that one just try to avoid aggravating their disappointment with…uh…"catty" remarks.

Egocentricity as an Impediment to the “Fullest Life”?

I particularly disdain the parents who warehouse their kids in daycare as soon as they can, so both Mom and Dad can pursue their careers. Lots of yuppies out here in California go that path.

However, what I really think is going on in a lot of folks—men and women both—is a growing tendency (exacerbated by a trend toward more bad parenting 20 years ago) for young adults to be overly "egocentric." That is to have fairly rigid personal boundaries, which makes them less able to expand their sense of self to include other persons. That translates into either having kids but being relatively detached from them — or to avoid even having them at all.

There is a real difference between being a genuine egoist and being egocentric. An egocentric person is one who has not matured psychologically in relation to other people. A person who is still a child emotionally does not make a good parent—and if such a person recognizes that fact, on some level, and decides to remain childless, I guess we should applaud that fact, rather than criticize them.

One might ask: isn't the Generativity idea a "social nicety" that we use so we don't have to confront childless couples with our view that their lives are lacking? Well, it may be a nicety in relation to egocentric, immature adults who could have kids but (fortunately) choose not to—but it’s more of a compassionate consolation to those mature, healthy egoists who can't have kids but would love to.

It's my own amateur opinion that emotionally mature people naturally want a loving intimate relationship with another adult and a loving parental or mentoring or otherwise supportive relationship with children. However, I would never take it as prima facie evidence of emotional immaturity if a fertile couple chose not to have kids. Nor would I claim all people who have kids are emotionally mature!

So, are production and reproduction equivalent? Are creation and procreation basically the same thing?

No, not entirely. I'm saying they function similarly, in the same category. But I'd also say that being involved with children (whether or not one actually makes them oneself) is to the other kinds of generativity what romantic love is to the other kinds of flourishing. You can build magnificent skyscrapers and that could be part of your developing your inner talents and powers (flourishing) and creating your outer legacy (generativity). But I think the deepest embodiment of both "fullnesses" is in the people that are encompassed when we expand our sense of self outward. People, not things. And people that represent not just our intellectual or cultural values, but our deepest personal view of life and ourselves as sexual beings that are part of the "Great Chain of Life." (Thus, romance and kids.)

Sometimes discussions in economics or social theory talk about the "atomistic individual" or "homo economicus," looking at people more as things that plug into the market when it suits their needs, but which are "really" better understood in Robinson Crusoe terms. ("I am a rock, I am an island.") Well, I think we are better understood as social beings, which means we need people. And that we are better understood as biological beings, which means that we got here by being the children of others, as well as the students or beneficiaries of the wisdom and generosity of others. Part of our human animal potentialities include the power to participate in that Chain of Life, to experience fully what it means to be part of nature, rather than "rationally" alienated from it.

Generativity and Suicide?

This is another area in which I think Objectivism needs to be modified (or clarified). In my opinion, a more complete view of the proper motivation for human action is that it further one's fullness of life, which includes not only pure survival, and not even survival plus flourishing, but those two factors plus generativity.

Aristotle and Aquinas identified the three essential factors in the full life for any living organism as being metabolism or survival, growth or flourishing, and generativity. One maintains one's life, one expands one's powers and abilities, and one creates embodiments of one's values outside oneself.

Working out the best relationship or balance between these three factors can be a real challenge for self-aware beings like us, and it is not at all cut and dried that survival is the prime value—or flourishing either, for that matter. We've all heard or read the arguments about whether one would give up one's life for one's freedom or one's true love. Well, extend the point on into the third area, too, for that is a vital part of the best life, the fullest life for human beings.

There can be no just reason for requiring another person to follow through on a contract (or any legal obligation) if it requires that person to forfeit his or her life. It may or may not be in a given person's interest to give up his/her life in order to fulfill a voluntarily taken legal obligation. That is for that person to decide, not government or anyone else. I very well might have some motive for laying down my life for a legal obligation—or even something less than a legal obligation—if the situation provided me an opportunity to preserve a value (such as one of my children) that I regarded at that point in time as being more contributory to my self-interest than even my own survival. Ensuring one's generativity, one of the three legs of the brand of egoism I think worth defending (the other two being survival and flourishing), may in fact require one's own demise. Yet, this should be the decision of the individual involved, not other people.

Note that this has a clear application to any (if any) pregnancies that cannot be completed without fatal risk to the mother. Even granting (as many Objectivists do not) that at some point in the pregnancy, the mother is carrying a living human person with rights, the mother cannot rightly be forced to continue the pregnancy if her life is at stake. It is her decision whether or not there is some value, egoistic or otherwise, to be gained by continuing to put her life on the line. Surely this is something that nearly all Objectivists could agree to, since even many nasty old conservatives concede the point!

Further Thoughts

August 31, 2005


1. In a certain sense, one is flourishing if one is living well, but I tend to use the term more narrowly. Here's a simple example to argue for this: consider the lilies. (Har-har.) Lilies grow and develop—and, in time, they also create new lilies. We generally only use the term "flourish" to describe the former activity, while for the latter we instead use the term "reproduce" or (if they create many new lilies) "proliferate" Both terms refer to an increase of fullness, a burgeoning outward, of the life process of the lilies—in the former, expanding themselves, in the latter, spilling outward into the environment. 

So, and to generalize, within the broad concept of "living well," I see the need for a distinction between flourishing (including physical growth and development, learning, character development, etc.), which is creating or producing value within oneself—and generativity (including child-bearing and supporting, art, commerce, earning a living, etc.), which is creating or producing value outside of oneselfAnd since one's values are an aspect of oneself, then by creating or producing them outside of oneself, one is reproducing an aspect of oneself in the world.

There are important existential and psychological reasons for regarding both flourishing and generativity as rational virtues and, particularly, as means to happiness (which is one's ultimate moral purpose). It is good to learn (an aspect of flourishing) and to produce material goods (an aspect of generativity), because educating and supporting oneself are ways one exercises one's rational faculty so that it functions as one's means of survival (and happiness). It is also good to build one's moral character by virtuous actions (an aspect of flourishing), because this is how one enhances one's self-esteem, which is one's sense that one is worthy and capable of living, another precondition of one's happiness. It is also good to inject one's values into the world (an aspect of generativity), because this is how one makes ones values real and open to one's direct observation, as a reminder that the universe is benevolent, that man is capable of achieving his values (and being happy) if he acknowledges and adapts to the nature of reality.

2. It is true that people, especially those who have not had children, often explore other avenues for generativity in their later years. This phenomenon is sometimes called the "legacy" urge or motive. It is because one's achievements during one's earlier years may not have left much of a discernable trace in the world that some yearn for a more visible, concrete representation of their presence on earth. However, it should be acknowledged that anyone who has led a productive life has already projected much into the world. For further details, see "Mr. Holland's Opus." 

3. I think most childfree-by-choice are not particularly opposed to children—as long as they're someone else's children! Seriously, I do think that there is something important missing from the lives of those who eschew all dealings with children. There is plenty of opportunity for the childfree-by-choice to teach, mentor, or otherwise help children, if that is how they would prefer to interact with children. Uncles and aunts, "Big Brothers" (and Sisters), etc., have a welcome role to play, too.

There is a flip side to the including of children in one's life, whether in one's household or in one's schedule. That leaves less time for other things. Just to name two areas of my own values: I know I could have read and written more essays and books, and I could have played and recorded more jazz music, had I chosen to remain childless. But I wouldn't trade the quality of life I have had, and the very special pattern of generativity (kids and career and hobbies) I have had, for a more one-track and prominent stack of achievement. My legacy will be a patchwork quilt, it seems.  

4. My friend Michael Stuart Kelly commented that “generativity,” while an accurate term “is a bit cumbersome,” and that he “would like to see a more attractive term that is easier to communicate. If you say ‘generativity’ is one of the meanings of life to a normal factory worker, for instance, his eyes will glaze over.” 

True enough! Sometimes a single word, however accurate, is just too wordy for some people. Okay, how about, “give value for value to the world”? Or maybe simply “give” or “share”? (I can hear the anti-altruists sharpening their knives now! :-)


5. In conclusion, I would summarize my perspective with these three injunctions:

            a. Be all that you can rationally be (flourish).

            b. Make all that you can rationally make (be generative).

            c. Prioritize!