CPL: A Clarification
One of the most important practical ideas of Objectivism’s ethical theory, and sadly one that seems to be misunderstood by many Objectivists, is the notion of a central purpose in life (a CPL). The purpose of this post is to discuss the misunderstanding as I see it, but before I do so a general review of the idea is in order.
A CPL is the central, guiding purpose around which one’s entire value hierarchy is shaped. Acting in accordance with that purpose is the primary goal of one’s days, the value to which all other values are subordinated. While many proper values (such as the joy of relaxing on the beach or watching a clever television show) are not productive in nature, the CPL must be a productive pursuit and such non-productive values must only be pursued if they are in harmony with the central purpose. As Ayn Rand explained in her 1964 Playboy interview, having a CPL enables man to live a happy, integrated life whereas its lack ensures conflict:
A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and, therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find . . . .
Now you hopefully have an idea of what a CPL is, and probably why it’s so important. So now, something that a CPL is not: A CPL is not synonymous with a career. This is really important, so I repeat: a CPL need not be a career! This is something I’ve seen quite a few Objectivists get wrong, and it has led to misled advice given by some and frustrated negative self-images by others.
Don’t get me wrong, a CPL can be, and often is, a career. Your central purpose can be working as a database programmer peopleguy, or a lawyer, or a novelist, or many other such pursuits. Moreover, I think for most of your life your CPL should be a career, so long as your society is the kind willing to pay for your work. But there are two important points missed by those who think a CPL must be a career: first, your CPL can change over your lifetime, and second, everyone at every stage in life needs a CPL (at least implicitly). To see the first point, consider the fact that Ayn Rand herself probably had two major CPLs in her adult life: first, to portray man as he could and ought to be (which work culminated in Atlas Shrugged), and second, to flesh out and spread her philosophy of Objectivism (which work consisted of several anthologies, speeches, lectures, newsletters, and at least one significant book). Or, for another example, consider Leonard Peikoff, who has announced plans to switch from philosophy after the culmination of his work on the DIM hypothesis into the field of science fiction writing. Before I address the second point, I want to clarify something about the scope of a CPL.
A CPL exists to guide your actions in the present. A CPL will certainly imply taking actions with long-range effects, and in most cases will even involve long range planning, but qua CPL its purpose is to guide your choices here and now, today. Should I pick up that physics text or reread ItOE? Should I apply to grad school or start looking for jobs after college? Should I sign this 99 year contract as a representative of my company? These are the types of questions that a CPL helps answer. A CPL is not something you just refer to when thinking about your future, it should be there (implicit or explicit) in every choice and judgment you make.
So now, back to the second point missed by equating a CPL with a career: Everyone at every stage of life can, and should, have a CPL. A child who integrates acts with the ultimate goal of learning how the world works has a central (implicit) principle “serv[ing] to integrate all the other concerns of [his] life.” A teenager working to form his character and determine which ideas he wants to guide his life can’t be said to be “drift[ing] helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment.” A young adult taking various jobs and exploring his passions in order to determine a career to which he wants to dedicate his life is surely able to “enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind.” Indeed, all of these (learning how the world works, forming ones character, figuring out ones career) ARE valid central purposes.
So why does this all matter? Because it is important to know (especially, though not exclusively, for younger Objectivists) that one is NOT stuck with the false alternative of either having a central, fulfilling career goal or being consigned to an aimless, purposeless existence. If you have a career and it is your central purpose, awesome and great for you. If you don’t or it isn’t, though, don’t worry! There are other productive purposes that could never be considered a career (such as “shaping ones own character”) or don’t work as a career in today’s world (such as “writing rational screenplays for big-budget films” may be given the state of Hollywood) that CAN work as valid central purposes. Of course, you need to survive, so if you need to take a job to support yourself you should, but it doesn’t need to become your central purpose. By all means, work as a waitress during the day and audition for plays on the weekends. Or finish your science degree while considering becoming an artist. Or move to Atlanta and make money doing various odd jobs while soul-searching and figuring out what you really want. You can still be happy and purposeful, and your worth is not lessened in the least.