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Post 20

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 12:29pmSanction this postReply
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Shayne, I say "nobody's perfect" because after about four decades of up-close involvement with the Objectivist movement -- including first-hand interactions with many of the most prominent "exemplars" of the philosophy (and I mean the leaders of ALL the partisan factions), I have never yet seen an individual practicing Objectivist virtues fully and consistently.

This was not a welcome conclusion: I was not seeking feet of clay. To the contrary, I first eagerly sought out such individuals precisely because of their reputations and status within the movement. No, I won't descend to naming names. I'll simply state for the record that, on the basis of the enunciated principles of the philosophy, I have not observed moral perfection. I have observed degrees of good and of bad -- sometimes very good, sometimes very bad. But not moral perfection, or anything close.

This may irk you; it may irk those desperately craving unblemished icons; it may irk some lionized as leaders of the movement. But it is my direct experience, and since honesty is a cardinal Objectivist virtue, I am morally obliged to be frank.

Given that I believe the Objectivist ethics is the best philosophical guide to living yet formulated, and given my unhappy experiences with the most prominent leaders and spokesmen of the Objectivist movement, I must conclude that "nobody's perfect" accurately describes today's state of the world.

Please note that I didn't generalize about the metaphysical possibility or impossibility of the task of practicing perfectly the virtues. That was your inference. However, regarding the likelihood of such perfection, let me say this:

Unavoidable contextual factors -- physical hunger and fatigue, overwhelming emotional traumas, value conflicts whose sources are murky and whose solutions are anything but self-evident, the virtual impossibility of determining at any given moment THE best use of one's mind and time (from among countless plausible options), limitations of knowledge, limitations in understanding the implications of one's knowledge, difficulties in maintaining "a sense of proportion" about the relative significance of various facts and judgments that are competing for one's attention, innate limitations of intelligence and consequent limitations of one's ability to reason clearly and consistently, limitations on the time one has to think about certain issues -- these and many, many other factors make "perfect" objectivity well-nigh impossible to define, let alone practice.

To take a single example, the core Objectivist virtue of rationality consists of always maintaining a rational "focus." But focus on what? What "should" one think about at given moment? If both A and B are extremely important to one's life, why not subject B instead of subject A? How deeply should one think about each of them? And for how long? Is 20 minutes enough for A? Twenty days for B? Does the failure to think about A instead of B at any given moment constitute "evasion"? When should one stop thinking about it and eat or sleep or go to the movies or have sex? What is the appropriate amount of time to devote to each of these?

If you think the application of each of the virtues is so self-evident that clear answers to such contextual considerations are self-evident, then I suggest you hang out a shingle and declare yourself Objectivist Guru.

But this long-time Objectivist finds that after nearly 40 years of study and practice, the implications of honesty, justice, productivity and even rationality are still very complex, and not at all self-evident, except in very broad ways. My observation of other self-proclaimed Objectivist exponents leads me to conclude that nobody has yet remotely figured them out.

In fact, I'll add this, by way of my own concluding remarks on this topic:

Some of those who have been touted (or who tout themselves) as exemplary in regard to the Objectivist ethics have been, in my direct personal experience, among the most flagrantly irrational and unjust human beings I've had the displeasure to encounter. Some others have truly been among the finest.

But perfect? No.

In the end, I think the whole obsession about one's "moral perfection" takes his eyes off a far more ethically relevant issue: one's "moral values" -- i. e., specific, life-enhancing personal aims and goals that are consonant with the Objectivist virtues.

If one views ethics as a life compass, as I do, then what does it mean to guide one's life "perfectly"? Is the goal of a sailor to "perfectly" follow a compass heading in a perfectly straight line -- or is it to get to his destination, learning and adjusting as he goes, using his knowledge and skills to the best of his ability?

Woe be unto any sailor whose standard of "perfect helmsmanship" consists of keeping his boat utterly unmoved by shifting winds and currents. He'll become a self-conscious, nervous wreck, looking not at the ocean around him and making adjustments, but obsessed with staring at his compass. And looking inwardly rather than outwardly, he'll be blind to the course ahead. He'll drift away from his destination, or pile up on rocks, forgetting that the whole point of the journey is not to follow a compass: it's to get somewhere.

So it is with a life. Rather than focusing on and fretting about one's own moral stature (or that of others), or what "moral perfection" consists of, or whether one is "living up" to some standard, it is much more fruitful -- morally -- to focus on one's own productive purposes.

If you do that, in my experience, virtues take care of themselves.
(Edited by Robert Bidinotto on 2/13, 12:37pm)


Post 21

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 12:35pmSanction this postReply
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Barbara,
Shayne, it's not possible to go through life without making mistakes. That's part of how we learn. And since the range of Rand's experiences was wider and deeper than most, some of her mistakes were jumbo size. But her virtues and her achievements were also giant sized. 
First, thanks for spelling my name correctly ;)

I don't think your response addresses my question. Yes we all make mistakes, but the question is: Is it the position of some here that we are all inescapably bound to be immoral at times? That is the implication being made, and it is certainly not an Objectivist one.


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Post 22

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 12:53pmSanction this postReply
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Robert,

You talk about someone being overwhelmed or some such and not having the capacity to properly analyze and/or act, and therefore "breaching" Objectivist ethics. Well if he lacked the capacity to do something, then Objectivism certainly doesn't require that he do it! Your understanding of what constitutes Objectivist ethics is intrinsicist and therefore your standard of perfection is other-worldly.
This may irk you; it may irk those desperately craving unblemished icons; it may irk some lionized as leaders of the movement.
Your errors don't irk me. And those who desperately crave unblemished icons are only relevant because they are the other side of the false coin your position represents. Indeed, rather than being irked I'm surprised that someone such as yourself could have slipped into such an obvious (from an Objectivist standpoint) dichotomy.


Post 23

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 1:02pmSanction this postReply
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Shayne asks: "Is it the position of some here that we are all inescapably bound to be immoral at times?"

That certainly isn't my position anyway. I would simply say that by her own definition Rand was at times immoral, letting her desires determine her action rather than maintaining her knowledge of the full context of the situation which would have caused her to develop different desires.


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Post 24

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 2:06pmSanction this postReply
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I want to add a perspective on the issue of immorality that is useful in thinking about it.

 

Objectivists tend to conceive of moral choice as a fork in the road that branches off into “thinking/evading” where one chooses a path. That is the reality in a sense, but the metaphor is off. It’s better to conceive of morality as a straight-ahead pushing into new territory, fueled by mental energy--the choice is not between two directions, but between exerting the effort to move forward and not doing so despite a suspicion or awareness that this effort is now called for.

 

The real question of deciding someone’s morality in a certain situation where they did wrong, is whether they did in fact feel that niggling doubt, or that fully evaded knowledge, about their level of mental effort. In Ayn Rand’s case, one might ask if she really felt she knew enough about human relations and what was “possible to geniuses” to be able freely to be guided by her emotions--if so, she was being moral after all, no matter what damage resulted. I would like to believe that, in fact, but I really don’t think it was true.

 

But what does it mean to say Rand was “immoral” in this sense? It would mean only she acted against her own self-interest. I think, then, that outside a philosophic discussion on the nature of the good, the word “immoral” should be reserved for clear, highly destructive cases of extensive evasion of thought.

 

You might say that Rand’s case was highly destructive, and that it should therefore have been clear to her. And I would answer that it takes two, four or more to tango and the destruction was mutually reinforcing and mutually blinding.


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Post 25

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 2:44pmSanction this postReply
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Barbara, you wrote a great biography of Ayn Rand. I have never seen a substantial criticism. Any intelligent person can come up with interesting and valid criticisms, but no one can write a biography beyond negative criticism. "Passion" was not perfect and it wouldn't have been very good if you had tried to make it so. Great is a lot better than perfect.

--Brant


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Post 26

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 3:15pmSanction this postReply
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I confess to a measure of dismay at evaluations of Ayn Rand's polyamory as making her "imperfect" or "immoral." Rand conducted her romantic life with absolute honesty toward all those directly involved. Her advice on sexual matters to the readers of her books was aimed at the person with what was then believed to be the "standard sexuality," partly because general knowledge of sexualities was still in a very primitive stage in her day, partly because a more comprehensive treatment of sexual variation would have distracted the readers' attention from more important matters, and partly because of her old-fashioned preference for keeping her romantic life private.

The disastrous results of Ayn Rand's affair with NB I regard as being entirely due to NB's lack of integrity, his dissimulation, and his (pretended?) assimilation of Christian sexual values. Thus, I see no reason to separate Ayn Rand's conduct from her philosophy. While I happen do be personally happiest in a strictly monogamous romantic relationship, I don't go around evaluating another person's romantic behavior as "immoral" or "imperfect" outside that person's context in matters so private, that expectations of public disclosure seem unreasonably prurient.

For an alternative view I recommend Eyal Mozes' critique of NB's writings on Rand and Objectivism.
(Edited by Adam Reed on 2/13, 3:18pm)


Post 27

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 3:20pmSanction this postReply
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Rodney, I agree with your previous post 100%. Your perspective on how to think about morality is right on. Excellent.

Let me add that when I said "nobody's perfect," I meant that in my experience the Objectivists I've met have not been "perfect" in either sense of the term: either in their objective understanding and proper application of moral principles, or in the sense of (occasional to frequent) willful evasion. The latter, of course, is very difficult to prove, though you can come to certain common-sense conclusions when you encounter the more overt signs of evasion (constantly switching subjects, ignoring questions, refusing to acknowledge facts when rubbed in their faces, etc.).

But in any case, you are absolutely right that the term "immoral" should not be tossed about promiscuously except in the more obvious, extensive cases of evasion.

Nor is that usually necessary. Considerations of motivation are certainly relevant to close personal and business relationships. But in our more arm's-length dealings with others, what usually matters is simply the positive or negative consequences of their actions, which can be determined objectively by observation. When we witness someone on a destructive course, it is seldom important (or possible) to determine whether he was motivated by gross foolishness or by willful evasion. We simply know to keep our distance, and that's sufficient.

Finally, your observation about The Affair -- that the actions of all involved "was mutually reinforcing and mutually blinding" -- is, I think, dead on and quite insightful. Given the right motivation, most people, even highly intelligent people -- and perhaps especially highly intelligent people -- can convince themselves of some extraordinarily stupid things, and thus follow horribly destructive premises to their "logical" conclusions.

How much of such actions to apportion to errors of knowledge, to rationalist epistemology, to wishful thinking, to evasion or malice or whatever, is something we can't fully determine from the outside: we can't crawl inside another's skull. We need only look at the resulting ruins and draw the appropriate cautions and lessons for ourselves...which, in the case of the excruciatingly stupid Affair, some apparently still fail to do.

(Edited by Robert Bidinotto on 2/13, 3:25pm)


Post 28

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 3:31pmSanction this postReply
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Barbara,

I owe you two debts for the Passion. First, I can still recall how I read it in a blazing heat--could not put the book down. I attribute this not only to the subject matter but to your excellent writing style. Second, I owe you my love for Ouray. I had not known until reading your book that Galt's Gulch was an "actual" place in Colorado. When I go there this year, with my wife and my twin granddaughters (their first visit) I will tell them how I found out about this wonderful place, a place I have visited every year for the last decade.

I will be forever grateful.

Fred Seddon

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Post 29

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 3:48pmSanction this postReply
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I thought Robert’s post on the problem of perfection was excellent. It’s a common pitfall for those new to the philosophy to make.

 

Shayne wrote:

You talk about someone being overwhelmed or some such and not having the capacity to properly analyze and/or act, and therefore "breaching" Objectivist ethics. Well if he lacked the capacity to do something, then Objectivism certainly doesn't require that he do it!

Which of the examples Robert gave actually remove the capacity to properly analyze and/or act? I’d say none of them, and you’re setting up a strawman, conflating determining factors and influencing factors. Or are you saying that instances such physical hunger, fatigue, overwhelming emotions are kind of moral blank check? “Ah, this is too hard. Objectivism doesn’t ‘require’ me to be rational.” Seems subjectivist to me.

 

Robert and Barbara were referring to the commonly understood notion of “perfection,” which is inherently intrinsic in nature. Pray, Shayne, share your wisdom with us and offer your non-intrinsic, non-erroneous, non-dichotomous, capital-O Objective concept of “perfection.”

 

You also write:

Is it the position of some here that we are all inescapably bound to be immoral at times? That is the implication being made, and it is certainly not an Objectivist one.

I don’t know how you possibly reached that implication from Barbara’s passage. It seems like a pretty selective and conveniently negative interpretation.


Post 30

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 4:12pmSanction this postReply
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Robert Bidinotto wrote:
Rather than focusing on and fretting about one's own moral stature (or that of others), or what "moral perfection" consists of, or whether one is "living up" to some standard, it is much more fruitful -- morally -- to focus on one's own productive purposes.  If you do that, in my experience, virtues take care of themselves.
I agree with this application strategy and the SOLO Florida Welcome page provides a recipe to achieve it.


Luke Setzer


Post 31

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 4:19pmSanction this postReply
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Thanks, Glenn.


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Post 32

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 5:27pmSanction this postReply
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I have to say, the only person I agree with here is Adam Reed. I don't think people are being very clear as to what they regard as Ayn Rand's "immorality". It seems to me that the only mistake she made was in not disclosing to her fans what had caused her to break off her support for Nathaniel Branden. I understand why she did that. She did it because she knew people would condemn her for having a sex-life that didn't fit in with conventional views of morality, and she thought that no one had the right to criticize something so personal. Despite that, she should've gone public with it anyway. Sometimes when you are a public figure it is better to give up your right to privacy rather than to allow rumours, misinformation, and confusion to destroy your reputation.

Nevertheless, some of the posters here seem to have a problem not with Ayn Rand's secrecy after the break, but simply with the fact that she had a relationship with Nathaniel Branden - a relationship that was known about and consented to by both spouses. Personally, I just don't get it. What's wrong, from an Objectivist perspective, with having sex on a regular basis with more than one person?

If anyone's to blame here, isn't it Nathaniel Branden? After all, he is the one who LIED about his relationship with Patricia. That is obviously immoral by just about anyone's standards. I have a hard time understanding some people's reasoning.

----------------------------Tom

 


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Post 33

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 6:22pmSanction this postReply
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Tom, believe me, every now and then I try to make a case in my mind for Ayn Rand’s total innocence in the matter, because I would much prefer it to be true. But I come up against the hard fact that there had to be some subconscious knowledge on her part that the much younger man might find it almost impossible to admit he had fallen out of love and lost his desire (and I hold the subconscious to be accessible with a bit of work). She had to feel he might start to lie even when asked directly. It was up to her, the much older and wiser person, to face facts, and take responsibility--to set the fellow free.

 

Was she not also concealing her own grave doubts about her husband? That would be another fact she refused to face, and it is the kind of fact that is so terrible to face that many stay in wrong marriages the rest of their lives to avoid confronting it. Do I call people “immoral” for it? No, not always, for the reasons I outlined. But it is evasion.


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Post 34

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 6:34pmSanction this postReply
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Dear Barbara,

 

It has been a very long time since I read The Passion of Ayn Rand. But I recalled admiring your care, love, and respect for Rand especially after the events leading up to and including the breakup.

 

Hope you don’t mind if I share something I learned indirectly from your book and which as served me very well. About the time I read your book I went to sit in on an artists’ workshop and the owner of the studio, a passionate and talented artist, went up to a student of his a raged that the student was continuing to make the same mistake of drawing the head too big. With that the artist quickly made corrections on his student’s drawing. Now a workshop is not a class, we all chip in a fee and equally share in drawing the model. I was a little shocked that the artist would embarrass the student so, especially out of class. I was also surprised that the artist didn’t explain any of the processes available to measure the proportions of the head instead used his vast experience, which had become automatized for the artist. The artist was about 50 years old and the student, which had to have been with him for years, was about 50 as well.

 

I had a vision of this artist being 78 and screaming at his 78 year old student, “there you go again making the same mistake!”

 

I recalled in your book Rand making suggestions to mature people about choices they should make. And I recognized that passionate artists, like Rand and the other artist, often see things so clearly that others do not…I also noted that Rand didn’t seem to be happy later in her life…

 

Later I started teaching art at Otis College of Art and began a private apprentice program which I would guide the students’ whole concept of art. I recognized the very difficult problem of knowing much more than my students but I sure as hell didn’t want to grow old with students and telling them, “there you go again making the same mistake!” I decided as a protective measure for them as well as myself that I would end the apprenticeship program at a fix time, usually at the end of a year and a few months. After that date I would never again critique them as their mentor. From that day on we would be equals and friends.

 

My exhibition in May this year in Chattanooga is taking place at the gallery of my very successful ex-apprentice. And yes, I have not commented critically on or made suggestions about her work; I respond simply has someone enjoying her work.

 

Your book did nothing to diminish Rand’s greatness in my eyes but it did open my eyes to some of the pitfalls on the path of a great artist; ones that I wanted to solve when I got to them.

 

Thank you,

 

Michael


Post 35

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 6:42pmSanction this postReply
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Fred,

There is a road out of Ouray that leads to a mine at Yankee Boy Basin and the foot of Mt. Sneffels. If you haven’t driven it, you really should. Any old car can make it, it’s not extreme—but the cliff walls will blow you away. Depending upon melt conditions, you may even get water crashing over the car at one spot. It’s truly amazing and only a few minutes out of town.

Jon

Post 36

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 7:08pmSanction this postReply
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Pray, Shayne, share your wisdom with us and offer your non-intrinsic, non-erroneous, non-dichotomous, capital-O Objective concept of “perfection.”
Pray, Glenn, share with me why I should respond to your sneering, sarcastic ignorance with anything enlightening?


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Post 37

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 7:17pmSanction this postReply
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I'm not able to respond to your very interesting posts right now, much as I want to. I may be able to get to them later tonight. But just in case someone dies before then, I want now to say something that's important to me. Never, not in PASSION, not in the talks I've given since then about Rand, not in personal conversations, have I said that Ayn was immoral. That she made horrendous mistakes, that she was sometimes thoughtless, that she was often driven by emotions she did not understand, that she could be cruel even to people she loved -- sometimes especially to those people -- yes, I've said all of that .But I have not said she was immoral. My reason? I simply do not know.

To be continued.

Barbara

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Post 38

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 8:09pmSanction this postReply
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Robert,
Let me add that when I said "nobody's perfect," I meant that in my experience the Objectivists I've met have not been "perfect" in either sense of the term: either in their objective understanding and proper application of moral principles, or in the sense of (occasional to frequent) willful evasion. The latter, of course, is very difficult to prove, ...
I think you implied earlier that you came to your wider conclusion "everyone evades sometimes" from empirical observation, but as you recognize here, with regard to others that kind of conclusion is very much a function of one's own interpretation and judgment in each situation, something very far from "empirical observation." Indeed, the only place you can get truly empirical data on this is from your own consciousness.

Your idea stands in stark contrast to Objectivism. Given its fundamentality, I'd expect that you or another intellectual who agrees with you might have more formally written on this issue elsewhere? If so, could you post a reference?


Post 39

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 10:07pmSanction this postReply
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Barbara: I can't imagine a better biography of Rand than The Passion. It's scrupulously fair, and I feel that had Rand been able to accept some of her failings, then she, too, would have admired it. But regardless of that, your biography avoids the pitfalls of most books of its genre and makes its subject come sizzlingly to life. Thank you for neither whitewashing this genius nor reviling her. Others in your position may well have chosen the latter route; it speaks volumes of your integrity that you did not.    

P.S. I can't recall another SOLO essay receiving so many sanction votes! It's gratifying to know that the majority here, at least, appreciate the passion (and honesty) of Barbara Branden. 

(Edited by Derek McGovern on 2/13, 10:12pm)


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