Rebirth of Reason


Nathaniel Branden vs. Ayn Rand on Morality
by Dennis C. Hardin

Does Nathaniel Branden oppose objective moral judgment?

In his 1984 article on "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand," Nathaniel Branden wrote (I have used underlines to add emphasis where appropriate): 
To look on the dark side, however, part of her vision of justice is urging you to instant contempt for anyone who deviates from reason or morality or what is defined as reason or morality. Errors of knowledge may be forgiven, she says, but not errors of morality. Even if what people are doing is wrong, even if errors of morality are involved, even if what people are doing is irrational, you do not lead people to virtue by contempt. You do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. It just doesn't work. It doesn't work when religion tries it and it doesn't work when objectivism tries it.

From the same article:

I recall a story I once read by a psychiatrist, a story about a tribe that has a rather unusual way of dealing with moral wrongdoers or lawbreakers. Such a person, when his or her infraction is discovered, is not reproached or condemned but is brought into the center of the village square—and the whole tribe gathers around. Everyone who has ever known this person since the day he or she was born steps forward, one by one, and talks about anything and everything good this person has ever been known to have done. The speakers aren't allowed to exaggerate or make mountains out of molehills; they have to be realistic, truthful, factual. And the person just sits there, listening, as one by one people talk about all the good things this person has done in the course of his or her life. Sometimes, the process takes several days. When it's over, the person is released and everyone goes home and there is no discussion of the offense—and there is almost no repetition of offenses (Zunin, 1970).

In the objectivist frame of reference there is the assumption, made explicit in John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, and dramatized throughout the novel in any number of ways, that the most natural, reasonable, appropriate response to immoral or wrong behavior is contempt and moral condemnation. Psychologists know that that response tends to increase the probability that that kind of behavior will be repeated. This is an example of what I mean by the difference between a vision of desirable behavior and the development of an appropriate psychological technology that would inspire people to practice it.

In his 1999 memoir My Years with Ayn Rand, Branden wrote:

Ayn also urged her followers not "to withhold contempt from men's vices." Hence the violently abusive language with which she and her followers characterized actions of which they did not approve. After our break, I came to understand, more deeply than I had before, that even if what people are doing is wrong, even if they are being irrational and committing errors of morality, we do not lead them to virtue and rationality by projecting contempt. We do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. If the goal is to inspire positive change, a better strategy than scorn and abusive condemnation is required. (pp. 373-4)

Branden made these additional comments in his 2004 interview with Alec Mouhibian for The Free Radical:

NB: Anytime a client comes to me complaining about their parents, I automatically think of their grandparents, whose behaviors often explain everything. That's the curse of being a psychologist: that you think of such things. It's really nicer to be able to say, "Oh, what a bastard." But being aware of everybody's story, it's much tougher to get mad at people.

AM: But there is a point at which one must assume responsibility.

NB: Absolutely, but I have an answer for that. Everybody has to be responsible. That is why, if we were in a relationship, and you had a terrible father and grandfather, and I don't like the way you deal with me, I might say, "Alec, listen. I need for you to know that you're turning me off. I need for you to know that when you do such and such, it really kills my interest in being a friend of yours. Am I mad at you? No. Am I condemning you as an immoral person? No. But if you feel the need to continue doing these things, there's no place for us to go from here."

Now that's the type of conversation that might terminate a relationship. But I wouldn't feel a need to tell you that you're immoral or that you have no integrity. That's all pointless and destructive. It's just to make me right and to make me superior. Unnecessary. I only have to know that I don't like what you're doing.
I think that's a very important clarification, especially when talking to an Objectivist. Because Rand always says, "Never pass up an opportunity to pass moral judgment." Well I say: "Look for an opportunity to do something more useful instead." Nobody was led to virtue by being told he was a scoundrel.
Branden’s detractors would have you believe that the above quotes prove that he no longer believes in objective moral judgment. Really? I have underlined numerous references to factual assessments of immoral behavior in the passages cited above. Branden is not denying that certain behaviors can and should be assessed as immoral or destructive. He is questioning the appropriate response to such behavior. As a psychologist, he is obviously concerned with how to go about inspiring people to grow and improve. He is saying that you do not achieve this goal through moral condemnation.

It is undoubtedly true that Branden would disagree with Rand in many of her moral assessments. His comment to Alec Mouhibian certainly implies this. Again, as a psychologist, you see certain things underlying a person’s background and motivation that may make it more difficult to judge a particular individual harshly. And the quote from his autobiography shows that Branden disliked what he perceived as Rand’s tendency to overreact to relatively minor ethical misdeeds at times. Branden suggests that, especially in relationships, people often tend to inject ethical evaluations where the real conflicts are of a more personal nature. (Needless to say, from his own perspective, “people” would obviously include Ayn Rand.) 

Branden has often stated his view that virtues are much more important than flaws. His discussion of the tribe that recounts positive accomplishments as a way of reforming a person again describes a method of emphasizing the good while clearly not ignoring the reality of a moral infraction. The entire proceeding establishes the context of such an infraction. The approach is one of helping the individual to see his immoral conduct in the light of the many good things he has done so that he can appreciate that such deviation is highly destructive and should not be repeated.

His detractors might say that Branden’s position on morality is to never condemn evil in the clearest possible terms, but none of these quotations reflect this. These quotes reflect Branden’s view that, with respect to most moral infractions, passing judgment does not entail condemnation, and that doing so will discourage rather than encourage improvement in others’ behavior. The issue, obviously, is one of context. The consistent policy of evaluating what is good or bad for one’s life is absolutely essential to human survival. This includes the behavior of others. Denunciation, however, is not and, in most cases, may be counter-productive.

Here is one final Branden quote, from his 1999 essay "Objectivism and Libertarianism":

About ten years ago, I came across a saying from the Talmud that impressed me profoundly. I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I have often wondered what might have happened if I'd had the chance to discuss the idea with Ayn—if there would have been any way to break through. Who knows what might have been different in the years that followed?

The line that so impressed me was: "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy."
Branden made this comment in the context of discussing David Kelley’s decision to address a libertarian group, which led to his expulsion and repudiation by Leonard Peikoff. It is clear that Branden was using this quote to express his admiration for Kelley’s decision, because Kelley saw that “libertarians often supported their position with aspects of [Ayn Rand’s] philosophy, without necessarily subscribing to the total of Objectivism.”

Yet one observer contends that Branden espouses this notion with the hope others might want to “take responsibility for his [i.e., Branden’s] moral depravity.”

I doubt it would be possible to cite a better example in defense of Nathaniel Branden’s call for prudence in attacking the moral deficits of others. If you are that utterly clueless in regard to the person you are denouncing, you really ought to shut the hell up.
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