Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical
War for Men's Minds

Nathaniel Branden Interview, Pt. 2
by Alec Mouhibian

AM: You said at the last TOC conference that you’ve come to differ with Rand on some political issues. Could you elaborate?
NB: Well, it’s a subtle issue, and it goes like this: Objectivism says the sole purpose of government is to protect individual rights. I would say the primary purpose of government is to protect individual rights. And any other activities that the government may claim justification for doing must not be of an order that violates anybody’s rights. For example, some national weather disaster in which certain problems can arise that the marketplace has no way to respond to quickly enough. Or diseases that travel across borders and don’t respect passport laws. I will leave the door open for emergency situations that I just can’t imagine being resolved in a market context. If they could be, then they should be. But the fact of emergencies should not be made as justification for violating individual rights, so as you can see, it’s a very tiny difference.

I have a suspicion—I haven’t read her essays in many years—that if I reread Rand today I might have differences not necessarily with her conclusions, but with the reasons she gives on her way to getting there. I don’t think, for example, that the case she makes for individual rights is strong enough. I think there are things in it I could see an intelligent person questioning. Do I think she could end up answering appropriately and winning? Yes. But it’s not in the text, it’s in her head. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, Galt says (and I’m paraphrasing) that since man needs his rational faculty to survive, you mustn’t suppress his rational judgment. What’s tricky about that is, does that mean you do what you want with his irrational judgment? Her theory of rights has to be broad enough to include the right to be irrational, but you don’t see that in the way she has formulated it.

AM: So what you’re saying is, by basing all of ethics on the rational nature of man, Rand’s presentation ignores those who may be irrational—or non-rational…

NB: Such as babies. Or the mentally handicapped. Nobody would say that it’s okay to harm them. Yet when you say that ethics only applies to rational beings, then what about irrational human beings?  Don’t misunderstand me; I agree with the principle of grounding ethics in the fact that reason is man’s basic tool of survival and well-being.  But some clarifications were needed that Rand did not provide.

AM: This sort of touches upon the ultimate root of ethics, and hence of individual rights. The Objectivist ethics have an aura of complete absolutism, yet they are ultimately based on what’s appropriate for man’s survival. So would you agree that they are ultimately, in an individualist context, consequentialist?

NB: Yes, I would.  In the sense that Rand always stressed—thinking in terms of cause and effect.

AM: Of course, the best consequences result from a system of consistently followed principles, hence the “absolutist” element. But there are exceptions. For example, many Objectivists say that, if they fell off a building and hung onto somebody’s balcony, they ought to die rather than trespass.

NB: And that’s where it is necessary to respect context. Philosophical principles are no substitute for thinking, yet many Objectivists act as if they were.

AM: So are you saying that individual rights are subject to circumstance? If someone, non-deliberately and through no fault of his own, is legally violating someone’s property rights, he is not really violating them?

NB: Let me get this straight.  A man falls or is pushed from the balcony of his apartment, manages to grab hold of the railing on the apartment below, and is now worried about whether he is violating someone’s  property rights. First of all, no one would charge him with a violation of property rights, and if someone did, fine, let the court fine him.  That’s better than falling to his death.   

Perhaps this will be helpful.   Ayn Rand was once asked about the following hypothetical: if your wife got sick one night and would die without a certain medication from the pharmacy, and if the pharmacy was closed, would it be permissible to break in and take it? She said yes, so long as the repairs and medication were paid for the next day. Remember context.  We need a code of ethics to support our life and well-being.  Ethics does not teach us, “At this point, a moral person commits suicide.”  Context, context, context.

AM: Still, if any hanging Objectivists fell onto my balcony, I’d shoot ‘em. Now let’s get psychological.

Evidence shows that people with comprehensive ideologies—regardless of what the ideology is—generally have higher self-esteems and are happier than those without such worldviews. Because no worldview is totally true, what usually happens is that such people often falsely interpret things—most notoriously, the motivations of opponents—to fit their ideology. And it seems that such interpretation is integral to their self-confidence. Additionally, I can think of a number of cases in which someone has fallen out from their worldview, and been very miserable afterward, at best never retaining the spirit they had prior to their falling out. It seems that there can be a case of irrational confidence versus rational unbalance, where at a certain point along the intellectual curve, ignorance is bliss.

NB: Here’s what I would say. Begin with the fact that by our nature we need to make sense out of our experience. In order to have any sense of control over our own life, we need to know that we’re able to make sense out of our world, in all of its many aspects. It’s the need that religion addresses, that philosophy addresses. And if people do not have any particular set of broad beliefs about life, themselves, human relationships, they tend to live in a very short range—very shallow and narrow aspect of life. And in that sphere, they cannot enjoy a strong feeling of efficacy or control except, possibly, if they confine themselves to a very limited sphere of action.

I haven’t written about this yet, but I’m convinced that if you have a moral code that you do your best to live up to, other things being equal, it’s very positive in its consequences for your self-esteem, even if the moral code is in some ways mistaken. If you conscientiously try to live it to the best of your ability, that would have a salutary effect on your self-esteem. If you violate it, it would have a negative effect on your self-esteem. But suppose you have nothing to violate, no worldview—that absence will limit your self-esteem, because you need to feel aligned with reality. You need to feel that you are in appropriate contact with the real world. Now your theory of what the real world is might be right or wrong. But so long as you are able to believe that you are in contact with the real world and are acting on that knowledge, your self-esteem benefits.

Take a prisoner of war, who is a religious person. He might be able to survive that experience better than a person with no belief system, because he has a support system in his brain. Now, if you are the unusual person who’s created a philosophical support system, that is fine—but most people lack that. Regardless, upsetting as it may be to orthodox Objectivists, I think you can show that in the short run and in that environment, a person who has some overarching faith has a better chance of surviving. But I wouldn’t explain that all away by saying ignorance is bliss. The point is to understand what function a belief system provides. Then you can understand why an imperfect one can still be beneficial sometimes.

Was this responsive to your question?
AM: Yes. You’ve addressed the difference between those with beliefs and those without. But it’s the third category that I find most interesting—those who had an ideology, but due to realizing that bits of reality didn’t fit it, lost their whole sense of grasp, resulting in a major loss of self-esteem.

NB: Thank you, I forgot to address that. That’s a very interesting problem. Whether your “faith”-system is Catholicism or Communism or Objectivism, if you become disillusioned about it, the effect on your self-esteem depends in part on how you process that fact that you’ve fallen away from it. Meaning: do I actively seek to understand what held me to it in the first place, to get into contact with the person who once thought it was completely reasonable? And can I except that person as me at a certain point in my development, without self-castigation and without self-repudiation? Can I say: “That was me then, but now I’ve risen to a wider field of vision, in which I can see the limitations of that belief system as I couldn’t see them in the past”? If I focus on the mistakes I made, my self-esteem drops. If I focus on the fact that nothing matters more to me than the clarity of my vision, if I’m seeing things clearer now than I was before, I’m stronger now than I was before, even if I didn’t know it.

AM: But what if the problem is not so much coping with your former self, as it is retaining that feeling of efficacy? You know you are stronger, smarter—yet you simply don’t feel that grasp you once had.

NB: Take my own experience. When I was an orthodox Objectivist, I did feel like I understood the world—in a way that I don’t fully feel today. I regret the fact, but I make peace with it. It’s called growing up. Sure, I liked the control, but the control was illusory. So why am I mourning the loss of an illusion? You do lose something. You lose something about your sense of the world and your relationship to it. You are not going to feel like the master of reality you once felt you were. The question is: what do I do when I find out there is no Santa Claus?

AM: Yet there are those who would agree with everything you just said, yet still not see the ramifications in their self-esteem.
NB: One aspect worth mentioning is this: we often in our disillusionment over-react to what we used to believe in. We should always ask ourselves what is worth retaining from it. A lot of people are too quick to shun philosophy completely, to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I remember after the Rand-Branden split, I was in a restaurant in New York. A waiter came over and told me he had just moved to New York so he could come to NBI lectures, only to be told at the front door that it was closed. And telling me what had happened, he began to cry. A grown man, older than I was. He said, “You and Ayn Rand were like father and mother to me.” It was pretty painful. But the point is: I was trying to answer this legitimate need to make sense out of the world. I thought that this did it, now I know that it doesn’t. That understanding should be worth something.

AM: I guess it has to do with personal will more than anything. 

NB: Which translates, in this context, to respect for reality, for what is. I can cry in my beer all I want to, but reality doesn’t care.

AM: Salty beer tastes good, though.

NB: Well, not being a beer drinker I wouldn’t know. Unless it’s also true of root beer.

AM: This is a related question. Have you ever encountered a person who had a high, genuine self-esteem, and lost it?
NB: I can’t think of an example that I know of.

AM: Do you see this as being plausible?

NB: This is only speculation. It wouldn’t surprise me that if we had decent tests to assess self-esteem, you would find a dipping-down of self-esteem in the last third of life. Just because generally you know you lack the resources you once had, or maybe your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Not like a big devastating loss, but a softening.

Exercise is important at any age, but there is one sense in which it is really important in the last third of your life. The more physically fit you feel, the less prone you are to feel that loss. But if your body is really inferior to what it was ten years ago, that can be demoralizing.  But we need to be realistic about what we expect of ourselves.

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