Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical
War for Men's Minds

Nathaniel Branden Interview, Pt. 3
by Alec Mouhibian

AM: Let’s talk about moral judgment. This was certainly essential to Randian Objectivism, as the initial title of your memoir suggests. And much is made of the personal, judgmental nature of our current political climate. According to Rand, one’s only exemption from being “evil” is ignorance. You’ve denounced the harsh moralizing of Rand, yet you’re presumably a pretty judgmental man, who’s probably made over 7,000 judgments about me already.
NB: Wait, let me check. 6,700.
AM: Either way, what is the proper role of moral judgment? At what point is one immoral?
NB: One of the mistakes that Rand makes is that after she condemns a belief or an action, she goes on to tell you the psychology of the person who did it, as if she knows. I focus my judgment on the action and not on the person. My primary interest is: do I admire or dislike this behavior? And there, judgment is important for me. People often attribute all kinds of things to another person, without ever knowing where that person’s coming from. Most of the time, I regard the judgment of people as a waste of time. I regard the judgment of behavior as imperative. 
Now, there are some people who are so clearly evil (e.g., Saddam Hussein) that we can’t imagine anything mitigating their horror. But even there, I’ve come to feel the following: if there is a mad animal running around, eating people, I may have to shoot him. I don’t think: “Oh, you rotten bad dog, you.” There’s nothing you can do except shoot him.
But the Saddams are only a small minority. Take the Middle East suicide bombers. God knows, if I had the opportunity, I’d kill them without any hesitation. But I also know, as a psychologist, that they were raised in a culture in a world I can’t even conceive of. They were propagandized about the glory of martyrdom since the age of five. Whereas Leonard Peikoff might be hell-bent on calling every one of them evil, I wouldn’t. They may or may not be. All I know is: in action, one kills them, rather than getting killed by them. Lots of times, we don’t know the ultimate truth about a person. And here’s the point: we don’t need to know.
AM: So when you do judge people, does it basically come down to the age-old criteria of honesty, decency, etc.?
NB: Yeah. Lying, breaches of integrity—those are immoral. But I try to keep judgments of that kind to a minimum. And it’s pretty natural in me by now, to focus on the behavior. Let me tell a story.
I was talking with a man whom I knew for some years, and his father had died a few months earlier. His father was a very bitter, tyrannical man. His father grew up in a household where he felt hated by his family, so he brought that hatred to his own family. Now his son, whom I was talking to, was treated with cruelty by the father, and I knew they really hadn’t had a good relationship. So the son and I were having lunch together, and I said: “Tell me, did you ever have a chance to clean things up with your father?” He said, “Yes, before he died we really had a chance to get close again. He told me a lot of stories about how my grandfather was a cruel, cruel man, an aesthete who resented my father for having some physical impediment. So I really understood where my dad was coming from. I don’t hate him anymore, I hate my grandfather.”
There was a pause. Then I responded, “I’d like to tell you what just happened in my head. I heard the grandfather saying to me: ‘Wait a minute, grandson. Let me tell you about my father.’” The moral of the story is—everybody has a story.
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.
AM: Ayn Rand had a very strict, authoritarian view of humor, essentially only permitting it as a form of insulting one’s enemies. But humor is one of the highest forms of enjoyment of life.
NB: Of course.
AM: How have your views regarding humor differed and/or changed since then?
NB: I never shared her view of humor in the first place. I never thought about it. You know the story about the meeting between Devers and Ayn. Devers tells Ayn that I am going to be on this TV show, to check it out. Ayn says no. They talk again. Ayn brings up the issue of the television show, and says: “He shouldn’t smile so much.” Devers asks why not. “Because he was being asked serious philosophical questions.”
Now that is so idiotic, that is so preposterous, because I was not making fun of anything, I was just smiling. Good will, as is my natural state. That only shows me, at an absurd extreme, that for somebody who presents herself as a champion of the joy of living, she has very rigid rules about the path you must walk on in your pursuit of enjoyment. Of all the objections to Objectivism, none is stupider than the claim that we are a hedonistic philosophy. Man, we are as rigid as the Catholic Church in the 13th century, you know.
AM: So it is fine to make fun of yourself, right?
NB: Not if you do it compulsively as a way of preventing other people from doing it to you first. There are insecure people who do that: they say the worst thing about themselves to beat you to the punch. But assuming we are not talking about that, an ability to have a certain sense of humor when one looks at oneself, to realize that one is unintentionally funny sometimes, is a very good thing.
AM: And by laughing at yourself, you are finding value in yourself, you are finding something else to be happy about. There is no undermining going on.
NB: Of course.
AM: So humor is only inappropriate when applied tastelessly to obviously inappropriate contexts.
NB: Sure.
AM: You have publicly repudiated your previous stance on homosexuality. You said you no longer attempt conversions with patients, and you have written a blurb for Chris Sciabbara’s monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, & Human Liberation. That said, what do you think about the flaming issue of gay marriage?
NB: At a deep level, I do not really care about the issue one way or the other. One level up, I am tempted to wish they would agree upon, instead of gay marriage, entering into relationship contracts that would have all the legal advantages of marriage. Because it does strike me as strange that as long as we have had a human history, marriage has been between a man and a woman. So while I understand why some want it, I can also understand why people can be against it.
Of course, so many problems we have in this world we would not have in a free society. If they wanted to have a contract, they could do it and call it “marriage.” Personally, I would not take a position against gay marriage—I do not see the potential damage in the situation. I am troubled, however, at the redefining of marriage. Where could it lead you next? Once marriage does not mean a monogamous heterosexual relationship, why can’t there be a marriage between three people? Who says that marriage has to be between members of the same species?

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