Rebirth of Reason


Questions and Motives
by Luke Setzer

As social animals, humans have lived together in communities for millennia. Today's "Stone Age" tribes in Papua New Guinea still live in "long houses," gender-based communal quarters in which all the men live in one house, all the women in the other. Boys live with their mothers until the age of 12, at which time they move into the men's house. Married couples must retreat to the jungles for sexual acts. Meanwhile, in the Arctic, Eskimo tribes still engage in communal hunting, fishing and sharing of rewards.

Clearly, tribalism remains a part of human nature.

Because of these close, shared quarters, tribes have had little to no concept of individual privacy. As Ayn Rand noted in The Fountainhead, "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men."  Ironically, religion served as an intermediate step in this move from public tribal life to private civilized life.

In his book The Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer argues that the origins of religion have their roots in the growth of tribal size. He shows through historical records that the first formal religions, with their omnipresent gods, appeared when tribes began to exceed 150 members. Smaller tribes could effectively use social pressures to enforce codes of conduct within the tribe, and they expected totally honest and open communication from each tribal member.

The chief of a larger tribe needed to employ religious mythologies to enforce moral codes when he could no longer keep an eye on all those within the tribe. As a corollary of this use of religion as a tool of enforcement, a tribal chief also had to rely on informants within the tribe regarding lawbreakers. Such informants had an incentive to snoop and to squeal on their fellow tribe members to curry political favor with those in power—or simply to make themselves feel more moral through vicious gossip.

Over many centuries, the best modern societies have made great strides in securing secular laws aimed at "setting man free from men." Despite these advances, the tribal mindset remains in most members of these societies. Humanity's long history of communal living, bonding, religion, informants, lack of privacy, and social intrigue helps to explain why so many people today still feel entitled to inquire about your private life. They will ask you how many lovers you have had, at what age you lost your virginity, how much your house cost, and so forth. Yet they have no plans to make love to you or to purchase your residence. In a modern civilized society with an established right to privacy, what possible motive could they have in asking these questions?

In my experience, people frequently have motives to ask questions, not just to understand another person, but also to attempt to change that person, as I will illustrate. You can derail these unsolicited attempts to change you by keeping your "motive radar" on constant alert. Far from being paranoid "hostility and suspicion," this strategy not only saves time but reduces stress as well.  Maintaining such vigilance affirms your own life as your own highest value.

Self-Assertiveness and Privacy

In his later books on the Objectivist value of self-esteem, Nathaniel Branden named self-assertiveness as a virtue necessary to experience a high sense of self-worth. He has good reason to say this. Self-assertiveness amounts to the smallest form of local government, i.e., a monopoly on the use of force to defend one's own self from violation.

I will go as far as to argue that the virtue of honesty remains subservient to the virtue of self-assertiveness.

Recent discussions on SOLO have debated the question of when one can justifiably lie to guard one's privacy. Posters have posited various fictional scenarios for consideration. I will name some real ones. The SOLO Founder has publicly stated a firm commitment to defending one's own business from snoopers and has written, "Of course one has the right to lie through one's teeth to would-be privacy violators!"

These lessons lay the groundwork for prescribing a course of action. A few anecdotes will help to illustrate mistakes and privacy-guarding corrections in the arena of questions and motives. These anecdotes will include validating ties back to the Objectivist ethics of reason, purpose and self-esteem.
Painful Lessons in Privacy

In 1985, during the summer between my first two years of engineering school, I took a job in the kitchen of Mom 'n' Pop's Country Store and Restaurant near our family farm in Claremont, North Carolina. The types of people who worked there tended to be transient, uneducated and frequently uncivil. I needed the money and the job experience, so I worked there anyway.

Shortly after I began the job, a very overweight single mother engaged me in conversation as we worked together. This woman began quizzing me about my love life and attempted to play the role of armchair psychologist. Had I known what would happen next, I could have put a swift kibosh on a great deal of forthcoming grief by stating firmly, "That is none of your business." Instead, much to my detriment, I made the mistake of being "friendly" by sharing personal facts with an almost complete stranger.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked.


"Have you ever had a girlfriend?"

"No. I've been on a few dates but they never went anywhere."

"Have you ever been onto a girl?"

"What do you mean? Do you mean have I ever had sex?"


I shook my head in disbelief at the question. "No."

"Then you're a closet homosexual."

"No, I am not," I fired back angrily, "but you are a bitch!"

Another employee, a young high school dropout, overheard our conversation.

"How old are you?" he asked in astonishment.

"Nineteen," I replied.

"You're nineteen and you're still a virgin?" he guffawed quite loudly.

A flabbergasted feeling swept over me as other faces in the kitchen turned my way, eyes popping. Could this many people have such a hypocritical view of their own professed Christian faith that they engaged in intercourse, not just before marriage, but also before the legal age of adulthood? As I grew to know them, the clear answer became yes.

To my dismay, my lack of sexual experience became a running joke among the lowest characters in the kitchen.

"Hey, Luke, Paula wants to go out with you. She wants to lay you!" one man said as he pointed to a bovine young server.

"At least I don't go around telling people I'm a virgin!" taunted another.

One of the worst offenders, a 17-year-old boy, bragged that he and his girlfriend had just started living together. He felt quite excited at the prospect of getting sex every single night. He bragged about this on a regular basis. By the end of the summer, his bragging had changed to moaning.

During my last day on the job, he expressed great worry and concern in his face when I came to say goodbye.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"My girlfriend is pregnant!" he exclaimed with alarm, his eyes watering.

"Pregnant? I thought you said you guys used birth control."

"We used rubbers, but one night we got too smoking and it broke!" he shared.

"I see. What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know," he shook his head in total bewilderment. "There is no way she will have an abortion. She's not into that."

"I see. Well, good luck to you," I offered as I shook his hand goodbye.

The general attitude of these people continued to puzzle me for years until my exposure to Objectivism. I could not fathom how people endowed with the ability to think past the range of the moment would so consistently fail to do so—and keep themselves poor in the process. In retrospect, the role of reason in the creation and preservation of wealth had demonstrated itself in the actions of every person in that kitchen.

Are You Looking for an Opinion or an Argument?

In the fall of 1988, shortly after I learned of Ayn Rand and began to study her ideas, I had concurrently become an opinion columnist for my campus newspaper. This marked my last semester before graduation and my senior-level engineering classes proved quite intense. At the time, I had opposed abortion, had not yet worked through the reasoning why the fetus had no rights, and thus had not understood why abortion should remain legal.

One evening two young female classmates joined me in my dorm room so we could work on a joint assignment on my computer. They had read some of my columns and asked me about my position on abortion. To my detriment, I told them my honest opinion. Their eyes popped from their heads, their faces turned crimson and they promptly bellowed about the wrongness of my viewpoint, how many girls my viewpoint harmed, and other matters irrelevant to the task at hand.

In this instance, I paid a dear price in terms of personal stress for my lack of clarity about the value of purpose. Our gathering had a clear joint purpose of solving an engineering problem, not of discussing abortion—regardless of the "rightness" of their position and the "wrongness" of mine. Had I this experience to relive, I would have offered an answer similar to Howard Roark's response about Henry Cameron: "We will not discuss abortion or any other topic outside this assignment tonight."

Slow Learner

Some people have a harder time than others do in grasping the inalienable right to privacy. Unfortunately, that shortcoming struck me. In 1990, when I began seeing Leslie, the woman who eventually became my wife, we began dating casually with no commitments. Meanwhile, a male NASA co-worker in his early 20s, "John," had become hotly involved and engaged to a 17-year-old girl, "Monique," whom he knew from his redneck hometown of Oak Hill, Florida. He asked me to serve as an usher at his wedding. I consented.

John, Monique, other members of the ceremony and I tooled about town a few weeks before the wedding to be fitted for tuxedos and to accomplish a few other errands. On that day, I learned more about Monique and her friend than I cared to know.

"So how serious are you and Leslie?" she asked.

"We're getting to know each other right now," I answered. "We have no commitments at the moment."

"Well, one of my classmates, 'Brigit'—my bridesmaid—might want to go out with you. I think she will if you ask. Why don't you ask her?"

"I don't think I would like her. She's too young and she smokes."

"Well, why don't you let her ride in your car on the way over to our next stop? You can get to know her."

I sighed. "Well, what the heck," I said. "It's only a few minutes."

Although Brigit had a hot body, her attitude left me feeling cold.

As we wheeled our way to the next shopping stop, Brigit commenced the conversation. It began degenerating to the same gutter level as my conversation at the restaurant years earlier. I will not recount the full text of our exchange, but rest assured that by the conclusion of our road trip, I had assessed the character of this 17-year-old as ... slut! Dating a sleazy piece of ignorant redneck jailbait held no interest for me whatsoever. Naturally, the wedding reception offered a requisite level of teasing from some of the men about these events. Monique and her friends kept pushing me to ask Brigit on a date, but I had decided by this time to hang onto Leslie.

A short time after their wedding, Monique called my apartment to ask if my roommate and I wanted to go bowling with them that weekend. After I answered the phone and finished discussing the bowling plans, Monique asked if I still dated Leslie.

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we just recently agreed to date exclusively," I answered.

"Are you getting any from her?" her words stabbed my heart like a lock pick.

"Excuse me?" I asked in incredulous defense.

"You've got to get your manhood wet sooner or later, Luke," she nagged.

"I believe that is none of your business," I assertively retorted.

Later, when I shared these stories with Leslie, she offered me a memorable line that so resonated with the Objectivist value of self-esteem that I found motivation to deepen our relationship even more:

"People who mind other people's business do not have good enough business of their own to mind."

Several years later, after three children with John and a number of affairs on her part, Monique's marriage to John ended.  Both eventually remarried—John to a more stable and settled divorced mother of three, Monique to a crack addict. Meanwhile, Brigit also married and bore three children with her husband, though evidently she needed a paternity test to prove to her husband that he had indeed sired them.

The demonstrated lack of integrity these young women brought to their marriages made me appreciate Leslie even more after I married her in 1991.

Objectivist Exchanges and Motives behind Questions

Many instructors have taught Objectivism in formal lectures for decades. During the question and answer periods for these lectures, the instructors have often attempted to elicit "the question behind the question," i.e., discovering what motivated the question in the first place. Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden, Leonard Peikoff and others have engaged in this practice of "discovery" since the inception of Objectivist courses with the express motive, "Check your premises."

Critics have labeled this habit an attempt to ascertain the moral character of the questioner based solely on the question. They contend that it amounts to what Ayn Rand called the "argument from intimidation," asserting arbitrarily that a person's idea motivating his question is false and then using that assertion as proof of that person's immorality. For instance, an audience member might ask an Objectivist instructor, "What will happen to all the poor people if we have no government safety net for them?" The instructor might immediately conclude that the questioner is a socialist who is "out to get" the instructor. He might respond, "Why did you ask that question? You assumed wrongly that the government is obligated to take care of poor people. Your assumption shows that you have the envious heart of an altruist and a collectivist! Next!"

I do not know how often this happens, but it has happened enough in the past to make itself visible on the radar screen of public commentary. While I agree that the role of instructor carries obligations not to engage in such sweeping defensive maneuvers, I also contend that ordinary conversations do require us to maintain our guard against the "verbal traps" of others.  This means we need to uphold a sense of vigilance when others ask us potentially "loaded" questions.

Based on my own hard experience, I cannot heavily criticize instructors of Objectivism for their attempts to ascertain motives behind questions. Such crafty players of word games often deserve a public calling on their motives. These open but accurate accusations can galvanize audience members to do the same both inside and outside the classroom.

Shock and Disappointment at SOLOC 4

A fellow Florida resident has published articles on SOLO and in The Free Radical. We met for lunch a few months before the April 2005 SOLO Conference 4 (SOLOC 4) and enjoyed some delicious food and stimulating conversation. After building a level of trust, he considered me honorable enough to keep a mutual secret. He shared his occupation with me. He did this on condition that I not broadcast it to other members of SOLO lest he garner some unwarranted grief for it. I agreed.

Unfortunately, as I learned the hard way, not everyone in SOLO respected this man's right to privacy. In this context, I mean "right" as a social value and not just a political value. If I have a political right to privacy, that right entitles me to expect the government not to invade my home without just cause. If I have a social right to privacy, that right entitles me to expect people whom I consider friends not to pester, harangue, harass, hound or otherwise bother me after I have said "none of your business" or its equivalent once.

Alas, some participants at SOLOC 4 just simply did not get this most basic fact of civil discourse—or friendship.

During dinner conversation, someone asked me if I knew the SOLO member in question, since we lived within driving distance of each other.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact. We met for lunch and got along quite well."

"Well, what does this person do for a living?"

Here came the moment of truth. Had I known what would happen next, I would have cheerfully lied through my teeth and said, "I don't know. This person would not tell me." That would have precluded the anguish I would experience for the remainder of the evening.

Instead, silly me, I told the truth!

"I promised I would not reveal this person's occupation."

Given the respect that Objectivism has for individual rights, I had every expectation that the conversation would end there. Wrong! The remainder of the evening became an intermittent stream of interrogations spat through the wine-stained lips of various busybodies as they lounged about the rental house. I attempted to engage in a more productive conversation and encountered a ceaseless stream of interruptions from across the room.

"Is he a hooker?"

"Is he a tax agent?"

"Is he a cop?"

"Is he a spy?"

"Is he a stripper?"

As the endless wordplay mind games persisted, I either ignored the questions altogether or occasionally answered, "No." The interrogation finally ended, but left me spiritually sore. I launched a SOLO Mail to the person in question informing him of the inquisition and encouraging him to file a complaint with the Founder if he so desired. He thanked me for keeping my promise of confidentiality.

What possible motives could these alleged "Objectivists" have for asking the question in the first place? I can only reiterate the great line from Leslie:

"People who mind other people's business do not have good enough business of their own to mind."


The vice of snooping has its roots in human tribalism. Such unbridled and uncivilized curiosity manifests itself in the form of questions that invade privacy. The best defense against such intrusiveness comes from the unyielding application of the virtue of self-assertiveness and the contextual application of the virtue of honesty.

Based on my experience, I have concluded that one should simply expect the lowest form of tribal behavior from people regarding issues of privacy. When the defensive but truthful phrase, "None of your business," fails to deflect their inquiries, and you have no options to terminate those relationships, do not hesitate to lie. The virtue of honesty should never become a weapon to turn against you.

Make others earn your trust—and arrange your affairs so that you can withdraw that trust on a moment's notice.

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