Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nathaniel Branden Against Ayn Rand and Objectivism

Nathaniel Branden delivered a speech on May 25, 1982 entitled, "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand A Personal Statement." It was reprinted in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, it's available on the internet, and it is also the epilogue of his The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism. (This last being in very bad taste stylistically, in my view: it undercuts the entire purpose of putting the BPO lectures into book-form, by claiming that the ideas contained within them caused so much harm to people.) It doesn't amount much to a criticism of the philosophy—it rarely critiques any of its principles. Rather, it's mainly a criticism of Rand and of the attempts of people to apply Objectivism to their lives, the errors that they fall into—errors which Branden claims are practically guaranteed to happen. He makes several dozen negative claims about Rand and Objectivism in this essay: I believe I have covered them all, or at least the vast majority. I've broken the essay up into claims Branden makes about practicing Objectivists, and claims concerning Rand, organizing them so as to present a detailed case of each.

Claims about Practicing Objectivism

Self-alienation and Rationalism

From his studies and therapeutic sessions with patients, Branden uncovered what he terms "the dark side" of Objectivism and of admirer's of Rand's works: the difficulties, confusions and guilt experienced by those who tried to practice the philosophy, and the self-alienation which resulted.

My response is that there's no necessary reason to feel guilt, confusion, or self-alienation in one's studies of Objectivism. Objectivism counsels thinking for yourself, discovering what is actually to your self-interest, your meta-selfishness, living according to your highest values, being a stylized person. It advises you to not accept guilt for failing to achieve impossible goals, and to use one's rationality to form precise concepts, to clarify and strengthen one's thinking, to use objectivity to reach one's conclusions.

Now, while Objectivism offers ideas such as these, some students have trouble understanding the philosophy, particularly when it comes to applying it to their contexts. Branden gives a multitude of causes for these negative psychological traits in students of Objectivism: conscious repression, thinking divorced from feeling, the characters of Rand's novels (!), and the philosophy allegedly encouraging such anti-emotion views. I'll name two fundamental causes of these problems: the failure to validate and understand the principles of Objectivism inductively, from reality itself, and a tendency among philosophers and students towards rationalism, a focus on concepts, definitions, works of philosophy, without tying them to facts in reality—the failure to practice the first often leads to the mindset of the second.

(In fact, I'm working my way out of my own rationalism through my own study of reality, with Peikoff's "Objectivism through Induction" as my guide. Peikoff's "Understanding Objectivism" has several discussions of rationalism and its role in corrupting one's ideas, view of morality, and emotions, I'll note.)

A person's rationalistic thinking will impair his grasp of the philosophy, and thus what he thinks the philosophy demands of him. And it's plausible that this could lead to a conflict between his real self and his rationalist "Objectivist" self—that is, his intellectual, professed values that he claims to live by. This conflict will eventually lead to some climax: the reconciliation of the two "selves" (and thus the beginning of a legitimate understanding of Objectivism), the discarding of Objectivism to reassert one's "true self," or the repression of one's "true self" in order to "live up" to one's explicit Objectivist beliefs.

(I think the person who asserts his "self" at the expense of Objectivism is the most common result; the prevalent idea of an person going through an "Objectivist phase" or fling before coming back to one's senses.)

Branden is secretly hostile towards Objectivism (with visible spurts here and there), so of course he has no problem with the people who leave the philosophy. Furthermore, I doubt that he believes that any Objectivist has ever solved their problem of repression, living or dead (not even Rand), and so doesn't have any issues with a non-repressive Objectivist—something which must be a contradiction in terms to him. In place of these, Branden focuses his attention on the emotional repressor-Objectivist.

Encouraging Repression

On the problem of emotion, Branden writes:
We must be guided by our conscious mind, Rand insisted; we must not follow our emotions blindly. Following our emotions blindly is undesirable and dangerous: Who can argue with that? Applying the advice to be guided by our mind isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Such counsel does not adequately deal with the possibility that in a particular situation feelings might reflect a more correct assessment of reality than conscious beliefs or, to say the same thing another way, that the subconscious mind might be right while the conscious mind was mistaken.
Objectivism doesn't ignore this possibility, as Branden well knows.

Living life consists in experiencing our emotions, because emotions are the expressions of our beliefs and value-judgments. They are the result of our subconscious processing, of our past knowledge and evaluations, and are important leads towards an introspective rediscovery of our past thinking and conclusions. As such, they are of supreme importance towards understanding ourselves, our past, and our outlook on the world—our "sense of life." The consequence is that they should not be repressed or ignored, but should be respected, understood, and experienced.

Branden's special case is no different: if a clash occurs between a person's conscious and subconscious mind, the person has a self-interested reason to use introspection and bring all relevant thinking and knowledge, conscious and subconscious, to the fore. He needs to weigh the evidence and rationality of both his conscious and subconscious thoughts, and decide which thoughts best reflect his assessment of reality. If the result is that his subconscious beliefs were in fact correct, then he should dispense with the relevant conscious thoughts—even if it went the other way, the point is that the person's ultimate goal is to discover the truth, about reality and about himself. The point is that neither side can be simply ignored or brushed aside on the face of it, neither one's emotions nor one's conscious thinking. Ultimately, he needs to either drop his conscious thoughts or "change his mind," accepting the new information and evaluations, and what this implies about everything else he knows. He needs integration, not disintegration of or compartmentalizing between his conscious and subconscious thoughts. Sometimes, this can't always be easily done through introspection, and the assistance of psychotherapy and theories of psychology may be necessary, but that isn't to say that Objectivism is simply silent on a potential problem such as this.

But this criticism is merely an opening towards a more fundamental criticism Branden has at his disposal: that the philosophy, through Rand's fiction (especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) encourages repression. This is entirely understandable, this view of the novels he's presenting; he never understood Objectivism, or Rand—an extension of this is that he didn't even understand the novels.

He accuses the characters of repressing emotions and "self-disowning," but these novels present the most difficult journeys of self-discoveries, of soul-searching, that I've ever read, and I'm sure that I'm not alone in this sentiment. The entire plot of The Fountainhead is based on Roark's uncertainty about a difference between himself and certain kinds of other people, resulting in his discovery of "second-handers," thus learning more about himself and the independent mind as a result. The plot-theme of Atlas Shrugged culminated in the entire world being faced with the need to discover the power of their own minds, to discover their rational selves--if humanity was to survive. In The Fountainhead, Roark only lets his pain and suffering go down "to a certain point," but that didn't mean that he repressed even his negative emotions, such as his pity for Peter Keating. (It should be remembered that he felt bad for the pity he felt, that Peter's life had come to what it did, and that he had to evaluate him accordingly.) Perhaps the characters didn't feel the emotions Branden wanted them to, or when he wanted them to, or to the extent that he wanted, but it's absurd to claim that they were "dis-owning" themselves, or trying to block out certain aspects of themselves, something which can be attributed to the villains of the novels. If Roark had been a repressor, for instance, he wouldn't have done any of a number of things, such as pursuing his strong feelings for a career in architecture; maintaining hope even when his mentor died or when he had to find work elsewhere to survive; staying in love with Dominique, even when she had married Keating; or staying friends with Gail Wynand even after realizing how corrupt the man truly was (or possibly leaving Wynand after the climax's court case). All of these actions (and many more) flowed from a person in tune and at peace with himself, not a person conflicted with blocks and with a hidden "true self."

Branden claims that: "[t]his is an example of how 'The Fountainhead' could be at once a source of great inspiration and a source of great guilt, for all those who do not know how to reach Roark’s state." Since Branden is commenting on how people reacted to The Fountainhead, it's more just and fair to say that this is an example of how people can grossly misunderstand a novel. Or, as James Valliant says:
Rand cannot be held responsible for any of the alleged self-suppressing behavior of her legions of anonymous followers, any more than she can be held responsible for the deceptive self-suppressing behavior of the Brandens. [Valliant, James. The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, p. 172.]
What Brandens warns us about can be taken as an important lesson: that one shouldn't structure one's life on the literal actions of fictional characters. Literature and the portrayal of fictional characters aren't designed to be didactic, to teach one on how to apply relevant principles to their particular problems: that's the task for philosophy—in this case, for Objectivism. To find out what Objectivism actually advocates or encourages, one should study it for oneself. And what one will find in one's studies is that:
Objectivism is not against emotions, but emotionalism. Ayn Rand's concern is not to uphold stoicism or abet repression, but to identify a division of mental labor. There is nothing wrong with feeling that follows from an act of thought; this is the natural and proper human pattern. There is everything wrong with feeling that seeks to replace thought, by usurping its function. [Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 162.; italics mine in the second sentence.]
Encouraging Moralizing

Next, Branden criticizes the moralistic atmosphere that Rand and her followers created. (Anyone familiar with The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics will find it quite convenient that Branden leaves himself out of this charge of moralism.)

Specifically, he says:
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.
This isn't Rand's "vision" of justice at all, and Branden is intentionally misleading his listeners and readers. (He originally gave this as a speech in 1982.) Here is what Branden used to believe about Objectivism and forgiveness (or at least pretended to believe in while in the presence of other Objectivists):
When, then, is it proper to forgive an evil action? Why, when that forgiveness is deserved. Since man's moral character is the product of his free will, a man is always free to correct his evil premises. He is not bound for life to his vices, and he is not to be damned for them forever, if he succeeds in correcting them—unless he has committed such monstrous crimes that no atonement, and no forgiveness, is possible, which would be the case of a dictator or a murderer.

To deserve forgiveness, a man must atone for his evil in fact and in action, not merely in a verbal declaration of repentance. He must grasp the evil premise that caused his actions, and he must reject it fully and consciously with a full intellectual understanding, not merely by emotional protestations. He must undo and correct the existential consequences of his evil actions—to the extent to which it is still possible—and he must give you proof of his change, of his better premises, in the same terms in which his evil was committed. Only then, is it proper and just to forgive him. [Branden, Nathaniel, The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism, p. 499]
The basic outlook in the Objectivist view of justice is causality, or cause-and-effect. To properly evaluate and practice the virtue of justice, one must be willing to practice and be self-interested in causal reasoning, in discovering how an individual's context reveals the causes of his thinking and behavior. Reaching the identification of some person's action as being a rejection of reason and reality isn't enough, contra Branden: one needs to integrate the action's moral significance into what one knows about its cause: a person's character. The issue of condemnation certainly arises in this context, but this isn't due to some intrinsic ethical duty in Objectivism (such as: you must condemn irrational and immoral behavior and people), but due to the facts of the case and the very relevant "trader principle."

The trader principle is the principle that a value-seeker neither pursues nor allows the unearned, whether in matter or in spirit. It is a rejection of the unearned in human relationships. Positively stated, the principle counsels that, "if a man seeks something from another, he must gain title to it, i.e., come to deserve it, by offering the appropriate payment." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 286] Moral condemnation is an expression of this principle: individuals can choose to default on the thinking and actions they need to undertake, and thus can earn one's punishment of negative moral judgments. As in the case of forgiveness, proper moral condemnation is a form of respect for causality; it's a recognition that one can, in principle, expect pain, suffering, and more immorality from those whom have earned our negative moral judgments. Thus, the trader principle serves as a means to bring further clarity in one's moral judgments of others, by reminding us of what proper human relationships are built on, and cannot be sustained without: a mutual trade of values. It is the trader principle, and justice more broadly, that one is upholding when one praises individuals for their virtues and condemns them for their vices.

Not only does condemnation protect one's clarity in moral judgment of others, it's also an expression of the Objectivist principle that people should not willfully sanction evil. The refusal to judge people as evil, or the refusal to act in accordance with one's judgments—the evasion of the responsibility of moral judgment--causes one to be at risk for value-destruction and loss, to the extent of the evil in question. In refusing to judge a bully as evil (or failing to act on that), you might lose your favorite shoes; a thief: your wallet and credit information; a murderer or dictator: your very life. Of course, you're not the only one at risk when you fail to morally condemn the evil—it's the innocent people in the world who pay, whether it's those whom you care about or even complete strangers. When judging men, Rand writes, "if he finds them guilty of major evils, his [initial] good will is replaced by contempt and moral condemnation. (If one values human life, one cannot value its destroyers.)" (Rand, "Ethics of Emergencies") In the Objectivist theory of evil, the evil is sustained by the values and virtues of the good, especially the good's failure to assert itself and willfully combat and oppose evil men and their actions. When you fail to condemn the evil, it is the evil whom you encourage; "To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims," Rand warns. Peikoff presents the same idea: "[the person who abstains from blaming evil] becomes an ally in the sense of leaving that evil [uncensored] and unopposed, free to continue its course of destruction." (OPAR, p. 277; information in brackets mine.) It is precisely the anti-life consequences of human evil that makes it morally necessary to condemn those who engage in it.

As should be clearer, condemnation is not something to be taken lightly in Objectivism, nor should one begin rashly condemning people without provocation for perceived mistakes or immorality. One's own moral character (and one's willingness to evade and misrepresent facts) is revealed in the just or unjust manners in which one treats others. If one came into the philosophy with the hopes of being a self-justified moral tyrant, then one will leave very disappointed, just as actual Objectivists have in the past (and I'm sure will do so in the future).

In this context, the proper Objectivist is not primarily a moralist or valuer, but a guardian of objectivity, of sticking strictly to the facts of the case and analyzing them logically, checking one's conclusions against reality.

Branden continues, giving an example of what he means by Objectivism's failure to deal positively with people guilty of conscious immorality:
Let’s suppose a person has done something that he or she knows to be wrong, immoral, unjust, or unreasonable: instead of acknowledging the wrong, instead of simply regretting the action and then seeking, compassionately, to understand why the action was taken and asking where was I coming from? and what need was I trying in my own twisted way to satisfy?—instead of asking such questions, the person is encouraged to brand the behavior as evil and is given no useful advice on where to go from there. You don’t teach people to be moral by teaching them self-contempt as a virtue.
Anyone familiar with Objectivism knows that the philosophy has a lot to say about this in the context of the virtue of pride, something that Nathaniel Branden used to know a lot about.

"Pride," as I wrote in Part 5: Errors vs. Moral Breaches (with one additional sentence):
is 'moral ambitiousness,' it is striving to adhere to one's moral code, creating one's optimal moral character, and taking the actions needed to make one's life worth living—to make one worthy of positive self-esteem. Pride is working towards moral perfection, which is, 'an unbreached rationality—not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute.' Intellectually, pride means taking moral issues seriously, seeking to understand them and acting as one's moral code dictates, to be "good" by one's moral standard and principles. By the same token, this means consciously refusing to engage in willful evil, to create flaws in one's character. The proud man accepts the principle that 'man is a being of self-made soul'; such a man recognizes that one's virtuous or flawed character is a result of one's own volitional actions, and is therefore capable, in principle, of being changed for the better. As Peikoff puts the point (and several other points), the fact of volition's role on character, and it's importance in regard to pride, means that:
There is no excuse, therefore, for a man who resigns himself to flaws in his character. 'Flaws' does not mean errors of knowledge, which involve no evasion; it means breaches of morality, which do involve evasion. The moral man may lack a piece of knowledge or reach a mistaken conclusion; but he does not tolerate willful evil, neither in his consciousness nor in his action, neither in the form of sins of commission nor of sins of omission. He does not demand of himself the impossible, but he does demand every ounce of the possible. He refuses to rest content with a defective soul, shrugging in self-deprecation 'That's me.' He knows that that 'me' was created, and is alterable, by him. (Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 304)
In action, the proud person engages in rational actions unwaveringly, earnestly practicing the virtues he regards as true. He does not fault himself for honest mistakes, but rather accepts his fallibility and moves forward, correcting them whenever the means are available to do so. He doesn't accept unearned guilt, faulting himself for failing to fully practice something that is impossible to accomplish. Nor does he motivate his actions by evasion or other forms of evil. Despite this, Objectivism is opposed to the view that moral perfection is a "one-shot thing"; if a person does become guilty of a vice, he doesn't sit in moral helplessness, but rather uses his rationality to redeem himself. He, "condemns his improper behavior, analyzes its roots (identifying in the process the underlying evasions), makes reparation (where applicable), and works to reshape his mental policy; he thereby retrains his character for the future." (OPAR, p. 305)
Complaints from Nathaniel Branden notwithstanding, Objectivism has quite a bit to say for those who commit immorality and seek to correct their thinking and character. After committing such blameworthy action, the philosophy does not merely counsel one to have self-contempt and leave it at that. No man of self-esteem, particularly an Objectivist, would resign himself to self-hate and moral lethargy in the face of immoral actions that can be corrected.

A synonym in Objectivism for an immoral action or a vice is a "moral breach"--the breach is between oneself and one's moral code, and the phrase suggests that it can be mended or fixed. Assuming it is a correctable kind of breach, the solution Objectivism offers is, in essence, no different from the actions of the morally perfect: upholding reason as an absolute.

It is the conscientious focus on the facts, of thinking directed at reality, of practicing objectivity, and of acting according to one's objective judgments, that is the essence of human nobility in Objectivism. As a result, it is the means of creating a person of great moral stature. The path of redemption, likewise, requires thought: thought about the moral breach; thought about its causes and what it has impacted; and thought as to how to correct any harms, spiritual or physical, that may have resulted. And it requires action, in the form of correcting one's prior behavior, making amends to any damaged parties involved, and proving in action across a span of time (even if it takes years) that one refuses to return to one's previous immoral actions—that one's immoral actions were an aberration and not a part of one's character (or is a part of one's character that is being consciously rejected). More than that, it requires the continued practice of rationality in all aspects of one's life, and not succumbing to irrationality for any reason or any alleged value.

At this point, we witness the cashing-in on his criticisms regarding moralism, and his objections to the frenzied, feverish condemnations which seem to flow from Objectivism's moral code:
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. [...] What I do deny is that [condemnation] is an effective strategy for inspiring moral change or improvement.
Branden is claiming that, instead of negative moral judgments, we should refrain from such activity, instead we should work compassionately to return the immoral person (or generally moral person who committed a moral breach) to virtue. Thus, he's elevated compassion, sympathy/empathy, and moral reform of others above a person's need to identify the characters of others and act accordingly.

Let's concretize what Branden is proposing here. Branden used Rand as a psychological marriage counselor for years (in the middle to late 1960s), all the while lying to her about very pertinent information—such as Barbara Branden's affair and his own (with Patrecia Scott, later Branden). He also lied about his celibacy-inducing "sex-problem" that Rand counseled him on, as he was secretly in a sexual relationship with Scott around the same time as those sessions. (For more on this, consult The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics.) Branden, at the time Rand's "intellectual heir" and supposedly the second-most knowledgeable Objectivist at the time, was guilty of gross hypocrisy, evading his need to divulge relevant information to his trusted friend and romantic partner, convincing her to help him in his psychology and marriage problems under completely false pretenses, and generally being unjust to Rand. These two instances alone would have justified Rand's conclusion that he had strayed far away from Objectivism, and was a person that made it selfishly necessary to break all relations with.

Branden would have us believe that Rand should be kind and respectful to Branden, when Branden himself was cruel and disrespectful. Supposedly, she should try to understand where Branden was coming from—his context—but isn't that exactly what Branden originally misled her about? Rand should try to "make a friend out of an enemy"--but wouldn't this only be reasonable if the enemy is willing to change his premises and character into what could be accepted by a potential friend? Rand should be concerned with the perpetrator's, i.e. Branden's, well-being, but shouldn't he first consider how he has impacted her values, and may do so in the future—her own well-being, in other words?

Branden's view clearly is a form of moral subjectivism, as he wishes to grant compassion and kindness to the virtuous and the vicious alike, and both due to their respective natures. Because of their immorality, we can hear Branden saying, we should reward the guilty with positives: our generosity, compassion, understanding, time, effort, and thought. Doing otherwise works to convince the guilty party to repeat his immorality. Note the double standard: the compensation of both the positive and negative elements of people with positives, instead of the Objectivist view of paying positives for positives and negatives for negatives; the greater responsibility of mending the relationship on the morally innocent than the guilty; Branden's focus on the victims of immoral people and actions, his focus on the actions that the innocent need to take to redeem the guilty, with little attention paid to what the guilty needs to do. His falsehoods here are precisely the sort of injustice Peikoff identifies when he states, "[t]hat the innocent should pay is the demand of those who reject the trader principle." (OPAR, p. 287) As such, Branden's view is a rejection of the Objectivist view of moral judgment, of the trader principle, and of the one of the first steps needed for moral redemption: condemning one's own previous immoral action(s). He ignores the Objectivist viewpoint that certain kinds of immorality on the guilty party's part justify and demand ostracizing oneself from that person, and would certainly be opposed to one trying to "help" the person.

Objectivism on Sacrifice and Benevolence

This objection is almost not worth commenting on, as it amounts to: "Rand didn't write or talk about benevolence and mutual aid between people to my, Nathaniel Branden's, satisfaction."

The heart of his criticism here is that:
By treating the issue of help to others almost entirely in the context of self-sacrifice and/or in the context of government coercion, Rand largely neglects a vast area of human experience to which neither of these considerations apply. And the consequence for too many of her followers is an obliviousness to the simple virtues of kindness, generosity, and mutual aid, all of which clearly and demonstrably have biological utility, meaning: survival value.
First, since he doesn't give any examples, it's hard to note the prevalence of the kind of ungenerous behavior that Branden is referring to—in other words, it amounts to an arbitrary assertion. Second, it's beyond unfair to blame Rand and Objectivism for errors or moral breaches people make (or could make) in applying the philosophy—though "oblivious" as these supposed Objectivists are, it is (was) nonetheless their responsibility to understand how generosity and kindness apply to their lives. (I'm indignant at Branden's implication here that Objectivists only know whatever Rand discussed, and are oblivious to anything she didn't write about. It's as if he's blaming Rand for not writing about benevolence, kindness, etc. so that Objectivists can puppet or follow what she says, with the result being that we're helpless sheep in the realm of kindness, generosity, etc., without her guidance.)

In his insistence that generosity and kindness are virtues even for Objectivists, and that Rand hasn't said enough about these virtues, Branden misleads the readers about what Rand does say about these ideas. And what does Rand and Objectivism say?

Objectivism advocates neither callousness nor indifference to other people. (Rand in fact refers to people who are indifferent to human life as "psychopaths." See Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Ethics of Emergencies," p. 50.) Nor does it instruct a person to generously help others when that would be self-sacrificial, and would wreck one's more important values.

In an important paragraph, Rand states:
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life. (ibid., p. 56)
Objectivism's position on mutual aid and generosity can best be understood by the ideas of a hierarchy of values and of the trader principle. I've already discussed the trader principle, so I'll note that a "hierarchy of values" is the sum of an individual's values and evaluations that are ranked and logically ordered by their positive impact on the individual's ultimate goals, the "ends in themselves"—in Objectivism, these goals are one's life and one's happiness. Branden (with Rand's agreement) describes the hierarchy of values in the context of a rational man:
[H]e values some things more than others; and, to the extent that he is rational, the hierarchical order of his values is rational: that is, he values things in proportion to their importance in serving his life and well-being. (Branden, The Virtue of Selfishness, "Mental Health Versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice," p. 45)
To determine the propriety of generosity or kindness or charity (or other purported moral virtues), we need to refer to our own rational self-interest and our own hierarchy of values. "[T]he time, money, or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be be proportional to the value of the person in relation to one's own happiness," Rand advises us. Assuming non-sacrificial assistance is possible in an given context (such as helping someone with a debt), a person, rationally, should be more generous and charitable to a friend than an acquaintance or a stranger, and still more generous, considerate, etc. to one's best friend or one's love. Failing to assist those who represent one's highest values, like one's love, is actually a breach of the virtue of integrity, as one is professing to have certain values (affection for a friend, a lover), but not translating one's protestations of value into reality. (Rand, ibid., "The Ethics of Emergencies, pp. 52-53) To properly be a friend or a lover, one must incorporate other people into our individual hierarchies of value, and then act in accordance with the hierarchy. (ibid., p. 53.)

This also means that any help offered is given as a reward for the person's virtues, or, in the case of strangers, for the general respect and good will one grants to all humans as potential values in one's own life. In both cases, the help or generosity offered is a trade for the values and virtues which other people possess. (The exceptions to this help are those whom one knows to be actually evil; ibid., pp. 53-54) In answering a question about scholarships, Rand discusses the moral propriety of accepting help or generosity:
The fact that a man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance [...]
It is morally proper to accept help, when it is offered not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e., when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver's virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses, or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such. (Rand, The Voice of Reason, "The Question of Scholarships," pp. 40-41.)
While Rand may have not explored the topics of generosity, charity, kindness, and benevolence as much as other aspects of her philosophy (such as, say, her theory of concepts), what she does say is rather illuminating towards a rational, self-interested approach to human relationships. Her position amounts to (as expressed by Peikoff): "You may and should help another man, or befriend him, or love him, if in the full context you--your values, your judgment, your life—are upheld thereby and protected. The principle of your action must be selfish." (Peikoff, OPAR, p. 239) Beneficial though her presentation may be, she is right to deny that these principles are major virtues properly. Being generous, kind, or charitable is only virtuous or is in one's self-interest in very specific contexts, and only with appropriate individuals. Whereas the seven virtues she named are fundamentals, in terms of a person's life and how he lives it in regard to various aspects of reality (such as to his own reason, to other men, to his moral principles, etc.). To point out the difference: justice is what we owe to all men, due to the nature of volition in men and its potential impact on our self-interests and lives; whereas kindness is not in an egoist's interests in all cases, particularly when we consider the cruel, irrational, and plain evil characters that he may meet.

Thus, I object to the entire logic of Branden's section, "Conflating Sacrifice and Benevolence," indeed, even the title itself. Rand emphatically does not conflate or blend sacrifice with benevolence, and it is misleading on Branden's part to even make such a suggestion. Rand makes very specific claims about benevolence, charity, and kindness, and it would do Objectivists well to not consign them all to the realm of self-sacrifice, but rather to understand the logic of what she states about them, and then apply her philosophical insights to one's own lives—in other words, to be Objectivists.

Overemphasizing the role of philosophical premises

Philosophy's primary role in a person's life, in a culture, and in history itself, is a conclusion in Objectivism based on the vast range of data that philosophy integrates and deals with. Branden presents the Objectivist view of history as if it holds that philosophical beliefs are the only factors:
Our souls are more than our philosophies—and certainly more than our conscious philosophies. Just as we need to know more than a human being’s philosophical beliefs in order to understand that human being; so, we need to know more than a society’s or culture’s philosophical beliefs to understand the events of a given historical period. [...] Other factors, however, are always involved, which one would never guess from reading Ayn Rand.
Indeed, other factors are always involved, economic, social, political, psychological, and so forth. But they do not all determine the course of a given individual or a culture or of certain events in history; nor do they all have equal share in creating their effects in reality. Most derivative causes of human action and human history are proximate causes, various concrete facts closely connected with the existential results. Whereas the primary causes tend to be more abstract and remote, which, though removed from the immediate events, nonetheless shaped the events insofar as people acted on their abstract ideas. It's reasoning such as this that leads Rand to her viewpoint about philosophy being the prime mover and cause of human history:
There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man’s rational faculty—the power of ideas. If you know a man’s convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man’s choice. (Rand, "Is Atlas Shrugging?," Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, p. 165.)

...[T]he factor that underlies and determines every aspect of human life is philosophy; teach men the right philosophy—and their own minds will do the rest. Philosophy is the wholesaler in human affairs. (Rand, "What Can One Do?," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 274.)
Branden lists "unfortunate consequences" of believing that our selves are the result of our philosophical premises and that our premises are the result of our thought or non-thought. Among them are the inclination to regard anyone as immoral who reaches different conclusions than our own, and an inclination to believe that people who have the same premises are people we will have a lot in common with. Objectivism does not say that we are the product solely of our premises, and it is dishonest on Branden's part to suggest otherwise. Many factors are involved in determining who we are, including our emotions, values, psychology, personal history, and our premises; neither Rand nor the philosophy pretend otherwise, though Branden needs them to in order to make his bad criticism here work. Nor does Objectivism suggest that people who hold different views than you are immoral, or that people who hold the same views should be befriended and loved—the context of the individuals involved is of the highest importance, not merely their premises. The objectivity of people's conclusions, how they reached their similar (to yours) or divergent views, is one of the most important ways the philosophy counsels us as to judging whom we should admire and love, or condemn.

With his last criticism in this section, he paints Objectivists as little read, basically having knowledge only of Rand's works. "There is too much about the real world, about social and political institutions, and about human psychology, of which they have no knowledge." There isn't much to say about this, as he doesn't offer any evidence for anyone to conclude that this is true. And I know enough Objectivists personally to conclude that this alleged ignorance isn't as widespread as he believes it to be. Every member of the Ayn Rand Institute that I'm aware has some specialty (or is working on one) in a field outside of Objectivism, whether it's a branch of general philosophy, another philosopher's system (i.e. Aristotle's), psychology, business, science, cultural analysis, and foreign policy. Some friends of mine who are also Objectivists specialize in advertising, law, biology, and philosophy. I'm studying the philosophical history of induction myself, and have a somewhat intermediate level of knowledge about the history of philosophy in general, and varying degrees of knowledge pertaining to specific philosophies. In short, no Objectivist whom I know about only has knowledge pertaining to Objectivism. Nor should Objectivism be properly studied alone in a vacuum, as an end in itself—its purpose is to be applied to one's own life and the world around oneself.

Encouraging Dogmatism

In this final section before the conclusion, Branden criticizes Rand's alleged attitude toward Objectivism as the basis for the apparent transformation of the philosophy into a "dogmatic religion," to which many students of the philosophy accepted just as stubbornly. As with most of his other claims, no evidence is cited, and he even lies about Rand's view that one couldn't pick elements out of Objectivism if they pleased. She in fact says:
There is nothing wrong in using ideas, anybody's ideas. Provided that you give appropriate credit, you can make any mixture of ideas that you want; the contradiction will be yours. But why do you need the name of someone with whom you do not agree in order to spread your misunderstandings -- or worse, your nonsense and falsehoods? (From "The Moratorium on Brains," Question and Answer Period.)
By "dogmatic," Branden partly means that the philosophy is filled with insufficiently proven principles and claims. So when the hypothetical Objectivist responds that he "can prove every one of Ayn Rand's [philosophical?] propositions," Branden can smugly and snidely remark: "The hell you can!" What's his proof that an Objectivist couldn't prove Rand's philosophy? Certainly not a sagely, well-thought out refutation of an Objectivist argument for some position; rather, he appeals to authority, and Rand's authority no less!
Prior to our break, Ayn Rand credited me with understanding her philosophy better than any other person alive—and not merely better, but far better. I know what we were in a position to prove, I know where the gaps are. And so can anyone else—by careful, critical reading. It’s not all that difficult or complicated.
Scary stuff. Note the argument from intimidation: he's practically shouting: "if you haven't seen the errors in Objectivism, then you haven't engaged in careful, critical reading, and are a dogmatist to boot!" The fact of the matter is that Branden never understood the philosophy inductively, the true method; at best, he understood it rationalistically, as a series of axioms and deductions to be dogmatically followed as Kantian rules without personal context or integration. (Again, see The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics for this aspect of Branden.) Diana Hsieh criticizes this very rationalistic character of Branden's understanding of Objectivism in her posts on his distorted view of Objectivism and his advocacy of mysticism ("Nathaniel Branden Versus Objectivism," and "Brothers, You Asked For It!").

A symptom of this rationalistic understanding is the inability (or at least difficulty) in determining what is a part of the philosophy as opposed to what is an application of the philosophy. Branden eloquently makes my point when he states: "I would love to hear some loyal follower of Ayn Rand try to argue logically and rationally for her belief that no woman should aspire to be president of the United States." Clearly, Branden conflates the philosophy with its applications by Rand (and possibly others, like himself pre-split from Rand), such that we have to prove her philosophy and every statement she made which she backed up with Objectivism. We must also, according to Branden, be willing to see her errors and to "correct them," suggesting that it's acceptable and proper to change her philosophy and still call it "Objectivism." (I've stated my objections to this view promulgated by the "open system" advocates, Nathaniel Branden among them, here.) Diana Hsieh explains in "The Open System, One More Time" the relevant difference between the boundaries of philosophy, the nature of principles, and the applications of philosophy, which I'll now quote:
As far as I understand, a philosophic system is a set of interrelated philosophic principles. So while the ways in which a philosopher applies his principles to a particular issues often illuminates the scope or meaning of them, those applications are not part of the philosophy itself. So if Ayn Rand misapplied her philosophic principles by misjudging some point outside philosophy -- such as the wording of some piece of legislation, the proper interpretation of some passage of Hume, the historical roots of the Renaissance, the psychology underlying altruistic demands, or whatever -- that does not invalidate her philosophy. The critics of the closed system often have trouble grasping this point, largely because they are confused (some willfully, some honestly) about (1) the boundaries of philosophy (i.e. what counts as a philosophic principle) and (2) the nature of a principle (i.e. what counts as a philosophic principle). Ayn Rand's contentious claim that homosexuality is immoral (with which I disagree) and that a properly feminine woman wouldn't want to be President (with which I agree, much to my surprise) fail on both counts. Neither is a fundamental generalization, nor even particularly broad or abstract. And while both depend upon the application of some philosophic principles, they heavily depend upon complex and technical points of psychology.
More fundamental than all that I've said in this section is that Objectivism advocates the kind of thinking which is totally opposed to dogmatism. Don't accept conclusions on faith, use reason as an absolute, be objective in your thinking—this is the kind of advice that Objectivism essentially upholds and counsels us to accept and practice. If there ever were any "dogmatic Objectivists," then Nathaniel Branden was certainly the first, and the greatest—and the solution to that problem would be a sincere attempt to understand the philosophy, not to blame it and Rand years later for one's own dogmatism.


Nathaniel Branden never understood Ayn Rand or Objectivism. But he certainly does abhor both. Some Objectivists and students of Objectivism do not want to believe this; I hope this essay (including Part 2) makes this a little clearer and easier to digest. Part 2 will focus on the claims he makes about Ayn Rand.


  1. Independence & Rationality developed in Ayn Rand separately, but both as necessary components. First was Independence and second was Rationality. This is why The Fountainhead came before Atlas and the defiant attitude of the Mysterious Valley & Bjorn Faulkner came even earlier. It's rooted in her emphasis of Nietzche's thought: "The noble soul has
    reverence for itself." This is also Kira's Viking. Although I love Andrew B's appreciation of her works and achievements, I think he missed her Viking
    point. He was O.K.! She did approve of her Viking, just to the tip of his sword. But then, not now! Prior to rationality, et al, he was the best, in context, available to evolution. Evolution develops Man up to a point (like Bohm-Bawerk's economics of the 'round about method of production) and then leaves him on his own. Evolution makes no investments, but the 'round about method, and purpose chosen by Man's knowledge & values does! Man becomes a being of self-made soul. On the primitive level, Kira's Viking is it! Ayn Rand developed along two lines, both necessary for her achievements: Independence and Rationality, with Independence developing first. This is the Independence rooted in reverence for one's self, that
    reverence is nourished and grows as it grasps Rationality. Now Branden misunderstood all this despite his close association with her. Recall that he complained that her philosophy was hard to get to because it was intertwined within her stories. But that is the secret of her achievement! How was she able to see beyond the other all-time great thinkers? How was it that Einstein, Descartes, Aquinas, et al, could not see it? Because they didn't have reverence for themselves. As a novelist, Ayn Rand was selfishly pursuing the ideal Man. Now this is the "refractor ray" setting up the optical illusion that has prevented those geniuses from getting to the core of the issue, the key barricade being the diaphanous approach: the fundamental belief that reality is beyond our knowing. From the beginning of Man's thought there existed a fear that we cannot actually know reality as it really is--as God sees it. Thus her fundamental rejection of God because He's a slap in our face. There also existed a fear that Man should not tamper with nature [although it was in his nature to do just that] and that tampering with nature changes it from what God intended [from the Garden of Eden and
    disobedience to Heisenberg.] This is why the geniuses could not penetrate, why they philosophized in the third person. Why they adopted the diaphanous approach. But Ayn Rand, in pursuit of an ideal Man, who must move beyond nature, yet deal with it, whose actions must be based upon it to move
    beyond it, rejected this barrier as nonsense. It was not even a temptation. She philosophized in the first person
    Not: What should one do?
    But: What do I do? What,
    heretofore, does my hero do?
    What does reality require?
    So the search for the ideal Man in romantic fiction leads to a Primacy of Existence philosophy, with reason & logic as the means to dealing with it. A philosophy based on what Man needs to deal with reality, not on what we would imagine what an all-knowing God would set up. 2500 years of junk was based on this error. Miss Rand rejected it. They
    never even noticed it. They almost took it for granted. Their genius was to no avail.

  2. Peikoff wrote that many early Rand students were religionists looking for another external authority and they eventually left disappointed.

  3. Rand, in _Art of Non-Fiction_ , says, in the right context, trust your subconscious.

  4. Branden's claim that Obj encourages repression is bizarre. My former philosophy profs would probably have liked some repression in me! And I was almost thrown out of a bar for "talking philosophy."

  5. Seeing how close Branden was to Rand, personally and otherwise, and the early Obj movement, in of itself, it seems a stretch to say he "never understood Ayn Rand or Objectivism."

    1. Branden never understood either. His mind-set and character precluded an actual understanding of either Ayn Rand or Objectivism. He claims he now makes about both subjects definitively shows it, in my view. In short: he lied about Rand to millions, and misunderstood and misrepresented Objectivism to any and all who would hear and read what he had to say.

      If you look in Ayn Rand's personal journals displayed in Jim Valliant's "Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics," you'll see that she viewed Branden as the most immoral person she'd ever met in her life, even going so far as to say that he was the real enemy of Atlas Shrugged, the real kind of enemy she lived her whole life fighting against.

      If you have specific evidence to prove otherwise, please share.