Friday, October 19, 2007

Ayn Rand on Questionable Parents

The following excerpts are from an interview entitled "Objectivism in Brief" conducted by Raymond Newman and currently available for streaming at the Ayn Rand Institute website here with free registration. It's also available for purchase from the Ayn Rand Bookstore here.

The comments (which I've personally transcribed below) come in the following context: Mr. Newman asked Miss Rand a question at minute 30:05:

...Miss Rand, we spoke in the last program about morality and I did have final question about that ...and... it's a broad, general question about how to deal with people who are immoral. What level of contact is acceptable? For example, is it acceptable to trade with, to buy, to sell ...ehh... from or to someone that is immoral?

Ayn Rand answers this question (I will not transcribe the answer here -- you can hear it in the interview) and then Mr. Newman asks this follow-up around minute 32:09:

Is there any reason to treat family members any differently than you would treat other people in this context?

Rand answers as follows. I've highlighted the part relevant to subject of this post and I tried to use italics when it appeared to my ears that Ayn Rand was trying to emphasize a word (obviously any mistakes in transcription are mine):

None whatever. I am very much against that kind of sense. In the sense which makes...ehh...a small tribe out of the family and makes you tied to every second cousin and aunt and ankles[sic]...uncles that you might have...ehh...the only exception is of course in regard to your parents because there the relationship is different from that to any
other person and you have to acknowledge Generally you do not break with your parents as easily as you would with other members of the family. Other members you have to judge as you would every person you meet -- if you don't approve of them you don't become friendly. You cannot choose your parents in that sense, and you have to give them a long, long benefit of the doubt and permit them, in effect, more offenses against yourself than you would to friends or acquaintances. You have to give them a certain credit for the fact that they chose to give birth to you and took care of you while you were helpless. But, it's not an unlimited claim, and clash with your parents too much then you have to maintain an attitude of polite duty and see as little of them as possible. And that's probably the only realm in which I recognize such a thing as duty. As a rule, it's a very wrong concept...ehh...because it asks you to do something for which you have no reason, but the one reason that...that your parents gave you life would make you do more for them or bury[sic]...bear more from them than any other people.

Would you have expected this answer from Miss Rand? My point here is to give one small example to demonstrate that Ayn Rand was a careful, sophisticated, and nuanced thinker. Unfortunately, the typical intellectual who comments on her, usually a Liberal or Conservative, almost never recognizes this fact. Keep in mind that the above comment is in the context of immoral or otherwise odious parents and yet Miss Rand encourages individuals to continue their relationship with their parents. Far from being an advocate unrestrained rebellion, Ayn Rand actually accepts a form of duty to one's parents, at least up to a point.

Objectivism is neither simple, nor simplistic. Proper understanding and application of Ayn Rand's ideas require years of study and practice. I'm still working on it.

1 comment:

NS said...

Very good point. It helps show, I think, that the Objectivist ethics really is an ethics. That is, there is a broad overlap between it and "common sense morality." AR does not "reevaluate all values" a la Nietzsche. "Good" and "evil" as she uses them are not neologisms detached for ordinary usage.

Instead, her views are based on easily observable facts about what is good or bad for us, facts which most people are in the position to observe for themselves, even if they are not philosophers. Everybody knows that killing is bad, that honesty is good, and that debts should be paid (including to your parents)--and that these things are good and bad because they make healthy human existence possible.

What everybody doesn't realize is that the same facts that make these kinds of behavior good and bad also necessitate the abandonment of altruism and compromise. That's where the philosopher's eye is needed, to see the underlying principles behind the easily observable facts--and their implications.

Because AR realizes that people have contradictory ethical beliefs, and urges them to throw out the altruism and the compromise, critics will say that she rejects commonsense morality. But this is not true. Instead, she identifies the source of commonsense morality and urges people to expunge elements of of their ethical beliefs that are inconsistent with this source. What looks like "nuance" is really just a sensitivity to the factual origin of ethical principles.