Aug 212005

For many years, Nathaniel Branden has openly criticized Ayn Rand’s approach to moral judgment. Although I’ve known those criticisms to be wholly unfounded for some time, I never bothered to identify the essence of his warm-and-fuzzy alternative until a few weeks ago. I’m glad I did, since it’s worse than I imagined.

So in this post, I will scrutinize Branden’s criticisms of the Objectivist view of moral judgment, as well as identify the core of his proposed alternative approach. To do that properly though, I must first set the context by reviewing some critical aspects of the Objectivist virtue of justice. Beware: This post is looooong.

Justice — defined as “the virtue of judging men’s character and conduct objectively and of acting accordingly, granting to each man that which he deserves” — is a thoroughly egoistic virtue (OPAR 276). Moral judgments are indispensable for the simple reason that the course of our lives substantially depends upon the people with whom we choose to associate. So one business partner might help me make a fortune, while another will ruin my reputation by cheating clients. One friend will delight in backstabbing gossip, while another wouldn’t dream of such disloyalty. And one educational foundation will promote your values with your donations, while another will undermine them. To ensure that our pursuits actually promote the values necessary for life and happiness, we must consider the moral characters of the people involved. So as Leonard Peikoff observes in OPAR:

Since morality is concerned with a man’s fundamental values, moral judgment enables one to know the essence that actuates him; it identifies the principles shaping his character and conduct. In the Objectivist approach, such judgment penetrates to the root principle, the one covering a man’s primary use of his faculty of volition. Moral judgment distinguishes the men who choose to recognize reality from the men who choose to evade it. Such knowledge is necessary on practical grounds, in order to plan one’s actions and protect one’s interests. If a man is good by the Objectivist standard, if he is rational, honest, productive, then, other things being equal, one can expect to gain values in dealing with him. If a man is evil, however, if he is irrational, dishonest, parasitical, one can expect from such dealing not value, but loss (OPAR 277).

Or, as Ayn Rand writes in “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” in The Virtue of Selfishness: “Moral values are the motive power of a man’s actions. By pronouncing moral judgment, one protects the clarity of one’s own perception and the rationality of the course one chooses to pursue” (VOS 84-5).

As an egoistic virtue rather than a duty imposed from on high, justice does not demand impossible absurdities like the moral investigation of every single person with whom we interact, no matter in how small a way. We need not, for example, check whether a woman embraces reason and reality before holding open an elevator door for her. So Peikoff writes:

The time one should devote to inquiry [into moral character] depends on the context. In general, in life as in law, a person is to be regarded as innocent of wrongdoing until proven guilty. If one wants only to buy a quart of milk, therefore, no special assessment of the grocer is indicated; absent information that he is trafficking in illicit or tainted goods, one may legitimately assume that the man is reputable. As the relationship involved becomes more significant, however–if one is a juror in court, say, or wants to invite a person to become one’s business partner or the companion of one’s child–then, obviously, special study and assessment do become necessary (OPAR 279-80).

Ayn Rand offered a similar analysis in “The Ethics of Emergencies”:

Since men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally, a rational man regards strangers as innocent until proved guilty, and grants them that initial good will in the name of their human potential. After that, he judges them according to the moral character they have actualized. If he finds them guilty of major evils, his good will is replaced by contempt and moral condemnation. (If one values human life, one cannot value its destroyers.) If he finds them to be virtuous, he grants them personal, individual value and appreciation, in proportion to their virtues (VOS 54).

Now that we have the egoistic purpose of justice firmly in mind, let us turn to the rational practice of justice in the evaluation of men.

For our moral judgments to serve and protect our lives, they must be objective evaluations of a person’s actual choices by the proper moral standard of man’s life. Discovering the truth about a man’s character requires two basic steps: (1) the identification of “the facts of a given case” and (2) the evaluation of them “by reference to objective moral principles” (OPAR 279). These two elements of moral judgment demand much of us, both epistemologically and morally. After all, we cannot simply peer into the soul of another person to determine whether he is fundamentally a vicious evader or a virtuous thinker. Nor can we safely rely upon our automatic “feelings, ‘instincts’ or hunches” (VOS 84). Rather, as Ayn Rand repeatedly emphasizes, objective moral judgment requires “the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought” about a person on the basis of “his actions, his statements, and his conscious convictions” (VOS 84, VOR 28).

Perhaps the greatest challenge of moral judgment is distinguishing between honest errors of knowledge and willful breaches of morality. Because humans are neither omniscient nor infallible, a person can err in his conclusions or actions without any evasion (VOS 88). Such morally innocent errors of knowledge ought not be condemned along with willful breaches of morality (VOS 85, AS 974). Rand explains the crucial difference error and evasion in her Journals as follows:

The difference between an error of knowledge and a moral error is that in the first case, a man does not suspend his consciousness (his reason), he is exercising it fully and he merely lacks all the necessary information; in the second case, he acts against his reason, he does not want to know and, therefore, he is guilty of the basic, cardinal sin (which, perhaps, is the one essential sin that embraces and contains all the others): the sin of suspending his consciousness, which amounts to suspending life or destroying the essence of life. In the first case, a man remains open to new knowledge, open to the possibility of correcting his error. In the second case, the man has closed the door to knowledge, therefore closed it to correction, and therefore his error (and his evil) will grow worse and worse (JAR 626).

So if a man errs in his ideas, his inferences, or his actions, that is not a moral black mark against him — so long as he is fully committed to grasping reality by means of his reason. That is not true of the willfully vicious evader.

Notably, Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes, particularly Hank Rearden, show that the scope of morally innocent errors is not limited to the particular facts of a situation, as in Aristotle’s ethics, but may also concern the relevant abstract principles. However, a man cannot hold any view or take any action whatsoever honestly; the scope of honest error possible to a man is determined by the context of his life and knowledge. This point is most easily grasped in relation to a person’s responsibility for assimilating the knowledge required for his chosen career. For example: A doctor is rightly blamed for prescribing two drugs known to interact badly, yet his patient is not blamed for ingesting them. A lawyer ought to know the critical rules of evidence, but his secretary need not. A leftist professor of political philosophy is rightly condemned for teaching blatant falsehoods about capitalism, whereas his students may be innocently bamboozled by them. In all these cases, honest error due to lack of knowledge is possible to the layperson. The supposed expert, in contrast, ought to know better: it’s his job to do so.

Similarly, certain philosophic errors are simply not possible to a person honestly struggling to understand the world. For example, in the course of discussing the student rebellions at Berkeley, Ayn Rand notes that “there is no such thing as rejecting reason through an innocent error of knowledge” (CUI 250). Similarly, a person cannot innocently hate the good for being the good (as in hating “a person for possessing a value or virtue one regards as desirable”) without evading (TNL 131). In some cases, the possibility of honest error depends upon a person’s cultural context. So in “The Monument Builders,” Rand writes: “Fifty years ago, there might have been some excuse (though not justification) for the widespread belief that socialism is a political theory motivated by benevolence and aimed at the achievement of men’s well-being. Today, that belief can no longer be regarded as an innocent error. Socialism has been tried on every continent of the globe. In the light of its results, it is time to question the motives of socialism’s advocates” (VOS 100).

Leonard Peikoff explains the general principle at work here in “Fact and Value“: “In all such cases, the [inherently dishonest] ideas are not merely false; in one form or another, they represent an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values). If the conscientious attempt to perceive reality by the use of one’s mind is the essence of honesty, no such rebellion can qualify as ‘honest’” (F&V). (For more details on inherently dishonest ideas, I strongly recommend the last lecture of Understanding Objectivism. I was thoroughly baffled by the idea until I heard that lecture in the fall of 2003.)

Of course, even if a person is armed with the proper principles and standards of judgment, the objective application of them to real-life cases of human character and conduct can be a difficult challenge. Ayn Rand herself warns of this problem, writing that “It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles; it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person” (VOS 84). In some cases, the available evidence about a person’s character may not be sufficient for judgment. Then-Objectivist Nathaniel Branden addressed this concern in his Basic Principles of Objectivism course:

If you do not know how to judge the character of a person because the facts available to you are insufficient and the evidence of his flaws is inconclusive, you must give him the benefit of the doubt — not on the grounds of mercy, but on the grounds of justice — because to let off the guilty is less disastrous than to condemn the innocent, because virtues are more important than flaws, because justice demands that a man be considered innocent until proved guilty. This principle applies in law courts as well as in your personal relationships with people, except that in personal relationships, when you give the benefit of the doubt, you do not dismiss the case: you wait for further evidence to prove the good or bad character of the person before you pass a moral judgment (BPO, “Justice Versus Mercy”).

In other cases, our moral judgments are complicated by the fact that people are morally mixed, in the sense that they “hold mixed, contradictory premises and values” (VOS 88). Ayn Rand addressed this problem in “The Cult of Moral Grayness,” writing in part:

There are, of course, complex issues in which both sides are right in some respects and wrong in others–and it is here that the “package deal” of pronouncing both sides “gray” is least permissible. It is in such issues that the most rigorous precision of moral judgment is required to identify and evaluate the various aspects involved–which can be done only by unscrambling the mixed elements of “black” and “white” (VOS 90).

In all of her writings on moral judgment, Ayn Rand stressed the serious demands that justice places upon the rationally selfish man. For example:

[T]o pronounce moral judgment is an enormous responsibility. To be a judge, one must possess an unimpeachable character; one need not be omniscient or infallible, and it is not an issue of errors of knowledge; one needs an unbreached integrity, that is, the absence of any indulgence in conscious, willful evil. Just as a judge in a court of law may err, when the evidence is inconclusive, but may not evade the evidence available, nor accept bribes, nor allow any personal feeling, emotion, desire or fear to obstruct his mind’s judgment of the facts of reality–so every rational person must maintain an equally strict and solemn integrity in the courtroom within his own mind, where the responsibility is more awesome than in a public tribunal, because he, the judge, is the only one to know when he has been impeached (VOS 82-3).

In fact, moral judgment demands so much of us that we can judge others on the basis of their moral judgments. Ayn Rand notes that “objective reality” is “a court of appeal from one’s judgments” because a man reveals “his own moral character and standards… when he blames or praises” (VOS 83).

However, whether and how we ought to reveal our moral judgments to others depends upon the context. Ayn Rand writes that “one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so,” then further explains:

This [principle] means that one need not launch into unprovoked moral denunciations or debates, but that one must speak up in situations where silence can objectively be taken to mean agreement with or sanction of evil. When one deals with irrational persons, where argument is futile, a mere “I don’t agree with you” is sufficient to negate any implication of moral sanction. When one deals with better people, a full statement of one’s views may be morally required. But in no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.

Consequently, “the policy of always pronouncing moral judgment does not mean that one must regard oneself as a missionary charged with the responsibility of ‘saving everyone’s soul’–nor that one must give unsolicited moral appraisals to all those one meets” (VOS 84). Assuming the role of a public moral crusader would not be consistent with the egoistic purpose of justice. Yet if a person chooses to make his moral judgments known to others, he must “be prepared to answer ‘Why?’ and to prove [his] case–to [himself] and to any rational inquirer” (VOS 84).

Before turning to Nathaniel Branden’s views of moral judgment, we should consider one final question, namely: What is the proper response to a person who has committed a breach of morality? In Galt’s Speech, when Ayn Rand tells us to distinguish between “errors of knowledge and breaches of morality,” she also tells us to “make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept any breach of morality” (AS 974). So it might seem like any single evasion renders a person eternally vicious, beyond any power of redemption. However, that interpretation drops the context set by the novel itself, particularly the conditions under which Hank Rearden terminates his relationship with his family in the “Concerto of Deliverance” chapter.

At the opening of that chapter, Hank Rearden has not seen his family for six months, although he continues to support them financially. The government recently froze his assets, leaving him without financial means. (That was supposedly a bureaucratic mistake, but actually an attempt to prevent his disappearance upon the announcement of the “Steel Unification Plan.”) His mother calls him unexpectedly to request a meeting about their financial plight. (She wants him to request credit with the local stores, but he will not do so, since he cannot honestly promise to repay any such debts.) His family is terrified by his lack of concern for them because, if he does go on strike, all his property will be seized by the government rather than inherited by them.

In the course of the conversation, his mother confesses:

We haven’t treated you right, all these years. We’ve been unfair to you, we’ve made you suffer, we’ve used you and given you no thanks in return. We’re guilty, Henry, we’ve sinned against you, and we confess it. What more can we say to you now? Will you find it in your heart to forgive us?

Hank knows clearly that any such forgiveness would be a lie: His family has nothing of value to offer him in return for it. In fact, his mother even admits that the forgiveness would be unearned, but asks for it anyway because “it would make us feel better” (AS 893). As Philip and Lillian clime in with their own pleas, Ayn Rand narrates, obviously evoking the later passage on forgiveness from Galt’s Speech:

They were throwing their pleas at a face that could not be reached. They did not know–and their panic was the last of their struggle to escape the knowledge–that his merciless sense of justice, which had been their only hold on him, which had made him take any punishment and give them the benefit of every doubt, was now turned against them–that the same force that had made him tolerant, was now the force that made him ruthless–that the justice which would forgive miles of innocent errors of knowledge, would not forgive a single step taken in conscious evil (AS 894).

As the conversation progresses, Hank realizes that their greatest fear is that he will leave them penniless by deserting. He then understands the depth of their evil in asking him to stay:

They had known what to fear; they had grasped and named, before he had, the only way of deliverance left open to him; they had understood the hopelessness of his industrial position, the futility of his struggle, the impossible burdens descending to crush him; they had known that in reason, in justice, in self-preservation, his only course was to drop it all and run–yet they wanted to hold him, to keep him in the sacrificial furnace, to make him let them devour the last of him in the name of mercy, forgiveness and brother-cannibal love (AS 895).

Finally, his mother asks him, “Are you really incapable of forgiveness?” Hank answers, “No, Mother, I’m not. I would have forgiven the past–if, today, you had urged me to quit and disappear” (AS 898).

Given that context, the warning from Galt’s Speech “not forgive or accept any breach of morality” must be understood as a warning against unearned forgiveness of willful evil (AS 974). Too often, people demand forgiveness as a blank check to cover ongoing wrongdoing. To grant forgiveness on those terms is to give a wrongdoer moral license to do you more harm. That is the “sin of forgiveness” against which Francisco warns Hank (AS 142). On a rational moral code, forgiveness should only be granted in exchange for a person’s virtue, particularly for his recognition of the wrong done, for his willingness to make all necessary amends for it, and his commitment to act rightly in the future. If Hank’s family had encouraged him to go on strike, they would have been doing all of that, albeit in a primitive form. (I can explain that point further, if anyone is interested.) By instead attempting to convince him to stay, they are asking him to further sacrifice himself for their sins. Under those conditions, he does not — and ought never — forgive them.

Unsurprisingly, this interpretation of the critical passage from Galt’s Speech is consistent with Leonard Peikoff’s comments on forgiveness in OPAR:

Just as a man’s character traits must be given a deserved response, so must a change in his traits. If a good man turns bad, one acknowledges reality by reversing one’s former estimate of him. The same applies if a bad man turns good. Just as love must be earned, so must condemnation–and forgiveness.

Forgiveness in moral issues is earned, if the guilty party makes restitution to his victim, assuming this is applicable; and then demonstrates objectively, through word and deed, that he understands the roots of his moral breach, has reformed his character, and will not commit such wrong again. Forgiveness is unearned, if the guilty party wants the victim simply to forget (evade) the breach and forgive without cause–or if he offers as cause nothing but protestations of atonement, which the victim is expected to accept on faith. In regard to minor moral lapses, it is not difficult for a man to demonstrate the necessary understanding and reform. If the vice is sizable, however, such demonstration is no easy matter; in many cases, it is impossible. When a man commits an evil like a major robbery or deception, to say nothing of worse crimes, it is difficult even to know what evidence would be required to convince others of his reform. This problem is one of the many penalties of vice, and it is the responsibility not of the good, but of the evil to solve it; assuming, what is seldom if ever the case, that moral reform is what the evil man is seeking (OPAR 289).

In sum: Part of the egoistic virtue of justice in Objectivism is the objective moral judgment of others, i.e. the careful evaluation of their choices according to rational moral standards.

Now let us identify the precise nature of Nathaniel Branden’s views on moral judgment by reviewing some of his comments on the subject written over the years. As you read these quotes, notice the ways in which he distorts the Objectivist view, particularly by blaming the philosophy for the misunderstandings of some of its supposed followers. As for his own views, pay particular attention to his views on the proper standards for and response to moral wrongdoing.

In his 1984 Benefits and Hazards article, Branden wrote:

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. 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.

Again, from the same article:

I recall a story I once read by a psychiatrist, a story about a tribe that has a rather unusual way of dealing with moral wrongdoers or lawbreakers. Such a person, when his or her infraction is discovered, is not reproached or condemned but is brought into the center of the village square–and the whole tribe gathers around. Everyone who has ever known this person since the day he or she was born steps forward, one by one, and talks about anything and everything good this person has ever been known to have done. The speakers aren’t allowed to exaggerate or make mountains out of molehills; they have to be realistic, truthful, factual. And the person just sits there, listening, as one by one people talk about all the good things this person has done in the course of his or her life. Sometimes, the process takes several days. When it’s over, the person is released and everyone goes home and there is no discussion of the offense–and there is almost no repetition of offenses (Zunin, 1970).

In the objectivist frame of reference there is the assumption, made explicit in John Galt’s speech in “Atlas Shrugged,” and dramatized throughout the novel in any number of ways, that the most natural, reasonable, appropriate response to immoral or wrong behavior is contempt and moral condemnation. Psychologists know that that response tends to increase the probability that that kind of behavior will be repeated. This is an example of what I mean by the difference between a vision of desirable behavior and the development of an appropriate psychological technology that would inspire people to practice it.

In his 1999 memoir My Years with Ayn Rand, after a positive comment on Ayn Rand’s notion of justice as including the appreciation of the good, Branden writes:

Ayn also urged her followers not “to withhold contempt from men’s vices.” Hence the violently abusive language with which she and her followers characterized actions of which they did not approve. After our break, I came to understand, more deeply than I had before, that even if what people are doing is wrong, even if they are being irrational and committing errors of morality, we do not lead them to virtue and rationality by projecting contempt. We do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. If the goal is to inspire positive change, a better strategy than scorn and abusive condemnation is required (373-4).

In his 2004 interview with Alec Mouhibian for Free Radical:

NB: 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.

Before turning to the most revealing quote of all, let me pause to comment on a few points.

Branden substantially distorts the Objectivist view of moral judgment in myriad ways. (1) He portrays Objectivism as demanding wild, careless moralizing: Ayn Rand supposedly urges “instant contempt” toward the person for any moral breach using “violently abusive language.” (2) He presents the Objectivist standards of morality in subjectivist terms, in that moral condemnation is supposedly required of “anyone who deviates … what is defined as reason or morality” or “actions of which [Ayn Rand and her followers] did not approve.” (3) He falsely describes Ayn Rand’s commitment to moral judgment as “the assumption… that the most natural, reasonable, appropriate response to immoral or wrong behavior is contempt and moral condemnation” — rather than as a well-justified conclusion about the necessity of objective moral judgment by the standard of human life. (4) He wrongly implies that Objectivism requires all moral judgments to be expressed.

In light of Nathaniel Branden’s history with Ayn Rand and as a spokesman for Objectivism, these misrepresentations cannot be excused as honest misunderstandings. As we’ve already seen, Ayn Rand’s own writings on moral judgment routinely contradict his claims about the wild moralism encouraged by Objectivism. Also, nothing in the hours of Ayn Rand’s Q&As that I’ve heard in recent years supports the claim that she set a bad personal example on this score. However, Nathaniel Branden’s misrepresentations of Objectivism do serve a purpose: they constitute an absurdly unappealing strawman against which he contrasts his own warm and fuzzy approach to wrongdoing. So what is that approach?

The common refrain in the above quotes is that our response to another person’s wrongdoing should be governed by concern for the well-being of that person. So when harmed by the willful immorality of another person — think of a husband’s infidelity, a friend’s spiteful outburst, or a co-worker’s empty promises — we should not concern ourselves with the real threat that the person’s character flaw poses to our values. Rather, we should focus on somehow inspiring the person to behave better in the future. However, that somehow must not include honest identification of the wrongdoing for what it is, since that supposedly just encourages more of the same. We should avoid objective moral judgment entirely, instead stating our complaint in terms of our own personal preferences and boundaries.

That general view is readily apparent in Branden’s own words. He repeatedly objects to moral judgment on the grounds that “you do not lead people to virtue by contempt” or “make people better by telling them they are despicable.” He describes moral judgment as a “pointless and destructive” method of making us feel “superior” to the wrongdoer. He encourages us to “do something more useful” than moral judgment — where “useful” clearly means useful to the wrongdoer. He’s delighted by the story of the supposed tribe in which a person’s wrongs are never acknowledged, explained, or discussed. He recommends objecting to the immoral choices of others in subjective terms like “You’re turning me off” and “I don’t like the way you deal with me.” He even recommends not thinking in terms of objective moral judgments, since “I only have to know that I don’t like what you’re doing.”

In essence, Nathaniel Branden is advocating altruism supported by dishonesty and subjectivism — toward the very people who endanger our lives and happiness by their own deliberate choices. For just a moment, try to imagine Hank Rearden abandoning his ruthless commitment to justice for the pointless torture of cajoling the brother he knows to be worthless, the mother he knows to be dishonest, and the wife he knows to be vicious into showing his work a bit more respect. (Personally, I’m glad that I cannot even imagine that degradation!)

Branden does qualify his altruistic admonitions in the above passages only once, with “if the goal is to inspire positive change.” In some cases — particularly as concerns basically good people of personal importance to us — that goal is entirely reasonable. Yet such a person would regard the methods recommended by Branden as degrading condescension, not kindness. A basically good person is more than strong enough to hear a firm moral objection to some action from a concerned friend or spouse — and to evaluate it objectively. He would know that honest identification of any wrongs is required of him — not just to make amends to those he harmed, but also to rectify the source defects in his moral character. He knows that if he instead chooses to sink into further immorality, he has no one to blame but himself. In short, he need not be manipulated into superficially better behavior, as Branden claims.

In my experience, only a person with substantial moral defects to conceal from himself would respond to that kind of moral entreaty with the insecure defensiveness, let alone repeat immorality, described by Branden. In fact, his portrayal of that response as natural and normal depends upon his false presentation of objective moral judgment as expressing “scorn and abusive condemnation” and “instant contempt” for the person using “violently abusive language.” In fact, such wild moralizing is not consistent with the Objectivist virtue of justice — as Branden surely knows.

A person with substantial moral defects may well be able to redeem himself, if truly dedicated to change. He may benefit from the substantial help of a good therapist — or the more limited help of family and friends. Yet ultimately, he must save his own soul by his own choices: no one else can perform that hard task for him, nor even “inspire” it. Until that happens, however, the protection of our values demands clear recognition of a person’s ongoing failures. So if your mixed-character boss manages budgets and schedules well but ignores brewing conflicts amongst his employees, you must know that clearly to prevent your projects from being derailed by personal conflicts. (Notably, doing any more than informing your boss of particular conflicts in need of attention in an attempt to “inspire positive change” would be quite inappropriate.) And if your evil neighbor steadfastly denies the overwhelming evidence that her husband is a child molester, you must judge her to be unfit to look after your children under any circumstances, lest she give her husband access to them. (Notably, attempting to “inspire positive change” by presenting more and more evidence of molestation would be pointless, since she will more than likely evade any evidence presented to her.)

To take a more personal example, when I condemned Nathaniel Branden as evil, my purpose was to clearly identify the basic nature of his moral character, so as to guide my actions accordingly. I wanted to withdraw my prior sanction of him as clearly and forcefully as possible, both for myself and for others. I wanted to clearly identify why I would never again trust his claims about Ayn Rand, nor allow him to use my property as a platform, nor again publish in an anthology that included his writings, nor participate on mailing lists with him, nor buy his latest book, and so on. I hope that I did effectively heap “scorn and abusive condemnation” upon him — as he richly deserves it. I do not care one bit whether that “inspires” him to more or less dishonesty in his criticisms of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. His personal and intellectual dishonesty depends entirely upon his own choices — and he bears the full burden of blame for it. In fact, I regard him as well-beyond moral redemption. He could not possibly compensate for his years of willful evil in the remaining few years of his life.

So now let us consider one final quote, this one from his 1999 essay “Objectivism and Libertarianism“:

About ten years ago, I came across a saying from the Talmud that impressed me profoundly. I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I have often wondered what might have happened if I’d had the chance to discuss the idea with Ayn–if there would have been any way to break through. Who knows what might have been different in the years that followed?

The line that so impressed me was: “A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy.

In other words, Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and everyone else who sees Nathaniel Branden for the vile scoundrel that he is — we are somehow responsible for failing to set him on a better moral path. We ought to have transformed our enemy Nathaniel Branden into a friend — yet we refused to even try! Shame on us!

That demand that others take responsibility for his moral depravity, I submit, is the true aim of Nathaniel Branden’s altruistic ramblings on moral judgment.

  • Marcy Fleming

    Great piece, just read it nine years after you wrote it. Fantastic. Thank you very much for exposing Nathan The Conman.

    • jimbones

      I second that. I found this piece very well put together and an inspiring example of building a clear argument.

  • Marcy Fleming

    Exactly. Thanks, Michael. Pinker is another vastly overrated Establishment Hack.

  • San Clemente Moose

    The one who first said “A is A” (Leibniz, not Aristotle) also claimed Locke’s notion of “tabula rasa” was naive. See Leibniz’s New Essays. But since that time, a mountain of evidence has stacked up against the notion. Chomsky’s Theory of Generative Grammar for example. But one needn’t get that complicated to realize “tabula rasa” (in Locke’s formulation, not Aristotle’s which is something entirely different, because Aristotle claimed that the notion applied only to a small part of the mind— the part we can “change” or the part that we use to do arithmetic in our heads) is really a silly notion. Why? For one simple reason. Because “blank slates” have no structure. Thus if the human mind really did begin life as such a blank slate, it would never get organized. One could never learn a language or any other kind of structure, because “pure sensations” are chaotic until the mind organizes them. Without an inherent structure of some sort, the mind would never be able to organize anything. This was basically Leibniz’s criticism. A block of uncut marble, Leibniz said, in the New Essays would be a far better metaphor. But why bother even with that? Today we have modern psychology and linguistics, just for starters. Metaphors such as “blank slate” or “block of marble” seem almost childish in comparison.. Worth talking about historically, of course. But this can’t possibly be “the way it really is.”. . ..

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