“How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?
by Ayn Rand
I will confine my answer to a single, fundamental aspect of this question. I will name only one principle, the opposite of the idea which is so prevalent today and which is responsible for the spread of evil in the world. That principle is: One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.
Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.” –excerpt from The Virtue of Selfishness
We’ve all heard someone ask: “Who are you to judge me?” or some variant of that question. It’s a defensive question usually asked by someone who reasonably expects to be judged harshly by their peers for some ethical or moral transgression. It’s safe to say that someone secure in the notion that society or their peers would judge their actions favorably, is not going to pose this rhetorical question. A good retort to that question might be: “Who are you that you are above judgment?” If we respect our peers, we respect their judgment, which sometimes means respecting unfavorable judgment. While we reserve the right to reject their judgment, we cannot with integrity refuse to acknowledge their judgment.
On the other side of the coin is the judge’s responsibility to judge with integrity, and accept the fact that the value of their judgment might be limited by a lack of evidence or lack of expertise with regards to that evidence. Sometimes integrity to values means understanding that we do not have sufficient facts to render a verdict. However, Rand argues in this passage that we have a moral obligation to speak out against evil when we see it. She believed as Edmund Burke believed: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
She also believed you have to pick your battles, and not run headlong into every moral dispute. In the same chapter of VOS she explains:
“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. It means: (a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly; (b) that one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.
This last 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.”
This is probably good advice, and yet possibly harder to take in today’s world of social media where one can be exposed to a score of morally and ethically dubious statements within the space of minutes. It’s not hard to encounter any number of specious, even defamatory claims on the internet. Statements claiming that conservatives are fascists or whites are racist, ought not be allowed to pass unchallenged. It would be impossible to deal with them all.
Ayn Rand never knew the internet or social media, so what is would her guidance be. We can only guess, but we can start with the first part of her statement: “(a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly;” We must be clear what our values are. The problem many face today is that the concept of moral values is poorly taught, if at all. Even religious institutions whose job it is to teach such things sometimes fall short. Intellectuals might rely on the words of some philosopher, but even then how many of the great philosophers had any practical real-world experience? For religious and secular teachers alike, it’s best to judge them by their fruit. How did it turn out when the followers of Marx got their chance to create a society based upon his teachings? Did it turn out better than those of the Buddha? Gandhi? Many well-meaning people fall prey to high-sounding rhetoric that is based upon failed or untested philosophies. They fall in short, to claptrap. Lenin, Castro, and more recently, Hugo Chavez looked toward Marx and Hegel. How’d that turn out? Hitler and Mussolini looked to Nietzsche, and Julius Caesar, how’d that turn out? So if you like the ideal that is America, and the person you’re listening to, reading or studying sounds more like Nietzsche than Franklin, more like Marx than Locke, then that person is one you might want to cast aside. Many of today’s intellectuals have built their moral edifices on sand.
Contrast that with the moral philosophies of America’s founders, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and those who influenced them, leading one to the teachings of Voltaire, Locke, Adam Smith, and farther back to Socrates, Jesus and Moses. America’s Founders built their new country on firmer ground. If you wish your morals to be built on a more solid foundation, then emulate those who have produced the results, and moved in the direction of freedom, natural rights, and yes, capitalism. One cannot hope to fight, much less end an evil until one can discern and describe it. So, what were those elements that comprise the concept of moral good that the Founders were able to distill from those great thinkers and teachers? Luckily, one of them wrote them down: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Good, is the thoughts, words and deeds that produce those things for the individual.
The second part of Rand’s statement is also important, “…(b) that one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.” If this is to be a battle between good and evil, first you have to be clear about the difference. Once you have a clear idea, then you have to share that idea. An idea that remains in the thinker’s head has no power, only through the transmission of ideas from one individual to another does that idea gain power. The left knows this. Why do you think they’ve spent the better part of a century taking over academia, show business, and the mainstream news? They now and therefore seek the power of those media. Why do you think they fight so hard to suppress non-leftist views and even facts? This is no accident. The left has successfully transformed their information hegemony into real political power, power that they use destructively and intend to use even more destructively. Even as they deviate at times from the methods of Marx, their goal is the same– a violent clash between the collectivist left and the individualist right annihilating in the process (they hope) the individual, who can think, plan, and act on behalf of their own best interest. The error that most people, conservatives especially, make is that they can be outside or above the fray. They fail to realize that a in the case with elections, taking no side means taking the side of the winner, regardless of preference. If you don’t like what you see taking place in society, but never say anything, that is tantamount to giving tacit approval to those things. When we speak out about evil things, that if nothing else, points others to the problem. Speaking out against wrongdoing is like calling the police. The person calling the police may not have the power themselves to stop a crime, but the people who respond do. When you as a citizen decry a wrong, that speaking out multiplied many times over becomes public sentiment. Public sentiment is what prompts politicians to act, almost nothing else does.
Making your moral evaluation known to others is the only way to generate the societal power needed to generate the desired outcome. It can be taken as axiomatic, that the earlier a problem is addressed, the easier it is to solve. Think of WWII. Though the fascists of Germany and Italy used violence as a tool to achieving power, most of their success came from non-violent means, through the successful transmission of ideas. It took much more violence for the Allies to remove the fascists from power than it took for the fascists to gain that power in the first place. The most common of all regrets is not saying or doing something earlier, or at all, then suffering the consequences.
When it comes then to how Ayn Rand thought one could remain rational in an irrational world, the key is to fight evil, whenever and wherever it is practical to do so. In order to fight evil, one must first have a firm grasp of what it means to be moral/good or immoral/bad. These things can be known by tracing evil, destructive societies, and movements to their philosophical origins. Likewise, those societies and nationals that allowed for maximum levels of life and liberty can also be traced to their philosophical origins. We can also discern good from evil, once we have a working definition, by whether the thought or action supports and nurtures the individual or the collective. The next step once the evil is named is to make that judgment known to others, “when it is rationally appropriate to do so.” The greatest power to be gained from knowledge comes from its sharing. From that sharing, is generated the power to act.