Question: Should a person feel guilty for not acting selfishly enough? According to rational egoism, a person ought to act selfishly – not in the sense of hurting others, but in the sense of pursuing his own good. If a person fails to do that, should he feel guilty for failing to act morally?
Question: Are public shamings morally justifiable? I often read of judges handing down sentences designed to humiliate the offender, such as standing at a busy intersection wearing a sandwich board apologizing for their offense. Many people favor these kinds of punishments in lieu of jail time because they consume less resources of the penal system. They may be more effective too. Does that justify such shamings? Moreover, what's the morality of similar shamings by parents and businesses? A bodega in my neighborhood posts surveillance camera footage of shoplifters, usually with some snarky comment about their theft. I find this practice amusing, but is that moral? Is it akin to vigilantism?
Question: When would suicide be rational? What conditions make suicide a proper choice? Are there situations other than a terminal illness or living in a dictatorship – such as the inability to achieve sufficient values to lead a happy life – that justify the act of suicide?
Question: How forthcoming should I be with new people I meet about my checkered past? My past is not a source of pride for me. Over four years ago, I read "Atlas Shrugged." That book altered the radical change I was already bringing into my life for the better. I've recently begun meeting other fans of Ayn Rand in real life, and I dislike discussing my white-trash, moocher-esque history with these new acquaintances. (At the time, I was between 17 and 20 years old.) If I shared my past with these people, I think they might judge me harshly and cut ties with me, given that they don't know me well. However, given my past, I have a clearer understanding of the irrational, twisted, cruel, and nasty nature of people who choose to live like leeches off of other human beings. I think that sharing these experiences with others can be a source of strength to them. (I don't want others to stumble into these poor decisions when they could do better!) So how much of my past should I share with other people, and how should I share it?
Summary: In early October, I gathered a few close friends in Atlanta to discuss the ins and outs of personality theory. We focused on various theories of personality, as well as the effects of personality differences at work, in parenting, in personal relations, and in activism. In this episode, my husband Paul and I shared the highlights.
Question: Can life be morally black and white? People often say life is not "black and white," meaning that sometimes we must navigate morally gray zones, particularly when dealing with complex decisions involving other people. However, if we make decisions based on objective absolutes, doesn't that eliminate these so-called "morally gray zones"?
Question: Is it wrong to discipline other people's children when they refuse to do so? I was eating lunch at an outdoor market. A woman and her son stopped near me, and the boy (who was probably around 8 years old) leaned over my table and stuck his finger in my food. Then he started laughing and ran around in circles. The mom looked at me and dismissively said, "He's autistic." Then she walked away. How should I have responded? Is there a respectful way to tell a stranger that her son's behavior is unacceptable in a public setting? Would it be wrong to speak to the boy directly?
Question: How much sympathy should I have for people failing in their obligations due to personal struggles? In the past two years, I've witnessed two businesses (both one-person operations) crash and burn due to the owners' inability to continue to operate while suffering from severe depression. I don't know the trigger in the first case, but in the second case, the depression was precipitated by a divorce, then the murder of a toddler in the family. The business is online, and unhappy customers have been airing their frustration with the fact that they never received goods already paid-for. Some friends are stepping in to help, but the owner's reputation has been ruined. How much slack should I – or others aware of the situation – cut the owner? How far should my sympathy go?
Question: How can I better identify dangerous or immoral people in my life? I don't like to be morally judgmental about personality and other optional differences. In fact, I like being friends with a variety of kinds of people: that expands my own horizon. Yet I've been prey to some really awful people in my life. Looking back, I'd have to say that I ignored some signs of trouble – dismissing them as mere optional matters, as opposed to moral failures. How can I better differentiate "interesting" and "quirky" from "crazy" and "dangerous" in people I know?
Question: Does mental illness excuse wrong behavior? Recently, a friend of mine apologized for making hurtful and unfair comments to me. (It's not the first time she's done that.) She said that she's been struggling with depression, and she's now on anti-depressants and in therapy. I'm not sure how to take that. I feel for her, yet I also feel like I'm being manipulated into overlooking her bad behavior because she's "sick." How should struggles with mental illness figure into explanations and apologies for wrong behavior – if at all?
Question: When is a relationship broken beyond repair? Relationships can be severely strained, fraught with anger and frustration, and perhaps put on ice for weeks or months or years. Yet in the end, the two people can often reconcile in some way, so that they can enjoy a genuine (even if not deep) relationship again. In some cases, however, that's not possible. Why not? In such cases, must the problem be that one person (or both people) continue to behave badly? Or might reconciliation be impossible between two good people? If so, why?
Question: Is it wrong to be indifferent to the rights-violations of people who advocate rights-violations? Some celebrities actively promote the violation of rights by lending their support to political groups. For example, former American Idol contestant Krista Branch has actively campaigned against gay marriage on behalf of Focus on the Family. However, in a recent interview, Branch complained that people were pirating her songs. I know that Branch's intellectual property rights should be respected, and I would never pirate her music. Yet I can't feel any sympathy for her, given that she advocates violating other people's rights. I'm of the opinion that people who advocate for the use of force against others should not be spared from the consequences of the kind of culture that creates. Is that wrong? Am I being malevolent? Should I defend her rights, even though she advocates violating my rights?
Question: Am I obliged to help a friend in trouble due to her own poor choices? I have a friend who is emotionally draining to me, and she is especially "down on her luck" this month. However, her situation is a direct result of especially poor personal choices over the last year, and there is no good path to get her out of the hole of poverty and depression. We don't have much in common other than similar-aged kids, and active participation in a local moms' group, but because I have come to her aid in the past, I feel an unspoken obligation to continue. (Maybe it's guilt, or pity, or empathy?) What are my obligations in a friendship that has recently become more taxing than beneficial? I don't dislike her, and we have many mutual friends, but I just don't think I can muster the time, financial resources, or energy this time to help bail her out of the latest fiasco. Is it morally acceptable to refuse to help? Should I talk to her about why now – or wait until she's less vulnerable?
Question: What's the proper response to the dissolution of a friendship within a social group? I loved your your May 6th, 2012 discussion of "unforgivable acts," and I have a follow-up question. Now – after cutting my losses with a best friend, after years of giving second chances, talking with him repeatedly, and determining that there's no more basis for a friendship – how do I judge mutual friends of ours? Some of them think that my actions weren't justified. Some resent me for breaking up a group of friends. Many want me to either make up with this person or tolerate him at gatherings. Is this reaction by these mutual friends fair? How should I respond to them?
Question: Is it wrong to have a romantic relationship with a married person? In Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart had an affair with Hank Rearden, knowing that he was married. How should those actions be judged in real life? Clearly, Hank's cheating was dishonest and wrong. Was Dagny wrong to pursue the affair? What should she have done instead? Or, imagine that Dagny didn't know that Hank was married until after they'd slept together. What should she have done in that case upon finding out the truth? Should she stop the affair? Should she inform the wife about the cheating? Should she apologize to the wife? Also, if your answer is different than Dagny's, how do you reconcile that?
Question: What should parents do if they regret ever having children? In 2008, Nebraska permitted parents to abandon children of any age without penalty. As a result, quite a few older children were abandoned before the state changed the law. That shows that some parents deeply regret ever having children, and surely many more parents have major regrets, even though they'd never abandon their children. What should a parent do if he or she realizes that having kids was a mistake? What should prospective parents do to ensure that they'll not regret having kids?
Question: How can I say no to a friend's request to become a business partner? Over the past several years, I developed a home craft business. Now that it is successful, one of my friends wants to be involved. She sends messages asking to get together to discuss ideas for new products and expanding the business. However, I am not interested in having a partner. How can I let her know that I don't want a partner – without coming across as mean or hurting her feelings? Also, since I want to support and encourage my friends' interests, I'm struggling with guilt for saying "no." How can I overcome that?
Question: Is it wrong to refuse to share lecture notes with a lazy student? A classmate of mine is nice enough but a bit odd. She's always at least 30 minutes late for lecture, and she doesn't come to lab sometimes. In lecture, she does not take notes but instead usually draws the whole class period. Today, she asked to borrow some of my lecture notes. I told her that I noticed that she was always late and that she didn't take notes, and she denied that. Still, I told her that lending her my notes would be inconvenient, then I suggested that she ask someone else. Normally, I'd be happy to share my notes, but in this case, I didn't want to share the results of my efforts in attending this class on time, every day, and paying attention. Was that wrong?
Question: Should I keep in contact with my morally questionable and mystical father? Recently, I initiated contact with my father. I've not seen or spoken to him for most of my life. He left behind a lot of damage, and I was very hurt by that. I made amends with him, thinking that he was in recovery. However, I recently discovered his eastern mystic philosophy. Also, although he is fully recovered, he still has moral problems. Now I'm second guessing my decision. Would it be immoral for me to break off the contact with him after I've made peace with him? Should I preserve the relationship to keep my character intact? Or should I cut ties with him, on the principle that I should only maintain relationships of value to me?
Question: It is wrong to judge others when I'm still flawed? Given that I have various inconsistencies and unresolved contradictions, for me to morally judge others seems like self-righteousness. Does a person need to be morally good (or even perfect) to justly judge others?
Question: Does a person deserve extra moral praise for acting rightly despite strong contrary emotions? How does overcoming strong emotions in order to do the right thing (or refrain from doing the wrong thing) factor into morally judging a person? If person A has no emotional conflict and thus does the right thing more or less "effortlessly," while person B takes the same correct action despite strong emotional motivation to act otherwise, does person B deserve any extra moral credit for the amount of emotional or mental effort he made? Or is moral judgment to be made solely on the basis of actions, with internal mental effort being irrelevant?
Question: What should you do when your allies are exposed as hypocrites? Just because a person advocates good ideas doesn't mean that he practices them. For example, a defender of free markets might use zoning laws to prevent the construction of a new building on land adjacent to his home to preserve his view. Or an advocate of justice and independence as virtues might condemn and ostracize people who disagree with him on trivial matters. Or an advocate of productive work might sponge off friends and relatives. When you discover such behavior in your allies, what should you do? Should you attempt to defend them? Should you try to keep the hypocrisy quiet? Should you condemn them? Should you say that "nobody's perfect"? What's fair – and what's best for your cause?
Question: Am I responsible for the actions of my friends? Suppose that a friend of mine does something that others find objectionable. Am I obliged to state my opinion of what my friend did? If I refuse to state an opinion, should others assume that I endorse my friend's actions?
Summary: When a person wrongs you, when should you forgive him? When should you ask someone to forgive you?
Question: Can an ordinary person do something unforgivable? Could a friend act in a way that would make rational forgiveness impossible? Might a person do something so hurtful or unfair that you couldn't ever trust them again? In such cases, how should the person wronged acted towards the unforgivable person?
Question: Should we forgive ourselves? How can a person free himself from guilt over past errors and wrongs, particularly irrationality? Should such a person forgive himself – and if so, what does that entail?
Question: How can I achieve a better balance between introspection and productive work? Particularly I've made some mistake, I'll get wrapped up in the process of introspection until I get the problem sorted out. However, that consumes time – and often my projects suffer and I miss deadlines. How can I find a better balance between these two important activities?
Question: Should you always own up to your mistakes? Recently, I made a huge mistake at work, accidentally discarding some very important files. When inquiry was made, I denied knowing anything about it. Should I have fessed up?
Question: How should I judge my college-age peers, given the upbringing they've had? I know that we are ultimately responsible for our actions and our character, yet character is also heavily influenced by our culture, education, and upbringing. I was raised roughly the same way as my peers were, and I went through the same standardized, state-school educational system. Yet I did not end up like them – largely due to the fact that I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I got to see an alternative to the ideas offered to me, unlike most of my peers. Without that, I could have ended up just like anyone else. Knowing that, I try to treat my peers gently – meaning not taking the bad ideas they hold seriously, showing a benevolent warmth to them, and not focusing too hard on negatively judging their characters. But am I doing right, or should I be harsher in my judgment and treatment of them?
Question: When should a person maintain a relationship with his parents – or not? When, if ever, should an adult child distance himself from his parents – or cut them off completely? Does it matter if the parent was awful years ago, but since then, he's seemed to reform his ways?
Question: Should I terminate friendships with people who steal music and other intellectual property from the internet? I don't know a single person who doesn't steal something off the internet. I used to do this myself, but stopped when I realized it was wrong and why. Normally, I would cut off contact with anyone who violates rights, because that's worse than just holding wrong ideas, but the activity is so prevalent now that doing so would end my social life. Even now, my clear moral position strains my friendships. So what should I do?
Question: Should public figures be held to higher moral standards? Public figures – like actors, politicians, and athletes – are often lambasted in the media for committing commonplace wrongs like dishonesty and hypocrisy. Is that fair? If Michelle Obama is an outspoken opponent of childhood obesity and lists the things my children and I shouldn't eat, is she a hypocrite for publicly indulging in junk food? Should I not value Tiger Woods as a professional golfer with exceptional talent because he screwed around on his wife?
Question: What should you do when you meet someone who treated you badly in the past? Recently, I ran into a person at an event who I used to know as a fellow member of a local discussion group. When he left the group about a year ago, he posted a long rambling e-mail to our mailing list condemning us for all kinds of imaginary sins. The letter was unfair and rude – not to mention wholly unnecessary. I avoided talking to him when I saw him recently, but I wish I'd said something pointed to him. What, if anything, should I have said?
Question: How should I respond to the urban legends forwarded by a family member? I've repeatedly pointed this family member to Snopes.com, in response to his forwarding of yet another urban legend. I keep hoping that he'll get the hint – and check for himself before hitting the "forward" button. Yet he never does so, and he's sending false, defamatory, and/or possibly dangerous information to everyone in his address book. This person is pretty smart – and he's kind and friendly. I'd hate to do anything that would mar our relationship. What should I do?
Question: Are there times when you shouldn't help a friend? If you see a friend taking some action which may be ultimately self-defeating or self-destructive, but you are pretty sure they don't have the knowledge or experience to understand the future consequences of their actions, should you allow them to learn on their own or stop them from making a mistake that you know will be disastrous?
Question: What is the best way to handle "proud" looters? What is the safest and most effective way to deal with the people who ignorantly brag about the fact that they are free-loaders on others, including using government programs and "public" funds?
Question: How should I respond when people disparage their work? Often, people make comments about the great burden that work is – not in the sense that they're unhappy with some problem in their current job, but that they resent the need to work at all. These are the kinds of people who live for weekends and vacations. I don't feel that way about my work, and I think these people are missing so much in life. How can I respond to such casual remarks in a way that might make the person re-think their attitude?
Question: What is the proper process of forgiveness? In your March 6th episode, you spoke about forgiveness from the perspective of the person wronged. However, imagine that you're the person who has done wrong to someone else, thereby harming him. What should you do now? How can you prove to that person that you're not as bad as you seemed at that time? What should you do if the other person isn't willing to hear you out?
Question: What is the best way to cut someone out of one's life? When ending a friendship with someone is one obliged to give them reasons or is a simple "I no longer want to have a friendship with you" sufficient? What if the person would not accept the reasons or maybe even be driven to revenge or depression by such an action?
Question: Is forgiveness necessary? Religious connotations aside, popular psychology often tells us that we must forgive those who have hurt us, even if they are no longer in our lives. It's "healthy". Is forgiveness really necessary to emotional healing? Should I forgive, if the offending party hasn't recognized his/her fault?
Question: Does a rational person feel regret over past mistakes? Clearly it is most productive to focus on the positive: What can you learn from your mistakes? Etc. Does this mean regret can be eliminated? What do you make of people who say they never have any regrets?
Question: I have an object in my possession that I stole almost 20 years ago. Finding the rightful owner and returning it is impossible. What should I do? I once lived in a large, very old apartment building, with a bike room in the basement, where residents were supposed to keep their bicycles. The room was virtually unused, as residents tended to keep theirs in their apartments. There were many dusty old unused bikes in there. I cut the lock off one, got new tires for it (the old ones were flat and brittle) and used it frequently while I lived there. I rationalized that a) it was probably abandoned (although I didn't know that, really) and b) the owner was always free to call security, have my lock cut off, and reclaim his bike. When I moved away, a couple years later, I kept the bike. Clearly I shouldn't have done so, and I would never do such a thing today. Should I just donate the bike to charity and move on? This is really bothering me.
Question: Is it proper to date a girl who smokes pot? This woman, while not being an Objectivist, has many great qualities like being smart, attractive, funny, pro-reason and pro-man in general. She, however, likes to smoke marijuana. She says that it provides a great pleasure and relaxes her body and mind after a long day of work. What should I do about it? Confront her? Immediately break up with her?
Question: How should we judge NFL quarterback Michael Vick? As an animal lover, I was appalled when the NFL allowed Michael Vick to play pro football again after his dog-fighting episodes. But now that he's doing well, part of me wants to cheer for him, telling myself that he's a "reformed man who deserves a second chance". Is that rational of me? How do we know if someone has truly turned over a new leaf morally after prior bad acts?
Question: If you were physically abused as a child, but have grown up and "gotten over it," is it still reasonable to demand justice if only in the form of refusing to deal with the abuser?
Question: What are your thoughts on people who complain about their problems but never pursue to solve them, or, worse, actively evade and ignore solutions that confront them? E.g. a student who complains about his budget but continues to spend irrationally.