Philosophical Hors d’Oeuvre

 Posted by on 31 July 2006 at 6:30 am  Uncategorized
Jul 312006

The newsletter of the Ayn Rand Institute, Impact, does not merely report upon the ever-growing successes of the Institute. Each issue also contains some philosophic meat, whether an interview with an ARI scholar (like Dr. Ghate or Dr. Mayhew) or an extract from a recent lecture or essay. I particularly enjoyed the two extracts from Dr. Tara Smith’s recent ARI lecture “Passing Judgment: Ayn Rand’s View of Justice” in the most recent issue. (That lecture is available for free to registered users on the ARI web site. The full lecture plus Q&A is available for purchase from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.)

The first extract, quoted below, concerns the importance of moral judgment — a topic near and dear to my heart. The second is a discussion of the ways in which egalitarianism subverts the proper demands of justice. Of course, both of these issues are covered in Dr. Smith new book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. However, I haven’t read the chapter on justice yet: I was too busy to read anything at OCON, so I’m still in the middle of rationality. Moreover, I enjoy reading the isolated tidbits, since then I can more easily mull them over than if I’m plowing my way through a full book or lecture.

So here’s what Dr. Smith says about the importance of moral judgment, as extracted in Impact:

We are normally told that it’s wrong to judge. There’s an acute taboo against judging people; “judgmental” has become a dirty word. Yet the need for justice shows that you must exercise your judgment on other people in order to figure out how to deal with them.

One way of failing to be just is by deliberately depriving others of their deserts–stealing their money, violating contracts, rigging elections, or passing over a deserving candidate to give a promotion to a friend. These are the most conspicuous sorts of injustice. But another way of being unjust is by simply sitting back and never passing judgment in the first place. While this may not look as ugly or smell as foul, it is every bit as unjust and every bit as destructive.

Adopting a policy of being non-judgmental–” who am I to judge?”–or fence-sitting as an agnostic is incompatible with the demands of justice. As a statement, such a posture is a lie, and as an action (or more accurately, as a default on action), it is self-defeating. That policy would be dishonest insofar as it ignores the reality that individuals are different from one another and that those differences matter to your life. Such a policy would be self-defeating insofar as, by not condemning a person’s bad character or negative traits, you are lending those traits shelter, lending them oxygen–you are helping to sustain things that work against your interests. By the same token, by failing to acknowledge and encourage the good in others, you are depriving it of oxygen, of support that can help to sustain it.

Ayn Rand herself put this eloquently. Speaking of judging people’s moral character, she wrote: “When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you–whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?” She proceeded to explain that to retreat into a “judge not” posture “is an abdication of moral responsibility; it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.” (“How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” from The Virtue of Selfishness) The fact is, we need to be discriminating. We need to judge others objectively, to be sure, but emphatically: we need to judge.

Ayn Rand denounced neutrality even more vividly: “To withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement…” (Atlas Shrugged) Failing to condemn those who deserve it is counterfeiting insofar as it pretends that these people are better than they are, that they offer value–just as a person passing out counterfeit currency pretends that it has value. Correlatively, to withhold admiration from men’s virtues is embezzlement. It is taking something for nothing, without paying: you benefit from their virtues, but you offer nothing in exchange–not even your acknowledgment of their virtue. That is what a moocher does–a sponge, a freeloader; not a trader, who gives value for value.

The reason I think it’s useful to see the issue in these stark terms is that, when a person is tempted to that neutral posture, he doesn’t normally think that what he’s considering is anything like counterfeiting or embezzling; these are felonies, after all! The person simply thinks, “This guy isn’t really so impressive, he’s not so hot”; or: “I’m just being lenient, I’m cutting somebody a little slack.” Yet in fact, this is what’s going on. When you don’t judge and treat others objectively, you are engaging in a fraud.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Dr. Smith’s work in ethics is her persistent invitation to the reader to ask himself: How does this principle apply to my own life? Am I falling into any of these traps? How can I do better? She challenges her readers without threatening them. (That’s a delicate skill!)

Just so folks know, a subscription to Impact requires only a small donation to ARI. I’d strongly recommend a larger donation than the minimum, since ARI is doing so much great work promoting Objectivism in our culture. (Oh, and did I mention that our very own Don Watkins writes for Impact? He’s the Assistant Editor!)

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