Question: Are manners objective? In a recent Rapid Fire Question, I think you rather too quickly dismissed the idea that manners or etiquette can be objective. You fairly quickly threw the whole lot of them over into the socially-subjective category. However, I think there's a lot that's not at all subjective, nor even optional, about manners. I happen to live in a country, China, which is much-renowned for its lack of basic human decency, and I would argue that this is a fair claim. For example, it's quite regular for a parent to pull his child's pants down and facilitate his or her urinating or defecating all over a vehicle of transportation, up to and including an international flight. It's also quite normal to hawk in such a way as to clear every cavity in one's upper torso, admire a particular piece of ground, and splat the results of one's personal nasal expiration for all to admire and tread upon. After a home-cooked meal, a guest is expected to belch massively. A small belch is a sign of dissatisfaction. To me, the latter seems quite a matter of optional cultural choice. What you said before about manners applies quite nicely to that issue: it's fairly arbitrary whether you should or you should not belch after your meal. At my in-laws' place, please do. At my mom's place, please don't. However, when I think about other ways in which Chinese people are "rude" to an American, I can think of a thousand examples where it's not just subjective. Pissing or shitting on a public bus is not just arbitrarily unacceptable to us silly overwrought Westerners. It's objectively rude. For another example, today when I was trying to get onto a bus, hale and hearty Chinese twenty-somethings were pushing in front of me in a giant triangle of evil. Nobody cared if I was there before them, nobody cared if the signs all said to line up respectfully, they just elbowed each other out of the way in order to get on the bus. So are manners objective, at least in part?
Question: Does the virtue of courage require struggling against the temptation to succumb to fear? In your 16 September 2012 show, you argued that "it is far better for a person to cultivate a virtuous moral character so that right actions are easy for him, rather than constantly struggling against temptation." How does this apply to the virtue of courage? The common understanding of courage is that it requires acting rightly in spite of fear. So the courageous person struggles to do the right thing in face of the temptation to retreat in fear. Is this a correct formulation? If so, wouldn't that mean that a courageous person must constantly struggle against fear, not overcome it? If this view of courage is wrong, how would you define the virtue and its relation to fear?
Summary: In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of cultivating virtues by repeatedly doing certain actions in certain ways. However, he never clearly explains the relationship between a person's thoughts, emotions, actions, and character. So, we must ask: What is character? How is a person's character formed? And what is the role of character in a person's life? This lecture draws on my dissertation, now published as Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame, to answer these criticial practical questions of ethics. This lecture was originally given at SnowCon in March 2011, then re-recorded in April 2011.
Question: Is it wrong for an atheist to believe in some kind of afterlife? I don't believe in God, but I hate to think that this life is all that I have. I can't stand the thought of never again seeing my parents, my children, or my friends again. So is it wrong to think that some kind of afterlife might exist? What's the harm?
Question: Is it wrong to con jerks and blowhards? I know that dishonesty is wrong, but conning jerks and blowhards out of their money (as seen here) seems like justice at its best. So is it wrong?
Question: Can I reclaim lost personality traits? When I was a kid (probably until the age of about 12 or 13), my personality had a strong 'I' element (as in the DISC model I). I was fun, energetic and confident. I was willing to express myself openly (and loudly) and do silly things for the sake of laughs. When I went to high school, I was bullied heavily. I became much more quiet and withdrawn. The C element of my personality took over, and the I element all but disappeared. Now as an adult, I would like to be able to "reclaim" my lost personality. I am generally a shy and withdrawn person, and I long for the energy and enthusiasm that I once had. Is it possible to reclaim my lost personality? If so, how?
Question: How can I overcome feelings of unearned guilt about refusing other people's requests? Too often, I feel guilty when I shouldn't – for example, for rejecting unwanted romantic advances or declining invitations to events with family or coworkers. Even though I know logically that I have the right to pursue my own values rather than satisfy the wishes of others, I feel terrible knowing that my actions will disappoint or upset someone else. Too often I succumb to the guilt: I agree to things I'd rather not because I don't want to let someone else down. What philosophical or psychological strategies might I use for dealing with such unearned guilt?
Question: How can I convince myself that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence? Whatever subject I study, I think about all the other subjects I'm not studying. Whatever work I'm doing, I think about all the other work I'm not getting done. Whatever book I'm reading, I think about all the other books I could be reading. I want to do everything, and I want to do all of it right now. How can I convince myself to be happy with what I'm actually doing and able to do? How can I stop this perpetual cycle of boredom and longing for change?
Question: Does egoism suffer from "one thought too many"? Bernard Williams argues that utilitarianism suffers from a problem of inappropriate motivation in which a person has "one thought too many" before acting morally. So, for example, a good utilitarian must calculate whether the general welfare is served by saving a drowning child before jumping into the water. A truly good person, in contrast, simply jumps into the water to save the child without that calculation. Wouldn't this same objection apply to even rational, benevolent egoism? Or are those extra thoughts between situation and action actually rational?
Question: Is it wrong to remain silent when a cashier makes a mistake in your favor? At a popular department store, I wanted to buy two items for $2.94 each and condoms for $14.00. The cashier was about my grandmother's age. She scanned the $2.94 items three times and said the total was $8.82. I knew the price wasn't right, but I didn't want to say to the elderly woman, "Excuse me, but you didn't scan my condoms." I got a good deal, but I think that was somewhat immoral on my part. Is that right? What should I have done?
Question: How can a disabled person overcome a toxic childhood? I am a fifty-one-year-old woman with several neurological disabilities, and I would have liked to have been reared as a human being. Instead, I was frequently informed (usually by my mother) that I was a "retarded, subhuman spectacle" – a "vegetable," a "handicapped monstrosity," a "travesty of a human being." It was daily made plain to me that I was being reared purely out of my parents' sense of duty, so as not to burden other people with my existence. It was likewise continually made clear to me that, whenever anyone played with me or tried to become acquainted with me, they did this purely out of an imposed sense of a duty to do so: for instance, because they were following a parent's or teacher's commands in order to avoid being punished for avoiding me. My disabilities (dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and severe Asperger's among some others) are not physically visible. However, their effects on my behavior led to my being perceived as retarded despite a tested IQ above 150. (This tested overall IQ, in turn, was although scores on three of the subtests were in the 80-90 range.) By that standard, at least – the objective standard of lacking some reasoning power – I am a handicapped human being. As you know, Ayn Rand points out that no child ought to be exposed to "the tragic spectacle of a handicapped human being." How should this principle have been carried out with regard to me, as a child? Further, the consequences for me of growing up in this way include an immense fear of other people, and a feeling (which I have been unable to change or vanquish) that I am indeed subhuman and should be rejected by anyone I admire, anyone worth dealing with. This feeling persists despite what I rationally consider to be productive adult achievement in the personal and professional realms. So how can I best undo the damage that has been done to my sense of life by my situation itself (being a handicapped human being, and recognizing this) and by how I was reared (which was at least partly a consequence of what I was and am)?
Question: How can I live more joyfully? I believe that the world is a wonderful place full of opportunity, great things, and lovely people. I also believe that I am an efficacious person, and therefore capable of flourishing and achieving happiness. So why do my emotions not match my convictions? I want to live more joyfully. I adhere to the cardinal virtues to the best of my ability. I've tried mental exercises, such as listing all my personal values and thinking about how important and good they are for me, but it still doesn't make me feel happy. What am I doing wrong? What can I do instead?
Question: What should prospective parents do to ensure they won't regret having children? In your 10 March 2013 show, you discussed what parents should do if they regret having children. But what can potential parents do to ensure that won't happen? How can a person know what being a parent is like – for better or worse – before actually becoming a parent? Is a rational decision on this issue possible?
Question: Do horror movies or books have any redeeming value? In The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand argued that horror was the worst genre of art, "belonging more to psychopathology than to esthetics." Is that right? Might a rational person find some value in a horror film or book? Don't some horror movies have heroic characters – such as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator?
Question: How can I overcome feeling like a slacker? I am a very productive person, with multiple projects going on simultaneously, both personal and professional. Generally, I handle juggling things pretty well, and accomplish quite a bit. I can usually attain most of my goals, and I like that about myself. (I'm also a pretty ambitious person so I have many big goals.) However, I also often feel like a complete slacker. I can see all of the things I accomplish, but I often feel like I could be doing more – one more thing, one more project. Sometimes, when I look at the things I've accomplished, all I can see are the things I wasn't able to do and it can be easy to feel defeated and negative about that. How can I reconcile the gap here? How can I get better at feeling the sense of accomplishment I think I should – and deserve – to feel? Do you have any ideas for getting rid of this mantle of slackerness I've saddled myself with – unfairly, I think? I've been making some changes that have helped, such as writing down my accomplishments each day, but I'm looking for more ideas.
Question: What's wrong with thinking about the virtues as duties? My parents taught me ethics in terms of "duties." So being honest and just was a duty, along with "sharing" and "selflessness." They were simply "the right way to be," period. Now, I tend to think of the Objectivist virtues – rationality, productiveness, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, and pride – as duties. I have a duty to myself to act in these ways. Is that right or is that a mistake?
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: When should a person declare his love for another? What is an appropriate amount of time to wait before saying "I love you" in a new relationship? New relationships often start out strong, but then the feelings of eros dissipate after a few months. When you meet someone who you share the same values and ideals (and you are super-attracted to him or her) when should you say those three little words?
Question: What is the relationship between empathy and morality? Must a person possess a strong sense of empathy to be moral? Is empathy an important quality of character or moral emotion – or the most important? What's the role of empathy in a rational person's life?
Question: Is it wrong to indulge romantic infatuation? I am infatuated with a young woman for whom I am not a suitable match, including because I am 30 and she is 16. It is strictly a fantasy; I make no effort to pursue or to make my feelings known to her and have no intention to ever do so. However, in private, I am deeply in love with her and practically worship her like a celebrity and collect all her pictures. (I refrain from masturbating to her because doing so makes me feel guilty.) Due to deficiencies in my life that I consider unfixable, I have low self-esteem and have given up on dating for the foreseeable future, if not indefinitely. Do you think my behavior is creepy, immoral, or bad for my own well being?
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 should I respond to friends who fanatically hate President Obama? As a free-market advocate, I'm distressed about President Obama's policies. However, I'm increasingly worried about some of my friends in the free-market movement exhibiting an alarming level of hatred for President Obama. I have seen my friends latch on to every "juicy"-sounding accusation against the President, which they spread all over Facebook, such as spurious claims that the administration violently threatened Bob Woodward, or that the President conspires to grant himself a third term. I think a reasonable discourse on Obama's faults is necessary, but the conspiracy theories and outright hatred cloud people's judgments. I want to ask my pro-free-market, Obama-hating friends that they not bring up their dubious accusations in conversation, but I don't know how to do that without offending them. Is there a solution to this dilemma?
Question: Was Francisco's lack of jealousy in Atlas Shrugged rational or realistic? In Part 3, Chapter 2 of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Francisco tells Dagny, "...No matter what you feel for [Hank Rearden], it will not change what you feel for me, and it won't be treason to either, because it comes from the same root, it's the same payment in answer to the same values..." Is that a rational and realistic response? Given their love for Dagny, shouldn't Francisco and Hank have been more disappointed in their loss of Dagny to John Galt, and perhaps even jealous of him? Is a person wrong to feel bitter disappointment or jealousy over a lost love?
Question: How should I respond to my morally corrupt sister? My 20 year old sister is morally destitute. She is an unapologetic shoplifter. Her justifications amount to things like: "My shoplifting is not an addiction because I can stop anytime I want to," "everyone does it," "companies account for shoplifters in their business plans so they mark prices higher to compensate for it," "I'd never steal from a friend," "I need to steal while I look young and can get away with it because no one suspects me," etc. Over the years she has stolen hundreds if not thousands of dollars from our parents, too. She lies and cheats frequently. She's accepted money in return for writing a paper for a friend. She knows what she does is "wrong," and she maintains that such is better than not knowing, at least. (That makes no sense, I know.) I also just found out that she's selling marijuana because, as she says, she needs a way to support her expensive taste in clothes and makeup. She has no integrity or moral conscience. She doesn't care about my horror at her behavior. She does not respond to reason. Part of me wants to help her by trying to talk sense into her. I care about her, and I want her to be a healthy person and not have a miserable life. Another part of me wants to forget her and let her ruin herself. Yet I don't want to stand by and watch that happen, and I also know that there's only so much I can do to really help her. What is the rational thing to do?
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 distinction between philosophy and psychology? Given that psychology concerns the mind, I don't see how to clearly distinguish it from philosophy. For example, when would emotions be a philosophic concern versus a psychological concern? In other words, where is the dividing line between philosophy and psychology? Can they be separated?
Question: Should people be 'radically honest'? Psychotherapist Brad Blanton claims that people should be "radically honest" – meaning that they should say what they think all the time. Is that a life-serving policy – or simply an excuse for rudeness? For example, if my friend is telling me a story that I don't care to hear, should I tell her of my disinterest? Would that foster a more authentic and valuable relationship? Should I try to gently signal my disinterest? Or should I try to cultivate some interest in her story? In other words, is tact a value – or a destructive form of pretense?
Summary: Many people struggle with difficult decisions about complex medical problems as they near the end of their lives. That time is wrenching for family too. How can people make good decisions about medical care? What mistakes should they try to avoid? How can people prepare for that future now?
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: When and how should I express my frustration to another person? I've always found it difficult to determine whether I should express a frustration to another person, whether in a personal or professional context. When and how should I tell someone that they've disrespected, offended, or insulted me? Does the nature of the relationship – purely financial or deeply emotional, for example – matter?
Question: What's the difference between acting on emotions and acting out emotions? Emotions sometimes cry out for bodily expression, such as hitting something when you're angry. Is "acting out emotions" in that way a form of emotionalism? How is it different, if at all, from acting on emotions?
Question: How can a person be certain of his own objectivity? It's often difficult to stick to the facts in reasoning, and it's even harder to make sure that you're focused on all and only the relevant facts. How can a person know that he's being objective – as opposed to relying on unwarranted assumptions, ignoring relevant facts, or rationalizing what he wants to be true?
Summary: Do you struggle with the temptation of "guilty pleasures"? How can you overcome them – or should you indulge them?
Question: Should I mull over my memories less frequently? Is it unhealthy for a person to continuously mull over previous events and specific memories? I go over past events in my mind on a constant basis. I try to recall specific details (i.e., things I was thinking at the time, etc.) and keep a perfect "image" of the memory/event in my mind as long as possible. Is this strange, unhealthy, or counterproductive?
Question: Why are disputes so belligerent in online communities? I've noticed that people get into very loud and heated disputes online, whereas that doesn't seem to happen in local communities. Disputes in local communities tend to be less frequent, less belligerent, and last for a shorter time - even when some people end up hating each other and refusing to have anything to do with each other in the end. Why is that? Also, why do people who are closest with each other (whether close friends, dating, or married) seem to agree more on hot-button issues? Are people more willing to reject a stranger's arguments than those of a friend? Is that an error?
Question: Am I obliged to tell a friend that I've developed romantic feelings towards her? Recently, I've developed romantic feelings for a platonic friend. Is it dishonest to withhold this information from her and just continue our friendship? What should I do if she asks me a direct question about my feelings? When would it be wrong to withhold this information from her, if ever?
Question: What should I do if I have a good job but not burning professional ambition? I have a good job that pays well. I perform my job well to the best of my ability. But I don't feel about it the same way that Howard Roark felt about the field of architecture in The Fountainhead or that Dagny felt about the railroad business in Atlas Shrugged. I don't hate my job – I do enjoy the work and the people I work with. But it's not my burning passion. On a scale of 1-to-10, my paying job (and the overall field) is a 7, but I also have various non-paying outside hobbies and activities that are more of a 8 or 9 for me. Should I try to cultivate a strong passion for my paying job? Or look for a different line of work? Or ramp up my pursuit of various hobbies and outside activities that give me greater satisfaction on the side?
Question: Is possessiveness wrong in a romantic relationship? I have a drawback: I'm extremely possessive. I expect that the person who loves and understands me – he being the only one who understands me – should be mine and only mine. I can accept other women in his life and contain my jealousy on the condition that he reveals to me every single of them who was, is, or will be. But he should love me the most. And I expect that he should stay with me till the end and that we spend the last days together reflecting on the past and life. Am I wrong in expecting all that from my partner? If so, what can I do to change?
Question: What is the problem with and solution to perfectionism? Lately, I've realized that I might have a problem with "perfectionism" – meaning that I hold myself to unrealistically high standards in some areas of my life. For example, I feel like I should be much more productive, to the point of being unrealistic about what I can do in a day. What's the basic error of such perfectionism? And what can I do to overcome it?
Question: Should people be willing to "walk on eggshells" around temperamental people? Some people – often very talented – are known to be highly temperamental. They'll explode in anger if others disagree with them, make innocent mistakes, or just act differently than they'd prefer. Is that a moral failing, and if so, what is its source? How should people around them act? When and how much should others try to placate them?
Question: How can a person regain his rationality in the face of overwhelming emotions? On occasion, I find my rational judgment swamped by strong emotions like anger and anxiety. In such cases, my thinking seems distorted by my emotions. While in the grip of such emotions, what can I do to re-establish my powers of rational thought? Also, how can I prevent myself from saying or doing things that I'll later regret?
Question: How do I know that I'm reasoning based on facts, rather than just being driven by my emotions? Often, I feel strong emotions on some personal or political issue. How do I know that I'm not rationalizing what I want to be true?
Question: How are evasion, rationalization, and context-dropping similar and different? When thinking over a problem I notice that these terms can often be applied simultaneously. So what do they mean – and how are they similar and different?
Question: Is it irrational to be "crazy in love" with your boyfriend or girlfriend – such as wanting to keep an old shirt and other discarded items? Does it matter whether the relationship is in an early or later stage?
Question: Should death be feared? Why or why not? Also, why do most people fear death? How can a person overcome that, if ever?
Question: At death, should a person regret all the years spent at work? I often hear the saying, "No one ever laid on their death bed wishing they had spent more time in the office." What should a person think of that – and of the fact that so many people agree with it – in light of the virtue of productiveness?
Question: Should a person feel guilty about his emotions? Sometimes I feel emotions that I know are misplaced, such as envy at a co-worker's promotion or anger at a friend's mistake. What should my response be to these emotions? Should I feel guilty about them? Should I change them – and if so, how?
Question: What is introspection? Why should a person introspect? What should a person introspect about – or not? How can a person introspect effectively?
Question: What is the virtue of pride? To me, pride just seems like a feeling – a sense of satisfaction with oneself. So it seems bizarre to speak of pride as a virtue, as if it's something that you do. So what does it mean to say that pride is a virtue – and how is that different from self-esteem?
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: Do you believe in love at first sight? Why or why not?
Question: How do you validate free will? For example, if a man is hungry and he values his life, then wouldn't his eating be predetermined?
Question: How do you change from being an emotionalist to being rational? I have the tendency to reminisce on fantasies and memories of martyrdom. I do it because it gives me a emotional surge of ecstasy and heartache. For example, I fantasize about telling the people who mistreated me so badly in Army Basic Training about what that was like for me. This indulgence is costing me my mind. I want to be emotionally competent. Any advice on how to be level-headed lucid/rational thinker, and stop the habit of indulging my emotions?
Question: How does one best deal with unrequited love? I am most interested in this from the perspective of someone who harbors feelings for a friend. In particular, how do you "move on"? When I have been in this situation, I have found it difficult to be interested in others I'm trying to date when so "hung up". Is it necessary to distance oneself from the object of one's affection, even if it means to some extent giving up a life-enhancing friendship? What if one would rather remain single than diminish the friendship? Can that be a rational choice? If so, for how long? Does the answer change if the initial rejection was not unequivocal, but based on some possibly temporary circumstances (like a current relationship)?
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: Is it moral to be sentimental? Some dictionaries define sentiment as an attitude based on emotion rather than reason. Is this accurate? Would it then be moral or rational to be sentimental? For example, would it be moral or rational to: (1) Hold on to your favorite childhood toys when you are an adult (assuming you have the space for them), even if they don't carry the same meaning for you now but they bring about good memories and feelings? (2) Keep old love letters or pictures of friends that you are not on speaking terms with (but were, at one time, good friends with) because they remind you of "the good times"?
Question: How can I criticize someone's work without hurting their feelings? In student theater circles, I struggle to be honest when asked what I thought of an actor's performance, or a director's job, or the writer's work. The writing can be very bad and the performances pretty flat too. My first instinct is to latch onto anything positive I can in the play, and to just talk about that. However, then I seem to be someone afraid to offer criticism to someone's face, and I'd hate to criticize behind their back. So how can I be critical in a helpful and friendly way?
Question: Is there a fundamental/substantial difference between seriously wanting to have sex with someone other than your significant other and actually doing it? Should a person not act on such desires solely in order to be monogamous? Isn't that still like cheating? (Read the full question.)
Question: Is it ever rational to rely on a "gut" feeling? More than once I have dismissed feelings that a person is not trustworthy, if I couldn't find a rational basis for them. Every time my initial instinct was proven to be accurate. Is it possible that I'm picking up on something that I can't consciously identify?
Question: How can I procrastinate less? Often, I avoid doing unpleasant tasks for days or weeks, and I feel terrible about those delays. How can I motivate myself to just get those dreaded chores out of the way?
Question: How do I fight apathy? How should one go about controlling their emotional response to things better? I have found that a lot of things in life have made me far more apathetic towards life; how should I go about turning this around?