Another aspect of her philosophy that I would like to talk about -- one of the hazards -- is the appalling moralism that Ayn Rand herself practiced and that so many of her followers also practice. I don't know of anyone other than the Church fathers in the Dark Ages who used the word "evil" quite so often as Ayn Rand.
Of all the accusations of her critics, surely the most ludicrous is the accusation that Ayn Rand encourages people to do just what they please. If there's anything in this world Ayn did not do, it was to encourage people to do what they please. If there is anything she was not, it was an advocate of hedonism.
She may have taught that "Man's Life" is the standard of morality and your own life is its purpose, but the path she advocated to the fulfillment of your life was a severely disciplined one. She left many of her readers with the clear impression that life is a tightrope and that it is all too easy to fall off into moral depravity. In other words, on the one hand she preached a morality of joy, personal happiness, and individual fulfillment; on the other hand, she was a master at scaring the hell out of you if you respected and admired her and wanted to apply her philosophy to your own life.
She used to say to me, "I don't know anything about psychology, Nathaniel." I wish I had taken her more seriously. She was right; she knew next to nothing about psychology. What neither of us understood, however, was how disastrous an omission that is in a philosopher in general and a moralist in particular. The most devastating single omission in her system and the one that causes most of the trouble for her followers is the absence of any real appreciation of human psychology and, more specifically, of developmental psychology, of how human beings evolve and become what they are and of how they can change.
So, you are left with this sort of picture of your life. You either choose to be rational or you don't. You're honest or you're not. You choose the right values or you don't. You like the kind of art Rand admires or your soul is in big trouble. For evidence of this last point, read her essays on esthetics (Rand, 1970). Her followers are left in a dreadful position: If their responses aren't "the right ones," what are they to do? How are they to change? No answer from Ayn Rand. Here is the tragedy: Her followers' own love and admiration for her and her work become turned into the means of their self-repudiation and self-torture. I have seen a good deal of that, and it saddens me more than I can say.
Let's suppose a person has done something that he or she knows to be wrong, immoral, unjust, or unreasonable: instead of acknowledging the wrong, instead of simply regretting the action and then seeking, compassionately, to understand why the action was taken and asking where was I coming from? and what need was I trying in my own twisted way to satisfy? -- instead of asking such questions, the person is encouraged to brand the behavior as evil and is given no useful advice on where to go from there. You don't teach people to be moral by teaching them self-contempt as a virtue.
Enormous importance is attached in Rand's writings to the virtue of justice. I think one of the most important things she has to say about justice is that we shouldn't think of justice only in terms of punishing the guilty but also in terms of rewarding and appreciating the good. I think her emphasis on this point is enormously important.
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.
If someone has done something so horrendous that you want to tell him or her that the action is despicable, go ahead. If you want to tell someone he is a rotten son-of-a-(pip-edit), go ahead. If you want to call someone a scoundrel, go ahead. I don't deny that there are times when that is a thoroughly appropriate response. What I do deny is that it is an effective strategy for inspiring moral change or improvement.
The great, glaring gap in just about all ethical systems of which I have knowledge, even when many of the particular values and virtues they advocate may be laudable, is the absence of a technology to assist people in getting there, an effective means for acquiring these values and virtues, a realistic path people can follow. That is the great missing step in most religions and philosophies. And this is where psychology comes in: One of the tasks of psychology is to provide a technology for facilitating the process of becoming a rational, moral human being.
You can tell people that it's a virtue to be rational, productive, or just, but, if they have not already arrived at that stage of awareness and development on their own, objectivism does not tell them how to get there. It does tell you you're rotten if you fail to get there.
Ayn Rand admirers come to me and say, "All of her characters are so ambitious. I'm thirty years old and I don't know what to do with my life. I don't know what I want to make of myself. I earn a living, I know I could be better than I am, I know I could be more productive or creative, and I'm not. I'm rotten. What can I do?" I've heard some version of this quite often. I've heard it a lot from some very intelligent men and women who are properly concerned they they have many capacities they are not using, and who long for something more -- which is healthy and desirable, but the self-blame and self-hatred is not and it's very, very common.
The question for me is: How come you don't have the motivation to do more? How come so little seems worth doing? In what way, in what twisted way, perhaps, might you be trying to take care of yourself by your procrastination, by your inertia, by your lack of ambition? Let's try to understand what needs you're struggling to satisfy. Let's try to understand where you're coming from.
That is an approach I learned only after my break with Ayn Rand. It is very foreign to the approach I learned in my early years with her. And it's very foreign to just about every objectivist I've ever met. However, if we are to assist people to become more self-actualized, that approach is absolutely essential. We are all of us organisms trying to survive. We are all of us organisms trying in our own way to use our abilities and capacities to satisfy our needs. Sometimes the paths we choose are pretty terrible, and sometimes the consequences are pretty awful for ourselves and others. Until and unless we are willing to try to understand where people are coming from, what they are trying to accomplish, and what model of reality they're operating from -- such that they don't see themselves as having better alternatives, we cannot assist anyone to reach the moral vision that objectivism holds as a possibility for human beings.
So here in Ayn Rand's work is an ethical philosophy with a great vision of human possibilities, but no technology to help people get there, and a lot of messages encouraging self-condemnation when they fail to get there.
Her readers come to me and they say; "Boy, it was so great. I read her books and I got rid of the guilt that the Church laid on me. I got rid of the guilt over sex. Or wanting to make money." "Why have you come to see me?", I ask. "Well, now I'm guilty about something else. I'm not as good as John Galt. Sometimes I'm not even sure I'm as good as Eddie Willers," they respond.