Immoral behavior

Diana Hsieh wrote a lengthy article about moral judgment, specifically about psychologist Nathienal Branden and philosopher Ayn Rand. While I don't have time to comment on her specific complaints about Branden, I would like to address some issues about when it is appropriate to make moral judgments and how to advertise the fact that you have.

Diana quotes a great paragraph from Rand on the seriousness demanded in placing moral judgments

"[T]o pronounce moral judgment is an enormous responsibility. To be a judge, one must possess an unimpeachable character; one need not be omniscient or infallible, and it is not an issue of errors of knowledge; one needs an unbreached integrity, that is, the absence of any indulgence in conscious, willful evil. Just as a judge in a court of law may err, when the evidence is inconclusive, but may not evade the evidence available, nor accept bribes, nor allow any personal feeling, emotion, desire or fear to obstruct his mind's judgment of the facts of reality--so every rational person must maintain an equally strict and solemn integrity in the courtroom within his own mind, where the responsibility is more awesome than in a public tribunal, because he, the judge, is the only one to know when he has been impeached (VOS 82-3)."

From reading that paragraph above, there is little doubt on the importance of making correct moral judgments. They should not be rushed into, nor should they be taken lightly. Yet, in the world of Objectivism, there (at least according to various sources) has been rampant moralizing about the character, intellectual (dis)honestly, and moral standards of the individuals in the Objectivist movement. Not only is the moralizing rampant, but from my own observation, it is vehement in declaring the offending party "evil".

How did such an environment arise?

I'm sure a lengthy treaty could be written identifying the causes of the moralizing taking place. I believe in part it is due to a further belief of Rand's that many Objectivist take as a philosophic pronouncement, when in reality, its a psychological issue. This belief of Rand's is:

"This [principle] 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. When one deals with irrational persons, where argument is futile, a mere "I don't agree with you" is sufficient to negate any implication of moral sanction. When one deals with better people, a full statement of one's views may be morally required. But in no case and in no situation may one permit one's own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent." (VOS 83)

Extrapolating on this belief, if one value's the contents of your own beliefs and time someone says one of your beliefs is wrong, you are morally obligated to denounce their statement. Rand starts by saying "that one need not launch into unprovoked moral denunciations or debates", leaving the criteria as to when to speak up in instances where silence means agreement. When are these times? This is not fleshed out in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. At the end of the paragraph, she suggests that silence implies agreement whenever someone attacks your own values and you do nothing.

The problem with her argument is two fold. First, silence does not necessarily mean agreement. To make that claim is an insult to the people that helped Jews hid from Nazis yet, did not speak out against the Nazis publicly out of fear for their own lives. Certainly, those individuals should have exhibited more courage, but their silence does not necessitate agreement. Rand should have known better.

Second, the absence of silence does not necessitate denunciation. There are other ways to deal with immoral behavior, which is the argument that Branden is trying to make, even if he does do it poorly. Using different behavior may help encourage someone to improve rather than set them on edge or send them further into their immoral behavior. This is a psychological issue, not a philosophical issue. Rand was a philosopher, not a psychologist. So I reject her psychological assessment of how to react to immoral behavior, but can still retain her underlying philosophic assessment of justice and moral judgment.


  1. Anonymous9:58 PM


    I agree with your analysis of the last sentence you quote from Rand, as an isolated sentence. But I think that sentence is contradicted by the earlier sentence that includes "...where silence can objectively mean agreement with or sanction of evil." Here she clearly recognizes that in some contexts, silence doesn't mean that you are sanctioning evil. I would be more charitable to Rand and guess that in the last sentence, she was assuming the qualification given in the earlier sentence.

    Dr. Jeff

  2. Jeff,

    My argument could have been better, but the essential question remains... When are these times when silence objectively means agreement?

    Perhaps I'm being naive, but I could not think of an instance "where silence can objectiviely mean agreement with or sanction of evil" (emphasis mine). This is the crux of her argument, that we must not remain quiet, and the primary reason why so many people feel its necessary to condemn others. Yet I don't think she justified this statement.

    What would it take to convince me that statement is correct? If just one instance of silence objectively demonstrating agreement can be shown, then I'll accept it that this point is moot.