Conversations With Ayn Rand Part 1

by John Hospers

From time to time I had heard Ayn Rand’s name. I had seen a few printed comments on The Fountainhead, but had never read it myself. I had read numerous reviews — mostly unfavorable — of Atlas Shrugged, and determined to make up my own mind by reading it when I was less busy. A cousin in Iowa wrote to me, “If you don’t read anything else this year, read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.” I wrote her that I would do so as soon as I had finished writing my ethics book, Human Conduct. (Had I but known, I would have interrupted the writing of this book to read the new novel. But I had no idea then of its relevance to ethics.) The writing took every hour I could spare from classes. But before I had a chance to read Atlas, I read the announcement that Ayn Rand herself would address the student body of Brooklyn College, on “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World.”

It was April 1960. I looked forward eagerly to hearing her. Little did I know how much the course of my life would be changed.

I had no substantial disagreement with the lecture, though I would not have come at the subject the same way. I made some notes about assertions that required qualification or should be stated less strongly, though I did not as yet appreciate the context in which her remarks were set.

When I spoke with her afterward and invited her to lunch at once, she accepted without hesitation. Nathan and Barbara Branden, who had brought her, returned to Manhattan. Ayn graciously consented to reserve an hour for discussion with me. That was at 12:30. We were still sitting in a booth at the restaurant at 5:30.

I have some (but far from total) recollection of our discussion. What I remember most vividly were her friendliness, her directness, her passionate intensity. She was totally serious, totally dedicated to ideas. Her dark eyes looked right through you, as if to scan every weakness. I remember that quite early on she said that she could provide a solution to every ethical problem. I was more than usually interested in this assertion.

I presented her with a problem that had recently occurred to me. A father is told by his physician that he had two choices with regard to his small daughter: If she has a serious operation on her leg, she will suffer much pain, but there is a 50 percent chance that eventually she will be able to walk normally; but if she does not have the operation, she will suffer no more pain but one foot will never grow, and she will be on crutches all her life. What should he decide? She admitted at once that she couldn’t answer that one — it represented no choice between principles, only a choice between applications of the same principle (one I would later identify as “rational egoism”).

The solution would depend on certain details resulting from our incomplete knowledge of the situation, rather than on the elaboration of a principle. Recognizing this, I accepted her answer. But that only brought another to my mind: If you are driving and, on rounding a bend, have a choice between hitting a human being or a dog, you would presumably spare the human being. But if the choice was between hitting a stranger and your dog, what should you do? Surely you have more interest in preserving your dog than a person you have never met; and you would grieve more for the dog if it were killed, and so on.

This, she granted at once, was very difficult. There was indeed a conflict of principles here. On a scale of value, a human being is above a dog, for human beings embody many valuable features that dogs do not. On the other hand, on the scale of my value, my dog is more important. I thought she would say without qualification that I should save my own dog, but she didn’t. Was it that certain things should be done, and certain values achieved, regardless of whether they are conducive to my long-range self-interest? Or is it somehow to be made out that in the long run, all things considered, the saving of the stranger will be more to my interest (“no man is an island”), although it may not seem so to me at the moment? If she gave an answer, it was far from clear to me at the time.

But she gave me instant credit for “thinking of ingenious examples.” She did this many times during the course of our developing friendship.

We agreed to meet again at some unspecified future date. Meanwhile, I bought a copy of Atlas Shrugged and started to work through it. I would teach till mid-afternoon, work on my book most of the evening, and read Atlas as long as I could before retiring in the wee hours. I was so excited by it that only a great resolve to go against my inclinations, and an unwillingness to be sleepy that next day, kept me from reading it straight through.

About two weeks went by. I had finished Atlas (comments on it below). I received in the mail an invitation to attend one of the NBI lectures, the one in a series of 20 on aesthetics. I accepted gladly. It was probably the wrong lecture for me to begin with. Had I been asked to attend, for example, the economics lecture, I would have found it a revelation. Economics was virgin territory for me then. But aesthetics was the area where I had done most of my work, including my doctoral dissertation (later published as a book entitled Meaning and Truth in the Arts). I found a lot to criticize in the lecture, even though I found myself in general agreement with principal points in Rand’s aesthetic.

It was the examples that riled me most. I did not like to see Picasso and Faulkner (to take just two examples) relegated to the scrap-heap. Faulkner was no special favorite of mine, but I had a high opinion of his literary artistry and spoke in his defense. I was almost shouted down by members of the audience who apparently considered my action some kind of treason. Hugo and Doestoyevsky were favorites of Rand’s, and mine as well; but we came to loggerheads on Tolstoy. I mentioned in the discussion period that I thought Tolstoy was the keenest observer of details of nature and human behavior that ever wrote, and his ability to provide a rich and vivid impression through the selection of details was probably unequaled in fiction. Ayn responded that the plot in War and Peace was quite disconnected, with events not leading “inevitably or probably” into each other — which I granted was often true in this enormous saga. But I thought that individual scenes, such as Prince Andrey’s encounter with Napoleon, were tremendously vivid and uniquely moving.

After the lecture, I was invited to Ayn’s apartment. Nathan and Barbara were there for a while, but when they left Ayn noticed my copy of Atlas. She saw the notes I had written in the margins — comments for my own future reference, not intended for others to see. Ayn offered at once to exchange my earmarked copy for a new copy, inscribed to me. How could I refuse? “I didn’t necessarily comment on the most important parts,” I said; “I just marked what struck me or appealed to me for one reason or another, often highly personal.” She said that this didn’t matter, she wanted to see what I liked. And she put my copy aside for future reference.

She was in her best mood — more than friendly, full of enthusiasm and radiating benevolence. Before discussing the ideas in Atlas, she wanted to get my impressions of its aesthetic quality. I spent several hours going over this with her. I told her how impressed I was by its intricate structure, with a critical plot development in each of the ten chapters of each part, and a mini-climax at the end of each of the three main parts. I praised the development of the plot from one chapter to the next, the “rising action” as it proceeded from chapter to chapter, the richness accumulating like a snowball always gathering more snow on its downhill course. I showed by examples how a scene that would have been out of place earlier was perfect later, with further developments having intervened. I mentioned how the scenes were a combination of inevitability (given what went before) and surprise when they did occur. I extolled the clarity and vividness of the writing, and how I loved especially the total purposiveness of the work, proceeding without irrelevance like a coiled spring, constantly striving toward a goal. I also praised it as a mystery story — clues being dropped here and there, with rising tension resulting (where were the men going who kept disappearing from the scene?); and I praised the discovery of the motor at Starnesville, the discovery of why it had been abandoned, the whole story of Starnesville as told by the tramp on the train that was heading for its doom in the Colorado tunnel — the action rising to almost unbearable heights of suspense, while at the same time it served a philosophical purpose: how thrilling, how right, how perfectly it worked into the structure and texture of the novel. I mentioned that in other philosophical novels, like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the philosophy was not integrated into the narrative and “stuck out like a sore thumb,” but that in her book they were perfectly integrated; a fusion, not merely a mixture.

She was radiant. I had not expected such a glowing reaction, though I knew that authors enjoy hearing praise of their work. I just assumed that she was getting this from all directions, and that my comments just added a minute amount to the existing pile. I learned only much later that she hardly got such comments at all: that people commenting on her work were either harshly critical, not understanding what she was doing or coming from vastly opposed premises; or they simply sang empty praises, uttering syrupy remarks with nothing for her intellect to bite on. Apparently I had appreciated the very qualities she had endeavored to put into her work. She seemed warmly grateful that I had discussed them at such length with her.

It was after 2 a.m., and we agreed to meet again at her apartment two weeks later.

At our next meeting I resumed the discussion of Atlas. Rearden was my favorite character, because he grows and develops through the pages. I thought her style was clear and eloquent, and more than eloquent in memorable passages like the initial run of the train through the Colorado mountains. But I thought that the parts that sparkled the most, and were the most vibrant with energy, were those in which there was a direct confrontation of ideas, as in Francisco’s encounters with Rearden, the dialogues involving James Taggart, and Francisco’s remarks about money. This was powerful presentation of ideas and high drama at the same time.

I could see the point of having characters with no defects, such as Galt and Dagny, but though there was a philosophic purpose in this I thought it detracted from the characterizations, which in Galt’s case most readers perceived as somewhat unreal. Nor could I fault her decision to make everything end well, though I found the “tragic” parts (such as Wet Nurse’s death) more effective in tapping the emotions. We had some disagreement about “acceptable types of fiction.” I had no objection to “gutter realism” in which a slice of low-life is portrayed, as in Zola’s novels, nor did I demand that the end-effect be inspiring and never depressing, as long as fidelity to human nature was not sacrificed. I admired, for example, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and similar works of “naturalistic fiction” for which she had no use at all.

I had nothing but high admiration for Atlas as a paean to economic freedom. I had never thought much about the effect of government intervention in the economy, and I was totally convinced by her descriptions of this. Her economic message in the book hit me like a ton of bricks.

Nor did it take much for me to be convinced by most of her ethical tenets in the book, such as the admiration of independence and integrity, and pride in personal achievement. As a product of a Dutch colony in Iowa in which these virtues were instilled from one’s earliest years, I could resonate to all of this without difficulty. I especially enjoyed her attack on tired cliches like money being the root of all evil. I also shared her denunciation of altruism, if altruism was defined not as generosity (which I considered a fine thing) but as forsaking one’s own interests in order to pursue the interests of others. I hadn’t appreciated how much “love of others” could be appealed to in order to justify the major crimes of history.

She was amused when I told her the “parable of the concert ticket,” then circulating in philosophic discussions: A is given a concert ticket and wants to go to the concert, but being an altruist he gives his ticket to B, who also wants to go. But B is also an altruist, and is equally committed to forsaking what he wants in order to give to others, so B gives his ticket to C. And so on, until just before the concert the ticket goes to someone who doesn’t care for the concert and doesn’t even bother to go.

Other aspects of her ideas in Atlas would come out in future discussions. The philosophic tenets presented in Galt’s speech, for example, were partially (never entirely) chewed over in discussions much later. These things came to the fore in our discussions as the spirit moved. I shall reserve any description of metaphysical and epistemological issues for the second half of this memoir, although in historical fact these discussions were interspersed among our other conversations right from the beginning.

Early in our next meeting we agreed that Garbo was the greatest of the film actresses — an embodiment of intelligence, sensuality, and sensitivity — though Dietrich came in for some discussion, as did Marilyn Monroe, whom Ayn admired not as a sex symbol but as a vulnerable child projecting innocence and vulnerability. This, Ayn thought (and I agreed), was really the secret of her wide appeal.

We lingered fondly on works of art that had meant a great deal to us. We compared notes on plays, films, paintings, and musical compositions. When she said that her favorite dramatist was Schiller, I regretted that I had not known her in time to take her to see Schiller’s Maria Stuart, the best performance of a play (starring Irene Worth and Eva le Gallienne) I had ever seen. It would have been great to introduce Ayn to that experience, to savor the work together.

The following week I did take her to see the full-evening Martha Graham dance Clytemnestra. She was very perceptive about what was going on, though unfamiliar with the medium of modern dance. She liked the dance more than the music, as did I. Frank was ill at the time, and she would take care to make dinner for him before we left, and would rush back afterward to make sure he was all right. Her solicitude for him was touching. But when she made sure he was in satisfactory condition, she returned to the living room and we resumed our conversation.

“Who is your favorite movie director?” was one of the questions she asked, presumably to sound me out as to where my likes and dislikes lay. “Fritz Lang,” I told her at once. She was instantly suspicious. “How did you know?” she said, frowning.

I was puzzled, then grasped what her suspicion was. “I didn’t know,” I said. I told her how as an adolescent in Iowa I had haunted the theater to see Fury, about a mob attacking a courthouse to lynch a man who turned our to be innocent (Spencer Tracy). I told her how I admired most of all Lang’s work Hangmen Also Die, about the World War II occupation of Czechoslovakia: its structural complexity — wheels within wheels, just like Atlas — and how impressed aesthetically I was whenever little hints were dropped here and there and apparently forgotten, but then picked up later when they turned out to be essential to the resolution. She sensed my enthusiasm, and her warmth and vivacity increased as I related to her (as if it were new to her) various hints dropped in Atlas that were picked up and used later on. Apparently her suspicion, that someone had told me who was her favorite director, had vanished. Indeed, in an unexpected burst of warmth, she exclaimed, “Then I love you in the true philosophical sense.” I was too surprised and flattered by this compliment to question what the “true philosophical sense” was.

I found it incomprehensible that she didn’t much like Shakespeare. But I could not disagree with her judgment when I asked her who she thought was the greatest prose artist of the twentieth century. She said “Isak Dinesen.” She didn’t like Dinesen’s sense of life, but thought her a superlative stylist — a judgment in which I concurred. On a subsequent occasion when I brought a copy of Out of Africa and read her a page from it, she was positively glowing. She disliked Dinesen’s pessimism, but loved the economy of means and the always-just-right word selection. When Ayn and I both admired the same work, and compared our reactions to it and the reasons for our admiration — that was a high point of our friendship. During these conversations the rest of the world was left far behind; nothing mattered but our experiences of these works of art. We held them up to the light, slowly rotating them to exhibit their various facets, like precious jewels. Ayn was all aglow when our reactions struck common ground: she was no jaded critic, but had the spontaneous enthusiasm of a little girl, unspoiled by the terminology of sophistication. Even today I treasure these moments, and can hardly think of them without inducing the tear-ducts to flow just a little.

We did get into a bit of a flap about Thomas Wolfe. I had grown up on his novels, and there were passages of his poetic prose that had become so close to me that I had them virtually memorized. I brought a copy of his Of Time and the River one evening and read aloud to Ayn, Nathan and Barbara a passage of about five pages — a part of the description of the young man (Eugene Gant), having left his native North Carolina for the first time, reflecting on his chaotic childhood as the train is pounding away all night through the hills and forests, propelling him forward toward the unknown (his first year at Harvard). I empathized with so much in the passage that I waxed quite emotional in the delivery of it.

When I had finished, Ayn proceeded to decimate it bit by bit. How could I possibly care for such drivel? It was anti-conceptual; it was mystical; it was flowery and overlong. I do not remember the details of the criticism (then as on many other occassions, I wished I had had a tape recorder with me).  I remember that they all seemed to be valid points, and I was somewhat ashamed that my emotional reactions did not jibe with these rational ones. But I defended my favorable verdict on the passage with the observation that Wolfe has a tremendous evocative power, the power to generate very intense emotions by drawing on haunting memories of days past and setting them in the context of the present experience.

And then Barbara came to my aid. She said, very simply, “Wolfe is beautiful music.” And suddenly it struck me how true this was. I thought of Walter Pater, who said that all great art approaches to the condition of music; and how Wolfe is as near as American literature has yet come to creating literary music.

Some of her other preferences I found surprising, almost unbelievable. I could see why she liked Salvador Dali, though I couldn’t see why she preferred him to Picasso. (My own favorite painters were the post-Impressionists — Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh. She had no use for non-representational painting, though I liked Mondrian a lot — and I tried vainly to convince her that a line could be expressive even though that line was no part of a represented person or object.) I was most surprised of all by her musical evaluations. Of the classical composers, she preferred Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and not much else. I liked them too — I had none of the anti-Romantic bias that was then fashionable — but I was astounded that she didn’t care for Beethoven or Brahms, and that she didn’t like Bach at all. Bach and Handel were my favorites, though almost as much as these I liked certain pre-Bach composers such as Ockegham, William Byrd, De Lassus, Victoria — none of whom she had heard of. I would bring records to her and play parts of them, but her tastes never changed. When she wanted an inspiring musical theme to introduce her new weekly radio program on the Columbia University station, I played for her some candidates: Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary, prelude to Wagner’s Meistersinger, Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum, introduction to the march from Berlioz’s The Trojans. Of all the pieces prior to the 19th century, she said “These represent a static universe,” and cared to hear no more. So in spite of all my efforts, the final verdict was still Rachmaninoff. (Were these the composers she heard most during her girlhood in Russia, I wondered, and for that reason made the most powerful impression on her? I brought up to her the difference between differing preferences and differing evaluations. But she stuck to the view that her giving Rachmaninoff the number one place among composers was not merely preference but an “objective” evaluation — though, she added, in the case of music she couldn’t prove that the evaluation was the right one.)

We discussed the objective vs. the subjective in art. I suggested to her that a traditional Aristotelian canon such as organic unity was objective in the sense that the unity is actually to be found in the work (though it may need some pointing out), and that an indication of this was that the criterion had survived with variations for over  2,000 years. On the other hand, I said, there are times when it is less appropriate to say “That’s good” than to say “I like it.” For example, I tend to like massive works — Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Bach’s B-Minor Mass. She, on the other hand, despite having written Atlas Shrugged, tended to like works small. She once showed me her study, where she had written the last half of Atlas. It was terribly cramped and small, but that was what she felt comfortable with — “infinite riches in a little room,” I told her. But the room would have given me claustrophobia within an hour.

This was the honeymoon period. There had been no major tensions between us on any issue. I did not have any idea how quickly her ire could rise. I thought we could discuss any subject as dispassionately as we were now discussing the arts.

She kept inviting me back. For many months I was at her apartment about once every two weeks. We would meet around 8 p.m., and usually agree on a cutoff time of midnight. But when midnight came we were always engrossed in a discussion we didn’t want to terminate, and the result was that I seldom left the apartment before 4 a.m. Occasionally we would talk all night, after which she would prepare breakfast for me and I would drive off to Brooklyn in the early hours of the morning.

Whenever I took her out to dinner, she made a point of returning the favor. She and Frank would typically take me to a Russian restaurant. She had no appetite for small talk. Even when I was trying to extricate the car from a tight parking place in front of her apartment, she would be raising philosophical issues. Seated in the restaurant, she would radiate benevolence, but she didn’t go in for jokes or humor — most of which escaped her completely. But once in a great while she would laugh like a schoolgirl. When I told her the tired joke about the two behaviorist psychologists meeting one another, the one saying to the other “You are finehow am I?” she could hardly stop laughing. Apparently the joke exposed in condensed form the heart of a discarded (or eminently discardable) theory. Frank too was caught up in the humor of it. I came to value and respect him more and more — not as an arguer (he couldn’t do it, he left that department to her) but as a warm, benevolent human being with all the right instincts, and a largely unappreciated (at that time) artistic ability. I have nothing but good memories of him.

At Ayn’s suggestion I bought a copy of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson and it transformed my entire thinking about economics (not that I had done much thinking about it before). She gave me a copy of von Mises’ Socialism and I devoured that also. (She explained to me that she would not autograph gifts of books, if those books had been written by others.) Here I was the student and she the teacher. Though the conversation always turned to ethical implications, Ayn was not bothered if I asked her purely economic questions. I may have been the only person who learned free-enterprise economics personally from Ayn Rand. Much of her political philosophy had already come through to me in reading Atlas, but the conversations with her amplified it enormously. I had never given enough thought to political philosophy, and my conception of it (in relation to ethics) could have been summarized much as follows:

We each have different sets of desires, often conflicting with one another. We have to put a limit on our desires because, if followed out in action, they often get in each other’s way.

In traffic, we need rules of the road: you can’t drive on the wrong side of the road, you can’t pass cars on hills, you can’t exceed a certain speed, etc.

In life, we also need “rules of the road.” We have to refrain from doing certain things to one another, such as robbery and murder. So we need (1) moral principles, for people to obey voluntarily, and (2) laws, for people to be required to obey even if they don’t choose to do so voluntarily.

Not everyone will agree about what these rules should be. Should the rules prohibit adultery? abortion? deception or fraud? negligence? Should mentally incompetent people be excused from obeying them? And so on.

We can try to have the rules changed, but once a law is in force we should usually obey it. If everyone disobeyed laws when they felt like it, or even when they disapproved of the law, there would be much more chaos and less predictability in human relations, and all of us would be much less secure than we are now.

As readers well know, Ayn did not fundamentally disagree with most of these tenets. But she came at the whole enterprise in a very different way, much more precise than mine, and cutting lots of important ice in a variety of places.

When I first mentioned to her that I thought the government should do this or that, enact such-and-such a law, she would remind me that the government acts through coercion or threat of coercion: that if you want the government to tax other people for your pet project, you are in effect holding them up with a gun and forcing them to act in accordance with your wishes. You don’t wield the gun, but the government agent wields it on your behalf. And that’s all right if the government just protects you against aggression (retaliatory use of force), but not if it is to initiate aggression against others in order to achieve your ends. By the same token, why can’t it initiate aggression (e.g. forcibly raise taxes) to promote someone else’s ends at the expense of yours? If you can use force against A to make A support your favored project, why can’t A use force against you to make you an unwilling subsidizer of A’s project? It was all so obvious when pointed out, but I had never thought about it in that way before.

I had never formulated to myself Ayn’s precept, “No man should be a non-voluntary mortgage on the life of another.” But government helping one person at the expense of another is (Ayn reminded me) an obvious violation of this rule. If A’s life can forcibly be enslaved to fulfill B’s ends, why can’t B’s life be enslaved to fulfil A’s ends? And then it became a matter of who is strongest, or has the biggest gang.

I found Ayn most insightful of all on the topic of rights. (I later came to admire her paper “Man’s Rights” more than any other, though it was not yet written at the time of our discussions.) I had read much on that topic, but Ayn’s way of laying out the subject struck the jugular in a way that nothing else did. And gradually I came to treat more and more aspects of ethics and political philosophy under the rubric of rights. It also drew my thoughts toward a different magnetic pole: previously, my first question in evaluating a proposed law was “Whom does it benefit and whom does it hurt?” whereas Ayn’s first question was “Does it violate anyone’s rights?”

I had not thought of the American Constitution before as a distinctive rights-protector — protecting the rights of individuals against their encroachment by other individuals and (most of all) the government itself. And the rights defended in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, she pointed out, were all of the kind that I called negative rights — rights which demand only from others the duty of forbearance, or noninterference. The positive rights, such as “welfare rights,” all demanded as duties some positive action, such as using part of your paycheck to pay for government projects which are supposedly for the benefit of others. Such subsidies of course violated her voluntarism principle (no one should be a non-voluntary mortgage . . . ). In time I supplemented this with another argument, that only the negative rights are consistently universalizable (applicable to everyone). That is: “I have a right to speak freely” can hold true no matter how many people there are, but “I have a right to part of your income” can hold true only when there are enough other people in society to provide it. If there are not enough givers and too many takers, the principle becomes impossible to apply. Ayn’s input was like a gust of fresh air on a subject (political philosophy) which I had previously considered too dull to pursue — at least the current literature was, if not the subject itself. Prior to knowing Ayn, I was not very happy with any theory on the subject that I knew about. I had realized that in a civilized society you can’t let persons do what they want with their lives (such as nothing at all) and at the same time assure them that all their basic needs will be taken care of, courtesy of the state — for where would the state get the wherewithal to supply these needs if many people remained idle or didn’t (or couldn’t) contribute to it? But I had not resolved the matter in my own mind, nor had I thought of the issue systematically until I was hit with a huge blast of clearly enunciated political philosophy from Ayn Rand.

Gathering diverse data into a neat system had always been exciting to me, and the Randian political philosophy stimulated me to consider the subject seriously for the first time. At the same time, I was skeptical about the acceptability of any system, particularly a neat and elegant one, and was always looking for exceptions to test the system. If truth could be obtained only by sacrificing neatness and elegance, then they would have to be sacrificed. I was worried, for example, about the welfare problem. I could see that once the government got hold of tax money for this purpose, it was an invitation to graft and corruption, and that people are not as careful with other people’s money as they are with their own. And it might indeed be true that in a free unregulated economy there would be such abundance that there would be little or no need for welfare, because private charity would bridge the gap. But I simply could not make myself be sure of this. I was not sure that people’s charitable impulses would be expressed in sufficient quantity at the needed time and place. I thought of children living in grisly slum conditions, fatherless and largely untended. The fact (if it was a fact) that at some future time when the economy would be free and far more prosperous than now, such people would not be in need thanks to private charity, was no help to them now — the help they needed was immediate, and the children’s situation was not their own fault. And I was quite sure that some parents would always be so lazy or incompetent that they could not (or sometimes would not) hold any job at all, no matter how prosperous the economy — the general prosperity would simply pass them by.

I was even more convinced of the need for universal education. Without it, many children with high potential would not have the benefits of education, and their talents would simply be wasted — don’t they all deserve a chance? I was all in favor of competing private schools (rather than a government-run educational system), but I wanted to make sure that private benevolence would get to the right place at the right time and in sufficient amounts. I found myself more sure of the need for universal educational opportunity than I was of a political theory in which education was no concern of the state. I agonized over this. Ayn never assented to the view that private charity was “guaranteed to be sufficient.” The recipient had no right to receive what was not freely given, and if not enough was freely given, that was unfortunate but not immoral; what would be immoral would be to force the giver to give (which would be robbery). The moment you start nibbling away at a principle by making exceptions, the more you will be led to make further exceptions, and finally the whole principle will go up in smoke. Why could Ayn rest comfortably with this, while I could not? The marvelous passage in Atlas Shrugged beginning “Stand on an empty stretch of soil in a wilderness unexplored by men and ask yourself what manner of survival you would achieve . . .” kept hammering through my mind. If you penalize those who make life economically bearable for the rest of mankind, what hope is there for future improvement? It is not only impractical, but immoral, to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. At the same time, here are the horribly deprived children of the ghetto, finding themselves in a situation not of their own making from which they could not extricate themselves without help. I was unhappy, even ashamed, that I could not resolve this burning issue to my own satisfaction. I would keep speaking of needs that could not be met through private charity — at least that was my fear. I would speak of the homeless and starving of the world. Each day’s headlines would call attention to more instances of this, usually in Africa or Asia. At last I think Ayn lost patience with me. Instead of agonizing over this, she said, I ought to take steps to ensure a free market in those countries. There is no greater creator of prosperity than the market. She was not against charity, she said. If a needy person came to her door, she would not say no. When she said this, I replied, “What of the thousands of people who can’t come to your door, because they’re too far away, too sick, too crippled, or are small orphaned children?” She then told me again somewhat brusquely that I was looking at the issue from the wrong end. I was viewing it from the point of view of the needy; I should look at it instead from the point of view of the producers of wealth — all charity would have to come from the surplus of their production (here she referred me to Isabel Paterson’s The God in the Machine). If production was not sufficient, these people would have to do without in any case. Charity must come from their surplus — and not a surplus wrung from them by coercive taxation, but whatever surplus they voluntarily chose to allot for this purpose. And then she described how an industrialist could do much more good by keeping his company solvent and his employees on the payroll than by selling it and giving the proceeds to charity. And unless I came up with some new ideas on this subject, she indicated, she considered the subject closed, not to be brought up again. But the subject kept coming into our conversations, even though only peripherally. I remember, for example, describing to her the situation of a person who contracts a disease that requires thousands of dollars each month in medical costs, which he can’t afford, and which insurance companies won’t take on. “It’s not his fault that he contracted the disease,” I said. “And neither is it anyone else’s fault,” Ayn retorted. I did not pursue the subject, but I remember reflecting that from the fact that it’s nobody’s fault nothing follows as to who should pay. I could often tell from her tone of voice that she was on the edge of anger, which would break out if I pursued the issue. For the sake of future discussions, I would decide to drop the issue this time around.

On another occasion I mentioned the inequality in the educational system, which did not confer as much time or money on children from the slums, or on those who could learn in time but could not keep up with the rest. “And what about the geniuses?” she asked — the ultra-bright children who could go ahead much faster, but were kept back by the mediocrities. One genius, a Newton or a Pasteur, could improve the lot of all humanity, but many of them, she thought, had been stifled by the educational system catering to the dull-witted. I quoted to her once Anatole France’s statement that the rich have as much right as the poor to sleep under bridges. “And who built the bridges?” she shot back at me like a bullet. Nothing aroused her ire faster than quotable quotes from liberals and leftists.

I invited her one day to teach my ethics class at Brooklyn College, and she accepted at once. The students were impressed, but it would have taken much longer than an hour to make her line of thought come home to them. On another occasion she visited my graduate ethics seminar, at which she made some apt comment about the emotive theory of ethics (which we were then discussing). She expressed some surprise that I let my students take just about any position they chose. I did point out logical fallacies and inconsistencies, and tried to bring out the hidden presuppositions of views which I thought they accepted too hastily, but I was far from anxious in class to get them to believe whatever I myself believed. I could see that Ayn was less tolerant of deviant beliefs; I explained to her that I was more concerned with how they came to believe what they did.

I told her that I thought the great danger was to accept a view, even true view, for an inadequate reason, or for the wrong reason, or no reason at all — or as an article of faith, because of a teacher’s magnetic personality. Such faiths, I said, could be adopted one day and discarded the next when another guru came along. Once they make their degree of conviction proportional to the actual evidence for a belief, they can be trusted to arrive at true beliefs themselves. It is the method more than the content that (I suggested) has to be taught — which was just what the American educational system was not doing.

She agreed, of course, that one should not accept beliefs on faith — though surely, I thought, she knew that many of her disciples came to espouse her views largely because of her personal magnetism. At any rate, Ayn wanted to guide them to “correct beliefs” more than I did, so as to be sure that they ended up in the right place.

We discussed many aspects of private property. Her view that all property, including roads, should be private was new to me, and fascinating. I remained a bit skeptical about roads, for it seemed to me that, like oceans, they are primarily ways to get from one place to another, and I didn’t think these should be in the hands of a private party who might be vindictive against certain persons or groups. The considerations that justified private ownership of houses and land did not seem to me to justify the private ownership of roads and navigable waters.

But our main disagreement occurred when I mentioned a car trip I had taken into the South when, as a student at Columbia University, I had been a fellow passenger with a black student. The moment we entered the South, there was no hotel or motel, and very few restaurants, that would accept him. I considered this grossly unjust; so did Ayn — an example of collectivism at its worst (racism being a particularly crude form of collectivism).  Our disagreement came when I said that motels should be required to serve persons regardless of race. But she held to her view that motels are private property and people should be able to admit whomever they choose on their own property. True, blacks were as entitled as whites to build motels, and then serve only blacks if they so chose. But the issue was academic — in view of history, and the economic status of most blacks, there just weren’t enough black property-owners in the South to make this a viable option. Again, I would make an exception to a principle in order to correct an injustice. And Ayn, perhaps seeing better than I did where this might lead, declined to make the exception.

I remember another argument we had, concerning censorship. Only government, she said, could be said to censor. I brought up the case of the Catholic Church censoring a book or film. She insisted that this was not censorship. A cardinal or pope may threaten excommunication for reading the book, but if one doesn’t like it one can leave the church that imposes such restrictions. The church can’t take away your citizenship or put you in prison. The government, by contrast, can do these things.

The question was whether these differences were sufficient to entitle us to say that it is censorship in the government case but not in the church case. One could slice that either way, I suggested. But suppose that I grant that the government can censor a film and the church can’t (i.e. what the church does isn’t censorship). What then of the following example? A book is published exposing the practices of certain drug companies and pharmaceutical houses. The drug companies don’t like this, but of course they can’t arrest anyone for buying the book. So they pay the publisher X thousands of dollars to withdraw the book permanently from circulation. The book is then as effectively stifled as if the government had banned it. Is that not censorship? No, not by Rand’s definition. Yet it has exactly the same effect as government censorship; would it really be false, or even unreasonable, to say that the book had been censored? Ayn opposed all government censorship, but she had no objection to the voluntary agreement between the publisher and the drug company.

One other aspect of political philosophy that seemed to bother Ayn as well as me was the problem of imperfect governments. A government that uses force only in retaliation against its initiation by others is entitled to our support. But every government in the world violates this principle (that force may be used only in retaliation). Even the act of collecting taxes is the initiation of force against citizens.

Under what circumstances then is a citizen obliged to do what his government decrees? What if the law says that you can’t use physical force to restrain the person who is in the process of stealing your car (you can’t commit a crime against a person to correct a crime against property)? That is the law in the United States; but suppose you don’t agree with that law. Must you obey it anyway? More serious still, what if the government itself is a rights-violator? Ayn would not say that the government of the U.S.S.R deserves our allegiance, or that we have a moral duty to obey it (e.g., to report our friends who criticize the government). But the government of the United States differs only in degree from such a government. Should we obey only those laws that do not violate the retaliatory force principle (that is, only laws in which the government is exercising its proper function, the retaliatory use of force against those who have initiated it, such as murderers and muggers)? But then are we free to ignore all the others, such as laws prohibiting polluting someone else’s property (or is pollution to be called a case of the initiation of force?)? It seems as if the phrase “initiation of force” isn’t very clear, and its application to cases far from obvious.

Suppose you head the government of Spain and the Basques rebel, seeking independence. Should you suppress the revolt or not? One view would be that you should suppress it in order to restore law and order, which after all is what government is all about — you can’t be expected to live in a state of civil insurrection. On the other hand, if you think the Basques have been served a bad hand for these many years, you will think their cause a just one, and if Spain suppresses the revolt then Spain is initiating force against those who only want their freedom. (And the same with Northern Ireland, etc.) I suggested that what you will call initiation and retaliation will depend on your sympathies. You will put down the rebellion if you think the Spanish are in the right; if you think they are not, you will encourage the rebellion in the cause of freedom (and perhaps argue that they are only retaliating against the past aggressions of Spain, in keeping them part of Spain when they wanted only to be independent). Let’s accept the non-initiation of force principle, I said. How to apply it in cases is very, very sticky. Your country may have started the war, but if you are a soldier and another soldier comes at you with a bayonet, you will retaliate (preventatively?) even though your country, or its government, had initiated the conflict.

What justifies government, I wondered, in raising an army and doing other things connected with national defense? Government, she said, is the delegated agent of the individual to act in his or her self-defense. (She described all this in her paper “The Nature of Government,” but that had not yet been written at the time of our discussions. Neither had any of her non-fiction works other than a very few short papers such as “Notes on the History of Free Enterprise” and “The Objectivist Ethics.”)

But this worried me. What about people who don’t want the government to act for them in such a capacity — either they don’t trust the government to do this, or for some other reason don’t desire the government to act as their agent? Ayn’s view (as I remember it) was that the government protects them whether they want the protection or not. (For example, it protects insane people although the insane people can’t give their consent.)

I was also concerned about how such delegation occurred. I don’t remember delegating my right of self-defense to government or indeed to any other person or institution. No contract was signed, nor was there, apparently, even an implicit agreement. But then there was a discussion of what constituted implicit agreement. John Locke, I said, held that continued residence implies consent, but surely this is mistaken — did continued residence in the U.S.S.R imply consent to that government? Like so many other issues, we played around with this one for awhile without coming to any definite conclusion.

Ayn and I had very different attitudes toward nature. I liked vacations in the mountains, swimming in lakes, tramping through the woods. She cared for none of these things. The city was man’s triumphant achievement; it was not nature but man’s changes on the face of nature in which she reveled. She had (I gathered) broken Frank’s heart by insisting on the move to New York City from their estate in the San Fernando Valley, where Frank had been in his element. But she had had enough of nature. She spoke movingly to me of Russian villages in which anything manmade was treasured. She spoke of having to walk, as a child, with her parents, through the Russian countryside from Leningrad to Odessa, to live with their uncle and escape starvation (her father had been classified as a capitalist by the Bolsheviks, and left to starve with his family in Leningrad). “Why should I help to pay for public beaches?” she once said. “I don’t care about the beach.”

I liked fresh fruit for dessert, and tried to avoid pastries. She, on the contrary, loved pastries; perhaps the fresh fruits reminded her too much of the wild nature of which she had had her fill in Russia. She tempted me with pastries when she and Frank took me to a restaurant, and I of course gave in and devoured as much pastry as she did.

Other than the details just mentioned, she seldom referred to her early years in Russia. She preferred to discuss principles rather than specifics. But when I mentioned tyrannies and dictators, her voice would become hard and unrelenting. She almost sputtered in indignation at the mention of Khruschev, who was then at the helm in the USSR. I suggested that there has been some improvement there since Stalin, and that people were being invited to write letters of complaint to newspapers, for example about pollution and industrial inefficiency. “So that they can smoke these people out and then arrest them!” she spit out, from as deep a reserve of anger as I had ever heard in her.

She may not have known much about psychology — and she admitted as much — but when it came to the psychology of tyrants, she was a master sleuth of human motivations. She knew, as if from inside, how tyrants think. And her voice, it seemed to me, contained the grim but unspoken residue of years of hurt, disappointment, and anger in being victimized by tyrannical governments and their incompetent and uncaring bureaucracies. (She specifically instructed me to read Ludwig von Mises’s little book Bureaucracy to see why bureaucracies always worked badly, and I did.)

I did not have the unpleasant associations with the wide open spaces that she did. I was concerned with conservation of natural resources, including wildlife, and worried about the deterioration of the soil and the extinction of species. I was concerned too about human overpopulation of the globe and its effect on nature, the animal kingdom, and man himself. She did not seem to share my concern. Nature was merely a backdrop for man. As for overpopulation, she was all for population expansion. She mentioned the vast stretches of Nevada and Wyoming, largely empty of human beings; the United States could double its population and still not be crowded. A capitalist economy could do all this and more. I did not deny that it could, but wondered how all these added people in the wastes of Nevada would make a living, and how they would get enough water, and what room would be left for wild animals and plants if the human race filled up all the cracks.

But I found no responsive chord in expressing these worries to her; this was a vein that could not be tapped. The most vividly-expressed concerns on my part evoked in her only a kind of incomprehension. Of course one could put this the other way round: that she could find in me no responsive chord by which to move me to the realization that these concerns were of no human importance.

I mentioned to her once that I thought the Europeans who settled America were in some respects more barbaric than the Indians they replaced: they robbed the Indians of their land, they decimated them with guns and smallpox, and robbed them of their food by wantonly killing their buffalo. What made the whites triumph, I opined, was not the superiority of their intellect or even the superiority of their political philosophy, but the superiority of their technology, specifically firearms. We had guns and the Indians didn’t; that was what defeated them, I said.

Native Americans were not among Ayn’s concerns. The greatness of the political ideal of the Founding Fathers overrode all the rest in her view. Not that she wanted Indians exterminated, of course — she wanted them to be a part of a nation operating on the principles of the American Constitution, citizens, voters, entrepreneurs if they chose to be. A proper government would have had a place for all races on equal terms. The shame that I, a descendent of some of these European intruders, felt at what my ancestors had done apparently was not felt by her. And what should have been done if the Indian wanted no part of the white man’s government is a topic that she never addressed; or whether, if the Indian had claimed all of America as his own, since he had been here first, this claim should be honored. That America had a  functioning Constitution limiting the power of government and promoting individual liberty — this, in her view, was such an extreme rarity in the history of nations, and such a unique event on this planet, as to justify whatever trouble it cost. The view of the white man as an interloper on another’s domain was strange indeed to one for whom America had been a beacon of light in a dark world — and which had meant for her the saving of one’s spirit and one’s very life.

On a visit to my parental home in Iowa I stopped to visit a colleague who had just returned from Peru. I had given Ayn my phone number in Iowa, and sure enough, she phoned. I remember asking her on the phone what she would say about the situation in Peru, where a few landowners (descendents of the Spanish conquistadors) owned almost all the land, leaving the native Indians little or nothing. Ayn remarked that if  they didn’t use all the land themselves, but let it lie fallow as I described, they could make a lot more money renting it out to the native Indians, and in the course of time the Indians with their earnings could buy portions of it back, so as to own it once again. But that won’t work, I said — the Spanish purposely let the land lie fallow (some of the most fertile land in the nation), as a matter of pride, to show others that they don’t need to cultivate it for profit. Thus the Indians can’t even share-crop any of it, and are forced to settle further up into the mountains on land whose soil is too thin to withstand the plow. I suggested that under such conditions a government policy of land redistribution was called for.

Such a torrent of abusive language against compulsory redistribution then came over the wire that my parents could hear it across the room. I could hardly get a word in. I had no idea that mention of compulsory redistribution would ignite such venom. I said why I thought it was usually a bad policy, but that in the conditions described it would probably be desirable, as when MacArthur did it in postwar Japan. But she would not hear of it. Dinner had been set on the table, and I motioned my parents to go on eating without me. But they didn’t, and by the time Ayn’s telephone tirade was over, half an hour later, the dinner was cold.

It was pleasant indeed to be invited to Ayn’s apartment to meet Mr and Mrs Henry Hazlitt and Mr and Mrs Ludwig von Mises. There wasn’t much shop talk, but it was wonderful to meet them and to socialize with them. (I later met with Henry Hazlitt numerous times in connection with his forthcoming book The Foundation of Morality.) I felt honored to be invited to join this distinguished company. I also enjoyed several luncheon meetings with Alan Greenspan.

I learned much more economics from my conversations with Ayn. But once I put my foot in it. She was explaining why, if some industry was to be deregulated, the businessman would have to be given fair warning, he would be unable to make the rational calculations he would have to make at the time.

I said nothing in response on that occasion. But a few weeks later, when she exclaimed that the New York taxicab medallions should be abolished at once, I said “But consider the taxi driver who has bought a medallion for $25,000 just before their abolition. He would lose that whole amount. Shouldn’t the taxi driver be given an interim period also for making his own rational calculations?”

She saw the point. “You bastard!” she exclaimed, and flounced out of the room to prepare tea. I could hear the cups clattering in the kitchen, and Frank trying to pour oil over troubled waters. When she returned to the living room she had partially regained her equanimity, but was still curt and tense.

I learned from that incident that it didn’t pay to be confrontational with her. If I saw or suspected some inconsistency, I would point it out in calm and even tones, as if it were “no big deal.” That way, she would often accept the correction and go on. To expose the inconsistency bluntly and nakedly would only infuriate her, and then there would be no more calm and even discussion that evening. I did not enjoy experiencing her fury; it was as if sunlight had suddenly been replaced by a thunderstorm. A freezing chill would then descend on the room, enough to make me shiver even in the warmth of summer. No, it wasn’t worth it. So what, if a few fallacies went unreported? Better to resume the conversation on an even keel, continue a calm exchange of views, and spare oneself the wrath of the almighty, than which nothing is more fearful.

At the same time, she was an inspiration to me. It was inspiring to talk with someone to whom ideas so vitally mattered. By presenting intellectual challenges she set my intellectual fires crackling in a new way. And she was largely responsible for renewing my spirits. I never got bored with teaching — I always enjoyed contact with students — but I had become discouraged about its results. A class ends, I seldom hear from the students again, and a new crop comes in with all the same errors and unquestioned prejudices and assumptions as the one before. I suppose this was to be expected, but I was often discouraged by the lack of improvement. Doubtless I could have noticed some if I had been able to follow the members of the class after they had had my courses. And as for changing the world from its ignorance and lethargy, there seemed little hope of this occurring; all the combined efforts of high school and college teachers seemed to do little to prevent wars or create happiness or even ease the human situation very much.

So I was surprised when Ayn said, “Yours is the most important profession in the world.”

I responded, “Important, but not very influential.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said. “You deal in ideas, and ideas rule the world.” (I seldom quote Ayn directly, and do so only when I clearly remember exactly what she said.)

I objected rather lamely that I didn’t see any ideas molding the world, in fact that the world seemed quite indifferent to ideas. But she persisted that it was indeed ideas that ruled the world — and that if good ideas did not come to the fore, bad ones would rule instead. Nature abhors a vacuum, and it is when good ideas are not taught that a Hitler or a Lenin can come in, filling the vacuum, trying to justify the use of force (for example) against entire classes of victims, when even a modest amount of teaching about human rights would have shifted the battle of ideas and perhaps carried the day. She reiterated that it was ideas — specifically the ideas underlying the American Revolution — that had created the greatness of America. Prosperity had been a consequence of the adoption of these ideas; it occurred when physical labor was animated by an economic theory by which the work could be productive.

We came back to the subject many times, and I began to notice a new energy in my teaching, a new bounce in my attitude, as if the intellectual life was not fruitless after all, and as if I might even make a bit of real difference in the world. Not much in the whole scheme of things, to be sure; but later, when ex-students would say to me, “My whole life has been changed by your course,” or “Something you said at the end of your lecture one day years ago changed me forever,” the words not only buoyed me up, but made me aware of a fearsome responsibility. I don’t know whether I ever communicated to Ayn this gradual change in my professional attitude. In a way, she had saved my life. I wondered, much later, whether she ever knew this.

She did not take kindly to any recommended change in her writing, not even a single word. I was strongly in sympathy with this. Even if a word was appropriate in what it meant, it might not fit into the rhythm of the sentence or the idiom of the passage. But there is one occasion on which she gave way to me nonetheless. She showed me the typescript of her forthcoming introduction to Victor Hugo’s novel 1793. I then proceeded to read certain passages of it aloud to her. By this means, I convinced her that some passages were unidiomatic, and that certain words hindered the ambience rather than helping it. She went along with all my recommended changes. “Boy, do you have a feeling for words,” she said glowingly as she made the changes.

She was convinced that on my forthcoming trip to California I should call on her Hollywood producer, Hal Wallis. “He’s a movie producer,” I said; “I would have nothing to say to him. And he’d be about as interested in me as in a hole in the ground.”

Not so, she said. She said I had no idea what an intellectual inferiority complex these people have. “To have a philosopher come to them would be an honor to them,” she insisted.

But I had no idea what I would say if I did go; I would probably stand there with a mouthful of teeth. (And I never did follow her suggestion.) “Well, maybe I could write the script for the movie Atlas Shrugged,” I said, more than half in jest.

But at once she put her foot down, though in good humor. “Nathaniel Branden is going to write the script for Atlas Shrugged,” she said decisively, and that was that.

She reserved her best-chosen curse words for her philosophical arch-enemy, Immanuel Kant. She considered him the ultimate altruist and collectivist. Though not a Kantian, I did not share her extreme view of him. I invited her to read his book on philosophy of law, with its defense of individual rights, and certain sections of his Metaphysics of Morals in which he discussed duties to oneself. But it was all in vain. She insisted that these were only incidental details, but that the main thrust of Kant’s philosophy was profoundly evil. I did not consider him more altruistic than Christianity, and in some ways less so.

I did get her to acknowledge agreement, I think, with Kant’s Second Categorical Imperative, “Treat every person as an end, not as a means,” even though I tended to believe that the implications of this precept for ethical egoism might be ominous. And I told her that I thought she was also Kantian in her insistence on acting on principle (even though she and he didn’t share the same principles). I even thought that she shared some of his emphasis on universalizability: that if something is wrong for you to do it is also wrong for others (in similar circumstances), and that before acting one should consider the rule implied in one’s actions as it if were to become a universal rule of human conduct. She would praise impartiality of judgment as strongly as any Kantian. Sometimes, when we were discussing another view, such as existentialism, I would twit her, saying “You’re too Kantian to accept that, Ayn,” and she would smile and sometimes incline her head a bit, as if to admit the point before going on with the discussion.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the most fundamental distinction in practical ethics was between individualism and collectivism. Consider the American Civil War, I said. Assuming that it played a decisive role in eliminating slavery, wasn’t the result worth the loss of half a million lives? Yet it may well not have been worth it to the men who were drafted into the army to fight that war. The fact that it “helped the group” (the collective) may not have been much comfort to them.

Or consider the American Revolutionary War. It produced an enormous benefit, the founding of a free America, and was the most nearly bloodless of all major revolutions. Yet was it “worth it” to those who shed their blood fighting in the cause of independence? If you look at the group as a whole, the group was better off because those wars were fought; we’re glad that somebody did it. But if you look at the individuals, it was a case of some individuals sacrificing their lives so that others could live in freedom and prosperity.

Ayn’s response was that no human life should be sacrificed against that person’s will. If a person believes a cause to be worth it, such as freedom from slavery or oppression, then he may willingly sacrifice his life for that cause; but no one should be forced to do so. The sacrifices must be made voluntarily.

But are you enlisting voluntarily if you do it because you’ll be drafted anyway later? I wondered. Perhaps voluntariness is a matter of degree. And what if the Germans are invading France and the Germans draft all their young men and the French don’t? Then the French would be overrun and perhaps enslaved. To escape this fate, France institutes the draft. But this example didn’t deter Ayn. Then France is overrun, she said. (The principle of voluntariness must not be violated.) And maybe the prospect that this was going to happen would be sufficient to make most Frenchmen voluntarily enlist.

But then, I suggested, there is another problem: what is meant by “voluntary”?

You think about doing something, you deliberate, then do it. Nobody forces you or pressures you. Let’s take this as a paradigm case of voluntary action. On the other hand, someone with a loaded gun at your back says to you, “Your money or your life,” and you surrender your wallet. This is a case of coercion, and ordinarily we’d say you don’t give up your wallet voluntarily.

OK, now the problems begin. What exactly distinguished these cases? Some say that a voluntary act is one of which one can say that just before it one could have done otherwise. Thus the patellar reflex and other reflex actions are not voluntary; you can’t prevent the response.

But all our everyday actions are by that definition voluntary, including our response to the gunman: we could have, just before surrendering the wallet, decided not to surrender it. That was within our power. (Indeed, some would say, “Under the circumstances, you voluntarily chose to give up your money.”) The result of using this definition is that practically all our acts are voluntary, even the robber example used as a paradigm case of not being voluntary. So, I said, let’s take another criterion for voluntariness. With the gunman you can still choose, but your choices are limited by his actions. (You can choose to give your life rather than your money, whereas without his intervention you would have kept both.) The gunman limits your choices. But so does the employer when he fires an employee, or lays him off because the factory is losing money. The employee’s choices are now more limited, limited by the employer’s actions.

But has the employer coerced him? Some would say yes, though he didn’t threaten the employee’s life as in the gunman case. Others would say no, he only limits the employee’s choices. Indeed, the rainfall that prevents you from going to the picnic also limits your choices as to what to do that day. Our choices are limited hundreds of times a day — limited by a wide variety of conditions, human and non-human. (Our options are never limitless in any case.) So that definition won’t distinguish our two paradigm cases from each other; there is something in both cases to limit our choices.

Let’s try another, I persisted: an act is voluntary if it’s not forced. But now what exactly is the import of the verb “force”? Did he force you to give up your wallet, since you could have said no? Is the child whose parents say to him “Kill your pet dog or we’ll never feed you again” forced to kill his dog? Are you ever 100 percent forced, except when you are physically overpowered and literally can’t do anything else?

But very few acts are forced in this sense. When we say “He forced me to go with him,” we need not mean that he physically overpowered her, but rather that he threatened her or even that he “knew what buttons to push” to get her to do what he wanted. Shall we say in that case that she did his bidding voluntarily? No matter which definition we employ, there are cases that seem to slip between the cracks. Thus, saying “He did it voluntarily” doesn’t convey as clear a piece of information as most people think it does.

I concluded that when people say “He did it voluntarily” they usually have no idea of the complexities of meaning that can be plausibly attached to that word; they have no idea which fork in the road they would choose in deciding which meaning of several to take. They just blurt out the word. And that, I suggested, is what philosophical analysis is all about — by suggestion and example (“Would you say this is a case of X? No, then perhaps that would be?” etc.) to draw out the meaning behind the words — to pierce the veil of words so as to get a hold on those meanings. But the words constantly obscure this, often in a bewilderingly complex way. Yet it’s important to keep us from blurting out some quick and easy verbal formula. It’s not easy, and takes a lot of practice; as Brahms said of his second piano concerto, “It’s not a piece for little girls.”

But there it is, the difficulties are there, not only for “voluntary” but for “free” and “caused” and “responsible” and “intentional” (to take a few from just one area of philosophy). These are especially dense philosophical thickets, which require lots of thankless untangling. Most people haven’t the heart or the will to go through with it.  I fear my little lecture was pretty much lost on Ayn. Her philosophical aspirations lay in an entirely different area. And in time the tension between these approaches to doing philosophy is what probably marked the beginning of the end for us.  — Click here for Part 2 –>

(Originally published in Liberty magazIne, 1987)

When most people talked philosophy with Ayn Rand, the relationship was student to teacher. But with Rand and John Hospers, it was philosopher to philosopher.