With Ayn Rand
Part 1
by John Hospers
(Originally published in Liberty magazIne, 1987)

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

                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

                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
                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

                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
                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
                a 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

                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
                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

                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

                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,
                else 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
                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

                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

                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

                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.

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