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What Is Evil?

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Thjatsi
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Something has been bothering me lately.  I am unable to define evil, accept as 'harmful to others.'  Would someone with a better understanding of objectivism please define evil for me?

From Ayn Rand Lexicon, under the heading "Evil", page 153:

--- [begin quote] ---

The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics--the standard by which one judges what is good or evil--is man's life, or; that which is required for man's survival qua man.

Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

--- [end quote] ---

I can quote from the Lexicon, but I don't know what that means. :)

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I am unable to define evil, accept as 'harmful to others.' 

Quite the contrary. Rather, "evil" is that which is harmful to oneself.

The starting point would be to ask yourself why you need to have a concept such as "evil" at all?

Read the title essay of "The Virtue of Selfishness" to understand the Objectivist view.

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The starting point would be to ask yourself why you need to have a concept such as "evil" at all?

I agree. Why do some objectivists insist upon using the term "evil"? When someone does something like lying or stealing, an objectivist might say something along the lines of, "that is immoral or evil." This terminology is used to convey guilt the same way that "sin" does in christianity. A much more accurate and honest critique is to say that "it is impractical or will hurt you in the long run."

So I think that instread of asking what is "evil", you should ask what is impractical or unreasonable. Then the answer becomes more clear, outside the context of weighted terminology.

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When someone does something like lying or stealing, an objectivist might say something along the lines of, "that is immoral or evil." ... more accurate and honest critique is to say that "it is impractical or will hurt you in the long run."

Objectivism says that the moral is the practical. Morality vs. practicality is a false dichotomy. Particular actions (based on decisions to act) are right or wrong, good or bad. The good is moral and practical, the bad is immoral and impractical.

Regarding the use of the word "evil":

Evil definitely is a strong word, and it isn't something that should be used lightly or without a lot of knowledge of the specifics. I certainly have not used this term often, and I can't remember a time in relation to any person I was talking to (or his actions). If, while talking to someone, you run into something you disagree with, it is a lot more conducive to conveying your ideas to say that you don't agree with it and explain why, rather than branding people as evil. The disagreement implies moral disagreement (since it is based on an action that someone decided to do).

Still, though, evil is a perfectly valid concept. It is reserved for people who are doing things wrong consciously--who know better, have the ability to decide differently, and yet decide to do what's wrong instead of what's right. If it is applied in that sense, any guilt that comes of it is deserved.

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I agree. Why do some objectivists insist upon using the term "evil"? When someone does something like lying or stealing, an objectivist might say something along the lines of, "that is immoral or evil." This terminology is used to convey guilt the same way that "sin" does in christianity. A much more accurate and honest critique is to say that "it is impractical or will hurt you in the long run."

So I think that instread of asking what is "evil", you should ask what is impractical or unreasonable. Then the answer becomes more clear, outside the context of weighted terminology.

I can't be sure what Felicity meant, but I think the point was not to reject that evil exists nor avoid pronouncement of it when you can identify it. Rather one should understand that there is such a thing as evil and that it is objective. Holding the "practical" as the standard of ethics is pragmatism. Objectivist ethical decisions and actions come from using reason on the facts of reality. As for evading declaring things evil: I recommend "The Cult of Moral Grayness", also in VOS.

d_s

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Why do some objectivists insist upon using the term "evil"?

Normative adjectives are used to identify the status of things, actions, and people with regard to their real impact on our lives.

"Evil" denotes that which has the greatest negative impact on our lives and some things -- in fact and in reality -- do have extremely negative impacts on our lives.

With regard to our own chosen actions, the worst thing we can do to ourselves is to deliberately ignore our own awareness of reality. Therefore, the greatest personal evil is evasion.

With regard to the chosen actions of other, the worst thing they can do is to initiate force against us. Therefore, the greatest social evil is the initiation of force.

Those are facts and Objectivists use the term "evil" to identify those facts.

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Jeri Story - quoting from the Ayn Rand Lexicon: "Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil."
Rand states here that reason is the basic means of survival. Looking at this in the correct evolutionary light this is saying that survival is at the base of reason. i.e. it is the basic axiom of reason.

That may seem obvious but is, I believe, worth spelling out.

Jedymastyr: "Objectivism says that the moral is the practical. Morality vs. practicality is a false dichotomy. Particular actions (based on decisions to act) are right or wrong, good or bad. The good is moral and practical, the bad is immoral and impractical."

The good is moral. What is moral should be practical. What is Practical should be rational. What is rational promotes your survival. What makes you is your ability to consciously choose.

In circumstances where the ability to choose has been all but supressed; it is possible, as a result of due reason, to die/suffer for that abilities resurrection because it equates to you.

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Are there evils not based on evasion?  I thought Ayn Rand's view was that evasion is the root of all evil.

That is not Ayn Rand's view.

There are some self-destructive actions that Ayn Rand considered vices which are not evasion per se nor based on evasion.

[From Ayn Rand's notes for Galt's Speech, Journals of Ayn Rand, P. 649]

"The vices of the Life Morality: non-thinking—which means the evasion of knowledge, the placing of anything whatever above your own mind, any form of mysticism, of faith, or denial of reality; dependence—the placing of others above yourself in any manner whatever, either as authority or as love; aimlessness—the non-integrated life; pain—the submission to it or acceptance of it; humility—the acceptance of one's moral imperfection, the willingness to be imperfect, which means: the indifference to moral values and to yourself, i.e., self-abnegation; the initiation of force—as the destruction of the mind, as the method contrary to man's form of survival, as the anti-man and anti-life."

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Betsy: the issue is not self-destruction per se. If a building falls down onto a road, then the drivers in the cars under it will be destroyed--but this will not be to their moral blame.

Evil is when someone chooses to destroy himself. Your contention seems to be that some cases of deliberate self-destruction are not chosen, or that some cases of choosing self-destruction are not irrational, or ... ? It is not clear to me what, exactly, this could mean.

Everything you cited (non-thinking, dependence, aimlessness, pain-seeking, and force) stems from the choice to not know, to evade. Rationality is the cardinal virtue, from which the other virtues derive. In fact, the items on that list look alot like the opposites of the cardinal virtues, i.e. the cardinal vices.

I think you sell Objectivism short, if you claim that thinking, independence, purpose, value-seeking, and the trader principle *don't* stem from the exercise of reason, or else that if one is commited to reason, that it does not necessarily mean that one doesn't have such vices.

Incidentally, this is a huge error in the Kelley/Libertarian group. Consistent adherence to reason leads one to virtue and success; inconsistency leads to failure. The root of their issue, from what I can tell, is their attempt to uphold 89% or 92.1% or 99% of Objectivism as good, and reject the premises they don't feel like. Many of them have adopted a posture of condemning Ayn Rand the person, looking for her feet of clay, etc. The ultimate expression of this comes, I think, from N. Branden who claims that Rand was a neurotic destroyer who somehow had all these good ideas. Of course, the flip side is that patently destructive ideas are not evil, and actions are divorced from ideas.

Their view ultimately divorces one's method of cognition not only from morality, but from the expected results. Your idea that there are "vices" which are practiced by people who are perfectly rational seems to be an extension of this same idea.

What the heck does "vice" mean, if not the opposite of a "virtue"? If the virtues come from the practice of rationality, then what the heck causes vices, if not the opposite of rationality, i.e. evasion?

I am not the sort who cites chapter and verse, but I am pretty damned sure that Ayn Rand said evasion was the root of all evil. In any case, the debate does not hinge on finding this particular quote.

Charles: what's my view? To be a man means to be capable of reason, and that all of one's actions are consciously directed. If one chooses otherwise, if one wishes to *not know* something--either because one's emotions oppose a particular fact, or because one has generally turned off "active reasoning" mode and entered "drifting" mode by default--that is evasion, and that is the root of all evil.

Evil is no mere mistake, and the word "vice" does not need to exist to denote simply "big mistake".

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Capitalism Forever: Why do some people insist upon avoiding the term?

I suggest that you read the rest of my quote. The point is that Objectivist morality is standard-based (ie: It is a set of, not rules or commandments, but guidelines to attain a value). This is unlike religious morality which is a set of arbitrary and mostly counter-productive rules to be OBEYED, PERIOD.

Objectivist morality is standards to follow IF you want a certain outcome. An example is say I have a high-performance car that requires Premium fuel. If at the gas station I decide that I will use Regular fuel because it is cheaper, I dont think that being told my choice is "EVIL" would convey the same message as if I were told "Hey, it may be cheaper in the short term, but that choice will hurt you in the long-run. It is not a practical standard." Using "EVIL" seems to say dont do this or you will be evil. The reason I dont want to use Regular fuel is not because I dont want to be an evil person, it is because I dont want to ruin my car. means to an end.

My point is that by using a guilt-weighted term such as "EVIL", we are making morality an end in itself. It is not. Morality is a means to an end.

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Evil is when someone chooses to destroy himself.  Your contention seems to be that some cases of deliberate self-destruction are not chosen, or that some cases of choosing self-destruction are not irrational, or ... ?  It is not clear to me what, exactly, this could mean.

:confused:

It's not clear to me what this has to do with anything I said.

Let's see if I can clarify what I actually said, if not for you, at least for others trying to follow this discussion.

My point, and the point of the Ayn Rand quotation I cited, is that evasion is only one type of bad thing a person can do to himself. Those bad things are different in kind. Some are deliberate and some are not. Some are more serious than others. Some have more undesirable consequences. Some are more easily correctable than others.

Everything you cited (non-thinking, dependence, aimlessness, pain-seeking, and force) stems from the choice to not know, to evade.
In fact, they don't which is why Ayn Rand distinguished evasion from the other vices. Evasion is a specific vice: the deliberate act of refusing to look at reality and the decision to ignore the knowledge one has. There is no such thing as accidentally evading or evading by default.

Dependence, on the other hand, is a sin of omission rather than commission. We all start out life dependent on others for everything. Someone who stays that way has failed to do something.

Rationality is the cardinal virtue, from which the other virtues derive.

It is not as if someone decides "I'm going to be rational" and the virtues "derive" from that. It is more accurately the case that if a man is pursuing values (purposeful), working to achieve a good moral character (proud), interacting properly with other men (independent, just), acting in accordance with his ideals (having integrity), etc. this all adds up to having a life in accordance with his nature and reality -- rationality. Thus virtues --> rationality, not rationality --> virtues.

I think you sell Objectivism short, if you claim that thinking, independence, purpose, value-seeking, and the trader principle *don't* stem from the exercise of reason
They don't "stem from the exercise of reason." They ARE the exercise of reason.

or else that if one is commited to reason, that it does not necessarily mean that one doesn't have such vices.

It is not commitment to reason which is important. The essential is BEING rational.

Incidentally, this is a huge error in the Kelley/Libertarian group.  Consistent adherence to reason leads one to virtue and success; inconsistency leads to failure.  The root of their issue, from what I can tell, is their attempt to uphold 89% or 92.1% or 99% of Objectivism as good, and reject the premises they don't feel like.  Many of them have adopted a posture of condemning Ayn Rand the person, looking for her feet of clay, etc.  The ultimate expression of this comes, I think, from N. Branden who claims that Rand was a neurotic destroyer who somehow had all these good ideas.  Of course, the flip side is that patently destructive ideas are not evil, and actions are divorced from ideas.

Their view ultimately divorces one's method of cognition not only from morality, but from the expected results. Your idea that there are "vices" which are practiced by people who are perfectly rational seems to be an extension of this same idea.

"MY" idea "that there are "vices" which are practiced by people who are perfectly rational"? WHERE did I ever say anything like THAT???

I don't like the Kelleyite approach either and the Kelleyite's consider me their worst nightmare, but let's drop the off-topic rants and get back to the subject.

We were discussing your view that all vices are forms of evasion and mine that there are some self-destructive actions that Ayn Rand considered vices which are not evasion per se nor based on evasion.

What the heck does "vice" mean, if not the opposite of a "virtue"?  If the virtues come from the practice of rationality, then what the heck causes vices, if not the opposite of rationality, i.e. evasion?

For one thing, as Ayn Rand uses the term, evasion is NOT "the opposite of rationality." It is a specific way of failing to be rational. Evasion is a deliberate and conscious effort not to know reality. It is not at all the same as their other items on Ayn Rand's vice list like aimlessness and dependence.

I am not the sort who cites chapter and verse, but I am pretty damned sure that Ayn Rand said evasion was the root of all evil.  In any case, the debate does not hinge on finding this particular quote.

Good, because you won't find it.

Ayn Rand didn't say evasion was the root of all evil. Evasion is a specific TYPE of evil -- and the MOST evil. It is not a one-size-fits all floating abstraction for "something bad" or "something irrational" or "something done by somebody I don't like."

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I am not the sort who cites chapter and verse,

Citing chapter and verse does have some advantage in that it gives one the opportunity to check the facts against what one holds in one's mind. Objectivism is not an approximate philosophy for which one can form hazy concepts of its principles.

but I am pretty damned sure that Ayn Rand said evasion was the root of all evil.
Actually, evasion is not a psychological fundamental; underlying evasion is the more fundamental acceptance of emotion as a primary, and it is this, not evasion, which is the ethical source of evil.

Also, "evil" is not some concept floating in the ether; it is contextual and has differing connotations depending upon one's focus. Ayn Rand used the notion of the root of all evil several different ways, depending on context. For instance, when speaking about the thesis of The Fountainhead she referred to altruism as the "source of all evil."

In any case, the debate does not hinge on finding this particular quote.

If not the "debate," then at least one's understanding might hinge upon just that.

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I am interested by the dialogue between Bearster and the Speichers;

"underlying evasion is the more fundamental acceptance of emotion as a primary, and it is this, not evasion, which is the ethical source of evil." Steven Speicher

If a correct moral choice is refuted having been seen by your mind through reason, i.e. if it is consciously chosen against, is a form of evasion. The other form being described in this dialogue is that of not even reaching the stage of rational judgement and pursuit of choice through lack of effort, i.e. apathy.

That which clouds the mind to choice; to the pursuit of choice, is emotion. I would hence say emotion is the fuel behind evil as Steven does; HOWEVER - as government is a necessary evil (a thing that must exist, albeit it the smallest possible and theoretical level for the upholding of universal law and protection of freedoms) so emotions are our necessary evil - they form our drive - and are mouldable and can been controlled and directed to enforce the positive aspects of ourselves such as the ability to reason.

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I would hence say emotion is the fuel behind evil as Steven does; HOWEVER - as government is a necessary evil (a thing that must exist, albeit it the smallest possible and theoretical level for the upholding of universal law and protection of freedoms) so emotions are our necessary evil - they form our drive - and are mouldable and can been controlled and directed to enforce the positive aspects of ourselves such as the ability to reason.

I would say that government can be a positive good... and emotions are amoral as such. As a side note it's not evil if what it does it protect my individual rights, but this is more appropriate for another topic. Emotions are instantaneous value-judgements in response to sense perceptions. Which is why Steven said "underlying evasion is the more fundamental acceptance of emotion as a primary" (emphasis added). What he said was that what underlies evasion is taking emotions as your means of knowledge, as opposed to reason. I feel bad when someone gets hurt, therefore I must use government to prevent them from getting hurt. The emotion itself is not bad or evil, its a product of your values. What is wrong is to act solely based on emotion, which gives you no information other than what you feel about something.

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... as government is a necessary evil (a thing that must exist, albeit it the smallest possible and theoretical level for the upholding of universal law and protection of freedoms) so emotions are our necessary evil - they form our drive - and are mouldable and can been controlled and directed to enforce the positive aspects of ourselves such as the ability to reason.

Charles, I agree that that the value of government is in the protection of our individual rights, and I agree with the role of emotions as forming the very basis for our capacity of happiness, but I would not label either one (government or emotions) as a "necessary evil." There is nothing inherently evil there, only in the misuse.

As to this issue of evasion: There is really nothing controversial in Objectivism about this. The ideas I expressed are sprinkled throughout Ayn Rand's earlier articles, and brought together in Peikoff's OPAR. See his chapter on "Reason" for a very nice discussion.

The only problem lies with some who have a "Church Lady" sort of mentality towards Objectivism. They read some parts of the Objectivist corpus, once, and walk away with a few key words which then forms a shell of Objectivism covering their own subjectivity. In their minds they become important because they appear to value, say, rationality, just like Ayn Rand did. It is not actually practicing rationality that is important, but rather acquiring 'rationality' as a defense value. That is why this "Church Lady" mentality is so often seen using Objectivist 'values' as a weapon to club others who do not 'belong' to Objectivism.

Objectivism is a philosophy for living life, not a tool for pseudo-self-esteem derived from accepting its value without real understanding.

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"I would say that government can be a positive good... and emotions are amoral as such. As a side note it's not evil if what it does it protect my individual rights, but this is more appropriate for another topic."
Emotions are not inherently evil, neither is government - both are necessary to some extent - BUT as emotions should never take control of you, government should never take control of society.

I think this better explains my thinking.

As emotions, through conscious habit, can be directed towards more creative/positive efforts, government can be directed to the areas it is needed, by the more rational members of society.

"The emotion itself is not bad or evil, its a product of your values." 

I concur. Where emotions become an end in themselves your value system becomes evasive. To do so is to fail to reckon the nature of emotions.

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Where emotions become an end in themselves your value system becomes evasive. To do so is to fail to reckon the nature of emotions.

Often, it's the other way around: evasion causes emotionalism. Evasion is a particular deliberate, choice to avoid knowledge of reality. Someone who characteristically avoids reality will have nothing else to go on besides his emotions which will motivate him toward values unrelated to reality.

Nonetheless, I regard HAVING emotions and properly using emotions as a positive good and necessary to living a rational and successful life.

Emotions serve two important pro-life functions:

1) As a warning system. The emotion of fear signals us that something may be threatening our values. Guilt warns us that we have or might act in contradiction to our values. Pain tell us that we have or might lose a value.

2) As a reward and motivation. Pleasure and happiness are the emotions that accompany the achievement of our values. The experience of pleasure rewards our virtues and motivates us to continue being virtuous.

Emotions feed us instant evaluations faster than we can think the matter through and sometimes that can literally save our lives. It motivates us to get out of the way of a truck speeding toward us faster than we can compute its trajectory.

But emotions are automatic and associational and only as good as the values we accept that they express. That's why a person should know how to introspect and evaluate his own emotions and why he should choose his values consciously and carefully.

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But emotions are automatic and associational and only as good as the values we accept that they express. That's why a person should know how to introspect and evaluate his own emotions and why he should choose his values consciously and carefully.

I think we agree on this.

Would you not agree that habit frames our emotional responses; and that it is putting our reason into action and actually -living- in a rational way that can change what we experience as pleasure and pain.

I.e. Not only the choosing but the conscious enactment of your values that builds an emotional base for correct judgements. One might say; Conscientiously programming a correct conscience.

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Therefore, the greatest personal evil is evasion.
Let's see if I can clarify what I actually said, if not for you, at least for others trying to follow this discussion.

My point, and the point of the Ayn Rand quotation I cited, is that evasion is only one type of bad thing a person can do to himself.

With all due respect, it does not add "clarity" to backpedal. In the first instance, you used the word "evil" (it was the topic of the thread which you were answering). In the second instance, you've changed the context to "bad thing".

It is not controversial that Objectivism differentiates between evasion and honest error, even in cases when the latter causes personal harm, notwithstanding the old "Church Lady" slur (ha ha, wink wink, nudge nudge, we all know who *THAT* is supposed to be).

Citing chapter and verse does have some advantage in that it gives one the opportunity to check the facts
In my direct observation, now that you mention it, cites are more often used for context-switching or appeal to authority. In the case of the quote from Betsy, for example, the Ayn Rand quote did *NOT* prove her premise, i.e. that Rand said there are other kinds of evil that are not caused by evasion.

Actually, evasion is not a psychological fundamental

Right, but then, the issue was moral not psychological. [i will spare you the quote about psychologizing.]

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Bearster's most recent post is a reply to several different posts by different people and doesn't make clear who said what and in what context. For clarity and accuracy when quoting other posters, especially more than one on a single post, please indicate who is being quoted and the time of the posting. That way readers can go back and check the original context.

In replying now, I will restore the original attributions.

Therefore, the greatest personal evil is evasion.

Let's see if I can clarify what I actually said, if not for you, at least for others trying to follow this discussion.

My point, and the point of the Ayn Rand quotation I cited, is that evasion is only one type of bad thing a person can do to himself. 

With all due respect, it does not add "clarity" to backpedal.  In the first instance, you used the word "evil" (it was the topic of the thread which you were answering).  In the second instance, you've changed the context to "bad thing".

"Backpedaling?" "Changed the context?" I am making two different points in two different posts, but both are TRUE and were supported with evidence and reasoning in the original posts. If someone disagrees with my evidence, reasoning, or conclusions it is fine for him to state his own reasons but it is downright silly to say I was "backpedaling" or "changing context" when they were, in fact, different contexts.

It is not controversial that Objectivism differentiates between evasion and honest error, even in cases when the latter causes personal harm,

This was not my point which I will reiterate for those who missed it.

I was not differentiating between evasion and honest error. I was differentiating between evasion and other vices. I was disagreeing with Bearster's contention that all vices are forms of evasion and come from evasion. In the quote I cited, Ayn Rand makes the distinction as she does in many of her other writings.

The distinction is important because many people, inside and outside of Objectivism, hold their moral ideas as floating abstractions -- i.e., as words not tied to reality that do not have any particular meaning except for association with emotional states.

Religionists use "evil" and "sin" that way to apply to any action by other people that arouse negative emotions in the religionist, whether those others are committing mass murder or enjoying sex. Some inside Objectivism use "evil" and "evasion" that way too.

Fortunately for Objectivists, Ayn Rand provided and defined the concepts precisely and we should follow her usage.

I am not the sort who cites chapter and verse,

Citing chapter and verse does have some advantage in that it gives one the opportunity to check the facts

In my direct observation, now that you mention it, cites are more often used for context-switching or appeal to authority. In the case of the quote from Betsy, for example, the Ayn Rand quote did *NOT* prove her premise, i.e. that Rand said there are other kinds of evil that are not caused by evasion.

This is a "guilt by association" ad-hominem followed by an unsupported assertion. Bearster claims that, since other people sometimes use citations to switch context and appeal to authority, citing what Ayn Rand said about evasion and other vices should not be considered when assessing the Objectivist view of evasion and vices. After dismissing my Ayn Rand quote, Bearster asserts, without evidence, that I did not prove my claim.

I have presented what I know to be the Objectivist view on this subject. If anyone disagrees with me, we can discuss it. All I ask is that they define their terms (by genus and differentia) and give reasons for disagreeing with me.

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