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ReasonAlone
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Last week, I walked into class and my teacher asked how I was doing. I said that since happiness is not dependent on external factors, I am doing well. She told me that happiness was indeed dependent on the surroundings, and that the world of Ayn Rand was a fantastical "perfect little world." Over this weekend, I have written a response to her. Please comment and tell me is anything is missing. Thanks.

First, let me thank you for reading this. I understand that you do not have much time to spare, so I will try to be quick. Last week, I mentioned that happiness was not dependant on external factors, and you seemed to disagree with that statement. Due to the lack of time, I was unable to explain my position further and to correct you. Now that I have time, I can explain my position thoroughly and without the pressure of running out of time. But, of course, I can do this only with your permission, which I would be much obliged if you could grant. Now, without wasting any more of our time and my ink, I will begin.

Examining our position further, we see that this is fundamentally a case of free will against determinism. Whether or not you wish to call yourself a determinist is irrelevant because you back a deterministic claim and a deterministic code of morality. But, what is determinism? Determinism is the idea that man is simply a product of his surroundings, that there is no way for man to survive on his own means, and belief in free will is an illusion. If you took the time to examine this position further, you can see that this is neither possible nor acceptable. You cannot believe in the power of the rational mind under a deterministic philosophy. Seeing as you are a teacher, I cannot understand how you could possibly live with such a contradiction. Under a deterministic philosophy, the mind is simply an abstract form, the brain, a useless bloody organ encased in a skull that serves no purpose and has no function other than to assist in the feeling of pleasure and act as an emotional guidance system. In our case, to state that happiness is dependent on external factors is to accept all of these doctrines. By proclaiming such an absurd idea, you have stated that unconditional happiness cannot exist, that happiness is found only in happy places, that the power of the situation is the final decision in whether or not to be happy, and that the mind is of no use compared with the overwhelming power of the immediate surroundings. If these doctrines were true, both of us would still be in caves right now. The decision whether or not to be happy ultimately, scientifically, comes down personal choice. There is no denying the power of the situation, but it is nothing compared to the might of the rational mind. Indeed, happiness resides inside the brain, and is the emotional response to achieving your values, which you have determined by means of reason.

The deterministic mindset also states that the actions an organism takes are dependent on both its surroundings and its past. Since you agree that happiness is dependent on external surroundings and on past actions, you also agree that how you achieve that happiness is based on external surroundings and the past. This is not just unacceptable, it is evil. Under deterministic philosophy, morality cannot exist except in mystical, other-worldly forms. Under determinism, you cannot be moral. I am sure you consider yourself to be a moral person, but your beliefs are a serious contradiction of that. There exists an absolute morality that is not abandoned when the situation calls for change, and is called rational self-interest. As human beings with the faculty of consciousness, rational self-interest is our only means of survival.

We are not plants that survive on default. A plant survives if there is water, carbon-dioxide, and sunlight. They cannot decide whether or not to live or die, they simply are. Plants produce their own food through natural processes. As human beings who do not produce our own food, we must find it through consciousness. I quote from Ayn Rand: “A sensation of hunger will tell him he needs food; however, the sensation of hunger does not tell him how to obtain that food. Sensation does not tell him what food is good for him or poisonous.” Our environment may contain food, but we must use reason to harvest it. The same applies to happiness. There is that which makes us happy, but we must be able to identify what makes us happy in order to achieve a happy state. Environment will always be there. It’s what we do with our environment that determines whether we live or die, be happy or unhappy. That is the nature of absolute morality.

The slaves of the southern United States lived under miserable conditions, yet they were still able to be happy. The slaves examined their surroundings and identified what made them happy. Because the use of force by white people restricted them to the cotton fields, they were required to find happiness in an otherwise unhappy place. Would you be able to be happy under those situations? The same could be applied to Nazi Germany. There were millions and millions of people living in Germany at that time, but only a tiny handful of the population refused to give in to the power of the situation. For some, this meant death. Incidentally, those who fled Germany were among the most rational of them all. That is no coincidence.

Every political system has some foundational philosophy that is used to justify its existence. This country was founded upon the concept of free will, of the inalienable rights of man guaranteed to him by nature. All of your freedoms, all of your civilian rights, come from the philosophy of free-will. Every dictatorship and every socialist country is founded on the philosophy of determinism. It is the same determinism that states that man cannot survive through his own means and that he can never achieve happiness by himself, so he must sacrifice himself to the state and to his fellow human beings in order to survive and be happy. Well, look at the results. Look at the loss of moral values in society. Look at the teen suicide rates. Look at the sales of prescription drugs. Look at the economy. Determinism doesn’t work.

Edited by ReasonAlone
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Last week, I walked into class and my teacher asked how I was doing. I said that since happiness is not dependent on external factors, I am doing well.

(Italics are mine)

This is odd. Why did you have to say this before you said you were doing well? Is this derivative from another conversation you had? This is inappropriate if you are trying advocate explicitly Objectivism. Continued practice will make people see you as a "Randroid" and they will shut out your arguments as an effect. To be clear, although Randroid is used as an insult it is not a term rejected by Objectivists. It is used to denote people who accept the philosophy on faith and regurgitate arguments for it almost word for word.

All in all, I think you're making a mountain out of molehill.

[Edit: Grammar touch up]

Edited by Benpercent
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Thank you for your response. I am writing this letter to my teacher for my own benefit. I wish to live in a rational world where people like her are put in their place. I would not have written this response if she did not bash my ideas the way she did. Also, I have to be taught by this idiot. I have to sit in class and listen to her everyday, so why shouldn't she hear what I have to say? She has been very explicit about stating her views in class, I have the same right. Finally, since this is the PRODUCTION part of this forum, please specify my grammatical errors. Thanks.

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First, the philosophical question. Is happiness dependent on external factors? In a very important sense--doubtless the sense in which your professor intended the question--it is. If happiness is the result of achieving your values, if external factors inhibit your achievement of these values, you might not be happy! This is a fairly commonsense point, one that many people are familiar with. And it does not imply determinism. Free will means the ability to focus your mind or not. Focusing your mind is necessary for the achievement of values, but that does not mean it is sufficient. There are obviously many external forces that can upset a rational person in the pursuit of rational values. A hurricane can destroy your house. A thief can steal your money. A wicked dictator can rob you of your freedom. It's ridiculous to say that slaves in the South were happy in the ordinary sense of the word.

So, that's the sense in which external factors can inhibit your happiness. There is, of course, another, deeper (non-ordinary) sense in which happiness is not so dependent. This is the kind of metaphysical happiness that Roark speaks of, when he says that the "pain only goes down to a certain point." Leonard Peikoff comments on this in OPAR:

Even though rationality does not lead to success automatically, it is more than a necessary condition of happiness. It is also a sufficient condition. Virtue does ensure happiness in a certain sense, just as it ensures practicality.

Consider here a moral man who has not yet reached professional or romantic fulfillment—an Ayn Rand hero, say, like Roark or Galt, at the point when he is alone against the world, barred from his work, destitute. In existential terms, such a man has not "achieved his values"; he is beset by problems and difficulties. Nevertheless, if he is an Ayn Rand hero, he is confident, at peace with himself, serene; he is a happy person <opar_340> even when living through an unhappy period. He does experience deprivation, frustration, pain; but, in Ayn Rand's memorable phrase, it is pain that "goes only down to a certain point,"(16) beneath which are the crucial attributes such a man has built into his soul: reason, purpose, self-esteem.

A man of this kind has "achieved his values"—not his existential values, but the philosophical values that are their precondition. He has achieved not success, but the ability to succeed, the right relationship to reality. The emotional leit-motif of such a person is a unique and enduring form of pleasure: the pleasure that derives from the sheer fact of a man's being alive—if he is a man who feels able to live. We may describe this emotion as "metaphysical pleasure," in contrast to the more specific pleasures of work, friendship, and the rest. Metaphysical pleasure does not erase the pains incident to daily life, but, by providing a positively toned context for them, it does blunt them; in the same manner, it intensifies one's daily pleasures. The immoral man, by contrast, suffers metaphysical pain, i.e., the enduring anxiety, conflict, and self-doubt inherent in being an adversary of reality. This kind of pain intensifies the man's every daily defeat, while turning pleasure for him into a superficiality that "goes only down to a certain point."

Metaphysical pleasure depends only on one's own choices and actions. Virtue, therefore, does ensure happiness—not the full happiness of having achieved one's values in reality, but the premonitory radiance(17) of knowing that such achievement is possible. The one state is represented by Roark at the end of the novel, standing triumphant atop the Wynand Building, looking down at Dominique. The other is Roark at the start and throughout, even when toiling in the granite quarry.

Notice that even this concept of happiness does not count as the "full happiness of having achieved one's values in reality." That kind of happiness is dependent on external factors.

Now, a note on a non-philosophic issue. I agree with Benpercent that there is an air of "Randroidism" in your handling of this issue. One important consideration is the relationship between student and teacher. No matter the teacher's shortcomings, it is not the job of the student to lecture the teacher. Even if the student knows he's right and the teacher is wrong, there's something inappropriate about reversing the relationship. If the teacher--or other students, for that matter--were open to new ideas, this would not be the way to win them over. I say this as a teacher myself. When I'm wrong about something in class, I prefer students to approach me about it politely, in the spirit of common inquiry. Whatever the professor's mistakes, you need to appreciate that she has a lifetime of learning behind her conclusions, and that is something that warrants some deference.

Your letter does display some of the proper deference, which is good, but not consistently. There is much in this letter that personalizes the controversy in an unnecessary way, e.g.: "Seeing as you are a teacher, I cannot understand how you could possibly live with such a contradiction," "[Y]ou also agree that how you achieve that happiness is based on external surroundings and the past. This is not just unacceptable, it is evil," "I am sure you consider yourself to be a moral person, but your beliefs are a serious contradiction of that." I am not speaking here as a moral tolerationist. You can and should judge ideas morally. But in these passages you do not distinguish between the morality of the ideas, and the morality of the person holding them. Even the introduction of the notion that some ideas are evil is also probably not an objective form of communication at this stage of the game. It's important for you to know that determinism is evil, but there's a time and a place to voice it. Communication between a teacher and student in this situation is neither the time nor the place, especially when the morality of the idea vs. the person is ambiguous.

It is of incredible importance that you not view your philosophy classes as a battle with your professor. Perhaps the teacher has attacked your ideas in the past (though students often confuse legitimate critical questions with "attacks"). But then I wonder why the teacher knows so many of your ideas. If it's because you've given monologues about them, then see my point above about the propriety of lecturing to the professor. If it's simply because you've expressed these ideas in papers, that's more appropriate. But even there, I don't see why Objectivist students want to expound so much Objectivism in their papers. It's still often not appropriate, given the assignment the teacher has given. The teacher doesn't want to hear what Objectivism has to say about a particular topic. She wants to hear about what *you* think. Since you agree with Objectivism, it may be difficult to separate the two in your mind. But you should certainly at least try to express the ideas in your own words, rather than quoting Ayn Rand (as you do even in this letter). Many people rightfully see this practice as dogmatic. That doesn't mean it really is dogmatic, but they're justified in *seeing* it that way. It is hard for people to believe that an undergraduate college student has the answers to century's old philosophic questions. That's a justifiable belief--even if false--because most undergrads know little about philosophy.

Look, a lot of Objectivists make the mistake you're making. I surely did too much when I was an undergrad. But I wish I hadn't. There are several reasons. First, the issues of propriety and objective communication that I've already listed. Second, I think one learns less about philosophy if one approaches it as a battle. As an undergraduate, for all I knew, Objectivism could have been mistaken on a number of issues. I now think I was right not to think so, but I also now think that I didn't know that at the time. Third, viewing philosophy classes as battles with professors is a great way to lose your motivation to study more philosophy. Psychologically speaking, if philosophy is viewed as a battle rather than as a method of inquiry, why would you want to keep doing it? If you transfer the same attitude to Objectivism itself, you'll give up on Objectivism. A lot of people who begin with this attitude *do* give up on it.

So, a lot of Objectivists make these mistakes, but they're understandable. You value your ideas and you don't understand why others around you don't agree with them. It's natural that you should come into conflict with them if you don't know alternative strategies. So don't feel too bad about this--you've got good company. But I do recommend a different strategy in the end.

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Thank you very much noumenalself. After taking a closer look at my situation I can see that this is probably not the way to pursue my goals. Ayn Rand did not bother with those who did not agree because she knew she was just wasting her time. I have so much respect for Objectivism right now in my life, but I must learn to control my tongue.

Also, can anyone specify grammatical errors?

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Ayn Rand did not bother with those who did not agree because she knew she was just wasting her time.

This is a curious statement. One I find true and not generally true. And it still shows your contempt for those you now would choose NOT to engage with. I find that this is common with people, especially those who now claim the mantle of Objectivism's "rationality," to "look down" upon the people they engage with. You may not mean to do it, but your language is full of it, as nself pointed out.

So the issue is not so much that it would be a waste of your time, it's that if you can't actually engage in a discussion without showing a modicum of respect and benevolence, then it's your issue, not theirs, and you're not ready to have such a discussion. The inability to understand the emotional tone of your language is a sign of immaturity.

Maybe your teacher expressed contempt toward you in some way that was unwarranted; however, given the way you phrase statements here its completely possible that you were the one who started off contemptuously. Obviously you two have tangled before on the issue of Rand, so my suggestion is that you do an honest assessment of the previous interactions and determine your role in making them as acrid as they seem to be. If you can honestly say that your tone and language were in no way hostile, and this person was unprovokedly contempuous, then don't bother with them. If you can't, well then maybe you need to take this whole exchange in a different direction.

Beyond that, I agree with noumenalself.

Oh, and stop worrying about your grammar. It's about 234th on the list of priorities.

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I wish to live in a rational world where people like her are put in their place.

I'm not 100% certain that this statement isn't self-contradictory.

How does one rationally put another "in their place"? Where is any other volitionally rational being's place other than on an equal footing with every other volitionally rational being?

If she chooses to be irrational, and that irrationality doesn't infringe upon your liberty, you have no rational basis to attempt to force her to change, do you?

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Last week, I walked into class and my teacher asked how I was doing. I said that since happiness is not dependent on external factors, I am doing well. She told me that happiness was indeed dependent on the surroundings, and that the world of Ayn Rand was a fantastical "perfect little world."

I've heard this claim before, that "the world of Ayn Rand was a fantastical "perfect little world." "and that people are not as perfect as she claims. At first I found it highly bizzare. Now I think the reason they say it is because they prefer to think of human nature as being inherently flawed. This way, they can feel their own flaws justified.

If you look at Atlas Shrugged, there are good people and bad people. AR defenitely did not think that ALL people are perfect (only that humans have the capacity to be perfect). But people who say the type of "perfect little world" statement sense that this kind of view of human nature and of human potential makes their own self appear in a bad light (because if they have a choice about being better, it means their current flaws are their own fault), and so they allegedly mock AR's "naivete" with an air of intellectual superiority in order to be able to claim to themselves that human nature is weak (or whatever bad thing they want to justify).

BTW, happiness does depend on external factors, like noumenalself has explained.

Don't give up on people altogether though. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a bad person. Sometimes a person's built up knowledge that makes it very hard for them to understand the philosophy correctly. You need to distinguish between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality when judging people.

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Last week, I walked into class and my teacher asked how I was doing. I said that since happiness is not dependent on external factors, I am doing well. She told me that happiness was indeed dependent on the surroundings, and that the world of Ayn Rand was a fantastical "perfect little world." Over this weekend, I have written a response to her. Please comment and tell me is anything is missing. Thanks.

First of all, why are you talking about Ayn Rand in school? I'm not saying you shouldn't, I'm just curious why this would come up (unless you are reading A.S. in one of your classes)?

Second, and this is perhaps my own personal opinion, that letter is not something I would sent to my teacher.

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I'm not sure if you have revised your letter or scrapped the project all together, but if you may still write it then I have a few comments. First, noumenalself's response is very insightful. You should definitely restrain the combative tone in the letter, and focus on providing reasons and arguments independent of Rand's text. Second, though, I wouldn't completely discourage writing some letter if it's done in the spirit of constructive intellectual development. If you regard your professor as a genuine source of knowledge, and are open to her responses and are willing to revise your own beliefs when confronted with her arguments, then it can be a good thing for both of you. Professors often like independent, active thinkers who challenge them--just not students who seek to undermine them.

With that in mind, I think you could write a letter. But as for the content, like others here I agree that happiness is affected by external reality, so I'm not sure about the prospects for your argument.

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I generally agree with most of the other posts. This is not a huge deal, and you won't accomplish much with an angry letter. This is one of those let out this anger by writing such a letter, not by sending it. You need to take a calm and rational approach to this. If you alienate people they are less likely to look into objectivism.

I had a teacher like this, and the best way to deal with it is to be tactful. Get on good terms with your teacher before you start argueing. If she doesn't respect you at all she won't listen to your arguements. Just mention little objectivist snips at the right time, and maybe if she wants you to write a paper, give it an objectivists view on things.

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  • 1 month later...

One time, I was talking with woman, who teaches me my nation language.

It was after she have just read my essay on topic connected sth. with heroism in life. And because she knows that I am writer, she said a lot about technical side of my work; first she was singing my praishe, at moment she turned and accused of wrong, no-modern, line of text.

All the time she was stammering. At the end of her horror, she throw my work on desk and asked :

- Is it a necessity ? Can't You shift your bullshit rights to a middle ? [ I saw, that everything, which she read in my work, hurts her. She fell severe pain because of The Truth. ]

- No, I can't

She was close to bursting into tears, and said :

- Do You want go after secondary school, to prestige [ she called "good" ] high school?

- I want to do good things.

- OK, It is your choice. Go out.

And that was the first time, when I met somebody, who know The Truth, but want to destroy it. Then, I was having a lot of problems in school. Really, a lot of.

And, on the other way, I want to say, that -

Who know, does it.

Who don't know - teaches it.

Who don't know how to teach - rules over

Who can't govern - want to give advice to kings

Sorry about my English :)

Edited by Kira_Mind
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  • 5 months later...

Just a quick word of advice; be careful about what your getting yourself into. A spat with a teacher or boss is typically not a good idea, as much as we love our views... I think that my senior year grades were significantly lower than they should have been because of a well meaning and indeed nice teacher, she was a greeny-feel-goody-help others sort. I have a tendency to argue against and question what is being taught, and so when I argued against global warming or some similar issue I think that my papers was more harshely graded, because my arguments had to be more original (not classroom taught, parroted ideas). Since I wasn't in agreement with the grader or paraphrasing a text book or lesson, my arguments were typically counter-argued in the grading process, and admittedly somewhat less coherent.

Long story short, be certain that the ends justify the means, could this argument only win a pyrrhic victory?

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I'm still trying to grasp the Objectivist concepts of objective reality to their fullest extents, but having gone over this, I'm finding myself conflicted. If indeed there is an "objective reality" (and I believe there is), and if a moral life is one that reflects one's perceptions of, responses and reactions to, this reality, could we really make the claim that happiness is 100% dependent on the individual?

If a human being were to perceive his surroundings and thus be unable to achieve happiness, would that in all cases make this person irrational? Better yet, is there any way a rational human being can perceive his surroundings properly, act morally, and not be happy?

The thing is, I wouldn't find one's unhappiness due to one's external surroundings necessarily causeless knowledge, nor would I necessarily attribute it to a lack of following Objectivist epistemology. After all, is it not unhappiness (discontentment, disapproval, disappointment, etc.) that drives one to react and make decision to better one's life?

What draws me away from agreeing with you on the surface is that I believe there are situations where external factors put people in such distress that there is simply no way for the person to be happy. I cannot unequivocally state that it is even possible for an Objectivist to rationally perceive his external surroundings, and then rationally determine that these surroundings make it impossible for him to be happy, however I can't unequivocally claim otherwise either. I'm simply conflicted.

On the one hand, I see one's unhappiness as a motivator for rational change. On the other hand, I cannot think of any examples of this in Rand's writing, though I can see examples of the contrary in her writing. I look at Atlas Shrugged, particularly when John Galt said he will kill himself if the looters would capture & torture Dagny. He said that this would bring him to such a deep sadness that there would be no reason for him to live - that if she were tortured or killed, he would have no self-interest in remaining alive.

Would the rational human being kill himself before reaching a point where his external surroundings couldn't permit him to be happy in any way possible? And what if he's happy to some extent, but what quantification of happiness can one use to determine if this is enough to continue living or not? If a rational human being is only happy 0.5% of the time he's alive due to how he rationally perceives his environment, is there still justification to the claim that he is "happy"? Or, again, would this not be a possible outcome of an objective, rational lifestyle?

But then this leads me to my knowledge of Objectivist ethics. If one only needs reason, purpose, and self-esteem to live, then does happiness (what we pursue in order to live) require any other motivations or factors?

Edited by Andrew Grathwohl
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  • 1 month later...

My happiness ends the minute someone else exerts force upon me. Therefore, my happiness is dependent on non external interference. The kind of discipline you have proposed here is something I do not have - the discipline to rise above all external influence. If I am being tortured, I am not happy, and my unhappiness is directly caused by my torturer.

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