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Was Ayn Rand an altruist?

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Ok, I think I've got it figured out.

I'm involved in an argument between Ayn Rand and my dictionary!

I think Ayn Rand branded her own definitions of Altruism & Selfishness, not to mention the word Objectivism.

You're half right.

The definition of altruism from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary matches Rand's.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/altruism

"unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others "

Note how it doesn't say "Regard for or devotion to the welfare of others", but throws in the word "unselfish". This means that to be altruistic, it's not enough to be just concerned for the welfare of another person, it has to be "unselfish". So, what's wrong with "selfishly" being concerned for another person?

Now, as to selfishness, she wanted to take the word back. Here is the definition of selfishness from the same dictionary.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/selfish

"concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others."

Note the phrase "without regard for others", and the term “exclusively” for oneself. That is gratuitously tacked on. What about being concerned for self while respecting the rights of others? In fact, I’d say it’s selfishly necessary to respect the rights of others and very often selfish to value certain other people greatly. These terms has been deliberately loaded with jargon to make it seems as if to be for the self is to want to harm or run roughshod over others. Funny how it's the altruists who have done that on massive scales, including things like concentration camps. Altruism is really the dangerous and uncaring moral code, not egoism.

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...

Was she just a pitchman hawking snake oil? Was she a prima dona only trying to pacify her own selfish ego? I like to think that she genuinely thought there was some truth to what she was talking about, not just a slick sales pitch to gratify herself. But that would make her an altruist.

This is a form of insult, an indirect form of insult to Ayn Rand.

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I think [compulsion is] the root of what Rand is really talking about. It isn't really about being selfish or unselfish, which I think are bastardized concepts.
Compulsion doesn't effectively apply to an individual who is choosing (i.e. not compelled) to act selflessly. "Selfish" and "unselfish" are not philosophically inconsequential as you imply.

I'm just not sure how a life philosophy based on selfishness is any less self destructive than a life philosophy based on altruism. Both seem pathological to me. Complete disregard towards others seems just as bad
Lest you inadvertently give someone the wrong idea,
  1. Selfishness doesn't preclude devotion to the welfare of others in instances where it is advantageous to oneself.
  2. Disregarding (i.e. paying no attention to) others precludes initiating force against (i.e. paying attention to) others.

It would be self destructive to refuse to do any thing that had a benefit for another. It would be self destructive to hedonistically regard others as sacrificial means to one's pleasure. Outside of that, selfishness - acting for one's own advantage without regard for others - is benefical. "Selfish" and "unselfish" are bastardized only when self destructive acts are falsely legitimized as being selfish.

I think maybe Rand was indifferent whether her readers gained legitimate benefit from her work.
That's the opposite of the dictionary definition of altruism. Disregard for the welfare of others is not altruism.

I do think that Rand was devoting herself to the welfare of her readers
She gained financial and egoistical benefit from her writings. That's the opposite of the dictionary definition of altruism. Selfish regard for the welfare of others is not altruism.

I'm involved in an argument between Ayn Rand and my dictionary!
By your own dictionary, there's no way Rand could be considered an altruist.
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I have no idea how you divined that. Please note how Ayn Rand says specifically that "it is not self-sacrifice".

No. You've got everything twisted around.

The central theme of Ayn Rand's philosophy is the discovery and definition of value and an objective morality which entails the rejection of the invalid concept of a "greater good", there is no such thing. The ultimate value is your own life. Part of living your own life is deciding what you are willing to live for and what you are not willing to live without.

Hi Marc. I definitely feel twisted around. But like I said, I think I'm confused about the definitions of things. If I can't use the dictionary, where do I go? I don't feel that Rand's writing has the authority or responsibility to act as a dictionary. She's simply not in the dictionary business.

I agree that life is the ultimate value. But, Ayn Rand says specifically that

It is not self-sacrifice to die
I'll concede that I'm not married and that's probably where this gets confusing for me.

Thanks for the help, Marc, and everyone else. I'll try to reply more as I get time.

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hunterrose & Thales, I read your replies and they are good replies to which I'd like to respond. But, I want to try to clear something up before I go further.

I'm done with the word selfish entirely. From here forward, it's a swear word to me. I'm going to go through all of my Rand books with white out tape and write RSI (Rational Self Interest) in it's place. I think Rand's meaning is maintained, in fact I think she uses RSI interchangeably sometimes. So, (irrational) selfishness is dead to me in all forms.

Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.

I'd like to encourage anyone else who reads this to join to using the term RSI as well. If I encounter the swear word on this forum, I'll replace it in my mind with RSI. If I respond to quotes, I'm going to replace the swear word with RSI if I see it. I'm very serious about this because I know the swear word will never be accepted as a good word beyond Objectivists and there's rational need to fight it. We are writers, we are creative, there are other rational options to express the concept. There's no need to cling to a dead word any more than to a dead child.

Ayn Rand tried the nearly impossible task of returning the concept of self to what it used to mean for the ancient Greeks with but a few amendments added based on John Locke's individualism. But the bulk of the world by then had accepted the Hobbesian idea and used "selfish" to mean self-indulgent, ruled recklessly by one's feelings or emotions
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You're half right.

The definition of altruism from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary matches Rand's.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/altruism

"unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others "

Note how it doesn't say "Regard for or devotion to the welfare of others", but throws in the word "unselfish". This means that to be altruistic, it's not enough to be just concerned for the welfare of another person, it has to be "unselfish". So, what's wrong with "selfishly" being concerned for another person?

I'm going to break down the word altruism into it's components based on the given definition.

1.a.unselfish regard for the welfare of others

1.b. devotion to the welfare of others

Now I'm going to change 1.a. with an inline replacement with a synonym of unselfish.

unselfish : not selfish : generous

1.a.generous regard for the welfare of others

1.b. devotion to the welfare of others

Ok, now the question becomes, is it ever rational to be generous or devoted to the welfare of others? Did Rand ever have a generous regard for the welfare of others? Did Rand ever have a devotion to the welfare of others?

My answer is yes, if you are talking about her husband. I'm still undecided to what degree she valued her followers of Objectivism. This is a tough question.

So, what's wrong with RSI towards another person? Nothing. I think it's rational, as well as altruistic by my breakdown of the definition. Trust me, altruism will be the next swear word on my list. I've just got to come up with a replacement, which I haven't quite figured out the perfect word or phrase yet. But Rand's concept of altruism really means coerced charity as my preliminary phrase choice.

hunterrose, I think we are simply knotted up in definitions after reading your post again. I'll let you respond with a fresh slate if you care to take into consideration the work that I've done to this point in these last posts.

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Why is the word "selfish" such a problem to you? Even Rand's explanation of selfishness fits the dictionary definition. Selfishness is good even by the dictionary definition, many people think it's a bad thing because they assume it MUST mean you are acting deceptive. Many people add unnecessary meaning to a word. The only "good" thing about a person who is "irrationally selfish" is their selfishness. Their lack of reason is what makes them bad, not their selfishness.

If you act with rational self-interest, that is being selfish. If you were unselfish, you would not act with rational self-interest. Therefore nothing is altruistic about rational self-interest. Rational self-interest is CANNOT be unselfish, even by the dictionary. It is selfishness. If you hold yourself to be the most important value, you are being selfish. It's putting your own interests first. You may care about another person, but that does not mean you are unselfish.

Edited by Eiuol
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You need to slow down and start thinking about the issue and read more Rand. Don't attempt to rewrite the dictionary or you will arrive at conundrums like this:

So, what's wrong with RSI towards another person? Nothing. I think it's rational, as well as altruistic by my breakdown of the definition.

You have equated rational self-interest with altruism!!!!!!!! They are polar opposites!!!!!!! STOP!!!!!!!

You need single words to represent concepts so learn these two easy words which obviously are opposites: selfishness and selflessness or selfish and selfless.

Selfish means relating to yourself. Selfless means not relating to yourself, relating to others.

In the moral sense selfishness is the idea that you should be the beneficiary of your actions.

Selflessness or Altruism (which literally means: "other"ism) says that others should be the beneficiary of your actions.

Now you just need to discover what being selfish entails. Which actions benefit you most over the course of your whole life? How do you know? It is a hard task discovering the answer and proving it to yourself. It is going to require reading and study and observation and integration of everything you know. The answer is that acting rationally is what your self-interest entails. Now prove it to yourself. Read Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" is a good place to start. How old are you?

Did Rand ever have a generous regard for the welfare of others?

Yes, but only in a selfish way, only if the welfare of the other person benefited herself, only if the other person was of value to her. Her husband was a great value to her, she would have done almost anything for him. Again, read "Atlas Shrugged" this idea is covered there.

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I'm going to break down the word altruism into it's components based on the given definition.

1.a.unselfish regard for the welfare of others

1.b. devotion to the welfare of others

Now I'm going to change 1.a. with an inline replacement with a synonym of unselfish.

unselfish : not selfish : generous

1.a.generous regard for the welfare of others

1.b. devotion to the welfare of others

Ok, now the question becomes, is it ever rational to be generous or devoted to the welfare of others? Did Rand ever have a generous regard for the welfare of others? Did Rand ever have a devotion to the welfare of others?

I think you need to read Ayn Rand's essay on ethics. It’s in The Virtue of Selfishness. Read it, because by so doing you will see that it is grounded in man's nature.

Rand's view here is revolutionary, because she identifies egoism as good and she establishes it quite thoroughly. You have to re-think all of your thinking on this matter.

My answer is yes, if you are talking about her husband. I'm still undecided to what degree she valued her followers of Objectivism. This is a tough question.

A rational egoist lives as a valuer. This means that he pursues things that make his life better, physically or spiritually. People, other people, are often a massive value to a person. All of the good things in life come from the pursuit of values (which are things that further or sustain your life).

So, what's wrong with RSI towards another person? Nothing. I think it's rational, as well as altruistic by my breakdown of the definition. Trust me, altruism will be the next swear word on my list. I've just got to come up with a replacement, which I haven't quite figured out the perfect word or phrase yet. But Rand's concept of altruism really means coerced charity as my preliminary phrase choice.

No, altruism does mean to sacrifice the self. That is essential to its meaning. If you want to get really specific, you can look at a philosopher who was thoroughly that way, Immanuel Kant.

"coerced charity" is the political result of altruism, but altruism is wrong as such. Self-denial is not moral.

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I'm going to break down the word altruism into it's components based on the given definition.

1.a.unselfish regard for the welfare of others

1.b. devotion to the welfare of others

First of all, this breakup is probably inappropriate. I believe the word "unselfish" was meant to apply to both "regard" AND "devotion".

Now I'm going to change 1.a. with an inline replacement with a synonym of unselfish.

unselfish : not selfish : generous

1.a.generous regard for the welfare of others

1.b. devotion to the welfare of others

Normally I'm very lenient, but this is just absurd. You're playing a semantic game here, and it rings false. A synonym does not always signify the same thing. It depends on context. For example, "affection" is a given synonym for "love" but to love a thing and to have affection for it are different. You can love a cool spring breeze. You cannot have affection for a cool spring breeze.

"Without concern for oneself" is the essence of unselfishness. It is not the essence of generosity. Generosity has more of a connotation with abundance. One can give generously, even while making sure one doesn't give too much.

Edited by musenji
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I appreciate all of the responses. I do need to slow down, Marc makes a good point. I make several claims and then make further claims going further. I realize I'm going too fast. So, let me get everyone aboard with one singular premise.

Rand's definition of selfishness is opposite of the publicly accepted definition of selfishness.

Go ask anyone who is not an Objectivist. Ask them is selfishness good or is selfishness evil. Ask them if selfishness is rational or if selfishness is irrational. Ask them if selfishness is caring for the ones one loves, or is it just the opposite. The dictionary says that selfishness means disregard towards others. I can't work with that kind of definition. I can't change that definition. I'll never tell anyone that I am selfish because it means that I'm evil, irrational, uncaring. That's quite the opposite of what I am and claim to be.

We can't even touch the definition of altruism because it's defined in terms of selfishness. Ben has correctly pointed that out to me. I think that unselfishness does apply to both parts of that definition. But I've got to toss altruism out the window for the same reason as throwing selfishness out the window.

As I told you above: "The popular definitions of these are instruments of philosophical war, crafted to destroy the real meaning behind them. Your confusion demonstrates but one casualty."
If this is true, then they've poisoned the water. There is no antidote. We must drink from a different source. They can play semantic games, but the Objectivist concepts remain intact. Objectivism simply needs some slight semantic translation to remain coherent in terms of common use of the English language. Edited by slacker00
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If this is true, then they've poisoned the water. There is no antidote. We must drink from a different source. They can play semantic games, but the Objectivist concepts remain intact. Objectivism simply needs some slight semantic translation to remain coherent in terms of common use of the English language.

By that logic, whe should abandon

"capitalism" because its used to mean everything ranging from corporate welfare, mercantillism, protectionism etc.

"freedom of speech" because it is used to mean "the right to say anything anywhere with no regard of property rights or physical threats"

"cencorship" because it is used to mean a private organization not allowing someone to use them as a mouthpiece

"monopoly" because it is used to mean a succesfull business being so good that no competitors have an incentive to enter the market

etc. etc.

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By that logic, whe should abandon

"capitalism" because its used to mean everything ranging from corporate welfare, mercantillism, protectionism etc.

"freedom of speech" because it is used to mean "the right to say anything anywhere with no regard of property rights or physical threats"

"cencorship" because it is used to mean a private organization not allowing someone to use them as a mouthpiece

"monopoly" because it is used to mean a succesfull business being so good that no competitors have an incentive to enter the market

etc. etc.

I disagree entirely!

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

capitalism

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

I see no conflict here.

Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government—and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. A “right” does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort. Private citizens cannot use physical force or coercion; they cannot censor or suppress anyone’s views or publications. Only the government can do so. And censorship is a concept that pertains only to governmental action.

free speech

: speech that is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ; also : the right to such speech <an unconstitutional restraint on free speech — National Law Journal>

To my best understanding, Rand supports the U.S. constitution. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't speak to the finer points which she may be addressing in her definition. But I think there is no conflict here. I'll skip the concept of censorship because I think it's covered under free speech.

monopoly

1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action

2 : exclusive possession or control

3 : a commodity controlled by one party

4 : one that has a monopoly

This should be self explanatory. No problem here. But here is what Rand had to say:

A “coercive monopoly” is a business concern that can set its prices and production policies independent of the market, with immunity from competition, from the law of supply and demand. An economy dominated by such monopolies would be rigid and stagnant.

The necessary precondition of a coercive monopoly is closed entry—the barring of all competing producers from a given field. This can be accomplished only by an act of government intervention, in the form of special regulations, subsidies, or franchises. Without government assistance, it is impossible for a would-be monopolist to set and maintain his prices and production policies independent of the rest of the economy. For if he attempted to set his prices and production at a level that would yield profits to new entrants significantly above those available in other fields, competitors would be sure to invade his industry.

Edited by slacker00
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A thought- provoking,well reasoned thread,from all parties.

I too, have wondered if anyone ever - michievously- asked Ayn Rand about the potential altruism in publishing her books and essays for the benefit of others, and what she would have said.

Two answers spring to mind. One is the producer/trader principle that we know so well in her writing on Capitalism; value put out, for value received. [ Very simply, one uses one's best skill and mind to earn a living]. The beneficiaries , as with say, a business man providing employment for 100's , are of secondary,or tertiary concern, to that producer.

Second, whether one is a scientist, a philosopher, or an artist , one's greatest quest is Truth. The tiny number of individuals we owe a debt to for what our lives are today and will be tomorrow, did not work,slave,suffer for those unborn generations.

They did it for themselves,for their hunger for truth. Surely Rand's deepest driving force came from this??

Ayn Rand put it in perspective with the words :" I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism,but of egoism;and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism,but of reason ".

And the purpose of reason? To discover Reality , ie the Truth.

BTW, this quote ( which was new to me, until someone posted it here on O.O.) has a secondary value inherent in it: it displays Rand's hierarchical thinking. Something I think not emphasised enough amongst her admirers.

Some concepts are more important than others, this value or virtue has higher worth than that one.

AND they all interlock , seamlessly, with the one above or below them.

Which is how I came to understand ' selfishness '. Ayn Rand overturned all previous modes of thought. The pyramid which started with God at the top, others - the tribe, society, the Planet - next, and guess who? at the very bottom, was changed forever by that simple word 'egoism',as she honoured it.

Then one is free to go and construct one's own pyramid,with one's own rational values , of who occupies high position, and who slightly lower position, but with one's Self firmly at the top.

Non- Objectivists constantly get stuck on the virtue of selfishness,till one feels like saying to them " Get past it, see the bigger picture ! This is just a step towards something greater- individualism, independence of mind, and freedom !"

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Thanks Tony,

I'm still bogged down in definitions. If I may set aside the words: selfish, unselfish, altruism and the variants let me try to phrase my question differently.

Was Ayn Rand a producer? Yes.

What did Ayn Rand produce? Objectivism.

Why? The answer lies within the explanation of Objectivism.

Did she answer questions about Objectivism? Yes.

Why? This is the million dollar question, I think.

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Did she answer questions about Objectivism? Yes.

Why? This is the million dollar question, I think.

Strictly speaking she did not answer questions about Objectivism. More accurately, she ask and answered some broad questions about reality, and she called her answers "Objectivism".

As for why did she asked and answer those questions, why would that be a million dollar question? For instance, why are you asking the questions?

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'roo , I personally think that you are on the right track.

My advice is not to just swallow everything you read as Gospel , until you've fully digested it. ( What the hell am I talking about..... digest, then swallow !? )

Anyway, I know what I mean. :D

Not everyone is comfortable about the word/concept of 'selfish' at first.

I did the same as you by replacing it with 'rational self interest' for a long time- in my debates with others, and for my own internal debates. Now I can live with just 'selfish'.

You have obviously recognised that words are the beginning of concepts, and must be defined accurately.

So go back to that earlier,archaic, definition that I posted of - 'concern with oneself'. No more, no less.

Then take note of the Latin root of altruism- 'alter' = other.

These definitions,' The Virtue of Selfishness,' and your own mind, are all you need to move ahead.

Oh yes, and THROW AWAY THOSE DAMNED DICTIONARIES !!! :P

Tony

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Strictly speaking she did not answer questions about Objectivism. More accurately, she ask and answered some broad questions about reality, and she called her answers "Objectivism".

As for why did she asked and answer those questions, why would that be a million dollar question? For instance, why are you asking the questions?

Well, it's the million dollar question, because that's what I think I meant when I asked my thread starter question.

She did answer questions about Objectivism. That's how the philosophy books started getting written. People wanted to know more about Ayn Rand's philosophy, after Atlas Shrugged became a best seller. So, her being a writer, saw the potential and wrote books. But I still wonder, why?

There's no denying that she's had a big impact on many people's lives, not to mention culture in general.

But was this her design? Did she hope to change culture? Did she want to have a following of Objectivism? Or did the Objectivism stage of Ayn Rand's life happen like a whirlwind?

I ask because I always thought that she imagined some real life utopia and that was her driving focus for Objectivism. Now I'm starting to think that I must've heard this idea from the wrong kind of so called Objectivists or whatever. It was so long ago, I haven't a clue where I might have picked up this concept. Just the concept of utopia is a socialist concept, I think. So, I was just curious that despite her being such an anti-socialist movement, were there still elements of socialism which she couldn't reject? This is a separate idea that I might get to some day.

Anyway, I don't really expect any answers. These are rhetorical questions for myself. I know I'm stuck in a lot of socialist type mindsets, which seems inevitable after 17 years of public education when I add up k-12 & 4 years of university. Add on corporate life where everyone else has also had this 17+ years of socialist indoctrination. I don't even know where I'd meet anyone anymore that's halfway intelligent that hasn't had socialism seeped deep into their soul.

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Oh yes, and THROW AWAY THOSE DAMNED DICTIONARIES !!! :D

Tony

I think I'm going to write Merriam-Webster and ask them about how they come up with their definition for selfish.

I've done some informal polling on my other message boards and it seems that people actually do think of selfish the way Rand defines it. Granted, I am polling people that aren't liberal/socialists. But even so, I thought that among random conservatives, which many are religious, there would be more of a 50/50 split. But it's more like 9 to 1 in favor of selfish being rational. I also consider that I designed my polling method very badly. It has still changed my opinion, to a degree.

Edited by slacker00
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Why? This is the million dollar question, I think.

This is conjecture on her psychology, but based on the examples of artists in her fiction, I would suggest it is probable that she sought that certain recognition that only a certain audience can provide. Roark being the perfect audience for Mallory, etc. Finding an absence of the sort of audience she wanted, she attempted to create them by providing the cognitive tools necessary to be a passionate valuer.

ps If I am right, do I get a million dollars?

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I ask because I always thought that she imagined some real life utopia and that was her driving focus for Objectivism.... Just the concept of utopia is a socialist concept, I think. So, I was just curious that despite her being such an anti-socialist movement, were there still elements of socialism which she couldn't reject? This is a separate idea that I might get to some day.
?????

I see neither socialism nor altruism in what Rand did.

You may be creating a bigger problem in trying to eliminate "selfish", "altruism", and other debatable philosophical terms.

In Objectivist terms, selfishness is good and altruism is evil.

What you're doing, though probably unintentional, is blurring the moral line between selfishness rational self interest and altruism coerced charity. You creating a system where Rand can be "selfish yet rationally altruistic" and be a capitalist with unavoidable elements of socialism.

In worldly terms, selfish people like Rand are bad influences and people like Catherine Halsey are heroic ideals.

But calling them similar or equal may be worse.

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This is conjecture on her psychology, but based on the examples of artists in her fiction, I would suggest it is probable that she sought that certain recognition that only a certain audience can provide. Roark being the perfect audience for Mallory, etc. Finding an absence of the sort of audience she wanted, she attempted to create them by providing the cognitive tools necessary to be a passionate valuer.

ps If I am right, do I get a million dollars?

Best answer so far.

But I still never really got a good grasp on how Rand's characters interacted. Especially Roark & Dominque Francon. I loved how Rand's characters acted as individuals, but I always felt somewhat confused when they interacted with one another.

I regret mentioning a million dollars to a bunch of Objectivists. haha

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