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Can ideas be, in and of themselves, evil?


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#1 Mike82ARP

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 11:42 AM

In reading about the Kelley-Peikoff debate the question, "can an idea be evil?? seemed to be an issue.     

 

Your thoughts on this topic would be appreciated.



#2 Jerry Biggers

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 12:24 PM

Re this "debate" between Peikoff and Kelley about "can an idea be evil," to what text are you referring to? Possibly, Kelley's The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand ?

 

Yes, Peter Schwartz and Peikoff did condemn Kelley for speaking in front of "evil" groups.  Somewhat puzzling, since the ARI catalog of tapes had at least two debates between Peikoff and another Objectivist on one side, and Canadian and British socialists (I think one was Christopher Hitchens, in his earlier phase as a firebrand Trotskyite socialist).

 

Paradoxically,  Yaron Brook has been doing precisely that, debating various figures on the Left (I.e., precisely what David Kelley was so severely criticized for)..



#3 Leonid

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 12:33 PM

Can one really separate ideas from the people, unless he's a Platonist and believes in Forms?



#4 whYNOT

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 01:45 PM

Can one really separate ideas from the people, unless he's a Platonist and believes in Forms?

Isn't that the gist of Kelley's argument?
That a Platonist or rationalist will indeed often hold an idea detached from reality
and his consciousness?
Which he might never act upon.
(not that one would necessarily want to befriend him.)

I think an idea can be inherently irrational, but not objectively evil until it's carried out.
Which may include explicitly teaching it... I'm not sure.

The big split simply imo, was around that point. Kelley wrote in Truth and Toleration:

"Peikoff is giving voice to intrinsicism - a belief that the truth is revealed and that error reflects a willful refusal to see."

(Or - everybody recognises evil ideas, automatically - somehow.)

So Kelley advocates making the effort to distinguish the idea from the person (until one knows better) instead of rejecting both as 'evil'- and to top it, the idea might be innocently held by someone who genuinely doesn't see its evil consequences. (My 'take'.)
"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge". Nicolaus Copernicus (An original objectivist) 1473-1543 ***No man may be smaller than his philosophy...***

#5 Xray

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 03:16 PM

In reading about the Kelley-Peikoff debate the question, "can an idea be evil?? seemed to be an issue.     

 

Your thoughts on this topic would be appreciated.

 

The term "Idea" is purely descriptive, whereas the term "evil" refers to a moral value judgement.  

The combination "evil idea" therefore only makes sense against the backdrop of a moral standard of value. Moral standards of value are man-made though. 

So there exist ideas which were regarded as "evil" in past times, but not in our time. And vice versa.



#6 Michael E. Marotta

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 06:52 PM

Ideas are not evil. Guns are not evil. Horses are not evil.  Storms are not evil.  Only a volitional entity can be evil. 

 

Strictly speaking, the idea of human sacrifice is not evil, but the people who practiced it were. 

 

That said, though, how could you instantiate the idea, except to purpetrate an evil act?  The idea is inherently evil because it cannot be put to moral purpose.

 

Or... it might be possible ...  In The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand and Howard Roark take a vacation about the I Do.  Reminiscing, Wyand marvels that no power on Earth could have made him start the engines and leave Roark swimming the ocean -- but he says parenthetically, "Oh, you could sacrifice one man to save a continent."  So, maybe the idea of human sacrifice is not inherently evil, but only its actual practice must be evaluated. 


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#7 BaalChatzaf

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 09:58 PM

I don't see where an idea must inevitably lead to act.  So there is no idea that would absolutely produce an evil act such that the action could not be avoided one the idea was formed.   Conclusion:  there are no absolutely evil ideas because only actions can be evil. 

 

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#8 Samson Corwell

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Posted 05 March 2013 - 11:11 PM

How does intent fit into this question?


There is still truth even when we are wrong.
The limit of thought as a function of time as time approaches infinity equals the truth.
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#9 Michael E. Marotta

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Posted 06 March 2013 - 06:45 AM

That is an interesting phraseology: "... fit into this question."  It evidences experience based on mechanical assembly.  How does this part fit into this mechanism?  Ah! It is held on this pin by this pawl between these two idlers.  No other experience could have given us the idiom. Cattle do not fit into a pen.  Patterns do not fit into fabrics.  You can not fit into your clothes if you outgrow them, I suppose.  It is just curious that we are offered a piece of rhetoric or discourse on "intent" and asked to place it usefully within a lexical or argumentative machinery about good and evil.

 

Samson's question may rest on two diffferent motives: either he has an answer, or he does not. The latter is easy to accept because the problem is difficult.  Volumes have been written over the centuries.  I think that Ba'al Chatzaf would agree that both Jewish and Catholic moral teaching allow us to be free of guilt if a good intention leads to a bad outcome.On the other hand...

 

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." is attributed (Wikipedia here) to St. Bernard of Clairvaux  who lived 1090-1153.  The interesting tidbit is that he lived in Troyez, in Champagne, the place of the great fairs and one of the centers of Jewish learning founded by Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040-1105) known by his acronym, Rashi. 

 

Objectively, you can only know what you know.  You cannot be responsible for what you "should" have known, though we all understand that feeling. At best, I know of no general law or rule to settle it. Objectivism is not absolutism; Objectivism considers context. 

 

 

 

 


 


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#10 Leonid

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Posted 10 March 2013 - 02:39 PM

Ideas are not evil. Guns are not evil. Horses are not evil.  Storms are not evil.  Only a volitional entity can be evil. 

 

Strictly speaking, the idea of human sacrifice is not evil, but the people who practiced it were. 

 

That said, though, how could you instantiate the idea, except to purpetrate an evil act?  The idea is inherently evil because it cannot be put to moral purpose.

 

Or... it might be possible ...  In The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand and Howard Roark take a vacation about the I Do.  Reminiscing, Wyand marvels that no power on Earth could have made him start the engines and leave Roark swimming the ocean -- but he says parenthetically, "Oh, you could sacrifice one man to save a continent."  So, maybe the idea of human sacrifice is not inherently evil, but only its actual practice must be evaluated. 

 

Ayn Rand used an artistic trick which allows  the reader to "read" person's mind. In reality any idea has to be expressed in  some way . So long as person shut up about his ideas we cannot know them and judge, However when he expresses his ideas in public or in private he acts on them. In your approach anybody who openly supports  terrorism is evil, but the idea of terrorism is not. What then makes such a supporter an evil person?



#11 Mike82ARP

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Posted 10 March 2013 - 04:32 PM

Ideas are not evil. Guns are not evil. Horses are not evil.  Storms are not evil.  Only a volitional entity can be evil. 

 

Strictly speaking, the idea of human sacrifice is not evil, but the people who practiced it were. 

 

That said, though, how could you instantiate the idea, except to purpetrate an evil act?  The idea is inherently evil because it cannot be put to moral purpose.

 

Or... it might be possible ...  In The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand and Howard Roark take a vacation about the I Do.  Reminiscing, Wyand marvels that no power on Earth could have made him start the engines and leave Roark swimming the ocean -- but he says parenthetically, "Oh, you could sacrifice one man to save a continent."  So, maybe the idea of human sacrifice is not inherently evil, but only its actual practice must be evaluated. 

 

Ayn Rand used an artistic trick which allows  the reader to "read" person's mind. In reality any idea has to be expressed in  some way . So long as person shut up about his ideas we cannot know them and judge, However when he expresses his ideas in public or in private he acts on them. In your approach anybody who openly supports  terrorism is evil, but the idea of terrorism is not. What then makes such a supporter an evil person?

I don’t think terrorism is an appropriate example in reference to my question.  I was thinking more of an error in thinking, a misinterpretation of an observation of flaw in reasoning. 



#12 whYNOT

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 04:41 AM

 

Ideas are not evil. Guns are not evil. Horses are not evil.  Storms are not evil.  Only a volitional entity can be evil. 

 

Strictly speaking, the idea of human sacrifice is not evil, but the people who practiced it were. 

 

That said, though, how could you instantiate the idea, except to purpetrate an evil act?  The idea is inherently evil because it cannot be put to moral purpose.

 

Or... it might be possible ...  In The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand and Howard Roark take a vacation about the I Do.  Reminiscing, Wyand marvels that no power on Earth could have made him start the engines and leave Roark swimming the ocean -- but he says parenthetically, "Oh, you could sacrifice one man to save a continent."  So, maybe the idea of human sacrifice is not inherently evil, but only its actual practice must be evaluated. 

 

Ayn Rand used an artistic trick which allows  the reader to "read" person's mind. In reality any idea has to be expressed in  some way . So long as person shut up about his ideas we cannot know them and judge, However when he expresses his ideas in public or in private he acts on them. In your approach anybody who openly supports  terrorism is evil, but the idea of terrorism is not. What then makes such a supporter an evil person?

I don’t think terrorism is an appropriate example in reference to my question.  I was thinking more of an error in thinking, a misinterpretation of an observation of flaw in reasoning. 

Mike, I'd say all evil starts out as "an error in thinking..."etc. - but not all errors in thinking, etc.

are inherently evil. Could that help?


 


"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge". Nicolaus Copernicus (An original objectivist) 1473-1543 ***No man may be smaller than his philosophy...***

#13 Mike82ARP

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 06:32 AM

 

 

 

Mike, I'd say all evil starts out as "an error in thinking..."etc. - but not all errors in thinking, etc.

are inherently evil. Could that help?


 

That makes sense, but will that explanation pass the Objectivist test?  I makes me wonder why the Piekoff/Kelly schism occurred when Brook is currently doing essentially the same thing for which Kelley was ostracized (e.g., Brook debating Callahan from Demos).  



#14 Michael E. Marotta

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 07:14 AM

 

Mike, I'd say all evil starts out as "an error in thinking..."etc. - but not all errors in thinking, etc. are inherently evil. Could that help?

That makes sense, but will that explanation pass the Objectivist test?  I makes me wonder why the Piekoff/Kelly schism occurred when Brook is currently doing essentially the same thing for which Kelley was ostracized (e.g., Brook debating Callahan from Demos).
82arp, WhyNot is Objectivistically correct. His explanation does pass the Objectivist Test. He was not merely philosophizing as Daunce and Ba'al do. They are not Objectivists. WhyNot is. As for Peikoff/Kelley/Brook, you would have to ask Peikoff himself. Over in Rome, they are picking a new Pope. Objectivism works differently than that. Even Ayn Rand could not speak ex cathedra. She claimed that she did. Way back when, as college study groups popped up all over, they sought names such as The Objectivist Club. Rand did not want kids who were only learning philosophy in college to be speaking in her name. So, "Students of Objectivism" became the accepted label. Only Rand's published books - not her journals or diaries, by the way - and the published articles in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist were official doctrine. After The Split, that was no longer true, and could no longer be true.

Rand said that Objectivism is self-correcting becasue the final arbiter is reality. While some people centered on Leonard Peikoff tried loyalty tests, it just never held up. Moreover, the editing by ARI demonstrated glaring errors in the reconstruction of Ayn Rand's unpublished ideas. (In fact a true first edition of We the Living reveals a younger woman whose ideas were not completely consonant with those expressed in and after Atlas Shrugged. (Or so it is said. I have not read WTL 1st ed.))

The point is that today some consensus would be necessary to define an "Objectivist" position on any new event or idea, whether 9/11 or the discovery of a SETI signal. Even with old issues, that remains. Knowledgeable and intelligent Objectivists here have said, "Ayn Rand was wrong about that..."

However, that fundamental baseline of accepted knowledge published between 1947 and 1969 still remains. And WhyNot's statement was accurately and precisely within that foundation.

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#15 Brant Gaede

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 07:44 AM

To say an idea is evil is to say an idea is evil per se and spike thinking, discussion and debate. By their acts and consequences shall you know them--the people who act. There are ideas that can be expressed to an adult and that is not evil; expressed to a child, yes. The expression is the act, the context is important. "Thou shall not kill" sounds like a good idea, but it's not necessarily so good when various contexts are applied. Good ideas, bad ideas, evil idea--all imply various acting scenarios.

 

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#16 whYNOT

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 09:58 AM

 

 

 

 

Mike, I'd say all evil starts out as "an error in thinking..."etc. - but not all errors in thinking, etc.

are inherently evil. Could that help?


 

That makes sense, but will that explanation pass the Objectivist test?  I makes me wonder why the Piekoff/Kelly schism occurred when Brook is currently doing essentially the same thing for which Kelley was ostracized (e.g., Brook debating Callahan from Demos).  

(I don't really know if it passes the test - although I appreciate MEM's supportive comments. Who's test anyhow? I should add that without disrespecting what Peikoff has said and written (he has been a bit of a learning source to me) I find myself to be in line mostly with Kelley's reasoning. At bottom, I can only be in line with what I have been thinking until this time - but may find and decide I'm not quite right in months to come.)

 

Following your questions, and the others' insights, I've been considering 'evil' from the point of

view of oneself.

Mostly, imo, Objectivists invoke the obvious, though incomprehensible, extremes of evil, of Stalin, Hitler, et al - usually judging the normative morality of evil that men perpetrate on other men.

The consequences on others, iow., while only fleetingly considering the prerequisite harm that such a person first inflicted on himself.

Who cares what harm Hitler did to himself, you may ask?

If the one follows from the other as it must have done, it affects us all.

 

Active evil starts with an irrationality in someone's mind, we all seem to agree. Even if we come up from those depths of evil to the more mundane, surely there is still irrationality and immorality

existing in one's consciousness, in ideas which are never acted upon - only known to oneself?

Let's say I have that legendary, interfering, crazy mother-in-law, and I have the odd, fleeting

fantasy of murdering her! So far, nothing wrong. But at some point, I may cross the line into obsessively considering it, harboring vicious thoughts about her - while knowing full-well I won't do anything physically to her.

By standards of rational selfishness, I am behaving irrationally and immorally within my mind -

not confronting the reality of my m-i-l, (avoiding how to decisively resolve her negative influence) filling my consciousness with impotent resentment, and losing my objectivity.

Actually, this stems from the same place as lying to others, I think: I am immorally "faking reality" in and by my own mind, well in advance of, or absence of, the wrongful, immoral or possibly evil effect on another individual.

Same would apply - eg - to a person's privately held racist - therefore, collectivist - thoughts, or any other irrationality: the harm is to one's observance of reality, primarily, not to some other person..
 


"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge". Nicolaus Copernicus (An original objectivist) 1473-1543 ***No man may be smaller than his philosophy...***

#17 Mike82ARP

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 10:08 AM

 

To say an idea is evil is to say an idea is evil per se and spike thinking, discussion and debate. By their acts and consequences shall you know them--the people who act. There are ideas that can be expressed to an adult and that is not evil; expressed to a child, yes. The expression is the act, the context is important. "Thou shall not kill" sounds like a good idea, but it's not necessarily so good when various contexts are applied. Good ideas, bad ideas, evil idea--all imply various acting scenarios.
 
--Brant
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I'm not sure your example applies. You wrote, "There are ideas that can be expressed to an adult and that is not evil; expressed to a child, yes."
 
I understand your example, "Thou shall not kill", but that quote is anachronistic, i.e., Elizabethan English. Modern translations of the Bible show this Hebrew word to actually be "murder", not "kill". Therefore, if your example would have been used correctly, then there would be no evil context to consider.

My question to you then is, how can an idea that is true be considered evil regardless of whom it is directed at? I can understand how untrue statements can potentially be evil.

#18 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 10:49 AM

Mike,

 

This is an issue that comes up in O-Land at times. It's odd, too. Back when Nathaniel Branden was still in the good graces of Ayn Rand, everybody, but everybody harped on admiringly about the way he took Jesus down on this very issue.

 

I might get the wording wrong since it's been a long time between now and the last time I looked at the Gospels (and at NB's thing, for that matter) but here is the way I remember it. Jesus said if you lust after a woman you are not married to, but do nothing, it's the same thing as having committed adultery with her.

 

In other words, that would be an evil thought. It's great for instilling guilt, too, and that was the tonic of NB's blasts.

 

But NB went the way of the philanderer and his influence on this matter waned...

 

Along comes the split between Peikoff and Kelley and lo and behold, Peikoff started preaching the very same method as Jesus, except he changed the topic. He didn't bother with lust and adultery  His thing was social standing within the O-Land tribe (i.e, power).

 

He focused first on social ideas (with anti-libertarian blasts), then went off into epistemological evasion/intrincisism/emotionalism blasts (first stopping along the way to set the context with his analytic-synthetic dichotomy diatribe), then finally into the epistemological Twilight Zone with "the arbitrary" blasts.

 

In his (and his followers's) manner of treating this issue, in practice but not always in theory, people who hold and practice ideas tainted with these methods are evil because the resulting ideas themselves have become evil. The methods sort of pollute them if they started out as good. The Peikovians don't use these words and often nitpick minor points to say, "It ain't so, Joe," but that is the gist of it. If you think these thoughts, it's the same thing morality-wise as having committed them--i.e., evil.

 

And, as way too many people have discovered since then, this is a great way to instill guilt.

 

I do have some ideas on whether thoughts can be evil and to what extent, but it steps outside of the realm of typical Objectivist thought. I use the triune brain concept as a loose virtual model of the mind and I wed it to my own particular understanding of the New Thought claim (especially through Napoleon Hill) that "thoughts are things." This is a much longer discussion, but that idea intrigued me and I have delved into it with gusto.

 

The key in my view--and I admit it is not yet complete--is the crossover point called "transmutation." In a nut shell, everything man produces, both good and evil, starts out as a thought. There is a process whereby a thought becomes external reality. Some of it is volitional, some automatic, and some not well understood.

 

But one thing is clear to me. The initial cause of man-made things are thoughts, therefore thoughts are things at least in their incipient stage.

 

Anyway, I do believe that an idea can be evil, but the frame is wider than the limited Objectivist claims about how the mind works (which are not wrong in my view, but a long, long way from being complete).

 

Also, there is another part I am fleshing out. I hold that most of our ideas--at least the normative and causality-based ones--are in the form of story or narrative, not just concepts. Or maybe in "story concepts." Rand tried to express causality by an axiom--the law of identity, but the plain fact is the way we think about it is in stories, not static concepts.

 

If a story is proposing and promoting evil, then the idea is evil. If you transmute it to external reality according to the storyline, it will produce evil in external reality. But like I said, this is not orthodox Objectivist epistemology. There are some parallels, but I'm still working on it and I have a ways to go before I want to present a full-bodied exposition.

 

In my approach, it is entirely possible for a person to hold an evil thought for a moment, especially if it surges from the subconscious, recognize it as evil and dismiss it, and not feel a ping of guilt or shame. But then again, I'm not interested in controlling others and forming a tribe of followers.

 

Later, if I vest this aspiration, who knows? Maybe then I'll suddenly have an epiphany and "discover" something I missed where you SHOULD feel guilt. :smile:

 

Michael


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#19 Mike82ARP

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 04:08 PM

Thanks for your thoughts, MSK.  There are a lot of Mikes here!

 

Anyway, since you brought up the whole Branden comments on “lusting in your heart”, I find it comical that, Branden, a secular Jew thinks he has a sufficient understanding of a Christian text to critique it with any semblance of authority.  I find the critiques against Christianity lame composition fallacy/straw men arguments and this is just another case.    (FWIW, I got banned from the Objectivist Standard for pointing this out on YouTube.  Biddle, Bernstein, et al, are some thin-skinned wimps who can’t defend their attacks. 

 

In my opinion, Branden’s lack of personal integrity gives him no credibility with me in this area.  If his critique is as you wrote, then I’d say he lacks even an Objectivist understanding on this topic (as I will propose further down) and was only seeking to rationalize his own behavior.  The fact that there were many bobbing heads there tells me his audience was composed of minions rather than thinkers. 

 

First, the passage you cited was from the Sermon on the Mount which is not intended to be prescriptive teaching on Jesus’ part.  Much of that passage is a critique of the Pharisee’s hypocrisy and rationalization which was rampant at the time. This was not Jesus laying a guilt trip as you imply, but a corrective.  Additionally, in Matthew 23 Jesus unleashes a blistering excoriation against the Jewish leaders and their practices. This supports the fact that Jesus had a contentious relationship with the religious leaders.   

 

Second, I would say that thoughtful lusting after another woman violates Objectivist principles in that this behavior denigrates a man’s feelings toward his wife therefore threatening the peace of a marriage. This type of “selfishness” I don’t think Rand would have supported. So in this case, lusting (i.e., not a quick admiring glance) is an evil on the basis of its content and not simply an philosophical error.  This would apply whether Jesus preached it or not.  

 

There is so much that Rand got right, but her critiques against Christianity lacked scholarship. Although much of her critique might apply to some segments of Christianity, she painted with too broad a brush.  Her criticisms of what she considered "Christianity" had already been addressed by Christian theologians who actually understood the kookiness she railed against (altruism, legalism, etc) and did a better job.  Mind you, I belong to a segment  often referred to as the “frozen chosen” in that we value reason and eschew emotionalism, spiritualism and subjectiveness in the practice of our faith.

 

 

  



#20 Xray

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Posted 11 March 2013 - 04:53 PM

Second, I would say that thoughtful lusting after another woman violates Objectivist principles in that this behavior denigrates a man’s feelings toward his wife therefore threatening the peace of a marriage.

 

Do you think Randian hero Rearden (who was married) violated Objectivist principles?






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