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Moral perfection

by Michael Stuart Kelly

One of the silliest notions promoted by orthodox Objectivists is that a person can become morally perfect. This statement is a complete inversion of values.

The English language has a strong limitation with the all inclusive verb "to be." I never really understood this until I had to learn Portuguese. In that language, there are two verbs for "to be": "estar" and "ser." Estar denotes a temporary state of being and ser means a permanent one.

Thus a person is a man or woman (ser) and he is at the movies (estar). This took some getting used to, but after I did, many things became much easier to identify and categorize.

One could ask, is moral perfection a permanent state or a temporary one? If it is a permanent state, one concludes that a human being should be born that way. But he isn't.

If moral perfection needs to be learned to become permanent, this smacks so much of Christianity that I am surprised the parallel has not been more clearly seen and exposed for the dogma it is. Learning to become morally perfect means that a human being is born with original sin and must strive to become saved. (One is born morally lacking and must strive to become morally perfect.) How much more Christian can you get?

Like I said, this is silly coming from Objectivists.

If a permanent state of perfection needs to be identified, look at man's life. Human life qua human life is perfect. A human being cannot be more perfect than he is by his very existence. He is what he is, period. That is a permanent fact, not a temporary one. (Even though his life has a limited duration, his life is permanently perfect for that duration. That is his nature.)

So what does moral perfection mean? If morality is a code of values to guide man's actions, it must mean perfect actions, not a perfect existence (which is a metaphysical, not ethical, issue). It must mean actions that are in perfect harmony with man's life according to his essential nature.

I know of no human being on earth who has omniscient control over all of his future actions or even over his essential nature. There are way too many variables and types of actions he must perform while he is alive. Actions under volitional control (which are the only ones that can be moral) must be chosen instant by instant and the different facets of his nature must be studied to be understood.

For instance, many aspects of man's nature change over the course of his life cycle. Many of the needs of a child are not the same as the needs of a healthy adult or the elderly. A child needs care and education - and he needs to learn how to become rational. An adult needs self-responsibility and the full exercise of his rationality. The elderly need constant medical treatment and a means of dealing with diminishing organic capacity. Each stage of life decrees the need for specific moral principles that are not applicable to the other stages.

There is no easy way out of the need to think and choose every waking moment. There is no way on earth to make the very act of living automatic without giving up volition and becoming a mental vegetable.

It is possible for a man to make a morally perfect choice, though. He can do that time and time again. And he should strive to understand what a morally perfect choice means, time and time again. That is a temporary state during his existence.

But it is not possible for him to transform himself into a a permanent morally perfect anything. He is a human being with an already perfect life. He is not a code. His life generates the code, not vice-versa.

Morality is based on human life as the standard of value. Reason exists to serve human life. According to the moral perfection model that is preached, human beings exist to become morally perfect, i.e., to serve reason. Reason does not exist to serve human life. This is a vicious anti-life code.

Like I said, it is also silly coming from Objectivists.

Rand's famous quote about not bothering to examine a folly, merely ask what it accomplishes, is pertinent here. What does the moral perfection model accomplish?

That's easy. Deification of Rand, frustration and guilt.

These are excellent means of keeping a flock in line. Those who wish to rule others or become a guru use moral perfection as a whip. And those who have a drive to give their lives over to a cause use moral perfection as an excuse to let others do their premise-level thinking. One thing is for sure: if a man decides to serve a code of lifelong moral perfection, he will ultimately end up serving a very morally imperfect somebody.

So is moral perfection possible? It is on a temporary basis, act by chosen act. It is not possible as a permanent state of being. Striving and attaining, then striving and attaining again, over and over, is the nature of man. Just like sleeping and waking is.

My advice is when you find someone who tells you that he knows the path to becoming morally perfect for the rest of your life, run. Immediately. He wants to control you - or he serves one who does. Notice that there is always a group involved. He wants his group to make your essential choices for you. If you don't believe it, make essential choices that are different than the ones he requires you to make over time and see what happens.

But essential choices in your life are yours alone to make. They should stay yours. Morally, this is called individualism. And living on earth as a human being doesn't get any more perfect than that.

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Michael,

I enjoyed your post. I think you are honing in on an element of reality that should be very important to Objectivists. I would like to take more time to process what you wrote before I respond directly. Meanwhile, it reminded me of something I wrote recently on Branden's Yahoo forum, though I am focussing on a different aspect. I'll quote it here:

Religion, or orthodox philosophies for that matter, are a package deal; a vision of existence and a set of metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical principles bought off-the-rack. When it comes to how I see the world, how I process my experience, and how I live my life, I prefer custom tailoring. Unfortunately, it seems the cost of having a custom tailored being is often not having a group one can feel a sense of belonging with. So be it! I will not be less than I am to fit in. This has meant that I have been less able to explore my social-self, what I could call my intersubjective-self. But I do not condemn others for more closely identifying themselves with the social side of themselves. For many, honouring the self means honouring the sub-self that is connected to the social network. I have at times hungered for that connection but have chosen my "autonomous-self" over my "intersubjective-self."

What I condemn is the destructive aspects of any orientation, religious or philosophical. I condemn anything that disrespects the intrinsic value of the self or others.

Paul

I think you will find we are looking at the same reality, the same existents, from slightly different angles.

Paul

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I love moral perfection discussions even though trying to get even two people to agree on what they consider moral perfection to be is an obstacle course fraught with peril. To try to get a group in agreement, followed by even larger amounts takes some novel thinking.

These obstacles were overcome early on by those who knew that it would take something larger than life to persuade people into agreeing on what the criteria for a life which moved toward moral perfection would be.

Enter God; in one fell swoop the law-givers(acting on behalf of God of course) could dictate moral goals, have a way to explain the unexplainable, provide a convenient scapegoat for ills that befell people(the Devil or a angry God), and do all this while keeping the masses under control. Of course by no means were all the laws incompatible with what we would consider moral today. Those such as murder and stealing would mesh quite nicely with today's rational thinker.

There are a few areas of concern which come to mind when someone starts telling me what moral perfection should be today: One is, who sets the standards? Another is, who is doing the judging? And my most favorite question of all is: Who died and made the particular person being quoted, God?

I prefer to live by my own standards and by living by my own standards I can accept the consequences, be they good or bad, arising from my decisions.

L W

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Michael,

To be fair to Rand, she tried to avoid the static implications of moral perfection by (sometimes) emphasizing the process of living by a rational code of ethics. Her characterization of pride as "moral ambitiousness" (in "The Objectivist Ethics") is an example.

It's the "moral ambitiousness" that Tara Smith wants to emphasize in her defense of moral perfection (pp. 236-243 in Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics). Leonard Peikoff insisted in OPAR that moral perfection means being another John Galt or Howard Roark. Smith sheds the references to Roark and Galt, and she tries to shed the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric that Peikoff relies so much on. I think a close comparison of Smith and Peikoff will prove interesting. Frankly, though, Peikoff looks to me to be closer to Rand on this particular issue than Smith is.

In Ayn Rand Answers, we can see that Rand defended moral perfection during a question and answer period after one of Peikoff's 1976 lectures. But in the same answer, she emphatically rejects the idea of perfect knowledge. It's also worth noting that her Ford Hall Forum 1971 answer that included a famous outburst (on how if you depart from total acceptance of Objectivism, "the contradictions will be yours") was in response to a question on whether Objectivism puts forth an ideal of sainthood. In other words, it was about moral perfection.

Robert Campbell

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Isn't reality, life, and happiness the moral standards? Beyond that, who else besides yourself can possibly tell you what to think, how to make yourself happy, and still understand what individualism is?

I agree with the other post: Who died and made [insert religious/philosophical decree] God?

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Robert,

Like all loaded terms that are ambiguous, I don't like the term "moral perfection" much in the same way you don't like "psychologizing."

I see orthodox Objectivists using it to attribute a goddess status to Rand (although they say they aren't doing that as if saying so would make the fact go away), or it is a tool of self-manipulation or manipulation of others.

How about an exercise in futility with Rand's own life and moral perfection? I have a humdinger.

Morality deals with values.

A premise is a value.

Rand specifically stated that all subconscious premises could be programmed by conscious choice.

Therefore, if a wrong premise is in the subconscious, this indicates a wrong choice, or worse, evasion.

Rand also held that cancer was caused by wrong premises.

She contracted cancer.

Thus she must have held a wrong premise in her subconscious.

Thus she made a wrong moral choice or evaded.

She also maintained the moral lapse long enough to contract cancer.

Thus she was not morally perfect, as proved by the cancer.

This exercise is on her terms, not mine or yours. The only thing wrong with the scenario is that it has absolutely no connection with reality on several levels. The idea of moral perfection is beside the point here reality-wise, regardless of anyone's opinion, even Rand's. It is meaningless.

I much prefer Rand's statement that she did not think of herself in that manner. The term "moral perfection" is much too vague.

That is why I restrict my own thinking on moral perfection: it can apply to acts and choices that people make, but not to the people themselves. I don't like what I see out of the people who preach moral perfection and I don't like what preaching it did to Rand.

I do applaud your scholarship, though. This work is important to keep the alleged gatekeepers honest.

Michael

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I am wrong, folks! Moral perfection is attainable!

A much simpler and easier path to moral perfection has been announced on SOLOP. Look at this pearl of wisdom. According to Perigo, being morally perfect means refraining from posting on RoR.

Dayaamm!

Now that's perfect! How morally perfect could you possibly get in life?

LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL...

Michael

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It's hilarious what the suboptimal Perigo writes:

Casey accepts that. Is he sanctioning the deception by citing RoR? I think one can answer both yes & no to that & provide good reasons in both cases, but the best considerations say, "No." Does one sanction the deception by posting there (which Casey doesn't, on principle)?

Of course not! But his Valiant Master does post there, so, unlike his principled lapdog, he has no principles at all! Well, that doesn't really surprise us, does it?

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I'm going to be on the road for a few days, so an essay--even a mini-essay--on this vexed subject of moral perfection will have to wait a while.

Here are two quotations from Peikoff that I had in mind.

First:

Like any moral attribute, pride and self-esteem are open to everyone.  The heroes of Rand's novels possess a superlative intelligence; but they are still normal men, human beings and not another species; with human meaning "rational."  Unfortunately, owing to false philosophy, to be human in this sense is so rare an attainment that most people regard it as impossible.  The native endowment it requires, however, is commonplace: a functional intelligence on any scale.  What such an intelligence then needs in order to function is liberation--by the proper moral code. (OPAR, 1993 edition, p. 308)

The second passage is longer, running to 4 paragraphs on pp. 339-340. The whole thing needs to be read and thought about--these are just highlights:

Virtue does ensure happiness in a certain sense, just as it ensures practicality.

Consider here a mortal 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.... if he is an Ayn Rand hero, he is confident, at peace with himself, serene; he is a happy person 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," beneath which there are the crucial attributes such a man has built into his soul: reason, purpose, self-esteem.

... Virtue, therefore, does ensure happiness--not the full happiness of having achieved one's values in reality, but the premonitory radiance of knowing that such achievement is possible.  The one state is represented by Roark at the end of the novel...  The other is Roark at the start and throughout...

Robert Campbell

PS. The second quotation, in particular, lends credence to the suggestion that I've heard occasionally--that, primarily in her novels, Rand's moral thinking moved a good deal closer to Stoicism than she acknowledged. And the Stoics had a thing about moral perfection.

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In her discussion of moral perfection, Tara Smith cites an essay by Harry Binswanger titled "The Possible Dream." It appeared in the February and April 1981 issues of The Objectivist Forum.

I didn't subscribe to TOF, or read it regularly. Does anyone on the board have a copy of these issues?

Robert Campbell

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Jenna said,

Isn't reality, life, and happiness the moral standards? Beyond that, who else besides yourself can possibly tell you what to think, how to make yourself happy

Would an "Amen Sister" offend you?

Stop it, you are making the rest of us look bad!

Jenna, pretend you are an idiot for 5 minutes so that one of us can say something.........pithy!

You are good!......Damn it! I hate you! But, in a nice way!

Anyhew!

Someone at SOLOPassion said -

Perfection means no improvement in -any respect- is possible.

Wow! Perfection sounds.....boring! Never thought of that!

Glad I'm not God!

Of course he's up there right now wondering where this Jenna chick came from and where does she get off saying...................!!!!!!!

Oh well, Ain't perfection a bitch?

Ain't no God anyhow.

Where is my $10,000?

gw

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Roger,

I most definitely would like to see an outline. I will look into buying the volumes of TOF soon. A bound version of all volumes is available here for $55.

Now, on to another part of moral perfection. One of the things that flabbergast me the most out of the Rand fanatics (as opposed to admirers) is that they discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss moral perfection and nobody ever says that "perfection" is a measurement. It is a quantitative concept. If something is perfect, it is measured as one end against a standard, with "imperfect" being the other end. If something is perfect or imperfect, it always is such in relation to a standard for comparison (which is the basis of measurement - see ITOE).

This kind of measurement is a bit simplistic as it normally pertains to "completeness," as Phil Coates rightly pointed out somewhere. Note that in declaring any entity as "perfect," the completeness is what is measured, not the nature of the entity. So, would it be correct to say that someone was morally complete? This concept is meaningless to me as a state of being, since morality is chosen to guide actions. One cannot know in advance all the actions that will be required by reality - some actions and the principles to guide them must be decided as the occasion arises. This indicates incompleteness.

A person can be complete (perfect) at any given moment according to a specific standard, though. But there is no automatic guarantee that he will stay that way. Existence is too varied to make such guarantees.

Those who insist on moral perfection as a state of being end up blanking-out one of the fundamental aspects of man's nature - time. Part of man's nature includes birth, immaturity, growth, full mature capacity, decay and death, with a gradual incremental then declining curve going from one state to the other, i.e., the biological part. (As man is a "rational animal" in Objectivism, this pertains to the genus part of the definition, "animal.")

Any scientist or industrialist will tell you that measurements must be made periodically because time changes them. Yet when we get into measuring commitment to principles, the fanatics throw out the epistemological nature of measurement when they discuss perfection. A measurement is always made for a specific point in time, not for eternity.

As an aside, on an axiomatic concept level, saying that "existence is complete" or "existence is perfect" or "identity is complete," etc., is the same thing as saying "existence exists" or "identity exists," etc. The standard is an impossible projection (i.e., existence or identity does not exist on some level, so such statements are essentially synonyms for the axioms, not measurements of them. In other words, on an axiomatic level, the issue is semantics, not concept.

I want to quote a part of what I wrote above, because I want to stick my finger into the sore.

So is moral perfection possible? It is on a temporary basis, act by chosen act. It is not possible as a permanent state of being.

Note that I claim that moral perfection is possible. But I qualify it and limit it to a definition (quantity of a measured attribute or attributes). I do not try to make perfection a quality or attribute.

Let us apply this to Rand. Was she morally perfect all her life? No. Nobody is since a permanent measurement is impossible. Did she make many morally perfect choices and do many morally perfect acts? Yes. So often she was morally perfect.

On the other hand, did she make any morally imperfect choices and do any morally imperfect acts? Yes. Merely check the standards used for such measurement and this becomes evident.

A good example was her manipulation of the young starry-eyed Brandens in order to create her ideal man on earth, then taking him as a lover. Even if a person wishes to ignore the emotional manipulation and blackmail (or say it didn't exist), she was still morally imperfect by allowing herself to fall in love with NB.

If Frank O'Connor was her highest value, she should have remained faithful to him or dropped him as a lover when NB became that highest value, as given in the acts of Dagny in Atlas Shrugged. When Dagny encountered one value higher than the one she already had (going from Francisco to Rearden to Galt), she always dropped the former as a lover. She could not live with her spiritual mirror image divided and still hold a "highest value."

On Rand's own terms, either the affair with NB was morally imperfect, or her declarations to NB and Frank that they were her "highest value" were morally imperfect - or all of it was morally imperfect because she had not yet encountered her highest value.

I am simply judging "highest value" here. Imagine all the small decisions and acts that were done daily during all that. I see an ocean of morally perfect and morally imperfect choices and acts being made.

Rand's writing shows that she was mostly morally perfect during her writing as she gave her best each time. But there were still exceptions like "To Whom It May Concern," which show to be far from morally perfect. Making incorrect, false and misleading statements in public are not morally correct things to do.

In answer to the standard complaint that Rand had to have been morally perfect according to her philosophy, otherwise she would have been a hypocrite, I answer that she was morally perfect - time and time again. She also had inner conflicts that led her to moral failings - time and time again. She struggled hard against those inner conflicts and the high level of her achievements in light of her struggles is one of the most inspiring parts of her life.

So yes, moral perfection is possible on earth - time and time again for choices and acts. It doesn't last, though, since the choices and acts do not last. There is no Objectivist Nirvana of moral perfection. It has to be chosen again and again and again all throughout life. The rewards are great, which is why you choose it, but once again, there is no state of being morally perfect - Objectivist heaven. That goes against man's nature of having volition and blanks out reality.

Michael

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If there were true moral perfection, it would require something other than a human soul to practice it. People have cracks. It's what happens in the pinch that makes for moments of heroism, virtue. But those things do not come out of a mandate, they come from very deep, profound parts of a person.

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I am long winded on this today, but I want to address the issue of building character.

Is it possible for a person to have a morally perfect character? There certainly many people one would call morally better than others - a producer and a criminal come to mind as opposite ends.

Yes, I think it is possible to have a morally perfect character, but once again, for a specific point in time - and it doesn't last. It must be chosen over and over. This character is challenged by every new major conflict a person encounters.

For instance, a "morally perfect" producer might stop producing one day for a good many reasons when it is still in his best interest to produce, thus he becomes "morally imperfect." (You don't have to become a scumbag to be morally imperfect.) This might be due to a self-esteem issue, like the death of a loved one, thus it becomes a psychological issue, not a philosophical one.

As this is more semantics, I prefer a standard Paul Mawdsley pointed out with respect to NB's work, healthy versus unhealthy (psychology), in addition to good versus evil (philosophy). Is there perfect health? Yup, but only for a specific point in time. This is true of all biological creatures. Then why should this not be true of the mind? Or is the mind not organic to fanatics?

A philosophy is chosen. Integrating and automating principles is part of the mix of being human. However, mental health and illness are also part. The "moral perfection" fanatics try to divorce the concept "health" from the mind - blank it out.

A person can influence the health of his mind by choosing sound principles and adhering to them over time. They will become automated and he will attain a high level of self-esteem, thus become strong. Choosing and adhering to sound principles for the mind is like exercising the body. As health is subject to many influences, however, not just philosophy, such adherence is no guarantee of strong character. It is merely one of the elements necessary to attain one.

Strong character means holding good principles (chosen) and having a healthy mind (not always chosen). Learning this balance is nothing more than accepting reality.

Michael

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Yes, I think it is possible to have a morally perfect character, but once again, for a specific point in time - and it doesn't last. It must be chosen over and over. This character is challenged by every new major conflict a person encounters.

"Morally perfect at a specific point in time" doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying: my computer is perfect at this point in time, it hasn't crashed since five minutes (while it's crashing every ten minutes - well not really, but there are computers that behave like that). In my opinion the idea of "perfection" entails, if not a permanent characteristic, at least a characteristic of sufficient long duration to call it a semi-permanent characteristic. If we're talking about moments or short periods we can only say "the computer functions properly at the moment" or "the person made then the right moral decisions", but to call that moral perfection is meaningless if that person is a serial killer or a thief by profession, "perfection" indicates a systematic way of acting, not snapshots of isolated moments of proper functioning or making the right decisions.

I think the whole notion of 'moral perfection' is silly, in Rand's terms: it is an 'anti-concept', it's a typical religious notion, used by people who think they can emulate such abstract and unrealistic projections like John Galt or Howard Roark. And if I see who makes such claims, my advice is to avoid 'morally perfect' people like the plague.

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Dragonfly,

I fully agree with your last post.

If the point of philosophy is to build character (and that is not the only point), I find the term "morally reliable" much, much better than "morally perfect." (That would mean that a person chooses correct values most of the time, but occasionally needs maintenance.) Just like your computer - it is reliable or not, regardless of perfection. Even a computer that constantly crashes can work perfectly for a few moments. That does not make it reliable.

Applying a concept like "perfect" to an entire human life for its duration is meaningless, unless one is measuring the metaphysical aspect, i.e., a "perfect" (or complete) human life would be on that was born with no birth defects, had no disabilities from illnesses or accidents, achieved full potential at maturity and then died within the normal lifespan of old age. Note that this does not involve morality (chosen principles concerning values).

Striving to be morally reliable is not only attainable, it is a glorious and heroic thing to do.

Michael

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Paul,

I really like "moral excellence" too. To paraphrase myself:

"Striving to be morally excellent is not only attainable, it is a glorious and heroic thing to do."

Edit - A light bulb just went off in my head. Think about the following idea a minute. It's one of those that gets clearer and clearer the more you think about it. You can almost see it taking shape (at least, that is how it seemed to me).

Anyone who preaches moral perfection has something shameful to hide.

(Didn't even Rand have an affair with one she disapproved of that she hid from everyone all her life? I could go on...)

Michael

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Moral perfection is going to have to matter to Rand scholars, because Rand believed in some form of it, and the scholars will have to grapple with that

But those who aren't doing Rand scholarship are better off chucking the whole notion right away. I agree with Dragonfly that it's an anti-concept, in Rand's sense--a holdover from religion, and/or ways of thinking about morality that Rand was trying to replace. The very idea of moral perfection contradicts the supposed meaning and purpose of the Objectivist ethics. It suggests that we human beings exist to serve a moral code--instead of needing a moral code to help identify what's good for each of us.

I agree with Paul that "excellence" is a much better word than "perfection" for what we ought to be striving for.

In fact, the Greek word arete, which is most often translated "virtue," can also be translated as "excellence." And that takes us right back to Aristotle...

Robert Campbell

PS. Whatever the immediate provocation on SOLOP, doesn't this thread belong under Ethics, instead of under Rants?

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Michael wrote:

Anyone who preaches moral perfection has something shameful to hide.

A question that comes to my mind: causally, what comes first, the standard of perfection or the "something shameful?" I think the standard of perfection, whether God or some other standard, necessarily leads to the guilt of not being able to live up to it. Perfection should be left for idealized realms. It has nothing but negative psychological consequences because its definition is relative but assumed to be absolute. Usually it is an unattainable standard that shifts with the perspective of the person setting the standard. Beware of absolute standards. They are always created from relative perspectives. It is a tool wielded for social manipulation by someone who assumes a higher social status.

Paul

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Paul,

After over 30 years in Brazil, then coming back to see what I have seen for the last year, I am a bit more jaded than you are. I agree that in some cases the shameful thing(s) comes after adopting an unrealistic standard, but with most of the Objectivist "moral perfection" proponents I have interacted with, it always boils down to sex, power or money (all unearned, by the way).

Just like in Brazil among non-Objectivists.

Those drives were in place way before the philosophy - and the fanatics I met bend into logical pretzels trying to deny them.

Michael

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Thanks Michael, I tend to be a "glass is half full" kind of guy. You have just directed my gaze at the other half of the glass. I think I can see what you mean.

One thought: those who start with shame in their own eyes will not be manipulated by the standard of perfection. They will not try to live up to it. They will rationalize their way around it instead. But they will be adept at wielding it as a whip to make sheep of those who are good enough to see themselves highly. So we have wolves and we have sheep. I choose to be neither. I think highly of my character and I live by my own standard.

Paul

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