Transcription note: This is a handwritten draft of this letter, which contains some sentences and paragraphs that AR crossed out. These crossed-out sections have not been included in the following transcript, as much of their content was either re-phrased or moved to a different part of the letter by AR. They can be viewed in the images of the original document.
Dear Rose Wilder Lane:
Thank you for your very interesting letters. You are right when you say that the difficulty in any discussion is the fact that “no two persons think on precisely identical assumptions.” That is why I intend to write a book some day, stating my case for my basic premises on.
So I won’t attempt a treatise, this time, but will just answer briefly the points which you raise.
First, to begin with your last letter (of December 6th) in regard to my latest piece in The Vigil.
You say that my piece “seems to assume that persons are members of a super-individual social entity exerting coercion on its members.” I don’t know what could possibly have given you any indication of such an assumption. What particular statement or statements gave you this impression?
I am a little shocked by your question: “Am I to understand that you mean to state as a principle: A person should act for his own advantage as opposed to that of other persons?” I have stated explicitly in that particular piece, and in all the others, my principle which is: A person should act for his own advantage as independent of that of other persons.
Man’s interests, or advantages, are neither opposed nor united to the interests and advantages of other men; they are independent. This statement is based, of course, on a code of morality (I’ll define that word for you in a moment), the morality of individualism. The cornerstone of such a morality is the principle that each man exists for his own sake, not for the sake of others; therefore he must choose and pursue his interests or advantages accordingly; he must demand nothing from others, and he must not use physical force against them.
Incidentally, only on such a basis can any human interests or advantages
be defined at all. I would challenge you to attempt to define any sort of a code of values, interests or advantages that would be valid for all men and actually practicable—on any other basis.
Now, a man’s pursuit of his own proper personal interest never hurts other men. On the other hand—and most often—such a pursuit does benefit other men. But this benefit is only a secondary consequence—and must never be a man’s prime goal.
Man’s interests, or advantages, are neither opposed nor united to the interests and advantages of other men; they are independent. As a secondary consequence, a man’s pursuit of his own personal advantage often does benefit other men—such as a man’s scientific, artistic or industrial work does benefit society—but it is only a secondary consequence, it is not always so and does not have to be so. An artist, who is not recognized by society, should and must, morally (I’ll define that word for you in a moment) continue to pursue his work, if that is what he wants to do,
whether it is of any advantage to others around him or not. He must, of course, provide his own means to support himself—he cannot demand support from others, if they don’t care to buy his works. But he must do what he wishes with himself, his life and his money—whether he is doing any “good” to others or not. (Once more, just to be exact: He must not use physical violence against others; that is the only moral restriction on him.)[*]
When you say that “it is not a question of being sacrificed…it is a realistic question of individual decision and individual
action”—I do not quite know what you mean. In reality, we can see instances of both: men being sacrificed by other men, through brute force (as in any concentration camp or political slaughter), and men sacrificing themselves, of their own volition, because they think it is proper to do so. This last makes the first possible. I am not sure which is the more vicious of the two. It is the idea that self-sacrifice is proper and moral which permits men to sacrifice and butcher others also. My principle is: no sacrifice (self or others) is proper or ever necessary.
As to your example about eight persons on a raft, with one man having water, and should he hoard it or share it?—well, the answer is that nobody can tell him what to do, in such a case, no precept or philosophy ever devised. The decision would have to be his—and whatever he decides will be right.
But this example has no validity whatever for formulating rules about proper human conduct, nor any application to human life—because it reverses the actual, realistic conditions of human life on earth. Man’s proper independence rests precisely on the fact that man is
equipped to provide for his own survival (through his work, directed by his mind) and that his survival does not depend upon any one other man holding the only available supply of food (or water) which he needs. Man does not live on a raft with one bottle of water. He lives on earth which gives him infinite resources—and it is up to him to get them—His proper conduct and morality must be based on this fact.
Now, if we did, in effect, exist in a position like that of your men on the raft (that is, if we were dependent for survival upon the will of other men)—then nothing would be possible to us,
except to exterminate one another. Just carry your example a step further: let us assume that the eight men divide the water, on the basis of brotherhood, for a while. But if they are not rescued in time and the water supply grows smaller and smaller—what are they to do? All perish equally and at the same time? Or start killing one another off, in the hope of survival? This is unavoidable, if we assume that men’s means of survival (food, water and every material product men need) are a fixed, static quantity on earth, which must be shared. That is the Collectivists’ view of men and
production—and they do achieve nothing but mutual extermination. Man’s actual existence is on earth, not on a bare raft, and he must produce his own wealth, not wait for a voluntary hand-out (sharing) from another man, nor attempt to loot that other man’s property.
Now, to your letter of November 22, and its many interesting philosophical points.
You say that you do not know the meaning of “moral” or “morality”. My definition is: Morality is a code of behavior proper to a human being.
On what is it to be based? On man’s nature, which is that of a rational being, here, on earth (in space and time, as you say.) Why is it necessary? Because man is a being endowed with free will. This means that his actions are not automatic; that he has to function through choice. The necessity of making a choice presupposes a standard of values as a guide; a standard of values is a code of right and wrong, good and evil. Good and evil for whom? Man—his nature, essence, survival and happiness on earth.
The conception of “morality” is applicable only to issues in which choice is involved. That is why I am a little bewildered by your sentence: “If it is moral that man be self-controlling and responsible, then it is moral that water seek its own level.” Aren’t you confusing a few different things here? That man is self-controlling and responsible is neither moral nor immoral; that is an actual fact of nature—just like water seeking its own level. But for man to recognize that he is self-controlling and
responsible, and to act accordingly—that is moral. It is possible for him not to recognize it; it is possible for him to try to act as if he were a robot by nature—that is what most of mankind is doing right now. But it is impossible for him to succeed or survive in the role of robot.
In this sense, the moral is the practical. In this sense, it is based
on the reality and conditions of man’s existence here, now, on earth. Morality (the proper, rational kind) is as absolute and objective and real as the laws of nature. But the crucial difference is that water seeks its own level and can do nothing else. Man can do a great many things, his field of choice is immense; some of his possible actions are beneficial to him—if they are in accordance with the basic principles of his nature as man; some lead to his self-destruction—if they are opposed to his nature. It is up to him to discern and define which is which. The
statement of such definitions, of the rules of proper human behavior, is a code of morality.
Every moral precept amounts, in effect, to: This is what you should do because it is good and proper for a man to do so (but you have the possibility, the choice, to do otherwise).
I’m sorry if I confused you by using the expression “neither morally nor in fact.” I grant you that perhaps this was not clear—so the above will help to clarify it. When I said that others will not produce for a man, I meant: they neither should (by moral commandment) nor will (in actual practice).
As to the word “spiritually”, I use it to denote all that which pertains to man’s consciousness,
most particularly to his thinking (which is the base and essence of his consciousness). I do not know (nor care too greatly) whether man’s consciousness is a special spiritual element, different from the material, much as the religious conception of a soul—or whether it is only a function and manifestation of his physical body. I am concerned only with how this consciousness works, here, on earth, what it can do, what it should do, how it should live. Whether material or non-material, a man’s consciousness (his spirit) is the essence of man and of his life. And it is (as you have often stated) a prime source of energy—spiritual (thinking) and physical energy, both.
I am in complete agreement with you that anything we say about man and his life is valid only if we keep it in terms of this earth, of the physical world, of space and time. (Did I understand you correctly in this?) Man’s consciousness is a fact of this world, too, of course.
I suspect I have even less sympathy or interest than you have in anything relating to the mystical, to the “other dimensional,” the irrational or “super-rational”. (I don’t believe there are any such things or realms.)
I am an atheist. Therefore, I cannot follow you at all in your definition of why the existence of a finite world presupposes that it was created by God. It doesn’t.
I do have a quarrel to pick with you (and a serious one) on your statement that “neither logic nor demonstration can prove this assumption (the existence of man and the world); therefore it is an act of faith.” Now this is truly a dangerously careless statement. What do you take logic and demonstration to be?
Logic is the art of reasoning correctly about observed facts—but not of creating the facts. Logic cannot start in a vaccuum. Logic presupposes something about which one reasons. Logic presupposes existence. And what on earth do you think demonstration is? If the evidence of our senses is not demonstration—than what is? The existence of man and the world does not need logic or demonstration—it is an axiom. It is self–evident. What we learn about ourselves and this world
does require logic and demonstration. But not the fact of existence itself. To attempt to prove that fact is a contradiction in terms.
Now “an act of faith” is belief without evidence. That is the most vicious action of which men are capable; it is the real root of all their sins, crimes and misery. But if you say that to assume we exist
is “an act of faith”—then you can have no argument and can make no valid objection to anything anyone may claim as his particular act of faith. Hitler did believe that he was mystically appointed to be a world-leader. If any “act of faith” is proper—then all acts of faith are proper.
Do you know that my personal crusade in life (in the philosophical sense) is not merely to fight collectivism, nor to fight altruism? These are only consequences, effects, not causes. I am out after the real cause, the real root of evil on
*For AR’s fully developed view on this issue, see her 1962 essay “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests,” chapter four in The Virtue of Selfishness.