PhilO

Respect for Ayn Rand's mind vs. "appeal to authority"

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There's something that I've seen many times in discussions/arguments among students of Objectivism, which consists of the following pattern: an arguer's conclusion directly contradicts a strongly presented statement or statements of Ayn Rand, and when this is pointed out, they retort "Well, you're just appealing to authority."

If the fact of her statement is taken as proof alone, then indeed that would be an illogical appeal to authority. But that is hardly the only context.

There are certain facts of reality which pertain to the issue. First and foremost is the fact that Ayn Rand was a rare historical genius. I am not going to argue that fact, because personally I have no respect for people who've read her who hold otherwise. The simple fact is that she was almost certainly much smarter and more integrated than you. Some people can't handle that simple fact, because they're used to being "the smartest one in the room". That doesn't alter the fact, however.

What this means is that her work and her thought processes are to be taken very seriously and never dismissed with a breezy "Oh, she was wrong, because I just spent a few minutes coming to this certain logical conclusion." It is not an appeal to authority for one to be very wary of such conclusions - it's a cautionary note that should cause one to dig deeper and make further integrations. Further facts and further integration will either reinforce the conclusion, or show problems that demand rethinking. Rationalists are scared of probing further because additional facts might upset their carefully constructed deductive framework; but such a fear in itself should be a warning sign of problematic thinking.

I'm sure there is more to be said on this topic, but at least this is a start.

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There's something that I've seen many times in discussions/arguments among students of Objectivism, which consists of the following pattern: an arguer's conclusion directly contradicts a strongly presented statement or statements of Ayn Rand, and when this is pointed out, they retort "Well, you're just appealing to authority."

People who say that are confusing citing an authority with the fallacy of Appeal to Authority (argumentum ad verecundiam).

Verecundiam only applies when it is offered in support of a demonstrably false proposition and/or where the expertise of the authority or his cited statement is irrelevant to proving the proposition. An example would be "We should have socialized medicine because Michael Moore says so."

Because a complex society depends on the division of labor and everybody can't know everything, it is often necessary and useful to rely on experts and authorities. This is proper as long as (1) you have first-hand evidence establishing the authority as someone with special and reliable expertise and (2) there is no conflict between what the authority says or does, qua expert, and your own first-hand experience.

On those two grounds, Ayn Rand is an authority I respect.

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There's something that I've seen many times in discussions/arguments among students of Objectivism, which consists of the following pattern: an arguer's conclusion directly contradicts a strongly presented statement or statements of Ayn Rand, and when this is pointed out, they retort "Well, you're just appealing to authority."

If the fact of her statement is taken as proof alone, then indeed that would be an illogical appeal to authority. But that is hardly the only context.

There are certain facts of reality which pertain to the issue. First and foremost is the fact that Ayn Rand was a rare historical genius. I am not going to argue that fact, because personally I have no respect for people who've read her who hold otherwise. The simple fact is that she was almost certainly much smarter and more integrated than you. Some people can't handle that simple fact, because they're used to being "the smartest one in the room". That doesn't alter the fact, however.

What this means is that her work and her thought processes are to be taken very seriously and never dismissed with a breezy "Oh, she was wrong, because I just spent a few minutes coming to this certain logical conclusion." It is not an appeal to authority for one to be very wary of such conclusions - it's a cautionary note that should cause one to dig deeper and make further integrations. Further facts and further integration will either reinforce the conclusion, or show problems that demand rethinking. Rationalists are scared of probing further because additional facts might upset their carefully constructed deductive framework; but such a fear in itself should be a warning sign of problematic thinking.

I'm sure there is more to be said on this topic, but at least this is a start.

An interesting post, Phil. While I'm open to arguments to the contrary, I actually think that an appropriate response to a person making that charge in the kind of situation you describe would be: "yes, in this case, I am appealing to authority."

First, it explicitly recognizes Ayn Rand's genius, as a true authority on philosophical issues. Second, it implicitly points out that the person making the "appeal to authority" charge is not recognizing Miss Rand's legitimate authority, which is an act of arrogance. To be sure, and as Miss Rand herself indicated, it is always necessary to judge the legitimacy of any idea for oneself. However, what you are describing is a circumstance in which some conclusion contradicts logical argument based on facts of reality to the contrary. In the absence of evidence or even rational speculation as to the basis of the conclusion, why would anyone not question the conclusion?

My perspective is that such people are trying to equate "reasonable doubt" with an "appeal to authority." However, if this is taken to an extreme, would it ever be right to quote Ayn Rand in support of an argument? Couldn't the charge always be leveled? And this is one of the things that debunks it.

A related question is why people would level such a charge; what is their to gain? However, to appeal to authority, I'll paraphrase Miss Rand: don't bother looking for the root of a mistake; look at what it accomplishes. I believe such charges are psychological attacks meant to buy time. It confuses and disorients someone when he is accused of something that wasn't in any part of his mind. That gives the accuser time to slide into a new position. It takes the focus off him and puts it on you.

On a personal level, I have become quite good at detecting when another is turning a conversation around and making it about me. And I've called people on it, in front of groups, as that's usually when it happens. Naming what another person is doing is an appropriate and surprisingly powerful response. By powerful I mean that it really forces someone else to become self-aware.

A person who defensively levels that charge, as I have described elsewhere, coats himself in a veneer of authority. Disagreement is not just an intellectual issue; it is a psychological threat. A disagreement, for him, does not represent a mere difference of perspective; it represents a threat to his core identity and self-concept.

As an aside, note that most, if not all, defense mechanisms are actually offensive in execution, by which I mean irrationally aggressive toward others. Is the old saying, "the best defense is a good offense"? Psychologically, it's true.

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An interesting post, Phil. While I'm open to arguments to the contrary, I actually think that an appropriate response to a person making that charge in the kind of situation you describe would be: "yes, in this case, I am appealing to authority."

First, it explicitly recognizes Ayn Rand's genius, as a true authority on philosophical issues. Second, it implicitly points out that the person making the "appeal to authority" charge is not recognizing Miss Rand's legitimate authority, which is an act of arrogance. [...]

Thanks for your own interesting post, Scott. You make some good additional points.

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People who say that are confusing citing an authority with the fallacy of Appeal to Authority (argumentum ad verecundiam).
I agree that there are valid appeals to authority and that verecundiam is the invalid appeal to authority.
Verecundiam only applies when it is offered in support of a demonstrably false proposition and/or where the expertise of the authority or his cited statement is irrelevant to proving the proposition.
I must, however, disagree with this characterization of verecundiam. The ultimate truth or falsehood of a proposition has no bearing on whether the appeal to authority is valid or invalid. Verecundium identifies an error in the methodology one uses when one accepts the idea of another person. It does not identify the validity of the idea itself.

The literal translation is 'argument or appeal to reverence'. Reverence for what? Reverence for the authority of others. The structure of the fallacy is very simple, no matter how complex the particular cases may become: other people (one or more) believe X (any idea, thought, proposition), therefore X is true. In other words 'She says it, therefore it is true.' 'They endorse it, therefore it is true.' 'Truth is what other people say.'

Of course, this does not mean it is a fallacy to learn from other people. Nothing in the above says you must originate every element of your mental content without ever acquiring knowledge from other people. If other people teach you something, and give you reasons for their beliefs, there is no fallacy of any kind involved in your accepting it. And of course you learn an enormous amount from other people.

If you hear the reasons for someone's assertion and say, yes, you see it and accept it on that basis - then there is no fallacy. There is no fallacy because you are accepting it NOT simply on the authority of the teacher, but on the fact that you see the reasons - you see the grounds.

It becomes a fallacy when the mere fact that someone else believes it. In other words, when an individual takes the ideas of another person WITHOUT evidence or proof (or worse, in contradiction to evidence or proof) on their authority.

Verecundiam is therefore the fallacy of the intellectual dependent.

Ayn Rand is an authority I respect.
I agree. However, I do not accept anything she (or anyone else) says is true simply because she is the one to have said it. That is the methodology of faith, not reason.

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There's something that I've seen many times in discussions/arguments among students of Objectivism, which consists of the following pattern: an arguer's conclusion directly contradicts a strongly presented statement or statements of Ayn Rand, and when this is pointed out, they retort "Well, you're just appealing to authority."
Besides this fallacious approach, there is another approach which is unfortunately just as common (if not more common). It is the appeal to the authority as a means of personal attack and thus as a method of quashing debate. It essentially amounts to the assertion: "Miss Rand (or Dr. P etc) said it. Who are you to think otherwise?" Such an approach is really an ad hom in the guise of an appeal to authority (with a dose of the argument from intimidation). It is an attack upon the arguer, not the argument. It is the claim that the person has no business coming to a conclusion different from the authority in question. Of course, like all ad homs, it does not address the arguments put forth, but instead avoids or distract away from them.

Sadly, as indicated, this fallacy or tactic of rhetoric is not unfamiliar even in the ranks of Objectivism. We have certainly seen it, among other places, in the attacks made from Noodlefood against The Forum.

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I have more respect for my own mind than I do for Ayn Rand's: I give strong weight to what she says because she said it. But I get the final call. When that bothers someone who thinks that everything she said was perfect, it disappoints me and I think it would disappoint her too.

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I echo Brian's thoughts on this matter.

"Ayn Rand said it" contributes nothing in a debate. The actual argument she presented, on the other hand, most always contributes much - she was a genius.

When a citation is used because it contains a pertinent identification or argument, it is the argument that is being submitted to the debate, who made it is immaterial. When a citation of an authority is used because it contains a statement that supports the debater's position, but no argument, it contributes nothing to the discussion. You are being asked to accept the truth of the statement because of who made it, this is an appeal to authority and a fallacy - even if the person actually is an authority, even if the statement actually is true.

What a philosophical statement by Ayn Rand brings to the table is a huge "consider this idea seriously" sign, this is what our just respect for her mind demands. Her authorship is not, in any way, evidence of the statement's truth.

I have seen quotes of Ayn Rand wielded like a club, statements of hers that have no supporting argument in any of her writings but that people expect you to agree with because its Ayn Rand. The basis of the "reasoning" behind such a stance is right there in PhilO's original post: she was almost certainly smarter than you, and more integrated. What is implicit is the "therefore you are almost certainly wrong to disagree with her". But truth is not determined by how smart I am, or how smart she was - it is determined by the facts of reality.

I would not judge well someone who dismisses some idea of Ayn Rand's after "a few minutes' thought" as PhilO put it. But I judge must worse someone who takes her word on it.

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I have more respect for my own mind than I do for Ayn Rand's: I give strong weight to what she says because she said it. But I get the final call. When that bothers someone who thinks that everything she said was perfect, it disappoints me and I think it would disappoint her too.

I agree that each person should be the final judge, for himself. I have a slightly different take on respect for Miss Rand's mind, and this may just be a personal but still objective perspective.

I respect Ayn Rand's mind more than my own, but I love my own mind more than hers. When I read her writings or hear her speak, I am in awe of her insight and understanding. However, the deeper thought, for me, is: wow, how great is my own mind that I get what she is saying! So, for me, her mind is much, much greater than mine in terms of capacity and actual intellectual achievement, which deserves a higher respect. But I love that I have a mind that grasps what she is saying (although certainly not to the same extent as many people who have systematically studied Objectivism or at least have studied and practiced it on their own for multiple decades).

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"Ayn Rand said it" contributes nothing in a debate. The actual argument she presented, on the other hand, most always contributes much - she was a genius.

[...]I would not judge well someone who dismisses some idea of Ayn Rand's after "a few minutes' thought" as PhilO put it. But I judge must worse someone who takes her word on it.

I will add this as well: she always did have reasons for what she said, and most of them were explained in readily available forms. The entire corpus of her work is a foundation for grasping the importance of property rights, so to somebody (for example) who does not grasp their importance, that knowledge certainly cannot be conveyed in the span of a few Forum posts - but it can be useful to focus on especially relevant passages that touch on the subject at hand, with the understanding that it will take more than that to fully grasp the foundation of her arguments. It is never necessary to take Ayn Rand on faith because she laid her reasoning out explicitly (and thanks to Leonard Peikoff, the philosophy has a systematic presentation as well.)

Of course, there are those will never "get it" for whatever reason, such as those who've read all of her writings and are still explicit anarchists.

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It is never necessary to take Ayn Rand on faith because she laid her reasoning out explicitly

And wherever the argument is available, it speaks for itself.

But I wouldn't say "never". Her stance on public displays of pornography, for instance, is not supported by an explicit argument and generates significant conflict among honest Objectivists.

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Ayn Rand is a far-seeing guide who shone a bright light on the connections between existence and consciousness.

If I want to live as a human being, I have to walk the trail she laid out, but walk it with eyes wide open, not stumbling behind her clutching her skirt with my eyes shut, relying on what she said instead of what I see.

I live within my context, not hers.

Of course, I must rely on my own mind, but not in a subjective or rationalist way. Constant introspection is needed to ensure what's on the inside is consistent with what's outside, so that there's no contradiction between my consciousness and existence.

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It is never necessary to take Ayn Rand on faith because she laid her reasoning out explicitly

And wherever the argument is available, it speaks for itself.

But I wouldn't say "never". Her stance on public displays of pornography, for instance, is not supported by an explicit argument and generates significant conflict among honest Objectivists.

If I understand the last sentence of your second paragraph, you are making the reasonable observation that, where there is no explicit supporting argument by Rand for a specific statement she might have made, the guidance should be a careful, reasoned interpretation of what she did say and that 'honest men may differ.'

I concur with that observation. However, that is not an argument for 'tak[ing] Ayn Rand on faith.' I would say 'never.' On 'Faith' Ayn Rand was explicit: She rejected any assertion made without comprehension and rational justification. That 'Ayn Rand said it' certainly puts one on notice that a philosopher of great integrity, brilliance, and insight had reason to believe something to be a true statement and looking for her explanation, her reasoning, would be an excellent first step. However, where none is found, the principles that govern Objectivist Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, etc., are the principles that one would then use to understand if and why the statement was true or false. It is possible that Rand might not have had access to facts that might have led her to a different conclusion, or that she was given misinformation, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As she said, even about the basics of Objectivist philosophy, one must work through and understand it for ones self, not take it 'on faith;' that would be a contradiction.

So 'It's never necessary to take Ayn Rand on faith' because of that contradiction; in fact, it should be restated that 'one can never take Ayn Rand on faith' because it is, ultimately, an impossibility, if by taking her on faith, one means 'belief without evidence.' One can't 'accept' a rational argument by irrational means. One can parrot back what was said, but, as Dr. Peikoff said in OPAR, that is the equivalent of no statement at all, just a collection of sounds.

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I just want to add that there are very few instances in which Rand made a statement that she did not support with a cogent rational argument and, even there, as with abortion, women as presidents, the Vietnam War, horror movies (Peikoff's favorites, distasteful to her), or other such "wedge" issues, she lighted the way to her reasons, or stated areas in which she did not have the expertise to make a conclusive argument, or she made it clear she was expressing a personal preference in optional values.

I don't know the context of the 'appeal to authority' that started this discussion, but it may have been none of the above, but, rather, quoting Rand may have been shorthanded way for someone to introduce the Objectivist position into a discussion. I don't know, from the context, that the person quoting did not have an excellent understanding of the principles, concepts, and observations on which Rand's statement was based. In that case, the '...on faith' accusation is nothing more than an ad hominem attack. It all depends on what happens after the hypothetical conversation.

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re:

It all depends on what happens after the hypothetical conversation.

I'm sorry, I meant: It all depends on what happens next in the hypothetical conversation after the quoted exchange.

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...it should be restated that 'one can never take Ayn Rand on faith' because it is, ultimately, an impossibility, if by taking her on faith, one means 'belief without evidence.'
I would state that not only is it possible to take Miss Rand on faith - ie believe her , accept her ideas without evidence - but I would also state that there are people who do so (if not completely, certainly in some instances). Again, this speaks to methodology in accepting her ideas, not to whether the ideas are actually comprehended or are properly practiced.

If one is keen on restating the original sentence, I suggest: "One should never take Ayn Rand on faith."

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As already mentioned, Miss Rand was more intelligent and more integrated than most and thus her conclusions should be taken with seriousness. I think THAT already is the approach of most of those who consider themselves Objectivists or students of Objectivism.

I agree with mrocktor that quoting Ayn Rand's position on an issue does not an argument make. I hold this view not because I don't recognize Miss Rand's legitimate authority but instead because asserting a conclusion (yours or Rand's) adds nothing to the process of integration (mine or other audience members). For me, the purpose of discussing ideas is not an exchange of assertions but an exchange of the integrating processes which lead to those conclusions (which may include first the identification of relevant facts).

I don't consider an exposition of a logical falacy of any kind, in a polite discussion, by default, as a psychological attack. I see it as an identification of the fact that a proper argument has not been provided. Such thing should not be confusing nor disorienting to someone who had accepted such conclusion via their own independent evaluation. If they did - they should be able to explain it to me. This is the process which furthers my knowledge and understanding (and of those who are listening/reading in the background).

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I don't consider an exposition of a logical falacy of any kind, in a polite discussion, by default, as a psychological attack. I see it as an identification of the fact that a proper argument has not been provided. Such thing should not be confusing nor disorienting to someone who had accepted such conclusion via their own independent evaluation. If they did - they should be able to explain it to me. This is the process which furthers my knowledge and understanding (and of those who are listening/reading in the background).

I'm not sure if this is a counterpoint to what I wrote in an earlier post on this thread, but let me clarify my points in any event. The first is that my response was to the particular situation I understood Phil to be describing. Namely, the case in which someone states a conclusion to some issue that is greatly at odds with some point of Miss Rand's, is offered perhaps some quote of or reference to one of her ideas that argues against his conclusion, and responds with an accusation of an appeal to authority.

I presumed that the issue and Miss Rand's statements were something fairly well-known and accepted (through reason and reality, not faith), which is what would make a vastly different conclusion give someone who heard it pause and possibly rebut with the reference to Miss Rand. Although I tried to indicate that I was referring specifically to the situation Phil described, the subsequent discussion highlights the importance of making one's point crystal clear.

In short, there are certainly circumstances when leveling a charge of appeal to authority is legitimate. I was focused on the person who makes a statement from a position of authority without sufficient backup, and then responds accusatorily when challenged on the conclusion.

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I just want to add that there are very few instances in which Rand made a statement that she did not support with a cogent rational argument and, even there, as with abortion, women as presidents, the Vietnam War, horror movies (Peikoff's favorites, distasteful to her), or other such "wedge" issues, she lighted the way to her reasons, or stated areas in which she did not have the expertise to make a conclusive argument, or she made it clear she was expressing a personal preference in optional values.

I cannot imagine why you chose those particulars. Miss Rand gave speeches and wrote articles about abortion and the Viet Nam War. She wrote a lengthy response as to why she did not support a woman as The President of the United States, and she was pretty clear, (to me, at least), why she objected to horror movies. Why do you say she did not present a "cogent, rational argument" concerning them?

I would agree she left a (very) few things unclear.

When asked at the Ford Hall Forum about gun control, she admitted she had not thought about it much, and answered that it was not important at that time.

Her response to a questioner at the Ford Hall Forum concerning homosexuality was a single sentence. It seems that answer is very contentious among some people, but I have never heard anyone explicitly refute it.

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Wouldn't it be the case that, before you could claim that quoting an authority was the fallacy of appealing to an authority, you would have to show that the quotation was not in context, or did not pertain to the question at hand, etc? If the quote is a statement of principle, or an axiom, or a proof or validation that spoke to the subject of the discussion, I do not see that one could claim that one is appealing to authority. Or if one were discussing Objectivism in particular, how could quoting Miss Rand (or Dr. Peikoff, or Dr. Binswanger, for instance) be considered a fallacious use of authority?

If one is using Miss Rand in lieu of a reasoned presentation, then one is appealing to authority. Otherwise I'd be very careful about dismissing her out of hand.

I will say that after years of study, and an equal amount of years of experience in life, there is very little I have found in what Miss Rand said and wrote to disagree with. This hasn't always been the case. At the beginning of my study, I disagreed a lot with her. These days, I'm more likely to find myself once again amazed at the depth of her understanding. I never read Atlas, for instance, that I don't grasp some new comprehension. Miss Rand was indeed a genius, and the older I get, the more I appreciate just how rare her kind of genius is.

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Wouldn't it be the case that, before you could claim that quoting an authority was the fallacy of appealing to an authority, you would have to show that the quotation was not in context, or did not pertain to the question at hand, etc?
Not necessarily. Say the question at hand is whether sacrifice is proper or improper. And say the authority being cited is the President - and that the quote is: "It is the duty of every man to sacrifice." Such a quote is definitely in context and does pertain to the question at hand. But if that quote is the reason for accepting the validity of sacrifice, then that is most certainly an example of verecundiam. While the quote is both pertinent and contextual, it is not an argument. It is merely the assertion - the statement - of a principle. And it is accepted simply on the basis of who said it (in this case, the President).
If one is using Miss Rand in lieu of a reasoned presentation, then one is appealing to authority. Otherwise I'd be very careful about dismissing her out of hand.
I agree with both these statements.

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Wouldn't it be the case that, before you could claim that quoting an authority was the fallacy of appealing to an authority, you would have to show that the quotation was not in context, or did not pertain to the question at hand, etc?
Not necessarily. Say the question at hand is whether sacrifice is proper or improper. And say the authority being cited is the President - and that the quote is: "It is the duty of every man to sacrifice." Such a quote is definitely in context and does pertain to the question at hand. But if that quote is the reason for accepting the validity of sacrifice, then that is most certainly an example of verecundiam. While the quote is both pertinent and contextual, it is not an argument. It is merely the assertion - the statement - of a principle. And it is accepted simply on the basis of who said it (in this case, the President).

Yes, I can see that. I was thinking of Miss Rand specifically as the authority, however, and what would be required to use her in an appeal to authority. (Sorry for the poor formulation.) If one quoted her as the beginning and end of his argument, without further explication or extrapolation, wouldn't that fit the bill as an appeal? However, if one used the quote as a foundation on which to build their argument, wouldn't that be a proper use of authority?

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However, if one used the quote as a foundation on which to build their argument, wouldn't that be a proper use of authority?

If you take an argument of hers and present your own, parallel or suplemental, argument that would not be an appeal from authority. And if the quote is an axiom, it stands on its own as well - obviously.

Other than that, no. If you take the word of Ayn Rand as truth and use that as the foundation of your argument, you are arguing from authority (and probably begging the question as well).

Of course if the debate is about what Ayn Rand's opinion on some issue was, her word is valid evidence. Even then I have seen raging debate about how she meant it to be interpretated, so if not enough context is present it could still be inconclusive.

I'll relate an example. Ayn Rand said, in Thought Control @ Part III", The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. III, No. 2:

A corollary of the freedom to see and hear, is the freedom not to look or listen.

Some people interpret this to mean people have a right to not perceive certain things if they don't want to, and that others have a moral obligation to warn them if such things are present.

Other people interpret this to mean that people have a right to choose where they look and what they listen to and have a moral right to not have force used against them so they will look at something or listen to something.

The context of the quote offers points in favor of each interpretation - if you are discussing what Ayn Rand meant by it - and then there is a whole other can of worms which is debating which interpretation is consistent with Objectivism.

If you are arguing what is true, that quote alone is only a piece of an argument - and holds no more weight than the argument you build around it for having been originally written by Ayn Rand.

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