Ayn Rand: ‘Principles do not fill the glass’

Jeff asked:

In reading Ayn Rands book Atlas Shrugged I came across a statement regarding character:

‘Principles do not fill the glass.’

Was wondering if your readers agree or not?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There’s a great song sung by Julie London on her ‘London By Night’ LP, ‘Pousse Cafe’. When I first heard it, I could make sense of the line, ‘It’s like my heart, it’s in three parts.’ Then I found out that Pousse Cafe is actually three layers of alcoholic beverage carefully poured into the glass so that they remain separate.

How is this relevant? I don’t share the jaundiced view of Ayn Rand held by many, possibly the majority of academic philosophers. She was let down badly by her epigones, mostly second-rate thinkers who worshipped every word that came out of her lips. Maybe she did allow her head to be turned by the uncritical adulation, compounded by the cold rejection she received from the academic community. But she was a highly intelligent woman and an original thinker, in her way.

I did try once to read ‘Atlas Shrugged’. It’s got a great first sentence. But somehow it couldn’t hold my attention and I gave up before finishing it. I’m not a great reader. So I don’t remember the context of her, ‘Principles don’t fill the glass’.

It is important to have principles, primarily for political reasons: You let others know where you stand, and the things you won’t budge from. The idea that ethics is based on principles was advocated powerfully by Immanuel Kant. But principles are only one of the layers in the glass. Another layer is habit, the things you do without having to reason it out first. This was something Aristotle emphasized. He regarded the ‘continent man’, who restrains his bad impulses as ethically less admirable than the man who doesn’t need to restrain himself because he doesn’t need to. Doing the right thing comes naturally to him.

Ayn Rand believed that a willingness to act on one’s principles, even when everyone is against you, even when you are threatened with the most dire consequences, is a crucial part of personal integrity, and I agree. I also believe, as I argued in my Ethical Dilemmas, that there are times when you have to go against your own principles – even though the very idea of this seems paradoxical.

However, there is a third layer that Ayn Rand would not have agreed to: the capacity to be moved by the plight of others, the ‘sentiment’ of David Hume. There does seem to be something almost idiotic in the way Ayn Rand’s characters stick to their guns no matter what, not allowing others to manipulate their feelings. Some people are pathetic and need help, the beggar in the street for example, or a spineless relative who is always getting into trouble and scrapes. It takes a certain strength to be kind, and not overly protective of your ‘integrity’.

Some would say that combining Kant, Aristotle and Hume is just an eclectic compromise. My response would be to quote Nietzsche: ”The truth is simple’ – is that not doubly a lie?’

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