The Actuality of Ayn Rand

Published on Tuesday April 12th, 2011

Slavoj Žižek in The Actuality of Ayn Rand:

From my high school days, I remember the strange gesture of a good friend of mine that shocked me considerably at the time. The teacher asked us to write an essay on “what satisfaction does it provide to accomplish a good deed of helping one’s neighbor”—the idea being that each of us should describe the profound satisfaction that comes from the awareness that we did something good. My friend put the paper and pen down on the table and, in contrast to others who quickly scribbled their notes, just sat motionless. When the teacher asked him what was wrong, he answered that he was unable to write anything, because he simply never felt either the need for (or satisfaction of) such acts—he never did something good. The teacher was so shocked that she gave my friend a special opportunity: he could write his paper at home after school—surely he would remember some good deed.

Next day, my friend came to school with the same blank paper, stating that he thought a lot about it the previous afternoon. There was simply no good deed of his that he could recall. The desperate teacher then blurted out: “But could you not simply invent some story along these lines?,” to which my friend answered that he had no imagination that would run in this direction, that it was beyond his scope to imagine such things. When the teacher made clear to him that his stubborn attitude could cost him dearly—the lowest grade he could get would seriously damage his standings—my friend insisted that he could not help it. He was completely powerless, since it was beyond his scope to think along these lines, his mind was simply blank.

This refusal to compromise one’s attitude is ethics at its purest, ethics as opposed to morality, to moral compassion. My friend was, in his deeds, an extremely helpful and “good” person; what was absolutely unpalatable for him was to find narcissistic satisfaction in observing himself doing good deeds. In his mind, such a reflexive turn equaled the profoundest ethical betrayal.


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