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Ayn Rand has said that "evil" which she defined as anything that is "anti-life" or most specifically against mans life is "impotent".

However I can think of a clear example of "potent" evil overcoming "good".

Say, if a mad scientist invents a self-replicating, nano-machine that converts everything it touches (living and non-living) into copies of itself, this creates a situation where you'd have to ask two questions:

A) How does humanity defend itself against this class of threat (clearly designed to destroy humanity).

B) How is this example of "evil" not "potent" in achieving its goal?

This technology is powerful and (realistically) not far off. As our technology accelerates in the coming decades, the potential for great "evil" will become magnified.

How does Objectivism answer this?

asked Dec 15 '11 at 00:00

MarcT's gravatar image


edited Dec 15 '11 at 02:58

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

I would say that she was talking about ideas rather than tangible things. So if the society had a proper philosophical base and an active citizenry this mad scientist would not exist or would be stamped out before he became dangerous.

(Dec 15 '11 at 19:32) JohnnyBriggz JohnnyBriggz's gravatar image

Evil is not impotent when it is assisted by the good. The good too often gives evil vastly more power than it would ever have on its own, unaided by the good. That's the whole issue of "the sanction of the victim" which Ayn Rand concretizes in Atlas Shrugged.

It is the scientists who are not "mad" who can do the most damage. The ones who are "mad" don't accomplish much and can't; they are, indeed, impotent.

The question also asserts, without references or elaboration: "This technology is powerful and (realistically) not far off" -- referring to "a self-replicating, nano-machine that converts everything it touches (living and non-living) into copies of itself...." The questioner's description sounds very similar to a virus, not much different from any biological organism that survives as a parasite on other ogranisms. If the parasite is too virulent, it eventually destroys itself by running out of new victims to feed on. Other technologies, such as nuclear bombs, can cause a lot of damage, too. Knowledgeable individuals who are capable of assisting the destructive misuse of technology of any kind certainly should think twice about doing so, and perhaps join with those seeking to defend themselves against such attacks, if they value their own lives and well being as well as respecting the lives of others.


The original question and follow-up comments by the questioner rely on several key concepts, each of which needs close examination:

  • Evil
  • Potent (and impotent)
  • Power
  • Destruction (or destructiveness)

    There is also a related concept to consider: appeasement.

    The main premises of the question apparently are that (1) evil is destructiveness, and (2) the power to destroy is a form of being "potent."

    In casual or ordinary usage, (2) may seem uncontroversial. To find out how Ayn Rand actually uses the term "impotent" (or impotence), I did some searching in the literature of Objectivism. I found a number of illuminating references, but the one that seems to provide the most definitive analysis of all the related aspects of the question is to be found in OPAR, Chapter 9, pp. 329-333. Page 329 introduces the principle that evil is impotent, along with a footnote reference to Atlas Shrugged. Here is the OPAR description:
    Evil, for Objectivism, means the willful ignorance or defiance of reality. This has to mean: that which cannot deal with reality, that which is whim-ridden, context-dropping, self-contradictory. Evil is consistent in only one regard: its essence is consistently at war with all the values and virtues human life requires.

    The antilife is barren. It achieves only the antilife.

    ... an irrational man qua irrational cannot achieve anything of value.
    Page 331 explains the "power" of evil:
    Evil does have one power. It has not the power to create, to set positive goals and achieve them, but the power to destroy: to destroy itself and its victims. [...]

    "No thought, knowledge, or consistency is required in order to destroy," writes Ayn Rand....

    Evil men, though impotent, can disappoint, deceive, and betray the innocent; if they turn to crime, they can rob, enslave, and kill.
    Page 332 explains what happens to evil in a proper society:
    In a proper society, however, evil is a marginal element. When men live by rational principles, the evil, so far as men can identify its presence, is ostracized and stopped. Under these conditions, even its power to destroy is largely nullified -- except in regard to the evildoer himself.

    Unfortunately, men have not dominantly lived by rational principles. One way or another throughout the centuries, the men who embody the good, or who represent it in a given issue, have aided, not stopped the evil. They have paved the road for it, letting (or helplessly watching) it profit from the achievements of virtue.
    This is followed by considerable further discussion and examples of "road-paving," culminating (on p. 333) in "Ayn Rand's historic identification ... the sanction of the victim."
    In the rational society envisioned by Objectivism, the evil has no foothold on the living power of the good and no way to offer it torture as recompense. On the contrary, the evil is both damned and dammed, while the good is left free to achieve values and enjoy them.
    From these excerpts and others, note also that appeasers are certainly regarded by Objectivism as morally harmful, but the term "evil" tends to be used more (in Objectivism) to refer to explicit advocates and practitioners of anti-life moral principles than to appeasers who continue to produce the values which the altruists demand (and who may feel powerless to do otherwise). Here is an example (from "The Lessons of Vietnam" in VOR, p. 138):
    I wondered, even in those years [Ayn Rand's adolescence], which is morally worse: evil -- or the appeasement of evil, the cowardly evasion that leaves an evil unnamed, unanswered and unchallenged. I was inclined to think that the second is worse, because it makes the first possible. I am certain of it today.
  • answered Dec 16 '11 at 02:01

    Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

    Ideas for Life ♦

    edited Dec 20 '11 at 00:47

    @ ideas for life

    Here is where I believe the rigid, overly simplistic thinking of Objectivism comes into fault.

    If a "mad" scientist is using "good" (i.e. rationality) to achieve an ultimately "bad" aim (self-destructive or not) he is not "good" in any sense of the term, he is "bad" is he not?

    The most obvious example of my point is a suicide bomber. They use technology and "rational" methods to carry out their ultimately self-destructive goals. The point here is that the evil doesn't have to care about its own life yet can still cause massive, irreparable harm to others.

    (Dec 17 '11 at 23:42) MarcT MarcT's gravatar image

    Suicide bombers are not scientists. They do not discover new knowledge or develop new technology. The technology of explosive devices has been around for thousands of years, originating in ancient China, to my knowledge. One who is driven to destroy rather than create needs only to copy the discoveries of others and can often do so if the technology involved isn't too sophisticated.

    (The comment also mentions "rigid, overly simplistic thinking of Objectivism." But what Objectivism does is to integrate the evidence of reality, to whatever degree of abstraction and condensation the evidence allows, and always with openness to furter evidence if or when such becomes available.).

    (Dec 18 '11 at 03:32) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

    I believe you are missing my point.

    The "suicide bomber" example was a device to illustrate my point (no pun intended heh).

    My point being that "evil" is not impotent due to the massive and irreparable harm it can cause. Whether or not the perpetrators or evil are self-destructive is ultimately irrelevant to the good.

    The idea that evil must be "aided" by the good in order to be successful is a contradiction in terms because:

    "The person(s) "aiding" an evil cause is necessarily evil (i.e. nazi scientists)"

    The other commenter (johnnybriggz) got my original question.

    (Dec 19 '11 at 16:12) MarcT MarcT's gravatar image
    showing 2 of 3 show all

    Objectivists do not believe that evil people or ideological movements are impotent. Indeed much of the course of human history has been marked by evil winning out over the good. When Rand points out the impotence of evil, she clearly does not claim or imply that evil people/movements cannot accomplish their ends, but rather that to the extent that they are efficacious they are relying parasitically on the good.

    The fundamental "sin" according to Rand is evasion. A thoroughly evil person with no iota of good would be chronically evading reality, and thus would indeed be completely inefficacious. He would not live long either, since even eating one's meals requires some focus on reality. The point is that people we recognize as evil are really mixed cases--mixtures of evil and good. The good sustains the evil and allows it to have power that it could never attain on its own.

    Consider the Mad scientist--where did he gain his knowledge of science? Clearly he had to devote time and effort to focusing on reality in order to gain knowledge. Such reality focused-rationality is good. It is only after the good has created the value of the knowledge that the evil can turn it to sinister ends.

    Not only do evil people rely on their own pittance of good character to help them get by, they also rely on the good around them. Consider again the Mad Scientist--where does he get his funding for his research, his equipment, his food, his assistants, etc.? The funding must come from someone who produced it, i.e., from someone who has done good. The equipment had to have been invented by someone, and then produced by someone, i.e., from someone who has done good. His food had to have been grown, harvested, and distributed by people, i.e., from people who have done good. And so on. Everything the Mad Scientist relies on so that he can reach his evil ends are provided to him by the good. If the good removed this support, then the Scientist would not accomplish much.

    Pointing out some crazy scheme whereby evil wins over the good does not refute the principle that evil is impotent. It merely shows how spectacularly otherwise good people can slit their own throats by supporting evil.

    answered Dec 19 '11 at 16:54

    ericmaughan43's gravatar image

    ericmaughan43 ♦

    edited Dec 19 '11 at 16:56

    I believe you've sufficiently clarified the objectivist position.


    (Dec 21 '11 at 21:39) MarcT MarcT's gravatar image

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    Asked: Dec 15 '11 at 00:00

    Seen: 1,209 times

    Last updated: Dec 21 '11 at 21:39