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Don Watkins on How to Be an Earthly Idealist

A rational morality is an aid – not a burden – to achieving a life worth living.

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Many readers of Ayn Rand – especially the younger ones – are profoundly moved by the moral idealism of her novels’ heroes. They see Howard Roark and John Galt as models of integrity, purpose, and independence. Yet, when seeking to define and pursue their ideals, they often struggle with confusion, dissatisfaction, and a burdensome sense of guilt. Why is it so hard (and common) for these aspiring idealists to become happier?

Don Watkins took up the challenge of addressing this problem in his talk at Objectivist Summer Conference 2023 in Miami, “How to Be an Earthly Idealist.” He states forthrightly that becoming a moral idealist is demanding and requires constant commitment and reflection on one’s part, but insists that it can be done. Part of the reason many feel that moral ideals are like a straightjacket, he argues, is a consequence of thinking of moral principles not as guides to one’s personal values, but as unconditional religious commandments.

Watkins shows us how a rational morality rejects that way of thinking and helps answer a vital question: “What kind of life do I want to create?” He provides specific advice on how to reflect on one’s experience with concrete values, how to employ abstract principles to develop personal standards, and how to correct flaws in one’s character. In the end, he arrives at a distinctive picture of idealism that is free from the pointless conflicts and frustration long encouraged by religion.

In the Q&A, Watkins addresses topics such as:

  • How to approach self-experimentation;
  • How Objectivism understands the difference between lying and dishonesty;
  • Whether there’s a disconnect between the intellectual and the practical dimensions of people’s lives;
  • How abstract principles provide guidance in forming values;
  • The response one must have in the face of so much irrationality in the world.

You can now watch the recording of Don’s talk online:


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Ricardo Pinto

Ricardo Pinto, BA in philosophy, is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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