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The Possible Dream (Part 2)

A rational, this-worldly concept of perfection in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics.

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This is the second and final part of “The Possible Dream.” Read Part 1 here.


The choice in regard to perfection is not: the hopeless quest for the unattainable or the abandonment of all ideals. The alternative is not the impossible dream versus cynical resignation. These irrational dilemmas are a manifestation of the wider false alternative that is ripping our culture apart: mysticism versus skepticism (or: intrinsicism versus subjectivism).

One side asserts that perfection is to be judged by the standards of the supernatural and concludes that perfection can be attained only in Heaven, not in this world. The other side agrees that perfection is to be judged by the standards of the supernatural but holds that Heaven is (probably) a myth and concludes that perfection cannot be attained anywhere. Both sides hold that without God man is doomed to failure, cognitively and morally; both hold that man qua man is an ignorant sinner.

It does no good to reject the mystics’ metaphysics while retaining their epistemology and ethics, i.e., to cling to other-worldly standards without the other world.

The truth is that proper, this-worldly standards are more demanding than standards which cannot be met — more demanding intellectually. Defining and applying rational standards takes a careful process of independent thought, while the mystical “standards” turn out to be simple-minded substitutes for mental effort: vague images, canned slogans, and floating abstractions. (The desire to escape mental effort is one reason why many people would rather demand the impossible of themselves than accept rational standards.)

The claim that perfection is impossible attempts to blame reality for the problems resulting from the cavalier misuse of concepts — from invalid definitions, equivocations, and “stolen concepts.” Consider three areas in which perfection is commonly believed to be unattainable.

1. Morality. The anti-perfection doctrine is most deeply entrenched and most disastrous in regard to morality. The impossibility of moral perfection is taken as a self-evident truth. But what is morality? Morality is “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions.”1 Morality exists to evaluate the choices confronting man; the concept of “choice” logically precedes and delimits the scope of all moral concepts — including the concept of “moral perfection.” To speak of an impossible moral perfection is to violate this hierarchy of concepts, thus “stealing” the concept of “moral perfection” and engaging in self-contradiction. For if moral perfection is not merely rare but impossible, then man is saddled with some degree of unavoidable evil — i.e., an evil choice that he cannot stop himself from making — i.e., an unchosen choice.

Religionists often argue that to be morally perfect man would have to be metaphysically incapable of evil. Since man has free will, since he is free to choose between good and evil, he cannot attain moral perfection, they hold. This argument carries the “stolen concept” to its ultimate extreme: the factor that makes morality possible — free will — is held to be a violation of morality. The truth is that a being lacking the choice between good and evil would not be morally perfect, but amoral — i.e.,outside the province of morality altogether.

In logic, the standard of morality must restrict moral evaluation to the issues over which man has volitional control. The Objectivist standard of morality, man’s survival qua man, recognizes this fact.

“Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan-in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.2 (emphasis added)

The major cause of the near-universal belief that moral perfection is impossible lies in the specific version of morality that, since Kant, has monopolized the field: the code of self-sacrifice. The idea of a nonsacrificial morality is now treated as if it were a contradiction in terms. Philosophers today will tell you that principles to guide man in achieving his rational self-interest are by definition non-moral; such principles are matters of “prudence,” not of morality, they announce.

On the premise that morality equals self-sacrifice, it is easy to see why “moral perfection is impossible” is on everyone’s lips. The code of self-sacrifice is a code of self-destruction. To live is to violate the code. On this point, readers of Atlas Shrugged need no elaboration.

On a rational moral code, moral perfection is not merely possible, it is an absolute necessity. Since morality proceeds from the fundamental alternative man confronts — life or death — morality has first claim on a man’s choices, and nothing can justify the subordination of morality to any other consideration.

Discard that unlimited license to evil which consists of claiming that man is imperfect. By what standard do you damn him when you claim it? Accept the fact that in the realm of morality nothing less than perfection will do. But perfection is not to be gauged by mystic commandments to practice the impossible, and your moral stature is not to be gauged by matters not open to your choice. Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue. Moral perfection is an unbreached rationality . . .3

A “breached rationality,” or what Ayn Rand has called the “mixed economy of reason and emotion,” means the complete subordination of reason to emotion. Whenever a man elects to side with his emotions against his reason, his premise is, ‘‘I’ll go by reason — as long as my emotions permit it.” He establishes his feelings as the final authority that sets the domain in which his mind may operate. Unless he rejects that premise, reverses the priority, and commits himself to perfect rationality, the sphere in which he feels it is “safe” to be rational will constantly shrink, as his irrational feelings flex their muscles.

The literal mixed economy attempts to find a compromise between the opposite principles of freedom and force, but cannot succeed. The same is true of the moral “mixed economy” which seeks to find a compromise between the good and the evil, rather than to attain moral perfection.

2. Politics. Political freedom is a prime target of the anti-perfectionists. Man cannot be perfectly free, they maintain, because he is not omnipotent. His freedom of action is restrained by the limitations of his own capacities and by the laws of nature; his freedom to have what he wants is restricted by the fact that nature does not shower him with goods and that he must work in order to obtain values.

Moreover, they continue, man’s freedom from other men cannot be perfect because each man’s freedom conflicts with that of others. If I am to be free to do whatever I wish, then what becomes of your freedom when our desires conflict? What if, for instance, you and I both want the same job and only one of us can have it? What if I want to have your car, your money, your house? What if I want to enslave you? In all these cases of conflicting desires, they argue, at least one of us has to yield, surrendering thereby some or all of his freedom.

On the premise that perfect freedom is impossible, there is no difference in principle between capitalism and statism. Capitalists and statists are seen as differing merely over where they would draw the line between too few and too many restrictions on freedom. In fact, political “conservatives” argue in this manner that capitalism is the safe, moderate middle of the road between totalitarian dictatorship and the impossible dream of perfect freedom.

Sound inspiring? Ready to mount the barricades to defend “reasonable” restrictions on your freedom? Want to launch a crusade to preserve a “moderate” degree of enslavement?

This offensive nonsense results from accepting the irrational standard underlying the attack on perfect freedom. “Perfect freedom” is assumed to mean: the complete absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of one’s desires.

The irrationality of this standard lies in the fact that it subordinates reason to emotion. Desires are not irreducible primaries. They are the product of man’s value premises — premises which may be rational or irrational, consonant with or contradictory to the facts of reality. The fulfillment of a desire cannot be evaluated out of context; whim cannot serve as the basis for any political concept. When one evades that fact, the result is a definition by non-essentials, leading to exactly the sort of equivocations and confusions that characterize the anti-perfectionists’ stand on freedom.

The concept of political freedom does not pertain to man’s relationship to nature but to man’s relationship to man. The “obstacles” whose presence or absence the concept evaluates are man-made obstacles. The laws of nature are not “obstacles” to human action — but they are viewed as such by the irrationalist who takes his desires as the given, and only then turns to reality to see what it will “permit.”

(The word “freedom” can of course be used in a metaphorical or analogous sense to talk of freedom from pain, disease, etc., but then the word denotes a different concept. It is nothing but plain equivocation to switch from that concept to the political one, as the anti-perfection argument does.)

The actual obstacle whose absence is denoted by the concept of freedom — the thing a free man is free from — is coercive interference by other men. And the means by which coercion operates is physical force; only physical force can compel a man to act against his own judgment.

The issue of political freedom is not a primary. The alternative of freedom versus coercion arises only after one has arrived at the principle that man has a right to his life. On that foundation, one can proceed to identify the conditions which are necessary to implement man’s right to his life, including the fact that man must be free to act on his own judgment.

Since man survives by producing values, not by expropriating them, the notion of a “freedom” to rob, enslave, and murder is precluded at the outset. The idea that laws protecting individual rights restrict the “freedom” to commit criminal acts inverts the necessary hierarchical order and turns “freedom” into a “stolen concept.”

The best answer to the idea that absolute, perfect freedom is impossible was given almost 35 years ago by Ayn Rand: “Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom is absolute.”4

3. Epistemology. Although the concept of “perfection” is primarily normative, assuming a standard of value, the term also has a wider usage. The dictionary gives the following additional meaning of “perfect”: “conforming absolutely to the description or definition of the type: a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.”5

The same anti-perfectionism crops up here. In fact, the alleged impossibility of a perfect sphere is a philosophical chestnut trotted out in every introductory philosophy course.

The argument is that no matter how nearly perfect a sphere seems to be, some deviation from perfect roundness will always be present. If an apparently perfect sphere, such as a (new) billiard ball, is examined under a powerful microscope, flaws will be observed. And ultimately, the billiard ball is composed of molecules that are in constant vibratory motion (due to heat energy). Thus the billiard ball’s shape, far from being perfectly spherical, is constantly undergoing very tiny changes. Conclusion: the mathematically perfect sphere is an “idealization” that is never realized in the physical world.

By extending this line of argument and applying it to tables, organisms, etc., philosophers can “prove” that all concepts apply only imperfectly to reality, that nothing conforms absolutely to any concept’s definition, that what we think of as “knowledge” is merely approximations built on approximations, and that no one has the right to demand precision, absolutes, or say “it is” about anything in this world.

The fallacy here is context-switching. What one sees under a microscope is not relevant to the concept of “sphere,” which is formed to denote precisely the sort of shape possessed by billiard balls. A billiard ball is a perfect sphere, by a rational, contextual standard. A “perfect sphere” means a sphere that is flawless in the context of man’s form of perception.

To a sub-amoeba living on the molecular level (if such an organism existed), a billiard ball would be a galaxy — an astronomically large, pulsating collection of entities. But what does that have to do with man? Man’s concept of “sphere” refers to a human scale, the scale on which man grasps and deals with reality.

All concepts, including the farthest reaches of mathematical abstraction, are derived from the perceptual level of man’s awareness, and all standards of perfection must be consistent with this fact. To borrow a passage from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,

It is here that Protagoras’ old dictum may be given a new meaning, the opposite of the one he intended: “Man is the measure of all things.” Man is the measure, epistemologically — not metaphysically. In regard to human knowledge, man has to be the measure, since he has to bring all things into the realm of the humanly knowable.6

*   *   *

The alleged impossibility of attaining perfection is invoked when an idea or standard conflicts with reality. We are expected to swallow the contradiction rather than to correct the idea or standard. In this regard, “You cannot have perfection” functions in the same manner as such familiar catchphrases as “That may be good in theory, but it’s bad in practice,” “Nothing is black or white,” and “There are no simple answers.” In each case the underlying message is: theories, principles, and standards cannot be applied to the problems of “real life.” The “realistic” man, we are told, recognizes that reason is only an approximate or partial guide; to be “practical” we must not insist on consistency, which is merely “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

In this way, the demonstration that an idea conflicts with reality — which ought to count as that idea’s refutation — is treated as a sign of the inadequacy of reason.

As an unattainable perfection undercuts reason in epistemology, so it undercuts virtue in ethics. For the conscientious man, the acceptance of an impossible standard of moral perfection sets his best trait, his idealism, against himself. The more he strives to be good, the more guilt he experiences from his inevitable failure to achieve the impossible. His own pride, his moral ambitiousness, becomes his worst enemy. But for the man who is indifferent to moral values, the impossible standard carries no such penalty. In fact, the set-up serves as an excuse for such a man’s indulgence in actual evil. He comes to have a vested interest in the doctrine that perfection is unattainable. He is eager to hear that there is no difference in principle between himself and the greatest hero: both are held guilty, the difference being only one of degree. The impossible standard ensures that every hero will turn out to have feet of clay, for the standard equates human flesh with clay, i.e., it damns man for being man. The impossible standard protects the evil man from condemnation: it guarantees that there will be no one without sin to cast the first stone.

Men would rebel if they were told that the good must surrender to the evil, that the good has no rights by virtue of the fact that it is the good, while any demand made by the evil must be honored because it is the evil. But tell them instead that no one can be perfectly moral and they leap to agree, thereby instituting the same inversion of morality quietly and by degrees. For,

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels — and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.7

As proof of the accuracy of this analysis, just recall the last thirty-five years of America’s foreign policy.

This brings us to the political motive for the anti-perfection attitude. By infecting man with unavoidable guilt, the mystics and collectivists aim to deprive man of the moral certainty required to assert his rights.

Do you recall the scene in which Lillian Rearden attempts to prevent Hank Rearden from defending himself at his trial?

I think you should remember that it’s not for you to make a stand on any sort of principle. . . . I think you should abandon the illusion of your own perfection, which you know full well to be an illusion. . . . The day of the hero is past. . . . Human beings are no longer expected to be saints nor to be punished for their sins. Nobody is right or wrong, we’re all in it together, we’re all human — and the human is the imperfect.8

And do you recall Ayn Rand’s analysis of the motive behind the collectivist ideal enunciated in the papal encyclical, “Populorum Progressio”?

It is not intended to be accepted and practiced; it is intended to be accepted and broken. . . . Men who accept as an ideal an irrational goal which they cannot achieve, never lift their heads thereafter — and never discover that their bowed heads were the only goal to be achieved.9

It was not always thus. There was a time in which unbowed heroes, armed with an inviolate confidence in the perfect justice of their cause, declared their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ‘‘And for the support of this declaration,” they wrote, “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

It is precisely the sanctity of a man’s honor, with the self-assertiveness it makes possible, that the anti-perfectionists seek to destroy. Such honor is impossible to an imperfect being. But not, as the Founding Fathers proved, to man.

This article originally appeared in the Objectivist Forum, a bimonthly journal of ideas edited and published by Harry Binswanger, between February and April 1981. Copyright © 1981 by TOF Publications, Inc.; republished by permission.

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Footnotes

  1. The Virtue of Selfishness (New American Library: 1965), p. 2.
  2. Ibid., p. 18.
  3. Atlas Shrugged (Random House: 1957), p. 1059.
  4. “Textbook of Americanism,” p. 7.
  5. The Random House College Dictionary, op. cit.
  6. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Mentor: 1979), p. 10.
  7. Atlas Shrugged, op. cit., pp. 1054–55.
  8. Ibid. pp. 463–64.
  9. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New American Library: 1967), 2nd ed., p. 313.
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Harry Binswanger

Harry Binswanger, PhD in philosophy and formerly an associate of Ayn Rand, is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation. He is a member of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute.

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