Answer: One of the hardest virtues to practice is independence. Independence, wrote Ayn Rand , “means one’s acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind” (from "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness). It means living first-hand, with your independent judgment of the facts as your primary guide to action. It means not letting the say-so of others trump your thinking. It means not thinking of others as the standard by which to judge yourself.
Independence is a hard virtue to practice because we benefit so much from the values that others in society provide to us.
One major class of value from others is all the information they provide us, from the subjects we learn in school… to ethical teachings …to scientific discoveries… to hot gossip… to the news we receive from all over the world. Does being independent mean that we can’t trust any of these sources? Practically everything we know comes to us through others. Right now, for instance, you are receiving advice from another, namely me.
The answer is that we should distinguish along a range from items of knowledge we are certain about, through claims we can’t really confirm, to ideas we know are false.
The basis of independence is epistemological: knowledge only exists when a rational mind grasps a fact. When someone else tells you that an idea is true, they may or may not really know it, but you certainly do not know it until you have independently understood it and understood what facts make it true (or if none do). When you have confirmed a truth through experiment, through your own experience, or through your grasp of history, mathematics, or logic, etc. —that’s the gold standard of knowledge. That’s what keeps scientific and technical progress advancing today, though it didn’t advance in the past. Heck, it’s what makes communication itself possible, since if you couldn’t understand the objective meaning of words, all talk would be meaningless gibberish.
Remember: it’s your grasp of the facts that makes your judgment objective; it’s not the strength of your belief that matters. Belief is the state of mind that says “I regard this idea as true.” Certainly, you should believe everything you think is true, but believing more strongly will not make up for the fact that an idea isn’t true in the first place. Nor will belief in an idea make up for your not knowing whether it’s true or false.
With the gold standard of independent, objective knowledge in mind, we can start to make sense of all the information and advice we get from others.
One of the hardest virtues to practice is independence.
The best teaching from others lets us check and confirm the truth of what we are learning ourselves: that’s what science labs are for, and geometry proofs, and reading primary sources in history. Then there is the vast range of claims we should accept provisionally: reports from experts that we can’t check, for example, or advice from professionals with specialized knowledge. When your car breaks down, you take it to a mechanic. If you are like most of us, you can’t fix the car yourself and you probably don’t understand how it works well enough to really check the mechanic’s claims. Instead, you should check whether what he says squares with what you know is possible. You should take his advice in the context of the market, knowing if he has good reason to give you good service, and knowing you could probably sue him if he were seriously negligent. And you should judge his work by its effects: does your car run once he has fixed it? But still, it’s hard to find a good mechanic sometimes, and they don’t always give you good advice. The same goes for all sorts of experts—doctors, lawyers, investment advisors, and accountants, for example.
So to function well in society and get all the benefits it has to offer, we have to use the flood of information that is available and, when we can’t settle the matter ourselves, judge the trends and patterns of what others offer to see who seems to be the most consistent, who achieves the best practical results, who has incentives for telling the truth, and who seems open and responsive to changes in context. In this way, we can learn a great deal and extend our mental reach, but conditionally.
For example, everything I know about the liver falls in this category. I’ve never studied anatomy seriously. I’ve never tested a liver. I’ve eaten them. I’ve read about anatomy. I’ve played “Operation.” I have honest friends who are medical doctors, and they tell me what the liver does and how. I’ve read news articles about taking care of my liver. Everything I know is consistent, but only bits and pieces of it are really first hand. But since everything in reality is related to everything else, this broad consistency of claims and facts gives me a great deal of confidence that I’m acting appropriately with regard to livers, both my own and those I eat.
Now let’s turn to your particular problem. You are in the process of questioning beliefs that you were taught in childhood. The theory seems straightforward: take everything you were taught as provisional, until and unless you can judge the truth of the matter for yourself. Among those issues you cannot settle yourself, try to judge which ideas are most consistent, what practical effects they have, etc.
If other people value you, they have to value your ability to think for yourself.
But it’s hard, in practice, because you probably like and respect many of the people who taught you your childhood beliefs. One of the most difficult aspects of living independently is untangling different kinds of social benefits. Friendship and love, with their basis in our need for psychological visibility, are important values. But they don’t give others a license to dictate the content of your mind. If other people value you
, they have to value your ability to think for yourself. Otherwise, they are loving a lie, demanding that their loved ones lobotomize themselves mentally. In that case, they want the appearance of agreement, not the reality. As Ayn Rand
put it in The Fountainhead
, “To say I love you, one must first be able to say the ‘I’.”
If others tell you that you are confused, listen to them. Just don’t believe them. Assess how sound their information is. Are they sensitive to your context and able to understand your arguments and your point of view? Do they offer plausible counter-arguments to your positions? Are they straight talkers, who report the facts come what may? If they are sensitive, logical, and frank, then maybe you are confused. But if they aren’t, maybe you aren’t confused after all. We can benefit greatly from others even when we disagree with them, because their doubts and questions can challenge us to think through our own case more clearly and make sure we have considered all the facts. But for that to happen, they have to be essentially rational in their approach to the issues.
In the end, you can be sure that you understand yourself by looking, really looking, at yourself. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Practice the virtue of pride: judge yourself and work to improve yourself morally, which means practically. Reach your own judgments, then see how they square with other facts you know and how they work in practice. If this is how you live and think, then you will have a solid bedrock of objective knowledge and sound judgments on which to base all your actions—and from which to respond to the criticisms of others. When people tell you that you don’t understand anything, or say that you don’t understand yourself, listen to them, for sure, but realize, too, that it is possible that they don’t want you to understand. In that case, they probably don’t deserve all the respect that they demand from you.