Preferred Indifferents & Objectivism

A post on applying the Stoic idea of preferred indifferents to a couple of passages of Ayn Rand's novels.

I’ve been reading some materials about Stoicism and trying to connect them to Objectivism, which I have some background familiarity with. I think Stoicism has some truth, and trying to connect it to things I already know like Objectivism helps me with understanding both sets of ideas better. This post is part of that project. Note that it’s pretty spoilery, so if you haven’t read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged you should probably go do that instead of reading my blog. 🙂

The Stoic concept I’m going to focus on in this post is the concept of preferred indifferents. Here’s a description from a Stoic book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor:

Wisdom, in all these forms, mainly requires understanding the difference between good, bad, and indifferent things. Virtue is good and vice is bad, but everything else is indifferent. Indeed, as we’ve seen, the Stoics followed the Cynics in maintaining the hard line that virtue is the only true good. However, Zeno went on to distinguish between indifferent things that are “preferred,” “dispreferred,” or completely indifferent. Put crudely, external things do have some value, but they’re not worth getting upset over—it’s a different kind of value. One way Stoics explained this was by saying that if we could put virtue on one side of a set of scales, it wouldn’t matter how many gold coins or other indifferent things piled up on the opposing side—it should never tip the balance. Nevertheless, some external things are preferable to others, and wisdom consists precisely in our ability to make these sorts of value judgments. Life is preferable to death, wealth is preferable to poverty, health is preferable to sickness, friends are preferable to enemies, and so on.

Here, I’m not going to focus on the definition of virtue. I think Stoicism and Objectivism have some disagreements about that. My focus will instead be on one’s attitude/relative valuation of things in relation to living virtuously - like, where does one put something on a scale when compared to living virtuously and with integrity (given a certain definition of what that entails) .

There's a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that I think can be connected to the idea of preferred indifferents. To understand the meaning of this scene, it really helps if you’ve read the novel, so what follows is more of a reminder for people who have read it and not a summary for people who are unfamiliar with it. Roark is an architect who erected a temple to the human spirit for a client. Roark wasn’t aware that the temple job was part of a big plan by a villain, Ellsworth Toohey, to try to destroy him, and now Roark is dealing with that plan (e.g. getting sued by his client and attacked in the press). Here's the scene (between Roark and Dominique, with Roark speaking first in the excerpt below):

“I want you to know. What you’re thinking is much worse than the truth. I don’t believe it matters to me—that they’re going to destroy it. Maybe it hurts so much that I don’t even know I’m hurt. But I don’t think so. If you want to carry it for my sake, don’t carry more than I do. I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain. You mustn’t look like that.”
“Where does it stop?”
“Where I can think of nothing and feel nothing except that I designed that temple. I built it. Nothing else can seem very important.”
“You shouldn’t have built it. You shouldn’t have delivered it to the sort of thing they’re doing.”
“That doesn’t matter. Not even that they’ll destroy it. Only that it had existed.”
She shook her head. “Do you see what I was saving you from when I took commissions away from you? ... To give them no right to do this to you.... No right to live in a building of yours ... No right to touch you ... not in any way....”

Roark’s attitude is that the campaign against him and even the destruction of the temple he built don’t really matter. I don’t think he is saying that those things are completely 100% irrelevant to him. I think he’d prefer that the temple wasn’t ruined and that there was no campaign against him. But he thinks those things are not fundamentally important. They’re closer to an annoyance than something that is bothering him much. The building continuing to exist in the manner he designed it would be nice, because he could then continue to enjoy it. And there being no campaign against him would say something good about the world and would make it easier for him to get clients and whatnot. But those aren’t fundamental issues. The fact that he got to design and build it - to exercise his virtue - is what really matters fundamentally. His knowledge of that fact puts things in perspective and limits the degree to which he can be bothered by matters of lesser concern.

Note that Dominique’s attitude is very different. She actually had tried to thwart Roark, even though she loves and appreciates him, because she didn’t want the bad element in the world to touch him. She is not indifferent to the things of lesser importance in the world, and her mistaken attitude leads to her actually thwarting virtue (and Roark).

I found another connection to the idea of preferred indifferents is in Atlas Shrugged. You really need to have read the novel to understand what’s going on, but as a short summary for those who have, Dagny Taggart wound up in Galt’s Gulch without being invited by the people who live there, and is deciding to go back to the (dying) world outside. In the quote below, she is explaining why she is doing this:

“If you want to know the one reason that’s taking me back, I’ll tell you: I cannot bring myself to abandon to destruction all the greatness of the world, all that which was mine and yours, which was made by us and is still ours by right—because I cannot believe that men can refuse to see, that they can remain blind and deaf to us forever, when the truth is ours and their lives depend on accepting it. They still love their lives—and that is the uncorrupted remnant of their minds. So long as men desire to live, I cannot lose my battle.”
“Do they?” said Hugh Akston softly. “Do they desire it? No, don’t answer me now. I know that the answer was the hardest thing for any of us to grasp and to accept. Just take that question back with you, as the last premise left for you to check.”

Dagny says she can’t bring herself to abandon to destruction all the greatness of the world. But in Galt’s Gulch, she has an opportunity to live virtuously, with integrity and without compromise. It’d be nice if the greatness in the world wasn’t compromised and corrupted and if Dagny wasn’t faced with the stark choice that she is. But the fact that it is corrupted and compromised - and that the people in it are corrupted and compromised - is not something that Dagny should regard as being fundamentally important. Instead, she should (and ultimately does) join with the people in Galt’s Gulch, who created for themselves an opportunity to live virtuously and with integrity, and who are willing to do that indefinitely, if need be, while the world sorts itself out.