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Atlas Shrugged @ 50+

Tibor Machan considers the continuing appeal of the moral philosophy of Ayn Rand, more than fifty years after the publication of her greatest work.

Ayn Rand has never gained much support among the literati. Her novels are often dismissed as badly crafted and too ideological. In circles where one might expect that she would receive serious scrutiny, she is dismissed because of what are very arguably irrelevant elements of her work. When her most successful novel, Atlas Shrugged was first released, Whittaker Chambers gave her a very bad review in the National Review, America’s leading Christian conservative patriotic magazine at the time, mostly because Rand was an atheist and didn’t take kindly to culpably stupid people. For such sins she was compared to the Nazis. As Chambers put it, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chambers – go!’” This was one of the most ludicrous charges ever leveled at her, given her relentless, uncompromising support of the principles of America’s Founding Fathers, as sketched in the Declaration of Independence. One can take issue with whether her arguments for those principles are sound, but not reasonably with whether she earnestly and fully embraced them.

Rand did become a leading writer in America and around the world. While her detractors like to ascribe her success to the immaturity of her readers, in fact many who find her writings praiseworthy are formidable scholars – such as John Hospers, a renowned philosopher of aesthetics. Rand wrote several best-selling novels, including, most notably, Atlas Shrugged. This is a book of great length which includes an extraordinarily long speech by the protagonist, John Galt. Rand also went on to develop philosophical ideas that have received serious attention, and from many, great admiration. Her first best-seller, The Fountainhead, was also made into a moderately successful Hollywood movie starring Gary Cooper, certainly a major star of the day.

Rand is often criticized in severe moral terms, beginning with Chambers’ vitriolic charges. Yet most of those who criticize her morally either do so on the basis of religion, where support for this judgment comes from faith, impossible to access for other than the faithful; or else they are out-and-out skeptics, who claim to see no way to give moral judgments any support – yet find no problem with casting aspersions at Rand or others whom they do not like. One major supporter of the ethics of altruism, which Rand regards as vicious, is Peter Singer, who rests his moral thinking on nothing firmer than personal intuitions. (See Peter Berkowitz, ‘Other People’s Mothers’ in The New Republic, January 10, 2000. Here, among other points, Berkowitz shows that Singer’s meta-ethics is of the highly infirm intuitionist variety.)

The Ethics of Selfishness

But now to some of the ethical substance which makes Rand philosophically interesting, even provocative.

Although she titled her collection of writings on ethics The Virtue of Selfishness, she provided a clear clue to what kind of selfishness she had in mind with the subtitle, ‘A New Concept of Egoism’. By this subtitle she told readers that by using the term ‘selfishness’ she doesn’t imply the usual neo-Hobbesian view, in terms of which a selfish individual will only act so as to fulfill his or her desires – the selfishness of Homo economicus, for example. Rand’s version of ethical egoism is far closer to Aristotelian eudemonism than to Hobbesian psychological egoism.

The few philosophers who have bothered to address her ideas managed to misunderstand her so basically as to utterly misinform readers as to what she thought. A good case in point is the late James Rachels, who in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, completely mischaracterized the crucial action of Rand’s heroic protagonist in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. In this novel Roark accepts an assignment to design a block of low-cost apartment buildings, under the condition that his design will not be compromised. Sure enough, the builders do not follow Roark’s design, so the integrity of his architectural ideas is violently undermined. Roark then blows up the building – before tenants have moved in and without danger to anyone. Professor Rachels wrote this up as an example of Hobbesian, self-indulgent egoism, with no mention of the issue of integrity – an issue that simply couldn’t be missed by any careful reader.

Readers of The Fountainhead can easily tell that Howard Roark is no self-indulgent pursuer of mere desire-satisfaction. This is precisely because integrity plays such a vital part in understanding who Roark is, the kind of individual the novel is about – as well as understanding the faults of some of the villains, such as Peter Keating. No Hobbesian egoist needs care about integrity! Why? Because for Hobbes, human nature is purely nominal – our nature is whatever we agree to think it to be. Thus, there is no unchanging psychological basis to yield real integrity.

By contrast, for Rand human nature exists objectively, and is derived from certain crucial facts about human beings. This idea needs to be understood and appreciated in the context of Rand’s overall philosophical system, which she called Objectivism. This contains a naturalist conception of reality which sees the human self is an entirely natural entity, not divided between the natural and the supernatural as so many of the world’s religions take it to be, in terms of which people are some peculiar combination of mind and body, or spirit and flesh. For Rand a person is instead a whole being with various aspects. So, yes, people are rational, which is a central capacity for them; and chemical, physical, social and economic (some more this than others, depending on their self-determination as well as other basic attributes), and so forth. As Friedrich Ratzel, German anthropologist, put it,

“Man is a piece of the earth – not an exception, nor one with something added from outside. Man is an actor in nature, not a spectator of nature. And in reverse man and his behavior are as illustrative of nature as is an atom or a solar system. There are not two worlds. Man, however, is not abased by being a piece of nature. Rather Nature becomes, among other things, that which includes man with all his ways and byways… In brief – Nature is the kind of realm in which thinking goes on. Thinking is not a derivative from the eating of a tree of knowledge.”

In Rand’s view some human features are central or defining, some less so, or even incidental, such as people’s height or national origin. What is crucial for ethics, however, is that a good self is going to be good in terms of criteria based on human nature. Leading a good or excellent human life involves considerations pertaining to our natural capacities, faculties, opportunities, and purposes. This is the context in which to grasp the following point Rand makes in The Virtue of Selfishness: “Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness.”

Now to Rand, “selfishness is ‘concern with one’s own interests’ and Objectivist ethics uses this concept in its exact and purest sense.” The criteria of true self-interestedness is what is proper to a being – a being whose self is a part of nature, and whose well-being or excellence needs to be understood in terms of the standards of its nature. On this view selfishness needs to be honored (which recalls the title of a 1989 book by Rand’s longtime partner Nathaniel Branden, namely Honoring the Self).

Let me put this in what you might call ‘neo-Aristotelian’ language. Living beings can flourish or perish, or languish somewhere in-between. What constitutes their flourishing depends on their nature. If you want a good tomato, you have to have a clear idea of what a tomato is, and see which available tomatoes fulfill the nature of a tomato to the fullest. In an Aristotelian way, animals, plants, indeed all living beings can be evaluated along such self-referential lines, provided some peculiarily unnatural metaphysics are not introduced. If this temptation is resisted, as it ought to be, the evaluation of one’s own conduct and life can also proceed along the lines of what kind of natural entity one is and how one’s nature will be most fully realized – how such an entity as yourself will flourish.

The virtues Ayn Rand identifies in her essay ‘The Objectivist Ethics’ and elsewhere all amount to standards by which one ought to conduct oneself and strive to be as good a human individual as it is possible for one to be. This is the kind of ethical egoism Rand identifies as the proper morality for human beings. She contrasts it with the widely-hailed altruistic ethics. As Maclagan puts it, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows… Altruism is to… maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” (W. G. Maclagan, ‘Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism’, Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954) pp.109-110.) By contrast, Rand holds that we need morality or ethics because we are not equipped with hard-wiring or instincts which automatically guide us to be the best of our kind, as other living beings are. We need the standards of a good or excellent human life spelled out, and subsequently chosen as our guide to conduct. But the function of the virtues are akin to the function of instincts – namely, to point the way to living properly, living the best way possible to us: to fulfill our human natures.

There is one very important aspect of Rand’s conception of human nature which her Objectivist ethics embodies. This is individuality. Yes, we share certain capacities and faculties with all other human beings, but we are unique individuals. So the accurate determination of the good, the proper way we ought to act and live, will have a great deal to do with who we are individually. Thus, the most basic standards of right conduct will be the same for us all (excepting crucially incapacitated people), as we all share the same basic human nature – but the implementation of these basic standards will have to be adjusted to who we are in particular. This point is of immense significance in moral philosophy generally – it addresses the problem of the one and the many as it pertains to ethics; of pluralism and universalism. It also puts us on notice about how difficult it is to make moral judgments without detailed information about the agents whose conduct one is judging.

Being And Reason

Rand’s ethics contrasts with Intrinsicism, usually seen in religions, and Subjectivism. Intrinsicism means things are of value in themselves, independent of context. Subjectivism holds that value is just a matter of opinion. There can be no conclusive debate about opinions: they are a matter of taste. Objectivism means, however, that the valuer is each of us as individuals, with human life and its needs as the standard by which we commit ourselves to act as we commit ourselves to live. Therefore Objectivism is agent-relative in its conception of value. Yet the agent is not some diffuse, indeterminate bundle of desires but a specific kind of being; a human individual. As Rand’s protagonist, John Galt, summarizes Rand’s major point in ethics in Atlas Shrugged:

“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence – and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. … It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”

Ethics is based on these facts of life: ethics tells us how to survive. But we must survive qua man. Thus the standard of value is the good life, and, because we’re individuals, the purpose or goal of our conduct should be our individual survival and flourishing.

Now some who find Rand of great interest claim that based on these facts, the first moral act is to think or focus the mind, and the first act of evil is to refuse to think. But this is not what Rand herself believed. She thought that first one has to elect to live a human life. Once that choice is made, then to neglect to think rationally is a vice – a breach of the promise to live like a human being. Rand goes on to make clear that because we must produce the means of our survival, productivity is also a virtue. In Atlas Shrugged the heroes are productive individuals, especially entrepreneurs. Self-esteem or pride are similarily virtues.

Of course, once the choice to live as a flourishing human being has been made, thinking does become the most important virtue – somewhat akin to what Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant and others believed. Wittgenstein wrote, for example, “I am working diligently and wish I were better and had a better mind. And these both are one and the same…” And Blaise Pascal reportedly implored: “Let us labour, then, to think well, for such is the foundation of morality.” So Rand was no radical about the vital contribution of rationality for living a good human life.

Rand’s Appeal

Ayn Rand was a revolutionary, yet she stood on the shoulders of some great thinkers of the past – Aristotle comes to mind in metaphysics and epistemology as well as meta-ethics; Locke in politics; and various free market theorists in economics. But it was specifically as a moral thinker that Ayn Rand has made her major contributions, both in her philosophical fiction and in her non-fiction works.

Why, we might wonder, is Rand so appealing to millions of ordinary people while she is derided and dismissed by many academic philosophers and other intellectuals? Without an extensive study one can only make an educated guess. My educated guess is that Rand rejects a very debilitating aspect of intellectually-championed ethics, namely, the call for relentless self-sacrifice. According to this traditional view, unselfishness is deemed to be virtuous, selfishness vicious, never mind how these concepts are conceived. Rand stands up for the ordinary sense shared by many but not well articulated, namely, that one’s life is worth living to the flourishing, and that honoring one’s human self is not only no vice, but is indeed a virtue.

© Prof Tibor R. Machan 2008

Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) and the Pacific Research Institute (San Francisco).

Atlas Shrugged (1957)

Rand’s bestselling novel tells the story of railroad boss Dagny Taggart, who strives to keep her railroad functioning in a declining, recession-hit United States. Government and society have become hostile to free enterprise, and she and her steelmaker friend Hank Rearden become caught up in the struggle between the remaining industrialists and the ‘looters’ who want to control them and confiscate their profits ‘for the greater good’. A mysterious freedom fighter called John Galt persuades the entrepreneurs, inventors and other creative people to go out on strike, thus bringing final economic collapse and clearing the way for the return of capitalism.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum in St Petersburg in 1905. She repudiated Communism after witnessnessing the violence of the Russian Revolution first hand. As a student she was influenced by Aristotle’s rationalism and Platonic idealism. She gained a degree in History from St Petersburg University, and two years later she left for the USA, with the hope of becoming a Hollywood star. She put forward her ‘Objectivist’ philosophy in novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and in philosophical works. These championed an anti-altruistic ‘heroic individualism’, in direct opposition to collectivist ideologies such as Marxism. To Rand rational selfishness and capitalism were the only ideals which allowed for true personal freedom, and so the only ideals compatible with authentic human existence. Hers was an account of freedom and morality naturally compatible with the self-made, individualistic ethic of her adopted country and she gained many followers, among them Alan Greenspan. She had several high-powered friends, including economist John Maynard Keynes. She died in 1982.

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