GAITHERSBURG, Md., April 25, 2011—It appears that Atlas Shrugged: Part One, released on April 15, 2011, is quickly losing the Darwinian struggle to survive at the box office.
Rather ironic, considering that its literary namesake is the preferred scripture of a small-but-irritating group of “philosophers” who believe that the world would be a wonderful place, if only the richest among us were allowed to do what they do best—make money hand-over-fist through purely utilitarian relationships—without being constantly kept under the thumb of “looters” and “mystics.”
Author Ayn Rand and a book cover of her novel, Atlas Shrugged
One would have thought that, with all the books Rand sold, all the people she’s influenced and with all the money that the better sort of person—the devotee of Ayn Rand—tends to make, someone connected with the film might have been able to come up with a budget larger than $20 million!
Where is John Galt when you need him?
Rand’s best-selling book, and her philosophical system, may or may not be fairly represented in the film; this writer, having already read the book, has absolutely no desire to see it on film. But, because there is some risk that this film will introduce a tiny portion of another generation of mostly well intentioned young people to Rand’s not-so-original philosophical system, Objectivism, it is worth taking a few moments to criticize it.
This writer is well-aware, having been in many conversations with Randians, that any criticism of her philosophy and any attempt to quickly summarize what is, in fact, a very simple set of ideas, invariably extracts cries of “abuse,” “misrepresentation” and “simpleton” from among the their ranks. Nevertheless, as surely there is nothing new under the sun, there is not much to Rand’s particular heresy.
Like most appealing heresies, Rand’s philosophy identifies a number of real problems in human society—thus the appeal—but prescribes bad solutions to them. Rand described her own worldview thus:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Perhaps it’s best to start with what is good in Objectivism. Objectivism defends a robust conception of man’s knowledge, including the general reliability of the senses, and of inductive and especially deductive reasoning, as against the anti-realism of both Kantians and Relativists.
Indeed, Rand recognized Aristotle and Aquinas as her (only) philosophical predecessors, and saw herself as defending an essentially commonsensical and realistic concept of existence. There is a real world. Mindful people, through hard rational and bodily work, can come to know it, and reshape it in a positive fashion. These two human capacities, to know intellectually and to do deliberatively, are what differentiate man from the beasts, and it is from these that his great dignity arrives.
Therefore, man has a right, nay a duty, to pursue happiness, the fulfillment of his own human nature, as his highest good. Moral virtue is therefore the pursuit of one’s rationally grounded self-interest.
Up to this point, Rand’s philosophy, except for a few points, will seem uncontroversial, and obvious to most people who are (mercifully) not intellectuals, as it would have to most western intellectuals before the modern anti-realist period. Both Aristotle and Aquinas saw the good as that which perfects a being’s nature, and both stressed man’s uniqueness as a “rational animal”, a physical and intellectual creature who, unlike the highest baboon, could extract universals from particulars and who could therefore achieve wisdom.
Atlas by Lee Lowrie (Bronze c. 1939) (Photo: Michael Greene for Wiki)
Since man can reason in this way, he can apply this reason to the world in order to achieve consistent results. He can do science, unlike the cleverest baboon, which can only “learn” by tinkering, but cannot understand why a successful solution to a problem is a successful solution to a problem. All human beings, unless somehow disabled, have this capacity, not all choose to consistently use it.
However, here an important difference emerges between Aristotle and Ayn. For Aristotle, proper apprehension of the real is man’s highest act. For Rand, man’s highest act is doing. For Rand, man is indeed a knower, but only in order that he can be a doer. For her, productive activity—great art, science or especially business—is man’s highest achievement.
For Aristotle, as for Aquinas, the purpose of life is to discover and put oneself in conformity with the real and the Absolute, which in Aquinas’ case, is the Triune God. For Rand, the purpose of life is to put external reality in conformity with one’s own design. Needless to say, she rejects both the Prime Mover of Aristotle and the Trinity of Aquinas and substitutes in their place the individual ego.
In case you missed that, this means that Ayn Rand, quite literally worshipped herself and the pursuit of her own will and ego, thus “the virtue of selfishness.”
Now the stark shock of this matter-of-fact narcissism, this scholastic idolatry, has an extreme attraction to many people, especially the young. After all, aren’t we bombarded all day with intellectuals, TV personalities and politicians who pretend to care about others? Don’t we all suspect, deep down, that many a celebrity, politician and clergyman, loudly moralizing and feeling our pain, is at heart nothing more than a narcissist who wants to be well-thought of—and wants our money?
Moreover, can’t we all think of plenty of examples—particularly in politics—of alleged charity and altruism that, at the bottom, is nothing more than self-serving propaganda?
Out of the fray of fakery, Rand stands boldly as the defender of the individual and his interest. She will not pretend that she is willing to sacrifice herself for someone else’s best interest, nor will she bow to the snake-oil salesmen of the world who protest that she is morally obligated to do so.
A complete exposition and refutation of Objectivism would be tedious and overlong, but in order to do justice to the Randians, I will briefly summarize its main ingredients:
Metaphysics: Materialism. Objectivists, like all consistent atheists, deny the existence of anything that is not material. They affirm the real existence of an objective, independently existing reality.
Epistemology: Realistic. Objectivists believe that our senses truly put us into contact with reality and that reason, used properly, cannot fail to yield truth. As Ayn Rand said: “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
Ethics: Rational self-interest. Every man is an end in himself. The pursuit of one’s own self-interest and happiness is the highest moral purpose of a person’s life. No one has a moral duty to sacrifice himself for another or have another sacrificed for him.
Politics: Capitalism under a rationally limited state. Objectivists are not anarchists, but believe there is a proper role for the state, which makes social life possible by providing for property rights, common defense and law. The actual work of social life should take place in the context of laissez-faire capitalism. The state needs to be strong enough to perform its only legitimate functions, but limited to these alone so that markets, which are run by numerous individuals, can thrive.
Students of philosophy will immediately notice a conflict between Rand’s materialist ontology and her realistic epistemology. It is not a coincidence that virtually all defenders of realism—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Adler, to name a few—have been theists of one kind or another. It is quite difficult to defend any kind of robust conception of human knowledge or reason if all that exists are corpuscles of matter in various associations.
Proposed stamp design featuring Ayn Rand (1999)
It is even difficult to prove that anything causes anything else on this view, as Hume famously showed, although he himself embraced materialism. The big names in atheist philosophy, Hume, Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Quine and others, tended toward various nominalist, nihilist or reductionist epistemologies, even while some of them (irrationally) defended scientific and philosophical knowledge anyway.
This objection will seem very abstract to many readers; not so with the next.
It is flatly impossible to separate moral duties to oneself from moral duties toward others. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that the highest moral duty one has is toward oneself, this still implies a moral duty toward others.
Well suppose I have a duty to fulfill my rational self-interest, and you have a duty to fulfill yours. Suppose I decide that my rational self-interest is best fulfilled by taking your property. Now a truly consistent Randian will have to either permit himself to be robbed (thus violating his own self-interest), which he cannot do under Randianism, or he has to object on the grounds that, in addition to the moral duty, I have toward myself, I also have a moral duty toward him.
In other words, the only way that our duties toward our own well being can be practically fulfilled is if we all have duties toward each other as well. Now this is fatal to the whole Randian program, because if I have moral duties toward you and myself, there are at least some circumstances in which I, according to justice, owe you something, just for being you. That’s altruism and according to Rand, its verboten.
Now the only way that Randians and their Libertarian cousins can avoid this consequence is to claim that because a person has duties toward himself, he also has, as a logical corollary, rights. He has a right to his person, property, labor, etc.
While I do not dispute that he has such rights, there is nothing in this that rules out coercion, unless I also have a duty not to coerce against you. There are, however, two problems with this. The first is that this still admits altruistic duties toward your person; at the very least, I have to place your rights above my desires for my own fulfillment, at your expense.
The second reason is that negative rights, such as a right not to be coerced, are potentially infinite in number, and therefore practically useless in reality. You could never list all the things I’m not allowed to do to you. The minute you start to make a short, sensible list of things—the right not to be killed, tortured, robbed or blackmailed, for example—I must immediately ask “Why did you pick those four, and not ‘The right not to have a piano shot from a cannon at me?”
At this point you will have to come back to some positive conception of rights and duties, which brings us right back to altruism: You and I only have rights and duties if we have an obligation to care for each other, but if we have such an obligation, then altruism is back on the table.
Finally, it should be quite obvious that in all societies, a substantial number of individuals are in no position to look after their own self interest. Infants, children, many of the elderly and the physically and mentally infirm—the latter whom Rand called “subnormal” and “ungifted”—cannot look after their own rational self interest. They require others to sacrifice their own freedom and apparent self-actualization. Moreover, every human being must exist, at some point in his life, in a state of dependency upon the care of others. Even Ayn Rand was a child at one time. *
Now an Objectivist can avoid this issue by pointing out that there are some who will take care of these people because they happen to find it fulfilling, but exactly what he cannot say is that such people, simply in virtue of being people, merit or are owed such care. Therein lays the secret monstrosity of Rand’s philosophy. It is with this sort of thing in mind that Whitaker Chambers, in his famous review of Atlas Shrugged quipped:
“From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”
Rand, reacting against the aggressive collectivism of our day, which treats every individual person as a mere fungus, a mere node of the Great Organism called Society, preached an individualism that is just as anti-personal. The truth about mere man is that he is not mere man. Man is a political animal, in the truly Aristotelian sense of that term. He is made, by his Creator and by nature, to be a person-in-relation.
“It is not good for man to be alone.” He is an individual, yes. Not a member of a hive, or a particle of sentient fungus. Yet, his individuality, his personality, his true self-interest, can only be realized in relationship to another. Thus, he invariably finds the highest fulfillment of his personhood in love and friendship, and in the service to and sacrifice for others.
At the end of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, Rand’s atheist capitalist Jesus Christ, confirms all his disciples in Galt’s Gulch in mutual exploitation by blessing them with the sign of the dollar. This scene confirms for the reader, as if there were any doubt, that Rand’s philosophy, for all its bells and whistles, is nothing more than the radical narcissism of him who said “I will not serve!”
And while those who lovingly take up the cross of moral responsibility toward their neighbors will eventually shrug it off, there is no rest for the narcissist who thinks he bears the weight of the world’s success on his own shoulders.
* This paragraph has been amended from an earlier version that read “…it should be quite obvious that in all societies, the vast majority of individuals are in no position to look after their own self interest. ” The author incorrectly stated that in any society, dependents outnumber independent adults. The changes reflect his actual intent and the author thanks his reader for the correction.
Joseph Breslin is a writer, teacher, husband, father and convicted bibliophile, currently living in the shadow of that great bureaucratic beast on the Potomac. He enjoys philosophy, history, economics, complaining and the outdoors.