Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand Mania

With the release of the Atlas Shrugged film only a few days away it seems many, on both the right and left, have caught a mild case of Ayn Rand fever. Of course the left uniformly despises her, while the right generally likes her (some with qualifications, others with none), but both can't seem to stop talking about her.

One of the more interesting things I've read on her in the last couple days is this article, written by the daughter of an objectivist (Objectivism is the philosophy that Ayn Rand 'created'). Before I discuss the article (and before you read it) I'll give you a rough thumbnail sketch of the main features of Objectivism, if you're unfamiliar with it.

  • Epistemologically it affirms the primacy of reality as experienced. Facts are facts, things are what they are, reality is that which our senses apprehend. Facts and reason applied to them comprise what we know and how we know it.
  • The value and ultimacy of the individual. Rand believed that the individual was the ultimate end and should never be used as a means. She believed each individual is responsible for themselves alone and that, in a correctly ordered society free of restraints, the talented, able and willing would prosper while the weak would flounder.
  • Laissez-faire capitalism, or economic freedom free of coercion, is good and should be a society's sole guiding economic principle.
  • Political freedom is an essential good, denoting the lack of coercive, oppressive force upon the individual.
  • Rand rejected collectivism or even thinking in terms of collective, societal goals and ends. Society is (or should be) only a compilation of individuals seeking their own best self-interests.
  • Rational self-interest is the guiding moral principle. Individuals seeking their own happiness, without using others as means, will increase the overall happiness of humanity.
  • Rand believed that altruism--true altruism, the actual subordination of one's own well-being in the service of others--was evil. Though charity is not prohibited because giving charitably and loving others is often in your own best self-interest, especially if doing so gives you a feeling of joy.
As I said, this is a rough sketch taken straight from memory and probably neglects some features, but hopefully the broad strokes will suffice for my purposes.

As for the article that I linked to it's a very sad testimony to the potential pitfalls of the ideology, if followed to the letter. An objectivist might argue that the father in the article was not applying objectivist principles properly. For example, he could be confusing short-term self-interest for overall self-interest when he makes certain decisions. Or he might underestimate the personal consequences for himself of not having a healthy, loving relationship with his daughter. Or--or--the objectivist might claim that the father actually didn't do anything--or at least very much--wrong.

Being as generous as possible, then, objectivism at least can put one on a slippery slope to moral depravity, if not lead directly to it. This combined with Rand's naive epistemology is enough for me to reject objectivism as a systematic philosophy.

However, applied solely to the economic and political realms (and not the moral realm) her ideas make a lot of sense, though they aren't particularly original. Economic freedom is indeed good, coercion and force used by the government upon individuals is bad, individuals pursuing their own self-interests is the most productive engine for driving an economy and creating the best living conditions for the most people etc.

All that said I do like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as novels. The writing isn't that great, and the characters obviously often exist for the sole purpose of giving voice to her philosophy, but I enjoy novels that explore philosophical ideas. Despite the fact that her ideas aren't particularly original, the vision that she creates in her fiction is fairly original and intriguing and does give voice to important conservative ideals.

If you take anything from Ayn Rand's philosophy, do it piecemeal. The parts are much greater than the whole.


  1. If you ask me, Ayn Rand basically took an atheistic materialistic Soviet communist mentality and replaced the communist bit with capitalist. Her economic views are delightful, her insight into the evils of collectivism is sharp, but the worldview she leaves behind is absolutely empty. You might be interested to read 'Mozart was a Red'.

  2. Yeah, I've heard it said by others that she basically just switched the capitalist with the worker in Marx. I think there's definitely some kernel of truth there, especially given her upbringing.

    For some reason my blog caught your comment in the spam filter, sorry for the late acknowledgment.