I recently finished reading Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, and I wanted to offer some comments on her moral philosophy.
There are several good reasons why I ought to like Ayn Rand. She was an atheist, and proudly so, and argued for the supremacy of reason as the only valid way of knowing. I agree with this. She denounced communism and supported capitalism. I agree with this as well. Her works are still very popular in some circles and offer a vision of a rational, productive life which many people find powerful and inspiring.
Nevertheless, there are also reasons why I don’t like Rand – neither her as a person, nor her philosophy – and these reasons, in my judgment, far outweigh whatever factors are in her favor. These include her blatant hypocrisy in her adulterous relationship with Nathaniel Branden, the cult-like attitude of absolute obedience and conformity that characterized her movement’s founding, and her genocidal belief that the European settlers of the Americas were fully within their rights to slaughter, despoil and enslave the native people of those continents, all because the Native Americans did not share the European concept of property rights. (Yes, she actually said that.)
This post will detail three of my primary objections to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, as it’s expressed in TVOS and her other works. Combined, I believe they demonstrate that Rand’s system of thought either contains fatal self-contradictions, or else would be destructive to the welfare of any society that was to adopt it.
The Objectivist Firefighter: Sacrificing Your Life For Strangers
Central to Objectivism is the notion that the individual’s life is the supreme moral value. “The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value — and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man” (p.25). An Objectivist may rationally sacrifice his life, if the cause were so important to him that he would not want to live if it were to fail. Central to Objectivism, however, is the notion that no one can ever have a duty to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. “[Objectivism] means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty” (p.27). Even when others are in danger, we have no obligation to assist them. “If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only when the danger to one’s own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it…” (p.45).
Let’s see how this principle would play out in a real-world situation. Cast your mind back to the morning of September 11, 2001, and ponder the situation from the point of view of a rescue worker, like a paramedic or a firefighter. The hijacked planes have crashed into the Twin Towers, which are in flames and badly damaged; it’s plain to see they may collapse soon. Yet there are still thousands of people inside who could be saved. Let’s say you’re one of the first responders, as well as an Objectivist, and your superior orders you into the towers to rescue as many people as you can. How should you respond?
Here’s how one real firefighter actually did respond:
I will always remember one panting reporter talking to a fireman who was shrugging into his respirator. “What are you doing?” “I’m going to that other tower,” he said. “I think that other tower is going to collapse,” said the reporter, seeming to forget that he was on the air. “You would do the same for me,” the fireman said, and ran up the street.
And yet, from the principles just stated, it seems the Objectivist course of action is clear. Unlike the firefighter quoted above, the Objectivist rescue worker has to refuse – because he’s being asked to risk his life for strangers, which can never be a moral duty according to Rand. In fact, since the preservation of one’s individual life is the highest virtue, the consistent Objectivist not only ought to refuse to enter the towers, he ought to get himself out of the area and to safety as soon as possible, and never mind what happens to anyone else. As long as no one you personally know is in danger, your duty is to protect yourself and only yourself. This is what Ayn Rand calls morality; I think most people would more accurately describe it as contemptible cowardice.
Perhaps the objection could be raised that, having committed himself to the job already, the Objectivist is bound to follow through. But that just moves the problem back, because then the conclusion would seem to be that an Objectivist should always turn down any job – firefighter, policeman, infectious-disease specialist – that might potentially put his life in danger. These all entail putting yourself at risk for the sake of strangers, a thought intolerable to any consistent Objectivist. Yet, just as clearly, society needs people to do these jobs if it is to survive.
Ayn Pangloss: Conflicts of Interest Among Rational Men
Central to the Objectivist morality is the idea that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (p.50). This is crucial to Rand’s position because she argues that all people should make all their decisions on the basis of reason. If reason led people to want mutually exclusive things, then either some people would have to surrender the goals dictated by reason and seek something else (a thought Rand finds intolerable), or else no one would surrender their goals and the result would be an attempt to achieve a contradiction, which “can lead only to disaster and destruction” (p.51).
It’s hard to see at first how this principle could apply in a capitalist economy. What if two people apply for the same job? Isn’t there a genuine conflict of interest between them as to who will be hired?
Rand’s answer to this question is that, just because two people want the same thing, it does not follow that they both rationally want it. “The mere fact that a man desires something does not constitute a proof… that its achievement is actually to his interest” (p.50). Rand argues that reason leads to the conclusion that capitalism is the best economic system possible, because it maximizes human productiveness and freedom, both of which are to everyone’s interest. Thus a rational person accepts that, in the context of his entire life, competition on the basis of merit is a good thing, even if it may cause him to lose out occasionally. “He knows that the struggle to achieve his values includes the possibility of defeat” (p.53). An Objectivist also believes he is only entitled to what he has earned by his own effort, and in a rational, merit-based system, if he loses out to a superior applicant, that is the only outcome he had any right to expect. He has no rational interest in the job unless he earns and deserves it by his own effort. “Whoever gets the job, has earned it… The failure to give a man what has never belonged to him can hardly be described as ‘sacrificing his interests'” (p.56).
So far, so good. But now, consider a case Rand never discusses: What if two equally qualified people apply for the same job? This certainly seems to be possible. Let’s assume that there are two applicants who are equally intelligent, equally skilled, and would perform equally well if given the job. In that case, is it not in both their interests to get that job, and since only one of them can have it, is this not a contradiction? Rand fiercely disparages “whim”, and yet in this situation it seems there could be no other way to resolve the deadlock.
But we need not even go this far. There’s something else that Rand has overlooked: her doctrine requires that the market be not just free, but infallible. For if the market ever selects wrongly – that is, if it ever chooses the less qualified applicant for a given job – then I, as the more qualified but unsuccessful applicant, am faced with an irreconcilable contradiction: I want to live in a free-market society, which is in my rational interest, but I also wanted that job, the obtaining of which was also in my rational interest.
In that case, the act of obeying reason leads to a contradiction. Rand would hold that this is, by definition, impossible. That being so, she and her followers are committed to believing that the market always knows best, that its choices are always the correct ones. Otherwise, they’re faced with the fatal self-contradiction of rationally wanting to live in a capitalist society, yet also rationally wanting something that it has denied them. Obviously, on this point the Objectivist philosophy clashes with reality: there undoubtedly are many situations where capitalist economies make erroneous decisions. A less rigid philosophy would recognize that, although a free society is in everyone’s interest in the long term, that does not mean it will not make mistakes or block our interests on occasion; it’s just that the alternatives are even worse.
“You Will Not Be Stopped”: The Heartless Core of Objectivism
Since Objectivists reject all notions of a social safety net, it’s natural to ask what would happen to the poor and needy in an Objectivist society. This is Ayn Rand’s answer: “If you want to help them, you will not be stopped” (p.80).
This chilling response, which carries with it the unmistakable implication that she will not be participating in any such effort, illustrates Objectivist philosophy’s cruel, heartless ethic of social Darwinism. Its guiding principle is not “we’re all in this together”, but rather “every man for himself” – and whatever misery strikes the worthless and the inferior as a result ought not to trouble the brave, heroic, superior souls whom Rand imagines are mankind’s salvation. The parallels between this doctrine and the beliefs of tyrants throughout history should be too obvious to need pointing out.
Am I too harsh? Rand’s defenders might point to passages like the following one, which condemns the Soviet Union, as proof that she does care about the suffering of others and wants to see it alleviated:
“Two generations of Russians have lived, toiled and died in misery, waiting for the abundance promised by their rulers, who pleaded for patience and commanded austerity, while building public ‘industrialization’ and killing public hope in five-year installments. At first, the people starved while waiting for electric generators and tractors; they are still starving, while waiting for atomic energy and interplanetary travel” (p.84).
This sounds very compassionate of her – until you remember that Ayn Rand believes that the free market is, by definition, infallible (see last point). In Objectivist philosophy, if you succeed it’s because you deserve to succeed, and if you’re poor it’s because you deserve to be poor. Combined with Rand’s repeated expressions of fierce disdain for “parasites” and “looters” and “moochers”, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that a consistent Objectivist would never give any money or other assistance to others. After all, if they were deserving of your help, they wouldn’t need it; they’d have already achieved success and security on their own through hard work and persistence. To an Objectivist, the way you prove you’re worthy of help is by proving you don’t need help. And the reason Rand was so upset about the starving citizens of the USSR wasn’t because they were starving; it was because they were starving under the wrong ideology. In an Objectivist society, people might still starve, but we can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that they must have deserved it.