If you’ve been following this blog over the last few months, you’ll know I just finished reading The Fountainhead  and Atlas Shrugged  by Ayn Rand. Epic in scope (Atlas Shrugged is 1200 pages) the two books make the case that selfishness is the ultimate human ideal and that human progress is based on a man’s ego.
Although many of you have no doubt read these books, I wanted to do a quick overview on my take on Rand’s philosophy. There are many parts with the books I agreed wholeheartedly and other areas where I believe Rand has made errors in reasoning. However, if you want books to challenge you to think, these two would have to be at the top of anyone’s list.
Who is Howard Roark?
The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect who lives to make buildings. Serving other people, material wealth and recognition are unimportant compared to that he lives according to his vision of how a building should be. Roark is Rand’s personification of the supremely ethical man who reasons with his own mind, lives his own life and has himself as the center of his own purpose.
At the beginning of the book I disliked Roark. He is hopelessly stubborn and often suffers because I feel he fails to communicate his vision to other people. Later in the book, however, you start to admire Roark as his system of values unfolds and it becomes clear he isn’t willing to compromise his truth to become popular.
Atlas Shrugged follows a similar group of characters, this time involving a man who refuses to produce his greatest invention because a corrupt government would steal it from him. I felt Shrugged offered a better glimpse at Rand’s philosophy, but had less entertainment value than the Fountainhead.
Values of Objectivism
Reading the two books challenged many of my assumptions, including:
- Purpose in life is to serve others.
- Non-profit is superior to profit.
- Selfishness is evil; selflessness is good.
I’ve changed some of my perceptions because of these two books. Here are a few ideas I found useful in the book:
Money is Good
All other things being equal, the person who makes more money contributes more value. If you accept the basic idea that money is a medium of exchanging value, then the person who earns $400,000 in a year should create about ten times the value that a person earning $40,000 per year. This is Economics 101, but so often you hear about greedy rich people hurting the world instead of being the maximum contributors.
You Can’t Think With Another Persons Brain
Rand phrases so well an idea I’ve tried to capture in my own writings. That is, rationality (thinking with your own brain) is the ultimate ideal you can live for. Rand even suggests that living can only happen if you accept the proposition that you think with your own mind. Much of The Fountainhead goes to push this belief by showing the flaws of characters who live their lives through the opinions of other people.
In discussing my own atheism , many people claimed that rationality meant rejecting everything that could not be proven. This is a misunderstanding. Rationality, in the context Rand and I describe it, means simply that you think with your brain, that you can accept A is A and that 2 + 2 = 4. Thinking with thoughts instead of instinct. (You can be a rational theist, but it means you base your belief on something other than faith)
Life is Solitary
I don’t mean solitude in the traditional sense. Simply that your life can’t be lived by another person. Your thoughts, your values and your principles need to be the central force. You can’t pass over responsibility for living to your family, friends or the latest guru telling you what to do.
Flaws in Objectivism
Rand gets considerable backlash, in my opinion, because she positions herself for either complete acceptance or rejection. Either you completely agree with everything she says, or you’re irrational and straying from the truth. This format is similar to anyone who has seen a cult, and indeed many people would say that Rand’s ideas are nothing more than that.
To accept all of Rand’s ideas from a purely logical standpoint would mean accepting hundreds of different steps in reasoning and inference. While I think many of her ideas have merit, I’ve yet to see any major philosophical proposal make more than a few steps in logic without leaving room for counter attacks.
Ironically, the values Rand promotes (thinking with your own mind, rationality) are precisely the opposite she enforces by positioning her book as the rationalists Bible. We already have a system of organized thoughts which claims to be rational but demands complete acceptance; it’s called religion.
There are a few major glaring flaws in Rand’s books and many areas which I feel are weak enough for debate. Here are a few I’ve noticed, but I challenge you to read the book and come to your own decisions:
How is Utopia Selfish?
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand creates a fictional utopia where everyone is happy and productive because they work entirely for themselves and trade with each other based on value, not need. Aside from being a completely ridiculous exaggeration, the utopia Rand creates weakens the fundamental arguments for selfishness.
You can’t argue for complete selfishness by claiming a utopian society will be the result. The fact that you value a society in which everyone is happy and prosperous implies that you care about something beyond your own selfish ego. To someone who fully believed what Rand preaches, their version of utopia could equally be a society in which everyone is miserable and suffers other than themselves.
What Values are Important?
If you are completely selfish, then how would children be raised or how would you recover from a short-term setback? Rand tries to sneak away from this issue by claiming that the selfish person will uphold their own values. Many of her protagonists are willing to die for what they believe in.
Although Rand tries to use this sneaky attempt at logic to tie off some of the problems with complete selfishness, she ends up tripping. What about a man that highly valued complete the selflessness that Rand fights against? He might do many of the things Rand despises, yet still fit her broadened model of the completely selfish man if those were his values.
Rand’s argument is that a man (or woman) should follow his own values. The problem is that this leaves out the step of what values are important. The idea that a person should follow the values they have is almost a truism. Some of the most despicable characters in Rand’s books, Elsworth Toohey, for example, could be said to follow their own code of values which are completely opposite from Rand’s.
Global warming wasn’t a hot topic when Rand wrote her books, but it does bring up an issue Rand completely ignored. Everyone acting entirely in their own selfish interests can have unavoidable consequences. Without some form of organization or controls that hurt individuals, a society could cannibalize itself.
A great example of such a situation would be a large field where twenty shepherds raise their flocks of sheep. The more grass sheep eat, the healthier they are and the greater profit for an individual shepherd. However, if all shepherds force their flock to graze to the maximum, the land will eventually become over-grazed and useless.
In this case, uncontrollable capitalism lacks the necessary safety feature to restrict shepherds down to a sustainable grazing level. Taking most ideas to extremes (selflessness, selfishness, communism, fascism) can cause consequences that such simplified ideologies completely ignore.
Putting the Pieces Back Together
There are definitely a lot of great ideas in both The Fountainhead  and Atlas Shrugged . I don’t want to imply that my few criticisms should mean the entire books are garbage. They are both excellent novels from a philosophical and entertainment standpoint. I recommend you read them for yourself and come to your own verdict. I suppose then you will still be following Rand’s ultimate ideal of thinking for oneself.