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On Ayn Rand's Philosophy

by Christopher Michael Langan
The history of philosophy and culture is a grand, recursively-scaled dialectic. A person or
school, a group or generation, espouses a thesis; the other side responds with its antithesis;
the two extremes are then combined in a synthesis imbued with both perspectives. Ayn Rand
can be best understood as a philosophical reactionary in this well-established tradition, the
creator and champion of a dual antithesis directed against what she regarded as two
devastating assaults on human individuality.The first of these assaults was religion; at the
age of thirteen, she decided with certainty that she was an atheist. The second was
communism, long the bane of her Russian homeland and still a geopolitical threat.
Rand's dual antithesis consists of a mixture of atheism, materialism and extreme
individualism, recast as logic and ob!ectivity and aggressively presented as an affirmation
of human freedom and self-interest. "ritics sometimes dismiss this philosophy,
called objectivism, as a mere capitalistic twist on communism, an oversimplistic and
logically insupportable brand of egoism cloa#ed in empty protestations of
rationality. $thers point to the cult-li#e atmosphere of various Ayn Rand organi%ations and
study groups; while such groups ostensibly exist to promote earnest philosophical
consideration of Rand's writings, a few of them are reputed to enforce cult-li#e obedience to
her every stated opinion, forbidding critical appraisal and discouraging exposure to
alternative viewpoints. &ut even if these criticisms are factual, they should not dissuade us
from loo#ing for strands of truth in her message.
'any young people go through a phase during which they passionately embrace Rand's
philosophy. The typical Rand hero or heroine, a physically attractive nonconformist driven
by a combination of iconoclasm, creative innovation, intelligence, productivity, machineli#e
efficiency and competitive, ta#e-no-prisoners self-interest, can be irresistible to one
struggling against social adversity to define one's individuality. (t matters not to such a
reader that in a world consisting solely of Rand heroes and heroines, there would be neither
enough wealth and power to reward them all for their brilliance nor enough individualistic
elbow room to go around, forcing them to steamroller each other until the vast ma!ority had
been flattened into a seamless bac#drop of mediocrity against which the peerless few could
shine li#e stars. )or does it matter that while such a mindset may be psychologically viable
for one whose constructive raison d'être demands a radical departure from the beaten path,
one of less than stellar ability would be more li#ely to find it a delayed prescription for self-
disappointment. The thing to remember is that it fills a psychological need on the part of
the reader, serving as a source of strength in a time of personal need.
The holes in Rand's philosophy are easy to find. *or example, despite the demonstrable
inade+uacy of standard empirical arguments to decide the +uestion of the existence of ,od,
her theology -or lac# thereof. is largely based on them. As another example, she maintains
that personal selfishness and ambition are virtues and altruism is a vice, thereby effectively
asserting that altruism, defined as an unselfish regard for the welfare of others, is
inconsistent with individual self-interest. /ince there are plausible scenarios in which the
survival of the human race would depend on the self-sacrifice of one individual, this
amounts to an assertion that letting the human race expire in order to ensure one's personal
survival is virtuous, whereas saving the human race by means of self-sacrifice is
corrupt. &earing in mind that Rand's version of ethics displays very little resemblance to the
norm, this seems muddled even by the light of her man is an end in himself dictum. (n
fact, there is a sense in which the conventional definitions of altruism and selfishness are
semantically inconsistent or at least incomplete; because there are multiple levels of self,
including collective levels, there are multiple levels of selfishness including altruism. &ut
Rand, believing in the unconditional independence of the individual, would not have agreed
with this. /he would have found the idea that altruism is selfish, and true selfishness
altruistic, +uite unacceptable.
&ut it is true nonetheless. The human species has many levels of organi%ation, with each of
which is associated a measure of utility or value. The individual comprises only one of
these levels. 0sing mathematical decision theory, it can be shown that there are many
situations in which excessive self-interest on the part of the individual is at odds with the
self-interest of the larger groups to which the individual belongs, ultimately including
society as a whole, with implications relating directly bac# to the welfare of the
individual. Two well-#nown examples are the Tragedy of the "ommons, where the
overutili%ation of common resources leads to economic disaster, and the 1risoner's
2ilemma, a lesson in mutual cooperation and the value of loyalty. 3+uivalently, there are
many levels of self with respect to utility, and they are not automatically in mutual
accord. (n the event of a global economic brea#down involving the highest level of /elf, all
lesser selves go down with the ship regardless of their putative independence. (t follows
that denying or downplaying higher levels of self is neither logical nor ob!ective. 4hen it
comes to rational decision theory and economics, it turns out that no man is an island after
all.
)evertheless, Rand's literary protagonists exhibit a stunningly naive approach to
deontology, eschewing altruism and blithely assuming that individual self-interest is the
only #ind of self-interest worth ac#nowledging. To the eternal disgust of those with more
ability than good fortune, real life produces an endless stream of cases in which people
sporting this insufferable sort of attitude reap spectacular rewards while pressing what
seems to be a cheater's thumb on the scale of destiny, riding to riches and power on a
combination of ability, manipulation and outrageous good fortune shamelessly rendered as
ability alone. &ut this is possible only where individual and social self-interest coincide,
and even if one is egocentrically convinced that society can drop dead and bury its own
remains with regard to any point of opposition, such coincidence cannot be ta#en for
granted. And where it is absent, excessive pursuit of individual self-interest can cause the
utility and wellbeing of individual and society ali#e to ta#e a catastrophic nosedive. *or this
reason, enlightened individualists temper their ideological intransigence and trim their
senses of entitlement in order to avoid contributing to a global economic catastrophe,
continuing as best they can to live up to high standards of excellence, originality and
personal integrity.
4hen an author's writings are powerful, appealing, and designed to illustrate a fundamental
philosophical platform, it is all the more important to evaluate them fairly and
ob!ectively. 4hen reading the wor# of Ayn Rand, we need not fear to be inspired by her
single-minded vision of courageous individuality and creative self-actuali%ation. After all,
there are times and places in history and the everyday world which demand that the
individual ta#e a strong and independent stand. &ut this does not re+uire that we dispense
forever with empathy and compassion, even when the author acidly assures us that such
sentiments are contemptible and counterproductive. As long as we remember that the
individual is free to choose goals that are consistent with the interests of other individuals
and society at large - as long as the individual is understood as a uni+ue part of a greater
whole in which resides a large part of the meaning of life - there can be little harm in a
constructively motivated shot of pure selfishness every now and then provided, of course,
that one resists the self-righteous temptation to chase it down with a shot of self-entitlement
poured from a bottle obnoxiously labeled 5ogic 6 $b!ectivity.
This futuristic novella, written in 789:, is one of Rand's earliest and most popular wor#s. (n
it, she describes a terrifying world in which individuals have sacrificed their selfhood to the
"ollective. The word ( has been abolished from the language and the great oppressive
4e reigns supreme...until deep within the hive, one brave individual awa#ens from his
forced slumber and embar#s on a rebellious +uest for forbidden #nowledge. $ne cannot
help but notice that by the utopian standards of modern 1" -1olitical "orrectness., this
oppressive society is every bit the promised land that it claims to be. Right now, there are
people on earth who dream that one day this #ind of world will rise from the smoldering
ashes of the one we now inhabit. /ome of them even live in the 0nited /tates. And in other
places, their dream is all but a fait accompli.
(n Anthem, Rand raises a burning +uestion; what #ind of world do most of us really
want< At first glance, the answer seems simple; a world in which the individual and the
collective have patched up their differences and learned to live in harmony. A world in
which the rights and dignity of the individual are no longer at odds with collective levels of
human selfhood, and in which the individual and the collective operate synergistically as
parallel phases of human existence. A world in which the best parts of Rand's philosophy,
those which powerfully affirm human dignity and freedom, can live happily with the
indispensable invariants of collective utilitarianism. &ut is such a world reali%able< 4ith
due allowance for the inevitable imperfections of democracy, the short answer is yes. &ut
since neither Rand nor her detractors have been able to define it for us, much less tell us
how to bring it about, we find ourselves obliged to ta#e renewed stoc# of the dialectic and
see# a constructive synthesis. *ortunately, this tas# has been recogni%ed and accepted, and
than#s to the powers of human reason extolled by this brilliant author, the solution is already
partially in hand.
$riginally dismissed by critics, Anthem has sold over =.> million copies. The fact that it
continues to sell at a rate of more than ?@,@@@ copies per year is an unmista#able tribute to
the power of Rand's message.