Is Selfishness Ayn Rand’s Highest Virtue?

Out of curiosity, I’ve been reading Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Atlas Shrugged is generally considered Rand’s magnum opus, and the place where she best describes her philosophy (Objectivism). So far I’ve read about 60 pages and I made an interesting discovery.  Objectivism is best known for holding that the highest virtue is selfishness, but I think that this is a mischaracterization. It’s not selfishness which is the highest virtue in Rand’s view, but honesty. The confusion arises from Rand’s belief—natural enough in an atheist—that true altruism is not possible. If selfishness is the only option, there are only two ways to be selfish: honestly, and dishonestly.

Before I proceed, I’d like to clarify what I meant by saying that a disbelief in altruism is natural enough in an atheist. I don’t mean that atheists are generally selfish people. In my experience they’re no more selfish than anyone else, but this is in spite of their beliefs, not because of them. That is, to their credit most atheists are quite inconsistent with what they profess to be true. There are many types of atheism, of course, but none of them have any glue to bind one individual to another, except mutual need. But in truth man is a communal being and so our highest good is found in being individuals in community with each other. But since atheism cannot give a grounding for that, they can only come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain it. We have a heard instinct, or an instinct for altruism, or an instinct to benefit the species—well, so what? It’s not like they argue that we must always follow our instincts. Or they claim our highest selfishness is fulfilled by working together. Except that a child of five can come up with counter-examples, because people cannot be relied upon to reciprocate. But Atheists never raise this question because they’re not trying to find out what the logical consequences of what they hold to be true are, they’re trying to rationalize doing what they know to be true, in spite of what they claim is true.

OK, back to Rand. The first thing that tipped me off to her holding honesty as the highest virtue was the rather inexplicable way that Rand clearly admires her heroes for being utterly unable to comprehend why anyone does anything different from them. Despite straining their brains to the breaking point, simply cannot understand lying, cheating, stealing, and laziness. This point is hammered home several times for each good character; these titans of industry are lionized for being utterly incapable of understanding how people work, or even getting along with most people tolerably well. They’re continually mystified at how the people who operate their machines and buy their products think and act. Incompetence at understanding or interacting with the bulk of humanity is a very odd trait in an overman. How on earth can Rand praise her heroes for what they don’t know?

In fact, there is only one time when anyone praises a person for their ignorance: when that ignorance is innocence. When you ask a man if he would sell his grandmother into slavery, the correct answer is not, “how much are you offering?” If a man were telling us the story of one time when someone offered to buy his grandmother, and the man knew how much was being offered, we’d all be suspicious of him. So the question arises: what is it that Rand’s characters are innocent of? They don’t seem to have many virtues, and they do seem to have a fair number of vices. In fact, they pretty much all seem to be awful people. But part of this awfulness is that they are ruthlessly honest. I should qualify, because when I say honest it’s not a question of being dedicated to the Truth. They’re all afflicted with a terrible sort of tunnel-vision where the only thing in the world they acknowledge to have any value are their primary passions in life. A dedication to the Truth requires humility, because humility is only being honest about yourself. What Rand’s characters have is the more modern sort of honesty, which consists of telling people whatever you think and feel, without any concern for what effects your words will have. But they’re not simply blunt with others; they strive to be blunt with themselves, too. And this is what I mean when I say that they strive to be honest.

This honesty that they strive for is, I believe, the basis for Objectivist ethics. Every person is selfish, since what else can they be? But they can be honest or dishonest in their dealings with each other. Stealing is dishonest, as is breaking bargains or using physical force to make someone do something that they don’t want to do. Why are these dishonest? Really it’s because they genuinely are, but mostly people recognized these things as dishonest mystically—the moral law is written on all men’s hearts—and this is just self-evident. The Objectivists claim to have “objective knowledge” which is certain and reliable, so they can’t really appeal to “come on, we all know that lying, cheating, and stealing is dishonest”. Instead they try to ground this in the worth of the individual. A=A. Since a thing is itself, and not something else, each thing has unique value. Therefore no individual is intrinsically more important than another, and taking what belongs to another without that other’s consent has no rational basis. (Really, it’s that any transaction in which an individual has less than when he started would not be permissible, but the only practical thing to do is to leave it up to each individual what he considers of value, and whether any particular trade is a fair trade.) Of course not a single one of those conclusions follows from the premises stated before it, but that is none the less the approach used. It will sound OK if you say it quickly and don’t pay much attention because you’re committing the fallacy “P is true. This argument proves P. Therefore this argument is a good argument.”

This interpretation of Objectivism makes it vastly more consistent than it at first appears. It’s goal is not to promote selfishness, but really to constrain selfishness. Atlas Shrugged is full of the villains doing horribly selfish things and covering over those things with lies that what they’re doing is serving the greater good. It’s very clear from context that no one actually believes any of their platitudes about social welfare and the greater good; they’re doing what everyone in the Soviet Union did—quoting the official party line to justify whatever it was they were doing anyway. I knew people who lived in the Soviet Union, if granted they lived in it thirty or more years after Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged. It really was advantageous to memorize useful parts of Lenin’s writings. No one believed them, but going against the prevailing cultural norms was dangerous; if one could make these norms seem to be on one’s side, one gained power. This is almost explicitly what all of the villains are doing. They mouth platitudes while vying for self interest. It’s even noted many times that the heroes think that everyone in the room understands some secret meaning except themselves. This is very true. The words about social responsibility do not (directly) convey the meaning, and the heroes are just too innocent to intuit the real meaning.

All of this is obscured by the fact that Ayn Rand didn’t believe that altruism was a real thing. When she seems to be arguing in favor of self-interest, what she’s really arguing in favor of is every limiting themselves to that self-interest which respects the individual, as opposed to self-interest which seeks to deprive others of what is theirs to enrich oneself at their expense. But since she didn’t believe that altruism is a real thing, it never occurred to her to explain that it wasn’t real, or that this non-thing was not what she was arguing against. It would be like explaining that Santa Claus doesn’t exist in a conversation about whether it’s best to sign name tags on presents as being from Santa Claus.

I suspect that Rand did have to admit the logical possibility of altruism, but she dismissed true altruism as being destructive. And in an atheistic context, she’s right. We have what we have, and since creation is impossible, life is a zero-sum game. If we give of ourselves to another, we must have at least equally less (there can be transmission losses). The world is no better off for this, and in fact may well lose an individual if this goes on to the point of destruction. If human beings are valuable, this represents a real loss to the world.

Ultimately, altruism only works because of the nature of God. God, being self-existent, creates the world out of pure generosity. He makes it so that he can fill it up with life; he makes it so that he can give to it. Human altruism is a participation in the divine altruism. We are given the gift of being God’s giving to each other; he fills us up that we may overflow into each other. Because of this, we are not diminished by giving, but actually increased by giving. In the end, it is only possible to love another man because God loved him first.

Navel Gazing

It has always struck me as very strange that navel gazing has a bad reputation. The first thing that should occur to a person looking at his navel—other than perhaps gratitude to his mother—is that it is obvious that he did not create himself. From there, it should be obvious that his parents—having navels—didn’t create themselves either, and so on back until one comes to a necessary being. That is, something that is uncreated, utterly different from us, existing outside of time and space, and which was the sufficient condition for us. That is, gazing at one’s navel should lead pretty directly to contemplating God.

Consider this passage about Hank Rearden from Atlas Shrugged (italics mine):

He had burned everything there was to burn within him; he had scattered so many sparks to start so many things—and he wondered whether someone could give him now the spark he needed, now when he felt unable ever to rise again. He asked himself who had started him and kept him going. Then he raised his head. Slowly, with the greatest effort of his life, he made his body rise until he was able to sit upright with only one hand pressed to the desk and a trembling arm to support him. He never asked that question again.

I’m pretty sure that the fool in this passage actually answered his question, “me.” Had he just looked at his navel, he’d have realized that he did not start himself, nor in the early part of his life keep himself going. Looking at his navel should have told him in three seconds that all that he is was a gift others which is impossible to repay. It should have made him realize that he can’t earn what he was freely given; the best he can do is to be worthy of what he was given, to safeguard it and keep it from harm, because sin is the privation of being.

Incidentally, he might also have ceased to be an objectivist because it is not our nature to exist on our own, but in community. Objectivists see clearly enough that the individual has worth that the community must respect and may not trample upon, but they miss that it is not good for man to be alone. We find our highest good in the fulfillment of the entirety of our nature, and that includes being in community with other creatures. We will never be happy if we lose sight either of the individual or the community.

Where Objectivists really go wrong is a problem common to all secularists: we have a nature, and therefore a highest good, but we are fallen creatures, so we will never attain our highest good on this side of death. This is a contradiction, and one that can only be resolved by something unfallen which can repair our fallen world. We can’t fix ourselves, for the simple reason that we can’t give ourselves what we haven’t got. Trying to build an ideal society under conditions in which it is impossible to build an ideal society will always result not just in failure, but in spectacular failure.

What Happens When The Devil Will Take the Hindmost

One of the near universal instincts which human beings have is that—whatever may be the path to salvation—we can’t all be damned. “All”, of course, is defined in terms of the group, not all human beings as a species. And by “be damned”, I mostly mean, “perish”.  And of course the if stated directly, as a proposition, it is obviously false. Despite all that, it is still a foundational belief for a great many people.

If we’re not all going to be damned, it raises the question of who will? Since it’s not all, it must be the people who stand out in some way. And there are two sub-groups of people who stand out: the best, and the worst. There’s something important to note about the best, but I’m going to save that for last. Clearly between the two, it is the worst who are the most likely candidates for damnation. This has obvious effects, like reality shows that showcase the worst people to reassure the rest of us that we’re in the middle, not the bottom. But it also has another, less obvious, but more pernicious effect. It makes most people very unwilling to stand out from the group at all.

If one stands out, there are—logically speaking—only two ways to do it. One can be better or one can be worse. To be merely different would be possible only if the characteristic in question had no moral implications. This should be possible, but in a complicated world where one does not comprehend the remote consequences of one’s actions, everything probably has some sort of moral implications. According to the people who charge double for the chocolate they sell, their competitors use slave labor and pass the savings on to you. Failing to cut the rings on a six-pack holder may strangle a seagull. Driving to the beach causes global warming, and buying a t-shirt may support a sweat shop. Buying a dress shirt made by a tailor might cause your co-worker to become self-conscious about their cheaper, less well-fitting shirt. Everything is problematic, so the only safe thing is to stick with the group. If you stand out, you might be better, but since it’s much easier to be worse, odds are good that if you risk being different, it will mean you’re worse.

The overriding principle thus becomes conformity. What will save one, in a confusing and uncertain world, is blending in with the group. It doesn’t really matter what group, of course. The only requirement is that it be a respectable group—not generally respectable, of course, only respectable to the individual. Any group for which one can feel affection is respectable in this sense, and any group one is used to who is reasonably accepting can have affection felt for it, so there is an inevitable mix of the people who happen to be around and the ones that one is willing to spend time with. Once the group has been selected, people outside of this group are irrelevant, except insofar as they affect the group, e.g. they vote for laws that the group must obey. These can be small groups—tribes, villages, etc—but in the west they are generally much larger and more amorphous. Patriotic Americans, Christian Fundamentalists, Democrats, Atheists, geeks etc. can all be such groups.

This group identity becomes the thing to which the individual will have primary allegiance. It is the one thing which they will never contradict or forsake. It is also the source of most of the contradictions which the individual will believe. The christian fundamentalist holds that the bible is literally true, but it says that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. This is resolved through verbal tricks which don’t fool anyone, but which aren’t supposed to. They serve only to put space between the contradicting halves until the argument can be escaped, because their culture does not admit the real presence in the eucharist, and it doesn’t admit non-literal interpretaitons of the bible. There is no way to reconcile these, so it is not reconciled.

This becomes very clear in the case of atheists—most, not all, obviously, but just about all of the “new atheists”—who hold science to be an authority, but who also live like human beings. Science—in the sense of subculturally approved popular science—holds that the mind is nothing but neurons. So it is nothing but neurons, and therefore free will does not exist. On the other hand, people make choices and must be held responsible for them, so they do. There’s no way to reconcile these things, so no attempt is made to reconcile them. (Technically, there is compatibilism, but the less said about that the better.) Science is an authority, but at the same time the great thing about it is that it corrects all of its errors. There is no way to reconcile these things—the definition of an (intellectual) authority is something which cannot be wrong. Here there is a slight attempt made to reconcile the two: “it’s the best we have”. What happens when your best isn’t good enough is never addressed, nor can it be. Anything but slogans would just point out the contradiction. So all we get are slogans. Neither side of the contradiction can be given up, because the culture demands both. The only response you get to challenging any of this is to be cast out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, because that’s the only possible response. If you don’t accept both halves, you are simply not part of the group. The group dis-identification can be creatively named, of course. “Denier”, “irrational”, etc. A thorn by any other name pricks just the same.

There is still the question of whether this is an initial error, or a consequence of other errors. Any individual may of course come here as the result of rejecting God and so looking for him in the world, and in what else but the culture can one hope? Still, I think that for the majority of people who fall into this mistake, it is one of the first mistakes which they make, because it is taught to them as children. Teaching children to fit into the culture in which they live is one of the duties of a parent. It starts early, and if parents leave off teaching how to not fit in, their children must be very lucky indeed to learn it. One would suppose Christianity—which has as a central theme that God is more important than culture, and one must be dependent on God and independent of Man—would crush this, but some (many) people turn attendance at church into a cultural practice. It’s one of the shared rituals that bind people together. It doesn’t matter if you understand, it matters that you attend.

So this, I contend, is the source of most Atheists’ error. It is a primary allegiance to their culture, brought about by a training to conform to their culture, and a deep-seated belief that in the great race of life, the devil will take the hindmost, so the only safe thing to do is to hide in the crowd.