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.

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