Considering Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

Two years ago I set out to read the 100 most influential books of all time as part of my comprehensive reading plan. I recently completed Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” I immediately purchased “The Fountainhead.” This is dangerous writing.

Rand introduces us to a form of ethics and philosophy that was dubbed Objectivism in the mid 1900’s. She is considered among the most influential thinkers of the modern era. I now see why. Her writing captivated me in a very straight forward and logical manner while packaged in narrative form. 

Besides celebrating capitalism’s effectiveness, the root of her argument is that man’s own happiness is the purpose of life. She suggests that most men (and women) only consider the mystical or the social ideals and forego logic and reasoning. I tend to agree. A person’s life either belongs to God or the gods; or their life belongs to their neighbor (ie. socialism, or government worship.) Instead of surrendering your mind to outsiders, Rand suggests that one should consider his or her own good derived by one’s own reason. One’s reason should be expanded by creativity and bounded only by the observable reality. That which is good for life is moral. That which destroys life is evil. Your own life is thereby your life’s purpose. And, to choose good for that life is thereby good.

All this happiness-seeking makes sense to a highly deductive person with an internal locus of control. But, what of mistakes? What of conflict? 
A purely rational society is a fine ideal. However, it is not real. We can strive toward a rational society but we are unlikely to realize it. Why? First, a handful of dissenters destroys the utopia. And, our world has a great number of illogical, hurtful and conflicted people. Furthermore, a handful of leaders with selfish motives –even if logical– will destroy options for weaker people groups. Errors are also made. The result of both irrationality and selfishness at the expense of others ultimately destroy Rand’s utopia. Life is not a novel where errors can be edited away.

Furthermore, the pursuit of happiness is a multi faceted goal. There is not a single point of happiness. Nor is it realistic to expect a perpetual state of happiness. Few confront this reality when pondering Rand’s objectivism.

“Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy.”

– from the John Gault radio speech in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

As someone in pursuit of rational thought, I firmly agree with the pursuit of a non-contradictory life. A life built upon truth is better. A life without contradiction is better. I find joy in truing up my contradictions. I find peace with removal of conflict. This is not achieved through concession, but through rational thought. The conflict I am most concerned with is that of my own beliefs and actions.

Rand paints a beautiful picture in Atlas Shrugged. The contrast between truth and lie, rational and irrational, creativity and dependency is stark. So stark in fact are the differences that many find her work shallow. I think the plot of Atlas Shrugged was crafted to thump you in the chest. It was designed to challenge your very life and source of faith, or lack thereof. You must confront it. This is dangerous writing.

I am a Christian and enjoyed Atlas Shrugged. Some friends may find this concerning. How can you enjoy the writing of an author that is credited with the phrase “selfishness is good.” Isn’t this the spirit of evil itself? Frankly, I did not see that phrase in the book and instead observed a very real mockery of socialism and government dependency. I wonder if someone over simplified her words to scare people. Still, she was anti-religion. I too am anti-religion. I am pro-truth. For that, I’ll let John Piper dig deeper into the ethics of Ayn Rand from a modern Christian philosopher point of view:

Ultimately, people of all backgrounds suck at doing life well. Rand’s idealized man is appealing. The concept is good, but it is not real. People are messy and only a few are as logical as her portrayal. Most are deeply flawed. And even the most rational among us are not entirely without flaw. The real danger of Ayn Rand’s writing is the slippery appeal disconnected from reality.

Still, I did admire the writing style. As for my reading plan, I may stray a bit now into her other works and circle back in a few weeks to my syllabus.