THE VICE OF SELFISHNESS: A critique of Ayn Randís Objectivism
November 4, 1987
Animals have it easy. The family dog never wrestles with his conscience over the need to leave some Alpo in his bowl for the poor and hungry strays. Bulls don't apportion the cows to ensure the joys of family life for all concerned. And, once an amoeba splits, the two halves feel no need to keep in touch.
People, however, do not have such an easy time of it. The enlightened, modern person usually measures the progress of civilization by discerning how well its members look after their comrades. While some limited altruism has been documented in nature, conscious altruism can fairly be described as an invention of human beings. Whether it is the Christian axiom to "love thy neighbor as thyself" or the socialist dictum requiring "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," altruism is widely considered the progressive, humane stance.
So, it would seem a barbaric throwback when Ayn Rand has the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, state, "I swear--by my life and my love of it--that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." Yet, it is the thrust of Rand's novel and her objectivist philosophy that it is the altruists in their various forms that are the true barbarians. According to Rand, it is the parasitism of the mythologist (read religious) and collectivist (read socialist) altruists that will eventually sap the productive effort of the few real men and cause the collapse of civilization. Only purely self-interested individuals unburdened by the needs of non-producers, say the objectivists, can keep the progress of civilization on the upward track.
I read Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness. I even went so far as to subscribe to The Objectivist Forum. Ayn Rand's philosophy has a certain appeal and, for a time, I considered myself a disciple of Objectivism. But, ultimately, Objectivism is flawed and cannot be considered a plausible ethical theory.
The major strength of Objectivism is its attack on the socialist concept, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Rand correctly points out that such a philosophy kills ability and breeds need. In Atlas Shrugged, she gives the fictional example of a factory taken over by its workers that institutes this system. The workers progressively hide their abilities to avoid the demands the system makes on them. The workers also exaggerate their needs to gain greater compensation. In the end, the factory grinds to halt, becoming non-productive and serving no one's interests.
World events of the past few years give actual examples to support this fictional thesis. The two great world communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, found their socialist based economies stagnate and unproductive. First China was forced to reinstitute local capitalism and now the Soviet Union is undergoing an economic perestroika (restructuring). Considering how diametrically opposed to capitalism the ideologies of these two countries are, it is obvious from an economic point of view that John Galt's oath is not only feasible, but necessary.
But, even in
the realm of economics philosophy, flaws can be found in John Galt's oath. Because, not only does never living for the
sake of another logically preclude any sort of social welfare system, but
Rand's writings specifically attack such a system. Now, the
Of course, when dealing with philosophy, to attack a theory it is not enough to merely show that a certain action may cause large numbers of deaths. Large numbers of deaths must also be proved a bad thing. Theoretically, from a social-Darwinist-type perspective, such deaths could be an efficient cleansing of the deadwood of society. These deaths, however, could only be justified (if even then) if the dying's productivity were totally unsalvageable. These people, though it is simplistic to refer to them as a homogenous group, can in no way be proven to be genetically doomed to poverty and non-productivity. Thus, even if killing the poor is not inherently wrong, the lost productive potential makes it so.
Moving away from the purely economic, the flaws of John Galt's oath and Objectivism are even more acute. In a variety of situations, the Objectivist's inability to live for another's sake, even for some short period of time, is both intuitively unethical to the non-Objectivist and ultimately self-defeating to even a disciple of Objectivism.
The first flaw results from Objectivism's overextension of the correct repudiation of rewarding people for need to the prohibition of even helping those in need. The economic example of the social welfare system already shows part of this problem, but non-economic situations extend it to the absurd.
A perfect example of how an Objectivist is required to act incorrectly is that of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese on a street corner in Queens. Ms. Genovese was murdered while thirty-eight of her neighbors looked on for over half an hour without either intervening or even calling the police. Such bystander inaction is both obviously intuitively wrong and also self-defeating to the actor (or, more correctly, non-actor) because of the dangerous social situation it defines. An Objectivist, however, at least according to John Galt's oath, would be required to abstain from action. He certainly could not intervene and put his life and love of it in danger. Further, by saying he will never live for the sake of another, John Galt and the Objectivists cannot live their lives for Ms. Genovese's sake even long enough to make a phone call.
The next flaw of Objectivism is that not only does it prohibit the helping of other people for purely altruistic motives, but, it also does not prohibit the harming of others for purely self-interested motives. The only prohibition in John Galt's oath is of allowing others to live for his sake. Thus, the Objectivist will be driven by self-interest to harm others in situations in which such action is either intuitively wrong, eventually self-defeating, or both.
Corporate anti-environmentalism provides a good example of how Objectivist self-interest can harm others in an intuitively incorrect and self-defeating manner. This example is especially apropos because it contrasts well with the corporate heroism displayed in Atlas Shrugged. In one current case, fast-food giants are now using cheap, convenient foam containers to package their foods. These containers emit chlorofluorocarbons that damage the ozone layer and may eventually radically change the Earth's environment to the detriment of all living things. To an Objectivist, however, the profit inherent in such containers appeals to self-interest while the dangers are the problem of future generations. Obviously, an Objectivist who cannot live for the sake of another living person can show no concern for generations yet unborn. Such action certainly cannot be condoned intuitively and, by destroying life as we know it, will take with it whatever Objectivists happen to be around.
In addition, there are a variety of individual actions which fall under the category of intuitively wrong and, perhaps, self-defeating. Would an Objectivist's child be taught to share the last piece of cake with his brother? Could an Objectivist businessman hire hit men to polish off his competition? Should an Objectivist smoker put out his cigarette in the presence of a person allergic to smoke? In each case, pure self-interest dictates the intuitively wrong decision and creates a social situation that would be ultimately self-defeating to all.
The final flaw of John Galt's oath is that it becomes completely monstrous if it falls into the hands of those less scrupulous than the characters portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. The Objectivists portrayed in that novel are an honorable bunch. They put much emphasis on truth and responsibility in their actions. None of this honor, however, is inherent in John Galt's oath. With self-interest alone, that oath, and Objectivism, self-destructs.
If this oath of self-interest is taken seriously, some of the Objectivists own ideals can be tossed away by the dishonorable in the name of self-interest. The sanctity of the contract could be breached at will destroying the ideal business community which was the aim of the Objectivists in Atlas Shrugged. For a high enough price, any of the members of that secret society should have exposed the others to the world. And, the oath itself would be disposable given the right set of profitable conditions. Clearly, taken to the logical extreme John Galt's oath contradicts itself making it an implausible ethical theory.
In conclusion, it is understandable that Ayn Rand on escaping from the Soviet Union would endeavor to repudiate the overly extreme altruism of collectivist communism. Her theory of Objectivism correctly points out the flaws of inefficiency and ultimate self-destruction inherent in that system. But, the pure self-interest embodied in John Galt's oath in Atlas Shrugged is a dangerous overreaction that both involves intuitively wrong actions and creates an untenably dangerous social situation. Clearly, selfishness is no real virtue and Objectivism is no real theory.