Book Review: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Not a lot of time, so I’ll be brief about a complicated issue: Atlas Shrugged was once ranked the second most influential book for Americans behind the Bible. Plus, too many people had told me to read it for me to put it (and its 1,000 pages) off any longer.

The book itself, as Josh Kaufman told me, is highly romanticized, so characters represent ideas more than they do real people. Moreover, there are several long monologues that are basically Rand’s theories on life, not necessarily relevant to that particular place in the book. So, let’s talk about her theories and Objectivism.

According to the Ayn Rand Institute, Rand’s philosophy in essence “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” What really resonated with me from this and from Atlas Shrugged is the idea that men were built to soar, that full application of one’s talents and abilities is a noble task, and that reason and science should underpin much of society. I also, of course, found liking in her love of capitalism, though not to the extreme of laizze-faire as she does.

Rand’s detractors often cite her belief that selfishness is a virtue and that self should be put above all others as problematic. Kaufman told me in his comment, “Basically, if you want to help other people out, Rand would say that’s great – if and only if you’re doing it because you desire to help and not because you think you have some kind of moral duty to spend your life and resources in the service of others. (David Kelley wrote an entire book on this: Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis for Benevolence) It’s often quite satisfying to know you’ve really made a difference in someone’s life, so benevolence and philanthropy are not out of the question in her view.” So I wonder…how many people really “want” to help other people in need out? It may be satisfying to be philanthropic, but my cynicism tells me that without some higher moral standard instructing us that, yes, community service is good, we wouldn’t get around to feeling an urge to help those in need. Look at where we are now: society looks favorably upon those who “do good,” yet many people still don’t give back at all. They’re passing up on both feeling good themselves and reaping the praise from the higher moral code.

I still don’t know how I feel about objectivism in the context of a larger discussion on epistemology, an area in which I do not have the requisite knowledge to comment on intelligently.

It is the concern about unbridled embracement of selfishness, plus Ayn Rand herself – who, in reading about her life, seemed to be a bit kooky and contradictory even though her philosophy has been worldview-changing for many – that will prevent me from being an Ayn Rand lover. That said, I have great respect for many of her philosophies and will certainly continue to explore her works, attempting to treat them with the seriousness they deserve and not a simplistic write-off.

One Response to Book Review: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

  1. Josh Kaufman says:

    Ben,

    Good analysis – happy to hear you made it through the book!

    A few comments:

    (1) On “selfishness”. As you know, Rand’s usage of the word is very different from common usage. She believed there was no common word that preserved a sense of propriety in acting in one’s own self-interest, so she used the word that most people commonly use as a wholly negative description. In doing so, she sparked a lot of controversy and got a lot of attention, but I think her approach was the wrong one. Her advocacy of self-interest is not “unbridled” – it’s very strictly limited to acting in your own interest without using force or fraud against other people. “Enlightened self-interest” is a much better term for her views, in my opinion.

    (2) On community service. I’m not quite clear on what you mean by “higher moral code” (since moral codes are created by human beings), but in my observation it seems that the people who accomplish the most in community service are the people who care passionately about what they are doing and work really hard to make good things happen – i.e. they take a great deal of personal satisfaction in their work. You may get warm bodies via a duty ethic, but you won’t get passion and commitment, which require investing oneself in the work. Rand would say that kind of work qualifies as self-interest, even though the goal is helping another. The main difference is doing it because you want to, not because someone told you it’s your moral responsibility or because you feel guilty if you don’t. (In “The Fountainhead,” the architect protagonist designs and builds a housing project because he enjoys investing himself in the creation of buildings, not because people need it.)

    (3) On kookiness. Rand did get kooky, particularly in her old age. She was prone to rationalization, and some of her actions did contradict her own stated beliefs. (I.e. forming a group of people who highly valued her work, then expecting them to always agree with her completely instead of thinking for themselves.) Personally, while I think understanding her life is important, I place more value on her ideas and how she developed and justified them. No one is perfect, including Rand. A great many attacks on Rand’s ideas are ad hominems based on these kinds of issues, which is unfortunate.

    (4) On laissez-faire. Rand’s ideas about economics line up almost exactly with the Austrian School of Economics. You might get a lot of value out of reading “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt or “Human Action” by Ludwig von Mises. “Capitalism” by George Reisman is a good overview that incorporates elements of Rand and Von Mises into the work. (Reisman was a student of both.) In short, there are a lot of good reasons why an absolute minimum of governmental oversight is best for all concerned, from both a moral and practical standpoint.

    (5) On epistemology. You probably know more about epistemology than many others, given that you’ve read “On Intelligence” and many other books on neuroscience. “Epistemology” is just a fancy philosophical word for how humans observe, think, and learn, and neuroscience is changing epistemology from an area of philosophical conjecture into a science. For what it’s worth, everything I’ve read from Rand on epistemology is completely consistent with what Hawkins and other researchers are discovering scientifically.

    “Atlas Shrugged is the idea that men were built to soar, that full application of one’s talents and abilities is a noble task, and that reason and science should underpin much of society.” – This is the best one sentence summary of Atlas I’ve read. This is going into my file! :-)

    I’m glad you’re continuing your exploration – I recommend “The Fountainhead” if you haven’t read it already. “Anthem” is also a very short but valuable read. I think her fiction is much better than her nonfiction, but “The Virtue of Selfishness” and “Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal” are two collections of essays you might find useful.

    Be well,

    Josh

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