The Philosophy of “Atlas Shrugged”

The ideal “from each according to ability, to each according to need” continues to be held as an unquestionable good, despite repeated failures to make it a reality.  Even if this ideal is in fact impossible to attain (due to human nature, poor planning, or the corrupting influence of other cultures), we should still strive for it–or so the thinking goes.  But what is it that makes this ideal so desirable?  “From each according to ability, to each according to need” paints a picture of a world where everyone’s needs are met: a utopia.  But what if there were a different way to achieve that world–one which takes advantage of our basic human nature, rather than trying to “improve” it?  A world in which those who give the most to society receive, rather than sacrifice, the most in return?  The Objectivism of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged suggests an alternative path to utopia: it suggests that “from each according to ability, to each according to need” may not only be an impossible ideal, but also an immoral one–and that the creation and “selfish” exchange of value is not just the best way to get yourself ahead, it is ultimately the truest possible act of respect, charity and compassion a human being can perform.

The Virtue of Selfishness

Probably one of the most commonly misunderstood ideas of Objectivist philosophy is “the virtue of selfishness”.  Our culture has so thoroughly conditioned us that selfishness is bad and selflessness is good that we often don’t stop to question why this is the case–yet perhaps we should.  The concept of virtuous self-sacrifice with no expectation of return was conceived in the agricultural age, when people believed that they really would receive payment for their sacrifices–but only after their death.  This was necessary because, for them, life was inherently miserable (agricultural societies tend to be terrible places to live in), so they needed something to give them reason to keep on living and working despite it.  Now, however, our lives are far better and far fewer people believe in so literal a reward in the afterlife–yet, the virtue of self-sacrifice persists.  The toxic idea that things you enjoy are by nature sinful, and virtuous things are by nature unpleasant, continues to permeate every facet of our culture from our media and advertisements to the methods and content of our education.  This disconnect produces some astonishing extremes in the cultural psyche that manifest in very unhealthy behavior.  As an example, take our cultural attitudes toward the prime vices of aggression, food, and sex: our simultaneous identification with and abhorrence of aggression leads to sensationalist news stories and glorification of violence in the media, our infatuation with and disgust of food contributes to some of the highest rates of both over- and under-eating disorders in the world, and our obsession with and shame of sex contributes to half an entire culture growing up believing they have to be attractive to be likable (but not too attractive), and the other half believing that sex is an animal impulse that must be stamped down (except when it must be indulged).  It is an eternal contradiction in terms that demands we feel pride in our weaknesses and shame in our talents; that we say one thing and do another.  How exhausting!  Though “the virtue of selfishness”, like all philosophies, does not give easy answers to all the problems of our society, it operates from a basic premise that is much more optimistic and sustainable: that joy, not misery, is man’s natural state, and that the attainment of that joy is man’s highest moral purpose.

A distinction I find helpful to make when thinking about the particular kind of selfishness that Objectivism refers to is the difference between selfishness and greed (these are my terms, not Rand’s): a selfish person wants more than they have, while a greedy person wants more than they have earned.  (“Earning”, in this case, does not mean getting a reward handed down to you from a higher power for good behavior, like an arbitrating parent or king–instead, it means producing something of objective value, that results in material benefits for yourself or others.  The only arbitrators are the peers you trade with, not some higher authority.)  Thus, a greedy person will have no qualms about acquiring what they want through theft, extortion, blackmail, or trickery, while a selfish but ungreedy person will get what they want by working to produce more value.[1]

The beautiful thing about this idea is that it means being selfish does not mean being a jerk to other people, or screwing over others for your own sole benefit.  Indeed, it means quite the opposite–the most selfish people of all in an Objectivist system are the ones who want the most, and therefore they are the ones who work the hardest and produce the most value.  By acquiring what they want through productivity and trade, the rest of society benefits by their labor as a matter of course.  Value is not finite.  It can be created–indeed, the Objectivist perspective asserts it can only be created–and once it is created, it can be traded and shared.  Once an individual invents a new idea or develops a new process, everyone else can benefit by it almost instantly…assuming they have something of value to give in return, of course.

The Philosophy of Reason

Here is where Objectivism’s “virtue of selfishness” at first seems to meet with a practical rather than knee-jerk objection: if a person produces something of value to society, shouldn’t everyone have a right to benefit by it?  To understand the answer, we first need to understand the ethical axioms on which Objectivism is founded.  These are:

  1. Individualism.  A free and individual will is given as the instrument of ethical behavior.  To an Objectivist, nothing is more sacred than an individual’s rights, powers, and responsibilities, and individuals are the core agents of all ethical exchanges.
  2. Justice.  This axiom embodies the twin values of fairness and objectivity.  Fairness means that exchanges of value between moral agents should be equal, or as near equal as possible.  Objectivity means that moral agents should be judged based solely on their objective qualities, i.e. behaviors–not their thoughts, beliefs, ancestry, or appearance.
  3. Rationality.  Thought is held to be the essential purpose of humankind–it is what separates us from the other animals and it is what distinguishes us as moral agents.  The universe is assumed to be an essentially ordered and understandable place–the validity of logic, patterns, cause and effect, and observation are all taken as givens.

With these axioms in mind, let’s return to our earlier question: if a person produces something of value, does society have a right to it?  The answer is no, in fact, it doesn’t.  By the axiom of Individualism, entities like “society” and “everyone” are not valid moral agents at all: only individuals are moral agents, so all ethical exchanges are treated on the individual level.  So, a given person may have a right to benefit by a new invention–but on this scale, it becomes clear that the inventor has an equal right to something of value in exchange (following the axiom of Justice).  Ethical “cause and effect” must balance out.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: because the value of any given exchange between individuals is relative, this exchange is not a zero-sum game–there is often more total value after an exchange than before, even though the items exchanged have not changed physically at all.  If you’re a farmer, for instance, and I’m a mechanic, and I trade you a tractor in exchange for some food, the value of the tractor and the food both increase after we have traded them.  The tractor isn’t worth much to me–I can always make another–but I can’t grow my own food, and I need that to live.  The food, on the other hand, isn’t worth much to you–you can always grow more–but you have no idea how to build a tractor and you need one to continue making a living.  The things we produce are worth more to each other than they are to ourselves.  If this exchange of value were unequal or involuntary, we could no longer guarantee that total value would increase–indeed, it’s possible that there would be a net loss of value.  This would violate the axiom of Justice, and unless one party in the exchange had been deceived they would both be held to have done wrong.

Does this mean that charities are unethical?  Or giving money to a friend?  Not at all!  The axiom of Rationality makes Objectivism a peculiarly uncompromising philosophy: it’s meant to be taken to its logical extremes.  Thus, ethical exchanges are not limited to economic partnerships, they apply to all human relationships, and what constitutes “value” need not be money or goods–it could be the satisfaction you feel in giving to a worthy cause, the pleasure you derive from the time spent with a lover, or the pride you feel in a loved and respected friend.  These things are all equal exchanges of value, even though the value exchanged may not always be currency.  By contrast, a family member or friend does not get a “free pass” just because they bear that title–if the exchange of value is one-sided, the relationship is considered ethically void just as surely as a legal contract would be considered void if one side failed to recognize their end of the bargain.  It follows that in the world of Atlas Shrugged, guilt is a tool of emotional blackmail–and just as monetary blackmail is used by greedy people who wish to acquire material things of value without having to work for them, guilt is used in the same way and by the same sorts of people to acquire things of emotional value without having to earn them.

This seems harsh to those of us raised on the ideal of selflessness, but the uncompromising nature of Objectivism demands that there be no double standards: justice, to an Objectivist, is a two-edged sword.  We consider it obvious that it is unethical to punish a good person for a sin they did not commit.  Objectivist philosophy carries that idea through to its logical conclusion, which is that it should be equally unjust to reward a bad person for a virtue they did not commit.  This is a particularly difficult idea to accept in a society where the dominant religion literally worships physical and emotional martyrdom–helping, supporting, loving, or forgiving those who have not (objectively) earned it.  Perhaps the aspect of Objectivism that is most difficult for our culture to accept is not that selfishness is a virtue, but that selflessness is a sin–that acts of self-sacrifice are as ethically unjustifiable for their victims as they are for those who take advantage of them.

Why have we ever believed otherwise?  The only way it makes any sense to sacrifice yourself is if you expect that sacrifice to serve some purpose–but in the past, that purpose was the promise of a happy afterlife.  People were taught, essentially, that this life is at best a tedious and lengthy test to be taken, and at worst extended torture to endure for the sake of another, better life.  Naturally, in that context martyrdom was to be admired and even envied: martyrs got to finish the test early.  But if you believe that this life has, or should have, any value of itself, this is a dangerous sentiment: it encourages you to live, not for this life, but for the next.  If our goal is truly to improve this world–to make earth the “kingdom of heaven”–then we must stop encouraging the most virtuous members of society to cripple themselves for the sake of that virtue.  There is much more at stake here than just some upper-class political point about high taxes (taxes, even high ones, are not necessarily a bad thing)–the real problem is that a culture of martyrs destroys itself when taken to its logical extremes.  It demands that its most capable and virtuous members suffer the most–at their own hands–and that its most wicked and weak members benefit more than anyone.  You may argue that exaggerations of this sort are unfair –“of course this attitude isn’t meant to be taken to such extremes, no philosophy is”–but the axiom of Rationality encodes the Objectivist value that beliefs are only justified if they are rational, even when taken to their extremes.

Even many of its proponents don’t fully understand the fact that Objectivism is meant to be taken to its logical extremes–some of its implications might surprise them!  For instance, in a truly Objectivist society the axiom of Individualism would prohibit the idea even of corporate property, let alone corporate “personhood”.  A corporation (that is, a group of people) would have no more right to free speech or due process than would a rock.  Nor would a corporation be permitted to buy or own land or other property, including intellectual property such as patents and copyrights.  Intellectual property rights themselves would likely change as well: while control of such rights would undoubtedly be strict, it would also be unthinkable for a patent or copyright’s term to extend past the life of its author or inventor–after the individual was dead, they would cease to exist as a moral agent, so there would be no way to trade in their ideas ethically except by putting them in the public domain.  Their children would not be entitled to those ideas (or, indeed, to anything else) unless they had been granted them expressly under the terms of an equal exchange of value–remember, family ties are not a “free ticket” in an Objectivist system.

Can You Put a Price on a Person?

The idea that people must earn emotional as well as monetary rewards–in other words, that we can (indeed, should!) “put a price” on human beings–goes against our cultural dogma.  Don’t we say “never judge a book by its cover”? The truth, however, is that we judge books and people by their outward qualities all the time–and this is not a bad thing!  Indeed, judging others based on qualities such as net worth, education, scruples, status, job, social circle, charisma, attractiveness, and hundreds of other traits is a fundamental social skill we practice constantly.  If we are to have free exchange of value at all, we have to be able to judge others to determine what that value, material or emotional, might be.  If we are obligated to trade with people we would normally dislike or distrust (either because the interaction is forced, or because we are prevented from judging them accurately), then we are all martyrs without a cause.  “Putting a price” on others in that sense, at least, is not really a radical or novel idea, nor should it be uncomfortable–what does make people uncomfortable is that its logical conclusion seems to be that we should allow people such as the disabled or mentally ill to suffer.  In fact, this is not the case: the axiom of Justice clearly implies that no one should be punished due to circumstances beyond their control–that would be as unjust as imprisoning an innocent person.  However, that doesn’t mean anyone should be forced to care for them, either.

Let’s address one potential objection right away: the idea that people have inherent worth, independent of any of their objective qualities, would imply that it would be ethical and necessary to force people to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  This idea has more than a few uncomfortable implications of its own–for instance, if people are inherently valuable, then more people must always be more valuable, which means that all forms of birth control are restrictions of an unqualified good and are therefore clearly immoral.  Even setting such arguments aside, however, this idea still necessitates a rejection of materialism, which is arguably the root of Objectivist philosophy.  It’s right there in the name–only objects, objects we can observe and interact with, are considered viable agents of Objectivist philosophy.  Many people who consider themselves materialists still hold to the belief that people have inherent value, yet the very concept of “personhood”, let alone the inherent value thereof, necessitates that the quality of “person” can somehow be divorced from all material considerations–in other words, all objective measures.  As a materialist philosophy, Objectivism therefore rejects the idea of “inherent” value outright.

What, then, of the mentally ill?  Or those who suffer accidents or birth defects that render them unable to contribute?  Should we simply let them die?  Of course not.  But neither should anyone be obligated to care for them.  It is not the caring itself that is unethical: if someone else has an emotional investment in them, they of course should provide assistance, and if a group of individuals (say, a country) decides they have a vested interest in ensuring they or their children are cared for in the event of an accident, they can take measures to do so (say, through contributions to government health insurance).  A similar organization could be established for those who wish to contribute to the care of the mentally ill–it is not the care provided that is considered unethical, it is the obligation of such care, because that obligation is an undermining of the individual will.

No Perfect Answer

There is no philosophy that gives easy answers to every problem, and Objectivism is no exception.  The axiom of Individuality gives rise to one of Objectivism’s most apparent challenges: children.  It is taken as given that all individuals (and only individuals) have ethical agency, the idea being that the ability to reason and make choices is what gives a moral agent both its powers and its responsibilities.  More generally, we can say that entities are moral agents if they are responsible for their own actions–so an animal is not a moral agent because it’s acting on instinct, while a human has the ability to reason and foresee the consequences of their actions, so they should be held responsible for them.  This makes sense and aligns with our current thinking about ethical agency, but it introduces a problem in the fact that children certainly do not start out responsible for their own actions, but unlike an animal or an inanimate object they grow to become so.  Among other things, this means that a careless implementation of Objectivist philosophy could still result in situations where a capable child is born to poor parents, while a less capable one is born to rich parents.  The child of the poorer family will have to work harder to get what they want, despite their superior ability, simply because they have fewer resources at their disposal–this is a violation of the axiom of Justice.  One possible answer to this problem might be to prevent children from having access to their parent’s resources past a certain age (or even allowing for children to be raised from a communal pool of resources until a certain age, so that they never rely on their parent’s resources at all)–but of course this raises further questions, such as at what age a child could be considered “fully” responsible for themselves, or whether there should be a gradient of responsibility from infancy to adulthood, how that might be determined, how much resources they should have available to them if it’s from a communal pool, and how those resources might be procured and shared.

Other problems arise from Objectivism’s attitude towards finite resources and chance events.  In practice, there is nothing about Objectivism’s axioms that explicitly refute these things, but in Atlas Shrugged they are treated as the excuses of people who simply weren’t trying hard enough.  Lines like “what could I have done?” are invariably uttered by the villains–those greedy individuals who wish to gain without having to work, think, or assume responsibility.  The problem is that in the real world, sometimes there isn’t anything that could reasonably have been done to prevent an accident, sometimes there is no way to determine whether something will be valuable or useful in the future, and some resources are finite or impossible to obtain.  That Atlas Shrugged often seems to imply otherwise is, in my opinion, its greatest shortcoming–but I understand why it does.  These problems are difficult for Objectivism to solve because they are difficult for any philosophy to solve–accidents, natural disasters and death simply don’t have known solutions.  Atlas Shrugged argues that these problems should not be used as excuses for failure–despite the fact that they sometimes are–simply because deciding between misfortune and incompetence requires determining intent, which is not an objective quality.  How to decide if the victim of a tragedy really was putting in their best effort and the accident was due to chance, or whether they were only “phoning it in” and the damage could have been avoided or mitigated with more effort or foresight?  To determine the truth, we would have to be able to objectively judge other people’s thoughts and motivations–a tall order, considering we cannot reliably judge even our own!

The world of Atlas Shrugged, like most settings of philosophical works, is a world deliberately built to avoid its issues and difficulties in order to prove a point.  Those difficulties do exist and should not be discounted–but that alone does not make Objectivism “wrong” in either the logical or ethical senses of the word.  The world is a complex and chaotic place; sometimes, there simply is no single “right answer”.  In fact, although Atlas Shrugged tends to ignore such difficulties, the philosophy that underlies it is built from the ground up to accommodate them!  Many ethical philosophies claim to be based on rationality, and argue that humans ought to behave rationally at all times.  But this is a contradiction in terms: the very concept of rationality implies free will (otherwise there is no meaningful choice, and hence no meaning behind calling actions rational or not), and therefore it must allow for the possibility of behavior that is not rational.  Strange as it may seem, an ethical agent can only act rationally if they are given the freedom to be irrational.  What sets Objectivism apart from other philosophies based on rationality is that it recognizes that what is or is not “rational” must ultimately be left to the judgement of the individual making the choice.  It does not lay out a series of rules to be followed so much as provide a framework from which individuals can come to their own conclusions for what rules they should follow.  In other words, it aims wherever possible to be a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, philosophy, and that makes it both more flexible and more universal than other ethical philosophies that attempt to provide fixed, absolute “rules” for ethical behavior.

A World Without Need

The irony of the seemingly rational “from each according to ability, to each according to need” is that it is founded on an unspoken fear of rationality–of the individual will.  It’s true, allowing people the freedom to do whatever they want (as long as it does not impede the freedom of others) can be a scary thought–what if they make the wrong choices?  What if they make mistakes?  What if they use their freedom to take advantage of others, or ignore the needs of those who’ve been subject to misfortune?  At its heart, this is an issue of trust–governments and societies that trust people to make their own decisions and do what’s best for themselves and others tend to be more democratic and capitalist, and those that don’t tend to be more autocratic and socialist.  Earlier in this essay, I argued that an Objectivist society could still provide for those who’ve suffered from accident or misfortune by creating organizations such as charities, insurance policies, or government programs–but this still makes many people uneasy.  What if nobody volunteers to contribute to such organizations–to care for the needy willingly?  The needy would suffer and die, through (in many cases) no fault of their own.  Isn’t it better, objectively, to force a few successful people to suffer slightly, in exchange for preventing a large number of people from suffering greatly?  This is a powerfully seductive argument–hence the appeal of its logical conclusion, socialism (where everyone is forced to suffer equally).  Socialism hasn’t worked out very well in the past, but even assuming we could make it work it rests on an assumption that, on closer inspection, proves as repulsive as the argument is seductive.  The problem is that mistrust of the individual will means mistrust of rationality, and mistrust of rationality is mistrust of the natural world.  This is a far more disturbing position than any of the so-called “evils” of Objectivism: it is the tacit assertion that the world is permanently, inherently miserable.  If you truly believe that the majority of people will always be suffering no matter what, then of course it makes sense to try to average out that suffering so that the majority of people suffer as little as possible.  But this is exactly the belief that Objectivism refutes!  Objectivism is built on the premise that joy is man’s natural state, and that value–the measure of joy–is created, not inherent.  If it is possible for the total value of society to increase over time, then it must also be possible to decrease total misery over time–to make everyone, at all levels of the spectrum, happier.  To illustrate the difference between these two ideals, imagine for a moment that you had become paralyzed by some accident, making you unable to care for yourself.  Which would you choose, given the option: the assurance that nothing would be expected of you and that you would be diligently cared for by others until your natural death–or a cure for your paralysis?  History shows us that not only do individual people overwhelmingly prefer the latter, it is also ultimately the better option for society as a whole.

Now, at last, we see the real problem with “from each according to ability, to each according to need”: it operates under the assumption that life is intrinsically unpleasant, and that we are powerless to change that “fact”.  It treats the symptoms of misfortune, evil, corruption, and incompetence, while taking their causes as givens.  Its philosophy leads us to a world where everyone’s needs are met–but only because the needy are cared for through the sacrifices of the successful.  It encourages us to cultivate our shortcomings and hide our strengths.  It dictates that basic human nature is a weakness to be overcome, rather than a virtue to take pride in.  Indeed, it is built from a cultural background that holds pride itself to be the defining quality of evil, and humility its only antidote.  But we can never eradicate evil entirely–that is the nature of a complex, chaotic universe–so rather than a world where everyone is humble, we are led to a world where only the wicked hold themselves in high esteem, where they try to walk all over everyone else (which they would do anyway), and where the virtuous are encouraged to lie down and let them!  Objectivism, on the other hand, encourages us to take pride in our strengths and to reject our weaknesses.  It discourages guilt and self-pity in favor of joy and accomplishment; it dictates that people should be rewarded, not punished, for creating value for society, and that they should be rewarded in direct proportion to the value they create.  And most importantly, it points us to a world where everyone’s needs are met because no one is needy.  Regardless of whether either of these two worlds is possible to fully reach, I know which one I would rather strive for.


[1] A deeper reading of Objectivism implies that a greedy person can never be truly selfish, because it is not the reward itself that gives the selfish person happiness–it is the achievement of that reward through the application of thought and will.  The greedy person wants the same things because they think those things are valuable, but it is the selfish person that gives those things value in the first place though the application of their virtues–therefore, material rewards acquired without the use of these virtues are empty of real value, and the greedy person is not being truly selfish at all.  This is a complex argument and it could easily be the subject of its own essay–in fact, Ayn Rand wrote several books on the topic–which is why in practice I find the distinction between selfishness and greed useful for keeping things simple.


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