Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Self-Interest
Ayn Rand once wrote that a butcher, a brewer, and a baker do not make a dinner a success because of their “benevolence”; they are motivated by their own “self-interest.” She also believed that humans should participate in the world as heroic beings pursuing their own happiness and their own “productive achievement(s),” limited only by what she calls the facts of “reality.”
Rand refers to her reason-based philosophy as objectivism, a hard-edged ism that focuses on objective reality as the only rational plain on which humans can, and ought to live. All other forms—faith, religion, theism—are nothing more than subjective, irrational, even delusional venues that humans have devised for any of a number of subjective motives.
In Rand’s philosophy, since there is no exterior divinity to depend on or pay homage to, the heroic rational individual is the only moral center that has any worth. And the individual can only fully survive through self-interest; otherwise, there will only be a world where every person blends anonymously and blindly into the other.
Humans, Rand believes, have far more intrinsic worth than to throw their individuality into the melting pot of conformity, suppression, and insignificance.
To Rand, altruism is another of the great con-jobs humanity has fallen victim to. She sees it as nothing more than a dysfunctional surrender of self to another. Rand has used such words as “cannibalism” and “evil” to describe what she believes are all the various self-sacrifice driven forms of altruism.
In the political world, Rand has often made disparaging comments about majority rule as a kind of herding model for decision-making. In one of her many statements about majoritarian rule, Rand once wrote, “Unlimited majority rule is an instance of the the principle of tyranny.”
In Rand’s metaphysical, psychological, and moral worlds, the only entity that has any real legitimacy is the individual. Majorities cannot and should not determine one’s individual destiny; humans must rely on themselves since there is no god or exterior divinity that will intervene or rescue them from the realities of living; and that individuals should not “sacrifice” their own happiness for another person or a state. (In one interview, Rand was careful to distinguish between taking care of a loved one and rushing away from that love-driven responsibility to help a neighbor, an action Rand describes as “altruistic” and wrong.)
It is important to remember about Rand that her philosophy of self-interest, coupled with her antipathy to self-sacrificing altruism came out of her hatred of fascism and communism (Rand moved to the United States from Russia in 1926, not long after the Russian Revolution). Both ideologies, in Rand’s view, preached a lemming-like collectivism and relied heavily on the principle of self-sacrifice for the state.
I have to admit that, until I began to understand the origin of Rand’s hatred of altruism and her defense of self-interest, I had always thought of her philosophy as an extension of the greedy and unscrupulous profit-motive of the worst of American corporate offenders.
Many in the corporate world obviously latched on to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interest. They appropriated that philosophy as a justification for unbridled laissez-faire capitalism and all the variations of the anti big-government movements in the US.
These economic geeks and go-getters conveniently avoided the historical context of Rand’s hatred of fascism and communism, which led her to adamantly defend the principle of individuality against the “brute force” of government.
Rand’s antipathy to government, I believe, stems almost solely from her belief that, like the governments under Stalin and Hitler, all governments will use force to suppress individuality. She seems to have completely excluded from her vision the use of an elected government to protect its citizens from corporate greed, unethical business practices, environmental and economic disasters, invasion, crime, and, of course, the use of all three branches of the government to protect minority rights.
And good governments can establish corrective economic measures and make positive public policy decisions that can benefit the citizenry. In the end, one individual has neither the resources nor the power to confront the public challenges of a nation-state society.
The crucial caveat here is that all governments must have an adequate and fair election process, a Constitution guaranteeing certain basic rights, and a system of checks and balances. Without these, governments end up under the control of one mind set or run the risk of being dominated by one person or party. (All democratic governments, of course, run this risk if its citizens getting lulled into economic comfortableness by the economic policies of one political party or leader.)
I also believe that Rand’s hatred of collectivism completely sidestepped the positive attributes of groups (unions, co-ops, group insurance plans, committees, clubs, religious communities, advocacy groups, citizen-action groups, class-action suits).
Granted, many of these groups run the risk of suppressing rebellion and individuality or of becoming too exclusionary; however, if there are built-in structures that allow many diverse voices and opinions to be heard, the collective power of the group can fulfill any of a number of purposes: (1) Economic (2) Support (3) Nurturing and service (4) The power of influence, and (5) Diversity of thought (I am fully aware that no one group fits everybody’s needs and that no one group consistently acts out its own ideals.)
I can sympathize with Rand’s somewhat cynical view of self-sacrifice. Catholicism and Protestantism continues to give “sacrifice” an iconic stature in its theologies. Christ, of course, is portrayed as the sacrificial victim, the redeemer through death, the divine/human figure “offering up” of his life to “save” sinners.
The theology of sacrifice, historically, became Christianity’s justification for forced silence and humility, repression, and, ultimately, the suppression of women’s rights (In the Catholic Church, women have consistently been taught to sacrifice their own identities and needs to the greater good of the patriarchal hierarchy, a hierarchy that women continue to be left out of).
Self-sacrifice has been a psychological model for many a family and religious institution that places loyalty over an individual’s need to find his or her own identity. Although we preach individualism as a virtue in American culture, there are many families and churches that still require a kind of blind faith and conformity to a prescribed set of values, values that many adolescents agonize over in rebelling against.
And caretakers in relationships and families often submerge their own happiness to satisfy the desires of someone they love. Needless to say, it is not rare for caretakers to become psychological door-mats sacrificing their own welfare in order to keep peace or to avoid conflict.
Finally, there are other collectivist mind-sets that Rand either overlooks or could not predict during her lifetime: (1) The mind-numbing world of advertising (2) Corporatism (3)Tribal cultural values (4) The addictive attachment to sacred texts, and, in the words of an internet marketing expert (5) “Loyalty to the brand.”
Individualism continues to be bombarded by invisible forces of our culture that, too often, remain obscured by the more obvious scapegoats—government and big business. And our inertia is too often the result of our lives being occupied just by the daily tasks of trying to survive. And that, of course, is our profound loss.