AYN RANDThere once was a time when I was enamored by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. An émigré from the Soviet Union, the influential novelist and founder of Objectivism had an enthusiasm for market capitalism and a hatred of communism that I found entrancing. I discovered her two major philosophical novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, in my early years in college as I was beginning to wake from my enchantment with liberalism. I was instantly hooked.

Rand’s ideas were intriguing, yet she harbored sentiments that made it difficult for a young Christian to accept. She was an atheist who despised altruism and preached the “virtue of selfishness.” She believed that rational self-interest was the greatest good and sang the praises of egoism.

In retrospect, it appears obvious that any attempt to reconcile these ideas with my orthodox evangelicalism was destined to fail. Still, I thought there might be something to the philosophy and was particularly intrigued by her defense of capitalism. My understanding of our economic system was a rather immature, though, and I failed to recognize that Rand had an almost complete misunderstanding of capitalism. She confused self-interest with selfishness.

Many people, of course, share this profound misunderstanding of capitalism. For some peculiar reason they act as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand has the Midas’ touch; that it can alchemically transform the vice of avarice into the great goods of capitalism. Like most proponents of capitalism, Rand never explains how this magical process occurs. Instead she just accepted this sleight of hand as a matter of brute fact.

It is true, of course, that self-interest is the engine that drives capitalism. But self-interest is not the same as selfishness, at least not in the way that Rand would use the term. In her novel The Fountainhead, Rand’s protagonists are portrayed as the epitome of the capitalist intellectual hero. In fact, they rarely act less like capitalists, choosing instead to behave like spoiled, egotistical artistes.

Consider, for example, the novel’s main character, an architect named Howard Roark. In one particularly illuminating passage, Roark is told that his job as an architect, the primary purpose of his work, is to serve his clients. Roark responds by affirming, “I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.”

While such egotistical bluster may make for an interesting fictional character, this attitude can hardly be considered a solid foundation for capitalism. As the libertarian economist Mark Skousen observes in a critique of Rand:

the goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them! Discovering and fulfilling the needs of customers is the essence of market capitalism. Imagine how far a TV manufacturer would get if he decides to build TVs that only tune into his five favorite channels, the consumer be damned. It wouldn’t be long before he would be on the road to bankruptcy.

This leads us to one of the primary misunderstandings held by many of Rand’s admirers. Although she is widely praised for her defense of the capitalism (she was famous for wearing a gold broach in the shape of a dollar sign), she viewed it as subservient to a greater ideal:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism. (“The Objectivist”, September 1971)

On this point Rand is quite mistaken. Reason, applied consistently, doesn’t lead us down a straight path to egoism, much less to capitalism. Examined closely, we would find that her entire Objectivist philosophy is founded on this simple question begging premise. Rand, of course, would claim that it was a self-evident truth. But this requires us to believe that no one who ever came to a different conclusion was following reason where it leads. She might have no problem accepting such a conclusion—Rand was never one to tolerate dissent—but we don’t have sufficient justification for doing so.

This veneration of egoism also lead her to consider altruism to be a form of evil. As she explains in The Virtue of Selfishness:

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value–and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

At first glance it appears that she has built a strawman by redefining “altruism” in a way that is not commonly used. But she does have justification for her claim, for her idea of altruism is based on the ethical system of Auguste Comte and the English positivists. Comte’s system, which considered that only actions that benefited other could be considered moral, was both ethical and religious. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

Not only is the happiness to be found in living for others the supreme end of conduct, but a disinterested devotion to Humanity as a whole is the highest form of religious service. His ethical theory may be epitomized in the following propositions.

–The dominion of feeling over thought is the normative principle of human conduct, for it is the affective impulses that govern the individual and the race.
–Man is under the influence of two affective impulses, the personal or egoistic, and the social or altruistic.
–A just balance between these two is not possible, one or other must preponderate.
–The first condition of individual and social well-being is the subordination of self-love to the benevolent impulses.
–The first principle of morality, therefore, is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.

To bring about the reign of altruism Comte invented a religion which substituted for God an abstraction called Humanity.

If Howard Roark was the incarnation of Rand’s egoistic ideal, then Ellsworth M. Toohey was the exemplar of Comte’s religion of Humanity. Toohey was the antagonist in The Fountainhead and the embodiment of all that Rand would consider most base and unworthy in a person. His altruistic behavior and self-sacrifice is portrayed as loathsome. The reader is meant to despise him as weak and unmanly and, thanks to Rand’s powers as a novelist, we have no trouble seeing him in this way. By rejecting Toohey, we reject altruism.

Those who fail to notice the way that Rand defines altruism often mistake her critique as an argument against Christian morality. This isn’t surprising when we consider that Rand herself seems to make the same error. But the Christian view of altruism is not predicated on an obligation to love others more than we love ourselves. While there may be instances where such self-sacrificial love is appropriate, it is not an absolute duty. What we are commanded to do is love others just as we love ourselves. We are to love other humans in the same way, taking into account their interests and needs. We are not to treat them, as Comte would have us, in a disinterested manner.

Fully considered, it becomes obvious that Rand’s views congeal into a fatally flawed philosophy. Even when stripped of its atheistic elements, Objectivism’s focus on radical individualism cuts it off from reality and causes it to wither under scrutiny. And as much as we might admire Rand’s deep-rooted hatred of collectivism, her philosophy is still just another utopian dream, a transvalued Marxism.

Ultimately, Rand’s egoism is irreconcilable with both Christianity and capitalism. In fact, since the system fails to have any true explanatory value, it’s difficult to find any reason to adopt Objectivism at all. Fortunately, we don’t have to buy into Rand’s philosophical errors in order to appreciate her fiction. We just have to keep in mind that instead of reading a “novel of ideas”, we are reading a work of fantasy.

Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices

Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices

There is considerable debate in the public square these days about a number of issues that have significant economic components. Globalization, environmental protection, and aiding the poor are just a few. Decisions we make in our personal lives are influenced by our assumptions about economic realities as well. So how might mainstream economics connect with Christian values and principles?

$16.00

  • Eric H

    Excellent post — one of the best criticisms I’ve read of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy from a Christian point of view. While I do believe you’ve nailed your analysis on that front, I think your evidence is very weak in making the case that Rand didn’t understand capitalism. Calling Howard Roarke a spoiled “artiste” does not recognize the very intriguing idea that Roarke’s self-interest (indeed even his selfishness), while intended as a selfish adherence to an esthetic based on reason, actually still fosters market coordination that ends up serving others as well as Roarke.

    In my opinion this market coordination as depicted by Rand is the embodiment of why capitalism works; it serves the self-interest of the entrepreneur while also serving the interest of others, even if the latter is not the principle concern.

    This false dichotomy between egoism and altruism, which you’ve so clearly articulated in the context of Christianity, is why I believe Rand did understand the beauty of capitalism even though she couldn’t quite articulate it on ethical grounds, and I believe it’s also why Rand’s fiction is inspiring despite the shortcomings of her philosophy.

  • Rodrigo Castro Hernández

    It is clear you read Rand but you did not understand her, so I recommend try to read other authors like Leonard Piekoff , you will find Howard Roark quote is not a Entrepreneurship Business Guide but the primary definition of Ethics on Objectivism, mainly she is defining in the quote you post: Integrity. She is not saying reject indiscriminately costumers , she is saying you don´t have to collaborate with projects where you don´t want to collaborate even if they are begin you for the common good if you feel the integrity of your work is being hazard

  • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

    Also check out Rev. Robert Sirico’s 2011 article on Patheos: “Who Really Was John Galt, Anyway? — The name of Ayn Rand is used to tarnish the likes of Paul Ryan. But what if there is much to Rand that defies the caricature?”

    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Who-Really-Was-John-Galt-Anyway-Robert-Sirico-06-09-2011.html

  • Jed

    Good article. Two more interesting perspectives on Rand from Christian thinkers…

    1) John W. Robbins – The Philosophy of Ayn Rand Refuted http://www.trinitylectures.org/MP3/The_Philosophy_of_Ayn_Rand_Refuted.mp3

    2) John Piper – http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/the-ethics-of-ayn-rand

    • Eric H

      Thanks for sharing! I read Piper’s Desiring God right around the same time I was reading Atlas Shrugged, and his idea of Christian hedonism must have had some impact on the development of my thought on this subject (the idea of altruism versus egoism as a false dichotomy). I look forward to digesting these 2 perspectives when I have more time, but especially look forward to reading Piper’s thoughts on Rand.

      Thanks again.

  • Eric Watters

    I’m not as well read as you folks. I’ve watched the Rand – Phil Donahue interviews and I’ve read Atlas Shurgged. That said, I think you presume falsely that object of capitalism is necessarily or singulary to make money and lots of it. Perhaps the man only focusing on the 5 channel TV doesn’t make lots of money, but perhaps it’s enough to support himself while doing what he loves or believes in.

  • Zmirak

    An excellent analysis! In The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, I used Rand as the exemplar of the deadly sin of Vainglory (pride). Here’s an excerpt:
    http://www.catholicity.com/commentary/zmirak/07096.html

  • VindiciaeContraTyrannos

    Let’s remember that Rand came out of communism and the early progressive era in which love is merely defined as social justice. The 2nd greatest commandment, however, is a synthesis of self love and love for others. Loving yourself seems to be a necessary condition to loving a neighbor. Consider the drug addict who uses to covers up their self-loathing which in turn leads to a hatred for their neighbor usually through theft and abuse. Because the addict is self-loathing they cannot love their neighbor.

    Of course she did not understand it in these terms, but in relation to the counterfeit social gospel she at least understood that self love was a necessary condition that the social gospel denied.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    It is true that Rand could have had a better understanding of psychology; but her insights trump yours.
    With quote “I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.”

    She is saying that she/Roark is primarily motivated by self-interest. This is not some indulgent ‘egoism’, it depends upon a theory of values, which includes a hierarchy of values. A client is a derivative value to one’s pride, and other virtues that serve & sustain one’s life. You don’t get it because you never really analysed her work, and you curiosity probably waned after she proved you wrong. I got more interested; got into her mindset, then went out into the world and analysed everything. Look at the stark contradictions that remain in your ‘trail of conquest’. Religion – destroying the mind – along with other mind-renouncing vocations.

  • Pingback: Ayn Rand Didn't Understand Capitalism. Or Altruism. Or Christianity … | ChristianBookBarn.com

  • advancedatheist

    Rand obsessives have put themselves in a ridiculous bind. They exhort everyone to read Rand’s novels and the expository works about her writings that they approve of. Then they become upset with the people who do their homework on Rand and find the experience underwhelming, even articulating criticisms of what they found. What about Rand’s explicit doctrine of respecting the independence of the individual’s mind? Mental independence means giving Rand’s ideas a fair hearing and judging them for yourself; it doesn’t mean drinking the Rand cult’s Kool-Aid.

  • Juan Callejas

    ¿algún pensamiento propio?

  • Burke

    Actually, Ayn Rand understood capitalism, altruism, Christianity, and reality quite well. She understood that Christianity is mysticism and rejects rationality. She understood that one must be free to think and act upon their reason, which is what a capitalistic system allows. She understood that in reality giving up one’s life as a rational person for the promise of eternal life after death is death worship.

    As a former Christian myself, I understand that a Christan who is confronted with Ayn Rand’s ideas will be faced with a stark choice: surrender your mind to mysticism or live the life of a rational person.

    I chose the latter.

  • Burke

    Actually, Ayn Rand understood capitalism, altruism, Christianity, and reality quite well. She understood that Christianity is mysticism and rejects rationality. She understood that one must be free to think and act upon their reason, which is what a capitalistic system allows. She understood that in reality giving up one’s life as a rational person for the promise of eternal life after death is death worship.

    As a former Christian myself, I understand that a Christan who is confronted with Ayn Rand’s ideas will be faced with a stark choice: surrender your mind to mysticism or live the life of a rational person.

    I chose the latter.

    • Scott

      I prefer a rational mystic approach to my Christianity.

      I’ve yet to have my mysticism end in destruction. It always seems to be the other way around.

    • Paul Frantizek

      “Rand understood Christianity is mysticism.” You do realize that Rand identified Aquinas as one of the philosophers she most respected.

      Anyone who trots out the whole ‘Christianity rejects rationality’ canard really needs to study scholasticism and Thomism in some depth.

    • Roger McKinney

      Rand practiced rationalization, not reason, as Hayek wrote in “Fatal Conceit.” Capitalism owes its birth to the scholastics of Salamanca and their expert skill at reasoning. Rand’s was a pseudo-reason.

      As others wrote, anyone who claims Christianity lacks reason is merely advertising his ignorance.

    • Ethan Davidson

      Exept for one small detail. Rand is no more rational than the Bible.

  • jackcade

    If you want to know what Ayn Rand actually meant you should not rely on the imaginative ‘interpretations’ of her critics – you should read what Rand actually wrote:

    “Christianity was the first school of thought
    that proclaimed the supreme sacredness or the individual.
    The first duty of a Christian is the salvation of his
    own soul. This duty comes above any he may owe to his
    brothers. This is the basic statement of true individual-
    ism. The salvation or one’s own soul means the preservation
    of the integrity of one’s ego. The soul is the ego.

    Thus Christianity did preach egoism in my sense of the
    word, in high, noble and spiritual sense. Christ
    did say that you must love your neighbor as yourself,
    but He never said that you must love your neighbor
    better than yourself – which is a monstrous doctrine
    of altruism and collectivism. Altruism – the demand
    of self-immolation for others – contradicts the basic
    premise or Christianity, the sacredness of one’s own
    soul. Altruism introduced a basic contradiction into
    Christian philosophy, which has never been resolved.
    The entire history of Christianity in Europe has been
    a continuous civil war, not merely as a fact, but also
    in spirit. I believe that Christianity will not regain
    its power as a vital spiritual force until it has
    resolved this contradiction. And since it cannot
    reject the conception or the paramount sacredness of
    the individual soul – this conception holds the root,
    the meaning and the greatness or Christianity – it
    must reject the morality of altruism. It must teach
    men neither to serve others nor to rule others, but
    to live together as independent equals, which is the
    only possible state of true brotherhood. Brothers
    are not mutual servants nor mutual dependents. Only
    slaves are. Dependence breeds hatred. Only free men
    can afford to be benevolent. Only free men can love
    and respect one another. But a free man is an in-
    dependent man.And an independent man is one who lives
    primarily for himself.” Ayn Rand, 1943.

    • http://www.dejectedembryo.eu/ Dejected Embryo

      Interesting. Apart from the fact she completely misses the sacrificial essence of Christianity, she does not seem to know the distinction the Church makes between the individual and the person (I don’t know if the heterodox have it too but it is crucial in Orthodoxy). But then again she was an atheist Jew with revolutionary instincts herself. An anti-communist progressive of sorts.

      • jackcade

        She was well aware of the abhorrent sacrificial aspects of Christ’s alleged Mission, but in this case she is explaining why there is no necessary conflict between a rational political economy and Christian political economy and she is obviously correct – Christian leaders – like John Pye-Smith, the leader of the protestant dissentors – were laissez-faire capitalists.

    • Ethan Davidson

      Really, this is just a certain reading of Nietzsche, a right wing reading of Nietzsche. There are left wing readings, to. Check out Foucalt for an example.
      Ah, but to be a Nietzschean, you must not be a Nietzschean.

  • Pingback: This Week’s Good Reads – Pastor Dave Online

  • Pingback: On Ayn Rand | For God and Free Trade

  • David Marsilia

    “[T]he goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them!” -Mark Skousen

    “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” -Often attributed to Henry Ford.

    Setting a short term goal of fulfilling a customer’s actual or potential needs or desires needn’t contradict a longer term goal of turning a profit, of satisfying one’s personal, creative aspirations, or finally of living a fulfilling and flourishing life and achieving happiness. Which goals should be primary and which subordinate? If meeting perceived desires are primary, building a better candle would be enough– why create the lightbulb? Invention is the product of an insatiable curiosity, not a bleeding heart.

  • Pingback: "Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Capitalism. Or Altruism. Or Christianity. Or Reality." - Locke Stock and Too Many Politics | Locke Stock and Too Many Politics

  • Pingback: Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Capitalism. Or Altruism. Or Christianity. Or Reality.

  • Pingback: Flotsam & Jetsam (11/19) | the Ink Slinger

  • Bill Chapman

    My experience is that most people who declare that they are either Christians or they are Atheists deeply misunderstand both the Bible and Jesus. Those people who either embrace or denounce Objectivism and Ayn Rand deeply misunderstand the person and her philosophy. Neither faith nor rationality is adequately severed by an ‘either/or mentality’ rather an ‘and’ approach to finding truth and knowledge. Open ended/ open-minded, seeking growth rather than pre-conceived confirmation of pre-existing positions is best for discovering reality. No one said it would be easy.

  • I’m right

    I’m a bit late joining this discussion. I couldn’t resist responding, but I think my concrete type of thinking might be beneficial in understanding the altruism issue.

    I will start with a thought experiment.

    Imagine you have a group of 10 people. Let’s say five of these people are perfectly altruistic, and that the
    other five are the exact opposite of altruistic. You might term those non-altruistic people “selfish”, or “honest”, based on your own viewpoints.

    Let’s say each of the 10 people has a $1 bill, and that, furthermore, that $1 bill is all each of these people
    possesses. And let’s say that $1 bill contains all the material wealth, social status, power, etc., that each person has, that all of those things are contained in the $1 bill.

    By the logic of altruism, the altruistic people will give their $1 away to someone else. Eventually, the “selfish” or “honest” people will possess all the $1 bills; that is; everything that can be possessed. They will have all
    the wealth and status and power of the group. The altruistic people will have nothing.

    As a consequence of the logic of the concept of altruism, there are three types of people in the world.

    The first type are people who use altruistic people to enrich themselves. These people make altruistic people their slaves. This first type is exemplified by victim groups, shady bankers, etc.

    The second type are people who don’t believe in altruism. These people believe in depending on yourself for your own happiness, without making altruistic people your slaves. This type is exemplified by successful businesspeople.

    The third type of people that exist, in the universe of altruism, are people who actually are the true altruists. As noted above, these people are slaves to people who are not altruistic and who use them as beasts
    of burden. This type is exemplified by the soldier at the front lines of a war who gets his brains blown out.

    If, above, you called non-altruistic people “honest”, then you are a member of the second type of people. You are probably a strong person who can take care of him- or herself, without using altruistic people as your slave. You are a model citizen.

    If you called non-altruistic people “selfish”, then you are either a deceitful, manipulative person who uses altruistic people as your slave, or you are the slave.

    If you are the slave, then wake up and realize you are a slave. And realize your only tool to defend yourself
    against attacks by type 1 people is reality. You simply point out to the person trying to make you their slave what they are doing, and the manipulation, their only power over you, disappears. Your escape from slavery is directly proportional to your ability to point out bullsh….

    The group of 10 people is a microcosm of nations based on the Christian faith, which has, as its main teaching, the promotion of altruism.

    Altruism can work, to a certain degree, if you simultaneously promote honesty, or accountability if you prefer. That’s because when honesty is promoted, truly altruistic people can use reality to emasculate manipulators and liars.

    Unfortunately for Christianity, political correctness, or the promotion of not hurting peoples’ feelings, has made this religion an evil religion to promote, because truly altruistic people get turned into slaves and constantly get abused.

    Add honesty, and then there is a reason for logical people to support Christianity.

    If you want some evidence of whether what was written here is true, just ask yourself who has all the power, money and influence right now.

  • Pingback: Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Capitalism. Or Altruism. Or Christianity. Or Reality.

  • Ethan Davidson

    He is not separating Catholicism from Christianity. He is going back to what most Christians agree is the ultimate authority, the words of Jesus. Jesus said “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He did not say “love thy neighbor but forget thyself.”
    This is true of many other faiths as well. Buddhism teachinges to regard others as exactly as important, neither more nor less important, than yourself.
    You can agree or not. But Rand’s definition of Altruism is one that the majority of reigiouse folk do not subscribe too. It is, therfore, IMHO, a straw man. Evan if it is not that, it certainly can not be said to be “objectivly true” whatever the heck she means by that.

  • HR

    Read “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” and try to say Rand doesn’t understand capitalism.

  • Hal von Luebbert

    Holy Brain-death, Batman (That would be better than having one as spastically FUBAR logically as this one. Man, I wish I were still teaching – the class would have an veritable thinking-orgy with this!) I’ll save it – too comical to lose.

  • James George

    All human beings use philosophy. It is inescapable except by means of slamming one’s mind shut expressing no ideas and dying. The very act of reading this invokes the use of your philosophy. Philosophy is composed of five primary branches of logic and scientific discipline:

    1. Metaphysics- The field of Philosophy that deals with reality.

    2. Epistemology- The field of Philosophy that deals with Knowledge.

    3. Ethics- The Field of philosophy that deals with Morality.

    4. Politics- The field of Philosophy that deals with Economics and Government.

    5. Aesthetics- The field of Philosophy that deals with Art and Creativity.

    For a philosophy to be logically consistent and integrate all aspects of man’s mind, body and reality it must reconcile the above five points without contradictions. There are NO other philosophical systems that have accomplished this other than Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.