Is there any virtue in being selfish?

Ayn Rand was the enigmatic Russian-American writer-philosopher, behind two of the twentieth-century’s most ostentatious and lengthy novels: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand has also been the subject of criticism for her dedication to her ideological views. Through a carefully estimated sum of around 1921 pages, Rand’s Objectivism is introduced to her helpless victims. Upon conducting an unashamedly swift glance at Wikipedia, Objectivism 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.’ The philosophy is of course, more convoluted, but, keeping this definition in mind, one is struck by this most intriguing philosophy at every page. While I’ve completed Fountainhead, and am halfway through Atlas, I couldn’t help thinking: what am I supposed to take from these novels? How far do I agree with Rand’s philosophy? Is there any virtue in being selfish?

That’s what the philosophy boils down to: an evocation of man’s own desires taking precedence over the public good; of the ends justifying the means, if it brings profit or personal benefit. Take Rand’s Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, a genius architect whose wacky concepts prove unbearably daunting for the members of the Architects’ Guild of America. Roark, the epitome of Rand’s egoistical fantasies, is her first attempt at constructing the “ideal man”. He is Objectivism incarnate; his only purpose in life comes from the value of his work alongside his desire to do things his way. Roark’s stalwart demeanour means he’d rather suffer through poverty than bend to the will of others. He is by no means an honourable character; not when he dismantles the lives of ex-colleagues, and especially not after his hard-to-read and morally questionable escapades with the novel’s Dominique Francon. Similar traits are found in Atlas Shrugged. A veritable slew of characters are in the running for the title of, ‘most blatant representation of Objectivism.’ Hank Rearden, a ‘man of achievement’ and wealth, becomes acquainted with Dagny Taggart. They share a bond, both professionally and romantically, that once again hopes to dominate the world of industry against all odds. Like Roark, the pair are dedicated to their work and leave others to wallow in the wake of their achievements. In Rearden’s words: ‘I work for nothing but my own profit. I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine’.

Why then, have these novels remained popular among students and industrious entrepreneurial types alike? I suppose there’s some admirability, in the way that Objectivism has implemented the lives of Rand’s characters. Surely, it is good for productive achievement to be one’s: ‘noblest activity’. If man’s greatest efforts were directed towards less constructive activities, it’d be hard to imagine the society that would emerge from a citizenry of unproductive people. Then, there’s the issue of one’s happiness as the primary source of moral purpose in life, in other words, stressing individual gain over collectivised effort to promote the wellbeing of society. It would be great to have the wealth and reputation of Rearden, but then there’s the sense that what these characters are in possession of, has failed to make them ‘happy’. Rearden has this goal in mind, that of being the greatest metallurgist the world has ever seen, and to be the sole leader among men. But, what else does he have? Arguably, nothing. I believe Rand fails to recognise that a society containing these sorts of people, would collapse under the weight of its own brute force. Happiness can be found in innumerable places, and to imply that it can only be granted through individual effort is a gross misunderstanding of the value of selfless behaviour. The lesson I’ve learnt from Rand’s work is that, whilst it’s vital to encourage productive behaviour, it’s just as important to show compassion.


Connor Deith

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