Understanding Ayn Rand - Without a Cannibal's Lust
This is the 5th of a 6-part series designed to explain several important aspects of Ayn Rand’s influential Atlas Shrugged, or at least correct widespread misconceptions regarding Atlas Shrugged that disastrously influence modern culture. You can pick up the start of this series here.
In our two previous posts we introduce a virtue (honesty) and an absolute rule (never force someone against their will) from John Galt’s nationwide radio speech, the fifty-six-page summary of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism set toward the end of Atlas Shrugged. Both Galt’s virtue and rule speak to an ethic of mutuality within the code of morality for which Galt advocates. Our focus in this post and the next is to further explore that ethic of mutuality from the perspective of self-interest, as Rand explores through her alter-ego character Galt.
Rand rails against the “morality of sacrifice,” sacrificing one’s entire self-interest. We agree that failing to love oneself is detrimental. We likewise see that loving only oneself and, therefore, failing to also love others is likewise detrimental. Between these two equal and opposite failings is the enlightened path of Partnership Economics.
Early in Galt’s speech, Rand lambasts the morality she opposes. She writes:
You have been taught that morality is a code of behavior imposed on you by whim, the whim of a supernatural power or the whim of society, to serve God’s purpose or your neighbor’s welfare, to please an authority beyond the grave or else next door—but not to serve your life or pleasure.
We aren’t here to argue what Rand herself was taught or what she supposes her audience had been taught, but she is clear that the morality she rails against frowns upon serving “your life or pleasure.” It’s that conjunction—her use of ‘but’—that drew our attention to seek clearer vision into Rand’s hunger for mutuality.
Rand brings fire and brimstone against serving “God’s purpose or your neighbor’s welfare” but denying “your life or pleasure.” We agree against such a morality, whatever morality that is, that requires service to God and others but not service to oneself. Understanding Rand’s demand for a morality that doesn’t require sacrificing oneself for the benefit of others or God, we see her demand consistent with the moralities taught by Jesus and Adam Smith: to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself—to love your neighbor as yourself.
What does Rand’s mutuality look like? Despite language that would seem to demonize so much as a second thought about another person, Rand does in fact, like Jesus and Smith, advocate explicitly for the mutuality of self-interest and other-interest. This fuller context of Rand’s words must be kept in view. Contrary to popular (mis)conceptions of Rand as espousing a dog-eat-dog, brutally selfish style of self-interest, Rand’s own words—in the keystone speech of her fictional representation of her philosophy—say otherwise. From Galt’s speech:
Just as I support my life, neither by robbery nor alms, but by my own effort, so I do not seek to derive my happiness from the injury or the favor of others, but earn it by my own achievement. Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others. Just as there are no contradictions in my values and no conflicts among my desires—so there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned and do not view one another with a cannibal’s lust, men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them.
In strong contrast to the “dog-eat-dog” philosophy that is frequently attributed to Rand, Rand plainly disavows abuse through sacrifice or cannibal’s lust. To see Rand/John Galt otherwise is an inaccurate view.
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Do you see dog-eat-dog or a cannibal’s lust behavior in our capitalism? No doubt. Well, now you’re reminded that Rand didn’t advocate for such behavior. When you hear others espousing a supposed knowledge of Ayn Rand and self-interest, be confident in your knowledge that she didn’t advocate for the form of capitalism we see mostly practiced today. Rather, Rand advocated for self-interest that does not create untenable conflict among “men who neither make sacrifice nor accept them.”
Disagree, do you? Okay. Citing Galt’s speech, please show us your basis for disagreement. Honestly, we’re interested and open to thoughtful criticism, especially if we’re at risk of missing or misstating something. Meanwhile, our next, and last, post in this series provides a nice analogy by Rand about aligning self-interest and other interests. Join us there!
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