Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand's Morality of Egoism (Part 1 of 3)

by | Aug 13, 2010

The following is an expanded version of a talk I’ve delivered on various college campuses over the past few years. –CB  Because of its prophetic nature with respect to current events, Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is receiving more attention today than it did when it was first published fifty-two years ago. The book […]

The following is an expanded version of a talk I’ve delivered on various college campuses over the past few years. –CB 

Because of its prophetic nature with respect to current events, Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is receiving more attention today than it did when it was first published fifty-two years ago. The book is currently number nineteen on’s Bestsellers list, number one on the Literature & Fiction list, and number one on the Classics list. If sales are an indication, Atlas Shrugged is one of the most popular books in America today–and that’s a good thing, because the ideas set forth in Atlas are crucial to personal happiness, social harmony, and political freedom.

Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a brilliant suspense story about a man who said he would stop the motor of the world and did. But the book is much more than a great novel. Integrated into the story is a revolutionary philosophy–a philosophy not for pie-in-the-sky debates or academic word games or preparing for an “afterlife,” but for understanding reality, achieving values, and living on earth.

Rand’s philosophy, which she named Objectivism, includes a view of the nature of reality, of man’s means of knowledge, of man’s nature and means of survival, of a proper morality, of a proper social system, and of the nature and value of art. It is a comprehensive philosophy, which, after writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand elaborated in several nonfiction books. But it all came together initially in Atlas, in which Rand dramatized her philosophy–along with the ideas that oppose it.

While writing Atlas, Rand made a journal entry in which she said, “My most important job is the formulation of a rational morality of and for man, of and for his life, of and for this earth.”1 She proceeded to formulate just such a morality, and to show what it means in practice.

Tonight, we’re going to focus on the morality presented in Atlas Shrugged, but I want to do so without spoiling the novel for those of you who haven’t yet read it. And since it is impossible to say much of substance about Atlas without giving away key elements of its plot and the mystery of the novel, I’m going to limit my discussion of the book to a brief indication of its plot–without giving away anything pivotal–after which I’ll discuss Rand’s morality of egoism directly.

Atlas Shrugged is a story about a future world in which the entire globe, with the exception of America, has fallen under the rule of various “People’s States” or dictatorships. America, the only country that is not yet fully socialized, is sliding rapidly in that direction, as it increasingly accepts the ideas that lead to dictatorship, ideas such as self-sacrifice is noble, self-interest is evil, and greedy producers and businessmen have a moral obligation to serve the “greater good” of society.

Given this cultural climate, the economy becomes increasingly regulated by the government, and the country slides further and further into economic chaos: Factories shut down, trains stop running, businesses close their doors, people starve–just what you would expect if the U.S. government started acting like the government of the USSR.

But then, something strange starts happening. America’s top producers–various scientists, inventors, businessmen, and artists–start to disappear. One by one, they simply vanish. And no one knows where they’ve gone or why.

Consequently, the supply of goods and services–from scientific discoveries to copper to wheat to automobiles to oil to medicine to entertainment–reduces to a trickle and eventually comes to a halt. Life as Americans once knew it ceases to exist. The country is in ruins.

Where did the producers go and why? Were they killed? Were they kidnapped? Do they return? How is this resolved?

Read the book. You’ll be riveted.

As I said, I don’t want to give away the story, but I will mention its theme. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in man’s existence. The novel dramatizes the fact that the reasoning mind is the basic source of the values on which human life depends. And this is not only the theme of Atlas; it is also the essence of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism: Reason–the faculty that operates by means of observation, concepts, and logic–is the source of all knowledge, values, and prosperity.

In this same vein, the theme of my talk tonight is the role of the mind–specifically your mind–in understanding, evaluating, and embracing a moral code.

Suppose you are offered two moral codes from which to choose–and whichever one you choose, you have to live by it for the rest of your life. The first code tells you that your life is supremely important–that it is properly the single most important thing in the world to you. This code says that you should live a wonderful, joy-filled life, and it provides an abundance of guidance about how to do so: how to make your life great; how to choose your goals, organize your values, and prioritize the things that are important to you; how to succeed in school, in friendships, and in romance; how to choose a career that you’ll love and how to succeed in it. And so on. In short, this first moral code provides you guidance for achieving a lifetime of happiness and prosperity.

The second moral code offers an entirely different kind of guidance. It tells you not that you should live a wonderful life, not that you should pursue and achieve your goals and values–but, rather, that your life is unimportant, that you should sacrifice your values, that you should give them up for the “sake” of others, that you should abandon the pursuit of personal happiness and accept the kind of “life” that results from doing so. That’s it. That’s the guidance provided by the second code.

All else being equal, which moral code would you choose–and why?

I suspect that, on serious reflection, you would choose the first code. I further suspect that your reasoning would be something on the order of: “We’re talking about my life here. If it’s true that embracing the first code will make my life wonderful, and embracing the second will make it miserable, then this is a no-brainer.”

I think that’s good reasoning. Let’s see if it holds up under scrutiny as we flesh out the respective natures and implications of these two codes.

The first code is Rand’s morality of rational egoism, which lies at the heart of Atlas Shrugged and is the centerpiece of Objectivism. The second code is the traditional ethics of altruism–which is the cause of all the trouble in Atlas Shrugged and is the ethics on which we all were raised. In order to be clear about what Rand’s egoism is, I want to compare and contrast it with altruism. This will serve to highlight the value of Rand’s ideas and help to dispel potential misconceptions about her views. It will also show how destructive altruism is and why we desperately need to replace it with rational egoism–both personally and culturally. (I will be using the terms “egoism” and “rational egoism” interchangeably for reasons that will become clear as we proceed.)

Let me stress that I cannot present the whole of Rand’s morality in one evening–that would be impossible. What I’m going to do is just indicate its essence, by discussing a few of its key principles. My aim is to show you that there is something enormously important here–something important to your life and happiness–and to inspire you to look further into the subject on your own.

To begin, observe that each of you brought a morality with you tonight. It is right there in your head–whether you are conscious of it or not. Each of you has a set of ideas about what is good and bad, right and wrong–about what you should and shouldn’t do. And you refer to these ideas, implicitly or explicitly, when making choices and taking actions in your daily life. Should I study for the test, or cheat on it, or not worry about it? What career should I choose–and how should I choose it? Is environmentalism a good movement or a bad one? What should I do this weekend? How should I spend my time? Whom should I befriend? Whom can I trust? Is homosexuality wrong? Does a fetus have rights? What is the proper way to deal with terrorists?

The answers one gives to such questions depend on one’s morality. This is what a morality is: a set of ideas and principles to guide one’s choices, evaluations, and actions.

Because as human beings we have to make choices–because we have free will–a morality of some kind is unavoidable to us. Morality is truly inescapable. Our only choice in this regard is whether we acquire our morality through conscious deliberation–or by default, through social osmosis.

If we acquire our morality by default, we will most likely accept the dominant morality in the culture today: altruism–the idea that being moral consists in being selfless. “Don’t be selfish!”–“Put others first!”–“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”–“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”–“Volunteer to serve in your community.”–“Sacrifice for the greater good.” And so on.

This is the morality that surrounded all of us growing up–and that still surrounds us today. It is the morality taught in church, synagogue, and school–offered in books, movies, and on TV–and encouraged by most parents.

Interestingly, however, although our culture is steeped in this morality, the actual meaning of altruism, in the minds of most people, is quite vague. Is a doctor acting altruistically when he cares for his patients? Or is he seeking to gain from doing so? Are parents being altruistic when they pay for their children’s education? Or is it in their best interest to do so? Are American soldiers acting altruistically when they defend our freedom? Or is defending our freedom in their self-interest? Are you acting altruistically when you throw a birthday party for your best friend? Or do you do so because he or she is a great value to you–and thus, something is in it for you?

What exactly is the difference between self-less action and self-interested action? What is the difference between altruism and egoism?

To understand how each differs from the other, we need to understand the basic theory of each code and what each calls for in practice. To begin clarifying this issue, let us turn first to altruism.

Altruism is the morality that holds self-sacrificial service as the standard of moral value and as the sole justification for one’s existence. Here, in the words of altruistic philosopher W. G. Maclagan, is the basic principle: According to altruism, “the moral importance of being alive lies in its constituting the condition of our ability to serve ends that are not reducible to our personal satisfactions.”2 This means that the moral importance of your life corresponds to your acts of selflessness–acts that do not satisfy your personal needs. Insofar as you do not act selflessly, your life has no moral significance. Quoting Maclagan again, altruism holds that we have “a duty to relieve the stress and promote the happiness of our fellows. . . . [We] should discount altogether [our] own pleasure or happiness as such when . . . deciding what course of action to pursue. . . . [Our] own happiness is, as such, a matter of no moral concern to [us] whatsoever.”3

Ayn Rand was not exaggerating when she said, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.”4 That is the theoretical meaning of altruism. And the altruistic philosophers know it–and state it forthrightly. (We’ll hear from more of them a little later.)

Now, what does altruism mean in practice? Suppose a person accepts altruism as true and strives to practice it consistently. What will become of his life?

A widely-used college philosophy text gives us a good indication. As I read this passage, bear in mind that this is not someone speaking for or against altruism. This is just a textbook writer’s depiction of what altruism means in practice.

A pure altruist doesn’t consider her own welfare at all but only that of others. If she had a choice between an action that would produce a great benefit for herself (such as enabling her to go to college) and an action that would produce no benefit for herself but a small benefit for someone else (such as enabling him to go to a concert this evening), she should do the second. She should be selfless, considering herself not at all: she should face death rather than subject another person to a minor discomfort. She is committed to serving others only and to pass up any benefits to herself.5

That illustrates the practical meaning of altruism–and indicates why no one practices it consistently.

Observe, however, that whether practiced consistently or inconsistently, the basic principle of altruism remains the same: The only moral justification of your existence is self-sacrificial service to others. That some people subscribe to altruism but fail to uphold it consistently does not make their moral code different in kind from that of a person who practices it consistently; the difference is only one of degree. The consistent altruist is acting with a bizarre form of “integrity”–the kind of integrity that leads to his suffering and death. The inconsistent altruist is acting with plain-old hypocrisy–albeit a necessary hypocrisy given his moral code.

And not only is the altruist’s morality the same in kind; the consequences of accepting it are the same in kind, too. To the extent that a person acts selflessly, he thereby thwarts his life and happiness. He might not die because of it, but he certainly will not live fully; he will not make the most of his life; he will not achieve the kind of happiness that is possible to him.

Have you accepted the principle of altruism? If so, how is it affecting your life?

Have you ever done something for the sake of others–at the expense of what you really thought was best for your own life? For instance: Have you ever accepted an invitation to dine with someone whose company you do not enjoy–because you didn’t want to hurt his or her feelings? Have you ever skipped an event–such as a ski trip or a weekend at the beach with your friends–in order to spend time with family members you’d really rather not see? Have you ever remained in a relationship that you know is not in your best interest–because you think that he or she couldn’t handle the breakup?

Conversely, have you ever felt guilty for not sacrificing for others? Have you ever felt ashamed for doing something that was in your own best interest? For instance, have you felt guilty for not giving change to a beggar on a street corner? Or guilty for pursuing a degree in business or art or something you love–rather than doing something allegedly “noble,” such as joining the Peace Corps?

These are just some of the consequences of accepting the morality of altruism.

Altruism is not good for your life: If you practice it consistently, it leads to death. That’s what Jesus did. If you accept it and practice it inconsistently, it retards your life and leads to guilt. This is what most altruists do.

Rational egoism, as the name suggests, and as we will see, is good for your life. It says that you should pursue your life-serving values and should not sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. Practiced consistently, it leads to a life of happiness. Practiced inconsistently–well, why be inconsistent here? Why not live a life of happiness? Why sacrifice at all? What reason is there to do so? (We will address the profound lack of an answer to this question later.)

At this point, we can begin to see why Rand called altruism “The Morality of Death.” To fully grasp why it is the morality of death, however, we must understand that the essence of altruism is not “serving others” but self-sacrifice. So I want to reiterate this point with emphasis.

Altruism does not call merely for “serving others”; it calls for self-sacrificially serving others. Otherwise, Michael Dell would have to be considered more altruistic than Mother Teresa. Why? Because Michael Dell serves millions more people than Mother Teresa ever did.

There is a difference, of course, in the way he serves people. Whereas Mother Teresa “served” people by exchanging her time and effort for nothing, Michael Dell serves people by trading with them–by exchanging value for value to mutual advantage–an exchange in which both sides gain.

Trading value for value is not the same thing as giving up values for nothing. There is a black-and-white difference between pursuing values and giving them up–between achieving values and relinquishing them–between exchanging a lesser value for a greater one–and vice versa.

In an effort to make their creed seem more palatable, pushers of altruism will try to blur this distinction in your mind. It is important not to let them get away with it. Don’t be duped!

Altruists claim, for instance, that parents “sacrifice” when they pay for their children to attend college. But this is ridiculous: Presumably, parents value their children’s education more than they value the money they spend on it. If so, then the sacrifice would be for them to forgo their children’s education and spend the money on a lesser value–such as a Ferrari.

Altruists also claim that romantic love requires “sacrifices.” But this is ridiculous, too: “Honey, I’d really rather be with another woman, but here I am sacrificially spending my time with you.” Or: “I’d really rather have spent this money on a new set of golf clubs, but instead I sacrificially bought you this necklace for your birthday.” Or: “It’s our anniversary–so I’m fixing you your favorite dish for a candlelit dinner–even though I’d rather be playing poker with the guys.”

Is that love? Only if love is sacrificial.

Altruists also claim that American soldiers sacrifice by serving in the military. Not so. Our non-drafted soldiers serve for a number of self-interested reasons. Here are three: (1) They serve for the same reason that the Founding Fathers formed this country–because they value liberty, because they realize that liberty is a requirement of human life, which is the reason why Patrick Henry ended his famous speech with “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” His was not an ode to sacrifice; it was an ode to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (2) Our soldiers serve in exchange for payment and education–which are clearly in their self-interest. (3) They serve because they are fascinated by military science and want to make a career of it–another selfish motive.

Do some of these soldiers die in battle? Unfortunately, yes. Theirs is a dangerous job. But American soldiers don’t willfully give up their lives: They don’t walk out on the battlefield and say, “Shoot me!” Nor do they strap bombs to their bodies and detonate themselves in enemy camps. On the contrary, they do everything they can to beat the enemy, win the war, and remain alive–even when the Bush and Obama administrations tie their hands with altruistic restrictions on how they can fight.

The point is that a sacrifice is not “any choice or action that precludes some other choice or action.” A sacrifice is not “any old exchange.” A sacrifice is, as Rand put it, “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.”6

Whether or not one is committing a sacrifice depends on what is more important and what is less important to one’s life. To make this determination, of course, one must know the relative importance of one’s values in regard to one’s life. But if one does establish this hierarchy, one can proceed non-sacrificially–and consistently so.

For example, if you know that your education is more important to your life than is, say, a night on the town with your friends, then if you stay home in order to study for a crucial exam–rather than going out with your buddies–that is not a sacrifice. The sacrifice would be to hit the town and botch the exam.

Life requires that we regularly forgo lesser values for the sake of greater ones. But these are gains, not sacrifices. A sacrifice consists in giving up something that is more important for the sake of something that is less important; thus, it results in a net loss.

Altruism, the morality of self-sacrifice, is the morality of personal loss–and it does not countenance personal gain. This is not a caricature of altruism; it is the essence of the morality. As arch-altruist Peter Singer (the famed utilitarian philosopher at Princeton University) explains, “to the extent that [people] are motivated by the prospect of obtaining a reward or avoiding a punishment, they are not acting altruistically. . . .7 Arch-altruist Thomas Nagel (a philosophy professor at New York University) concurs: Altruism entails “a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives”–“ulterior motives” meaning, of course, personal gains.8

To understand the difference between egoistic action and altruistic action, we must grasp the difference between a trade and a sacrifice–between a gain and a loss–and we must not allow altruists to blur this distinction in our mind. Egoism, as we will see, calls for personal gains. Altruism, as we have seen, calls for personal losses.

Originally published as a special online article at The Objective Standard. © 2009 Craig Biddle.

Related Articles in this three part series:



1 Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman (New York: Dutton, 1997), p. 610.

2 W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 15 (April 1954): p. 122. Maclagan was an early 20th-century Scottish philosopher who taught at the University of Glasgow and was an ardent advocate of altruism.

3 Ibid., pp. 109–111.

4 Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 61.

5 John Hospers, Philosophical Analysis (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), p. 259.

6 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1962), p. 50.

7 Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 56.

8 Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 79.

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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