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

by | Aug 15, 2010

  Like every ethical code, egoism has definite political implications. Just as the morality of self-sacrifice lays the groundwork for a particular kind of political system–one in which the government forces people to sacrifice (e.g., socialism, communism, fascism, theocracy)–so the morality of self-interest lays the groundwork for a certain kind of political system–one in which […]


Like every ethical code, egoism has definite political implications. Just as the morality of self-sacrifice lays the groundwork for a particular kind of political system–one in which the government forces people to sacrifice (e.g., socialism, communism, fascism, theocracy)–so the morality of self-interest lays the groundwork for a certain kind of political system–one in which the government plays an entirely different role.

The basic question in politics is: What are the requirements of human life in a social context? What, in principle, must people do–or refrain from doing–in order to live together in a civilized manner? Here, Ayn Rand makes another crucial identification. Since we need to think rationally and act accordingly in order to live, we need to be able to act on our judgment. The only thing that can stop us from acting on our judgment is other people. And the only way they can stop us is by means of physical force. Quoting Rand:

It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships–thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.13

If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you what to do, you cannot act on your judgment. The threat of death makes your judgment irrelevant; you now have to act on the gunman’s judgment. If he says, “Give me your wallet,” you have to give him your wallet. If he says, “Take off your clothes,” you have to do that. If he says, “Don’t object to my decrees,” you must not object. You have to do whatever he says, or you’ll get shot in the head. Your own judgment–your basic means of survival–has been overridden and is now useless.

And it makes no difference whether the gunman is a lone thug, or a group of thugs, or the KBG, or the senators and president of our rapidly deteriorating America. Whenever and to whatever extent physical force is used against you or me or anyone, the victim cannot act on his judgment, his basic means of living; thus, he cannot live fully as a human being. This is why rational egoism holds that the initiation of force against people is evil. It is evil because it is antilife.

On the basis of this identification, Rand established the objective case for individual rights. Since physical force used against a person is factually contrary to the requirements of his life–and since life is the standard of value–we need a moral principle to protect us from those who attempt to use force against us. That principle involves the concept of rights. Quoting Rand:

“Rights” are a moral concept–the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others–the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context–the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law. . . .

A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.14

The key word here is action. Just as life is the standard of value and requires goal-directed action, so the right to life is the basic right and pertains to freedom of action. The right to life is the right to act as one’s life requires–which means, according to one’s basic means of survival–which means, on the judgment of one’s own mind.

All other rights are derivatives of this fundamental right: The right to liberty is the right to be free from coercive interference by others. The right to property is the right to keep, use, and dispose of the product of one’s effort. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to seek the goals and values of one’s choice. The right to freedom of speech is the right to express one’s views regardless of what others think of them.

And because a right is a sanction to action, it is not a sanction to be given goods or services. There can be no such thing as a “right” to be given goods or services. If a person had a “right” to be given food, or a house, or medical care, or an education, what would this imply with regard to other people? It would imply that others have to be forced to provide him with these goods or services. It would imply that some people must produce while others dispose of their product. As Rand put it: “The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.”

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor. Any alleged “right” of one man which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right. No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unwarranted duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”15

The North fought (and thankfully won) a legitimate war against the South on the principle that there can be no right to enslave. Rand made explicit the fundamental reason this principle is true. The reason each individual’s life should legally belong to him is that each individual’s life does in fact morally belong to him. Each individual is morally an end in himself–not a means to the ends of others. Each individual has a moral right to act on his own judgment for his own sake–and to keep, use, and dispose of the product of his effort–so long as he respects the same right of others.

The Objectivist ethics recognizes that to live as civilized beings–rather than as masters and slaves–we need a social system that protects each individual’s rights to his life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The only social system that does so–consistently and on principle–is laissez-faire capitalism. Quoting Rand:

[Laissez-faire capitalism] is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.16

The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.17

The citizens of a laissez-faire society delegate the use of retaliatory force to the government and thus make domestic peace possible.

Of course, in an emergency situation, or when the police are not available, or when there is no time to rely on the government, citizens are morally and legally justified in using retaliatory force as necessary. (If someone comes running at you with a bowie knife, you are morally and legally justified in shooting him.) But in order to live together as civilized beings, rather than as feuding hillbillies, people must leave such force to the government whenever possible. As Rand put it, “The government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.”18

In a capitalist society, if someone physically harms a person or damages his property or threatens to do either–and if this can be demonstrated by means of evidence–then the victim has grounds for legal recourse and, when appropriate, compensation. For instance, if someone defrauds a man, or threatens to murder him, or dumps trash in his yard, or poisons his water supply, or infringes on his patent–or in any other way causes him or his property specific harm–then the perpetrator has violated the man’s rights. And if the man (or an agent on his behalf) can demonstrate that the perpetrator has done so, then he has a case against the rights violator and can seek justice in a court of law.

Properly understood, capitalism is all about enabling people to act on their own judgment, and to keep, use, and dispose of the product of their effort. It is all about stopping people from physically harming others or their property. It is all about recognizing and respecting individual rights. In other words, it is all about the requirements of human life in a social context.

Capitalism is the only social system that permits everyone to act fully according to his own judgment and thus to live fully as a human being. No other social system on earth does this. Thus, if human life is the standard of moral value, capitalism is the only moral social system.

Whereas rational egoism guides our choices and actions in pursuit of our life-serving goals and long-term happiness, laissez-faire capitalism protects individual rights by banning the initiation of physical force from social relationships. The two go hand in hand. Egoism makes human existence possible; capitalism makes human coexistence possible. Quoting Ayn Rand: “What greater virtue can one ascribe to a social system than the fact that it leaves no possibility for any man to serve his own interests by enslaving other men? What nobler system could be desired by anyone whose goal is man’s well-being?”19

Rand has much more to say about individual rights and capitalism; I have just touched on her revolutionary principles in this regard. Atlas Shrugged is a hymn to capitalism and the moral foundations on which it depends. And Rand’s book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is a series of essays demonstrating the vital nature of the social system, and blasting common fallacies about it. For a good understanding of the principles of capitalism, I highly recommend both books.

Reflecting on what we’ve discussed so far, Rand’s morality of selfishness holds that, in order to live as human beings, we must pursue our life-serving values and respect the rights of others to do the same. Put negatively: We must neither sacrifice ourselves to others–nor sacrifice others to ourselves. One of the heroes in Atlas Shrugged put it in the form of an oath: “I swear–by my life and my love of it–that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” That is an oath we can all live by. But to do so, we have to repudiate the morality of sacrifice.

Rand’s morality of selfishness is all about living and loving life. It is the morality of pursuing values and refusing to surrender a greater value for a lesser one. It is the morality of non-sacrifice. There is no reason to act in a self-sacrificial manner, which is why no one has ever given a reason to do so. Nor is there any rational justification for sacrificing others, which is why no one has ever offered one of these, either. But there is a reason to act in a self-interested manner: Your life and happiness depend on it.

Since we necessarily operate on a code of values of some kind while making choices in life–since morality is inescapable–here is the alternative that we all face in this regard: We can passively accept a morality through social osmosis–or we can think the matter through for ourselves and decide what makes sense given the observable facts. We can accept appeals to authority, tradition, popular opinion, intimidation, and the like–or we can insist on reasons in support of the morality we choose to accept. In other words, we can rely on the views and opinions of others–or we can rely on the judgment of our own mind.

This brings us to the final point I want to make tonight–and to what I regard as the single most important aspect of the Objectivist ethics: the principle that you should rely on your own observations and your own use of logic, the principle that you should not accept ideas just because others accept them, the principle that you should think for yourself.

Since your mind is your only means of knowledge and your basic means of achieving your goals and values, rational egoism says that–if you want to live and be happy–you must never surrender your mind. You must never sacrifice your judgment to anyone or anything–neither to faith, nor feelings, nor friends, nor parents, nor professors, nor Ayn Rand. And no one is more adamant about this than Rand. As she put it, “The most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth.”20

This is the Objectivist principle of independence. An independent thinker relies on his own judgment to determine what is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. He does not turn to others to see what he should believe or value. He may learn from others–if they are rational and have something to teach him. He may take their advice–if it makes sense to him. And he may listen to their arguments–so long as they present evidence for their claims and proceed logically. But he always makes the final judgment by means of his own thinking. In regard to any important issue, he asks himself: “What are the facts? What does the evidence say? What do I think?” His primary orientation is not toward other people–not toward his peers or his parents or his professors–but toward reality. And his means of assessing reality is his own use of reason.

Because rational egoism recognizes that the individual’s mind is his basic means of living, it holds rational, independent thinking as the essence of being moral. Unlike altruism, it does not call for you to accept its principles on faith or because others say so. Rational egoism is not a dogma. It is not a set of commandments or “categorical imperatives” from on high for you to obey.

In one of Rand’s essays, she tells a story of an old black woman who, in answer to a man who was telling her that she’s got to do something or other, says, “Mister, there’s nothing I’ve got to do except die.”21 Rational egoism does not say that anyone has got to do anything. It says only that if you want to live and achieve happiness–then you must observe facts, use your mind, pursue your goals, not sacrifice greater values for the sake of lesser ones, uphold the principle of individual rights, and so on. That is not dogma. It is logic. It is recognition of the law of cause and effect.

And just as Rand’s ethics is not dogmatic–so it is not relativistic. It is absolute. It is absolute because it is based on and derived from reality–from observable facts, from the laws of nature, from the requirements of human life.

Rand exposed the false alternative of dogmatism vs. relativism. In the light of her philosophy, we are no longer faced with the ugly option of Jerry Falwell’s morality vs. Jerry Springer’s–or that of Bill Bennett vs. that of Bill Clinton. We now know of an objective ethics: one that is secular, observation-based, demonstrably true–and, best of all, good for you.

If you want to live a wonderful, value-laden life, you need a morality that supports that goal and guides you to act accordingly. You need a morality that upholds the value of rational, self-interested, purposeful action. Rational egoism is the only morality that does so. If you want to live in a society in which you are free to lead your life as you see fit–a society in which no one, including the government, may force you to act against your own judgment–you need a morality that is conducive to that goal. You need a morality that provides a foundation for the principle of individual rights. The only morality that does so is the Objectivist ethics.

The moral code you accept underlies and shapes everything you do in life. It determines whether you live a richly meaningful, truly happy life–or something less. And it determines whether you advocate a fully free, civilized society–or some other kind of society. I have given you just a brief sketch of Rand’s ethics. There is a great deal more to it. Hopefully, I have inspired you to look further into the subject on your own.

I urge you to take a closer look at the morality that says you should live your life to the fullest and achieve the greatest happiness possible. Use your own judgment in assessing it. See if it makes sense to you. Read Atlas Shrugged, which is a spellbinding mystery at the heart of which is the conflict between altruism and egoism. Not only will you discover what happened to the earlier-mentioned disappearing producers; you’ll also see Ayn Rand’s ethics dramatized in ways that today will cause a feeling of déjà vu. Or, for a nonfiction introduction to rational egoism, read Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness, which is a series of essays elaborating the groundbreaking principles of the Objectivist ethics–or my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It, which is a systematic introduction to the ethics.

If you are not rationally convinced by the arguments, then do not accept them. To sacrifice your own judgment would be the most selfless thing you could do. I would never advocate such a thing–and neither would Ayn Rand. You should accept only those ideas that make sense to you.

But if you read up on this issue and are convinced–as I think you will be–then you can start living your life fully in accordance with the only moral code that is conducive to that goal: rational egoism–the morality Ayn Rand so appropriately called “The Morality of Life.”

Thank you.


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

Related Articles in this three part series:


13 Ibid., p. 126.

14 Ibid., pp. 108–110.

15 Ibid., pp. 110–113.

16 Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason (New York: Meridian, 1989), p. 4.

17 Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 19.

18 Ibid., p. 19.

19 Ibid., p. 136.

20 Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 142.

21 Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 99.


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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.

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