Ayn Rand: another architect
By Donald DeMarco The Interim
of the culture of death
this is an age of moral crisis … Your moral code has reached its climax,
the blind alley and the end of its course. And if you wish to go on
living, what you now need is not to return to morality …. but to discover
Thus spake, not Zarathustra, but Ayn Rand's philosophical mouthpiece,
John Galt, the protagonist of her principal novel, Atlas Shrugged. The
"moral crisis" to which he refers is the conflict between altruism,
which is radically immoral, and individualism, which provides the only
form of true morality possible. Altruism, for Galt and Rand, leads to
death; individualism furnishes the only path that leads to life. Thus,
in order to go on living with any degree of authenticity, we must abandon
the immoral code of altruism and embrace the vivifying practice of individualism.
Throughout the course of history, according to Ayn Rand, there have
been three general views of morality. The first two are mystical, which,
for Rand, means fictitious, or non-objective. The third is objective,
something that can be verified by the senses. Initially, a mystical
view reigned, in which the source of morality was believed to be God's
will. This is not compatible either with Rand's atheism, or her objectivism.
In due course, a neo-mystical view held sway, in which the "good of
society" replaced the "will of God. The essential defect of this view,
like the first, is that it does not correlate with an objective reality.
"There is no such entity as 'society,'" she avers. And since only individuals
really exist, the so-called "good of society" degenerates into a state
where "some men are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities)
they desire to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend
their lives in the service of that gang's desires."
Only the third view of morality is realistic and worthwhile. This is
Rand's objectivism, a philosophy that is centred exclusively on the
individual. It is the individual alone that is real, objective, and
the true foundation for ethics. Therefore, Rand can postulate the basic
premise of her philosophy: "The source of man's rights is not divine
law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and Man
An individual belongs to himself as an individual. He does not belong,
in any measure, to God or to society. A corollary of Rand's basic premise
is that "altruism," or the sacrifice of one's only reality - one's individuality
- for a reality other than the self, is necessarily self-destructive
and therefore immoral. This is why she can say that "altruism holds
death as its ultimate goal and standard of value." On the other hand,
individualism, cultivated through the "virtue of selfishness," is the
only path to life. "Life," she insists, "can be kept in existence only
by a constant process of self-sustaining action." Man's destiny is to
be a "self-made soul."
Man, therefore, has a "right to life." But Rand does not mean by this
statement that he has a "right to life" that others have a duty to defend
and support. Such a concept of "right to life" implies a form of "altruism,"
and consequently is contrary to the good of the individual. In fact,
for Rand, it constitutes a form of slavery. "No man," she emphasizes,
"can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty
or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing
as 'the right to enslave.'" Moreover, there are no rights of special
groups, since a group is not an individual reality. As a result, she
firmly denies that groups such as the "unborn," "farmers," "businessmen,"
and so forth, have any rights whatsoever.
Her notion of a "right to life" begins and ends with the individual.
In this sense, "right to life" means the right of the individual to
pursue, through the rational use of his power of choice, whatever he
needs in order to sustain and cultivate his existence. "An organism's
life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good,
that which threatens it is evil." As Rand has John Galt tell her readers,
"There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence
or nonexistence." Man's existence must stay in existence. This is the
mandate of the individual and the utility of the virtue of selfishness.
Non-existence is the result of altruism and careens toward death. Making
sacrifices for one's born or unborn children, one's elderly parents
or other family members becomes anathema for Ayn Rand. She wants a Culture
of Life to emerge, but she envisions that culture solely in terms of
individuals choosing selfishly, the private goods of their own existence.
If ever the anthem for a pro-choice philosophy has been recorded, it
comes from the pen of Ayn Rand: "Man has to be man - by choice; he has
to hold his life as a value - by choice; he has to learn to sustain
it - by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practise
his virtues - by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code
No philosopher ever proposed a more simple and straightforward view
of life than the one Ayn Rand urges upon us. Man=Man; Existence = Existence;
only individuals are real; all forms of altruism are inherently evil.
There are no nuances or paradoxes. There is no wisdom. There is no depth.
Complex issues divide reality into simple dichotomies. There is individualism
and altruism, and nothing in between. Despite the apparent superficiality
of her philosophy, Rand considered herself history's greatest philosopher
Barbara Branden tells us, in her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand, of
how Miss Rand managed to make the lives of everyone around her miserable,
and when her life was over, she had barely a friend in the world. She
was contemptuous even of her followers. When Rand was laid to rest in
1982 at the age of 77, her coffin bore a six-foot replica of the dollar
sign. Her philosophy, which she adopted from an early age, helped to
assure her solitude: "Nothing existential gave me any great pleasure.
And progressively, as my idea developed, I had more and more a sense
of loneliness." It was inevitable, however, that a philosophy that centred
on the self to the exclusion of all others would leave its practitioner
in isolation and intensely lonely.
Ayn Rand's philosophy is unlivable, either by her or anyone else. A
philosophy that is unlivable can hardly be instrumental in building
a Culture of Life. It is unlivable because it is based on a false anthropology.
The human being is not a mere individual, but a person. As such, he
is a synthesis of individual uniqueness and communal participation.
Man is a transcendent being. He is more than his individuality.
The Greeks had two words for "life": bios and zoe. Bios represents
the biological and individual sense of life, the life that pulsates
within any one organism. This is the only notion of life that is to
be found in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Zoe, on the other hand, is shared
life, life that transcends the individual and allows participation in
a broader, higher, and richer life.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis remarks that mere bios is always
tending to run down and decay. It needs incessant subsidies from nature
in the form of air, water, and food, in order to continue. As bios and
nothing more, man can never achieve his destiny. Zoe, he goes on to
explain, is an enriching spiritual life which is in God from all eternity.
Man needs Zoe in order to become truly himself. Man is not simply man;
he is a composite of bios and zoe.
Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to
Zoe: but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a
place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having Bios to
having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which
changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.
The transition, then, from bios to zoe (individual life to personal,
spiritualized life; selfishness to love of neighbor) is also the transition
from a Culture of Death to a Culture of Life.
Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College