Ayn Rand’s fiction and nonfiction works have been read by millions of readers across the world. Like most philosophers, Rand has received much admiration as well as vitriol. Supporters of her philosophy, Objectivism, speak about ideas such as reason, individualism, and egoism. Detractors often speak of Objectivism as a belief that encourages egotism, which essentially teaches individuals to do anything they wish to get ahead in life, regardless of whom they harm along the way.
As a person who enjoys Rand’s works and supports her philosophy, I can at least understand the detractors’ criticism. Already egotistical personalities could read Rand’s work superficially and with preconceived notions guiding them to a selective interpretation. Given Rand’s focus on self-interest, personal happiness, and praise for success, it wouldn’t be too difficult to find tidbits that embolden the egotistical readers’ worldview and provide justification for their harmful behavior. The egotistical interpretation would go something like this:
“This says that being selfish is good! So I can lie, cheat, and steal because my happiness is all that matters!” “Money! It’s only about getting rich, who cares how you get there.” “Rich and successful people are winners and everyone else is a loser!” “I’m not successful because people are too dense to understand my brilliance.” “I am successful, so I should be revered.”
I think it is fair to say that most detractors are (rightfully) appalled by this egotistical interpretation. But an important question must be addressed:
Where this egotistical interpretation exists, is it a fault of the works or are the interpretations faulty?
Rand presented an entire philosophy—from metaphysics and epistemology to human nature and ethics. The philosophy is integrated from beginning to end, each piece interdependent. Thus, a superficial and selective interpretation is misleading at best.
I hope that explaining my personal experience with Rand’s works in juxtaposition to the egotistical interpretation above will highlight how different the philosophy reads when the whole philosophy is considered.
When I first read Rand, I knew nothing about her. This enabled me to approach her works with an open mind. I enjoyed reading Atlas Shrugged. While the story kept me captivated, I was even more intrigued by her focus on ethics. I was thus inspired to read The Fountainhead and then her nonfiction works. Unlike the detractors, I found great value in Rand’s philosophy. She helped me to connect a number of puzzle pieces that had eluded me for years. Some of the key takeaways for me included:
- Acknowledge reality for what it is, not what I wish it to be
- Objectively assess reality, not letting fleeting emotions to drive my perspective
- Act upon reality with honesty to myself and others
- Hold myself accountable and learn from my mistakes
- Appreciate the people that bring value to my life
- Reciprocate value-for-value
- Take credit only when I have earned it
- Take pride in what I have earned honestly
- Maintain integrity by living my principles consistently
- Understand that life is not a zero-sum game; someone else’s success is not an obstacle to my success
- Don’t allow naysayers to stop me from chasing my goals so long as I am acting with integrity and have diligently considered my actions
It all sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Own our mistakes. Be honest. Work hard. Go after our goals. But Rand understood that, for the most part, these basic virtues have become platitudes. Too often people talk about the importance of honesty but become angry when confronted with the truth. Too often people expect others to be accountable but cover up their own mistakes to avoid consequences. Too often people condemn cheating while eagerly looking for ways to try to cheat their own way to success. Too often people vilify others for being irresponsible while ignoring their own responsibilities. Too often people blame others for their own failings.
To be honest in this kind of world is risky. To accept accountability can appear as an invitation for others to dump their mistakes on you. To be responsible can open the door to people using you because they don’t want to be responsible themselves. To give value is to risk being taken advantage of by people who think reciprocity is an imposition. To be a hard worker often means that you will be given extra work to make up for the slack left by people who give half effort. In this kind of world, sometimes your successes will be maligned by people who don’t share in that success.
If this is the world we live in, why not be egotistical? Why not “hurt them before they hurt us?” Manipulation is easy enough. People usually believe what we say, so all we have to do is speak of virtues as if they mean something and avoid honest confrontation. Most people will conclude from this that we have integrity. We can have it all—the facade of integrity without the effort, without the inevitable struggle.
So why bother being egoistical? Why be consistent in our principles? Why struggle, sometimes painfully, against the grain?
This was the most important piece of the puzzle for me. And Rand gave me the answer.
Being principled has nothing to do with what others think of us. It has to do with how we think of ourselves. We should struggle against the grain because we can’t un-know the truth. If we have taken a short-cut on our professed principles—if we have lied, cheated, or stolen; if we have given half effort at work; if we have treated someone we value poorly; if we have refused to act on new knowledge, etc.—and we have refused to accept accountability for it, then we know that we are frauds. No matter how skillfully we try to hide it or to forget it, we can’t change the fact that there is no substance behind the mask.
We have one, short life. Do we want to spend it in a whirlwind of never-ending hypocrisy? Or should we step out of the whirlwind and fight like hell to be the person we would like to see more of in this world?
After considering Rand’s whole philosophy, my answer is:
The only way to achieve peace within ourselves, happiness with our lives, and pride in our choices is to live by our principles. This is a choice we have to make every second of every day. At the end of my days, I want to know I’ve fought like hell to do just that. No mask needed.
So maybe, all things considered, Rand’s philosophy doesn’t encourage some of the worst traits of mankind. Instead, maybe Objectivism encourages the best within us as long as we are open to the suggestion.