Morality Of Objectivism: A Dispatch From The Atlas Society Conference

Last year, after Mitt Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his running mate, opponents went into overdrive trying to paint him as an extremist. Their case in point? Ryan read Ayn Rand and had allegedly required his interns to do the same.

Ryan was on the record discussing the writer and philosopher Rand’s influence in his decision to go into politics. But within days, he was walking back the ties. “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told National Review. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas … Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

But there are individuals who are happy to embrace Rand’s philosophy, known as Objectivism. They are members of groups like the Atlas Society, about 160 of whom attended the annual Atlas Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 27-30. (“Atlas” is a reference to Rand’s most famous work, the novel Atlas Shrugged. In 1991, a Library of Congress survey found it to be the second most influential book ever written, behind only the Bible.)

At the summit, participants could attend lectures on Objectivism and how to apply its principles in their lives. Sessions had names like “Living as an Individualist in a Collectivist World” and “Building Atlantis: How to Create Your Own Personal and Business Paradise.” They discussed philosophy and economics, literature and art—but the takeaway from many of the speakers was that Objectivists should be unabashed in their belief in the righteousness of free markets.

William R. Thomas, the conference organizer, gave a presentation on the morality of economics. “The bee in my bonnet is the fact that when most people talk about economics, in most economics textbooks, they set up a contrast or dichotomy between the a-moral efficiency of markets and the moral claims of fairness and equity,” Thomas said in his talk. “They say that economics can explain what’s efficient, but they say it can’t explain what’s morally fair. I think there’s something very, very wrong in all that.” Like many Objectivists, he feels that a market operating efficiently is by definition fair, because it reflects the preferences and productive contributions of all its members.

From this it becomes clear why so many Objectivists are also libertarians—believers in capitalism as the best of all possible systems for organizing a society. Yet not all libertarians identify with Objectivism, and as Ryan’s stumbles last year show, many people who are supportive of capitalism generally nonetheless feel discomfort with the teachings of Rand.

Something beyond simply a belief in free markets must characterize the Objectivist philosophy. As Rand herself put it, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” She believed, in other words, that a good person is one who puts his own best interests first. To live for someone else—to sacrifice one’s well-being at the behest of another—is to squander the gift that is every man and woman’s sacred right to pursue happiness and fulfillment in life.

But what if a person derives happiness and fulfillment from the act of helping others? Here, it seems, is where the “objective” aspect of Objectivism comes into play: the notion that a person cannot in reality attain happiness by subsuming his interests, even if he thinks he can. “To achieve happiness requires a morality of rational selfishness, one that does not give undeserved rewards to others and that does not ask them for oneself,” explains the Atlas Society website.

Objectivists note that when the productive give handouts to the unproductive, the transaction is zero-sum. One side must give up something so another can gain. This incentivizes a lack of productivity, and overall wealth deteriorates. Conversely, when two productive members of society trade with each other, wealth is created—both trading partners end up better off—and society ends up richer. Thus, Objectivism argues, only through selfishness can any of us actually make the world a better place.

Many people, despite being supportive of free markets as a rule, are not willing to go this far. There is a reason Ryan called Objectivism an atheist philosophy—it’s difficult to reconcile Rand’s teachings with the Christian ideal that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” the King. But for Objectivists, there is only one route to a successful life—the one that treats every individual as his own king.

Stephanie Slade is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Ayn Rand photo from flickr user nickleus.

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