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.
"Yes, 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 it."
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 is 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.
Making sacrifices for one's born or unborn children, one's elderly parents or other family members becomes anathema for Ayn Rand.
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 of morality."
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 after Aristotle.
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. "Ayn Rand: Architect of the culture of death." National Catholic Register.
This article is reprinted with permission from Donald DeMarco.
Copyright © 2010 Donald DeMarco