Ayn Rand is generally hated by those who consider themselves altruists. This is because the general interpretation is that Rand is a lone mouthpiece for the doctrines of egotism and greed. While some of her arguments are clearly, irredeemably repulsive, such as her romanticization of rape, some areas are more ambiguous, and some segments of Rand’s writing are genuinely inspiring and valuable. Despite her flaws, I think Rand should be read and understood, and perhaps even quoted – but never accepted as a whole.
As a caveat, I have only read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, a few of her essays, and skimmed over the critical response. I’m not a Rand scholar at all, and I’m not sure I want to be. I’ve heard that the Fountainhead is one of Rand’s more mild books, so it may be that my interpretation will change radically when I read Atlas Shrugged later this year.
Two Types of Selfishness
There are two archetypes, idealized characters that serve as pinnacles of two opposing moralities, in The Fountainhead. The first is Peter Keating, an extremely ‘successful’ architect in the sense that he is rich, who graduated at the top of his class from a renowned college and is famous as an architect and celebrity. His life is summarized in this passage:
In what act or thought of [Peter Keating] has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other people’s eyes…Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them.
Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish. (Rand 65)
In contrast, Roark is an independent architect who was expelled from a major university for not following the widely accepted standards of architecture, and lived a life of poverty because he would only accept work that didn’t compromise his standards. He has intractable standards for his work, and is perfectly consistent with these standards:
The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men. (Rand 678)
These are the two types of ‘selfishness’ in Rand’s work: selfishness in the form of Keating, and self-reliance in the form of Roark. Rand is an impassioned advocate of the principles expressed by Thoreau in Self-Reliance: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” and “Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide.”
The widespread misinterpretation of Ayn Rand stems from a conflation of the first type of selfishness with the second. In no sense does Rand advocate for selfishness in the form of greed for power, fame, or money. In fact, much of the book is focused on criticizing Keating’s mindless, ‘selfless’ greed. Rand analyzes the psychology of avarice, and the perverse pleasure Keating feels when he exercises power over others – “he had influenced the course of a human being, had thrown him off one path and pushed him into another” (67). This type of selfishness is contradictory in the sense that it cannot exist without others. It is entirely dependent.
When Keating didn’t have people to approve of his work, he didn’t have a way to value his work: “…it might be good. He was not sure. He had no one to ask” (Rand 171). Keating’s eminence dissipated when his admirers disappeared. “He was a great man – by the grace of those who depended on him” (Rand 233). This passage eloquently epitomizes this fundamentally dependent form of selfishness:
“He was great; great as the number of people who told him so. He was right, right; right as the number of people who believed it. He look at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them; he saw himself being granted the gift of life. That was Peter Keating, that, the reflection in the staring pupils, and his body was only its reflection.” (Rand 188)
In contrast, Roark might be seen as ideally self-reliant. His work is his passion, and his system of valuation stems from his self – the Fountainhead. Everything else is external and unessential. Others are a means to fulfill his standards: “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build” (26). He is, in short, the polar opposite of Keating in every way.
It is valuable to distinguish self-reliance, from selfishness, and this is the most important principle of The Fountainhead: “The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence” (681). We shouldn’t need to ask another whether our work, our thoughts, our actions are valuable – ultimately, only we can evaluate ourselves. Our attempts to delegate the choice of what to value ultimately collapse. When we ask another for advice, we choose to ask them rather than others because we seek a certain answer – thus, we are still making a choice. Furthermore, our interpretation of any advice is a choice. Advice is an illusion – all valuation stems from ourselves, and we cannot give this responsibility to another.
Now that we understand this distinction, it’s time to criticize Rand. Hopefully there is something valuable left when we’re finished.
The Collapse of Rand’s Morality
On any level of analysis beyond the literary, Rand’s moral system, if it can be called that, is pathetically inadequate. Her ‘ethics’ are summed up by Howard Roark’s statement in The Fountainhead: “All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil” (681). Like most generalizations in ethics, this claim collapses upon inspection. It requires an idealism divorced from reality, is riddled with paradox, and leads to appalling conclusions.
First, to Rand, any relationship with others is merely a means to an end – “To a creator, all relations with men are secondary” (680). This is fundamentally counter-ethical, as it treats the only relevant moral object as the self and the fulfillment of the self’s standards. Morality must deal with the conflicts of obligations between multiple selves, not just the interests of a single self. Rand entirely ignores the Other, and thus she does not really have an ethics.
Rand fails to have an ethics in a second way. She describes the need to have consistent standards, but does not discuss what these standards should be.
Keeping one’s standards is necessary, but not sufficient, to be moral. For this principle fails the standard litmus test of morality: Hitler and the Holocaust. If standing by your standards is all is required to be moral, then it seems that Hitler is a paragon of morality. After all, Hitler staunchly upheld his monstrous standards. As a Jewish character in Elie Wiesel’s novel Night said,
I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people. (67)
He did whatever he thought was necessary to keep these promises, and he killed himself before he would forsake the struggle.
Clearly, there is more to ethics than just consistency. The other fundamental aspect of being moral, and the more difficult one, is to develop good standards.
Third, ethical solipsism is contradictory. If I believe that my own interests have value, and I believe others have the same fundamental, human characteristics as myself, then it follows that the interests of others must have value as well. If I accept this syllogism (I do), it becomes impossible to logically maintain the belief that only my own interests have value. Rand provides some insight onto how one should live one’s own life as an independent will, but she is almost completely absent when we inevitably encounter others.
Fourth, lived experience obstructs any effort towards egoism. To paraphrase Levinas, we do not encounter others as objects, but as infinite subjects that we cannot understand, who call out to us and require us to respond. We cannot maintain egoism when we encounter the other. For me, this encounter happened in India:
As we drive, I see a body without limbs, lying in an alley ahead. The rickshaw rattles forward, and the engine pulsates like the heart of a dying man. As we pass the corpse, it moves. It contorts its neck to look up. For a second I see his scarred, filthy face and he sees my washed one. In that instant of connection, my lifetime became worthless. My childhood had been a solipsistic simulation, a life without impact or any real need.
It is impossible, and fundamentally unethical, to live as if others do not exist or do not have morally relevant interests. Life is a matter of interdependency: we are raised by parents, mentored by teachers, taught by the minds that came before us, and forgiven by those who love us. If we believe that these experiences are valuable for ourselves, it must follow that they are valuable for others. Thus, we have an obligation to do the same for others.
Rand on Romance: Love as Domination
The relationship between Howard Roark and his lover, Dominique, is abhorrent. Dominique falls in love with Roark primarily because, as she says, he was the “abstraction of strength made visible” (Rand 205). She seeks to be dominated by him, but she also seeks to find some way in which she can own him – “She thought suddenly that the man below was only a common worker, owned by the owner of this place, and she was almost the owner of this place” (205). Roark rapes Dominique*, and there is a horrendous, Fifty Shades of Grey-esque response: “She found a dark satisfaction in pain – because that pain came from him” (209). Dominique’s only compensation is that she is also in a position of power: “she knew the kind of suffering she could impose on him” (210). Love in The Fountainhead is reduced to essentially a power relation, and almost all affection between Roark and Dominique consists in a struggle for power.
I almost stopped reading the book after these chapters. It would be too far to say that Rand redeems herself later. I would only say that she manages to contradict herself. As the relationship between Roark and Dominique matures, they begin to recognize their dependence on one another:
It was strange to be conscious of another person’s existence, to feel it as a close, urgent necessity; a necessity without qualifications. (Rand 218)
This is love as, well, love – interdependence, relying intimately on someone else without being controlled by them. It is needing another “in the total, undivided way…the kind of desire that becomes an ultimatum, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and one can’t accept the no without ceasing to exist” (Rand 502). Surprisingly, Rand has common ground here with Levinas, the radically altruist philosopher:
Love remains a relation with the Other that turns into need, transcendent exteriority of the other, of the beloved. (Levinas)
This is love not just as a choice or a desire, but as a need.
However, I am cherry-picking Rand. In context, her quotes are much less redeeming. In the same conversation that Roark describes love as an ‘ultimatum,’ he says:
I love you so much that nothing else can matter to me, not even you. Can you understand that? Only my love — not your answer. (Rand 502)
Roark argues that love itself is valuable, regardless of whether the love is reciprocated. This, of course, justifies rape. Without the other, what is love? It is merely possession of an object. After all, “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other” (Levinas). If we accept Rand’s perspective, the people we love are only alter-egos or figments of our own ego; they have no consciousness of their own, and can only be defined in the context of our self.
However, love can only be understood as a relationship between two subjects, and when either is treated as a means or as an object, the bond dissipates. What constitutes love is reciprocation – without this, it is only domination.
Aesthetics of the City
As The Fountainhead is a book about architects as well as a book about philosophy, it asks and answers several aesthetic questions, especially the foremost one: “What is beautiful, and why?”
I have always thought that nature is beautiful. I spend a lot of my free time exploring the mountains, usually on a bike. To some extent, I do this as an escape from the city. Most people would agree that the city is ugly, a scar on the land, a destruction of beauty. However, when describing the experience of looking up at a skyscraper, Rand argues that the city, the product of human creativity, is aesthetic:
It makes him no bigger than an ant–isn’t that the correct bromide for the occasion? The God-damn fools! It’s man who made it–the whole incredible mass of stone and steel. It doesn’t dwarf him, it makes him greater than the structure. It reveals his true dimensions to the world. What we love about these buildings, Dominique, is the creative faculty, the heroic in man. (553)
The fact that humanity created these magnificent buildings is itself beautiful, and these buildings represent this fact. They stand as a testament to our potential. If this is the case that the city can be beautiful, and beauty is worth protecting, then we have an obligation to protect the city through urban development, restoration, and preservation, just as we have a more widely-accepted obligation to protect nature. Now, I do not go into the mountains just to escape the city, but to discover and re-experience a different dimension of beauty.
One of the qualities of the beautiful is that it inspires us to look upward, towards a higher potential. We often think that what makes something beautiful is that it draws our gaze upward, but perhaps this is not the case: “He wondered whether the particular solemnity of looking at the sky comes, not from what one contemplates, but from the uplift of one’s head” (Rand 553). The sky itself is not what is beautiful, but our desire to understand the sky, to reach towards and above it. What creates beauty is not the object’s attraction, but the way we are inspired by the object to achieve our potential.
Should we read or reject The Fountainhead?
Daniel Taylor, author of The Healing Power of Stories, defines a ‘bent book’ as a story that portrays evil as good and good as evil (Taylor). He ultimately concludes that we should never read bent books. There are several problems with this binary.
First, of course, it presumes that we already know what is good and what is evil, an assumption that skips over all the dilemmas of ethics. Often, we read to seek after good and reveal evil in their hiding places – but we do not already know where they are hiding when we start. Reading is not just a process of reinforcing our standards, but of developing our standards. It would be dogmatic and arbitrary to automatically reject all books that seem bent, and it would presume that we are an absolute moral authority that has the ability to judge objectively whether a book is good or evil.
Second, it is not necessarily true that bent books will result in greater evil. Before I read The Fountainhead, I assumed that morality consisted of interdependence and altruism, merely because this is the most common conception of morality. Ayn Rand forced me to analyze and justify this belief. This is essential, for any belief we have justification for has more binding force than a belief we merely accept. Furthermore, through bent books like The Fountainhead, we are able to recognize the reverse of our values. If we begin to see this perversion arise in ourselves, we are able to root it out immediately. Thus, bent books encourage us to define ourselves in contrast to evil, thus promoting ethics.
Finally, the book has certain areas that vindicate its failures. It has an excellent and unique style of writing and storytelling, and this itself is valuable, for our method of expression can be almost as important as our content, and reading good writing allows us to write well. Even much of the content of The Fountainhead is worthy – this, I guess, can only be verified by reading the work yourself. In the end, scenes of wickedness are not enough to invalidate a book. As Leonardi Bruni argued, the Bible contains scenes that are “wicked, obscene, and disgusting, yet do we say that the Bible is not therefore to be read?” (Gamble 341).
I don’t contest that The Fountainhead is bent, rather, I think that bent books should still be read, as long as they have redeemable qualities. However, if you want to read more from The Fountainhead without reading the ‘bent’ parts, check out my notes on Google Drive.
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Centennial Edition. New York, NY: Signet, 1993. Print. Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969. Print. Taylor, Daniel. The Healing Power of Stories. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996. Print. Gamble, Richard. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007. Print. Wiesel, Ellie. Night. New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1960. Print.
* The book is not explicit in this scene. It only implies that the rape occurs, and does not describe it.