A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 14
Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.
This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.
So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.
If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.—RWT
A few years back, a prominent conservative (the Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto) drew his readers’ attention to what he described as “a simple yet versatile idea that could revolutionize scientific and social thought.” That idea is the concept of “pathological altruism,” introduced in an academic paper by Barbara Oakley of Oakland University in Michigan. (It was also expanded into a book that, according to its publisher’s description, presents “new, thought-provoking theses that explore a range of hurtful effects of altruism and empathy.” Imagine that.)
Here is Taranto’s summary of Oakley’s thesis:
Oakley defines pathological altruism as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, “an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.” Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn’t pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is….
“Empathy,” Oakley notes, “is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others.” It also can produce bad public policy.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry picked up on Taranto’s piece and singled out one passage from Oakley’s paper.
Ostensibly well-meaning governmental policy promoted home ownership, a beneficial goal that stabilizes families and communities. The government-sponsored enterprises Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allowed less-than-qualified individuals to receive housing loans and encouraged more-qualified borrowers to overextend themselves. Typical risk–reward considerations were marginalized because of implicit government support. The government used these agencies to promote social goals without acknowledging the risk or cost. When economic conditions faltered, many lost their homes or found themselves with properties worth far less than they originally had paid. Government policy then shifted…the cost of this “altruism” to the public, to pay off the too-big-to-fail banks then holding securitized subprime loans…. Altruistic intentions played a critical role in the development and unfolding of the housing bubble in the United States.
I found this argument about the housing crash particularly interesting because it is exactly the thesis of an article I wrote during the financial crisis arguing that altruism is the true “moral hazard” that caused the subprime crisis.
Taranto concludes that “an understanding that altruism can produce great evil as well as good is crucial to the defense of human freedom and dignity.” But who could possibly provide us with an understanding of how altruism can produce great evil?
The point made by Oakley, and picked up on by Taranto, is not quite the same as Ayn Rand’s argument against the morality of altruism—but it tends in that direction in a very interesting way. The idea that altruistic schemes are “well-intended” but have destructive “unintended consequences” is a pillar of free-market economics that goes back at least to Frederic Bastiat—and to whoever coined the saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” But the “pathological altruism” described here is a little more than that, because it is specifically about consequences that could have been anticipated—which raises the question of why they were not anticipated. Oakley’s answer is that altruism itself, the sense of one’s own moral virtue by altruistic standards, is considered more important than a rational projection of its consequences.
This brings us back to Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, which is one giant pathology report on the disastrous consequences of altruism. In fact, long before Oakley, Ayn Rand had John Galt gave her readers a perfect description of the philosophy and psychology of “pathological altruism.”
“The good of others” is a magic formula that transforms anything into gold, a formula to be recited as a guarantee of moral glory and as a fumigator for any action, even the slaughter of a continent. Your standard of virtue is not an object, not an act, not a principle, but an intention. You need no proof, no reasons, no success, you need not achieve in fact the good of others. All you need to know is that your motive was the good of others, not your own.
But Ayn Rand’s pathology report on altruism goes much farther and much deeper. While Oakley argues that there is a version of altruism that is pathological, Ayn Rand argues that altruism as such is a moral pathology.
Part of the reason for the difference is that Ayn Rand starts from a narrower and more precise definition of altruism. Oakley defines altruism as “well-meaning behavior intended to promote the welfare of another,” a definition so broad it includes any form of benevolence, empathy, or good will, down to greeting another person with “have a nice day.” (In fact, by including “well-meaning,” this definition builds in precisely the “fumigator” function Ayn Rand identified.)
Yet the term “altruism” is not synonymous with benevolence, empathy, or good will. It is a relatively recent coinage, invented in the late 19th Century by Auguste Comte to refer to a very specific moral philosophy. “Altruism” literally means “other-ism” and Comte used it to refer to a philosophy of living for the sake of others. There is a big difference between saying “I sympathize with my fellow man and wish him well,” versus saying “the sole moral purpose of my life is to serve others.” While researching the origins of “altruism” as a philosophy, I came across a very clarifying quote from an obscure 20th-Century academic named W.G. Maclagan: “Altruism is to…maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” (As for the political consequences of this view, Comte went on to declare that “the social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism.”)
The injunction to live for the good of others while ignoring or disparaging one’s own good creates a basic contradiction, summed up in W.H. Auden’s conundrum: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.” Or as John Galt asks the question, “Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you?”
But Ayn Rand’s pathology report doesn’t come just in her speeches. It drives the story, as in the saga of one of the minor villains, Eugene Lawson, who starts out as “the banker with a heart” who funds the final collapse of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Here is the actual, real-world return on his altruistic investment.
“It hit the folks pretty hard around here. They all had their life savings in the Community National.” Mayor Bascom looked regretfully past his porch railing at his town. He jerked his thumb at a figure across the street: it was a white-haired charwoman, moving painfully on her knees, scrubbing the steps of a house. “See that woman, for instance? They used to be solid, respectable folks. Her husband owned the dry-goods store. He worked all his life to provide for her in her old age, and he did, too, by the time he died—only the money was in the Community National Bank.”
But note how Lawson justifies himself when Dagny Taggart catches up with him years later.
“No moral guilt can be attached to me, inasmuch as I lost everything I possessed in the crash of that bank. It seems to me that I would have the right to feel proud of such a sacrifice….
“Records, Miss Taggart? The record I left, when I departed from Madison, is inscribed in the hearts of the poor, who had never had a chance before.” She…kept seeing the figure of the old charwoman scrubbing the steps.
This is classic pathological altruism: what matters to Lawson is his ability to claim the virtue of having sacrificed—not whether anyone benefited from it.
By this point, Lawson has failed upward to become a bureaucrat in charge of central planning. Among the story’s collective of minor villains, he is distinguished by being the whiniest, squishiest, most watery-eyed “humanitarian”—and the most vicious hardliner when it comes to enforcing altruistic sacrifice at the point of a gun. At a conference late in the book, as the national economy is imploding, it is Lawson who calls for “a sterner discipline of privations,” and Dagny observes to herself that “Eugene Lawson, the humanitarian, took pleasure at the prospect of human starvation.”
Lawson is the one who says, after Galt’s Speech, “It’s the most vicious speech ever made! It…it will make people demand to be happy!” That is the key to the whole thing. The big lie of altruism is that it values the good of others. But if individual interests are bad and the sacrifice of those interests is the essence of virtue, then there is no moral value in anyone’s happiness. The pathology identified by Oakley—sacrifice for the sake of others, without any real concern for whether the others actually benefit—is inherent in altruism. In the altruist code, the highest moral value is not happiness but sacrifice, and a morality will tend to achieve the thing it places the highest value on.
Here is where Ayn Rand provides her most powerful criticism of altruism as a moral philosophy. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand gave the definitive statement of the goal of altruism to another “humanitarian” villain, Ellsworth Toohey, who describes his ideal world.
A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbor who will have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbor who will have no desires—around the globe, Peter. Since all must serve all….
Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy.
It is interesting to observe how similar this is to a speech by a somewhat similar character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who proclaims, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This is not a coincidence. As Oakley observes, “during the twentieth century, tens of millions [of] individuals were killed under despotic regimes that rose to power through appeals to altruism.” As a result, the best thinkers of the era had to grapple with this phenomenon of pathological altruism, this specter of humanitarian regimes steeped in blood. Only Ayn Rand penetrated to the root of the enigma: that a “humanitarianism” based on a morality of sacrifice must inevitably achieve human suffering rather than happiness.
This is just the beginning of Ayn Rand’s dissection of altruism. John Galt spends pages on it in his speech, it is a running theme through multiple subplots, and it is the driver of the novel’s main plot, in which the world’s Atlases learn to reject the idea that it is their duty to accept punishment for holding up the world.
Yet the real core of Ayn Rand’s pathology report on altruism is in her application of this insight, not to politics or economics, but to personal relationships and to love—the one area most critics of “pathological altruism” would still carve out as a legitimate domain for altruism. You certainly do feel good will toward a person you love. But as we have just seen in the larger economic and political context, good will is not the same thing as altruism.
What does an altruistic relationship actually look like? Ayn Rand shows it to us first in Hank Rearden’s relationship with his passive-aggressive family: his mother, his younger brother Philip, and his wife Lillian. “Passive-aggressive” is a bit of a contemporary usage. The term was first coined by an army psychologist in World War II to describe a kind of passive insubordination by disgruntled soldiers. Much more recently, it has entered popular culture, where it is typically used to describe emotional hostility disguised in an innocuous or even solicitous form. In a society steeped in the morality of altruism, this is a phenomenon so common that people naturally grasped for a term to name it.
It certainly describes how Rearden’s family treats him. His mother, for example, asks whether he has eaten—a seeming form of affectionate concern—but only so she can complain about him: “there was a reproachful impatience in her voice, as if his hunger were a personal insult to her.”
“That’s the trouble I’ve always had with you.” She was not looking at him, but reciting words into space. “It’s no use trying to do things for you, you don’t appreciate it. I could never make you eat properly.”
That leads to this exchange.
“Henry, you work too hard,” said Philip. “It’s not good for you.”
Rearden laughed. “I like it.”
“That’s what you tell yourself. It’s a form of neurosis, you know. When a man drowns himself in work, it’s because he’s trying to escape from something. You ought to have a hobby.”
“Oh, Phil, for Christ’s sake!” he said, and regretted the irritation in his voice….
“You ought to learn to have some fun,” said Philip. “Otherwise, you’ll become dull and narrow. Single-tracked, you know. You ought to get out of your little private shell and take a look at the world. You don’t want to miss life, the way you’re doing.”
Fighting anger, Rearden told himself that this was Philip’s form of solicitude. He told himself that it would be unjust to feel resentment: they were all trying to show their concern for him—and he wished these were not the things they had chosen for concern.
“I had a pretty good time today, Phil,” he answered, smiling—and wondered why Philip did not ask him what it was.
Note the expression of concern, as if Philip is genuinely worried that Rearden is overworked, used as a means to deliver the underlying insult: that Rearden is neurotic, dull, and “narrow.” All the while, what Rearden really wants is to celebrate his achievement in pouring the first heat of Rearden Metal, but his family can’t be bothered even to ask about it.
What Ayn Rand is showing us is the reality of a literally altruistic love. His family goes through the motions of the outward forms of affection for Rearden—while disparaging all of the things for which he actually wants to be valued. Their supposed love is offered without any basis in shared values within themselves. In return, they expect him to love them the same way and to feel for them an affection and concern not motivated by any values he shares with them.
Beneath it all is the classic symptom of pathological altruism: they take their altruistic motive, their sense of having suffered and sacrificed, as a sign of virtue—Rearden’s mother lays on the martyrdom particularly thick—without inquiring whether the supposed object of their sacrifice actually benefits from their sacrifice. In fact, they do their best to make sure he doesn’t, making his home life as miserable as possible.
This is the outlook behind the novel’s other notable family relationship, between Dagny Taggart and Jim, who wants her literally to be her brother’s keeper. But the theme of altruism in personal relationships is explored most fully in Jim’s marriage to Cherryl Brooks—Ayn Rand’s deliberate, agonizing dissection of the notion that love is sacrifice.
On the most superficial level, this relationship is supposed to be altruistic in terms of its mismatch in wealth and social position. Leading up to the wedding, for example, Jim makes no provision for protecting Cherryl’s privacy or even for who is going to drive her to the wedding—yet he manages to engineer a lot of sappy publicity about how “generous” he is.
They kept photographing her at the dime-store counter, in the subway, on the stoop of the tenement house, in her miserable room. She would have taken money from Jim now and run to hide in some obscure hotel for the weeks of their engagement—but he did not offer it. He seemed to want her to remain where she was. They printed pictures of Jim at his desk, in the concourse of the Taggart Terminal, by the steps of his private railway car, at a formal banquet in Washington. The huge spreads of full newspaper pages, the articles in magazines, the radio voices, the newsreels, all were a single, long, sustained scream—about the “Cinderella Girl” and the “Democratic Businessman.”
Once again, it’s the hallmark of pathological altruism: Jim likes cultivating the image of the great benefactor but doesn’t care what the object of his charity actually wants or needs.
He doesn’t care because his motive is altruistic, not just in economic terms, but in the sacrifice he wants from her: a sense of unearned adulation. He wants an unequal, altruistic relationship because it puts Cherryl into a position of dependence and inferiority, from which she has to look up to him.
He had smiled at her uncertainty, at her awkwardness, at her terror of picking the wrong fork, and at the look of enchantment in her eyes. She had not known what he thought. But he had known that she was stunned, not by the place, but by his bringing her there, that she barely touched the costly food, that she took the dinner, not as booty from a rich sucker—as all the girls he knew would have taken it—but as some shining award she had never expected to deserve.
He needs her to be so dazzled by his wealth and importance—”reeling through her days like a person with a sunstroke, seeing nothing but the figure of Jim Taggart as she had seen him first on the night of his great triumph”—that she can’t see who he really is in the cold light of day. You can see the clash that is coming when she then attempts to bridge the gap between them, when she works to acquire the taste and manners appropriate to her social position as Jim’s wife—to reach the point when “she had ceased being an object of charity weighing Jim down”—and worse, to understand what his business career really consists of.
If Jim’s relationship with her is altruistic, what he wants in return is also altruism. He expects to be loved despite his faults, without offering anything in return. “She had seen a flicker of life in his eyes whenever she granted him some sign of admiration—yet a burst of anger was his answer, whenever she named a reason for admiring him. He seemed to want her to consider him great, but never dare ascribe any specific content to his greatness.”
This is finally hashed out in Cherryl’s final confrontation with Jim, when she asks him, “Jim, what is it that you want to be loved for?”
“To be loved for!” he said, his voice grating with mockery and righteousness. “So you think that love is a matter of mathematics, of exchange, of weighing and measuring, like a pound of butter on a grocery counter? I don’t want to be loved for anything. I want to be loved for myself—not for anything I do or have or say or think. For myself—not for my body or mind or words or works or actions.”
He goes on to call Cherryl “a gold-digger of the spirit. You didn’t marry me for my cash—but you married me for my ability or courage or whatever value it was that you set as the price of your love!” It is significant that for Ayn Rand, talk of trade naturally leads to talk of cause and effect, in Cherryl’s next question.
“Do you want…love…to be…causeless?”
“Love is its own cause! Love is above causes and reasons. Love is blind. But you wouldn’t be capable of it. You have the mean, scheming, calculating little soul of a shopkeeper who trades, but never gives! Love is a gift—a great, free, unconditional gift that transcends and forgives everything. What’s the generosity of loving a man for his virtues? What do you give him? Nothing. It’s no more than cold justice. No more than he’s earned.”
Her eyes were dark with the dangerous intensity of glimpsing her goal. “You want it to be unearned,” she said, not in the tone of a question, but of a verdict.
Notice how this ties in to Ayn Rand’s revolutionary view of morality and emotions as a relationship of cause and effect. Morality, in her view, is a cause-and-effect relationship between means and ends, between the ultimate goal of life and the virtues that are the means to achieving it. Similarly, she identifies emotions as automatized estimates, “lightning calculators” of those cause-and-effect relationships. So she also views love as a cause-and-effect relationship. Love is a response to the presence in another of the virtues and values that fuel one’s own life.
Note that sacrifice simply has no place in this chain of cause and effect. Deliberate sacrifice—sacrifice in the proper sense of the term, meaning the destruction of a greater value in exchange for a lesser one—sabotages one’s goals rather than moving them forward. It is a fundamental breakdown of the relationship between means and ends. So a morality of sacrifice requires a repudiation of cause and effect.
In fact, setting sacrifice as the standard of value requires that the process of cause and effect be set in reverse. A morality based on sacrifice must be dedicated to the destruction of values. Galt makes this point in explicit philosophical terms in Galt’s Speech.
Whatever the value involved, it is your lack of it that gives you a claim upon those who don’t lack it….
If you succeed, any man who fails is your master; if you fail, any man who succeeds is your serf…. It is pain, regardless of its nature or cause, pain as a primary absolute, that gives you a mortgage on all of existence.
A morality that holds need as a claim, holds emptiness—nonexistence—as its standard of value; it rewards an absence, a defect: weakness, inability, incompetence, suffering, disease, disaster, the lack, the fault, the flaw— the zero.
Who provides the account to pay these claims? Those who are cursed for being non-zeros, each to the extent of his distance from that ideal.
Long before Galt spells this out, we see it acted out in the story’s altruistic love relationships. We see it in Rearden’s marriage to Lillian, which is motivated by her attempt to tear Rearden down. As he observes in their final encounter, “if, to him, love was a celebration of one’s self and of existence—then, to the self-haters and life-haters, the pursuit of destruction was the only form and equivalent of love. It was for the best of his virtues that Lillian had chosen him, for his strength, his confidence, his pride—she had chosen him as one chooses an object of love, as the symbol of man’s living power, but the destruction of that power had been her goal.”
This echoes Jim’s motive in marrying Cherryl. She realizes that he didn’t marry her because she was poor and unsophisticated. “You married me, because you knew that I did not accept the gutter, inside or out, that I was struggling to rise and would go on struggling.” He wants to drain her spirit to provide an infusion for his own; if she is a gold-digger of the spirit, she tells him, then he is a looter of the spirit. But ultimately, he is motivated less by any spiritual gain of his own than by a compulsion to beat her down psychologically. In this regard, Cherryl stands partly as a proxy for Dagny and for Hank Rearden, because her initial naiveté made her vulnerable to him in a way that they are not.
This captures one of Ayn Rand’s key insights: how altruism serves as a psychological bludgeon. If sacrifice is the essence of virtue, then it gives an abusive, exploitative personality like Taggart the perfect weapon to beat down whatever remains unsacrificed in others.
Ayn Rand’s strongest statement on this issue comes, not in her portrayal of these twisted love relationships, but in contrast to the non-altruistic love story of Dagny and Galt. This comes toward the end of Dagny’s stay in the valley, when she briefly fears that Galt will hold back and refuse to pursue her in order to avoid hurting Francisco—who at this point still harbors the hope of winning her back. When Galt is offered that choice and refuses it, he replies in amusement, “You had to put me to a test in order to learn whether I’d fall to the lowest possible stage of altruism?” Then Dagny imagines what an alternative altruist version of their relationship would look like.
Part of the intensity of her relief—she thought, as she walked silently by his side—was the shock of a contrast: she had seen, with the sudden, immediate vividness of sensory perception, an exact picture of what the code of self-sacrifice would have meant, if enacted by the three of them. Galt, giving up the woman he wanted, for the sake of his friend, faking his greatest feeling out of existence and himself out of her life, no matter what the cost to him and to her, then dragging the rest of his years through the waste of the unreached and unfulfilled—she, turning for consolation to a second choice, faking a love she did not feel, being willing to fake, since her will to self-deceit was the essential required for Galt’s self-sacrifice, then living out her years in hopeless longing, accepting, as relief for an unhealing wound, some moments of weary affection, plus the tenet that love is futile and happiness is not to be found on earth—Francisco, struggling in the elusive fog of a counterfeit reality, his life a fraud staged by the two who were dearest to him and most trusted, struggling to grasp what was missing from his happiness, struggling down the brittle scaffold of a lie over the abyss of the discovery that he was not the man she loved, but only a resented substitute, half-charity-patient, half-crutch, his perceptiveness becoming his danger and only his surrender to lethargic stupidity protecting the shoddy structure of his joy, struggling and giving up and settling into the dreary routine of the conviction that fulfillment is impossible to man—the three of them, who had had all the gifts of existence spread out before them, ending up as embittered hulks, who cry in despair that life is frustration—the frustration of not being able to make unreality real.
But this—she thought—was men’s moral code in the outer world.
As radical as Ayn Rand’s morality may seem, this kind of psychological scenario is so common people could not fail to notice it, and we can see various ways in which they keep probing around the issue. They adopt terms that describe the pathologies of altruism, like “passive-aggressive” or “co-dependent,” which describes the person whose altruistic love consists in “enabling” the self-destruction of the person they claim to love. Then there are those, like Oakley, who dabble in the analysis of “pathological altruism” or “toxic charity.”
But they can’t quite go that final step. Like those who keep attributing the failure of socialist dictatorships, not to the doctrines of collectivism, but to the evil character of a particular dictator who hijacked the revolution—Mao, Stalin, Hugo Chavez—they attribute all of these toxic pathologies to a corruption of altruism, not to altruism itself. Hence Oakley is careful not to “discount the importance of altruism,” which remains beyond moral question.
Ironically, Oakley herself provides part of the explanation for this reticence.
Part of the reason that pathologies of altruism have not been studied extensively or integrated into the public discourse appears to be fear that such knowledge might be used to discount the importance of altruism…. [T]hese doubts have minimized scientists’ ability to see the widespread, vitally important nature of pathologies of altruism.
In other words, the sense of moral virtue that comes from mouthing platitudes in favor of altruism is more important, to most intellectuals, than an understanding of what actually serves the well-being and happiness of the individuals they say they want to help. The inability to question altruism or confront its pathologies is itself a symptom of pathological altruism.
This explains why Ayn Rand’s pathology report is so crucial, because she is the only prominent intellectual who has been willing to follow this inquiry all the way to its root and question the morality of altruism itself—and the only one able to offer a genuine alternative to the creed of sacrifice.