The world according to Ayn Rand

Does the controversial author give students a ‘philosophy of life’ or a misguided and extreme worldview?

Reading Rand’s Atlas Shrugged provided Kyle Duford the inspiration he needed to return to university after dropping out.
Reading Rand’s Atlas Shrugged provided Kyle Duford the inspiration he needed to return to university after dropping out.
Photo: 

Many people have been called selfish as an insult by either their parents or their friends at some point in their lives, but for some, the notion of selfishness might be taking on a new meaning. Society considers helping others to be one of the highest virtues any individual can uphold. But what about the virtue of selfishness? Why are we made to feel guilty about doing things for ourselves?

Ayn Rand, the pioneer of the philosophical theory of objectivism, explains why selfishness can be seen as a virtue rather than a vice. Considered both a controversial philsopher and bestselling author by Reason Online, Rand was originally condemned as an advocate for egoism—the exact opposite of altruism and generosity.

In a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine, Rand defined her philosophy as, “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.” According to aynrandnovels.com, Rand’s novels promote individualism and rational self-interest. In The Fountainhead, Rand tells “the story of an innovator—architect Howard Roark—and his battle against the tradition-worshipping establishment.” In her second major work, Atlas Shrugged, she writes of a “future U.S.A. whose economy is collapsing as a result of the mysterious disappearance of leading innovators and industrialists.”

Douglas Treilhard, ArtSci ’10 said this philosophy is relevant for today’s students.

“I think objectivism speaks to students today largely because it offers a highly compelling alternate to the stifling left-wing orthodoxy in academe—an alternate that promotes reason, egoism and capitalism,” Treilhard said.

For him, Rand’s work offers not only enjoyable literature, but something to aspire to.

“I enjoy Ayn Rand’s fiction because it projects a “romantic realist” vision of the world as it could be and should be,” he said.

“I have a deep affinity for her vision of man as a heroic being. That vision—embodied in characters such as Howard Roark—gives me the spiritual vigor to continue when real-life examples seem lacking.”

Treilhard said Rand’s philosophies have had a substantial influence on his life.

“The result of having a conscious, rational, integrated view of existence—a ‘philosophy for life on earth’—can be summed up in one word: confidence. Confidence in my ability to deal with reality and achieve happiness,” he said.

Kyle Duford, ArtSci ’11, was introduced to Ayn Rand at the age of 14 when his parents gave him Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Later on, when he began attending university, he found himself in a rut and eventually dropped out.

“It was around the time I re-read her works and was instantly motivated to start school again. I realized I needed to pick up the pieces,” Duford said.

Rand’s works emphasize the importance of everyone being responsible for their own actions. For Duford, Rand’s message became something akin to a personal motto of dedication and perseverance.

But many students aren’t as motivated, Duford said.

“Students here feel that they’re entitled to a lot of things—especially the ones who are given everything they ask for,” he said. “It’s like a disease.”

Gannon Beaulne, ArtSci ’09, discovered Rand’s works during his elementary school years and was amazed such subversive ideas could exist within literature.

“As a Grade 7 boy in the Canadian public school system, the unabashed declaration that it is not only undesirable but unethical to live principally for the benefit of others was a shocking and foreign concept to me.” Seeing value in Rand’s work, he disagreed with the treatment of her theories at school.

“My experience has taught me that the vast majority of high school teachers are moral relativists, or at the very least, prefer some version of the altruistic-collectivist value system, and so only discuss Ayn Rand in order to summarily dismiss her,” Beaulne said.

He said objectivism might make a good addition to Queen’s curriculum.

“A university course that explores objectivism would be fantastic,” Beaulne said. “It is a philosophy that has yet to be given the credit it deserves in academia. It would allow interested people to expand their knowledge, detractors to gain some insight into what exactly they are rejecting and the academic community would be made aware of its existence as a legitimate philosophy.”

According to Beaulne, Rand’s philosophies are important for students to learn.

“Students should care about objectivism because it promotes freedom, economically and socially,” he said. “The current Western trend toward welfarism, socialization and civilization diffidence is at odds with liberalism and reason. And, in light of the challenges to Western culture which lie ahead, we need Ayn Rand now more than ever.”

Law professor Kathleen Lahey doesn’t buy into Rand’s objectivist philosophy but said she can see why Rand’s fiction is attractive to young people.

“It’s about the role of the individual in society ... and she makes it exciting,” she said. However, Lahey said Rand’s theories have some major drawbacks.

“As illustrated by the types of examples that she uses in her writing … a truly free tax system would reduce the payment of taxes to a purely voluntary choice and that becomes highly unworkable,” Lahey said, adding that although people shouldn’t stop reading Rand’s writings, they should think of her work in terms of a historical artifact.

“I think that a lot of her writing was done in her own particular historical context of Stalinist Russia,” Lahey said.

“I think if she had seen the cruelties of a pure market system she may have developed a completely different philosophy.”

Lahey said Rand has an extreme libertarian stance and suggested a more balanced stance might be a more useful philosophy for society today.

“It’s obvious from development that post-dates her most active writing … that a pure state-run society or a pure market-run society would be equally despotic. … It’s about finding an appropriate balance.”

—With files from Jill Buchner

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.