‘Atlas Shrugged’ the movie is coming out. What do Mormons think of Objectivism?

As most lovers of free-market economics know by now, “Atlas Shrugged,” the movie is coming out this week.  Just two years ago, I wrote this piece on Rand’s philosophy, called Objectivism.

To sum up:  I believe, after reading “Atlas Shrugged” and recently re-reading “The Fountainhead,” that Ayn Rand celebrates selfishness, although her heroes become literary Christ symbols.  So Rand seems to recognize that self-sacrifice is a good thing, but then rails against it at the same time.  Personally, I find this aspect of her philosophy pretty confused.

The gospel teaches us that voluntarily giving to others is the highest possible achievement.  Rand sees giving to others as taking away from yourself and creating a society of parasites.  I couldn’t disagree more.

However, having said that, Rand’s celebration of free-market economics and the wonders of humans who better the world through their hard work is spot-on.   Her reminders that the state has no right to your personal property are important and especially timely (charitable giving should be voluntary, not forced).  The world she creates in “Atlas Shrugged” is in many ways the modern world, where legions of covetous people look at ways of taking from others without producing anything of value themselves.

So, I will be watching “Atlas Shrugged” soon after it comes out, even though Rand’s celebration of selfishness is not compatible with the Gospel, in my humble opinion.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

34 thoughts on “‘Atlas Shrugged’ the movie is coming out. What do Mormons think of Objectivism?

  1. One quick comment to start discussion on this. This is how Rand described Objectivism:

    “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.”

    Here is how I would describe my philosophy, based on my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

    “My philosophy, in essence, that selflessness and free will keep the universe functioning. As a reminder of this, Jesus Christ freely offered himself up as a sacrifice for our sins. To draw closer to God, we must become selfless beings (helping the poor and the less fortunate) while still respecting the free will of all around us. Joy comes through selfless service and celebrating the liberty that God has given us.”

    I believe that people can see that Rand’s philosophy gets one part right (we should respect liberty and peoples’ right to the fruit of their own labors) while getting another part completely wrong (concentrating entirely on man’s own happiness being the source of joy). In my experience, the people who concentrate solely on their own happiness are the ones who become most miserable, while those who concentrate on serving others are the happiest.

  2. I like the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She also wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness.” I don’t see where serving others fits into Objectivism. Couple in her athiesm and lack of sexual morality and I don’t see where objectivism is compatible religion in general.

    My favorite quote regarding Rand comes from John Rogers:

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  3. I think one needs to keep in mind what Rand was _opposing_ as much as what she was advocating. She was opposing the forced collectivism of communism and the New Deal. She saw FDR’s New Deal for what it was, “Communism Lite.” If I remember my history correctly, the full nastiness of Soviet Communism hadn’t quite been fully exposed when she started writing Atlas Shrugged.

    Ayn Rand voiced what was later succinctly put by Margaret Thatcher, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

    And, the IDIOCY that she wrote against has basically come full swing with the Bush administration’s bailout (TARP) in 2008, and Obama’s continuation of it with the “Stimulus” and the buyout of GM.

    The buy-out of GM comes RIGHT out of Atlas Shrugged.

  4. Selflessness and charity is a high achievement, but when the objects of that selflessness and charity assume that you OWE them that is evil. Dagny Taggart was not evil for continuing to work the railroad until nearly the bitter end. Those that were counting on her charity were the evil ones. One of Rand’s point was that relying on someone else without giving back was evil…

  5. I am not a Rand fan at all, I’m afraid. I understand why conservatives like her economics, but I just can’t agree with Objectivism because it’s faulty in it’s deepest places (As Geoff mentiones — celebrating selfishness) and so needs to be opposed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  6. (edited)

    In the early 90s I wrote a sort of fannish, amateur philosophical letter to the novelist and conservative political writer Mark Helprin. I was floored to get a response from him. I had brought up Ayn Rand in my letter. In his reply he said, “my father knew her and I assure you she was a nudnik.”

    My problem isn’t so much with the content of her philosophy – although I disgree with much of it – but the fact that she asks her readers to believe and to abandon their own stance as philosophers. If one can maintain their ability to take tentative stances, and remain open and learning, I think she can be read profitably. Then … I pretty much believe that about everything. ~

  7. I believe that Rand’s philosophy is antithetical to the gospel, as Geoff and others have pointed out. In the first place, she was a deceptive liar, collecting social security and medicare benefits under an assumed name, even as she denounced others who did so as looters and parasites. (http://boingboing.net/2011/01/28/ayn-rand-took-govern.html) I see no difference between her approach and Korihor’s: “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength”. If I am missing something here, please let me know.

    When Atlas Shrugged was first published, Whittaker Chambers reviewed it for National Review. He thought it was a terrible book, and said that on almost every page you could hear a voice commanding you to the gas chamber. (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/222482/big-sister-watching-you/flashback) I think it is a good exercise in the recent history of conservatism to understand why conservative people used to hate this book, but now appear to be embracing it. What happened, and is that a good or bad thing?

    In her book, We, The Living, Rand has her protagonist Kira say these words, which I think amount to an accurate summary of Rand’s philosophy: “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?” She idolized William Hickman, a man who kidnapped, raped, murdered, and dismembered a 12 year-old girl. Rand kept all the press clippings and said that she tried to model her heroes after him. She was, I believe, a true sociopath. It really surprises me that anybody, but especially LDS people, can find very much to like about her.

    In my opinion, Rand, her books, and her philosophy represent a putrid and obscene degradation of humanity. If we need to find credentials to bolster our support of the free market, surely we can find better examples than Ayn Rand.

  8. [email protected] on said:
  9. Wow Mark Brown, pretty judgmental right now aren’t you? I had now idea you had the credentials to judge anyone as a “true sociopath”. What are those credentials, btw? And why is it Mark, that you liberals are so non-judgmental against others who don’t align themselves to some parts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (abortionists and the sexually immoral) and so judgmental against thos who don’t align themselves to other parts of the Gospel (free-will voluntary charity and care of others)?

    I agree with Geoff’s, Bruce’s, and Bookslinger’s comments that we should never embrace Rand’s full philosphy. But just because she got that part wrong, doesn’t mean there isn’t warning in the other.

  10. I think that Objectivism is a pretty good distillation of Satan’s plan (or, at least, Korihor’s iteration thereof). I find absolutely nothing virtuous, worthy, or of good-report within it. Certainly, people should be hard-working and self-sufficient, but there are ways to be that without throwing compassion and kindness into the trash. It is a terrible, terrible philosophical approach to the world.

  11. I would commend anybody who adores “Atlas Shrugged” to read the Chambers review of it from 1957. It is instructive for many reasons.

    1)Chambers is of course correct that “Atlas Shrugged” is terrible as a novel. It has none of the characteristics of great literature. All of the characters are either All Bad or All Good, and as anybody with half a brain knows life is not like this. But, having said that, “Atlas Shrugged” was intended to be a novel like “1984,” which has similar characteristics (although I would argue 1984 is a better novel).
    2)Ayn Rand’s personal life was nothing that anybody, especially a Latter-day Saint, would want to emulate. Her only moral absolute was her own selfishness. If you admire Rand, go read some things about her personal life and you will come away feeling differently.
    3)If Chambers were alive to write that review today I absolutely guarantee he would take a different direction. In 1957, a miniscule amount of Americans depended on the federal government for support. Today, that number is above 20 percent, and if you include people who receive some kind of support from the government, you get above 40 percent. We have become a nation of takers, rather than makers, and Rand’s warnings seem increasingly prophetic. An amazingly large number of otherwise intelligent people have absolutely no problem with the idea that they have the *right* to the production of others. We have become a nation of people who celebrate coveting the goods of others. There are perfectly good reasons for religious people, who are trying to obey the commandments, to be concerned about some of the same issues that worried Ayn Rand.

  12. Also, I used to blame Rand for the re-emergence of knee-jerk libertarianism in American discourse. But I now think I was wrong. I think that Robert Heinlein and his novels have been much more influential.

  13. Psychochemiker (or DavidGou or Mad Chemist or whatever sock puppet you are using today),

    I believe anyone who idolizes a man who kidnaps, rapes, murders, and dismembers a 12 year old girl fits the ballpark definition of a sociopath. Do you disagree? She called William Hickman a “genuinely beautiful soul” and said that the he represents the apex of humanity. And just so you know, she actively promoted abortion (to weed out the undersireables), hedonism, drug use, adultery, and polyamory. Of course, we choose to overlook all this because she throws the occasional bone to the unfettered free market.

    As I said in the final paragraph of my previous comment, if we need to find people to bolster our commitment to a free market, surely we can find better examples than Ayn Rand.

  14. “surely we can find better examples than Ayn Rand.”

    Interesting enough, I find two Brits and one American to fit in to this category nicely. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were great advocates of free will and Capitalism without degenerate morals. Then there is Ronald Reagan who might not always have been good to his children (who were mostly politically against him anyway), but had a moral center that was still charity based. It is a pity that conservatives don’t read Churchill’s later works and only idealize rather than study the other two.

    I don’t like Objectivism any more than I do Socialism because I believe both of them ignore the basic needs of the human heart. The former that humans are animals that should be let loose into the wild and the latter that we are all children that must be controlled. I believe that free will is essential and compassion is necessary, but private and voluntary.

  15. Mark Brown,

    Perhaps we just disagree with your assertion that “she idolizes idolizes a man who kidnaps, rapes, murders, and dismembers.”

    I for one find Hickman despicable, but I also find the same about elective abortion doctors, TSA agents, and those that defend them. I think you’re just using an ad hominem attack against Rand that in this case isn’t justifiable. If you find a quote where she advocates kidnapping, raping, murdering, or dismembering, then you may find evidence to conclude she’s a sociopath. Until then, you are merely muddying the water towards your own political ends. I mean, it’s not like she’s the ACLU defending nambla or something like that, right?

  16. MB,
    Or more precisely, perhaps I disagree that WHAT she idolizes about him was that he kidnaps, rapes, murders or dismembers.

    I think she was experimenting with her philosophy on independence from others, and that she was fascinated by how he did whatever he wanted regardless of the impact of others. Hickman does fit the definition of a sociopath, however, being fascinated by one is NOT, and we shouldn’t change definitions just because you don’t like someone’s life, philosphy, or prose.

    I think Ann Rands life is a warning to everyone about the dangers of hedonism and objectivism, (which I personally feel are logical extensions of atheism). However obscene and wrong some of her philosophies and moral acts in life are, does not mean there isn’t something positive to be learned from the other half of the story. I haven’t heard anyone hear saying, “We should accept her bad philosophies”, but I have been advocating not to throw the baby out with the swamp water…

  17. I just discovered this interview with Playboy magazine in which Rand lays out her philosophy. Cruel and twisted in many ways, brilliant in others.

    http://www.ellensplace.net/ar_pboy.html

    Check out this gem, which is a direct contradiction to LDS thinking:

    “PLAYBOY: According to your philosophy, work and achievement are the highest goals of life. Do you regard as immoral those who find greater fulfillment in the warmth of friendship and family ties?

    RAND: If they place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man’s life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite; whereas, if he places his work first, there is no conflict between his work and his enjoyment of human relationships.”

  18. Now, here is the fascinating thing to consider about Rand’s philosophy. She agrees that certain things are immoral. But according to what standard? Traditional conservatives can say things are immoral based on the standards of traditional morality, which is based on Biblical standards (the 10 commandments, etc). But what is the basis of Rand’s definition of morality? It is her own personal code. So, in other words, she gets to decide what is moral and immoral. She and Hitler would have a lot in common.

  19. psychochemiker,

    You’re setting up a false analogy between those who praise the sick and twisted and those who defend the rights of the sick and twisted. Surely you see that, don’t you?

  20. Just as satanic philosophies lay their snares and corrupt many truths on the left (force redistribution-ism by government) they also ensnare those on the right (man prospers by his own efforts, pursuing financial self-interest is the noble goal for individuals in society, etc.)

    I think those on the right should make even more of an effort to call out those philosophies on their side which have become corrupted because these corruptions work to undermine their other positions.

  21. I’m not much of a fan of Rand. I enjoyed her short novel “Anthem” much more than her tedious lengthy novels. While I do think that she had some valuable insights into the value of individualism and self-reliance, her over-all philosophy, not to mention her cult-leader-like narcissism, repulses me.

    At the same time, she bears at least a little of the credit for the existence of RUSH’s 2112, and for that I can cut her some slack, because it rocks!

    @John C. With the lyrics to songs like “Anthem”, “2112″, “Something for Nothing”, and “The Trees” RUSH probably deserves as much or more credit (perhaps you would say blame) for the “re-emergence of knee-jerk libertarianism in American discourse” and the popularity of some of Rand’s ideas among the geek, middle, and working classes than either Rand or Heinlein.

    Also, I suspect that the rise of Internet, which favors decentralization over centralized regulation not only culturally but in its technological design, has had more influence than either Rand or Heinlein toward popularizing libertarian ideas. Some of the fundamental protocols of the Internet like DNS, SSL, P2P, and concepts of distributed problem solving infuse assumptions about scalability and resource allocation using decentralized, free-market forces into our cultural subconscious.

  22. Psycho,

    At this point, I’m not even sure what you are talking about. Let’s set aside her infatuation with a rapist and killer and look at the kind of crap she said every day. “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?” That is Rand in a nutshell, and you can google 100 more statements just like that if you want, I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. Again, why do conservative people feel such an urgent need to defend this person? Jettboy gave us two very good examples we could look to instead. Why does this current group of conservatives have such a fetish for Rand?

    I see very little difference between what Rand advocates and what Korihor advocates — everyone prospers according to his strength. Do you want to defend Korihor by saying that yes, he had some bad ideas, but hey, let’s look at the good side and not throw the baby out with the bathwater?

    I might be your imaginary liberal bogeyman, and if that is what you want to think, it is certainly no skin off my nose. There are plenty of people with plenty of conservative cred who describe her as a sociopath and degenerate so that I don’t need your approval to do so. If you want to argue that she wasn’t, you are not only arguing with a straw man, you are arguing with a straw man and losing the argument.

  23. “Why does this current group of conservatives have such a fetish for Rand?”

    I’m not up on any groups of Rand fans, but psychopathy has its draw. My attention was drawn recently to Bob Dylan’s Tom Paine award speech where he said (in 1963!) that he could identify with Oswald. I even knew a guy, pretty normal and pleasant, who kept a portrait of Stalin by his work bench. I asked someone who shared the lab if it was a joke. He grimly shook his head.

  24. Mark Brown, you appear not able to take “yes” for an answer. Nobody has disagreed with your take on this, except for a minor point on whether or not Rand was a sociopath. Chill. Everybody is agreeing with you.

  25. ARJ,

    No I don’t see that as the analogy I’ve drawn. Unless Rand said it was wonderful that he killed people, she wasn’t “praising that sick and twisted part of him.” I’m still fairly confident that what she was praising (and was still wrong in doing so) was his ability to make himself more important than others. I’m just asking MB to be more precise and accurate wrt what she actually praised. From the quotes Geoff has provided, she praised selfishness, and that is wrong, but she didn’t praise murder. She used colorful and profane language, but then again, so does our Vice President, Joe Biden. But I’m certain if I was leading a crusade to have his writings burned certain people would be in a fuss over it.

    And Mark, if you can’t see hyperbolic language for what it is, maybe you should stop reading altogether. “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?” Um, hyperbole, she’s not literally going to use people as mud and fuel, but rather their work. It’s no different than the way certain political parties use people merely to gain control over them, bribe them with entitlements only to keep them enslaved and “cared” for. Using someone is not a new technique that Rand has invented. Nor is being ambivalent about it. I personally feel that all leaders in the world, past, present, and probably future have degrees of it. I just sense Rand as being a bit more honest about it. Everyone uses other people, and heaven help us if Rand’s work gets emulated, but for heavens sake, people should be thinking about some of this stuff.!!!

  26. I think the material acquisitiveness and consumerism of most middle-class and upper-middle-class Mormons is right out of Objectivism.

    Mormons may verbally oppose Objectivism, but among the upper-middle-class wards that I’m familiar with, a slight majority of the members do seem to actually _live_ objectivism: Tithes come out of their excess, (there’s no sacrifice for it), offerings are at a minimum, and the 60 hour work-week comes before home-teaching/visiting-teaching and callings.

  27. Psychochemiker,

    Do you mind if I edit your statement just a bit? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, I’m just trying to get at what you really mean.

    “I just sense [Korihor] as being a bit more honest about it. Everyone uses other people, and heaven help us if [Korihor's] work gets emulated, but for heavens sake, people should be thinking about some of this stuff.!!!”

    In my opinion, that statement works just as well as yours. Do you think so too? Or do you object somehow?

  28. Mark, one of the worst things about Ayn Rand’s work is her simplifying her characters into “All Bad” or “All Good.” The same game can be played with authors, philosophers, etc. And the truth is nobody on the Earth is “All Bad” or “All Good.” As I’ve said, Rand was a pretty miserable person in her personal life, and her philosophy has huge problems, especially for people trying to follow the Savior. However, she had important points to make about the modern-day economy. And she had important warnings to make about where the welfare state would take the United States. On those issues, she has proven prophetic.

    Hemingway was misogynestic and an alcoholic, macho chump who led a miserable life. But he also created some wonderful scenes in some wonderful books. We don’t have to turn the authors and philosophers we don’t like into devils.

  29. JMax,
    I don’t necessarily disagree except to say that I imagine that Heinlein is more widely distributed amongst computer programmers than either Rand or Rush.

  30. I’m glad to see so many people have significant concerns over Rand and her philosophy.

    J Max, I thought “Anthem” was hilarious. I giggled all the way through. It was so ridiculously in your face with the point it was trying to make that it was beyond silly. To say nothing of how untenable was the fictional society our hero grew up in. It was a lampooning of communism rather than a realistic look at it’s real evils.

    If you want a real distopian future that is chillingly effective (at least or me it was. tastes will vary) I’d have to go with Brave New World over the more well known ones like 1984. Where as Anthem took itself seriously, Brave New World came across like an intentional lampooning and then drilled in so deep that at some point I started to fear just how close to reality it was.

  31. Dürrenmatt had a very chilling, antiheroic, post-apocalyptic distopian future in Winterkrieg in Tibet. Completely chilling and unsettling. Loved it though.

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