Please note that this article was written when I had read half-way through Atlas Shrugged and didn’t have time to do more than read the Cliff’s Notes, while wanting to share my thoughts and get some feedback on them. For now, I am leaving the article below as it is, as it contains thoughts that I didn’t want to include in my final blog on Atlas Shrugged, to keep the focus there mostly on one particularly concerning rhetoric I had found at the end of the book.

Selfishness: evil, virtue or fact of life?

Atlas Shrugged is an advocacy against self-sacrificial altruism, with a political focus on Ayn Rand’s idea of the worst conceivable form of socialist collectivism. Ayn Rand makes the convincing case that doing anything out of self-sacrifice can never lead to anyone’s happiness in the long-term and will eventually cause others to suffer along with you. The problem with self-sacrifice highlighted by Ayn Rand goes much further than what is lost or missed by the sacrifice. It’s not that Ayn Rand sees benefit to others as useless, but that the disingenuous self-deceit of pretending not to be interested in one’s own personal gain is harmful to everyone. 

The reason being: whenever you sacrifice yourself for another, you’re covertly expecting some kind of moral reciprocity. Either in a reverse tit-for-tat sense (I have suffered for you so it’s about time that you should suffer for me), or in the sense of a belief in divine intervention. This sense of entitlement to be rewarded for your sacrifices – unless paid back exactly to your personal satisfaction – is going to weigh down heavily, not just on yourself, but on everyone around you. 

And if you’re not interested in any kind of delayed gratification for your self-sacrifice, are you sure you have really made any sacrifice? Doesn’t it provide you some immediate selfish benefit, such as the pleasure of bringing joy to others, or the relief of an improved self-esteem by regarding yourself as a more noble or less despicable person? 

If your motives are selfish anyway, is your voluntary self-sacrifice really your optimal modus-operandi? Is that really the best you can do, and the most beneficial you can be to yourself and others? These are some of the questions Atlas Shrugged encourages the reader to think about.

What personally attracted me to Ayn Rand’s idea on the virtue of selfishness is not an excuse to justify caring about myself, but a framework for becoming more authentic about our own intentions and more understanding and respectful of the intentions of others. I see selfishness rather as a fact than a virtue; as a given, whether we admit it or not. As such, selfishness is only virtuous in the sense that life is virtuous: Although it gives rise to beauty, there is nothing noble about it, because the only genuine alternative is death.

However, not all aspects of Ayn Rand’s ideas may lead to authenticity and objectivity. Her black-and-white portrayal of an imagined despicable kind of socialist collectivism is very specific, with the characters of Atlas Shrugged being either wholly on one side or on the other. This lack of realistic nuance may cause blind-spots to more subtle forms of collectivism, leaving room for it to creep in through the backdoor.

The self-deceit of virtuous protest

What better way to hide and ignore unwanted tendencies within you than to be outspokenly against those tendencies in others? 

Speaking or acting out against racism might limit your self-perspective to thinking that you are free from any preferences or prejudgments based on someone’s superficial appearance. But do you really hold everyone with the same reverence and compassion, no matter whether they are female or male, no matter whether they are older or younger than you and no matter whether they ride a public bus or drive a Ferrari? Call me narrow-minded, but as much as I despise racism, I am unable to grasp someone’s value as a unique individual until I get to know them well. Until then, I largely rely on superficial impressions.

Speaking or acting out against capitalism might limit your self-perspective to thinking that you are free of any desire to hold possessions over which you have a right to control. But how comfortable are you really with a stranger taking your hard-earned money, entering your home or sleeping with your spouse? Call me selfish, but I’m not generous enough to feel okay with that.

Similarly, speaking or acting out against collectivism – as Ayn Rand advocated for with great passion – makes it seem as if one is free from any desire to accommodate for the opinion of others, and free from any desire to limit anyone else’s freedom. Call me weak, but if someone rejects my reasoning by suggesting that I’m irrational or stupid, my amygdala might get triggered, putting me in fight or flight mode, losing my clear-headedness and reducing my openness to the other’s point of view. As much as I’d like to see myself following my own way regardless what others think of me, the simple unpolished facts tell me that this is not how my psyche flies. No amount of me telling others that they shouldn’t care about opinions will change this fact about me. 

Underneath the veil of one’s protest, there may easily be hiding more commonalities with “the other side” than one is willing to acknowledge objectively. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” seems to be no exception here. A core aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is to accept the facts as they are, whether we like them or not. But how realistic is this undeniably noble goal while simultaneously holding a political agenda?

Atlas Shrugged’s forceful collectivist solution

Ayn Rand was against the use of force to make others contribute to a presumed ‘public good’. And yet, the resolution that the story of Atlas Shrugged presents to change the world is a clear use of force for the public good. The pretense is that the strike is merely a withdrawal of consent and a refusal to support an evil. But does it really matter whether you cut off the legs of someone’s chair in order to let them fall on their head, rather than simply hit them on the head directly? Of course, if someone else is using you as a chair, against your own will, then letting the other drop would be a necessary consequence of freeing yourself from the other’s abuse. This is what the title and book cover allude to: When the effort of Atlas to carry the world gets taken for granted and abused, why would Atlas keep caring about it? 

However, the heroes’ story in Atlas Shrugged goes much further than self-protection alone. Rather than a mere withdrawal of cooperation, the strike takes the form of an active attack on society in order to change it through force. For example, the pirate Ragnar Danneskjold actively raids ships carrying funds meant for economic relief because he finds it unfair to the group of industrialists that he sympathises with. Secondly, rather than respecting Dagny Taggart’s freedom of choice to keep supporting an arguably dysfunctional society, John Galt regards her as his enemy. Clearly, Galt’s goal is not simply for Atlas to Shrug and pursue his own happiness no matter what happens to others. It revolves around a deliberate plan to bring about society’s demise in order to replace its governing principles with those that John Galt’s cult regard more beneficial to the public good. 

These arguably heroic deeds make for a very exciting story. However, the strategies that the story presents to free the world from the destruction by socialism nevertheless look a lot more like intra-group collectivism than egoistic objectivism. If not self-contradictory, this at least  sends a very convoluted message to the reader. Whether the chosen strategy is right or wrong, the fact that the resolution sought within the story contradicts some of its own fundamental reasoning seems to demonstrate the conventional teaching-approach of “do as I say, don’t do as I do”.

It seems to me that the political agenda behind the story of Atlas Shrugged got in the way of conveying some of Ayn Rand’s most valuable philosophical ideas. The book does an admirable attempt to encourage people to be free from public opinion – independent from acceptance by others (whether from the general public or from any segregated group one associates with) – to direct our efforts towards pursuing our own constructive interests. However the story of Atlas Shrugged eventually becomes increasingly focused, instead, towards fighting those who seem to get in our way. It paints a black-and-white picture in which the motivations of anyone who argues for a socialistic idea is portrayed as being against personal freedom and envious of other people’s productivity.

Economic application of individualism

Ayn Rand’s ideas about selfishness might hold some deep truths about the individual, but they definitely break down as a guidance for strategies at any group level. The simple reason that selfishness might be much more beneficial at the individual level than a socialist might assume is that humans can take tremendous pleasure from helping others. Therefore, a truly selfish individual who reaches her or his full potential will very likely, if not inevitably, come to the realisation that (s)he loves taking care of others and seeing others thrive. This rational trust in the Human condition is something that I wholeheartedly share with Ayn Rand. 

However, an individual can meet those social needs within a limited group of people they associate with, while not necessarily caring about anyone else outside of the group. No individual has to rely on a whole country, let alone the whole world, to meet their social needs. Psychological research has indicated that the human capacity to know a community is limited to about 150 people. This means that Ayn Rand’s individualistic ideas on selfishness – although arguably being intrinsically beneficial to others – can easily break down in political matters that concern groups larger than 150 people. 

The logical error of Laissez-faire capitalism

A company is not a person. It doesn’t have an innate interest to consider its own well being over the next 50 years, and it doesn’t have an innate need or desire to bring joy to others. Contrary to Atlas Shrugged, most large companies aren’t run as sole proprietorships with a single founder being both the majority stakeholder and the CEO making all the strategic decisions. Larger companies often have multiple founders as well as external shareholders who are mostly interested in short- or mid-term gains, possibly at the expense of long-term improvement. Even the CEO is just a job position that someone can move in and out of, at any time. 

This means that Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness does not apply to large companies in the same way as it does to individuals. There is no intrinsic reason for a company to pursue its own life-time interest, let alone benefit society. Large companies don’t function as individuals, but as collectives consisting of multiple internal groups.


A group, or collective, is not a person either. While our personal well being depends heavily on the well being of those around us, a group’s well being depends much less on the well being of individuals outside of the group. Therefore, group-thinking is quite literally the biggest threat to Ayn Rand’s approach to letting people thrive in freedom. Ayn Rand had every reason to be afraid of collectivism, yet had very little to offer in terms of how to prevent or overcome it, other than trying to convince others of her own reasoning in a futile attempt to make the whole world one single like-minded group. Her philosophy lacks a basis for resolving the prevalent issue of group-thinking, in which the egoist approach – which can arguably benefit society when applied at an individual level – can quickly turn into something ugly and potentially dangerous. 

Constricted by rationality

The worst assumption you can make for open-mindedness beyond one’s own group of like-minded people is to hold the idea that you can judge whether someone else is rational and objective. It’s very tempting to think that someone else is irrational if they disagree with you. What better way to explain how someone else comes to very different conclusions from your own, than the idea that they must be irrational, if not stupid? While Ayn Rand was outspokenly against moral relativism, her utopian idea of objectivism is undoable in the real world, where we are all passionate about different aspects of reality.

Unfortunately, reasoning is much more subjective than we would like to believe. Science provides no basis for an objective morality. Ayn Rand’s idea that flawless reasoning can overcome moral relativism provides a false promise. Science greatly supports objective certainty about questions asked through rigorous and unbiased hypothesis-falsification attempts. However, science provides no objective method for determining what are important questions to focus on, nor how to value and prioritise the answers found.

Even in the utopian scenario where we are all perfectly rational and objective all the time, still, different interests lead to different selections of facts to consider, different valuations and thus different conclusions. Ayn Rand’s choice to make rationality a central and moral issue of her thesis unfortunately shifts the focus from making the most of your life to convincing others that your own rationality is better than someone else’s. No matter whether you’re right or wrong, trying to fight what you perceive as irrational is just an intellectual form of tilting at windmills. It inevitably becomes a futile distraction from pursuing your own constructive interests and realising your personal potential

Reason as the cure of irrationality

The apparent truism that people seem to find the easiest to accept about Rand’s ideas is actually something that I argue to be their most treacherous aspect: the thesis that objective reasoning is a solution to conflict and suffering. Not only is it impossible to objectively judge someone’s reasoning, but it is also impossible to choose clear-headedness by will alone.

To blame someone for being led by their emotions instead of choosing rationality is like blaming a sick person for choosing disease over health. The only way to materially contribute to someone’s return to health is by providing the conditions they need to recover.

Similarly, the only way to materially contribute to someone’s clear-headedness is by providing the conditions they need to understand how they feel and why. According to the famous American clinical psychologist Carl Rogers, the conditions required for this shift are empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.

Confronting someone with more facts, or your supposedly superior reasoning, is just not going to cut it.

Political contribution

Although Atlas Shrugged’s political story is partially at odds with Ayn Rand’s individualistic philosophical ideas, it doesn’t mean that Atlas Shrugged isn’t valuable at a political level too. The novel provides insight into a perspective not often the subject of romantic literature: the actual job of a CEO. From the perspective of an employee, a stakeholder or a politician, it’s easy to ignore the fact that CEOs are human too, complete with feelings, fears, challenges and a need for creativity.

It’s useful to consider the social and political climate that CEOs need to perform at their best. After all, whether we like it or not, a lot of lives are influenced by their performance. Just punishing someone for their perceived wrongdoings might not be sufficient to support a human to thrive. Not even if the human happens to be a CEO.

On the other hand,  as Atlas Shrugged also shows, protecting a business from its management’s incompetence is not helpful either. Falling is a necessary part of learning how to walk.

You and me alone

I have little interest in bashing nor defending Ayn Rand’s philosophies. I think there is a lot to learn from Atlas Shrugged on being honest towards ourselves about our genuine motivations. It provides important insights into how being scornful of selfishness can lead to self-deceit, incongruence and unnecessary suffering for not only ourselves but also those around us.

However, according to my reasoning, the extension of Ayn Rand’s philosophies beyond anything but introspection seems not only unrealistically utopian, but can be expected to cause small-scale collectivism of like-minded groups with little capacity to understand and respect anyone on the outside. In other words: just same-old, same-old. Nevertheless, you are free to judge my reasoning as objective or subjective, true or false, wrong or right, good or evil.