Ayn Rand vs. the Catholic Bishops

Ayn Rand

The novelist and social philosopher Ayn Rand is once again in the news with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops citing her in their criticism of the Paul Ryan budget plan, which slashes social services to the needy while reducing taxes on the wealthy. As the bishops’ letter notes, “[Y]our budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”

I wrote a year ago about Paul’s celebration of Ayn Rand. He regularly hands out copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staffers and has said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”

So what is Paul saying now? “I reject [Rand’s] philosophy . . . It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.”

The good news here is that Ryan suddenly feels a need to distance himself from Rand. The depressing news is that he appears to have adopted Mitt Romney’s cynical habit of baldly issuing denials that can easily be proved false. (But hey, it worked for Mitt.) Not to mention the fact that Ryan’s budget plan does seem to have been inspired by Rand, with its warnings that America’s social safety net has become a hammock.

In my earlier post I said I didn’t like to write about Rand because I don’t think her novels are any good. But I do think they have the ability to rewire the minds of certain readers. Blogger John Rogers of Kung Fu Monkey has one of the wittier things to say on this score:

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.

Nor is it only 14-year-olds who are affected. Literary ethicist Wayne Booth, polling readers on books that have impacted them (in both good and bad ways) was told by one,

Reading Ayn Rand’s works when I was working in my first job led me, I’m sorry to say, to cancel all of my gifts to philanthropies—I bought a convenient version of her ‘me-philosophy’ hook, line and sinker.

Ari Kohen has a good article (tip to Andrew Sullivan) which looks first at Rand’s appeal when he read her at 16, then at his qualms even then, and finally at the very problematic nature of novels that indoctrinate rather than explore. Keep his comments in mind whenever you see someone who, gripped with holy fire, is singing the praise of venture capitalists while, in the same breath, beating up on anyone who needs support:

But with Atlas, I was really troubled by all the talk about looters, moochers, and parasites (used to describe anyone who supports taxation or governmental involvement in business). This language allows Rand to effectively dehumanize vast swathes of humanity, which goes along with her argument that rational self-interest rejects sacrificing for others. I think this is a mistake for a great many reasons, but this shouldn’t really surprise anyone who reads this blog. I’m pretty clearly committed to the idea that sacrifice on behalf of others is morally heroic rather than some sort of slavishness.

This is just fine in a novel, incidentally, as novels challenge our thinking about things and serve to introduce us to all sorts of characters with whom we might identify or push back against. But Rand understood her novels to set the table for her Objectivist philosophy and, as a result, she intended for people who read her books to live their lives like Roark and Galt, and thus to think of other people as parasites and to reject the idea that a political community binds people together in some morally meaningful way.

Kohen goes on to distinguish between the two kinds of knowledge that philosophy and literature represent:

[N]ovels present their commentary and their conclusions without argument. Philosophy, conversely, is built on argument rather than simple assertion. Whether or not you ultimately agree with them, philosophers from Plato to Rawls make arguments in order to sway the way a reader thinks. Novelists, on the other hand, craft characters and situations that are intended to play on readers’ emotions. My problem with Rand is that she attempts to shape the way that people think about and interact with the world around them — to do political philosophy — without actually making any arguments for what are, ultimately, policy preferences with serious personal and societal consequences.

Of course, good literature also has its own form of deep knowing and is just as rigorous, in its way, as philosophy. A good novel is as true to the emotions as good philosophy is to rational argumentation. Rand’s novels, by contrast, cater to self-indulgent vanity, inviting us to imagine ourselves as Nietzschean supermen who are better than everyone else.

It’s okay, I suppose, for adolescents to try out her ideas. Congressmen, on the other hand, need to grow up.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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