Where Is John Galt?

I’ve been talking about morality for the last few posts and we closed last time with a brief look into Utilitarianism, which states that moral actions are actions that maximize utility (usually defined as happiness) for everyone. While the theory has its flaws when you try to work out specifics, I think it’s basic grounding is pretty solid.

Ayn Rand thought it was total bullshit. I quote:

“The greatest good for the greatest number” is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity.


This slogan has no concrete, specific meaning. There is no way to interpret it benevolently, but a great many ways in which it can be used to justify the most vicious actions.


What is the definition of “the good” in this slogan? None, except: whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? Why, the greatest number.


If you consider this moral, you would have to approve of the following examples, which are exact applications of this slogan in practice: fifty-one percent of humanity enslaving the other forty-nine; nine hungry cannibals eating the tenth one; a lynching mob murdering a man whom they consider dangerous to the community.

Heh. I don’t think Rand applies the Principle of Charity very well. Interestingly enough, Rand starts in a very similar place to Utilitarianism — an affirmation that Life and Consciousness are the fundamental starting points for any discussion of morality. The animal known as Man has in common with other animals the ultimate goal of survival but, unique to man, no instinct or automatic way to success. Our actions are marked by careful thought and deliberation; we have to rely on our reason, which is fallible. Rand argues that each individual alone is responsible for their own survival and the choice of what goals to pursue and values to hold on to is not subjective but an objective, metaphysical necessity due to the objective requirements of survival.

Rand is especially serious about responsibility. She is extremely disdainful of people who survive at the expense of others (either by imitation, moochers, or by violence, looters). The former are helpless and, eventually, doomed to be destroyed when they imitate the wrong person and the latter are pathetic creatures who can’t do anything for themselves and instead rely on others who actually are productive. Violence and oppression may work in the short term, but never in the long term. Want proof? Check out this image of night-lighting around Korea. The gulf between the two countries couldn’t be more obvious.

The best, most concise statement of Rand’s ethical philosophy, Objectivism (named after her belief that reality was completely objective and all this stuff was totally obvious if you just thought about it) comes from her character John Galt in Atlas Shrugged:

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

From this it’s probably clear why Rand finds Utilitarianism so offensive. You aren’t responsible for anyone else’s survival and, thus, you can’t be responsible for their happiness either. A moral system which places demands on the actions of others also lends itself to perverse incentives. A major point in Atlas Shrugged is that systems like “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” merely lead to minimizing your ability and maximizing your need. For utilitarianism, it would encourage making sure the needs of your happiness are more dire and important than anyone else’s.

Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, culminates in a complete endorsement of laissez-faire capitalism. No surprises there. Capitalism has a whole host of problems which I may get to later, but I think it’s enough to point out one really vicious problem that crops up all the time in game theory and has direct relavence to Rand’s promotion of self-interest as a universal good. You may have heard of it already; it’s called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (side note: if you already know what this is I encourage you to read this short article for an interesting take on it).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a situation where you have two players each with the choice to either cooperate with each other or defect. They are unaware of what the other is going to pick and, thanks to their recent reading of Atlas Shrugged, they are perfectly selfish (there are other assumptions we ought to make, but this is a good place to start). Here’s the payoff matrix in our fake “utils”:

Player B

Player A




A +1 / B +1

A -3 / B+5


A +5 / B -3

A +0 / B +0

Each prisoner separately chooses whether to cooperate or defect without knowledge of the other’s choices. Let’s say you’re Player A. Player B will either cooperate or defect. If he defects you can either cooperate (-3 utils) or you can defect (+0 utils). Defecting is your best option.

But if he cooperates…you can either cooperate (+1 util) or you can defect again (+5 utils). Defecting is still your best option. Both players have the same problem and, thus, each person pursuing their own self interest leads to an outcome (D,D) that is strictly worse than if they had both cooperated (C,C). Problems like this are actually pretty common in modern economics (they are known as Collective Action Problems) and it’s really unclear what an Objectivist is supposed to do about them.

For my own part, I think that a lot of Objectivism makes good intuitive sense but, like Utilitarianism, falls apart when you try to apply it in real life. It’s too easy for the pursuit of self-interest to fall into Relativism or Hedonism (both of which Ayn Rand was violently opposed to) and the demands she places on each individual seem to me to be too harsh. I can’t imagine how an Objectivist would deal with problems such as treatment of the mentally ill or infirm in a satisfactory way (though this may be due to a lack of imagination).

As a Catholic I also think Rand’s view of human nature is just wrong. Most of us get a lot of happiness and fulfillment out of helping others (something that Rand would see as downright evil) and I don’t think anyone has the sense that they’re the only important person in their own lives. Most human relationships, marriage especially, are built around shared help and mutual reliance.

The Objectivist notion of self-interest as the ultimate good and the “self-made man” being the ultimate goal also is sort of naive. A lot of study has gone into what it takes to be successful and success is always a product of factors beyond one’s own genius. The family you were born into, the society you grew up in, even the month on which you were born play into your success more than you might realize.

Rand’s “John Galt”, the completely competent self-made man, is a great example on paper and in a work of fiction, but I’ve never met any living person remotely like him and I don’t expect to. Humans just can’t live like that.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.


2 thoughts on “Where Is John Galt?

  1. A quick comment: My knowledge of Objectivism is a lot less than some other moral theories, but I find it interesting because it’s a really attractive philosophy (especially to young conservatives, a label to which I very tentatively agree to) that spectacularly fails in so many ways. I love what Rand has to say about economics and am appalled by her opinions on morality and that’s fascinating to me because of how closely related she thinks they are. It’s a puzzle I don’t feel like I’ve adequately thought through and that’s, perhaps, reflected in a weaker conclusion than in previous weeks.

    If any of you readers are Objectivists and feel I’ve misrepresented your views, don’t hesitate to correct me and explain where I went wrong.

  2. Most of us get a lot of happiness and fulfillment out of helping others (something that Rand would see as downright evil)…

    This is incorrect. What Rand considers evil is self-sacrifice, not helping others. These are not the same thing. If you help good people who reflect your own rational values, then this is not a self-sacrifice. (So long as the help is proportional to the impact that such people have or will have on your life.) If you help evil or immoral people, who work against your rational values, then doing so is a self-sacrifice. If you refuse to judge the good from the evil, the moral from the immoral, then that is a self-sacrifice–a sacrifice of your own mind.

    “The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.”

    –Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness

    …and I don’t think anyone has the sense that they’re the only important person in their own lives. Most human relationships, marriage especially, are built around shared help and mutual reliance.

    Rand did not think that oneself should be the only important person in one’s own life. Other people can be of tremendous value, both materially and spiritually (psychologically.)

    “Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.”

    –Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness

    See also: Ayn Rand on Christmas

    As far as Prisoner’s Dilemma goes, it is an artificial situation that ignores many of the circumstances and options present in a real-life free market. For example, government-enforceable contracts would exist in a free market, as would laws against fraud.

    It’s too easy for the pursuit of self-interest to fall into Relativism or Hedonism (both of which Ayn Rand was violently opposed to) and the demands she places on each individual seem to me to be too harsh.

    This is not a good argument. One could just as easily say, as an “argument” against pre-marital abstinence, that it is too easy to slip into fornication. (I’m not a proponent of pre-marital abstinence, but the above is not an argument against it.)

    The quotes were sourced from the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on Selfishness.

    You may also find these links helpful:
    The Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes
    Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism by Craig Biddle
    The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse
    On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same
    My discussion with Theresa Fross (At one point, the conversation continues at the top of the comments section.)

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