Atlas hugged?

Andrew Sullivan, at his blog, has been collecting a series of posts called “growing up objectivist.” (Here’s one.) Generally speaking, it’s commentary from people who were influenced — positively or negatively — by the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. (It’s worth noting that a film adaptation of the first of three parts of her infamous novel “Atlas Shrugged” has just been released.)

Rand’s writing takes a lot of hits in these posts. I have somewhat conflicting feelings on the topic. I recall reading her short novel, “Anthem,” somewhere around the time of being a teenager and finding it to be a largely ignorable science-fiction dystopia novel. A couple years later I tried reading “The Fountainhead” and only made it a couple chapters in. But three or four years ago I took another stab at “The Fountainhead” and found it to be a quite enjoyable large-scale narrative with interesting character arcs and attention to detail that, while quite overwhelming, really made the story feel “real.”

But what also struck me about “The Fountainhead” was its delicious contrarianism. 98% of all fiction in almost any form of media is filled with standard messages of “sharing is good, we should look after each other, it’s only by standing together that we can achieve anything, blah blah…” “The Fountainhead” appeared deliberately oblivious to these sentiments and unapologetically presented Rand’s argument that selfishness is good.

I’ve never really bought Rand’s philosophy for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but I have always squirmed at the saccharine, lovey-dovey “let’s all love each other” dribble you find in most narratives. As such, reading “The Fountainhead” offers a wonderful catharsis. (I’ve never read “Atlas Shrugged” — probably considered Rand’s magnum opus — mainly because it’s another thousand plus page novel and I’m generally familiar with the crux of it. Maybe I’ll give the movie a try.)

But there’s something that’s always seemed askew about Rand’s vision. And I think it boils down to the fact that as humans, we take a certain pleasure in helping each other. Engaging in some kind of discipline in which we attempt to purge ourselves of sympathy and compassion just sounds like too much work. (Which makes one wonder: did Rand herself achieve this? She definitely has a personal reputation as a bit of a oddball; her family did undergo the trauma of collectivization in early 20th-century Russia — perhaps that burned out her emotional circuits.)

The discipline of evolutionary psychology argues human sympathy — what you might call altruism — is hardwired into the brain. Humans, evolving in small groups, had to have an unspoken insurance plan: “you look out for me, and I’ll do the same in return.” As such, looking out for the other guy is really looking out for our own interests, and as a result, genes that create bodies that reward altruistic behavior with pleasurable sensations thrive. (The classic “joy of giving.”) Of course, there’s an irony here: by this definition, our altruism is ultimately selfish.

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