Attempting to See the Other Side: My review of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness

Every New Years I attempt to try something out of my comfort level, to expand on my own level of consciousness, to heighten my senses, and to discern on what hopefully will improve my own quality of life. Trying foods I never liked in order to improve my palate has been surprisingly easier as I get older; myself 10 years ago would’ve fell to the floor in complete shock if he heard my present self admitting to liking olives. It’s just something that, over the years, I’ve felt proud of, and I can say that it has done some good in opening my eyes to new things. I feel it’s more productive than vapid promises of working out more, for which I do every year, and fail to follow through.

This year undoubtedly has brought me out of my comfort levels of being more outspoken on my personal beliefs, and has decisively motivated me to start becoming more vocal on my political decorum. This national upsurge of political division, which has precipitated into complete antipodean standstills, has created this perception to not only compel people to take a stance on specific issues vehemently, but deny to any sense of empathy for the other side. Coming from literature, where empathy begets understanding of nature, trying to understand the other side’s point of view has been completely eroded from the narrative landscape. Liberals interview each other on how naive conservatives are, and vice versa. I have my own beliefs on many of the subjects brought to the national fold, however I am not going to focus on those beliefs in this review. Rather, I wanted to read something to create a sense of empathy for the other side — to, in a sense, self-righteously attain the attributes driving the side I disagree with.

In years past, the Right has graciously admitted that the writings of Ayn Rand actuate the philosophy of modern conservatism, heralded by their leader Paul Ryan. He has quoted her on many occasions; most liberals call this churlish cynicism, which cauterizes Ryan and conveys an even further disdain for the left. I wanted to understand why he feels so strongly about this writer, I knew very little about her, and yet I have claimed to go against her widely known Social Objectivism. So I decided to pick up The Virtue of Selfishness to see what Paul Ryan is talking about. There wasn’t anyway I was going to plow through The Fountainhead, and I vaguely remember Atlas Shrugged on Netflix. It’s a tiny book, and it’s an easy beginning to a vastly criticized philosophy.

The first 20 pages set up a philosophy easy to comprehend, all compartmentalized concepts that overlap to create consciousness. That even though there inhabits a complex nature within man’s existence, that “Life” and “Value” are interchangeable. She also stacks “Life” with consciousness, that it is the culmination of percepts, and that man needs reason to process this consciousness in order to survive. Ok, I can dig this. “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard that which is proper to man- in order to achieve maintain, fulfill, and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life,” she states. Finding purpose in life, and having value in one’s own existence, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Then it starts to get weird. She states:

The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is and end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of the welfare of others — and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.

So basically, Hell is not only other people, but a barrier that gets in the way of one’s own goals. This makes sense, not that I agree with it one bit, but it makes sense why the Right thinks the way that they do. They don’t see poverty as circumstantial, but irrational. Poor people are merely choosing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of being poor (whether it be not wanting to work, or depending on God to guide them in the right direction,) while destroying their own consciousness in the process, and because they do this, they “depend on those stronger” to survive this world. So, in turn, the “rational” people must avoid these misguided “fools” in order to achieve “happiness.” This, I feel, this is where the national distortion commences.

She continues in the book in identifying morals as disparate with those that destroy themselves with weakness. Pride is even considered a virtue for Social Objectivists, so for them to even process that being poor isn’t a choice, there’s nowhere to even start with the discussion of empathy. “A rational man sees his interests in terms of a lifetime, and sets his goals accordingly.” She even tries to backpedal throughout the remainder of the book, saying those that don’t understand the “context” of the argument will, in fact, contribute to their own demise.

I could go on with her fascinating, albeit convoluted precepts about how to live one’s life fully, and to empathize with this book’s ideas, I can understand that we want to live life to the fullest, and we shouldn’t let ne’er do wells bring us down. But one thing that is unflinching in my belief is the power of community. I am no better than the person next to me, and I fully want to contribute to help my fellow man’s quality of life within my own levels of capacity. That is why I chose to teach high school, and that is why I now work for a company that helps other people (AAA, or “Triple A.) Sure I want to reach my goals, but not at the community’s expense. That is where I draw the line. I’m glad that I read this book, not because it helped me understand where others are coming from, but it delineates on what I truly believe, and now can explain more clearly. Thank you, Ayn Rand, for helping me achieve my goals.

The John Galt of America — Paul Ryan