Where Ayn Rand went wrong

by Judahlevi

With the recent “Atlas Shrugged Part 2” movie out, and Paul Ryan mentioning that he has read and enjoys Ayn Rand’s books, it may be timely to discuss one of Ayn Rand’s weaknesses in her philosophy.  As an admirer of Ayn Rand and an individual who has read most all of her works, I agree with much that Ayn Rand has to offer with her unique philosophy of Objectivism. I particularly appreciate her thoughts on individualism, her ardent defense of capitalism, and her open challenge that altruism should be the supreme virtue for mankind (even though in reality it is not even practiced by its advocates). Where she went wrong with her philosophy of individualism, in my opinion, was her refusal to acknowledge that as individuals we have a spiritual dimension, and her insistence that religion cannot play any part of being a true individual.

To begin with, reason does not deny the existence of G-d or our own spirituality. Human beings have a spiritual nature which is difficult for anyone using reason to deny – and it is not based on lack of knowledge or understanding. It is not the “opium of the masses” as Karl Marx described it. It is a very tangible part of being a rational human being to question where we came from and our purpose in life. Reason alone cannot completely answer these questions for us. Ayn Rand believed that reason was the only source of understanding but denied it allowed for a spiritual dimension.

Ayn Rand was an atheist. She grew up in an atheistic society (the former Soviet Union), a secular household, and believed that religion was simply “mysticism.” If you could not see it, touch it, measure it, then it did not exist according to Rand. Objectivism, her philosophy, was based on what she perceived as reality and nothing else. The supernatural did not exist for Rand, only nature existed. Since G-d is a supernatural being, then G-d could not exist, and any allegiance or devotion to such a G-d was a denial of reality.

If my premise is correct that reason will demonstrate to almost anyone that human beings have a spiritual side, then Ayn Rand’s statements denying human spirituality as nonsense would be incorrect. It is also a denial of individualism. If individuals are free to pursue their own happiness, in whatever way they choose to find it, how can religion be “nonsense” if it truly fulfills an individual? How can Ayn Rand deny a path to happiness for everyone based on her concept of individualism which does not include religion? This appears to be a biased and artificial constraint that should not be part of an individualistic philosophy.

Rand justifies her constraint on individualism by saying that if you believe that G-d commands you to do certain things, you are not a true individual if you simply follow his commands. Religion also tends to elevate altruism as one of the highest ethical values, and Rand considers altruism to be an attempt to coerce individuals to make their own needs subservient to others. Between G-d’s commands and a philosophy of serving others, how does an individual reach their personal highest potential?

Religion and free will are not mutually exclusive. Man can strive to be the best architect or sculptor while at the same time believing in G-d. Capitalism may be laissez-faire being practiced by religious business owners. We can achieve our highest potential as human beings while still recognizing our creator. In fact, many of the greatest intellectual achievements by mankind have come from religious individuals. Are these original thinkers and doers not practicing true individualism?

True individualism and religion may be combined to create a happy life. Ayn Rand was wrong to exclude this possibility and was mistaken to exclude faith as a rational part of the human intellectual experience. I will always enjoy her writings and learn much from them, but her denial of faith is inconsistent with a true individualistic philosophy. We cannot put constraints on free will simply because we don’t share the belief of other individuals. You may be a complete individual while recognizing your dual obligations to society and to G-d.

[Editor’s note: it is a Jewish concept to use the word G-d to show respect]

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  • Well said. I admire Ayn Rand on the one hand and yet do not recommend her writings on the other, except to those already strong in their fraith. I know people who have lost their faith reading her books and then later found that the faith they had lost was so much a part of them, an indispensible part, that they struggled and eventually got it back after years of unhappiness.
    No one has ever accused me of being weak or needing a crutch, but the truth is, my faith is critical to my existence and I have no meaningful strenths without it. When Jesus said that apart from Him we can do nothing, he was stating a fact with eternal consequences attached.
    This will be heresy in some circles, but Ayn Rand was as foolish as she was brilliant. Her rejection of God was her greatest failing and diminished her efforts to fight the foolishness of collectivism and socialism. Judahlevi might not be willing to say it that strongly, but I have believed this for many decades now. But I will still watch the second segment of Atlas Shrugged. When she was right, she was very right.

    • Judahlevi

      Thanks, Bill. I think you can recommend Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and Fountainhead without worrying about someone’s faith. You are right that it was a mistake for Rand to exclude religion from her philosophy, but that was the environment she grew up in. She did not want to believe in anything supernatural, which is certainly her choice, but she also misses such a large part of life.

      As I mentioned, her attacks against collectivism and socialism are the best of her ideas. It would be interesting to see a movie of “Anthem” which is one of her earliest and shortest writings. Equality 7-2521 is such a great name for a lead character.

      • valley person

        Her attacks on collectivism and socialism were the height of her irrational thinking. No society on earth, dating from the dawn of humans, has ever existed that did not include a certain amount of collectivism and socialism. It is just as natural to human existence as is greed, which is the single aspect of human nature she celebrated.

        • Judahlevi

          Whenever someone comments that “greed” is all Ayn Rand “celebrated”, I know the individual has not truly read or studied her writings. But they say that ignorance is bliss.

          There is nothing “irrational” about criticizing collectivism or socialism. It is done by rational people all of the time. Calling something “irrational” is a feeble attempt to try to limit debate used frequently by liberals. Try again using the REAL definition of “irrational.”

          • valley person

            She wasn’t simply criticizing. She was equating any effort at all in the direction of socialism to be evil. That is irrational thinking.

          • Judahlevi

            Socialism is evil. History proves that. Since this is the truth, it cannot be “irrational.”

          • DavidAppell

            The ease with which you trumpet “truth” for your ideas and causes is exactly the same as those who thought the opposite. That’s been worrisome about your comments from the beginning.

          • finplanner

            Who is trumpeting truth?

            davidappell comment: “The bottom line is, there is not a single iota of evidence for any gods. Period.”

            Gee, that is keeping an open mind. LOL! What a hypocrite.

          • DavidAppell

            My mind is open, but not so much that my brain falls out.


          • DavidAppell

            Is the US’s socialist system for fire protection “evil?”
            For police protection?
            For military defense?
            For delivery of postal mail?
            For disposal of air pollution? Water pollution? Climate pollution?
            For legal enforcement and contract enforcement? For protection of private property?

            All of these rely on socialistic systems. Does that make them evil?

    • valley person

      “When Jesus said that apart from Him we can do nothing, he was stating a fact with eternal consequences attached.”

      With all due respect to Jesus, many people, Albert Eistein to name just one, have accomplished quite a lot in life without His guidance. And neither you nor anyone else KNOWS what the eternal consequences are. You may think you know. You may even have convinced yourself that you know. But you don’t.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    Ayn Rand is a case of a writer with a unique talent and history being taken to far by her readers and herself.

    Rand did some amazing things in her books. In Shrugged she manages to put basic economic theory into novel form. In Anthem she gives her outline of the basics of every totalitarian state. Her views are great such as they are but to expound on them as holistic life views is a mistake both Rand herself and her readers made.

    The most basic flaw is if you take Rands views as a total life philosophy it pretty much denies you children. Raising children involves altruism. You must sacrifice some of your life as the parent for another, the child.

    This is where Rands illustration of basic laissez faire capitalism – which also requires a lack of altruism – gets absurd when expounded as some sort of whole life philosophy as Rand did.

    It is one thing to say “I live my life for myself, the products of my efforts are for myself” when talking about economics, the state and laissez faire capitalism. That makes sense. I work to put food on the table. I do not work to provide jobs for others, my business was not started to “give back to the community”.

    It is quite another to extend that beyond economics and try and make a philosophy out of it, as Rand did. When I get home from my business in my laissez faire utopian world, my kids would starve if I continued the philosophy and told them “I don’t live for you, I live for myself, get your on Cap’n Crunch”.

    In short it Rands “Individualism” is taking a philosophical view of basic economic theory and trying to extend it to a whole life view. It’s a very stupid, but also very common human mistake. People have an absolute love of extending the philosophy of a particular thing or instance and extending it to the general, a whole world view. We have “The Tao of Pooh”, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Racing” and endless posters proclaiming “Everything I Need to Know in Life Can Be Found in Star Trek”. Rand was no different here.

    Rands atheism I take as simply a byproduct of her intellectualism in the time she lived. Lets face it, atheism was the rage among the intellectual set back then. Frankly I think its a boring topic as its inherently stupid. Most religions define God as the creator. Therefore there must be God because without one, it gets real hard to explain all this stuff around us.

    Rand wrote some great books. She is responsible for explaining basic economics to millions of people through Atlas Shrugged. She had an astounding life story. It should have been left at that rather than trying to turn her views into some sort of religion.

    • Judahlevi

      You made some good comments Rupert, but I disagree that Rand ever wanted her philosophy to be a “religion” nor do I think most Rand readers think of it that way either. It is a philosophy, a worldview from a certain perspective, but it was not even fully developed before Rand’s death. Anyone taking it for a religion or even a ‘cult’ have gone too far. As pointed out in this essay, Rand made mistakes with her philosophy as well as her personal life.

      Rand was not primarily a proponent of capitalism, but a fanatic believer in a kind of individualism which could only support a capitalistic economic system. This is not about being selfish or self-centered, it is about mankind worrying more about being the best they can be and less about altruism. For example, is it better for a heart surgeon to spend time worrying about others or spend the same time learning to become the best heart surgeon he or she can be?

      Her primary attacks are on collectivism which is the antithesis of her concept of individualism. Conservatives should find real value in her arguments against racism which clearly points out that you must be a collectivist to be a racist, and that most liberals (and others) believe in collectivism. This is a huge human relational distinction between conservatives and liberals.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        I wasn’t saying Rand wanted her philosophy to be a religion.

        What I was saying is Rand had some ideas for example that altruism was evil, and some modes of expression, for example Atlas Shrugged, basic economics in the form of a novel.

        Extending those ideas into a holistic philosophy was something of a mistake, and Rand clearly did that. She made numerous appearances, for example Phil Donahue, where it is quite clear Rand took her basic ideas and viewed them as a complete philosophy for life.

        • Judahlevi

          Rand believed in reason as the only lens to view the world, but she also defined “reason” with the constraint of only the natural world. You are right that she saw everything in life through this somewhat distorted lens, but as we have pointed out, she also made mistakes by doing so.

          No mortal can tackle the question of all human existence and get everything right. She had some unique and distinctive ideas (not just economics) which deserve to be read and widely discussed, but there is nothing supernatural about her.

      • ardbeg

        Her attacks on collectivism didn’t stop her from using medicare and SS as some of her more committed contemporaries did.

        • Judahlevi

          I mentioned a “human relational distinction”, not an economic one. Medicare and SS would not exist without a successful capitalist economy which could pay the taxes to fund these programs.

          • ardbeg

            And they would not exist without Altruism and Collectivism which she opposed yet hypocritically was willing to take. She was a writer of fiction and a playwright and to some a philosopher. Not sure the fascination the Right has with her. Looking at some of her old interviews I’d say crackpot and think Rupert hit the nail on the head.

          • Judahlevi

            Medicare and SS would exist without collectivism, but altruism works. Glad to see you doing a little research, but it takes much more than that to have an informed opinion. Using the word “crackpot” to describe her is intentionally ignorant. Do your research first. http://www.aynrand.org

          • ardbeg

            “Medicare and SS would exist without collectivism”??? What??? You keep using that word…….I’ve done all the research on Ryan, I mean Romney, I mean Paul, I mean Rand that I need to but thanks for the condescending suggestion. Your willingness to treat Rand as some sort of messiah is……well creepy. Of those mentioned I would vote for RP though. I might even consider Ryan but never while he is running with Romney. Good luck with your guy Romney if he wins. Remember, confidence in the economy will rise “just because he gets elected”.

          • valley person

            Not quite right Juda. Versions of Medicare and old age pensions were available in the Soviet states and east block. You don’t need a successful capitalist society to have bits of socialism.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          Yep, Rand was inconsistent here. So what? If you are looking for someone who is totally consistant in their behavior good luck. Show me a liberal and I will show you someone who takes advantage of every tax deduction just like the rest of us.

    • valley person

      “In Shrugged she manages to put basic economic theory into novel form”

      Basic economic theory? Whatever do you mean? She took one, very narrow aspect of 19th century economics, ignored all of its obvious flaws and failures, and elevated it to myth by creating heroic, wooden figures to speechify on her behalf.

      Anyone who accepts Rand as a viable economic theorist needs to read a bit more on the history of economics…and not just the theory but the experience.

      In short, her problem wasn’t extending her view of economics to all of life. Her problem was her view of economics, period.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        You are maintaining Adam Smith was a 19th century economist? Because that’s what Rands economic ideas were based upon. She is quite explicit on that in Shrugged.

        Can you explain what 19th century economist popped into your head when you made this assertion?

        • valley person

          Oh my. So you are arguing the 19th century was too advanced for her? I guess that blows my argument?

      • DavidAppell

        Rand was, of course, a political philosopher, not an economic theorist, and a poor one at that. As M Scott Peck pointed out in one of his books, the things you don’t see in any of Rand’s writings are any recognition of the disabled, the feeble, the weak or the ill. Such people don’t appear on her radar. How anyone could see an economic theory in that is beyond reasoning.

  • ardbeg

    “If my premise is correct” -Rand said there are no contradictions. If you are facing one, which it sounds as if you are, then one of your premises is wrong (according to Rand). More importantly-is it OC policy to regurgitate month old blogs that nobody read in the first place?

    • Rupert in Springfield

      >More importantly-is it OC policy to regurgitate month old blogs that nobody read in the first place?

      By virtue of posting this you have contradicted yourself and thus answered your own question.

      • ardbeg

        Actually no, while searching I found the author had posted this months ago.

        • Judahlevi

          Actually, yes, many people had read the original blog and, by posting a comment, you have proved that you read it as well. Rand is always worth discussing, and with Atlas Shrugged Part 2 out, even more so. If you want to “prove” it is not worth discussing, then I would recommend not posting here. Otherwise, you are “contradicting” yourself.

          • ardbeg

            You guys keeps using that word (contradicting), and I do not think it means what you think it means. I read your post today and came across your website today. So I read the OC post but not your blog (in a way I guess I did as all you did was copy from your blog). You used the exact same title so it wasn’t that hard to find. After finding your blog, looking through some of the other titles, there is nothing there that interested me enough to actually read one but I hope you like the free advertising. Maybe someone on OC (all dozen or so of us, no wait 13 now that Judah has recently joined) will now look up what you have written. My “nobody ever read” comment came from the fact there didn’t appear to be any comments to any of your posts. No comments usually means nobody is interested.
            So, sorry guys, my original question is still valid. Does OC accept months old blogs that no one really cared about when they were written? And looking the the titles of a couple of your others, I hope this is the last time you recycle any articles. Something more to the point of “What’s the fascination the far right has with Ayn Rand” might be a better topic anyways. Idolizing someone the way you do isn’t usually a healthy thing. You might want to see someone about that.

          • valley person


          • Judahlevi

            Right. Anything you say. I will be certain to ask you next time how many people have read any blog I may have written since you seem to know it all. I have access to the stats, but I am sure you know better. Other than bringing that attitude to the table, do you have anything else?

          • ardbeg

            No, think I covered about everything but thanks.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          Then once again you have contradicted yourself. If you saw the article and searched on it, then obviously you read it since it occurred to you to search on it.

          Look, if you actually have an intellectual point thats great. Where you guys on the left constantly fall down is when you have no intellectual point to make and are just blathering.

          Doesn’t make you look too smart in the end.

  • Tom

    You guys have too much time on your hands. In any case, there’s no objective evidence that God either exists or doesn’t exist so you might as well believe in him as not. Remember Pascal’s Razor.

    • Judahlevi

      Actually, it is Pascal’s “Wager”, not “Razor.” There is also Occam’s Razor but I think you meant the former rather than the latter. It fits better.

      • valley person

        Maybe Pascal wagered about Occam’s razor?

        The existence of the Old and New Testament God pretty much requires physical evidence, but there isn’t any. That suggests the statistical odds are way against.Not 50-50.

        Those who know this and choose to spend their likely one and only life spending 1 day a week in a church or temple built with their own tithings, following the rules someone else laid down, is probably making a significant error.

        • The problem with valley person’s claim that there is no physical evidence of the existence of the Old and New Testament God is that one can only make that claim by refusing to see the evidence that exists everywhere he looks, from the sun, moon, stars, and trees and animals to the face in the mirror. There is no other explanation for all of those things, yet people deny them because they don’t want to believe in God.
          I have personally seen body parts change in front of my eyes when people were prayed for – instantly and visible. I have a set of xrays of my daughter’s back and pelvis region that were in the doctor’s words, so rotated that there was nothing he could do. (The xrays were ugly.) She was prayed for and instantly felt everything shift inside her. “Daddy, it kind of hurt but I felt everything move inside me when I was prayed for, My back doesn’t hurt anymore,” she said when she called us from youth group on her cell phone. We got new xrays (two months after the first ones) and the doctor called me in and said, “Bill, you have to come and see these. You aren’t going to believe this. There is no medical explanation for this and I know of no medical procedure that could have done this.” Those are close to his exact words.
          There are tens of thousands of such examples. People can ignore them if they choose. But when they say there is no evidence of God, they ignore all that he has created, things they see every single day, and they ignore documented cases of divine intervention. That is their choice.

          • valley person

            I should expand my remarks. There is no evidence of god that holds up under scientific analysis. It may be our science isn’t well developed enough to detect a god. Science and scientific capability evolve, and maybe one day someone will learn to look in the right place with a better instrument and will see heaven. This is why I remain agnostic, not atheist, on the possibility of the existence of a supernatural entity. But my rational side says people long ago living in a harsh, unforgiving desert had to invent a god to explain their situation and create an eternal existence in order to get themselves through what would otherwise seem like a hopeless destination with oblivion.

            We agnostics don’t ignore the things we see every day Bill. We just accept a different explanation for those things and ourselves, including an embrace of the mystery and wonder of it all.

            If I’m wrong, I’ll find out eventually. If you are wrong, you probably won’t find out anything.

          • Valley Person, you make one valid point when you distinguish between atheism and your brand of agnosticism. Atheism is by definition a contradiction. A person who “knows” there is no God is in fact claiming to be God. To “know” there is no God, one must have been alive forever, lest he perchance missed some appearance or manifestation of God at some time in the past or that will occur in the future, and he must be omnipresent, lest perchance God appeared or manifested Himself somewhere where the atheist was not. While the God of the Bible does not excuse agnosticism, at least you are not calling yourself God, which all atheists are whether they will admit it.

          • 3H

            I think you’ve taken a leap of logic. To claim that something doesn’t exist, or hasn’t existed, because of a lack of evidence isn’t claiming to be God. I don’t believe in dragons. I don’t believe they exist now, and I don’t believe they ever have. That is not, in any way, saying I’m a god. By your logic, not believing in the existence of anything before you were born is tantamount to saying you are God.

            Now, if you want to say that being an atheist is as much an act of faith as being a believer, then I’m with you.

          • valley person

            Atheism, like faith, implies certainty about something no one can be certain of. But atheism, unlike faith, bases its conclusion in the lack of material evidence for the existence of “god,” as normally understood. Atheists would presumably change their conclusion if someone presented them with clear evidence of god. This is unlike many if not most believers, who refuse to consider the absence of god even given the absence of evidence. Instead, they manufacture or imagine evidence, as you yourself appear to have Bill.

            I’m agnostic primarily because I don’t conclude from the lack of evidence that there is no god. I entertain the possibility that we may be looking in the wrong places, may not have the right instruments yet, or may just not recognize what is in front of our eyes.

            I also totally get that for many people, contemplating life without some higher purpose and meaning would be unbearable ,so I don’t have the heart to go around trying to talk people out of their faith. If you believe in god, then that is fine with me. Just please don’t push civil laws on me based on a belief I don’t share.

          • DavidAppell

            No one believes in extraordinary things for which there is no evidence — not even Bill Sizemore.

            Does he believe in dragons? In thousand-footed purple elephants? Of course not. He only believes in “God” because he’s been taught to believe in “God” — and taught to believe in a particular form of “God.”

            Claiming that science just hasn’t yet gotten to the point of being able to detect “God” is very thin soup — science has detected a great many things, and has explained our world in far greater detail, and with enormously greater effect, than anything religion has ever done.

          • valley person

            We don’t disagree on the thinness of the soup. But, when it comes to a “god” of the universe, we just might not know what it is we are looking for. We could be the proverbial flea that thinks the dog is all there is.

            I do think we can forget about the Biblical God as what we might find, if we find anything. But I also don’t think believing in god, broadly defined, is akin to believing in dragons.

            Meanwhile I’m content with the mystery of it all.

          • DavidAppell

            Yes, perhaps “God” is so unwordly that we have no idea how to even approach the subject. (Of course, lots of people, mostly Republican’s, think they know “his” mind and all “his” thoughts.)

            Except that the very concept of a higher being immediately raises the question of where did *he* come from? So it’s really no answer at all.

          • ardbeg

            “It only stands to reason that where there’s
            sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where
            there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to
            you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be
            the master.”

  • chana cox

    The individualism vs. altruism distinction is indeed a misrepresentation. Both Locke and Madison would have said that an individual tries to advance their own values and thus interests — even in economics these are not in general reducible to economic considerations. Religious groups are certainly interest groups as are groups like environmentalists.

    Rand was a positivist and therefore religion for her was literally non-sense. This is something she shares with virtually all of the disciplines invented in the 19th century (including religious studies) and with most of the leftists who post on this blog.

    • Judahlevi

      Another interesting comment. Can you explain more fully why the individualism and altruism distinction does not work? Is altruism inextricably linked to an individual’s interests and therefore cannot be separated from them?

  • voterid

    Wouldn’t it be nice to actually read each comment made without turning the entire comment section into a political food fight?..each person has a different perspective so why is it necessary to yell louder, or comment nastier to have ones comments be heard louder than the last one? Debates and comments each have their place, but instead of trying to one up the other one, why not discuss things in a manner for which one who many not know much about Ayn Rand could actually learn something. Some of you people actually disgust me. Thanks Rupert in Springfield for taking the time to present your prospective in a informational manner.

  • nodnedlaw

    Since our religious being is at the very core of who we are, denying that G-d exists denies our existence as a person of integrity (wholeness). That undermines the foundation of all that follows in Ayn Rand’s writings.

    • Judahlevi

      That is an interesting thought and I can see how you get there. G-d gave us reason which may also be instructive from someone who does not believe. I don’t agree with her total philosophy, but that doesn’t mean there are not parts of it which may be instructive (and true).

  • DavidAppell

    The bottom line is, there is not a single iota of evidence for any gods. Period.

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