The Special Issue of Rand's Neglect of "Empathy."
As we saw earlier, the second segment of the Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged makes Rand's case for a
creeping morality of "guilt and death" in America that threatens to undermine
its free and prosperous capitalist society.
It can do so by destroying the will of its "producers" to continue to
develop new products of value that generate wealth, create new employment
opportunities, and enhance the society's quality of life.
In the Galt speech, Rand points to three elements of the
"guilt and death" phenomenon that account for its demoralizing impact. The first is the proclivity of the masses to
neglect their obligation to earn a
living by creating value in the world, in favor of extorting unearned support from the successful
"producers." The second element is the
intervention of the state in behalf of the undeserving masses, for the purpose
of making them dependent and gaining dominance over them. And the third is the religious emphasis on
the moral value of self-sacrifice, which reinforces the presumption of the
undeserving that the producers must support them with the rewards of their own
I've tried to show that Rand is mistaken in presuming the
reality of this syndrome, as it is certainly not in evidence in today's
American free-enterprise system. Yet, it
seems to me that her underlying belief in the moral corruption of millions of
ordinary people can only result from the absence in her own makeup of a
capacity for empathy, an instinct to
see things from "the other guy's" point of view that, at the personal level, at
least, motivates most people as strongly as their own self-interest.
An empathetic regard for people who are not "successful," in
Rand's material terms, must surely prompt the realization that most are not
thereby undeserving. They too are driven
by the instinct to fulfill their creative potential, and, as Americans, also by
strong cultural biases to individualism,
industry, and self-sufficiency.
Most people who fail to achieve economic independence have
been blocked by obstacles not of their making.
Undoubtedly, the largest of these in America at present is a lack of job
opportunities, caused by systemic problems in the economy over which the
individual has no control. Many
individuals, too, are simply victims of circumstances that have hindered or
even destroyed their personal initiative.
From the progressive point of view, it is precisely these realities that
validate a society that is based not only on the principle of economic freedom,
but also on the willingness of its citizens to help one another in the broader
context of "community." A good example
of such help is displayed by neighbors who work in building projects for Jimmy
Carter's Habitat for Humanity.
The disposition to "community," inspired by the instinct for
empathy, is an important human
trait. Yet, it is qualified by a
limitation that reflects one of Rand's own principles: Because the successful pursuit of one's
rational self-interest and happiness depends on total freedom from other
obligations, every individual has the moral right to refuse any call to meet
the needs of other people. For Rand,
this "right of refusal" is an absolute,
which few others will accept without caveat.
Yet, even progressives must recognize that one can hardly pursue a
successful career in the world, while also working in an effective way to
achieve meaningful social reforms.
It is precisely for this reason that support for "community"
must be met in large part by government.
Only government has the authority and wherewithal to plan and fund the
creation of needed social programs, or initiate public projects that will
generate jobs and improve the quality of civic life. Yet, it is important to remember that, while
government must play the active role in building community, it will do so, in a
democracy, only with the active support of ordinary people engaged primarily in
living their own lives. It is "we the
people" who must help create, and then motivate, progressive government at all
Ayn Rand's ideas do not particularly comport with democratic
activism, but we can be sure she would object strenuously to the "interference"
on business caused by the imposition of taxes to help pay for public
investments in "community." Her
concerns, however, are undoubtedly overblown.
They are once more theoretical, rather than real. Both the history and continuing reality of
American politics make it highly unlikely that any conceivable net taxation on
business -- especially on corporations -- will ever be so high as to actually
cripple individual initiative or business growth.
Rand is also wrong in her more abstract opposition to what
she calls "altruism" -- i.e. the
bestowal of any benefit, including support for government programs derived from
taxation, which has not been earned on the basis of a free exchange in trade. This misplaced aversion seems to spring in
part from the myopia of her "objectivist," or rigidly sense-based, perception
of reality. That way of seeing things
leads to a purely brain- or ego-centered conception of self-interest that shuts
out the body's own natural sense of connection, or -- again -- empathy, with other people. The result is an exaggerated fear for the
integrity of one's own individuality, which is perceived as constantly
threatened by the demands of other people.
There is a psychologically revealing parallel to this fear
among religious people who oppose gay marriage and believe that those who
support it are undermining both the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of
the American family. The right of such
people to uphold and pursue traditional heterosexual
marriage and the family life that derives from it remains, of course, entirely
open to them. Yet, their own belief system,
and the sense of self-identity connected with it, are apparently so fragile that
they insist that society as a whole
affirm their beliefs as an exclusive norm.
What this implies, for me, is a total absence of connection to others at
a deeper human level that can
override culturally-based differences in life-style.
Perhaps, in an analogous way, Rand's "producers" might
believe that the unsuccessful "non-producers" in society represent a challenge
to their own sense of earned privilege.
The "losers" create an uncomfortable sense of guilt in the "winners,"
who, in many cases, must suspect that their own success is both over-valued and
over-rewarded. Often, products and
services that have not been developed to meet real human needs (though John
Galt's "World Motor" apparently has) nevertheless achieve commercial success
through a venal appeal to vanity that has been thoroughly vetted by marketing
experts. In such cases, it would not be
surprising if the producers, aware that they have not earned their success by adding a new source of value in the world, should seek affirmation of their worth by
denigrating society's unsuccessful "others." This might well be the reason why
John Galt in his speech demonizes the non-producers as "parasites" who seek
unearned benefits through programs that are funded in part by taxes gleaned
from the bounty of the producers' own vision and labor.
As still another clue to Rand's lack of empathy, the Galt
speech suggests no disposition at all to factor into the success of society's
vaunted "producers" the necessary role played by ordinary workers in creating
the conditions that make building a business possible. This was of course a point made by no other
than President Obama in a campaign speech, which was subsequently skewered both
by the Republican presidential campaign and, at its nominating convention, by
the flaunting of the banner "We Built It."
Nevertheless, the truth of Obama's point is self-evident. You don't have to be a "progressive" to
recognize that, while businesses are formed and led by risk-taking
entrepreneurs, and are both necessary to society and deserving of reward, they
take root within a pre-existing infrastructure created by other people. To be successful, businesses also require a
workforce that, in spite of its departmentalized roles, aspires to more than a
personal paycheck and contributes creatively to the company's growth. No business can be successful without
employees that take pride in their work, are dedicated to making the best
product possible, and are themselves invested in their employer's
Among a spectrum of contrasting views, the "progressive"
perspective differs most fundamentally from that of Ayn Rand in the belief that
all human individuals are endowed from birth with an instinct to bring to
material fruition a unique set of talents and capacity for insight that are
often identified as "God-given potential."
In most cases, those who succeed in realizing this potential do not also
achieve stature or wealth -- which, in any case, are inconsequential compared
to the human fulfillment obtained. They
recognize in that fulfillment, however, that they have been driven by a power
that is instinctual within themselves, and so must also be present in
Because this creative power is divorced from the ego and
universal, it does not kindle a sense of "competition" with others, at least
none that is directed toward the harsh outcomes of winning and losing. Instead, it evokes an emotion opposite to
competitiveness. This is again empathy, the instinct already discussed
as the impulse to help meet the needs of other people. Here, that same impulse has the narrower
focus of helping others fulfill their own need to give meaningful expression to
their inborn creative potential. This
empathetic aspiration serves a purpose that is much broader than Ayn Rand's
concept of a "selfish" pursuit of material self-interest, based on the rational
judgments of the ego-based mind. It may
not yield the grand outcomes achieved by her calculating and driven
"producers." Yet, those who succeed, and
help others succeed, in applying their inborn talents to create new value in
the world are, regardless of the station or wealth they achieve, humanity's genuine
Of course, in this imperfect world, there will be many who pursue, but fail to reach, the goal of making their unique potential real in the world. Yet, like those whose talents have made a mark, they too are "winners" in a fundamental human sense: they have continued to follow the call of their creative gifts and to support the right of others to do the same. In any work or circumstance, such people are conditioned to maintain their self-respect, stay self-reliant, and resist conforming to the demands of others who would use them to meet selfish ends. Such individuals could never become the degraded "parasites" Rand depicts in her story of the collapse of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Those unfortunates are the manipulated victims of an elite few who, though capable of great technical and management skills, and the production of revolutionary new products, lack the capacity for empathy that can redeem the value of every human life.