October 1, 2018, marked five years since I was imprisoned. My physical surroundings today are ironically similar to what they were after my arrest back in 2013. I’m in the SHU again (Special Housing Unit, aka “the hole”). It means permanent lockdown, separated from the general prison population, in a small cell.
By Kaihua Zhou | United States
Ayn Rand, the founder of Objectivism, extolled the virtues of the free market and individual liberty. Conservatives such as Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz are on record as admirers of her literature. To liberals, Rand personifies their anxieties: unbridled selfishness oppressing the weak. In reality, Rand’s vision, while extraordinary in its scope, possesses its limitations. Perhaps the greatest limitation is its conception of faith and love.
In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, Rand posits the following:
I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality which has so far been believed impossible. Namely, a morality not based on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason…
I’m challenging the moral code of altruism. The precept that man’s moral duty is to live for others. That man must sacrifice himself to others.
Such sentiments fell dramatically outside mainstream thought in 1959, and they remain so today. It is for this precise cause that Rand remains so controversial.
Rand’s view has a degree of merit. If taken to an extreme, selflessness can father oppression. One need only recall their terrors of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia to see the consequences of collectivism. When states determine that their citizens live only for the sake of advancing their cause, tragedies occur.
However, Rand’s counter-proposal can lead to its own pitfalls. To quote again from the 1959 interview,
You don’t love everybody indiscriminately. You love only those who deserve it.
Instead of altruism, Objectivists hold that one must love conditionally. This begs the question: who deserves love? Does a captured enemy combatant “deserve” it? Do individuals struggling with substance abuse “deserve” love? What about unrepentant criminals? Within society, there is a spectrum of moral qualities. Consequently, individuals vary in their ability to contribute to society. It is fair to say not all are equally worthy of love, but even so, all possess human dignity and are entitled to certain liberties. With that dignity comes moral obligation, and a degree of unconditional love. Such is the faith-based morality that Rand deplores.
In a strictly Judeo-Christian context, the Holy Bible records multiple examples of this. In both the Old and New Testaments, moral failures are repeatedly condemned. David referred to Goliath as an “uncircumcised Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:26) and Christ had no qualms challenging the corrupt, referring to Harold as a “fox” ( Luke 13:32). These are powerful examples of recognizing evil. Even so, the testaments also proclaim imago dei, an equality among God’s children. Thus, they all deserve a degree of love. Malachi 2:10 states that ” Have we not all one father? have not one God created us?”. Similarly, Christ commanded his disciples to forgive their trespassers and to love one another ( Matthew 6:14-15, John 15:19). Thus a faith-based morality can recognize faults in character, while maintaining that there are universal moral obligations.
To be absolutely clear, this is not equivalent to blind naiveté. A prosecutor, for example, can recognize the villainy of a crime lord, while respecting a defendant’s rights. Nor does the idea require collectivism. Citizens can fulfill their moral duty without being forced by the state to do so. Rand was right to praise the freedoms of individuals. Where she erred was failing to see the subtleties of love and faith.