When I was a sophomore in college when Ann Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness hit the market. The title itself rocked most Christians who read it. It still does. I re-read the book three years ago and it still slaps most Christians in the face. Not because Ayn Rand was an atheist, but because labeling selfishness as good completely challenges most Christian’s worldview.
Virtue of Selfishness was one of the earliest books detailing the doctrine of “objectivism.” In this ethical system selflessness or altruism is bad or stupid and "rational selfishness” (or in its softer form, “enlightened self-interest”) is good and smart. It is a book on ethics, though Christian readers often reject Rand’s open and honest labeling of selfishness as good. This work, (along with The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) are often seen as the best effort to work out an ethical foundation for laissez-faire capitalism. The idea is simple: individuals should seek their own interest and when everybody does, everyone else is better off. In her own words, “Every human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others, and therefore, man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”
Why this book deserves discussion today is that Christians are right now trying to think through the relation of their Christian faith to economics. Many Christians have in the last several decades supported laissez-faire capitalism adopting some of Ayn Rand’s deregulation-laissez-faire approach to capitalism and life while rejecting her own logical extension to insisting that individual women also have the right to choose abortion. Her case for rejecting altruism and enshrining selfishness is so frank and honest that when Christians read her work they often say, “It makes sense economically, but I can’t bring myself to fully accept this way of thinking as a Christian. One of the things I admire about Rand is she is absolutely honest in her work…and in the title. She really does think selfishness is a virtue and (coerced) other-oriented altruism is a vice. She thinks individuals alone should decide what to do with their time, money, and their fetuses without regulation or interference from government. IN that sense she is the mother of libertarianism.
With our economic system crashing about us, this might be a good time to discuss Rand’s thinking, and her libertarian heirs. How far can a Christian follow Ayn Rand? How free should individuals be to decide for themselves and when is it right for “the people” to step in to regulate or outlaw things?
And, to flip the issue, how far can you take the libertarian approach to how we run the church—like the freedom of an individual member to vary from doctrine and lifestyle from centralized church government?
So what do you think?
Keith Drury October 28, 2008