It’s become popular in conservative circles to cite Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as a proper response to the current Obama unpleasantness. For those of you unfamiliar with this seminal novel, it’s the story of what happens when all the productive people of the world stop working. (It’s actually far goofier than that. The productive people all leave and live on an island run by a magic engine that’s pretty much cold fusion without all the scientific muss.) I’m passingly familiar with the works of Ayn Rand, having read The Fountainhead back in college of my own free will and choice. I tried to read Atlas Shrugged three or four years ago, and I slogged about halfway through before skimming the rest. Believe me, it doesn’t take long to get her point.
And her point, near as I can tell, is simply this: achievement is its own reward, and it should be celebrated, not punished.
That’s a point I heartily agree with, and she makes an airtight case on that score. But that’s not her only point. Just as militantly, she argues that there is no God, and that a human being’s intrinsic value can be measured solely by what they produce.
That’s where it all falls apart for me.
Despite her belligerent godlessness, Rand is often seen as a philosophical hero among the conservative movement. What’s ironic is that she’s not very far off from the views of Peter Singer, an atheistic left-wing “ethicist” who sees man as little more than a precocious mammal, and that it is no more immoral to kill a human being who is inconvenient to himself or others than it is to put down a horse with a broken leg.
“Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,” Singer has opined on more than one occasion. “Very often it is not wrong at all.”
Rand never openly addresses this kind of depravity in her books, which are relentlessly didactic and maddeningly devoid of even a whiff of humor. But what would happen if The Fountainhead’s Howard Rourke were hit in the head by a steel beam at a construction site, leaving him severely disabled? He would no longer be the brilliant architect who produces masterworks – he’d produce nothing and be a burden on those around him. A horse with a broken leg? An architect with a broken head? It make no difference. Put him down.
Or what about when he gets old and feeble? Put him out to pasture? Starve him to death? Throw him out in the snow? The possibilities are endless – and endlessly monstrous.
My point, to counter both Rand and Singer, is that it is impossible to morally defend a human life’s inherent value without a belief in God.
To illustrate, I bring in another philosopher, one perhaps not as credentialed as Singer or Rand, but one who provides the proper perspective. I quote talk show host Dennis Prager from page 77 of his book Think a Second Time:
It was mealtime on a flight somewhere over the United States: I noticed that both the middle-aged woman next to me and I had ordered special meals. I had a kosher meal, she a vegetarian one.
“Are you a vegetarian?” I asked the woman.
“Yes,” she responded.
“Because we have no right to kill animals. After all, who are we to claim that we are no valuable than animals?”
I vividly recall my thoughts. When she said that we have no right to kill animals, I felt a certain sympathy for her and her position. After all, I thought, her I am eating a kosher meal, and I have always understood kashrut to be Judaism’s compromise with vegetarianism.
But when she delivered the second part of her explanation, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In fact, I was so certain that she was engaging in hyperbole that I said, “I certainly understand your opposition to killing animals, but you can’t really mean what you said about people not being more valuable than animals. After all, if an animal and a person were both drowning, which would you save first?”
I was sure I had posed a rhetorical question. So, when I received no response from the woman, I asked her if she had heard me. “Yes,” she responded, “I’m thinking.”
Prager poses a form of this question to high school students all across the country: “If your dog and a person you didn’t know were drowning, which would you first try to save?” He maintains that over the course of 15 years, no more than a third of the students ever voted to first save the person.
Prager sums up the problem thusly:
With the breakdown of religion, the belief that human beings are created in the image of God is no longer taught. From where, then, does the belief in human sanctity derive? What nonreligious reason could be offered for regarding people as more valuable than animals?
So that’s why I get nervous when Rand becomes a hero of conservatives. I admire her commitment to capitalism, but without God, she’s little more than Peter Singer in drag.