Atlas Shrugged: Intrinsic v extrinsic

I am not convinced of the absolutism of Rand, but there’s one element of critiques of her that I think is missing the point. Here’s a typical summation of Objectivism:

It’s an extremely alluring premise- live up to your full potential, care only about yourself, succeed, work hard, don’t let anyone take what’s rightfully yours

Of the accuracy of these statements, I say: Yes, no, yes, yes, and yes. Rand’s Objectivism is highly and undeniably self-centered. However, the notion that Rand teaches that you should only care about yourself is, in my mind, patently false.

Hank and Dagny, for instance, love each other deeply. In a platonic way, Hank and Francisco also love each other. When Francisco learns that Hank has ordered doomed d’Aconia copper, he is in genuine turmoil, torn between doing what is right and not hurting a friend. Ragnar is saving up gold for the sole purpose of returning it to the people he feels it rightfully belongs to (such as Hank, who doesn’t even want it), something that someone who only cared for himself would not do. John is patiently waiting for Hank and Dagny to join the others in Midas’s hermitage, because he wants them to be as happy as he and the others are… again, not an emotion that someone who only cared for himself would have. All of Rand’s protagonists show love, intimacy, and caring for at least some of the other protagonists.

This is an apparent contradiction with the view that people should not live for the sake of others, if it’s interpreted to mean that we ought not to care about others. To cite Rand’s own repeated mantra: If there appears to be a contradiction, check your premises.

The crucial detail here is: They’re caring because they want to, not because there’s some social requirement for them to do so. If Owen Kellogg were to announce that he doesn’t really care if Dagny Taggert ever sees the light or not, that, theoretically, would be accepted by the others. Nobody can be forced to do anything for anyone they don’t want to support.

In other words, in Rand’s world, the ideal of doing things for others is always intrinsically motivated, never extrinsically motivated. People ought to care about other people to the extent that they want to, not because they’re told to or feel obliged to.

That’s how I read it.

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