Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

I recently watched Ayn Rand's film, The Fountainhead. Overall, the film was excellent. To get a view of Ms. Rand's philosophy, you can read Howard Roark's closing argument to the jury here.

I liked the film, but disliked Ms. Rand's character, Dominique Francon. Ms. Francon seems sexually and emotionally repressed, mostly because her existence seems geared towards achieving an absence of emotional attachment or passion. For example, she destroys a statute she enjoys, and she marries a man she does not love. Gary Cooper, on the other hand, does a fantastic job playing Rand's ideal man, Howard Roark. Part of this may be individualism's bias towards men. Men, more so than women, do well under an individualist philosophy. After all, most women, because of biology, have to think of children. Unsurprisingly, Rand never had children:

It was a responsibility that she was not interested in assuming. When she was writing Atlas [Shrugged], she would sometimes say that she was "with book." The only children she wanted were her books.

And therein we see the problem with too much individualism. Child-rearing is fundamentally a self-less act. It is true that many parents wish to live second lives through their children or have them for other selfish reasons, but at least for the first six years, there is a tremendous amount of sacrifice inherent in being a parent. Thus, when you factor child-bearing and child-rearing, Rand's philosophy doesn't translate well to a growing population or to one where mothers are given additional support.

Yet, it is true that most inventions and advancements have come from a few people. Without Galileo, Marie Curie, Einstein, and other famous scientists, it is unclear how advanced humankind would be at this point. Due to its rigor, science--like writing and other productive enterprises--requires a level of introversion that overwhelms a desire subjugate one's selfish enterprise to others' desires. We can look to the term, "mad scientist," to understand that scientists are generally misunderstood, because most people prefer to spend time with people, not abstract concepts. Indeed, almost every film about scientists depicts them as crazy or eccentric. So Ayn's basic point is true--scientists need to shut out the world and be intellectually independent to achieve results. Societies that protect the scientist and/or the independent intellectual's work create better opportunities for overall advancement (for example, attitudes towards stem cell research may be used as a test study of a society's willingness to allow scientific progress). It is unclear, however, whether selfishness and intellectual independence and progress are necessarily intertwined.

Regardless of the answer to whether selfishness is the sine qua non of progress, there is a balance that must be achieved, and Rand does not seem to know how to achieve it. In fact, there is no greater argument against pure individualism than Dominique Francon, who is made up to look like Rand herself in the film. To see Francon's internal writhing on her own forced island, torn between complete independence and submission to her desires, is to understand that Rand's philosophy is a recipe for unhappiness.

It is possible to have a society that protects mothers, that views child-rearing and child-bearing as honorable acts, and one that also respects the intellectual solitude/selfishness of the scientist or entrepreneur. It is also possible to argue that altruism has an important place in society and is not superfluous. Intelligent libertarians, for example, do not argue that no laws are necessary to protect selfish or independent behavior--just that the least number of laws necessary to achieve stability is desirable. In other words, society needs to establish a balance between selfishness and societal obligation by the least coercive mechanisms possible.

Rand's philosophy of pure selfishness doesn't do much for balancing generally desirable traits, such as altruism, with other desirable goals, such as freedom. As a result, Rand makes it difficult for reasonable people to support her absolutist views.

No comments: