Asimov on Entropy

Isaac Asimov’s science book View From A Height dedicates an entire chapter to explain concept of entropy. Assuming you have a decent background in the physical sciences, it does an excellent job, even better, I daresay, than my thermodynamics professor managed. So far the whole book has been a worthwhile read, but that essay in particular may be instructive to those interested in the topic.

Asimov concludes the chapter by presenting a very appealing hypothesis:

[E]ven if the universe were finite, and even if it were to reach “heat-death,” would that really be the end?

Once we have shuffled the deck of cards into complete randomness, there will come an inevitable time, if we wait long enough, when continued shuffling will restore at least a partial order.

Well, waiting “long enough” is no problem in a universe at heat-death, since time long longer exists there. We can therefore be certain that after a timeless interval, the purely random motion of the particles and the purely random flow of energy in a universe at maximum entropy might, here and there, now and then, result in a partial restoration of order.

It is tempting to wonder if our present universe, large as it is and complex though it seems, might not be merely the result of a very slight random increase in order over a very small portion of an unbelievably colossal universe which is virtually entirely in heat-death.

Perhaps we are merely sliding down a gentle ripple that has been set up, accidentally and very temporarily, in a quiet pond, and it is only the limitation of our own infinitesimal range of viewpoint in space and time that makes it seem to ourselves that we are hurtling down a cosmic waterfall of increasing entropy, a waterfall of colossal size and duration.

This is an intriguing idea. It suggests an alternative possibility for the fate of the cosmos than “eternal coldness”. Presuming that black holes don’t end up consuming all the matter in the universe, and proton decay turns out to not occur, then it might be possible to square a sort of steady-state theory with the existence of entropy.

Entropy isn’t merely disorder—though disorder is certainly a part of it. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy does not spontaneously flow from cold areas to hot areas. Only by applying work can we force the flow in the opposite direction. Work, however, can only be extracted from the flow of energy from a hot reservoir to a cold one. Thermal efficiency is based on the temperature difference between the two reservoirs:

\eta_{th} = \frac{T_H - T_C}{T_H}

Where \eta_{th} is the thermal efficiency, and T_H and T_C are the temperature of the hotter and cooler reservoirs, respectively. As an example, if a warm reservoir is at 500 K and a cooler reservoir is at a mere 350 K, then the maximum thermal efficiency of a work-extracting cycle between these two reservoirs is 30%. (But don’t take my numbers for granted. Check it yourself!)

Note that the absolute quantity of energy in either reservoir is irrelevant. We are only concerned with their relative values. Work cannot be extracted by placing two equally hot reservoirs in contact, even if both are at 10,000 °C.

It is, of course, theoretically possible that random motion of individual particles might provide a very small about of usable work. However, this is exceedingly unlikely. Asimov gives an extreme example: could water in a pot freeze while the fire beneath grows hotter? Theoretically, yes. The laws of statistical thermodynamics do not forbid it. But even if the entire universe were filled with such pots, and we waited for eons and eons, we would not realistically expect to see a single pot significantly cool, let alone freeze.

As time goes on, we will approach universal thermal equilibrium. Extracting useful work, of any form, will become impossible. Work is energy, and life depends on a continuous source of energy, so all forms of life will perish.

This, naturally, can be a bit frightening to think about, especially if you are very young when you learn about it, as I was. A cosmological expiration date seemed like a very serious problem, because it meant that all of our efforts would necessarily be in vain. If the universe ends end regardless, social morality seems farcical. Rank hedonism looked like the only alternative, so my early attempts to reject

Objectivism helped me out of that trap, though its presumption of an inexhaustible universe remains problematic. But that doesn’t matter if morality is not social but personal, and the purpose of existence is Apollonian joy rather than a greater obligation.

Still, the possibility that the universe, even after heat death, can randomly reorganize will offer hope to the last mind that joy won’t go out of existence forever. A silent eternity would pass, and then…something. A universe appears again from darkness.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

I’m tempted by this hypothesis not merely because it offers hope for the universe, but also because it helps get around one of the frequently-asked unanswered questions about the Big Bang: what happened beforehand?

So far, we don’t know. Did time even exist before the Big Bang? Did conservation of mass-energy already apply? I haven’t studied the astrophysics to pretend to answer such questions.

Random reordering gets around this issue. The universe we know is a ripple is the wider open of equilibrium particles. Entropy is maximized. Everything is in the lowest possible energy state. By chance, some of this matter happened to organize itself. Net entropy will now continue to increase, so I think this is allowed.

Since the time for a “dead” universe to randomly form an orderly patch of significant size must be incredible, it would be no surprise if the photonic evidence of previous ordered periods had been entirely absorbed or diffused. Photons, being massless, don’t decay, but in such a long period would no doubt either be absorbed by the near-equilibrium particles. The remainder would be spread out over such a large area that the number of photons are simply swamped by more recent light. No instruments could possibly detect them.

But just because a hypothesis would be personally comforting does not forgive a lack of evidence. We should seek contradicting evidence for all hypotheses, regardless of our feelings toward them. Falsification is how science works.

Does random reordering fit the evidence we’ve already gathered about the early universe?

I’m little more than a layman, but generally speaking, the answer is: not really.

We have a pretty good picture of everything that happened more than a second after the Big Bang, and for a good while before that. A lot is based on astronomical data, such as the cosmic background data gathered by COBE, WMAP, and Planck. The remainder comes from particle accelerator experiments, from which physicists can build up models that extrapolate back even further.

The current theories don’t look very much like the result of randomly reshuffling baryons or leptons. It looks like a lot matter being created ex nihilo, with somehow antimatter being in the slight minority. Possibly a reshuffling at a much lower scale occurred, well after proton decay and whatnot evaporate the particles we’ve come to expect—I have an idea about how that might work, but I won’t burden you with more unwarranted speculation.

More study is clearly needed: better space telescopes and more powerful particle accelerators to give us data, faster supercomputers to process it, maybe some mathematical breakthroughs. It will probably take awhile to get a better estimate on the odds, but until then, I would put a low prior on the likelihood that our universe is a temporary reprieve from heat-death.

wmap-2012-results

Full-sky image of the cosmic microwave background, gathered over nine years by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

Source: NASA/WMAP Science Team

However, there is a bigger philosophical question here: a reorganization hypothesis does not explain the origin of the universe, it just moves the cosmological problem up a step. Our universe being a mere ripple on a larger heat-dead ocean doesn’t tell us where that ocean came from. Did that universe have a Big Bang? Is it cyclical? Is it Steady-State? We still have to answer the same questions, and now we have less data!

(Of course, if it does turn out to be true, then we’ll just have to make do with less data. But that’s a methodological question.)

Trying to explain why there is something at all isn’t necessarily a hard question, but to explain why existence started to exist 13.8 billion years ago is a bit trickier. At this point, perhaps the simulation hypothesis is a decent pseudo-explanation. You can’t make very many predictions with it, so I wouldn’t call it a real explanation. That said, it does manage to constrain our anticipation to some degree. And there is some evidence for it.

Whatever reality is, we’ve still got at least some distance further to walk on the path to Truth. It’s tempting to take a short-cut through speculation and a priori arguments, but those are distractions. If we want to be sure, we have to do things right. Proposing hypotheses is part of that process—but so is rejecting them. As tempting as random reorganization is, I’d be happy to reject it with a little counterevidence.

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The Debt I’ll Always Owe

September 2 is a recurring date in Atlas Shrugged. The novel opens on that day, and significant scenes occur on it during the following years. To my knowledge, it carries no particular meaning outside the plot, but it has become an occasion for fans of the book to celebrate their love for it. It seems only fitting that I tell my own story about it today.

I first read Rand’s novel in high school. I was fifteen, trying to figure out the world, and had no idea what I was getting into. Heck, I though Atlas Shrugged was a book about conservatism, of all things!

But I had a record of finishing the books I took to summer camp well before the week was over, so I took the doorstop with me. That was a smart choice; it came home with me unfinished. That same summer my Dad and I went to Florida Sea Base, and Atlas Shrugged came along. It came back, and I was still not done. My memory here isn’t perfect, but it took almost the entire summer to complete.

I spent a good deal of the next few months rereading various parts, though I didn’t commit to reading it again, cover to cover, until last summer. I didn’t agree with everything in it then, and still don’t now. (I got very close at some points in the years between.) But I was reveling in new-found knowledge and meta-knowledge.

Prior to Atlas Shrugged, I couldn’t express how incoherent the surrounding zeitgeist was. Blatant contradiction was everywhere, but no one seemed to see or care about it. (Bringing this problem to the attention of adults went badly, or worse.) The only philosophy presented to me back then was either post-modernist claptrap in the same vein, or religious meanderings I wasn’t ready to reject.

Retrospectively, expecting the schools to provide me with an intellectual education at that young age was hyper-optimistic. School’s aren’t focused on outliers like me. They’re trying to keep a thousand hormone-ridden adolescents with underdeveloped brains, shoved into far too small a space, from killing and kissing each other. Conveying a coherent vision of the world is far too much to ask1.

None of that allayed the tremendous cognitive relief of seeing with fresh eyes. I have a philosophical structure laid out before me, running from metaphysics though epistemology to ethics and politics. The false binaries were swept aside, unnecessary guilt and pain shown to be just that. Atlas Shrugged began my slow process of learning to think.

Even if I was once an Objectivist, I don’t think I’d qualify as one now. That’s not what I mean by this post. I doubt I’ll ever be a Objectivist properly2, and I’m fine with that. Concrete beliefs aren’t the debt I’m talking about.

The debt I’ll always owe to Ayn Rand is teaching me about philosophy. Sure, I went on to read The Fountainhead and many of her other books, and agreed with them. But I’d read and agreed with plenty of other books before. Hers were the first which made me really understand.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Most people go through their lives without significantly integrating their beliefs. This isn’t necessarily crippling, but it can be. Contradictory goals can hamstring your ability to pursue any of them. I know that my past selves wouldn’t have been able to get this far without intelligently identifying values worth the trouble of pursuing. I worry that many of the people in my life have chosen ones that won’t make them happy. The jury is still out but the prosecution has a lot of evidence.

No matter the verdict, no matter what my future selves believe—the road will have started here. Ayn Rand taught me to think about the structure of my beliefs; how I obtain them, how they relate to one another. She wasn’t my only teacher, neither the first nor the least, but the most critical4. Atlas Shrugged helped me become a self-aware human being.

atlas-shrugged


1That’s not an excuse for presenting an incoherent vision, however, which is what a number of my educators chose to do. Thankfully, that had largely dropped off by the time I read Atlas Shrugged, but never quit entirely.

2I might, one day, be a friendly critic3 of Objectivism, but I’ve a lot of reading to do before such a moniker could apply.

3By “friendly critic”, I mean something like Nathaniel Branden. Former members make better criticisms to the movement than most others, because they either agree with the basic premises, or at least understand where Objectivists are coming from. (Arguing about Objectivism’s tenets on this post will be taken as affirmation that you haven’t read all the footnotes.)

4A major goal of my writing is to provide a similar catalyst to my friends and family, while clarifying my own thoughts. That said, I can hardly claim to be on Rand’s level.

Book Review: The Fountainhead

[This is a much more traditional review that what I usually write, so there will be considerable spoilers for The Fountainhead (and a few lesser ones for Atlas Shrugged and We The Living). Discussion of abuse and what constitutes consent. Additionally, Brandenite criticism of Rand’s writing style.]

To date, I haven’t found a good longform introduction to Objectivism, so I’m forced to recommend Atlas Shrugged for those wanting a comprehensive introduction.

That said, I found reading The Fountainhead very instructive on the finer details of what a selfish life actually looks like. Atlas Shrugged addresses those questions, but does so subtly. Many readers (including my younger self) end up overlooking them. Sometimes it’s just better to say what you mean.

The Fountainhead contrasts the life of a genuine individualist, Howard Roark, with that of several non-individualists. Roark is an architect, who worked his way through three years of college before being expelled for insubordination. He goes to work for Henry Cameron, a disgraced builder whose modernist style and blunt attitude eventually destroyed his practice.

fountainhead original cover

One of Roark’s classmates is Peter Keating, whose mother paid his tuition, in part by running the boarding house where Roark lived. Peter is vain and full-of-himself, the sort of person one might call an individualist—but Keating is a phony. Roark’s purpose in architecture is to design and construct buildings to his liking. Fame and fortune mean very little to him. Reputation will garner clients, and money allows him to stay in practice, but his ambition is entirely impersonal.

Keating has no ambition of his own. He doesn’t want to design buildings; he wants to be known as a great builder. He wants to be famous to the sake of fame and relishes every scrap of admiring attention. His only selfish goal is to marry a young girl named Katie, whom he met in school and whom he forgets about for months at a time. But spending time with her appears to be the only thing that makes him genuinely happy.

Alas, their relationship is not to be. Katie is supported by her uncle, Ellsworth Toohey, a public intellectual and “humanitarian”. Toohey steers their relationship to failure, not through outright opposition—oh no, he approves! He totally approves! Romantic love is old-fashioned, of course, but charming in its own way. And through such snide comments, sows the seeds of doubt in Keating’s vulnerable mind.

In Rand’s other books, there’s no explicit villain. Toohey is the exception: he is her idea of evil incarnate. Other antagonists are weak, incoherent. They don’t fully realize where their ideas lead. Toohey knows exactly what he’s doing. The only other possible example is Fred Kinnan, a union boss in Atlas Shrugged, but unlike Toohey, Kinnan doesn’t lead the charge.

With full intention and awareness, Toohey is trying to stunt the intellectual growth of any person with potential, for the sole purpose of gaining power over them. After years of abuse, Toohey completely destroys what small shadow of self ever existed in poor Keating. The once-famous architect lies dependent at Toohey’s feet, and listens as he hears precisely how he’s been broken.

No such person exists in reality. Rand knew this, of course—there’s no one person singlehandedly destroying the modern world, or else a Steven Mallory might succeed. But there isn’t, so one couldn’t.

Steven Mallory is a sculptor, who takes a shot at Toohey and misses. Toohey must have known what that meant, because he defended Mallory at the trial. He refuses, he says, “to be an accomplice in the manufacturing of martyrs.” A martyr would have been much more dangerous than a poor, struggling artist.

Mallory is struggling, much the same way that Roark struggles for self-sufficiency in the building industry. After Henry Cameron’s physical and financial health force him into retirement, Roark accepts Keating’s offer to work under him at the firm Francon & Heyer. Roark insists on doing purely structural work, because of his philosophical disagreements on style. But one day, a client asks Francon to do a building in Cameron’s style, and Francon suggests Roark take a stab at it. But not purely in Cameron’s style, of course—the firm has a reputation to maintain, and unflinching modernism doesn’t serve that end.

Roark refuses to compromise his artistic integrity, and gets fired. For months, he tries to find another draftsman job, eventually securing employment with the eclectic John Erik Snyte. Unlike most of the other architects in New York, Snyte has no stylistic preference: he’ll build anything, but it will be terrible. Roark was allowed to design buildings with integrity, which Snyte then remixed with features from his other draftsmen’s proposals.

That comes to a change, when Mr. Austen Heller, a notable writer, decides to build a country home. Heller had already rejected several other firms for the commission. He has a site selected and a basic notion of what he wants built, but can’t articulate exactly what he’s looking for. Snyte, desperate to get the commission, tells his draftsmen to spare no effort in getting the design right.

Roark’s design “wins”—it’s the base which Snyte adapts to make a “respectable” structure. Heller is shocked. It’s so close, he says, but not there. It’s not integrated.

Those words are a hint. Roark snatches the fancy watercolor from the stand and goes to work on it, penciling the original design over Snyte’s chimera. Snyte fires Roark, and Heller hires Roark, on the spot. Thereafter he is an independent architect. A few commissions follow, before money and public interest runs out. Roark doesn’t play the socialite’s game, which is the primary way of garnering clients. Moreover, he refuses to build in historical styles, which loses many of the trickle that comes his way.

roark building model

He’s forced to leave the business for a time, working as a manual laborer until he’s tracked down by Roger Enright, an entrepreneur who wants to build a luxury apartment building. Roark returns to New York and resumes work, gaining more impressive commissions as his name and style reach the wider public. And Ellsworth Toohey.

Toohey realizes Roark constitutes a threat to his program, and sets out to destroy him. He decides to make Roark really famous. One of Toohey’s many intellectual conquests is an old, superstitious businessman named Hopton Stoddard. Toohey needs Stoddard’s wealth to build a charity home, but Stoddard, fearing the afterlife, wants to erect an ecumenical temple instead. Toohey suddenly reverses his position—provided Roark is the architect.

Stoddard quickly agrees. Roark is skeptical, because Stoddard is the exact opposite of the sort of person he’ll get along with. But Stoddard insists that Roark build a temple to the human spirit, in his style. Roark can’t force himself to say no, even though it feels fishy.

The plan calls for a statue, and Roark choses Mallory to sculpt it. They’ve never met before, and Roark has a difficult time getting ahold of him. It turns out that Mallory admires Roark’s buildings, and doesn’t want to spoil them by meeting the man. Artists always disappoint him, Mallory explains, because they never live up to their works.

Of course, Roark does live up to his buildings, but Mallory provides another interesting foil. Roark goes through life without being hurt by the world’s senselessness, but Mallory is hurt by it. Mallory is a weak and sympathetic Randian protagonist, perhaps akin to Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged.

Nathaniel Branden commented on Roark’s character as such:

In preparation for this presentation, I re-read the opening chapter of The Fountainhead. It really is a great book. I noticed something in the first chapter I never noticed before. Consider these facts: The hero has just been expelled from school, he is the victim of injustice, he is misunderstood by virtually everyone, and he himself tends to find other people puzzling and incomprehensible. He is alone; he has no friends. There is no one with whom he can share his inner life or values. So far, with the possible exception of being expelled from school, this could be a fairly accurate description of the state of the overwhelming majority of adolescents. There is one big difference: Howard Roark gives no indication of being bothered by any of it. He is serenely happy within himself. For average teenagers, this condition is agony. They read The Fountainhead and see this condition, not as a problem to be solved, but as a condition they must learn to be happy about — as Roark is. All done without drugs! What a wish-fulfillment that would be! What a dream come true! Don’t bother learning to understand anyone. Don’t bother working at making yourself better understood. Don’t try to see whether you can close the gap of your alienation from others, at least from some others, just struggle for Roark’s serenity — which Rand never tells you how to achieve. This is an example of how The Fountainhead could be at once a source of great inspiration and a source of great guilt, for all those who do not know how to reach Roark’s state.

Mallory doesn’t display the same easy bliss, even down to the drugs (he’s pretty drunk when Roark finally tracks him down). I maintain that minor characters make Rand’s work, yet Branden is making a very important criticism. The Fountainhead leaves out a lot of the instructions, beyond “find someone who’s happy and rational who can give you emotional support”. That’s not exactly easy for the sort of person who’ll identify with Objectivism to begin with.

Steven Mallory is an excellent character, and it’s sad that he doesn’t get more time on-page, but the fact is that the story is still Roark’s. Too bad Ayn Rand didn’t ghostwrite fan fiction. I’d read the hell out of that.

Where were we? Oh right, the Hopton Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit. Roark wants to include a statue, a disrobed woman, as its centerpiece. He leaves the choice of model up to Mallory, but makes a suggestion: Dominique Francon.

(I knew I was temporizing for a reason.)

Dominique Francon is an editorialist at the same newspaper which employs Ellsworth Toohey, the New York Banner, and is also the only daughter of Guy Francon, Keating’s boss. Mr. Francon owns a granite quarry in Connecticut, where Roark ends up working for several months before the Enright House is constructed.

During that same summer, Dominique takes a vacation from the paper at her family’s house on the same premises. One day she decides to go down and look at the quarry, because the men will be suffering down there and she has a thing for that. Among the various men at work is Roark, with whom she exchanges Meaningful Glances™ and a few words.

dominique francon quarry

Seen here: a Meaningful Glance™

She comes up with a pretext to invite him to her house for some manual labor (replacing a tile she’d scratched for that very purpose). Roark agrees, states that the tile clearly isn’t damaged, breaks it properly, removes it, and has the appropriate replacement ordered. When it arrives, he sends one of his coworkers to install it. Dominique confronts Roark about this, and he replies that surely it didn’t matter which of her father’s manual laborers did the work.

At this point, it’s time for that discussion of consent I warned you about above.

Roark comes to Dominique’s house the next night and has very rough sex with her. Dominique later describes this as rape, though Ayn Rand insisted that, if their first time was rape, it was “rape by engraved invitation” and condemned the crime outside of fiction.

In the context of the novel, however, both characters are blessed by authorial omniscience. Dominique wanted to sleep with Roark, and he knew it. Meaningful Glances™ may be sufficient to communicate consent in books, but certainly aren’t in the real world. I think Ayn Rand would have readily acknowledge that, but most of her critics wouldn’t acknowledge that she’d acknowledge that.

Roger Enright calls Roark back to New York almost immediately thereafter, which complicates how their relationship might develop. Dominique is clearly conflicted. She considers leaving her job at the newspaper, but decides against it, because quitting would be too easy. She only knows Roark by the nickname “Red”, and figures she’s unlikely to ever encounter him again.

That isn’t the case.

When images of the Enright House reach print, Dominique admires them, but refuses to write about the building. She tells Toohey that “[a] man who can conceive a thing as beautiful as this should never allow it to be erected” and that writing about it “would be repeating the crime.”

Roark, meanwhile, is rebuilding his practice. In addition to the Enright House, he’s approached with another offer. Austin Heller insists that Roark come with him to a party hosted by Kiki Holcombe, the wife of the Ralston Holcombe, the president of the Architect’s Guild of America. Attending her party would help secure the commission, because the man in question is the socialite type. Roark doesn’t plan to go, but changes his mind upon hearing Dominique will be there.

Heller introduces them and they carry on a very polite conversation, even after Heller is pulled away. Once the conversation ends, Dominique and Toohey both watch him intently, but with opposing purposes.

The public doesn’t realize that. Both excoriate Roark in print, Dominique loudly and Toohey quietly. Or at least, it looks that way. Dominique’s articles appear, at first glance, like insults to Roark’s buildings, but a closer reading shows that they’re actually insulting the surrounding city, because the city isn’t good enough for the buildings.

To the public eye, Dominique Francon has a feud with Howard Roark. She actively seeks out his clients and tries to dissuade them, usually convincing them to hire Peter Keating. Then, on those nights when she’s taken away a commission, she goes to sleep with Howard Roark.

Objectivist scholars can probably express this more clearly, but the general idea here is that Dominique loves Roark and all the things he represents, but doesn’t believe they can exist in the real world, so does her best to destroy them quickly and thoroughly. Rand doesn’t agree with this supposition, but it certainly makes for an interesting relationship dynamic.

No one knows that Dominique is Roark’s mistress, and it shocks everyone when she agrees to pose for the Stoddard Temple statue.

Roark, Mallory, and Dominique spend a pleasant year working on the temple and statue, with additionally company from Mike, an electrician whom Roark has been friends with since he worked for Francon & Heyer. Mike manages to work on almost every structure Roark builds and helped get him the job in the granite quarry.

Things come to a sudden end when Hopton Stoddard arrives in New York after his year-long vacation. He had visited dozens of religious monuments around the world, and expected something similarly dramatic. What he found was, well, exactly what it said on the tin—not a monument to God or spirits, but to mankind. Roark’s Hopton Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit is not at all what he was expecting, and Toohey easily manipulates Stoddard into suing.

The prosecution calls dozens of witnesses, with Dominique as their pièce de résistance. She makes one of her typical ambiguous statements, which defends Roark while sounding like an attack.

Roark calls no witnesses and asks no questions. When the time comes, he lays out ten photographs of the Stoddard Temple and says, “[t]he defense rests.” Unsurprisingly, this does not win the case.

Dominque feels terrible about her role in the trial, but also treats it as sort of a victory condition. (This isn’t an entirely incorrect conclusion: Roark builds nothing in New York for the next several years; his firm survives on commissions elsewhere.) She intentionally gets herself fired from the newspaper and offers to marry Peter Keating. She hates Keating and sees this as a form of punishment, but endeavors to be a dutiful society wife. Unfortunately, though, he had finally promised to marry Katie that same day. Keating’s desire for social approval thus destroys his last chance for real happiness.

Katie goes on to be the director of children’s occupational therapy at the Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children.

Less than two years later, Keating finds himself dreadfully unhappy. His standing as an architect is diminishing without Dominique’s activism, and the Great Depression arrived just in time to make things that much worse. His marriage is equally unhappy—Dominique has managed to suppress her entire personality, and in a stunning turn of events it’s better to have a person for your spouse than a cardboard cutout. Even sex with her, which he’d once wanted, brings no pleasure. Dominique was once unresponsive to his advances, then disgusted after meeting Roark, and then quickly returns to complete indifference after their marriage.

Ellsworth Toohey is aware of all this, naturally, and has a terrible idea. Enter Gail Wynand, the megalomaniacal owner of the New York Banner.

Wynand has a reputation for impulsiveness and a temper, but is a skilled business executive. His papers lead all sorts of crusades in print, and his real estate empire spreads across the country. He clawed his way up from a street gang in Hell’s Kitchen to be one of the most powerful people in New York.

Wynand is in his fifties. He’s never been married and doesn’t keep lovers very long. Everything about his life is public—even his penthouse apartment has glass walls. (He tells his mistresses that they’re fornicating in the view of six million people.) His only private pleasure is an art gallery he keeps on the floor below. No visitors are allowed, and no one would dare take the risk of suggesting an addition.

Gail Wynand Raymond Massey

I thought Gail Wynand’s actor looked familiar. It’s Raymond Massey, who played Oswald Cabal in Things to Come.

Stoneridge is the latest addition to Wynand’s real estate empire. An architect hasn’t been chosen, and dozens are literally begging for the opportunity as the Depression starves the profession. Wynand refuses to listen to their pleas—he probably enjoys the feeling of power and control. Ellsworth Toohey meets with his employer and tries to get Keating the commission, but realizes that Wynand isn’t interested. Instead, he suggests Gail meet with Mrs. Peter Keating. Wynand still isn’t interested. Toohey tells him that he’ll be sending a package to Wynand’s apartment which might change his mind.

Wynand completely forgets about the exchange, that night, as he deals with sudden suicidal thoughts. We’re given a complete run-down of his life as he decides whether to end it. Then, wandering his penthouse, he notices Toohey’s package. It’s quite a bit larger than expected, too big to be simple blackmail. He opens it, then calls Toohey and tells him to come over, very late at night.

The package was Steven Mallory’s statue of Dominique, which Toohey obtained during the renovation of the Stoddard Temple.

Wynand is skeptical, and cares more about the artist than the model. The artist is great, he insists, because there’s no way a real woman is that beautiful. The statue and a number of Mallory’s other works will soon enter his private collection. But he agrees to meet with Mrs. Peter Keating.

Toohey arranges the meeting, interrupting a conversation where Peter almost comes to terms with his decades of self-abnegation. It’s not to be—Toohey is too vicious for personal development to last. Keating agrees to let Dominique take a two-month cruise with Wynand, in exchange for Stoneridge.

Gail and Dominique return after a week. Keating will get Stoneridge, but Wynand has decided that he wants to marry Dominique. She is perfectly willing to agree, and Keating begrudgingly allows it. He ultimately cares more about his public prestige than any impersonal principle like fidelity.

Dominque heads to Reno. On the way she visits Howard Roark, who’s building a department store in Ohio. She asks Roark to abandon architecture, she won’t go to Wynand, and they’ll live a quiet life in a quiet town. Roark refuses: she wouldn’t love him if it wasn’t for his integrity and moral stature, embodied in physical buildings. Roark qua Roark is an architect. She found him attractive in the quarry, but she couldn’t love him till she knew he built the Enright House.

I think this elides the possibility of expressing one’s creativity through different outlets, but the general point stands. One of the major themes of The Fountainhead is that we should pursue our happiness no matter how shitty the rest of the world choses to be. After overcoming the serene indifference of her youth, Dominique’s whole struggle is to not hate the rest of the world for existing around Roark.

This is probably a good time to bring up the fact that Rand didn’t really write symbolic female characters. At least, main characters. Minor female characters are frequently symbolic, but the same is true for minor male characters. Dominique was conceived as a “woman for a man like Howard Roark”, but her journey is significant in its own right. I suspect there may have been a few autobiographical details there, though We The Living probably has more.

(In Atlas Shrugged the woman is primarily real, and the man is primarily a symbol, but that’s a deeper analysis than my review got into.)

Ultimately, Dominique goes to Reno, and returns to New York. Gail had wanted a private ceremony, but she insists making it a public event. Their marriage and its consummation have to wait another week as things are organized. The story is given two sentences in the society pages of the Wynand papers.

They enjoy a long honeymoon in Gail’s penthouse, which now features an enclosed bedroom. He doesn’t want to share Dominique with the world—one of the first legitimately selfish decisions of his life. After a few years, he decides he wants to build a country home, essentially to take Dominique out of the city entirely.

He chooses Howard Roark as the architect.

Wynand papers were the loudest voices in the crusade against the Stoddard Temple. Gail simply forgot about this—it was several years past and he was not particularly attached to the paper’s editorial policy. The Banner may appear to lead public opinion, but in practice follows. Near the day of his retirement, Henry Cameron cursed the perverse phenomena that allow the Wynand papers to exist and continue existing. He didn’t know what to call it. Howard Roark does: second-hand living.

Gail Wynand has lived his entire life as a second-hander. His marriage to Dominique is the exception. He chooses Roark to build a home for them, because he saw a number of Roark’s other buildings, and liked them. That same pattern kept Roark afloat following the Temple case, even allowing him to expand his practice.

Two years before, he had been building Monadnock Valley, an affordable resort in Pennsylvania. Roark got the commission, because the owners were pulling a fraud. They sold 200% of the stock and wanted the resort to fail. But their plan is what failed, because Roark designed something so good it succeeded without an advertising budget. Monadnock Valley was the perfect place for an individual or family to take a quiet vacation, away from other people, on a middle-class budget.

Before the news could even break, however, Roark was finally called back to build in New York. A luxury hotel project off Central Park had faltered before the Stoddard Trial, but finally the finances and ownership had been sorted out, so construction resumed. The pace of work picks up, despite the Depression, and in 1936 he moves his offices to the top floor of the Cord Building, the first skyscraper he built.

Roark intends to refuse Gail’s commission, but changes his mind soon after the interview begins. Gail understands Roark’s approach and style. For his house, he wants exactly what Roark is able to provide.

After Roark leaves, Gail goes through the paper’s archives. He reads everything the Banner ever wrote about Howard Roark. A few days later, visiting the site, he confesses this to Roark, who doesn’t really care.

But Wynand has a dark secret, of sorts. A nasty habit. He likes to find men of integrity, and break them. It helps him feel better about having so little virtue of his own. By this point in the book, he’s already told Dominique that the man he can’t break will destroy him.

At their next meeting, Wynand seems like a different man. He makes Roark an offer: build the house as designed, and from then on work in the traditional styles that Roark hates—or refuse, and Wynand will see that Roark never works again.

Roark agrees, quickly sketches a Colonial parody of the Wynand house, and asks if that’s what he wanted. Gail involuntarily says “Good God, no!” and that’s pretty much the end of that.

This is not so much foreshadowing as laying out the ending to see who will notice. I’ll admit: the first time I read The Fountainhead, I didn’t, but that was a long time ago. Maybe older readers will catch that on the initial pass.

In either case, Roark becomes Gail’s friend. He’s a frequent guest at the penthouse, and then later, the country home. Dominique is frustrated, but they maintain a completely professional persona with each other. Meanwhile, the Wynand papers start to plug Howard Roark. Gail forbids Toohey to write about Roark in his column, and regularly thinks of Roark to get through the day. Among other things, he has a photograph taken from the paper enlarged and placed on his office wall.

fountainhead gaetano cover

60th Anniversary cover by Nick Gaetano.

Roark’s practice is better than ever, but Peter Keating’s career is still waning. After Lucius N. Heyer died (more-or-less at Keating’s hands), Peter was promoted to a full partner in the firm. Then Guy Francon retired, so Francon & Keating became Keating & Dumont (he brought up the head draftsman, because that’s just what’s done). But business is bad. He’s not the it-boy anymore, and Toohey has started championing a pair on younger architects: Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott. The firm is rapidly contracting.

His last real hope is the contract to build Cortlandt Homes, a federal housing project in Queens. He doesn’t have much hope of getting it, but the government hasn’t been able to find an architect who can meet their exacting specifications. Keating goes to Toohey and begs for the option. Toohey tentatively agrees: if he can design it, it’s his.

Keating takes the requirements and spends many hours working on the problem. He’s forced to admit the truth: he can’t. He doesn’t admit defeat. He calls Howard Roark.

We’ve seen Keating do this before. His first house for Francon & Heyer was essentially designed by Roark. His most famous building, which won a competition for the “most beautiful building in the world”, had a floorplan devised by Roark. In conversation about Cortlandt, Keating mentions that Roark helped with a lot of Peter’s assignments at school.

Why does Roark, who cares so much about integrity, help Peter cheat? That answer is simple: these are buildings, and Roark can save them. Keating will cover them with all sorts of terrible, unnecessary ornamentation, because that’s the fashion, but the design, floorplan, and function are all massively improved. Dark, contorted hallways become straight passages, space for entire rooms appears on the blueprints. None of this business with bedroom windows facing the superfluous columns of the façade, the sort of thing Keating once made himself ignore.

Roark doesn’t ignore them, because his goal isn’t to impress. Roark tells Keating that, sure, he could talk about the desperate need for affordable housing in New York’s middle class (a conversation which would only sound strange today because NIMBYism has priced out the middle class from the big cities). He could talk about their struggles and the misfortunes of the future tenants.

But that isn’t why he takes the job. Roark agrees to build Cortlandt and let Keating take the credit, because he’ll love the challenge.

He completes Cortlandt, makes it work in-budget and with lower rents than initially anticipated. This works, in part because he rejects many of the paradigms that hamstrung earlier attempts. Tenants are given privacy and expense isn’t wasted on communal spaces. There’s schools and a YMCA nearby, which should provide adequate opportunities for socialization and exercise.

Roark makes no attempt to disguise his handiwork, but most people are perfectly willing to believe Keating & Dumont designed Cortlandt. Gail and Dominique see right through it.

The flow of this review may seem interrupted here, but that’s simply because I’m forced to leave a few things out if I’m not to completely spoil the pleasure of reading. Let’s skip ahead a few pages to a particularly sad scene: when Peter runs into Katie on the street.

Keating is spending less time in the office, slipping over to Roark’s apartment each evening to get the latest sketches for the project. Roark is, perhaps, the only person who ever treated Peter as fully human. From the second chapter, when the two are alone, we see a side of Keating which is never apparent when he has an audience. Only in solitude can he be authentic, and only in solitude can he realize the extent of his own failure.

He reveals to Roark something he’d be hiding from everyone. He’s been dabbling in painting again—Peter wanted to be a painter, all along, but was pressured into architecture by his “doting” mother. But it’s largely too late. Painting isn’t a joy for him, he’s not good at it, it’s not even a relief from suffering. But during the weekend hours when he escapes to a shack in the country he feels vaguely happy.

This is how Roark discovers pity, and what a vile feeling it really is. He never felt this for anyone; not Henry Cameron, not Steven Mallory. Those people had hope and worth and demanded respect. Keating’s attempts at painting, don’t. To uphold pity as a virtue necessarily implies suffering and destruction, neither of which an individualist can accept. Roark hates it and all it implies.

And then Peter runs into Katie. His other aborted ambition appears before him before, and it’s the same sort of ghost. Katie is now a social worker, on assignment to New York from Washington, D.C. He tries to carry on a conversation with her, but it’s largely hopeless. There’s no person left to converse with.

I bring this scene up, most notably, because one of the more frequently quote passages from the book deserves to be read in full:

“Katie . . . for six years . . . I thought about how I’d ask for your forgiveness some day. And now I have the chance, but I won’t ask it. It seems . . . it seems beside the point. I know it’s horrible to say that, but that’s how it seems to me. It was the worst thing I ever did in my life—but not because I hurt you. I did hurt you, Katie, and maybe more than you know yourself. But that’s not my worst guilt . . . Katie, I wanted to marry you. It was the only thing I ever really wanted. And that’s the sin that can’t be forgiven—that I hadn’t done what I wanted. It feels so dirty and pointless and monstrous, as one feels about insanity, because there’s no sense to it, no dignity, nothing but pain—and wasted pain. . . . Katie, why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world—to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want. As I wanted to marry you. Not as I want to sleep with some woman or get drunk or get my name in the papers. Those things—they’re not even desires—they’re things people do to escape from desires—because it’s such a big responsibility, really to want something.”

Katie says that’s ugly and selfish. It’s certainly selfish, but it isn’t ugly. Ugliness isn’t an inherent trait of the world, nor is beauty. They only exist in the context of minds. Only by having a self can beauty mean anything at all.

Roark’s contribution to the Cortlandt project done, he leaves with Gail on a winter cruise. Keating will handle the construction while they’re away. The Wynand papers have been throwing work his way, and Gail finally realizes that Roark needs a vacation.

During their cruise, Roark spends a lot of time thinking. Gail has forbidden him from discussion of architecture, which proves to be no problem. There’s more abstract problems to be dealt with. Among them, is the philosophy of the second-hander.

The second-hander, Roark explains, derives all of his self-esteem from others’ perceptions of him. Peter Keating is brought up as the example, but I’m sure the reader can think of someone in their own life who knows themselves to be lacking on some measure, but tries to ignore the problem because they think that others are oblivious to it. Maybe you can even remember doing the same thing yourself.

Second-handers don’t make evaluations of their own. Their concern is what other people think, what other people feel, what other people expect. None of their ambitions are self-focused. They may want to be admired or noticed or liked—but by other people.

Now there may be selfish ends to that, like finding a lover or getting attention for your business. Similarly, there are plenty of selfish reasons for making money, Roark concedes, like traveling or study or simply enjoying luxury. But making money for the sake of status is worse than silly, it’s destructive. Trying to show off implies a self-assessment so low that you need to appeal outside your own mind for validation.

(Please don’t take this as an attack on those suffering from depression or mental illness. I’ve been there, I know how the mind can lie to itself. I will venture, however, that this irrationality ‘in the water supply’ doesn’t make combatting mental illness any easier.)

You can’t really reason with a second-hander, because there’s no ego to reason with. You have to change the minds of all their friends, and most of their minds haven’t an ego, either. Steven Mallory likens this to a brainless monster destroying the world. Henry Cameron could only point at the New York Banner. Gail is realizing his role in this and tries redeem it by plugging Howard Roark in print. For once, he feels genuinely proud of the newspaper.

When they return to New York, they see second-handing in the flesh.

Cortlandt Homes has been mutilated by bureaucrats, making dozens of needless changes to suit their preconceptions. Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott, who couldn’t create Cortlandt themselves, are brought on as “associate designers”. Their changes cost money, forcing further disruptions to keep the project in budget. (This is one reason public projects are always so expensive.)

Keating tried to fight them, but one man can’t argue with Mallory’s monster. It has no ears to hear, no eyes to see, no brains to think. It can only devour and destroy.

Keating goes to see Roark after he gets back from the cruise. Roark listens to him and apologizes for giving him more than he could handle, over all the years. Roark promises that, whatever he does, Peter won’t be his target.

Instead, two weeks later, long before the construction project is complete, he dynamites the site of Cortlandt Homes. He remains at the scene and allows himself to be arrested.

Gail Wynand is furious, and gets a judge out of bed so he can pay Roark’s bail before morning. To make matters worse, Roark enlisted Dominique’s help in ensuring that Cortlandt’s night watchman was out of the blast range. Dominique did a good job of making herself look hurt by the blast, too good, and spends several weeks in the hospital.

Gail sees right through the supposed alibi, but nevertheless offers Roark all possible help with his impending trial. Among other things, he commits the paper’s editorial policy to Roark’s defense. Circulation begins to fall. Protests are organized. Public opposition to the Banner reaches new heights.

Ellsworth Toohey decides to pay Peter Keating a visit.

Keating doesn’t participate in the mass furor. He writes a short article stating that he believes Roark is innocent, refused to talk to the press, and locks himself away in his room.

Toohey is let in, and almost immediately drops all pretense. He goads Keating, daring him to fight back physically, explaining exactly what he intends to do to Roark. Toohey knows Keating couldn’t have designed Cortlandt and wants to extract a confession. Keating resists for awhile, but after so many years of Toohey manipulations there’s very little resistance left. So close to obtaining some sort of redemption, he lets it slip through his hands. He hands over the contract he signed with Roark and then sits on the floor, listening, as Toohey states, in loving detail, his social and political goals: power over unthinking masses.

(Monologuing like that isn’t realistic, but it makes a hell of a story.)

Armed with evidence, Toohey writes about the case in his column. Wynand had explicitly forbidden him from doing so, and fires Toohey immediately. The union of Wynand employees, which Toohey had been putting together for years, walks out on strike. Quite a few non-members join them.

The strike wears on for two months. Readers and advertisers jump ship as Gail tries to keep the newspaper solvent. He rarely leaves the office. Dominique joins him after a few week. For the duration of their marriage he’d tried to keep her away from the Banner—some Mrs. Wynand-Papers—but he immediately gives her back her previous job. She becomes one of his few dependable employees. Most of the good ones quit, the remainder tend to be exhausted, and the new people he can hire are the lowest sort of riff-raff who can write.

It’s a losing battle. The newspaper’s assets and Wynand’s own fortune are running like water. But the strike was never about editorial policy. It was about Wynand’s soul.

For years, Gail Wynand had sold his soul to whoever would buy it. Selling your soul is easy, Roark told Peter Keating. Keeping your soul is much harder. Wynand wasn’t born a second-hander, but became one anyway. The newspaper was his life, but never represented his convictions. Before marrying Dominique, he had very few convictions to represent.

Defending Howard Roark against the mob was his attempt to absolve the decades of terrible actions behind him. It fails. The newspaper will either have to reverse policy, or accept financial failure. The board confronts Wynand with an ultimatum. Give in to the union’s demands, or close the paper. He accepts.

The scene after Wynand concedes is perhaps the saddest passage in all of Rand’s writing. Wandering the city at dusk, Gail contemplates the numerous decisions that led to the failure of his newspaper and its ultimate betrayal of his only friend. He sees bums on the street and recognizes his own soul. He sees trash and the merchandise of a pawn shop. “Hello, Gail Wynand,” he says.

He buys an evening copy of the Banner from a newsstand, and reads the editorial he didn’t write explaining the end of the strike. Later, he comes across an abandoned copy, with a shoe-print over Howard Roark’s face. He sees that he unleashed the proletarians to destroy greatness, that they were powerless without his cooperation. He looks around and realizes fully how much he has done to prevent his own happiness.

Kira bleeding on the snow, Eddie Willers sobbing as he tries to restart the Comet—I don’t think they stack up. They did their best and failed. Gail Wynand is the most tragic Randian character, because he could have, but didn’t.

Gail Wynand wasn’t born a second-hander.

Roark tries to contact Gail, to offer some sort of absolution to his friend, but Gail refuses to see him. He stays in New York and doesn’t visit Dominique in the country. He’s trying to wait it out.

Dominique is done waiting. Roark is spending the summer at Monadnock Valley, awaiting his trial. Dominique drives from Connecticut to join him there. The morning after she arrives, she calls the police to report the “theft” of an imaginary piece of jewelry that Roark supposedly gave to her, of trivial value to a multi-millionaire’s wife. It’s a one-bedroom house, she’s wearing Roark’s pajamas—it’s imminently clear where she slept the previous night. The story hits the papers immediately.

The Banner runs it, as news. Gail says nothing in particular, but allows his lawyer to initiate divorce proceedings. His most loyal assistant at the paper uses it to spin a story that Dominique forced Wynand to defend Roark in print, that he was somehow the victim.

Gail goes to see Dominique at their country house, where he calmly asks her about the details of her relationship with Roark. Dominique becomes frustrated:

He turned to leave.

“God damn you!” she cried. “If you can take it like this, you had no right to become what you became!”

“That’s why I’m taking it.”

He walked out the room. He closed the door softly.

The story builds circulation, as Dominique expected it would. It was her final attempt to help him. Wynand’s public reputation improves. And soon thereafter, Roark goes to trial.

Just as in the Stoddard Trial, Roark sits alone at the defense table. He takes no legal counsel, but he’s planning a different strategy this time.

His supporters sit together in a small cluster. Gail Wynand does not join them; he sits alone. Guy Francon, finally reconciled with his daughter, does. The prosecutor’s opening statement is interspersed with description of the room and the celebrities within it. Roark has chosen a tough jury—professionals, tradesmen, factory workers. The prosecution happily agreed.

The first day of testimony is largely factual: police, the night watchman, project superintendent, building inspectors. The next day opens with Peter Keating called to the stand. Keating mechanically explains that Roark designed Cortlandt. It’s not nearly as exciting as everyone expected. Keating’s testimony concludes the prosecution’s arguments.

Roark rises to the stand. He calls no witnesses, but instead explains the philosophical issues involved. He explains that he was willing to design Cortlandt for no reason beyond seeing it constructed, but it was not constructed in the manner he had been promised. The government got what it needed from him, but he was not given the payment he had expected. Productive, first-handed thinkers should rightfully be paid for their work, not enslaved by nonproductive second-handers. Dynamiting Cortlandt was Roark’s way of protecting that right, whether the law acknowledges it or not.

The full speech is worth reading, but is unfortunately too long to quote here. A compressed version was featured in the 1949 film adaptation, which is reasonably authoritative: Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay. I would strongly recommend watching it.

The jury leaves to deliberate. The audience expects a long recess. Before Roark can even be escorted from the courtroom, the jury returns. Roark is told to stand and face the jury. Gail Wynand stands, too. The foreman delivers the verdict: not guilty. Roark looks to Wynand. Gail turns and leaves the courtroom.

Cortlandt gets a happy ending: Roger Enright buys the site and hires Roark to construct the project as planned. But for Gail Wynand, not so much. His divorce is granted, and then the labor board rules in favor of Ellsworth Toohey. The Banner must reinstate him at his job.

Wynand informs Toohey that he expects him to come to work immediately. Toohey arrives and pretends to work, all while Wynand watches him from the office door. Toohey thinks the situation is absurd: one doesn’t start to work at nine p.m., on command.

The presses stop. Ellsworth Toohey is out of a job. Wynand is closing the Banner. It might seem like a dramatic way to win a fight, but really it’s so much more than that. The newspaper was his life for decades, but it was built on a rotten foundation. Roark’s trial was the last court of appeals. Roark won and the Banner lost. Closing the paper was the thematically logical choice.

It’s the personally logical choice, too. Gail has lost his wife and his one true friend. He’s lost all influence and self-esteem. It’s not unlikely that he’s lost the will to live. (In the screenplay, his suicide is made explicit.) He’s beginning to settle accounts.

A few months later he calls Roark to his office for the last time. All trace of intimacy is gone. He impersonally explains that he’s ready to begin a project they had previously discussed, the construction of a skyscraper in Hell’s Kitchen. The Wynand Building is to be the tallest building in New York and contain all of the remaining aspects of his media empire in the city. A large portion of his properties will be liquidated, so price is no object.

Roark’s philosophy of architecture was, in essence, to build monuments to the lives of his clients, and that is precisely what the Wynand Building was intended to be:

“I told you once that this building was to be a monument to my life. There is nothing left to commemorate now. The Wynand Building will have nothing—except what you give it.”

He rose to his feet, indicating that the interview was ended. Roark got up and inclined his head in parting. He held his head down a moment longer than a formal bow required.

At the door he stopped and turned. Wynand stood behind his desk without moving. They looked at each other.

Wynand said:

“Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours . . . and could have been mine.”

In the final scene of the novel, Dominique goes to visit Roark at the site of the Wynand Building, looking around the city as she rides the construction elevator up to the roof. She and Roark have gotten what they wanted, as have, presumably, their friends. Wynand hasn’t, of course, but his story was intentionally tragic. Ellsworth Toohey hasn’t be entirely vanquished, but following a clear statement of values, Rand likely expects the clash of believe systems to be concluded forth-with.

Aww.

Or maybe not? In Roark’s speech, he describes collectivism taking over Europe. In the era he’s speaking, that would refer to both Communism and the various forms of Fascism. But The Fountainhead was published in 1943. Victory in World War II was by no means guaranteed, though America’s entry into the war certainly tilted the scales towards the liberal democracies. The conflict with communism lasted for another decade after Rand’s death.

The Fountainhead is a statement of values, but a largely-incomplete one. Almost immediately after publication, fans started demanding a nonfiction account of Rand’s philosophy. One such conversation provided the inspiration for Atlas Shrugged, which explored a lot of ideas in more detail. But Atlas Shrugged is even longer than The Fountainhead, so the latter tends to be the choice for casual readers. They frequently come away with a much more Nietzschean view than intended.

Rand attempts to combat this and other misconceptions in the 1968 introduction, but I don’t think it’s succeeded in that. A lot of people don’t read introductions, and a lot of those who do don’t read them closely. Minor edits to the text might have done a better job—swapping out “religious” for “moral” in Roark’s speech, and replacing almost every instance of “egotist” with “egoist”. There’s a big difference between the two. Roughly speaking, egotists sacrifice others to self, while egoists sacrifice no one to nobody. This is the crux of Objectivist individualism.

To get a clearer picture of Objectivism, including why it is so appealing to certain people, you really need to read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The latter describes why an individualist society would be desirable and the alternatives—not. It contains the themes of how to live as an upright individual, but that question is complicated. The Fountainhead details the many ways in which persons can destroy their own happiness in the name of iffy ideals.

Branden is correct, though, in claiming that both miss their mark. Rand’s fiction gestures in the direction of how to live a life without pain or fear or guilt while nevertheless causing a great deal of all three. These books should not be read uncritically. Contextually appropriate tactics will only lead to frustration and distress if applied generally. Unfortunately, Rand never succeeded in fully translating her philosophy to a language accessible and practicable to the weak and disadvantaged individuals who would benefit from it most.

This is not an essay about that particular topic. Allow me to state only one implication explicitly: by neglecting the neglected, an Objectivist is ceding that entire class of persons to other ideologies. This is perhaps not the best tactic if you want to create a productive, happy, and free society. I’m interested to see how well other writers in the Objectivist movement handle the issue as I continue to explore the wider literature.

However, my primary interest in The Fountainhead instead comes from the idea of second-handing. This is the critical bit that is easy to miss in Atlas Shrugged. Rational self-esteem cannot come from an outside assessment. Just look at the term! Esteem in other’s opinion is necessarily not self-esteem. Now one may ask a trusted individual for evidence on the question, but ultimately you need to track the chain of evaluation back to one’s own mind (if one wants to have any real confidence in their assessment). Rationality necessarily is an internal process.

On a related note: Objectivists take the terms selfish and selfless literally. A truly selfless person wouldn’t be much a person at all. Thankfully, humans do a poor job living up the altruists’ ideal!

The Fountainhead is hardly a universal antidote for selflessness, or even the best introduction to rational selfishness, but it does have the advantage of being an interesting story to read. For that reason, I might recommend it to those who want to learn more about egoism and can read with an open and inquisitive mind. I wouldn’t recommend it to a motivated skeptic. Anthem might be better, or another book I haven’t read at all. The Fountainhead should then be read after another book gets the basic point across.

Regardless of that, it’s still one of my favorites to read. And maybe the selfish pleasure of reading a good book is all it really takes.

fountainhead centennial cover

Book Review: Space Cadet

[Content Note: Intentionally exacting ethics, extensive quotation, casual discussion of nuclear warfare. Considerable spoilers for Space Cadet, but not in the way that you’d think.]

spacecadetcover

I’m probably going to regret trying to review Space Cadet because Heinlein is always about morality and writing about morality always frustrates me no end.

To be clear, it’s not morality that frustrates me, but writing about it, because I don’t have the time to dash off a three hundred page introduction to whatever idea it is that I’m trying to communicate. Learning to think in aesthetics was probably a mistake, because then you have to concretize and suddenly see that you’ve leapt over all the supporting framework.

If this seems a little dramatic for a slim YA novel, well, this book can be read on multiple levels. My initial reading, back in elementary school, mostly just took away the science fiction story of Matt Dodson joining the Patrol and his subsequent adventures as a cadet traveling the solar system.

Matt is a convenient character for this sort of story, because he has almost no defining features. He was raised in Iowa, North American Union, Terra. He struggles in mathematics but ultimately succeeds, enjoys playing space polo, studied Basic but not tensor calculus in high school, makes several friends and an enemy. Note that those friends have more features than him: “Tex” Jarman has a personality as big as his home state, Oscar from Venus tells us all about the Venerian culture and customs, Pete from Ganymede has an emotional episode of homesickness. Even the hate sink has a better-defined backstory. We’re intended to step easily into Matt’s shoes.

Heinlein, meanwhile, self-inserts into the various Patrol officers mentoring the young men as they attend Annapolis in space. The Patrol is not just a military organization, or a research organization, or a humanitarian organization. It’s all of these and more. Crafting boys into the sort of supermen who can keep the peace between the various nations of Terra and the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is no mean feat.

The first half of the novel is a standard Bildungsroman on the making of a spaceman. Consider this passage, during Matt’s orientation aboard the P.R.S. Randolph in geosynchronous orbit, where each cadet begins his education. Lieutenant Wong, Matt’s mentor, is explaining a cadet’s curriculum:

“Everything that can possibly be studied under hypno[sis] you will have to learn that way in order to leave time for the really important subjects.”

Matt nodded. “I see. Like astrogation.”

“No, no no! Not astrogation. A ten-year-old child could learn to pilot a spaceship if he had the talent for mathematics. That is kindergarten stuff, Dodson. The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. I know, from your tests, that you can soak up the math and physical sciences and technologies. Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.”

Matt was looking bug-eyed. “My gosh! How long does it take to learn all those things?”

“You’ll still be studying the day you retire. But even those subjects are not your education; they are simply the raw materials. Your real job is to learn how to think—and that means you must study several other subjects: epistemology, scientific methodology, semantics, structures of languages, patterns of ethics and morals, varieties of logics, motivational psychology, and so on. This school is based on the idea that a man who can think correctly will automatically behave morally—or what we call ‘morally.’ What is moral behavior for a Patrolman, Matt? You are called Matt, aren’t you? By your friends?”

“Yes, sir. Moral behavior for a Patrolman . . .”

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“Well, I guess it means to do your duty, live up to your oath, that sort of thing.”

“Why should you?”

Matt kept quiet and looked stubborn.

“Why should you, when it may get you some messy way of dying? Never mind. Our prime purpose here is to see to it that you learn how your own mind works. If the result is a man who fits into the purposes of the Patrol because his own mind, when he knows how to use it, works that way—then fine! He is commissioned. If not, the we have to let him go.”

Matt remained silent until Wong finally said, “What’s eating on you, kid? Spill it.”

“Well—look here, sir. I’m perfectly willing to work hard to get my commission. But you make it sound like something beyond my control. First I have to study a lot of things I’ve never heard of. Then, when it’s all over, somebody decides my mind doesn’t work right. It seems to me that what this job calls for is a superman.”

“Like me.” Wong chuckled and flexed his arms. “Maybe so, Matt, but there aren’t any supermen, so we’ll have to do the best we can with young squirts like you. Come, now, let’s make up the list of spools you’ll need.”

Thus begins Matt’s theoretical education as a Patrolman. The process isn’t easy for him, and he struggles. That aspect of the story is far more relatable to me now that when I read this book as a kid, because I’ve been there. Honestly, if I could make 2013!me read a particular book, I’d probably ask myself to reread Space Cadet. It might just have bent the trajectory of my life a different direction.

Matt, too, struggles with trajectories—he’s so frustrated by the coursework in astrogation that he asks Lieutenant Wong for a transfer to the space marines. Wong refuses, saying that Matt is too far removed from the appropriate mindset:

“People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

[. . .]

“The Patrol is meant to be made up exclusively of the professional type. In the space marines, every single man jack, from the generals to the privates, is or should be the sort who lives by pride and glory.”

“Oh . . .”

Wong waited for it to sink in. “You can see it in the very uniforms; the Patrol wears the plainest of uniforms, the marines wear the gaudiest possible. In the Patrol all emphasis is on the oath, the responsibility to humanity. In the space marines the emphasis is on pride in their corps and its glorious history, loyalty to comrades, the ancient virtues of the soldier. I am not disparaging the marine when I say that he does not care a tinker’s damn for the political institutions of the Solar System; he cares only for his organization.

“But it’s not your style, Matt. I know more about you than you do yourself, because I have studied the results of your psychological tests. You will never make a marine.”

Rejected by Lieutenant Wong, Matt returns to astrogation, planning secretly to not return from his first leave.

The next chapter opens waiting for the rocket back to P.R.S. Randolph, wondering just when he changed his mind. The narrative alternates between the rocket flight and Matt’s vacation, illustrating the ways in which he is no longer a civilian:

Great-aunt Dora was the current family matriarch. She had been a very active woman, busy with church and social work. Now she was bed-fast and had been for three years. Matt called on her because his family obviously expected it. “She often complains to me that you don’t write to her, Matt, and—”

“But, Mother, I don’t have time to write to everyone!”

“Yes, yes, but she’s proud of you, Matt. She’ll want to ask you a thousand questions about everything. Be sure to wear your uniform—she’ll expect it.”

Aunt Dora had not asked a thousand questions; she had asked just one—why had he waited so long to come see her? Thereafter Matt found himself being informed, in detail, of the shortcomings of the new pastor, the marriage chances of several female relatives and connections, and the states of health of several older women, many of them unknown to him, including the details of operations and post-operative developments.

I’m glad I’ve never had that experience with my older relatives, though when Dad talks about his coworkers….

Yes, maybe that was it—it might have been the visit to Aunt Dora that convinced him that he was not ready to resign and remain in Des Moines. It could not have been Marianne.

Marianne was the girl who had made him promise to write regularly—and, in fact, he had, more regularly than she. But he had let her know that he was coming home and she had organized a picnic to welcome him back. It had been jolly. Matt had renewed old acquaintances and had enjoyed a certain amount of hero worship from the girls present. There had been a young man there, three or four years older than Matt, who seemed unattached. Gradually it dawned on Matt that Marianne treated the newcomer as her property.

It had not worried him. Marianne was the sort of girl who never would get clearly fixed in her mind the distinction between a planet and a star. He had not noticed this before, but it and similar matters had come up on the one date he had had alone with her.

And she had referred to his uniform as “cute.”

He began to understand, from Marianne, why most Patrol officers do not marry until their mid-thirties, after retirement.

This passage, and several like it, were why I decided to reread Space Cadet after all these years. The disconnect between specialist and layman grows too large and it becomes impossible to talk meaningfully about your work. So far, I’ve managed to keep Mom and Dad up to speed, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

Matt is in a much worse state, trying to describe missile maintenance to his parents, who neither understand orbital mechanics, nucleonics, nor the political motivations of the Patrol.

Nuclear weapons are kept in polar orbits, he explains, so that the entire planet is covered by the Patrol’s watchful eye. They are regularly serviced by ships—physically caught by a cadet, disarmed, and reeled in for inspection and repositioning. Matt casual mentions that J-3 will be passing over Des Moines in a few minutes, which gives his mother a fit of anxiety. “What if it should fall?” she demands.

Objects in orbit don’t fall, of course, as Matt explains—they would have to instantaneously lose 7,800 m/s of velocity to drop straight down. If the Patrol needed to nuke Des Moines that night, they would use a missile requiring a more moderate change of trajectory, like I-2 or H-1.

This doesn’t comfort her.

Matt’s father tries to argue that the Patrol would never bomb the North American Union, because the majority of Patrol officers are from North America. Matt refuses to commit, insisting later that the Patrol absolutely would. But he has doubts.

For the first few weeks after leave, Matt was too busy to fret. He had to get back into the treadmill, with more studying to do and less time to do it in. He was on the watch list for cadet officer of the watch now, and had more laboratory periods in electronics and nucleonics as well. Besides this he shared with the other oldsters the responsibility for bringing up the youngster cadets. Before leave his evenings had usually been free for study, now he coached youngsters in astrogation three nights a week.

He was beginning to think that he would have to give up space polo, when he found himself elected captain of [the deck’s] team. Then he was busier than ever. He hardly thought about abstract problems until his next session with Lieutenant Wong.

“Good afternoon,” his coach greeted him. “How’s your class in astrogation?”

“Oh, that—It seems funny to be teaching it instead of flunking it.”

“That’s why you’re stuck with it—you still remember what it was that used to stump you and why. How about atomics?”

“Well . . . I suppose I’ll get by, but I’ll never be an Einstein.”

“I’d be amazed if you were. How are you getting along otherwise?” Wong waited.

“All right, I guess. Do you know, Mr. Wong—when I went on leave I didn’t intend to come back.”

“I’d rather thought so. That space-marines notion was just your way of dodging around, trying to avoid your real problem.”

“Oh. Say, Mr. Wong—tell me straight. Are you a regular Patrol officer, or a psychiatrist?”

Wong almost grinned. “I’m a regular Patrol officer, Matt, but I’ve had the special training required for this job.”

“Uh, I see. What was it I was running away from?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Tell me about your leave, then. We’ve got all afternoon.”

“Yes, sir.” Matt meandered along, telling as much as he could remember. “So you see,” he concluded, “it was a lot of little things. I was home—but I was a stranger. We didn’t talk the same language.”

Wong chuckled. “I’m not laughing at you,” he apologized. “It isn’t funny. We all go through it—the discovery that there’s no way to go back. It’s part of growing up—but with spacemen it’s an especially acute and savage process.”

Matt nodded. “I’d already gotten that through my thick head. Whatever happens I won’t go back—not to stay. I might go into the merchant service, but I’ll stay in space.”

“You’re not likely to flunk out at this stage, Matt.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t know yet that the Patrol is the place for me. That’s what bothers me.”

“Well . . . can you tell me about it?”

Matt tried. He related the conversation with his father and his mother that had gotten them all upset. “It’s this: if it comes to a showdown, I’m expected to bomb my own hometown. I’m not sure it’s in me to do it. Maybe I don’t belong here.”

“Not likely to come up, Matt. Your father was right there.”

“That’s not the point. If a Patrol officer is loyal to his oath only when it’s no skin off his own nose, the whole system breaks down.”

Wong waited before replying. “If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your own hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called upon to carry out the attack is equally slight…But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Matt still looked troubled. “Not satisfied?” Wong went on. “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat, black-and-white answers. Suppose you relax and let me worry about whether or not you have what it takes. Oh, some day you’ll be caught in a squeeze with no one around to tell you the right answer. But I have to decide whether or not you can get the right answer when the problem comes along—and I don’t even know what your problem will be! How would you like to be in my boots?”

Matt grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn’t like it.

From thereon out, it’s a fairly standard science fiction story. If the last hundred page feel like an entirely different novel, well, the earlier drafts went in a rather different direction. In the final version, however, Matt is assigned to a ship, continuing his education while on search-and-assist in the asteroid belt, before being sent to Venus. There, Matt, Tex, and Oscar find themselves stranded, their commanding officer incapacitated, and must keep the peace with the local Venerians while rescuing themselves—exactly the sort of experience Lieutenant Wong was preparing Matt for. If only all college guidance counselors had the time and training to take such interest in their students’ psychological development!

What draws me to Space Cadet again after so many years is that it is not just a fun adventure in space (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s a vision of how to live as human beings.

This story was written immediately after the war, copyright 1948. The specter of fascism still hung over the western world, that Russia would be our geopolitical enemy for next forty years was still largely unthinkable.

Heinlein was looking ahead to a world of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Remember, Uncle Joe still didn’t have the bomb—if we’d acted quickly, the entire planet could have been a democracy (or a dictatorship). Even before America entered the war, Heinlein was thinking about the threat that nuclear weapons posed to world peace and world freedom.

In various forms, the Patrol was his fictional attempt to answer this problem. A quasi-military organization, with unlimited funds and unlimited firepower at its disposal, and each officer committed to the safety of every nation but his own. Lieutenant Wong is no accident: the Patrol’s multicultural character is made clear throughout the book. In a classic Heinlein twist, only after the boys are stranded on Venus do we learn that one of their commanders was of African descent.

(Those who mistakenly believe Sixth Column accurately represent Heinlein’s views on race should consider that he wrote this, for kids, at the same time.)

A decade before the beatniks, we’re told to stand up tall and proud in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and conduct ourselves as men.

Let’s do the responsible thing here and quote from William Patterson’s biography:

An incident witnessed on a family outing in Swope Park in 1912 stayed with [Heinlein] for the rest of his life. He would take it out of memory and turn it over in his mind again and again, examining it with wonder:

A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch—a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another younger man—the newspapers later said he was a tramp—stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.

Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife—but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself. Why did he do it? wondered little Bobby and then Adolescent Bobby—and so, repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it.

An artist works in images and articulates images even when he can’t necessarily articulate the meaning. This incident became a core image for [Heinlein], one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being. At the end he still could not articulate it. All he could say about it was: “This is how a man dies. This is how a man lives!” And that was enough.

This is what I love about Space Cadet, what I love about the Patrol, and what I love about Heinlein.

Maybe thinking with aesthetics isn’t so bad after all.

Prediction and Primacy of Consciousness

I finished Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand in 2015, and on the whole, didn’t get that much out of it. It took a long time to slog through, and didn’t answer some of my longstanding questions about Rand’s intellectual history. I’d recommend it as a reference text, but not as an introduction to Objectivism.

This isn’t a review of OPAR; I’ve discussed it elsewhere. Today we’re going to discuss one of the few good new ideas I learned reading it: primacy of consciousness.

Objectivism advocates a worldview based on primacy of existence. Rand holds that consciousness has no power over reality in and of itself—consciousness is the processes of identifying existents, not creating them. Now a conscious mind can decide to alter existents through physical action, or extrapolate the possibility of not-yet-existing existents, but the mere act of thinking cannot produce physical phenomena.1

Primacy of consciousness puts the cart before the horse. Perception can neither create a percept, nor modify it, nor uncreate it.2 Sufficiently invasive methods of inquiry may do that, but the mental process of observation does not.

Let us consider a technical example. When solving engineering assignments, it is often tempting to avoid checking my work. The correct answer is independent of whether I’ve made an exhaustive search for mistakes. Yet, on a certain level, it might seem that not looking will make an error go away.

But it won’t. As my structures professor often says, in aerospace engineering we have a safety factor of 1.5. In school, that’s just a target to aim for—if I screw up, the grade will point it out and I’ll feel silly for missing easy points. On the job, that’s not the case. If your work has a serious mistake, you’re going to kill people.

Or wreck the global economy.

Since starting Nate Silver’s book, perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve learned so far (besides an actually intuitive explanation of Bayes’ Theorem, contra Yudkowsky) was just how stupid the root causes of the housing crisis were.

I’d recommend reading the book if you’d like a properly comprehensive explanation, but the executive summary would be that, starting in the late 1990s, the value of houses began to skyrocket in what we now know was a real estate bubble. This was basically unprecedented in US history, which should have been a wake-up call in itself, but the problem was compounded by the fact that many investors assumed that housing prices would keep going up. They wanted to bet on these increasingly risky properties, creating all sorts of creative “assets” to bundle specious loans together. Rating agencies were happy to evaluate all of these AAA, despite being totally new and untested financial instruments. Estimated risk of default proved to be multiple orders of magnitude too low. And yet everyone believed them.

Silver describes this as a failure of prediction, of epistemology. Assessors made extremely questionable assumptions about the behavior of the economy and the likelihood of mortgage default, which are legitimate challenges in developing predictive models. Going back to my examples of structural engineering, it’s easy to drop the scientific notation on a material property when crunching the numbers. If you say that aluminum has a Young’s Modulus of 10.7, the model isn’t going to know that you meant 10.7 × 106 psi or 10.7 Msi. It’s going to run the calculations regardless of whether your other units match up, and may get an answer that’s a million times too big. Remember that your safety margin is 1.5.

I don’t think economic forecasters have explicit margins of error, but the same general principle applies. Using the wrong Young’s Modulus is an honest mistake, an accident, which is easily rectified if found early. Lots of errors in the rating agencies’ models weren’t so honest. They made what looked like big allowances for unknowns, but didn’t question a lot of their key assumptions. This speaks to a real failure of epistemic humility. They didn’t ask themselves, deep down, if their model was wrong. Not the wrong inputs, but the wrong equations entirely.

For instance, say I model an airplane’s wing as a beam, experiencing bending and axial loads, but no axial torsion. That’s a very big assumption. Say there’s engines mounted on the wing—now I’m just ignoring Physics 101. If I ran the numbers and decided that propulsive and aerodynamic twisting moments were insignificant for the specific question I’m considering, then it might be an acceptable assumption. But I would need to run the numbers.

Many people, at many organizations, didn’t run the numbers in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Now not all of them were given an explicit choice—many were facing managerial pressure to meet deadlines or get specific outputs. That’s an organizational issue, but really just bumps the responsibility up a level.3 Managers should want the correct answer, not the one that would put the biggest smile on their face.

In aerospace engineering, we have an example of what happens when you do that:

741px-challenger_explosion

Just because the numbers look good on paper doesn’t mean they correspond to the real world. Empirical testing is where that comes in. Engineers do that all the time, but even then, it doesn’t prevent organization incentives from bungling the truth. If the boss wants to hear a particular answer, she may keep looking until she finds it.

Economists are worse, trying to predict a massively nonlinear system and, Silver reports, doing quite badly at it. Objectivism is very strong on the importance of saying I know, but rationality also depends on saying I don’t know when you legitimately don’t. Try to find out, but accept that some truths are harder to obtain than others.

Existence exists, and existents don’t care what you think.


1Outside of your body, that is. This is where the line between body and mind becomes pertinent and about where I give up over reducibility problems. Suffice to say that if you can create matter ex nihilo, there’s a lot of people who would be interested in speaking with you.

2Those of you with itchy fingers about quantum mechanics are politely invited to get a graduate degree in theoretical physics. We’re talking about the macroscale here.

3Not that responsibility is a thing that can truly be distributed:

Responsibility is a unique concept… You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you… If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.
 —Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN

Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

“Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.”
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I first picked up Atlas Shrugged in 2009, and despite re-reading it obsessively for several months afterwards, never gave it a full cover-to-cover treatment in the seven years since then. This summer, as I worked my way through House of Leaves, I decide that Rand’s testament to human rationality was the appropriate counterpoint to cosmic horror, and decided it was finally time.

I finished Atlas Shrugged first. Oops.

My initial impression, during those early chapters, was that the book’s spirit still endured. Despite all my jading and cynicism these last few years, I found the story still inspired optimism, ambition, and confidence in rational thought. That sentiment is ultimately why Atlas Shrugged is worth reading. The explicit message is important, but the attitude it expresses, moreso. Or to put it in Rand’s terminology, the sense of life versus the philosophical system.

But about the explicit message–that’s why I reread the book. When you’re skimming through it for fun, it’s easy to overlook important passages that deal with some of the serious philosophical issues. Rand was meticulous in crafting an expression of her philosophy, countering all sorts of criticisms before they could be made. I’ve heard many arguments against Objectivism which John Galt or Francisco d’Anconia already tackled in 1957. For this reason, utilitarians and true altruists should still read Atlas Shrugged to know thy enemy.

That’s not to say that Rand’s reasoning is entirely airtight. I had my doubts in 2009, and I still have doubts now. This shouldn’t really be all that surprising–after finishing Atlas Shrugged, she turned to writing non-fiction explanations of various specific issues, particularly relating to metaphysics and human nature. The book covers a lot, but not everything. Discussions of Objectivism have a lot of room yet for progress.


What I love about this book are the tiny details. One-off characters, like Mr. Ward, referenced in passing hundreds of pages later, reveal so much about the story’s world as a whole. Almost every sentence is crafted to precisely communicate the relevant aspect of the theme, each word to describe a specific image or idea. These aren’t apparent on first reading, or even the second in certain cases.

Nevertheless I second-guess many of Rand’s choices. The way Cherryl’s story arc ends, for instance. Or Eddie Willers’. The sheer number of Dagny Taggart’s suitors seems like overkill. At several points, issues with the pacing that overshadow important thematic elements (especially regarding Rearden’s development).

Much of this comes down to the fact that this story is, ultimately, about Dagny’s journey. Do not be confused by the shifting third-person view: this book is about her. It’s not possible to pack every idea into her life, necessitating the support cast. I think this emphasis on her makes it hard to see the ways other individuals are responding to an irrational existence. Maybe that’s not the point of an egoist-individualist story, but communicative efficiency is valuable when crafting a propaganda document.

And to be clear, Atlas Shrugged is capitalist propaganda. I rather suspect that a population adhering to Rand’s philosophy would operate much less smoothly than Galt’s Gulch. On the whole, my suspicion is that it would be superior to our own, but not perfect. Most men wouldn’t react so calmly as Hank and Francisco if their true love chose someone else. Of course, the rational(ist) thing would be going poly, but Rand doesn’t apparently consider this an acceptable solution. This probably has to do with the Objectivist conception of love, but that’s another essay.

But this is a problem you can handle, given a small enough group and good enough people. The meta-problem is that the Objectivist society modeled for us employs a conflict-resolution system that doesn’t scale well.

Going to a neutral arbiter which you’ve agreed upon beforehand is, like, the ideal justice system. Unfortunately, at least one of those components is missing in the general case, usually both. The residents of Galt’s Gulch agree that Judge Narragansett will mediate their disputes. Ostensibly he’s a neutral party. In practice this may not be the case–he may be an interested party, or biased towards one of the contestants, and therefore nonobjective in his rulings. We don’t know, because we’re told that his faculty has never been called upon. This itself seems unlikely, but suppose it’s true. How big could the Gulch get before conflicts do arise? The current population is highly rational, highly intelligent, self-driven, and not in direct competition with each other. Sure, a new striker will arrive and put an old-timer out of business, but the Gulch has a huge labor shortage and there’s plenty of things to be done instead. What happens when competition for resources, or customers, or territory arises? How about interpersonal conflicts?

I suspect Rand would have a fancy answer for this, but in the latter case I don’t think there’s a neat philosophical resolution. Personality is only partially malleable, especially in adults. Not everyone gets along perfectly.

But perhaps that’s why Ayn Rand needed to write this book. We can be better. Human beings do not meet their potential as rational, productive, self-satisfying agents, not even slightly. This is what Atlas Shrugged is trying to convey: the possibility of a world made happier, not through wishful thinking, but through intelligence and conscious decision-making.

And that’s the message I think readers should take away. The world makes sense. Our problems are tractable. A joyous existence is possible.

Atlas Shrugged is not a perfect outline for utopia, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.

atlas-shrugged-cover

Book Review: The Foundations of Morality

Henry Hazlitt is popular in libertarian circles for his book Economics in One Lesson. His other works are usually an afterthought, which is a terrible shame because I think libertarians could greatly gain from his insights on ethics.

I picked up this book, along with a bunch of others, from the free literature that Young Americans for Liberty chapters are always awash in, thanks to generous donors and uninterested university students. It went on my reading list for summer 2014, and like all the other books on that list didn’t get read. By the end of the year, however, I was beginning to seriously doubt my Objectivism-based deontology. The Foundations of Morality, the back-cover blurb promises, derives natural rights from utilitarianism. How could I pass that up?

The book doesn’t exactly deliver this. Rather, Hazlitt develops a particular type of utilitarianism–a eudaemonic, mutualistic form of rule-utilitarianism. Hazlitt terms this philosophy cooperatism, as he sees social cooperation as the crucial element missing from the many moral theories he’s studied.

And the reader is left with little doubt that he’s studied well. He quotes extensively from Bentham, Hume, Adam Smith, and his fellow Austrian economists, plus dozens of writers I’d never heard of. Not all of them agree with his positions; Hazlitt makes an effort to argue in good faith and present the best opposing viewpoints. A good 23 pages are dedicated to citations.

I could write considerably about the process of Hazlitt’s derivation, but thankfully he’s written a summary for us in the concluding chapter, which can be read for free on the Mises Institute website. Allow me, though, to indulge a few words about the more personally interesting parts of his philosophy.

As mentioned above, Hazlitt puts a premium on social cooperation. Interestingly, his method seems to be a feature of human psychology which has been much maligned by modern utilitarians: scope insensitivity. Rather than focus on trying to do the absolutely optimal thing on the global scale, he says, we instead have a stronger obligation to those around us–families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

This seems a partial solution to the problem of effective altruism: the “most effective intervention” may remain effective while monopolizing all charity resources for years if not decades. Some have expressed concern that widespread success of the EA movement could have extreme negative effects that nevertheless are outweighed by the needs of the absolutely worst-off1. Hazlitt’s approach routes around that, putting our first priority on our selves and families, then on those close to us, and then whatever surplus energy or funds still available are allocated to helping those further away.

Additionally, Hazlitt makes the claim that we cannot expect to make significant moral progress in our lifetimes. The common law has been developed over the course of centuries by generations of ethicists, and for the most part it works. While there are some areas which could be improved, he believes that the importance of adhering to general rules should temper our enthusiasm for modifying the moral code. Firstly, it’s essential that everyone operate in relative unison, and disrupting that suddenly would have a large deleterious effect on society as a whole. Secondly, we cannot be sure our interventions will actually be an improvement.  Even if we have identified a legitimate problem, the prescribed solution may not make things better. We should exercise extreme caution and modify the social contract slowly to avoid making things worse.

This Burkean notion is one of the best arguments I’ve seen to date against Ayn Rand’s view that most classical, altruism-based ethics should be thrown out simply because they are wrong2. While I’m still sympathetic to that approach, Hazlitt has a point. There’s a huge amount of essential social protocol which we would have to rederive from first principles if everyone switched to egoism wholesale. The social code, despite being built on erroneous foundations, is still  of value because of the adjustments/correction factors which were introduced to make it work.

Now such new ethics would likely be a lot simpler. Unlike the Keplerian revolution, however, switching from the old and overcomplicated carries a tremendous cost. Thus we should approach the problem gingerly, doing our best to leave a better moral code to our grandchildren, while not making things drastically worse for their parents.

In the end, Hazlitt’s argument for rights is not that they are inviolable consequence of the natural order, but rather a form of outcome-maximizing social cooperation. The essential ingredients of capitalism, property rights and freedom of exchange should be respected not because of ontological interdiction, but because they maximize human well-being. Were some variant socialism a better system for procuring humanitarian needs Hazlitt would give it a fair hearing, but the evidence of the last century suggest both that it cannot meet such needs, and that the transition costs would be prohibitive even if spread over generations. Capitalism, by comparison, is delivering the goods reasonably well now, and we should be hesitant to disrupt something that works.

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1This is, basically, Nozick’s concept of a utility monster, extended along the temporal axis. Instead of treating the choice of where to allocate resources as a one-off decision, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on change means that we could spent decades pulling people out of poverty faster than anyone else while still seeing a net decrease in utility. Or the situation might be reversed, depending on the preferences of the altruist. Moreover, if we narrowly confine ourselves to what works quickly, then we may miss the most effective interventions simply because they require considerable capital investment. Vaccine development comes to mind.

2Rand is mentioned only once, noting her position as one of the few modern ethical egoists. Hazlitt’s concern is more with proving that helping self and others is non-contradictory (i.e. mutualism). Objectivists should still find something to appreciate in the chapter devoted to asceticism.  Hazlitt goes in depth discussing the gory details of medieval monks and religious devotees starving and torturing themselves while nevertheless depending on others for their survival. He does his best to present defending arguments, but concludes that self-discipline in the pursuit of moral ends is a more reasonable approach to ethics.