Ayn Rand and the Mind of An Impressionable Twenty-Something

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the President of the Ruth Institute.

I went to see Atlas Shrugged Part III the night it opened. The evening led me to reflect on what had attracted me to Ayn Rand as a twenty-something graduate student in economics.

And let it be said: I was very attracted to her ideas. I appreciated how she dramatized the evils of a centrally planned economy. I was persuaded by her depiction of the fast descent of economic control into a totalitarian state.

Most of all, I loved how she said it was ok to be selfish. There it is. The naked truth about the appeal of Ayn Rand. Selfishness and an irrational individualism continues to be a glaring weakness of much of the Right today.

But why exactly, was selfishness so appealing to my twenty-something self?

At that time in my life, I felt that I was being manipulated by my mother. She made me feel that I was bad if I did not do what she wanted. She sometimes didn't even come right out and ask me for what she wanted. If I loved her, I would clean the house. If I cared about my brothers and sisters, I would do whatever she wanted me to do. If I cared about her, I would take her side in her disapprobation of my father. If I cared about my father, I would do what she wanted me to do.

It seemed there was always a circle of some kind being spun, and seldom a direct request for help. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

As I record this now, it make it sound as if it was all her fault. I now recognize that this was my immaturity and selfishness speaking. For I was indeed, immature and selfish, just as she had insisted. This too, is part of the truth, my part of the responsibility for what happened, whatever fault she may have had.

As a matter of fact, she was not always circuitous. She did tell me quite directly that I was in way too deeply with my boyfriend. She was correct about that. I couldn't bring myself to tell her I felt my father's love for me compromised because of the way she had badmouthed my father.

Thank God they never divorced. All these dynamics would have been far more toxic played out against the backdrop of the family court and possibly new love interests for one or both parents.

When I went off to college, I welcomed the Sexual Revolution. I was a full participant. It did not make me happy. I dropped out and came back home. I moved in with my boyfriend, much against my parents' wishes. I married him, to their extremely mixed feelings. Marriage was better than cohabiting. But this was not the right man for me. Even my 14 year old sister could see that.

I got married in the Church, to please my parents, and also, because frankly, no other alternative seemed thinkable in 1974. But the pastor could also see that this was a bad match and told me so. I thought he was an awful human being and turned my back on the Church, thinking I would never set foot in a Catholic church again as long as I lived.

In retrospect, I do not fault him for telling me the truth. I only fault him for solemnizing our attempted marriage. But I am not too hard on him for that. I remember how difficult I was. I sympathize with the clergy of today, who daily deal with far worse than my younger self.

Enter Ayn Rand.

I first read Ayn Rand in economics graduate school. My friends in the Libertarian Party told me about Rand. She seemed to round out the libertarian picture.

And oh, by the way, her philosophy of the Virtue of Selfishness gave me a reason to ignore the problems in my family. I didn't have to be drawn into the drama. I could pursue my own self-interest without apology. My rational self-interest, that is. (That was Rand's term which approximated the job that "self-interest, rightly understood" did for Tocqueville and others.)

I felt justified in walking away from my family. I detached from the whole mess that seemed to me insoluble. I felt justified in my own sexual misadventures and in my divorce. I was pursuing "my highest value," so it was all ok.

Of course, I ended up walking into more loneliness and problems than ever. In the end, I wasn't happy until I figured out a way to engage with my family. I needed to learn about boundaries so I could protect myself. After all, sometimes people are being manipulative. With that protection, I could engage with the world with love. But I could not do any of that, until I stopped feeling sorry for myself and became sorry for my own sins.
Just as the Church had been trying to tell me from the beginning.

Only in long hindsight can I see what would have been better for me and my family. We needed to learn to love one another. Someone should have told us that many of the things we were worrying about were just fussing and should not be taken too seriously. Needing to win every argument is not a sign of strength, but a sign of weakness.

Someone should have told me and other young people that steamy sex scenes in books like Ayn Rand's should not be taken seriously as permission or endorsement.

The Sexual Revolution gave all of us more exit options, options to throw away our relationships. Ayn Rand gave us philosophical justifications for exercising those exit options. But what the family of the 1950's really needed was more love, more honor, more responsibility, more patience, more forgiveness, repentance and generosity.

The family needed fewer family secrets and grudges, less shame, quarreling, resentments, and yes, less selfishness.

These are the very same things the family needs today.

Young people have an intrinsically difficult time knowing what is truly in their rational long-term self-interest. When we are making decisions that affect family-formation, we are making decisions that have ramifications that extend across generations. Relying on the wisdom of adults and previous generations actually makes good sense. Honestly, a society that encourages young people to try to figure it all out on their own through trial and error is not behaving rationally.

With so much misinformation provided courtesy of the Sexual Revolution, many of us resorted to making short term selfishness a virtue.

I have no doubt that Objectivist philosophers and other ethical egoists will find this statement objectionable. For they will say that my younger self was not really behaving in her rational long-term self-interest. I can certainly affirm that: I have the scars to prove it.

My only point is the radical individualism that many of us derived from Ayn Rand blocked us from seeking the wisdom of older people. Decades after Rand's proposal of Objectivism, I have yet to see any of her followers address this most basic problem of the human condition. The young and immature do need guidance. Society does need to make provision for the legitimate dependency of infants and children, who after all, continually reappear, generation after generation.

We really are social creatures, made to love and be loved. That is our "highest value." Ayn Rand's work pointed to some political and economic problems that had to be addressed in her time. But she had no clue about the real meaning of love and family and their place in a well-lived human life. Those who do have a clue need to share it.

We will all be better for it.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the President of the Ruth Institute.

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