Before anyone accuses me of being an Objectivist, I guess I better make some quick, pointed critiques of Rand's philosophy. Nothing is quite so off-putting as someone who is too enthusiastic about a new philosophy. Every philosophy has its problematic parts; even Jesus got some 'splainin' to do. Anytime someone preaches a gospel that doesn't seem to have a downside, the audience suspects they have not lived with it long enough to hit the catch. As C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed: "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I will listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."
Part of the appeal of Atlas Shrugged is how clear it makes everything. One senses that with the light of reason, you could plot a clear and unambiguous course through life, freed from messy emotions and bothersome moral imperatives and liberated to pursue one's "happiness as the moral purpose of one's life." Of course, the reason it all seems so clear in the book is because (duh) it's a story. Rand's characters are black-or-white cut-outs, unambiguous manifestations of good or evil. In Rand's imagination, every self-interested industrialist is a paragon of action and intention who just loves to create; meanwhile, every altruist is a worthless, sponging bastard who uses political intrigue to steal what they want. Nobody is quite so simple as that; if they were, we wouldn't need moral philosophies at all. I understand that Atlas Shrugged was deliberately written to be overstated and unambiguous; however, the real test of a philosophy is how well it holds up in the face of ambiguity.
The biggest problem I have with Rand's "virtue of selfishness" is that it does not completely "save the appearances," as they say in philosophy: it doesn't fully explain things that we can plainly see in the everyday world. Sure, some calls for altruism are just smarmy ploys to win mercy for oneself and excuse weakness . . . but it I have also seen 100% bona fide altruism, where strong and capable people help others, just because they can and should. Nor does rational self-interest inevitably lead to moral perfection – Rand doesn't even begin to contemplate the possibility of repressive economic regimes, true robber-barons and such. I agree with her that talk of "selflessness" inevitably runs afoul of some "performative contradictions," as Ken Wilber would say; you can't negate the self without negating life. But glorifying the self just makes the opposite mistake. Something fishy is going on . . . and I think it all hinges on how we define the self.
My biggest critique of objectivism and, in fact, libertarianism in general is that it assumes we are born like Athena--magically entering the universe as fully grown, independent adults. Of course, the truth is that we all enter the world completely helpless and incapable of handling any responsibility whatsoever. Yes, it's a cliche, but it's true: what about the children?
I never read Atlas Shrugged but I remember children were almost completely absent from The Fountainhead, and with good reason.
I have read Atlas Shrugged and in fact I did notice the absence of children, mostly because I felt that any hint of motherhood would give the lie to all her assertions about altruism.
The fundamental creed of Ayn Rand's hero is "I will not live my life in the service of any other man" or some such. She just does not get it. Let's forget children: she still doesn't get it. She doesn't get what Mr. Rose called "service and selflessness." She doesn't get the empty hollowness of a life lived in the pursuit of greed, ego, and self-aggrandizement, or the rewards of a life of service. The idealistic "community" she presents toward the end of the book, hidden away from civilization, is a cold mockery of true community, a land in which if your house burns down you can raise your own damn barn.
I should say again, I really respect some things about her, and I'm glad she's out there. But at a very fundamental level, she just does not get it.
finally, i figured out how to comment on these things, for some reason always before I couldn't get my comments to work
ps the reason i thought you might like atlas shrugged or at least should read it had to do w/ two things, 1) the way that they are trying to create an intentional community -- the whole thing about dagne waking up and saying "this is the world as she had thought it was at 16" -- because that was my experience of sks when I got into the adult group -- because of the way at least I experienced what the sks tried to be or was or is or wants to be. also 2) there is a stark beauty in atlas shrugged, despite its flaws (of which there are obviously many), which I see in the sks also