Response to Anthem
Anthem is the poster-child for those against collectivism. In her works, Rand advocates rational egoism – the mentality that doing what’s best for one’s self, within reason, is ultimately best for one’s society. In Anthem, Rand draws the problems of collectivism to their utmost extremes, and advocates the use of extreme egoism to solve them. While I do agree rational egoism is important for both the individual and his society, I don’t believe it should cancel out all collective thoughts.
Rand’s rational egoism is the polar opposite of collectivism, yet she is also much against altruism. In Anthem, Rand depicts a dystopian society of which is the extreme of altruistic, not collective. Altruism does not equal collectivism. To be brief, when one is altruistic, one is demanded to absolutely sacrifice oneself. This means, if a train is barreling towards a child, and a man see’s this and has time to pull a lever to switch the track causing the train to hit him instead – the man must give his life for the other person. This is this kind of extreme altruism that is depicted in Anthem, seeing as to how they were not even able to say “I.”
Collectivism is the philosophy that the wellbeing of the group, or collective, prioritizes that of the individual; but would that philosophy necessarily encourage the elimination of the word, “I?” What if that man who pulled the lever was the only farmer in the town, and the child was an orphan - would the man’s sacrifice be in the collective’s best interest? No. Without the farmer, the entire town would suffer; without the orphan, the town would remain relatively unchanged. The society in which the man chose to take his life in lieu of the child’s is more similar to the society depicted in Anthem – an altruistic, not collective, society.
Similarly, if the City were truly collective, why would the council reject the light bulb? The introduction of the light bulb and electricity would only propel the society, thus making Equality’s discovery beneficial for the collective. He wasn’t looking for recognition, Equality simply wanted to bring his discovery to his brothers to improve the City. This intention is consistent with those advocated in a collectivist society; however, the light bulb was ousted by his brethren, simply because Equality discovered it while he was alone and sacrificed nothing to make it.
While the light bulb would certainly be beneficial to society in the long run, it would certainly have an immediate negative impact. The candle makers would almost immediately be displaced and lose their jobs, causing civil strife within the society. This makes us question the scale of collectivism, and ponder how far into the future we have to consider while making decisions; this is a common problem with many forms of ethics such as utilitarianism. A Randian would posit that instability is a small price to pay for progress, but I argue that this is still a collective idea and not one of rational egoism.
Rand experienced the 1917 October Revolution, which more or less upturned her lifestyle and forced her and her loved ones to be part of the collective. This suppressive environment may have definitely contributed to her hatred of this idea. In Anthem, Rand writes, “To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.” (pg62, Anthem) She also infers that being free is better than being part of the collective, which is consistent with her belief in rational egoism. One factor being overlooked is the power in unity. Why would one want to be free from his brothers, if he has power and strength alongside them? I am a firm believer in the power of unity, so I disagree with Rand’s extreme egoism. It is almost contradictory; egoism implies one would want to do what’s most beneficial for oneself, but what if joining a unifying institution is beneficial? Given this condition, rational egoism can in fact lead one to believe in collectivism.
Notice how I’ve argued for collectivism through out this response and not for altruism. I feel that altruism is nonsensical and unnecessary to anyone’s happiness, all while being contradictory. If A earns X and must give X to B, once B has X, isn’t B inclined to give X to C? This is a waste of whatever resource you’d like X to be, and this kind of thinking has no place in a utopian society. This is also the problem in which Rand seeks to solve with her philosophy. The altruistic aspect of the society in Anthem is that people have given up their individuality entirely for the sake of the wellbeing as a whole. This is an altruistic and collectivist idea; however, while collectivism can prosper without altruism, the same cannot be said about the opposite. I believe in collectivism without altruistic ideals.
Rational egoism is indeed a successful solution to the inherent problems regarding extreme collectivism. One of the biggest problems faced by the protagonist in Anthem is that he is misplaced in his role as a street sweeper and has no freedom of self-interest or expression. Under a collectivist society, many could feel oppressed, much like Equality 7-2521, and would lead very unsatisfying lives. Being cliché, societies run like the City will always lead man to believe that the grass is greener on the other side due to human nature. In a society like that in Anthem, rational egoism would be a cure; however, it can bring about a plethora of problems.
While rational egoism could be very empowering and really draws from its roots in humanism and individualism, the biggest problem is its use of the word rational. Rationality is seldom agreed upon amongst a group, making it absolutely subjective. What one may view as rational, another may view as irrational and disgusting behavior. This may lead to many conflicts, since everyone is using their own scale of rationality to guide their actions. Alternately, if everyone is using a universal scale of rationality, then it wouldn’t always work for the individual’s best interest and therefore would not be egoism. A society riddled with conflict is certainly not utopian, and the subjectivity of the word rational is the fault in Rand’s philosophy.
Overall, I absolutely loved this novella, as I found it thought provoking and very well written. While I typically do believe in rational egoism to an extent, I feel it is necessary to find the happy medium and govern with it. Ideally, a group should mean nothing without the individual, and the individual should mean nothing without the group. Unless a mutually beneficial relationship is formed between the two, utopia will never be attained.
- Stephan DiGiacomo