Why my students love Ayn Rand

I think my Introduction to Ethics class is fairly typical. We start with Epicurus and work our way through Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant. After those heavy hitters, I try to lighten things up with some essays from contemporary philosophers (in the most general interpretation of the term). So, after reading some Kant, I move to an interview with Ayn Rand for a little break.

This may not be such as good tactic. When I first chose the assignment, I did so because the interview reveals Rand’s beliefs in a way that is stark and easily digested. I assumed anyone reading it would agree with me that her philosophy is reprehensible, and I would be serving the greater good of humanity by having them exposed to it. I try not to reveal my biases in class, and I really don’t want to tell them what to believe. I just hope they will hate Rand. I’m less concerned about what they will like.

Nonetheless, I always have a few students who declare that Rand is the first reading they have liked. I ask probing questions hoping to find that maybe they didn’t really get what she was saying, simplistic as it is, but I generally have to concede that they really do like what she says. As a result, I think I have created a small band of ardent Rand supporters over the years. The Tea Party can thank me. And I think I’ve identified the two reasons she is so popular with students:

1. As I mentioned, the assignment is easy to read and digest. After slogging through Mill and Kant, I can certainly understand why they would be relieved to find something they can understand on the first pass, even if the reading completely flies in the face of their supposed religious convictions. But the second point is more meaningful to me.

2. Rand is easy in another sense as well. She really doesn’t demand much of her readers. She tells them they must be selfish and pursue only what is truly gratifying to them. Now, Epicurus said that they should seek a pleasurable life through contemplation and serious examination of the world around them with great respect for their community. Aristotle tells them they must practice constantly to become virtuous in a way that will enable not only their personal flourishing but the success of their society. Mill tells them to seek their own pleasure but that they will derive the greatest satisfaction from pleasures that require much practice and refinement to achieve. And Kant tells them they can’t lie under any circumstances. Furthermore, they must help people who are worse off than they are. To follow Kant or any of the others, they would have to put out a great deal of effort to change how they live, but to follow Rand’s advice they don’t see that much more effort is required. In their minds, at least, they are already living Rand’s ideal life. And, they get to feel pretty self-righteous comparing themselves to recipients of government aid (my students do not consider low community college tuition to be a form of government support).

I suppose I am hopelessly naive to think my students will take my class looking for hints on possible self improvement. They are seeking validation for their current lifestyles, not ideas on how to improve.

Except when they are not seeking the easy way. It is easy for teachers to get discouraged and forget all the talented and hard working students who are in constant search of new information and new challenges. Many of my students have now gone on from the community college to universities and graduate school. They have admirable careers in fields such as law, science, health, and social work. I am humbled by them.

For further reading:
1. 10 (insane) things I learned about the world reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
2. How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the US into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in dignity, education, ethics, justice, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Why my students love Ayn Rand

  1. Gabriel says:

    What do you have against Rand’s philosophy?

  2. Ray says:

    I disagree with point #2. Rand doesn’t just tell people to live the lives they already live. She, like Aristotle, asks people to achieve happiness by striving to practice a number of virtues consistently. Her major virtues are rationally, productiveness, and pride, and she has elaborations of what they are and what they involve. At the very least, they involve striving to make all your knowledge empirical, and setting up ambitious goals and striving to meet them.

    If your students feel that they already live up to Rand’s ideal, either you have amazing students, or they didn’t really understand Rand.

  3. Thanks for the comment. Accepting the point you are making, I will say that based on the short reading I’ve assigned, most of my students tap into Rand’s disapproval of a certain class of people, and my students do not feel they are part of the despised class. Rather, they are part of the despising class. Also, most of my students rate themselves as rational, productive, and proud–as most people do.

  4. robert says:

    You want your students to hate rand, that is very kantian of you.

  5. robert says:

    kant thinks we should never tell a lie and that war is good.

  6. robert says:

    Are you saying you have not corrupted your students enough?

  7. robert says:

    If men want to oppose war, it is statism that they must oppose. So long as they hold the tribal notion that the individual is sacrificial fodder for the collective, that some men have the right to rule others by force, and that some (any) alleged “good” can justify it —there can be no peace within a na­tion and no peace among nations. Ayn rand

  8. Ayn Rand says:

    For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors—between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.

    • Apparently Rand’s followers actually believe no one else ever said your life is yours to live. Wouldn’t it be interesting if she were really the originator of that idea when almost every five year old I have ever known has stamped his or her feet and said, “I do what I want!” Our lives don’t belong to our neighbors, but we take our neighbors into consideration because they matter in the same way we matter. Without concern for our neighbors, our lives are meaningless. Most philosophers recognize that the complexity and interdependence of human relationships make life valuable and worthy of our considered attention. Rand discussed the value of love in her life, but she seemed unable to see love as a social force.

  9. robert says:

    So you think people should not live their own life?

    • Twice a month I volunteer with a bereavement center working with 5 – 7 year olds who have lost either a parent or a sibling to death (accidents, disease, homicide, and other causes). I suppose you believe I should just live my own life and let these children make their way to the best of their ability, but I feel differently.

      I also volunteer at a center that distributes food and clothing to people who are homeless. Through this effort, I have the ability to meet many homeless people and find how they became homeless. Illness and medical bills are a common cause of their problems, but many other factors can land someone on the streets. I’ve heard enough stories that I believe it can happen to absolutely anyone. Some of us are just luckier than others.

      At the end of her life, Ayn Rand had to rely on government assistance and the help of a caregiver. Illness and old age took their toll. She is fortunate to have lived in a time and place where people like her weren’t simply left to die. Thanks to her influence on policy, she might not be so lucky today.

      Ayn Rand spoke rather convincingly about how we might sacrifice for the ones we love because we are merely trying to preserve what we value. She seemed unaware that we may love and value our neighbors, including those who are strangers. She lived the kind of life and died the kind of death that I would not wish on anyone.

      • robert says:

        It is ok to help others as long as you are not coerced in to it or asking for others to be coerced.

      • Perhaps you haven’t read Ayn Rand on this subject. According to her, if I act on altruistic motives, I am following a kind of slave morality, letting my actions be determined by the needs of others. While she does say no one should prevent me from helping, she is clear that what I am doing is immoral in her eyes. Her morality has nothing to recommend it, and I want nothing to do with it.

  10. robert says:

    You stamp your foot and demand your neighbours goods.

  11. robert says:

    Do you think everyone should sacrifice themselves for other people and only keep the bare minimum in food to stay alive?

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