February 2002 -- The virtue of selfishness has become a tough sell. Before September 11, one could score points for egoism by elaborating on the ways in which gainful work bettered one's life. One could hymn the personal joys to be derived from art, recreation, and family. And one could mention the secondary benefits that productive and happy people create for others, both economically and personally.
Today, though, national honors are being bestowed on firefighters who died by the hundreds trying to save strangers; on young Americans killed by gunfire while protecting their country from terrorism; and on airline passengers who heedlessly threw themselves on would-be hijackers. In this climate, it has become harder to make the case for a morality that says, "Maximize your chances for survival and reap the rewards."
Nevertheless, I think that the case for selfishness can and should be made, not least because it is a morality of self that underlies the heroic actions now foremost in our minds.
To begin, one must distinguish several types of behavior that are often conflated under the label "heroism," for not all "heroes" are alike in their motives. According to Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and a former president of the American Psychological Association, the people conventionally called heroes come in three varieties. First are what he calls 911 heroes: people who make a career of saving other people's lives, often at considerable risk to themselves. The firefighters, policemen, and security personnel who risked their lives during the terrorist attack would be obvious examples, as would the military personnel carrying out the war on terrorism.
In general, such heroes are people who crave stimulation and physical challenge, Farley says. "But they don't have a death wish. Not at all. They want to live for another interesting and exciting day" (quoted in USA Today, November 21, 2001). Consequently, 911 heroes strive to minimize risk within the context of their highly risky jobs. Marines like to tell each other: "Don't John Wayne it." Roughly translated, and with apologies to the Duke, that means: Don't take unprofessional risks.
There are many reasons why people might enjoy a risky job. In the NovemberNavigator, D. Moskovitz cited evidence from Mean Genes (by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan) that there is a genetic and neurological explanation. (Read this) Farley agrees, but adds that nurture also plays a role. "The likelihood of growing up to be Evil Knievel in an Amish family is very low," he says, and notes that firefighters and policemen often have friends and neighbors doing the same kind of work.
Of course, altruists try to claim these heroes for their own morality, because 911 work sometimes involves saving lives and because it is often risky. The relentlessly leftist Jesuit weekly America editorialized that ground zero "will be forever linked not only to suffering and death but also to our capacity for altruism" (December 17, 2001). But professional life-savers are not necessarily altruists. Yes, the work they love sometimes involves saving lives, but that is only to say that 911 heroes especially enjoy earning their living by creating the value of safety, in the same way doctors especially enjoy earning their living by creating the value of health, and teachers especially enjoy earning their living by creating the value of education. And, yes, 911 heroes love their work in part because it is risky, but they do not intend or expect to suffer for their risk-taking. (Whether the pleasure a person takes from a risky job makes it moral to choose that job even if it is less likely to result in his survival than other jobs—all things considered—is a question for another day. Here, I assume that it is moral.)
No doubt, 911 heroes also enjoy the gratitude they receive from those they rescue, as a doctor may enjoy the gratitude of a patient he has cured. Some 911 heroes may even enjoy the accolades that altruists shower on them for taking risks on behalf of other people. But those accolades are a disservice to the many other people whose risky jobs provide us with goods and services that sustain our lives. For instance, the riskiest job in the United States is that of fisherman: 160 deaths per 100,000 per year versus 125 per 100,000 for firemen. But fishermen get no praise for risking their lives on our behalf; all they get is the vituperation of Greenpeace and its allies.
A second type of hero is the "sustainer," the person who serves as an indispensable "pillar of support" to his business or his family or his friends. We have learned from the mini-biographies provided by the New York Times's "Portraits of Grief" that many of those who worked and died at the World Trade Center were "sustainer" heroes of this kind. One could equally well call them Atlas heroes.
Tim Byrne was a bond-trader who died at the WTC. In the mid-1980s, his father died at the age of 47, leaving a widow with ten children. Tim Byrne was but 21, yet he became the family's financial and emotional caretaker. He attended PTA conferences, coached his brothers' sports teams, tutored his sister, and made sure all his siblings were on track for college.
Once again, altruists try to claim people like Tim Byrne as representatives of their morality, but was Byrne an altruist? There is no reason to think so. If he had spent less time with his brothers and sisters he might have gone further in the world of finance. But choosing family may nonetheless have been the selfish thing for him to do. Jim Bird, an Objectivist who founded a management skills training firm, tells people: "Don't live for your Encyclopaedia Britannica entry." And he is right. One's job is usually the economic center of one's life, since it provides the wherewithal for everything else, but that does not mean it must be the emotional center of one's life. (For further explanation, see David Kelley, "The Best Within Us," IOS Journal, March and May, 1993.)
Of course, someone who acted like Byrne would be an altruist if he truly loved every minute of his bond-trading work and dragged himself reluctantly off to PTA and his coaching activities because his family needed him. But someone like Byrne would be no less of an altruist if he truly loved working with his family and chose instead to work a hundred hours a week at bond-trading because his company needed him. As Ayn Rand reiterated constantly, and altruists refuse to recognize, sacrifice is not a matter of giving up material values for spiritual values. It is a matter of giving up a greater value for a lesser one, usually for the sake of another's need. Whether the values in question are money, fame, love, or honor is irrelevant.
We cannot know Tim Byrne's moral motivation with certainty. But Byrne's sister says that he carried out his numerous family tasks "with great humor," something an altruist might find hard to sustain over fifteen years. In any case, the evidence suggests that Atlases in general are egoists, not altruists, whether they are sustaining families or companies. They do not lead their lives dragging themselves reluctantly through altruistic obligations. In the words of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University, sustainers do not "give 'til it hurts" (USA Today, November 21, 2001). They give only so long as they get what he calls "a helper's high." A better term would be "a doer's high."
In sum, heroes who have emerged following the terrorist attacks, and who fit into the first two hero categories identified by Frank Farley, are quite easily explained by the morality of egoism and the virtue of selfishness—rightly understood. But September 11 produced a third set of heroes: the passengers who fought back on United Flight 93. These are people whom Farley calls "situational heroes," and they do not fit so easily into a self-interested philosophy. They are not by nature risk-takers and have not sought out high-risk professions. Nor are they Atlases helping people of great value to themselves. Nevertheless, when circumstances arise, they undertake actions that endanger their lives, even though less-risky courses of action may be open to them.
Such situational heroes are beloved of the media, and an entire foundation exists to honor them. This is the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, begun by Andrew Carnegie in 1904. Annually, it awards medals and grants of money to "a civilian who voluntarily risks his or her own life, knowingly, to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person." The following is a typical story of a Carnegie hero:
Arturo Aragon rescued Jeannette M. Howe from assault in New York City. Miss Howe, 25, entered the lobby of her apartment building and was attacked by a man armed with a knife. Attracted by her screams, Aragon, 58, a porter, ran to the lobby, where he lunged at the attacker and struggled with him. The assailant fled after stabbing Aragon in the abdomen. Miss Howe suffered a cut on her hand; she recovered after hospital treatment. Aragon was hospitalized for his wound, which required surgery, but he too recovered.
Situational heroes like Aragon are the despair of 911 professionals, who assume they are the altruists portrayed in the media. The advice of the professionals to those who find themselves positioned to be situational heroes is: "Act in your self-interest. Call the police department or fire department, but don't intervene." (Of course, such professional advice is not intended to endorse the citizen apathy evident in the 1964 Kitty Genovese case, where thirty-eight witnesses failed even to call the police when they heard a woman being stabbed to death.)
But are the media and the safety professionals correct in their analysis of situational heroism? Is it a form of altruism, or is another interpretation possible? The question has come to the fore, following September 11, because the passengers of Flight 93 have been forced into the standard model of altruistically motivated situational heroes, even though there is no evidence to support that characterization. Specifically, the myth has spread that they acted to save the Capitol Building or the White House. Perhaps, by acting, they did save one of those American symbols and the people working in it; perhaps they spared Americans as a whole the anguish that such destruction would have added to that terrible day. But there is no evidence that such a goal was in their minds. Tom Burnett's wife had told him of the three earlier crashes, but when she pleaded with him to be quiet, what he said was: "Deena, if they are going to run this plane into the ground, we're going to do something." Note: the ground, not a public building.
Yet a question remains for Objectivists: Even if the passengers of Flight 93 did not give up their lives altruistically, to save people in the Capitol or the White House, how shall we evaluate their behavior as regards their own self-interest? Was it prudent? Was it rash? Or was it something beyond prudent and rash?
The best available analysis of the situation, I believe, shows that the passengers knew they were not acting in the most prudent possible manner. After all, on the morning of September 11, the experts' best advice to passengers of hijacked planes was: "Stay calm; do what the hijackers tell you." And this advice was well known. On January 16, 2000, for example, the New York Times Magazine printed an advice article that began with the question "What Shouldn't Passengers Do?" The answer read: "Basically, anything that any action hero has ever done on screen. Most of all, no passengers should succumb to what Stephen Luckey, head of the security committee of the Air Line Pilots Association, dubs the John Wayne syndrome—the urge to subdue or sabotage the terrorists."
Almost certainly, the passengers on Flight 93 were aware that this was the experts' advice, for they were working with several flight attendants, who surely knew the prescribed procedure for a hijacking. Nor was it clear that this hijacking was sufficiently different to justify the passengers' disregard of the experts' advice. A voice claiming to be that of the captain, after announcing the hijacking, had said the plane was returning to the airport. Following that announcement, the plane continued flying for half an hour and had indeed turned around. Passenger Todd Beamer, on the phone to GTE supervisor Lisa Jefferson, seemed to think he was involved in an ordinary hijacking, for he asked: "Does anybody know what they want? Money? Ransom? What?" Even the wife of passenger Tom Burnett, who had told him of the WTC and Pentagon crashes, did not believe that Burnett's flight was destined to be destroyed. She pleaded: "Tom, sit down. Be still. Be quiet. Don't draw attention to yourself. Wait for the authorities."
This interpretation of the passengers' behavior is not the only one possible. At least one passenger, Jeremy Glick, evidently expected to succeed in taking back the plane. After talking to his wife, he went off to fight, saying, "Hang on the line. I'll be back." But what shall egoists say of passengers who believed, along with Deena Burnett, that a marginally better chance of escaping lay in passivity? What if these passengers (and countless situational heroes before them) made their decision without taking full account of relative risks? Must egoists say that they acted irrationally and therefore immorally? That is a tough judgment, but it has the advantage of being lucid. Personally, I think it is a mistaken judgment. But to explain why, we must spend some time looking at the fundamental principles of Objectivism .
According to Objectivism, a person's ultimate value is his life, his survival, his self-sustenance. All other values—from food and shelter, to knowledge and art, to friendship and love, to liberty and government—are subordinate to this one, and justified only insofar as they serve it. That is the foundation of Objectivism's "selfishness." The things I seek are valuable only if, directly or indirectly, they support my life.
This raises a question: What are the major values that I will probably need to support my life? It is a question that must be answered empirically. What kind of organism am I? What sorts of values does this kind of organism need to live? The broadest answer to these questions is: Considered as an organism, I am a man. To discover the values a man needs, one must look at how people live and discover the values that help them live, the values that have done the most to ensure their survival. At the same time, one must investigate scientifically why these values work. Many pious businessmen swear that faith in God is the foundation of their success. But unless one can trace a causal connection between faith and profit, one cannot claim theological belief as an empirically grounded value.
Once one has discovered the values that will likely support one's life, one must also discover the best means of obtaining them. Again, the process of discovery is empirical. What sorts of value-obtaining actions can a man take? And what are the best sorts of value-obtaining action? Once I know the answers to those questions, I know what actions I ought to perform. Objectivists summarize this conclusion by saying that my moral standard is Man's Life, that is, man-sustaining behavior.
Obviously, that is a very general standard, and actions that tend to sustain human beings can be subdivided in various ways. These types of actions are what Objectivists call virtues, and the Objectivist virtues include rationality, independence, integrity, productiveness, honesty, justice, moral ambitiousness, and benevolence. But it is important to remember that these virtues are virtues only because they are the types of actions that tend to sustain human life and are therefore likely to sustain my life.
Thus, a person's ultimate moral goal, according to Objectivism, is his survival. And what that means is very simple: survival as understood by the medical profession. Some people who have been influenced by Objectivism have adopted a morality ("the morality of flourishing") that insists the very concept of human survival includes such values as access to friendship and art—the good things of life. The Objectivist morality, although it certainly recognizes the value of such things, pronounces them valuable only because they make demonstrable contributions to one's survival, in the medical sense.
From that goal of bare survival, then, an Objectivist derives a set of goals that, if achieved, will most likely ensure his survival. From that goal of surviving, an Objectivist also develops a moral standard—the actions that will most likely support man's survival. From that standard, an Objectivist derives general virtues: trying his best to understand and evaluate his situation (which is rationality); enunciating, practicing, and standing up for his beliefs (which is integrity); taking responsibility for acting to achieve his goals (which is productiveness). These virtues the person then concretizes into specific practices suited to his circumstances, and these practices he makes into habits.
The result of this process is the development of a personal identity. For example, as a boy matures into a man, he will pursue a life-sustaining value such as romantic love. In adolescence, the object of the boy's romantic love will probably shift from girl to girl. But, over time, as the man becomes a highly individuated person, the life-supporting value of romantic love may well come to be permanently associated with one particular woman and with particular habits that sustain a relationship with that woman (for example, treating this woman in the particular ways that generate mutual visibility). The man seeks survival; he seeks continued existence; but now it is the survival of this man, with this personal identity. He seeks to survive by means of the virtues that support man's life, but he does this in highly concrete ways. He seeks to survive by means of the concrete habits to which he has reduced the human virtues.
In order to clarify the concept of personal identity developed here, I want to distinguish it from two competing versions. In some religious understandings, one's personal identity is a deeply interior thing, usually an immortal soul. A person is obliged to act for the eternal salvation of this soul and to shield it against all the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. A post-Enlightenment Romantic version likewise holds that one's personal identity is some deeply interior self or locus of being that one must preserve against the soul-deadening bourgeois world. As the 26-year-old Marx put it in 1844: "Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth." Or, in a famous Marxian epigram: "The enemy of being is having."
The Objectivist concept of personal identity developed here is completely different from these two rivals. In fact, it might well be called a worldly or bourgeois concept of personal identity, for it is based on the virtues that promote survival in an industrial, capitalist society. Nor is there anything interior about this concept of personal identity. On the contrary, the argument is that it grows out of the habitualization of very ordinary, very worldly life-sustaining activities.
Because this Objectivist conception of a personal identity is based on the concretization and particularization of life-sustaining virtues, it ordinarily creates no ethical difficulties for Objectivism's egoistic ethics. One's concrete values support one's life because they are manifestations of life-supporting values. One's concrete habits acquire life-sustaining values because they are manifestations of value-acquiring virtues.
Occasionally, however, in extraordinary situations, the concretization of values and virtues can confront a man with a terrible choice: Do I take whatever actions will most likely gain me the values that will allow me to survive in the medical sense; or do I pursue those concrete values and practice those concrete habits that constitute my personal identity, even if they will not or will not likely gain me the values I need to survive in the medical sense? By the Objectivist ethics, the former course of action is the "moral"course, the "good" course. One's life is one's goal; good and moral actions are those that support one's life.
But the second course of action, I suggest, is not less than moral; it is "above and beyond" the call of morality and virtue, as defined by Objectivism. It is what philosophers call supererogatory virtue, and it is properly regarded as noble. Consider the character of John Galt, in Rand's Atlas Shrugged, when he says that he will commit suicide if Dagny Taggart, the woman he loves, is threatened with torture in order to make him talk. Consider Thomas More's refusal, in the face of execution, to declare Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church in England. Such actions immediately strike people, including Objectivists, as noble.
The question is: How can Objectivism, as an egoistic philosophy, pronounce a blessing on such behavior? Isn't one's survival the ultimate value? The answer, I suggest, depends upon an analysis of what constitutes the continued existence of a person. For many years, doctors used the beating of a person's heart as the key indicator. Today, the continued activity of the brain is employed. But in his article on assisted suicide (Navigator, March 1999), Todd Goldberg, a geriatrician, suggested that the question goes beyond the physiological to the psychological. Speaking of Alzheimer's disease, he wrote: "Though not immediately fatal or painful, this mind-robbing condition is one that people greatly fear because it gradually obliterates the memory, personality, indeed the very self." In other words, the continued existence of a person can be extended to mean the continued existence of that person's identity, not surprisingly, given the intimate connection between existence and identity that Objectivism posits.
But if we allow that mental faculties must be included as part of one's personal identity, does that exhaust the notion? Or should we also include concrete values and habits in one's personal identity? I believe that we should, especially as a person gets older and the human values he pursues come to assume a fixed manifestation. And I believe that Western history and literature endorse such an inclusion.
But which concrete values and habits are part of a person's identity at any given time is not easily determined, and indeed may surprise us. Today, we are heirs to the tradition of chivalry and so we understand the story of the Knight of the Cart, which teaches that providing succor to a maiden in distress is a deeper part of a hero's identity than his fear of public humiliation. But that was not always so. There is a famous scene in the Iliad (Book VI) where Hector's wife, Andromache, pleads with him not to into battle but to stay behind and adopt a prudent, defensive strategy for the city. Hector refuses, saying:
All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.
But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.
Nor does the spirit urge me on that way.
Homer The Iliad 6. 521-–26.
Trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Viking, 1990).
It is an essential part of a Greek hero's personal identity to display courage before his battlefield companions, even when a more prudent course of action might succeed in saving his city, his wife, his child, and himself. We may not share Hector's hierarchy of values but we can understand that preserving that sense of personal identity must triumph over all else.
In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More explains to his friend the Duke of Norfolk why he will not sign an oath that requires him to abjure the supremacy of the pope. "I will not give in because I oppose it. Not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites, but I do. I." Our beliefs are not More's, but we understand and applaud his integrity. To deny what his mind has concluded—even to save his life—would be contrary to his personal identity.
Which concrete values and habits are part of a person's identity at any given time is not easily determined. In fact, it is usually impossible for one person to make the determination with regard to another, and it may even be impossible for an individual to determine the matter as regards himself, before he is forced to consider life without this value or that characteristic. Thomas More said he was not the stuff of which martyrs are made but, in the end, went to the block rather than renounce his beliefs. By contrast, when Galileo was ordered to recant his defense of the Copernican system, he said that he "abjured, cursed, and detested" his former errors. Given the threat he was under, no one would call his recantation immoral, and neither can one judge that his failure to defy the Church violated his personal identity. We simply cannot know.
What we can say, in some cases, is that we are clearly dealing with values of the sort and magnitude that might plausibly be considered integral to a person's identity. In the case of Thomas More, the value was his theological understanding; for John Galt, it was being the source of Dagny's joy. By the same token, we can at times say that certain values are so trivial that they could not rationally constitute one's personal identity. For example, a person would have to be unbalanced to declare seriously that he would commit suicide if deprived of M&Ms.
This leads to another issue. If there are limits to what concrete values a man can rationally declare to be part of his personal identity, there are also limits to what a person can declare not part of his personal identity. For Galileo, perhaps, the value of standing up for his scientific convictions was not an essential part of his personal identity. But what would we think of a hero such as John Galt if he allowed the torture of the woman he loved in order to live? Perhaps in an egoistic system it would not make sense to say he was immoral not to commit suicide under those circumstances. But we can surely say he was ignoble.
Finally, then, I believe it is through this concept of personal identity that Objectivism can speak clearly about the moral character of the passengers on Flight 93. Their moral status does not rest on some fine calculations of risk that they may or may not have made. It rests on their decision to live and die in accordance with the virtues they had made part of their personal identities. Consider Todd Beamer's response when Lisa Jefferson questioned him about attacking the hijackers. She asked: "Are you sure that's what you want to do, Todd?" He said: "It's what we have to do." According to his wife, Beamer had clear-cut standards of justice: "Todd wouldn't let people take advantage of him or anyone else." Mark Bingham's mother said: "If he sees something wrong, he sets it right." It seems likely that the motive of these passengers was to defeat injustice or die trying—because defying injustice was part of their personal identities. If so, then they were heroes and their actions noble.
As an application of this moral conception, consider a common philosophical test case: the military suicide mission. The neo-conservative thinker Irving Kristol has argued that egoism is obviously a false moral philosophy because it cannot demonstrate why someone should give up his life for his country. That statement is true but begs the question, for it assumes that a legitimate morality must be able to demonstrate why someone should give up his life for his country.
Nevertheless, Kristol has a point. If Objectivism is so far at odds with Americans' sense of what is honorable that it cannot recognize the nobility of those deeds for which the Congressional Medal of Honor is often given, then Objectivists should be concerned. For the reasons outlined above, however, I believe that Objectivism can embrace as moral the extremes of military valor.
First, though, it is necessary to make a distinction—between giving up one's life for others and giving up one's life as an act of self-assertion. Traditionally, when a soldier volunteers for a suicide mission, he is described as "giving up his life for his country." That is how Kristol describes him and that is the morality of self-sacrifice. Objectivism cannot justify it, but nothing can justify it. Such an altruist morality underlay the state worship that led thousands of young soldiers to immolate themselves on the altar of German militarism during the First World War. In Anglo-American political philosophy, the relationship between citizen and state is very different, and I think it may be significant in this regard that Anglo-American militaries—unlike the German, Japanese, Italian, and Soviet militaries—seem not to have adopted tactics that rely upon suicide in a clear and premeditated way. The British Admiralty, for instance, continually rejected the use of midget subs until they offered some significant chance for the operator's survival. (Suicide Squads, by Richard O'Neill. London: Salamander Books, 1999. p. 49.)
On occasion, however, the survival of a military unit may make it necessary for a soldier or group of soldiers to volunteer for a mission that is suicidal or very likely suicidal. Is there any reason but altruism for a person to offer himself in those circumstances? I suggest there is.
When a man has lived his life on the principle of independence and self-sufficiency, it would be contrary to his personal identity if he held back and hoped to secure his survival at the cost of another's life. Remember that the strikers' oath in Atlas Shrugged says: "I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." Altruists say that egoists cannot justify knowingly giving up one's life in a war because it is incompatible with the first half of that oath. The proper reply, I believe, is that not to give one's life in war may, on rare occasions, be incompatible with the second half of the oath and thus with the continued existence of a person's identity. In this regard, I would note that Ayn Rand was once asked, at Ford Hall Forum, whether she would kill an innocent person to escape from the living hell of a totalitarian society. She said that she would not. Her personal identity, it seems, would not survive the knowledge that she had sacrificed another's life to hers. (So much for the Nietzschean Rand!)
At this point, someone might ask: But didn't the September 11 hijackers seek to live and die according to their personal identities? If we use personal identity to provide a moral basis for American soldiers to engage in suicide missions, why does it not provide a moral basis for Saudi terrorists to engage in suicide missions? If we do not use the standard of survival in order to distinguish what the passengers of Flight 93 did from what the hijackers did, is there any moral difference between them?
In light of what has been said above, I believe there is a moral universe of difference between them.
A rational man pursues his survival by means of rational virtues, appropriately concretized. An irrational man pursues his survival by means of vices, such as evasion, coercion, and parasitism. These are bad strategies for survival, in the long run, but that is not immediately obvious. Sometimes, they work. They may even work for a considerable period of time. To an outsider, it may even appear that these strategies serve people well for the entire lifetime. The result is that, over time, irrational people who do not see the error of their ways come to concretize and habitualize their vices.
Occasionally, however, it will happen that even a person sunk in vice comes to see the folly of his ways. Through whatever circumstances, he comes to perceive clearly that his habits are leading to his destruction. And it is at this point that the immoral man faces a choice that is the mirror image of that faced by the moral man. That is, the moral man may have to ask: Shall I persist with the life-giving habits that have become part of my personal identity, or break with them in order to secure survival? The immoral man may have to ask: Shall I persist with the life-thwarting habits that have become part of my personal identity, or break with them to secure life? For the first, it is his virtues and his life that are put in opposition, and that is a tragedy. For the second, it is his vices and his life that are put in opposition, and that is an opportunity for redemption.
Notice that, in Atlas Shrugged, the heroes who are not on strike often place their hopes on the prospect that such a moment of illuminating clarity will come to the villains. Following the success of the John Galt Line, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart are talking about the future and Rearden says that within three years he will be pouring his metal in Colorado, Michigan, and Idaho. Dagny asks:
"Your own mills? Branches?"
"What about the Equalization of Opportunity Bill?"
"You don't think it's going to exist three years from now, do you? We've given them such a demonstration that all that rot is going to be swept away" (p. 277).
In the end, the heroes of the novel come to realize that no such practical demonstration will work, for the villains they are dealing with are more attached to their vices than they are to life itself. In Rand's description of James Taggart:
The protective walls of emotion, of evasion, of pretense, of semi-thinking and pseudo-words, built up by him through all of his years, had crashed in one moment—the moment when he knew that he wanted Galt to die, knowing fully that his own death would follow (p. 1145).
This, I suggest, is the morality of death. This is true evil, the polar opposite of nobility. It is the practice of vices, even when one realizes clearly that the consequence will be death. The leaders of the hijackers, those assigned to fly the planes, knew that they would die as a result of their actions. And, yes, they did what they did in order to be a certain kind of person. But the personal identity they sought to manifest was one formed by vices—blind faith, asceticism, collectivism, and a hatred for everything represented by the modern world and by America.
Nobility and evil are alike, then, insofar as they refer to actions undertaken simply as a matter of personal identity. They differ insofar as those personal identities differ. A person whose identity is formed from life-achieving virtues may, in certain circumstances, achieve a condition of nobility that goes beyond the moral. A person whose identity is formed from life-frustrating vices may, in certain circumstances, achieve a condition of evil that goes beyond the immoral. That both types of men may lose their lives by following their identity tells us nothing.
This article was originally published in the February 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.