Atlas Shrugged: The Speech and Its Core Message

I’ve finally finished reading the infamous John Galt speech 😀

My impression is that I generally agree with him, apart from a few points.

He focuses on having a healthy sense of selfishness, and always using your mind. He also says that morality is when you always use your mind, never stay willfully ignorant and never do anything you know to be evil. He also insists that practicing such morality is not hard – in fact the happiest moments of your life are probably those when you followed his code.

Selfishness

According to Galt, every human interaction must be done as a trade, and never as a sacrifice.

Sacrifice is when you give a dollar and receive a penny – you give up something of larger value and receive something of smaller value (sometimes even negative value). Going without a meal to feed your child is not sacrifice – if you value your child more than your health. Even dying while fighting for some cause is not really sacrifice, if you love that cause so much that you’ll have it or die trying. But giving your food to a neighbor’s kid and letting your kid starve is a sacrifice. And dying for something you don’t believe in is sacrifice. The less you get out of your giving, the more of a sacrifice it is. Giving to the people you love does not count. The biggest sacrifice of them all is to give to people you hate.

Even when you give to charity or help someone out “for free”, it must be a trade. If you choose to help someone, do it because that person is suffering unjustly, and you’re fighting against injustice. Or do it on the ground of his virtues or his fight to recover. Don’t help some asshole with no virtues or willingness to get better, who demands your help – to help such people increases evil in the world.

I generally agree – sacrifice sounds downright absurd when you take it to its logical conclusion. I think sacrifice takes more away from you, than it gives to the other person. It’s not a virtue to build a happy world upon. And it’s not a virtue to build your self-esteem upon.

I also generally agree that one shouldn’t reward assholes. You get more of the behavior you reward. Although sometimes, a seemingly useless person has hidden virtues that are not apparent at the first glance. My grandfather often put various alcoholics and unemployed young men to work, and they got better. I suppose he saw they had something to give, and made his investment first. I think in John Galt’s logic, this would fall under “helping someone on the ground of their virtues”.

Using Your Mind

Galt says nothing but moral perfection will do, but it’s not as hard as it looks. You just have to always use your mind, never be willfully ignorant and never do anything you know is evil.

Do not listen to those people who say human knowledge is limited and fallible and therefore can’t be trusted – our knowledge might be limited, but there is no better alternative. Even if you know very little, that knowledge is yours. And no matter what ideologues, leaders and politicians around you say, your mind is the last decision-maker on whether you believe them or not. In short, have a little confidence in your judgment. Being a know-nothing is even worse than being a know-it-all.

Galt also said that morality and reason are the same thing. And happiness is proof of living morally and rationally. I think as an approximation, it’s sort of true. At least, for most normal people in most life situations it would make sense. If you’re normal, you have a conscience. You feel guilty when you screw people over, and it doesn’t contribute to your happiness as much as you hoped. It can also make people less likely to trade with you, and someone might take revenge. On the global scale, contributing to evil will make your world worse, and that will cause you harm. If you wanted as few problems as possible, you’d at least eliminate the self-imposed ones. And if you wanted as few of your problems to come from yourself, you wouldn’t contribute to evil. You have to rationally realize that, and act accordingly. Unless you have abnormal psychology. If you’re a sociopath or a psychopath, you won’t feel guilt or anxiety about your wrongdoings. You’re probably good at lying and might get away with this for life. Might even get a high power position due to your charm. Does that mean that for a psychopath, it’s moral and reasonable to screw people over?

And that is the problem with trying to find objective morality – something based on feels can’t be totally objective, even if the majority of the feelers have the same psychology and therefore agree about what’s moral. There will always be a psychopath. Or a person who insists that the color of his neighbor’s house violates his rights. How are we to prove to him, that it doesn’t? The best we can say is that he’s not normal and the law will not cater to unreasonable men’s offenses.

Galt’s idea of moral perfection is easier than it initially sounds, but harder than he thinks. Always using your mind and never being willfully ignorant are fairly easy. But never doing anything evil is harder, and I’m not sure how to reconcile it with the rule that you must never sacrifice yourself. In the book, there was a little character called Tony, or the Wet Nurse as they called him. He was a bureaucrat installed at Hank Rearden’s mills. He was educated in looter philosophy in his college, and thus emerged from there stupider than he was before. Through interaction with Hank Rearden, he gets better. He helps Hank avoid following stupid bureaucratic rules and even wants to give up his government job to work for real in Hank Rearden’s mills. But it’s not possible – the government doesn’t let you go. Eventually, thugs attack the mills and try to make Tony sign some papers to make the attack legit. He refuses and tries to run away, but they shoot him and kill him. How could this character have acted to avoid martyrdom, and also acted morally right? The book only lets us know the reaction of Hank Rearden. He’s very angry at the school and college teachers who doomed this guy to the wrong path right from the start. Just like growing up in a gang-ridden territory might doom you a life of crime, jail or violent death, growing up as a legal looter can doom you, too. Even if you try to leave. Or especially then… The guy wasn’t to blame for his brainwashing and everyone (the book, the reader, Hank Rearden) has sympathy for him, but he simply couldn’t get out of the shit he was in. It’s correct that he should never have been in that situation in the first place, but how to act when you are stuck? This isn’t the first time the book describes how some regular guy, stuck in the system, is forced to choose between two horrible choices, both having unacceptable consequences. The book doesn’t seem to condemn them no matter what they choose, perhaps because they had limited responsibility for ending up in that situation, but I’m not sure. Dr. Stadler gets no such sympathy, when he is forced to choose between himself and lives of other people – he knew what he was doing.

What core message did you get out of the speech? 🙂 Do you agree or disagree?

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8 Responses to Atlas Shrugged: The Speech and Its Core Message

  1. Hall says:

    *GROAN*

    Well, once you start thinking, you find yourself with strange bedfellows indeed.

    Anti-feminists,lolcows, batholets… and pedophilhes / hebephiles. Oh god, so many of them.

  2. Liz says:

    Okay, I must confess I don’t think I even got through half of that Galt speech. It just went on and on and on….
    Per “giving”, I think in the real world I think the following is worth noting.
    It’s very very easy to be generous with OTHER PEOPLE’S efforts and money. Most folks who claim others are selfish for not giving don’t seem to be very generous themselves. They just think others should be more (same thing goes for military intervention: “Oh, God! The humanity…(looks around) somebody DO something, (points to someone) YOU! You go over there and brave the crossfire and help them. I feel so badly for all of these people I see on television!!! You, rich guy over there…yeah, you pay for it, and um, give me some more services while you’re at it you selfish bastard.”

    However, I’ve found in my own personal life it can be very reward to help others. “Self sacrifice” can actually reap huge rewards if you are doing it willingly, even if you will never be rewarded for it. I’m a believer in good karma because I’ve seen it in action. Humans are social animals, and they remember. You never know what a day might bring, and you never know who you might need. It’s very good to be the person people view as admirable and like and respect. It’s bad to be the person most people hate. You can only suck up to higher-ups for so long and it’s generally a bad longterm strategy.

    • “t’s very very easy to be generous with OTHER PEOPLE’S efforts and money”

      I see that too. As long as you yourself don’t feel the difference, it’s very easy to demand that your government gives this or that. I think being “generous” that way has also become a status signal. Show that you “care” or look “greedy”. And it’s not reserved to people who barely pay taxes, either. If you’re actually contributing, having this opinion means “I don’t mind paying, so forcing you to do the same is ok”.

      ““Self sacrifice” can actually reap huge rewards if you are doing it willingly, even if you will never be rewarded for it.”

      There is a huge contradiction in that sentence 😉 But I know what you mean.

      • Liz says:

        “There is a huge contradiction in that sentence 😉 But I know what you mean.”

        Yeah, sometimes I click that reply button too quickly. Should’ve re read it…the post was worded kind of awkwardly in parts. I want an edit button! 😛

    • “t’s very good to be the person people view as admirable and like and respect. It’s bad to be the person most people hate.”

      There is a limit to that, isn’t there? Tell the truth nowadays, and you might provoke a SJW-driven media storm. On the other hand, SJWs aren’t as popular as their power to shame seems to indicate.

  3. Eric says:

    The point I got out of it was the sheer evil of modern collectivist morality. We see this so especially in the degenerated Anglosphere where there’s almost an inverse ratio between a person’s self-worth and his lack of value to society. The bigger a loser a person or group is over, the more our society rewards them, while leaders and achievers here can have their lives ruined overnight simply for saying something deemed ‘politically incorrect’ or doing things like showing interest in the opposite sex.

  4. “Does that mean that for a psychopath, it’s moral and reasonable to screw people over?”

    Sociopath’s (likely) know the difference between right and wrong, they just aren’t held back by a conscience.

    In American law, an insanity plea usually involves someone who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.

    http://law.jrank.org/pages/7670/Insanity-Defense-Psychopaths-Sociopaths.html

    A different argument I suppose would be Nietzschean-he has made the argument that the powerful have a different morality than the weak to become even more powerful…

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