“The middle is always evil”

Centrists / Religion

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the objectivist moral philosophy of Ayn Rand. If you listen carefully you can hear much of her thought in the speeches of the extreme libertarians. I’ve wondered for years whether or not Rand is Rush Limbaugh’s primary philosophical influence.

There’s an article on Rand and her thinking in the Globe and Mail today. In the middle of the article, the author points out the shadow side of Rand’s arguments. She connects something I hand’t thought about before. Rand’s hyper positivism argues for an objective truth – and totally rejects any sense of subjectivism. In an perfect world, the disputation of competing claims leads one to determine what is true and what is false. And the false must be rejected and the truth followed.

But casting the Universe into binary terms, while naively useful scientifically, can have deadly consequences in terms of morality:

“In pure form, Ayn Rand’s philosophy would work very well if human beings were never helpless and dependent on others through no fault of their own. Unsurprisingly, many people become infatuated with her philosophy as teenagers only to leave it behind when concerns of family, children, and aging make that fantasy seem more and more implausible. For some, she becomes a conduit to more sensible small-government philosophies.

But Ms. Rand’s work also has a darker, more disturbing aspect – one that, unfortunately, is all too good a fit for this moment in America’s political life. That is her intellectual intolerance and her tendency to demonize her opponents. Speaking through her hero John Galt, Ms. Rand declared, ‘There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.’ She lambasted free-market theorists such as Friedrich A. Hayek for their lack of purity in allowing the government a legitimate role in alleviating poverty and its effects. In her novels, supporters of various forms of collectivism – moochers and looters – are shown as acting by stealth to take over and corrupt society and culture.”

From here. (H/T to Kendall Harmon)

I’ve had any number of conversations lately with folks about the broken legislative processes in Congress, and the parallel inability of even the Church to find ways of allowing people to feel included in its common life. One of the reoccurring themes of modern debate is that the people in the middle are basically weak, timid obstructionists who need to decide one way or the other so that the final decision can be made. You can hear this from both sides in modern debate. The moderates are to be pitied at best and converted one way or the other if at all possible. It’s apparently inconceivable that there can be any value in moderation to many.

Bishop Marshall once remarked of conflicts in the Church that we tend to “learn and then adopt the values of our oppressors”. I wonder if the Episcopal Church in the 20th century, which has been forced again and again to try to justify her existence to people and a society who believe we’ve grown beyond that need, and who have elevated the individuals right to happiness over that of the needs of the broader community, hasn’t fallen into that trap Bishop Marshall describes.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Don Smith says

    Speaking as one who read Rand and her objectivist disciples in college for recreation, and spent a bit of time figuring out what was wrong with her completely logical but spiritually abhorrent philosophy, I have only one comment:
    The fool has said in her heart, “There is no god.”

  2. “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life forever: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood…, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  3. Bunker Hill says

    I tried to read Atlas Shrugged as an adult and found it insufferably puerile. Thanks for the quote Andrew!
    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life forever: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood…, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
    John Rogers
    Kung Fu Monkey blog

  4. It’s easy to dismiss Rand, but her ideas provided the basic structure to America’s response to Marxism – and all the Cold Warrior types unconsciously echo her ideas. It’s why so many people believe so strongly in the Free Market.
    My real concern is that her call to individual bliss over and above that of the community is what is driving much of our debate within the Episcopal Church. And in not obvious ways given that the “Left” in the Church is using the political “Right’s” language in non-thoughtful ways.
    It is ironic to me that one of the congregations in the Diocese of Arizona that has pushed the hardest for same-sex blessings to be approved here is the one with the highest number of gay republicans.

  5. Kristin McCartor says

    Full disclosure: I’ve never made it through Rand’s writings—despite my fairly conservative views on some issues. That being said, I think casting a discussion of the divisions in our society in terms of Atlas Shrugged or its proponents is a red herring. The discussion of “the individuals right to happiness over that of the needs of the broader community” is closer to hitting the nail on the head but possibly not in the way you mean.
    Our revolutionary founders were concerned with “the rights of men” while the revolutionary founders in France were concerned with “the rights of man.” (Okay, today we’d say “the rights of people” versus “the rights of the people.”) The problem is: Who determines the rights of man/the rights of people/the needs of the broader community? Historically, once the system is deemed broken, a very small group of people at the top wields that determinative power and it leads down a very dark road.
    Dean Knisely: your concern seems to be about converting “the middle” at all costs—and losing our way (or maybe our souls?) in the process. Your subtext appears to be: It’s okay to be in the middle or to tolerate people in the middle. Fair enough. But I caution you against falling in lockstep with those who speak of a “broken legislative process.” Likewise the use of the term “oppressors.” If we are to genuinely tolerate moderation, our language must not reflect the biases of either extreme.

  6. Christopher says

    If you are on the receiving end of the community, I think you might find that it is not so cut and dry that the community is not itself in need of examination. The way you have pitched this is itself either/or blaming those who refuse to be treated in dehumanizing ways.

  7. Christopher says

    In other words, in light of the Holy Trinity, the community is too under God’s judgment. I don’t see much reflection on that in blaming individuals asking to be treated with dignity as if we are all individualistic left harmful to the community.

  8. Paul Martin says

    My primary reaction to Rand is to note the hubris inherent in thinking so ideologically in the first place. She is, in effect, saying that she has a Theory of Everything, and a solution to every problem. Even in Physics, the quest for a Theory of Everything isn’t doing so well. I consider health care, the US economy, Christian theology and similar problems to be considerably more difficult than Physics. (What is your view, Nick?)
    I do not consider the phrase “broken legislative process” to be extreme language. I think you could support the use of that term objectively by considering the number of cloture votes in this congress. One of the things extremist do very well is to move the goal posts, redefining what we consider to be moderate or extreme. Some push back is appropriate here.

  9. Hi, Nick. I think you overstate Rand’s influence in the Cold War era. She was dismissed as a crank by many conservatives of the her era. She was colorful and had her following but her strange personality and sexual adventures turned off many conservatives. In her day, when there was still a living memory of Fascism and while Marxism still seemed strong, the battle in the conservative movement was between the kind of responses like McCarthy, the Birchers and Rand on the one side conservatives like Buckley. the internationalists Marshall and Eisenhower (and Kennedy) that would eventually evolve in the ‘realpolitick’ of Nixon and Kissinger. It was the latter approach, which for all it’s shortcomings, provided the real philosophical and political framework in response to Marxism. But it weren’t Rand.
    The “purists” in what is now the “Conservative” movement mistrusted the realists. Neocons tried to bridge that, but their approach has led to disaster, and ironically they have taken the Realists (whom they despise) down with them, leaving a huge hole in conservative circles that the fringe groups and the reactionaries are filling in fast.
    Seems to me that is in this context that Rand has gained influence. She is much more importance to the right now that the Cold War is long over rather than in the era where the issues she was actually speaking to were alive. Ever since a GOP politician (whose name eludes me) declared when they were in the majority that bi-partisanship was equivalent to date-rape, it was downhill from there. The politics of Rove and his tutor Atwater is much more dependent on a cynical manipulations of the populism in much the way that Rand espoused.
    It appears to me that the conservative movement has suffered in becoming at once more libertarian and individualistic. Now that they vacuuming up remnants of the old white (racist) populisms it is becoming dangerous. God forbid that someone should organize this in a real anti-democratic (small d) and anti-republican (small r) popular movement.
    And yes, I agree with you, that this way of thinking and way of handling conflict has slopped over into the church and we progressives and moderates have to be careful to not act according to this warped rules.

  10. There’s a recent biography out about Rand, and I’ve seen the author interviewed several times about it. Her portrayal seems very level headed and even handed. (Jennifer Burns, author of the new book Goddess of The Market.) I need to read the biography. I’ve never had a temptation to read Rand, and it’s not something economists teach — I’ve not encountered economists who’ve read her. Plenty, though, read Hayek. Among other things he’s considered the father of economics with actors operating with incomplete or imperfect information — a field that took off in the 1980s.
    Burns notes that Limbaugh and others like him don’t seem to notice Rand was an atheist.
    Turning to another point, if we “learn and then adopt the values of our oppressors”, one of those values is there is no middle way. I see us applying that applying that view as a tactic not just on our oppressors but on each other within the church, over issues where our differences are not that great. It’s auto-cannibalism.

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