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In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the author uses her protagonist, Howard Roark, to represent the ideal man. Roark is characterized as static, passionate about architecture, and indifferent towards others. If he displays benevolence, it is because it benefits him and does not detract from his identity. Rand’s philosophy depicts selfishness as the way, but while promoting it, she discredits altruism. However, both are important. A balance can be found through recognizing altruism’s place in society.
Selfishness is seen as immoral. Time spent on one’s self can be spent helping others. However, there are different forms of selfishness that Ayn Rand does not expand on. There is one-sided selfishness, neutral selfishness, and two-sided selfishness. Acts such as robbery or murder can be considered one-sided selfishness. These are iniquitous because they are beneficial to no one while also harming others. The criminal gets what they want but the repercussions, such as jail or guilt, outweigh the positive. Neutral selfishness is something that has no negative effects. Spending extra time in the mirror because one wants to be attractive does not hurt anyone. Two-sided selfishness is when both parties benefit. Swapping lunches can suffice as an example. In The Fountainhead, Roark displays neutral selfishness when he says, “My work done my way. A private, personal, selfish, egotistical motivation. That’s the only way I function. That’s all I am” (Rand, 580). This is what Rand lauds. Selfishness is a part of Objectivism. Each person should be treated as an individual, not a whole, and reason trumps religion. People need to think for themselves and put themselves before others. There is no “for the greater good” in Objectivism. Roark shows this through his career. He says, “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build” (Rand, 26). He continually squanders opportunities because he lives by this belief system. Eventually, it pays off, but only as modernism rises and people learn to accept his work and the conditions that come with hiring him. In Roark’s testimony, he shows that selfishness is what caused progress and everyone else are just parasites, living off of the creators while simultaneously persecuting them. He says, “He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world…The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won” (Rand, 737). This shows that egotists are to be thanked for all inventions because they came to be through one person’s ideas; they “served nothing and no one.” Roark attributes creation to selfishness because “only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.” Why is it bad to be selfish? Because people said so. They have come to believe that the whole is greater than the individual without realizing that the whole is built off of individuals and it is each person’s unique abilities that allow society to function successfully. Objectivism can definitely be favorable, but as the saying goes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The creators had amazing ideas, but they created for themselves. The “parasites” are what allowed society to advance because they shared the ideas of the creators. Selfishness alone is not ideal.
The antagonist of this story is Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey represents society- he works for the whole, not the individual. His belief system is run by altruism, the practice of selflessness. Rand shows this as a negative idea through a conversation Toohey has with Peter Keating. He says, “Tell men altruism is the ideal. Not a single one of them has ever achieved it and not a single one ever will. His every living instinct screams against it” (Rand, 635). Toohey is explaining to Keating how he controls people. To be selfless is not a part of their nature, but man likes to think he is invincible. To break the soul is to break the man, and the soul is broken by giving him something impossible to achieve. People are born selfish. It is “a law of survival.” Throughout time, though, selflessness became praised as men were “taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. […] To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life” (Rand, 680). Soldiers say no man left behind. Religions preach that people give to the poor. Sports display cooperation and teamwork, but what constitutes one thing as being profane versus another being righteous? Typically, gain. Someone helps someone else because that person may return the favor in the future. People feel as if they are upright when they volunteer. They are helping others, yet there is personal gain involved because mentally it sits right with them. Katie, for instance, becomes a social worker because she enjoys helping others and she believes it is right due to the ideology Toohey preaches. So can these acts really be considered selfless? To be selfless is to be concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own. The best example of a selfless person is a mother. Their job is to nurture and to care. There are so many stories of mothers who give up their lives for their children. Selflessness is a charitable idea. The main negative factor is that it is hard to achieve, but society could definitely use more selfless people. Katie was not jocund because she tried to be something that she was not. She lost a part of herself in following her uncle. Becoming a social worker was not truly a selfless act due to the reasoning behind her becoming one. Altruism is admirable because it helps others. Rand assumes that one would loses themselves when putting others first, but this not always the case. The whole is equally important to the individual.
Some may argue that it is one or the other. However, Rand fails because she tries too hard to make Roark the champion when the ideal person knows how to be an individual and conform when it is needed. Selfishness is not the epochal, but neither is selflessness. The world is all about balance. It needs both. Not good, not bad. While it would be optimal to not have nefarious people, action is only taken and flaws are only noticed after something has happened. Change is a reaction. Wrongdoings are needed to serve as an example. They are needed to be the defining line between right and wrong because “we cannot know what will be right or wrong in a selfless society, nor what we’ll feel, nor in what manner. We must destroy the ego first. That is why the mind is so unreliable. We must not think. We must believe.” Nonetheless, too many selfless people are not desriable. After all, no betterment would come if all mothers died for their children. There would be far too many orphans. On the other hand, if everyone was selfish, then society would not have been allowed to come as far as it has. People tend to work well together. Even the best inventions became better once someone improved upon them. Cell phones are a great example of that. One idea became better as it was shared with the world and more people put their own spin on it. The Fountainhead pushes Objectivism over altruism. It is not one or the other, though. They both serve a purpose.
Selflessness and selfishness are both important parts of our world. Rand was a failure not because she argued for selfishness but because she argued against selflessness. Life is short. People should be allowed to live their lives without judgement. It is up to the individual to decide what philosophy, if any, they wish to live by.
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