Was Ayn Rand a sociopath?

The word “sociopath” invokes the image of Ted Bundy, who was indeed one. But in psychiatric terms the condition is far more detached from the depravity of mass murder. A “sociopath”, or “psychopath”, is simply a person who does not experience normal feelings like love and guilt. Sociopaths come into life surrounded by normal people and are challenged to imitate us as they make their way. Most are quite good at mimicry.

It is not a condition that can be treated, and a sociopath can never ‘recover’ from that vapid state.

I read the book “Atlas Shrugged” years ago, and was taken in by it for a brief time. But its appeal is like a cheap novel: it impresses the youthful or semi-literate, but has no real literary merit. The characters are one-dimensional, and the art of the novelist – to tell a large story with believable characters representing big ideas … well, it just isn’t there. Ayn Rand was not a very good writer.

So as the months and years passed after the Atlas experience, I grew more disdainful of it and her philosophy. People are not like that, I realized. Her economic philosophy was as one-dimensional as her characters. (The book was panned by critics when it came out in 1957, much to Rand’s dismay.)

So what is the appeal of Atlas? Why are so many youths taken in by it? Why does the book impact the lives of so many?

At least part of it is simplicity – Rand reduces the world to understandable dimensions by eliminating nuance and treachery and the need for conscience as a motoring skill in our travels.

Take, for instance, Rand’s idea of romantic love. It did not exist. Mating was thoroughly rational process, according to her, even a matter of economics.

We know better, 96% of us. We have been rocked by love, we lose our bearings, we behave irrationally. We travel untold miles just to be with that someone. We write poetry and utter private words and write private notes with words that embarrass us in everyday circumstance – those letters have to be locked away. There’s a box of them in every attic or closet of every house. Love produces chemicals that unleash our emotions and take total control of our being. It is powerful and intoxicating.

Love sent Mark Sanford on his Appalachian trip, John Edwards to his political demise. It undid John Lennon. Every guy gets what happened to these guys. They were hit by a thunderbolt.

Ayn Rand never experienced it. Outside of her writing she appears to have been a dominatrix. She had physical relationships that do not hint of love potion #9. She married a man who drank himself to death. While married she carried on an open affair with Nathaniel Branden with total disregard for her own husband’s feelings or those of Branden’s wife. One has to suspect that Branden himself is as devoid of feeling as her, as there doesn’t seem to have been any physical attraction to her.

The same disdain for normal human emotions permeated her economic philosophy. Randian economics ignore, even deny, the emotional human. In her view we are islands of self fulfillment without regard for others. We bargain and offer our services and accumulate wealth, and not much more. In so doing we all benefit, or so we must hope, because there is (or should be) no compassion or charity for others.

As with love, Rand’s economics speak of a person devoid of normal feeling. Most of us know that life is about caring and sharing, loving and being loved. People offer their love in myriads of ways, from caring for their own offspring to taking care of others, giving hours and money to charities and going to church on Sunday. In the outpouring of charity from Americans for Haitians after the recent earthquake, there was not one scintilla of economic rationality. People just wanted to help. In our churches (at least the one I was brought up in), when we go through that door on Sunday we set aside commerce. We talk instead about important stuff.

Are those who are taken in by Rand and Atlas attracted to her emotionless philosophy? Does she relate to them on that level? Is her appeal to that small legion of devotees due to their own lack of conscience? Has Ayn Rand legitimized sociopathy?

About Mark Tokarski

Mostly retired CPA living the life here in Colorado. Formerly Montana, 59 years, which is why so much of this blog is devoted to Montana issues.
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27 Responses to Was Ayn Rand a sociopath?

  1. Larry says:

    The baseless Rand bashing aside, I am puzzled that the author feels that Objectivism is somehow emotionless.

    Now married 23 years to a wife I love and cherish, two daughters I adore (if not frustratingly so at 17 and 19).

    I will spend next week donating my time to a charity golfing event the proceeds from which go to children’s charities.

    But if emotions are causeless as the author implies, if there is no ‘reason’ in charity how can this be?

    Emotions are always a response to ones values, loving someone for no reason would be no more rational than hating someone for no reason, the latter something people eschew (and rationally so) all the time.

    That I wish to donate my time to something I see as good for my life on this earth is immoral according to the author, it’s only moral or right if I do it for no reason at all.

    That people empathize with the plight of others, that they do not wish to live on a planet where Haitians people, who through no fault of their own are in danger of slow death isn’t causeless, it isn’t baseless, and to say that “they just want to help” as though it is devoid of or separated from their values, is a mockery of compassion.

    That the author wishes to make love some vapid, unthinking emotion separate from those very things that cause it, that he wishes to make charity a hollow, causeless act that means nothing because it is kept from the values that spawn it, says much more about him, than any point he hoped to make

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    • Ben Emery says:

      Larry,
      Do you participate in those charities out of concern for others or for personal gain, whether it be social accolades or repayment or hope for future gifts.

      If you are truly what you claim an objectivist than participating in such activities has to have some self interest outside of helpings others out of the goodness of your heart, which goes against doing everything for self interest.

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    • student216 says:

      Larry,

      One of the traits of a sociopath is the ability to blend in and pretend to have empathy when there is none. This is why they are so hard to spot. As Barry said only you know your intentions and if they involve feelings for others and compassion then they are not objective.

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  2. Randy says:

    Ayn was an atheist slut and wouldn’t fit in with the superstitious right wing of today. Of course she wouldn’t get along with the earthworshipping comrades of the left either.

    Her ideas still resonate because there is something to the idea that is is the contemplative and self directed person, the creative and the talented and the hardworking people, upon whom successful societies depend.

    It is hard to admire her personal life, and some of what happens in her novels is very hard to take, the sex, for instance, is bizarre.

    The Lockean, life, liberty and property rights are fundamental to her philosophy, as they are to our Founding Fathers’ enlightenment philosophy. And that resonates now more than ever. The left substitutes the demands of the mob and the government for the droit du signeuer and divine rights of kings but really there is no difference in their rejection of those basic inherent rights we once valued so highly.

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    • Jeff Blanks says:

      On the contrary, I find that those on the left are pretty much the only people talking about freedom today. There are some libertarians talking about LEGALIZING IT and maybe prostitution, but most of them, it seems, talk about either money or social Darwinism.

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    • Holmes says:

      Your other opinions aside, is her promiscuity – or the fact that she is a ‘slut’ – really relevant? Arguably her lack of morals and compassion when it came to sex is what’s relevant. ‘Slut’ strikes me as a bizarre choice of word.

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      • Sex is not a big deal, but loyalty and devotion are. Rand rubbed her partners’ faces in her philandering, apparently wanting to live her philosophy. “Slut” is indeed a poor choice of word for that behavior as it reduces it to mere sex when human caring and kindness are at issue.

        Agree in total.

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  3. Characterizations of the left and right aside, I reject the notion that Rand herself had a normal sense of compassion. Further, if studies of the American population are correct, 4% of us are sociopaths. If there were a philosophy that appealed to those who have no need for human compassion, it would be Objectivism.

    That either or both of you are not sociopaths means nothing. In all cases I never use the word all, and black/white discussions wherein I am said to be wrong due to exceptions to generalizations are pointless.

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  4. Randy says:

    “In our churches (at least the one I was brought up in), when we go through that door on Sunday we set aside commerce. We talk instead about important stuff. ”

    eh? Eternal damnation? Original sin? Immersed or sprinkled? Predestined and foreordained?

    Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Marshall Applewhite, Baba Rum Raisin?

    Imagine…

    “(The Doctrine of Original Sin) declares that (man) ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being/ He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor – he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which (the preachers) damn him are reason, morality, creativeness joy – all the cardinal values of his existence.” Ayn Rand

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    • Mark T says:

      For the record, I was brought up religious, but as with Rand’s Atlas, I turned a jaundiced eye towards it. But I have developed over time a kind eye towards the essence of religious practices – community, love and sharing, three words Rand interestingly does not use.

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    • Asia says:

      @Randy: Just so you know, three of the religious leaders you posted preached _against_ “original sin” and their religion has no concept of it. They do not teach that children are born with sin, nor do they need to be cleansed of it or “saved”. Do not associate Christian philosophy with all religions in the world.

      You are trying to subvert the author’s entire article because he chose to use a religious example rather than a secular one to make his point. This shows a huge lack of maturity, debating etiquette and hints at what Ayn Rand promoted – Sociopathy.

      It was obvious from his sentence that we was making a comparison between the objectives of church – a group of people with a common goal – and the objectives of capitalism – a single person with a self-serving goal.

      In church they discuss how to better one’s life, be more productive and assist other human beings in doing so. Ayn Rand’s philosophy encourages selfishness and obsession with productivity. It sees human beings as machines; only existing to collect wealth, fulfill base desires, then die. Anyone who gets in the way can be used, abused or exterminated and their own rights and desires are irrelevant.

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  5. Big Swede says:

    After some digging I found your real reasons for hating Rand.

    “Another of Rand’s sins against the Left and still of current interest was her willingness to testify as a “friendly witness” in the 1947 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Acitivies (HUAC) on Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Rand’s only complaint was that they didn’t let her testify enough. She was the only person at the hearings who had actually lived under Communism, indeed been a witness to the entire Russian Revolution and Civil War, and she wanted to explain how anti-capitalist messages were included in many mainstream Hollywood movies. It may not be remembered much now that Rand got her real start in America working in Hollywood, living for many years in the San Fernando Valley. This is still of current interest because, after many years of hard feelings, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 1999 finally gave an Oscar to Elia Kazan, director of such classics as On the Waterfront (1954) — which itself was about a man fighting with his conscience over whether to expose his gangster (i.e. Communist) friends. Kazan, after leaving the Communist Party, was willing to “name names” to HUAC in 1952.”

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  6. Big Swede says:

    Here’s another take on Ayn, courtesy of you neighbor there in Boulder, a professor at CU.

    http://www.cato-unbound.org/2010/01/22/michael-huemer/why-ayn-rand-some-alternate-answers/

    Funny, no mention of being a sociopath.

    Thanks again for peaking my interest.

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  7. Big Swede says:

    The money quote. From Slate, Hari author.

    “Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their bootprint behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism’s opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor.”

    The real question should be do you hate the rich as much as Ayn hated the poor? And by doing so are you a sociopath?

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  8. This is bizarro world. The reason I suspect that Rand was a sociopath was her personal behavior, the absence of love in her love life, her complete disregard for the feelings of others.

    How much of this transferred over into her philosophy? Hard to tell, but I think quite a bit – the go-it-alone everyone is an island charity is selfishness stuff. Normal people bond with others, work in communities and cover each other’s backs. Rand’s work is based on the attitude that back-covering is some sort of weakness. That’s a person with no community connections.

    By the way, whatever happened to her in the Soviet Union had no bearing on life in this country. There was never a danger that the U.S. was going to go “communist”, socialism is not a slippery slope. All of that too is bizarro world.

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  9. Ed Kemmick says:

    I don’t know what was stranger — reading the remarks of the Randians who came here via Google alerts, or those of old Swede, who always manages to spin a pile of straw out of whatever gold is at hand.

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  10. Randy Taggart says:

    Yeah, community, sharing, flying airplanes into buildings, hanging a witch now and then, all the stuff Rand doesn’t mention.

    “For the record,” I post here irregularly, but more often than Ed Kemmick. And on everything from birds to bards.

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    • Not getting your point. I see religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. But unless you are going to say that 90% of the population is deviant, religious belief is quite normal. I think it is mostly healthy, though I cannot be part of it. The fables don’t work on me.

      Mr.Kemmick comments here on occasion, but usually only when I am wrong. Therefore, the absence of Kemmick commentary is a huge compliment.

      Like

  11. Ed Kemmick says:

    My apologies, Mr. Taggart. I didn’t recognize the name, which is odd, since you actually use (apparently) your real name. I’ll pay more attention in the future.

    Like

    • Randy, Dagny's sister, Taggart says:

      No, Ed, I try not to be limited to one name on the internets. It’s boring. In this case, Randy, and in somewhat Randian, and Taggart, as in the female protagonist in Atlas Shrugged.

      Still read your stuff but don’t comment as I used to.

      And Mark, at one time, at least 90% of western europeans thought the world was flat.

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  12. J. Valjean says:

    I dislike Rand’s “philosophy” as much as you do; I would even argue she was a product of the life of dissenters in the Soviet system- she was obsessed with money and distrust, had the materialism and mass-outlook of her communist background and a distorted, skewed perception of the “green grass on the other side” that was exacerbated by her expatriation. I see this a lot with people who left the former Soviet Union during the 70′s and 80′s- not all of them- but a good number of them have some of the views of Ayn Rand. And I will also agree with you in saying she’s most likely a sociopath.

    However, we can’t look past our own capitalist system and say it doesn’t cater, especially, to these types of people. We are taught to love money, power, stability, prestige, the better brand product, our nice homes and cars, our children’s college choices and degrees. We live in a narcissistic culture whose ideals are impossible to attain unless someone is connected or inherits an upper middle class position, or rolls up their sleeves and sticks their hands in the blood. It is easy to speak of high ideals being upper middle class, and growing up with privilege, but for those who seek to jump classes, they have to be competitive. And among those, the most competitve (the cutthroat) are the ones who get what they want in the end. This is common sense and I’m sure you agree with it; if not, look at those who make it up high and tell me they are angels.

    Furthermore, I agree with you about love, I think love’s great feeling comes from a feeling of finally finding someone who when you spend time together and grow to know each other, you feel as if you two are a beacon of understanding and light amid a sea of darkness. Basically, we all have serious existential doubts and insecurities- not the kind about our toenails or looks, but the kind about our place and meaning in this confusing, absurd thing called life. Where we will go, what will happen, etc, and it is all so confusing. But in that moment with that person you love it all takes the back seat and you feel like you’ll take the world as it is, even beg for more time, because in that island of light the confusion of existence is gone. Rand on the other hand materializes love, removing that entire atom bomb of feelings and existential anodyne and turning it into friction and supply/demand. It’s stupid as hell. Sure, ideal love doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean love is limited to a transaction.

    Rand is popular with youth because youth seldom have learned to deal with and be comfortable among uncertainties and gray areas- she simplifies everything like a conveyor belt in a Soviet factory. As much as Rand ideologically hates communism, her philosophy is almost like its exact negative- its the opposite, but it required the original image to even exist. Her entire philosophy comes out as one of the results of the communist lifestyle. And its not healthy. Though right now its impractical to live under international communism, it doesn’t negate the importance of altruism and group behavior (tribalism, corporation, nationhood, etc) because human beings need each other to survive. So that’s another way it is sociopathic- her view is individualistic to the point that if you took a die-hard objectivist and a solipsist and observed them, you wouldn’t be able to tell the different in behavior.

    The last thing though I gotta say is that your depiction of love is kind of mushy-gushy. Yes, love is a great thing, and may we all have it one day. But I’ll tell you from experience that there are good types of love, and bad types. There are imperfections riddling every love. And that’s whats beautiful about it- because its imperfect and requires effort and communication (as well as other things, like a job and a sense of responsibility) to sustain. I just read what you wrote as some sort of banner for “true love” which we all think when we reach a point with someone that it is “true love” or they are “the one” or “perfect”. But that’s just the idealization phase and that fades, hence “love is fickle”. Some people have higher expectations and needs than others, so every relationship has its own lifespan, some quick, and some longer. After the honeymoon phase, the work sets in, and that is the work of maintenance that many people in our capitalistic, individualistic culture have a hard time with. So yes, Rand is a sociopath, a product of her system and her agony under it, and her philosophy is its negative image. And I agree with you that her view of love is alarmingly sterile. But love is more than roses and cupid- it’s commitment, pain, and hard work.

    PS- Not to risk sounding like a jerk but what adult writes poems in their head for someone else?

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    • Thank you. That was excellent. And I know the power of love and the work involved in a sustainable relationship. I’ve dealt with both, and it is the sustainable relationship that is the meaningful end-product of the thunderbolt. Who can sustain the emotions that overtake us when we are on a scent trail?

      I’d like to use your words in a future post if you approve, otherwise I won’t. Your comment was better than my post.

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  13. Susan Wood says:

    No one so far has discussed her slobbering crush on a vicious serial killer who kidnapped, murdered and grotesquely mutilated a little girl. She thought he was a superior human being who did not deserve to be judged by miserable little bourgeois nobodies. She thought he was brilliantly eloquent because he said that “what is good for me is right.” She thought he turned to crime because evil society wanted him to obey instead of rule. That in a nutshell is where objectivism came from and where it will take you.

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  14. ergonash says:

    “I will wait till you understand the hidden meaning of this great speech. you may take months, years ,and the decades-that’s not a problem. till then let me live alone with my pen, with paper and with my purpose. for me my dream is the ultimate goal and i have to achieve it. as i know nothing will satisfy me if i don’t as much as the capacity of my brain.”

    My answer to the speech to which this student refers to is the one from the character Howard Roark, from Ayn Rand’s novel ‘The Fountainhead ‘.

    Hidden meaning? I am intrigued. Are you now propounding esotericism, the language of cults and mysticism, of religion? Cults, as I am sure you will know, are by their very nature a collective. When you consider that Ayn Rand herself was diametrically opposed to any form of collectivism, this about shoots in the foot your argument that, for an individual to understand the ‘philosophy of Objectivism’ ( in Roark’s speech) as expounded by Rand, the reader must first search for some hidden meaning.

    Moreover, Howard Roark exhibited all the symptoms of a Sociopath. Let us consider his creator, Ayn Rand, the model for his Sociopathic Personality.

    The following is not an exhaustive list of symptoms she displayed.

    Inability to tolerate minor frustrations: She was known to be vociferous and aggressive towards anybody who disagreed with or challenged her opinions.

    An incapacity for forming stable human relationships: She had an affair with Nathaniel Branden. This in isolation is meaningless, when added to the rest it is symptomatic.

    Alcohol or drug abuse: While writing the novel ‘Fountainhead’ she was prescribed the amphetamine Benzedrine by her ‘ Pill Doctor’ to fight fatigue. The side effects of which can result in hallucinations, paranoia and schizophrenia , among other symptoms. Her continued use of the drug for a number of years may have contributed to her volatile mood swings. After the completion of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ she fell into a severe depression aggravated by her use of prescription drugs. A drug addict.

    Lack of empathy: she demonstrated this succinctly when she claimed that the Israelis, by virtue of the fact that they were a technologically advanced and thereby, superior people, gave them every right to treat the Palestinians like savages. The colonists had every right to destroy the indigenous people of America and steal their land. This imputes that might is right.

    A total disregard for the rights of others: See above.

    A failure to feel remorse or guilt: When you have a messianic complex (as she demonstrated) you are above such temporal considerations.

    A disregard for laws and social mores: The law never applied to her, she was a god who proclaimed herself “The most creative thinker alive.”

    Be assured , I am a diligent and responsible student. I have long searched for something that was worthy of my labour. I have now found it. I am an atheist, ( yes, I have at least one thing in common with Ayn Rand) yet I ask myself hypothetically, that if there is a God, did he/she create humanity out of boredom? Can you imagine how excruciating it must be to be a god when there was nobody around to recognise your genius? Without other people around you too show off your genius, what purpose would you have and to what end would it serve?

    Personally, I’ll be content to get back to my primitive chalk and slate. I know this, that the greater your understanding becomes, the more you begin to realise just how little you know.

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  15. Ocula says:

    What about a person who can experience love but not guilt or guilt but not love? What would such a person be called?
    I’ve heard scientists have found dogs incapable of “guilt”, would methods of dealing with a dog work for controlling a sociopath? Or do those methods appeal to a dog’s “love” which would be absent in a sociopath?

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