Readers of Atlas Shrugged often come away invigorated by the novel’s dramatic portrayal of the power of righteousness and the helplessness of evil in the face of uncooperative victims. However, they also often come away confused about what it means to refuse to cooperate with evil, to “shrug.” This confusion is based on an error that is both deadly and widespread, and those who fail to correct it will end their lives, prematurely or otherwise, in despair.
The path to confusion begins with the realization of a truth: that evil is parasitic. The statist politician, for instance, survives only as a leech on the tax-paying businessman. If the latter produced no wealth, then the former would have none to redistribute in exchange for votes, or with which to fund the very tax agents who shake the businessman down.
One reaches the optimistic conclusion that good occupies a position of power over evil. It has the ability to deprive evil of the material wealth it depends on but cannot itself produce.
But one soon grasps an ominous implication: that this deprivation costs the good at least as much as it does the evil. To avoid having his wealth expropriated, a businessman can refuse to produce any, but this is productive suicide, which differs from a bullet to the head only in that it allows a man to linger on as a zombie dimly aware of his own non-existence.
The good man is thus faced with a dilemma: either allow himself to be a victim of evil men, whose cruelty is limited only by their need for his continued productiveness, or relinquish even the pittance left to him as his incentive to endure their abuse, and overthrow his oppressors at the cost of his own life.
A man’s desire to live becomes his vulnerability, and the extent of his passion the extent of his disarmament. Anyone can attack him and then deter retaliation by appealing to his selfishness. “Shouldn’t you be more concerned with the positive than the negative? Wouldn’t it be wrong to sacrifice your values just to punish me?”
One often hears leftist intellectuals, of the kind found in the pages of Atlas, mock Atlas in this way. “What are the rich going to do about higher taxes? ‘Shrug’? Then they get nothing. They’re too greedy for that.”
How is a good man to respond to such a sadistic villain? Declare that he is a bad person?
It is actually evil, then, which occupies a position of power over good. In such a world, life is impossible, and to such a fact, suicide is the only honest response.
But my failure to take seriously the possibility of pronouncing moral judgment will be conspicuous to some. Those who felt the suggestion was appropriately rhetorical are afflicted by cynicism.
Cynicism is the belief that appealing to morality is ineffectual. This is usually the result of accepting a false, and therefore impracticable, ethics of sacrifice, but even an egoist can become cynical if he fails to introspect on the psychological cost of moral violations. The egoistic cynic believes that good has a material advantage over evil, but not a moral one. This leaves suicide as the only form of shrugging there is.
In reality, however, there is another form, a form that is not only less destructive, but more effective.
Suppose you replied to the leftist, “So you’re celebrating your ability to victimize defenseless men?” Of course, he would reply that the businessman is not merely a “defenseless man,” but an exploiter of the poor.
The cynic does not doubt that appealing to economic fallacies is a losing strategy in a contest decided by reason. He simply does not believe that the leftist would agree to enter such a contest. Why would he make a claim that a freshman economics student could refute when he could just admit to reveling in his power over helpless victims and get away with it? Why would someone who desires to do wrong, and who has the power to do it, submit to moral evaluation?
The reason is that conscious acts of evil incur so great a psychological penalty that they are impossible to perform without debilitating consequences. See the fate of James Taggart in Atlas for a dramatization of this fact. A man cannot acknowledge that his motives are evil without self-destructing. The rationalizations for wrongdoing one encounters everywhere today testify not to morality’s irrelevance, but to its supremacy.
Ayn Rand declared that the way to lead a rational life in an irrational society is to pronounce moral judgment, because it is by this method, not suicide, that one changes society. It works this way because what is right and true does actually matter, even—and in a way, especially—to the wicked.
That suicide is not the path to societal change does not alter the fact that there are times when the actions of evil men make an enterprise unworthy of further pursuit, and at these times it is proper to end such enterprises. Never scuttle an endeavor just to make a point—you can make that point better without injuring yourself—but when evil has robbed your work of its rewards, then use that fact to amplify your moral pronouncements.
Of course, evil depends on material aid in addition to moral cover, but it is impossible to give the former without also granting the latter, making material support a derivative issue. A society that recognizes something as evil will support it neither morally nor materially except to the extent that it is coerced into doing so.
To either live or fight is an impossible choice. Do not let the error of cynicism fool you into thinking you have to make it. It is not the appeal to morality that is ineffectual, but the attempt to ignore it. The evil that flourishes in our time does so because we have failed to publicly identify it, not because we have chosen to live. Continue living, but start fighting.