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Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

What does Ayn Rand mean by “the sanction of the victim”? What does it mean when Rearden refuses to give it at his trial?

The sanction of the victim is the willingness of the victim to accept the moral terms under which he or she is accused. This willingness allows the oppressor to coerce the victim through guilt and obligation. Rational people will withhold their sanction when they do not accept the premise under which they are victimized. If their own moral code is not the code of their oppressors, they are not obligated to participate under the oppressors’ terms or to validate the oppressors’ position by accepting it as rational. Under the collectivist system Rand describes in the novel, the producers are made to feel morally obligated to provide for those who do not produce but live off the products made by others. The system presents a morality of altruism in which all people are considered their brothers’ keepers and the strong feel compelled to sacrifice themselves for the weak. To Rand, this system is fundamentally wrong. The only way a government can really force its people to sacrifice themselves is by brute force. When a rational person withdraws sanction and refuses to participate in his or her own victimization, the government can either resort to force or it must back down.

At his trial, Rearden does not accept the laws he has broken as rational, so he refuses to participate. He sees them as what they are: the manifestation of brute force. The government is able to prosecute him as a criminal only because they have created unjust laws that turn him into one. He withholds his sanction of the trial and makes it clear that the government must either compel him with violence or leave him alone. But the government cannot risk revealing the brute force that its power is based on, so it has no choice to but to let him go.

2.

Ayn Rand intended for atlas shrugged to demonstrate her philosophy of Objectivism in action. How successful was she in showing how Objectivism can work in the real world?

By presenting her philosophy in the format of a novel, Rand sought to demonstrate her principles at work in the actions of her characters and bring her philosophical concepts to life. Her efforts have mixed results. She succeeds in using her characters to explain the concepts of Objectivism. The messages are easier to understand in the context of a story than they might be in a straight philosophic treatise. Moreover, Rand does succeed in making her heroes embody the rationality and self-interest upon which her philosophy is based. The many speeches delivered by the strikers, most notably Francisco’s “money speech” and Galt’s lengthy radio address, are effective means of presenting ideas that might otherwise be too dry for many readers. But it seems unlikely that real people would speak this way, and the characters suffer as a result.

Rand’s characterizations are absolute and hard to imagine in reality. The heroes are idealized and perhaps too perfect. Dagny, Rearden, Francisco, Galt, and Danneskjold are all physically attractive, astonishingly gifted, and possess tremendous personal integrity. Meanwhile the looters are all weak, evil, and irrational in every aspect. Only Cherryl Brooks and the Wet Nurse exist between these extremes, but they are tragic victims and minor characters. Furthermore, Rand’s characters are free to devote themselves to their efforts, whether productive or parasitic, because none of them have to deal with children, illness, or any other issue that demands attention in the typical life. While they are effective as idealized representatives of Rand’s ideas, the characters offer little for readers to identify with, making it difficult for them to imagine how Objectivism may apply to their own lives.

3.

How do events in atlas shrugged support Ayn Rand’s view that capitalism is the only moral economic system?

Rand’s argument in favor of capitalism is mostly illustrated through her description of the failure of its alternatives. Rand demonstrates how the self-sacrificing code of socialism ultimately creates an irrational system where need matters more than production. She highlights the government’s interference in the economy and the fact that every government action has unanticipated effects that in turn require more intervention to fix. An example of the irrationality of this system is the set of rules placed on Rearden that require him to simultaneously limit his output of Rearden Metal and fill every order he receives. Rand demonstrates that the logical outcome of this spiraling interference is the government’s Directive 10-289, which is not only totalitarian but absurd. Furthermore, the seizing of resources to serve “the needy” only makes those whose resources have been seized become needy. When resources can be obtained only by demonstrating the greatest need, as was the case at the Twentieth Century Motor Company, the strong are enslaved by the weak. By showing how socialism destroys productivity and dominates individuals, Rand helps to promote capitalism as its antidote.

If, as Rand suggests, the notion of sacrifice for the “public good” is the force behind the destruction of society, then only a system that does not attempt to serve the public good can be moral—and only unfettered capitalism meets this criteria. The strikers’ code requires a totally free exchange of goods and ideas in trades of “value for value.” Only capitalism can offer that freedom from intervention and allow people to do business based on their own values. Therefore, for the strikers (and for Rand), capitalism is the only truly moral economic system.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What role does Eddie Willers play in the unfolding drama? What does his character say about the role of the common man in the world of Ayn Rand?

2. What are the causes of the Taggart Tunnel disaster?

3. Why is Rearden willing to support his family despite their attitude toward him? What causes his position to change?

4. Is the current economic and political system in this country more like Galt’s ideal or the looters’?

5. According to Ayn Rand, selfishness is a moral and practical good. What does Rand mean by selfishness?

6. What does Francisco mean when he says, “The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality”?

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