Would an Atheist Give Up His Seat on a Lifeboat?

Does your belief in God affect whether you are willing to give up your life on behalf of another? A caricature of atheism exists among theists which imagines the former as unchecked hedonism and moral relativism. Ayn Rand, one of modern history’s most prolific atheist writers, often bears that caricature. If popular impressions of Rand were true, you would expect her to muscle her way past others in a soup line. Because Rand claimed that a person’s own life should be his or her highest value, her critics frequently paint her as a heartless grinch who scoffed at the suffering of others.

Reader Geoffrey Britain echoes that in his response to an Objectivist explanation for the origin of rights without God. He comments:

The author and Ayn Rand to whom he looks, state, “To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.”

That statement is antithetical to Christ’s declaration that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Since laying down one’s life for a mere friend is to place the preservation of their life above one’s own.

Rand’s ‘philosophy’ denies humanity’s very survival, since by her ‘moral calculus’ “women and children” do NOT come first but rather its every man for himself.

If Britain’s impression of Rand were accurate, he would be right to condemn her. But Britian’s impression is not accurate. I have met a fair number of Objectivists in my time. None of them struck me as the sort who would commandeer a child’s place on a lifeboat. To conclude that Objectivism calls for such behavior is to reveal ignorance of it.

It’s not enough to consider a brief Rand quote cited without conceptual context. When the topic is a comprehensive philosophical system, especially one which radically challenges prevailing cultural norms, one must read at least one book to begin understanding. It would also help to consider how adherents of that philosophy apply their worldview to relationships with others.

“Women and children first” is not a principle. It’s a conclusion which emerges from principles. Why you yield your seat on a lifeboat to another matters more than the mere act of doing so. If you were to yield your seat begrudgingly, believing that you should actually keep it for yourself, what virtue would that demonstrate?

The Objectivist might yield his seat in a lifeboat to a woman or child. But he’d be doing it for himself, because his values call for it, not as a sacrifice of his values to others. That’s a difficult concept to understand, particularly in a society which has obfuscated the meaning of sacrifice. In the Randian lexicon, “sacrifice” means to give up a greater value for a lesser value, or for no value at all. Therefore, to sacrifice one life for another is to judge the first as a lesser value. But that’s not what we typically mean when we talk about “sacrifice” in the popular sense. The virtue of a soldier’s sacrifice or a firefighter’s sacrifice, or the sacrifice of someone yielding his seat on a lifeboat, is considered virtuous specifically because it is an affirmative expression of that person’s values. No solider or firefighter goes to work hoping to die for someone else. If they die in the line of duty, it is in pursuit of their chosen values. It is, as Mel Gibson once put it, “to really live.”

With that in mind, let’s briefly consider how the two quotes which Britain cites are in fact perfectly compatible. Quote 1:

To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.

Quote 2:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Consider why laying down one’s own life for a friend is the ultimate act of love. Is it because one’s own life has no value? Is it because one’s own life has lesser value than their friend’s life? If your life counts for nothing, why should anyone be impressed that you gave it up? Is not the gravity of giving up one’s own life directly proportional to the value placed on that life?

Rand illustrates this point vividly in her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies”:

Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a “sacrifice” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.

Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achieves that which is of greatest personal (and rational) importance to him. In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice.

Being an Objectivist does not require one to become callous or indifferent to others. It merely means that, when people matter, they matter to you.

If Christians are honest with themselves, they will acknowledge that this holds true in their worldview as well. In fact, it proves vital. You get no credit for begrudgingly serving others, sacrificing your values in an ascetic sense. The object of Christian love is to, you know, actually love. The person has to matter to you. They have to matter to you. It can’t be love otherwise.

The more I have studied Rand’s philosophy, the deeper my understanding of my Christian faith has become. While her overall philosophy proves antithetical to Christianity, the observations informed by her philosophy prove quite relevant to it. For instance, God lives for himself. The Bible makes that quite clear. His purpose in creation was self-glorification. In this way, God is Randian. Further, God’s purpose for us is to find ultimate and eternal fulfillment in Him. We achieve glory by bringing Him glory. By being for Him, we are also for ourselves. Conversely, the sin of idolatry is self-destructive. When you read scripture after considering Objectivism’s claims, it’s truly remarkable what you find. I maintain that much of our popular understanding of scripture has been corrupted by non-biblical influences which obfuscate the meaning of sacrifice and leave believers with the absurd notion that Christianity is selfless. If there was nothing in it for us, what value would there be in “getting saved”?