I’ve been interested in the reaction to my review of Atlas Shrugged which Chris Blosser linked to here. First of all, it might be the only thing I’ve ever written that has united both right-wingers and left-wingers (and everybody in between). Clearly, almost everyone dislikes Ayn Rand. But I was intrigued by the angry reaction of Rand fans, most of which focused on my treatment of her dismissal of original sin. What’s surprising about the objectivist objection to original sin is that the doctrine would almost seem to perfectly accord with their worldview.
Part of the angst seems to come from a mistaken understanding of the doctrine. Rand and her followers believe that the doctrine of original sin means that we are all born evil, but this is a gross exaggeration. Commenter Dale Price helpfully linked to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition:
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.
This rankles the objectivists, but the doctrine as stated above is hardly much different than how many secular-minded philosophers have described human nature. When James Madison wrote than men were not angels, he was essentially hitting upon the notion that man is an imperfect beast. In fact, I don’t think he’d much object to the idea that human nature is “wounded.” In the Federalist Papers, both Hamilton and Madison—especially Madison—were influenced by David Hume, who wrote that it in “contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls [sic] of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest.” Hume’s statement is not necessarily a reflection of his view of human nature, but many of the Framers of the Constitution adopted this philosophy. I’d go so far as to say that they dropped the “supposed” part from their ruminations.
Rand doesn’t like the concept of original sin because it’s not fair, but she also claims to be expounding a purportedly realistic philosophy. What is so realistic about rejecting a view of human nature that common sense and experience tells us has quite a lot of merit? One need not be a bible thumping Fundamentalist to appreciate the imperfections of the human condition. As I said in my review, Randian utopians are no better than Marxist utopians or any other utopians in their completely naive outlook. Even if one does not fully accept the doctrine of origjnal sin, it is a rather extreme jump to embrace a doctrine of original perfection.