Remember the Atlas Shrugged movie from this spring? More than 100,000 copies are sitting on store shelves right now with a title card that reads “ AYN RAND’s timeless novel of courage and self-sacrifice comes to life . . .

Because we all know Ayn Rand is all about self-sacrifice!

The company behind the movie is offering free replacement title cards to anyone who requests them. The replacements will read: “ AYN RAND’s timeless novel of rational self-interest comes to life . . .

Don’t laugh too loudly! Let he who has never goofed up in print cast the first stone. I once let a report go out the door with a typographical error in which the letter “l” was missing from “public.” Not in just one place, mind you, but in the header at the top of every single page in the document . Beware the dangers of spell check!

Still, with all due humility about the fact that we’re all susceptible to this kind of thing, there is something of an allegorical lesson to be learned here. This wasn’t a typographical error. When the Atlas folks turn from their abstract philosophy to the concrete reality of getting actual things done, their philosophy fails them. The tagline “timeless novel of rational self-interest” will not sell movies in the way “timeless novel of courage and self-sacrifice” would, and when we set aside theorizing for actual doing of actual things, it turns out everyone knows this (even if only tacitly or unconsciously - obviously no one thinks they did this on purpose).

The Atlas folks might well respond that “rational self-interest” ought to sell more DVDs even if it doesn’t actually do so. But that only puts the question a step back. Rand’s radically rationalistic anthropology involves (among much else) the proposition that there is no natural predisposition or tendency in the will (such as the Aristotelian, Kantian, or Christian accounts of humanity’s systematic moral dysfunction hold), but the will always perfectly obeys the mind. And the mind, in turn, is always capable of perceiving truth and always acts on what it perceives; this is why, in the novel, everyone who encounters Galt is either instantly and totally converted (the oil magnate agrees to burn up all his life’s works after just a few hours with Galt) or engages in a clear act of deliberate, conscious self-deception. Given all this, what is the explanation for the consistent and widespread superior appeal of “self-sacrifice” over “rational self-interest”? Atlas is, as the lawyers would say, “estopped” by its ideological commitments from claiming either that the audience is naturally predisposed to prefer the wrong message or naturally incapable of instantly understanding and embracing the right message.

It would be interesting to explore whether even the occurrence of this incident could be reconciled with Rand’s anthropology. If the mind/body relationship really works the way Rand thinks it does, how could an incident like this occur? In both her philosophy and her novels, no space is permitted for the existence of any such thing as “innocent error”; that would bring the whole intellectual system crashing down. There is only true knowledge and intentional, culpable self-deception; there are only heroes and villains. (Hence the notorious tunnel scene .) So was there an intellectual saboteur within Atlas who persuaded them to temporarily embrace an anti-Randian philosophy while they were putting together the title cards?

The whole thing reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s famous essay on “First and Second Things.” As he wrote, those who try to use Wagnerian myth to organize their total system of values lose, in the end, not only the values slighted by Wagner but even those celebrated by him. Those who elevate the survival of civilization to the highest value not only lose the values that are in competition with civilization’s survival but even those that promote it. “The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.” And so with rational self-interest. “You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.”

[Special humility-restoring update: since posting this I have edited it three four times to correct typos. (Thanks to the commenter who pointed out an additional error!) So to the folks at Atlas: I sympathize!]

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