So Scalzi opines on Atlas Shrugged (which I’m currently reading for the first time, via a 64-hour long audiobook. If you’re curious, the book that filled the Atlas Shrugged slot in my teenage-reader political awakening was the Illuminatus! Trilogy. Yeah, I’m weird that way.) and while I don’t have a lot to say about his analysis of the book itself, since I’m just reading it for the first time, I know enough of the plot I haven’t read to come up with a bit of a meta-commentary. Quoth Scalzi:
All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt. This is most obviously revealed by the fact that in Ayn Rand’s world, a man who self-righteously instigates the collapse of society, thereby inevitably killing millions if not billions of people, is portrayed as a messiah figure rather than as a genocidal prick, which is what he’d be anywhere else. Yes, he’s a genocidal prick with excellent engineering skills. Good for him. He’s still a genocidal prick.
Which is quite right. The dystopia in Atlas Shrugged is as frighteningly plausible as the one in 1984 and Brave New World, since it is based, in large part, on applying Soviet-classic modes of thinking to the US political system. If Rand had written a dystopia like Orwell and had Dagny Taggart broken by the system ala Winston Smith, I doubt Scalzi would have found the premise nearly as ridiculous. The problem comes when we place a set of characters into the crapsack world who know exactly what to do to fix it.
In a novel, that can work. John Galt can shut off production to the rest of the world (in an ironic echo of Stalin and Mao inducing famines through state control of agriculture) because he is RIGHT! He has the revealed knowledge that millions of people must die in order for the world to be saved from disaster.
That brings us to blog number two, which was inspired by this horrid little video:
However, these kinds of thought experiments do demonstrate how absolute certitude makes it easy for anyone, no matter how humane and compassionate, to calmly rationalize the deaths of billions. At the extremities of events and the associated moral choices, the ends do definitely justify the means.
As a corollary, ideas that claim to predict extreme events with great certainty create the justifications for associated extreme acts. These types of ideas turn abstract moral thought experiments into concrete realities on which people feel compelled to act.
Notice a theme? Maybe we can make it a little more specific:
Those early members of the French Revolution who created The Declaration of the Rights of Man believed that reason could absolutely replace tradition They would never have believed their ideas could possibly lead to the Great Terror, Empire and contienent wide war.
The geneticists who created the idea of eugenics used the best available science of their day. With the imprimatur of science, eugenics became widely accepted by all educated, secular individuals across the political spectrum. It was considered “settled science”. No eugenist envisioned their idea would justify the greatest of wars and the Holocaust.
Marxists the world over who rushed to join the newly formed Communist party in 1917 sincerely believed they were contributing to a world free of want, ignorance, oppression and inequality. They did not imagine in the least that the ideas they promulgated would create totalitarian, megacidal regimes that would push humanity to the precipice of extinction more than once.
Or, to put a fine point on it, as soon as some ideology decides that an abstraction is more important than an individual human life, you have established a moral framework for mass murder on an industrial scale. All Utopias are based on the idea of eliminating the undesirables.