The Ayn Rand Generation?

Alan Jacobs discusses the book Souls In Transition, a book that surveys and catalogs the spiritual views of 18-23 year olds. He highlights a passage that I find interesting:

The majority of those interviewed stated . . . that nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people. . . . Most of those interviewed said that it is nice if people help others, but that nobody has to. Taking care of other people in need is an individual’s choice. If you want to do it, good. If not, that’s up to you. . . . Even when pressed — What about victims of natural disaster or political oppression? What about helpless people who are not responsible for their poverty or disabilities? What about famines and floods and tsunamis? — No, they replied. If someone wants to help, then good for that person. But nobody has to.

Now, I haven’t read the book or what lies between the ellipsis, but assuming a decent methodology and that Jacobs is presenting this correctly (and knowing him, I’d say this is highly unlikely to be misleading), this is certainly an interesting bit of information. I’m sure that if there’s an afterlife, Ayn Rand is laughing through her cigarette smoke and clapping her hands in delight at this interview. Her goal always was, after all, to win the culture war.

Personally, I think I have to share Jacobs’ concern–to a point. It really is disturbing that a majority of 18-23 year olds don’t believe they have an obligation to help people. (Of course, maybe it’s because I live in an area that’s both very conservatively religious and wealthy, but I have to scoff a little bit at his anecdotes about his Christian students not sharing these views — is Jacobs’ really unaware of the Prosperity Gospel or the infection of Social Darwinism into variants of contemporary Evangelicalism? Not that all Christians believe those things, but come on…)

On the other hand, I don’t know if this poses any trend for the future. Full confession time–when I was 18-23, I fully shared those views about my obligation to others (or lack thereof) and would have been clapping my hands at this survey right along with the zombie Ayn Rand. When you’re young and semi-independent in college, it’s easy to lose track of the world around you and become isolated from the harsh reality that bad things happen and we have to help each other out to make it through. But then you graduate from college and you grow up.

If a follow-up ten years from now shows that a majority of this generation of 18-23 year olds still believes that they don’t have to help other people, well, then there might be a cause for worry.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s a carefully bracketed age sample. Males don’t develop anything resembling a conscience until their mid 20’s. God knows I didn’t. There’s a reason we send 19 year-olds off to fight wars. I was in my mid twenties before I first thought, “Hey, that might be . . . um . . . what’s the word? Oh yeah: wrong.”

  2. steve says:

    Rand’s is an immature and incomplete philosophy. Best read as a teen. Much better to read Hayek or Rothbard. Smith is much better than Rand.


  3. Bostinks2 says:

    So… to employ and skilled unemployed person to fill a much needed position goes against the grain of these 18-23 yo. And would employment be considered a form of helping someone?

  4. James Joyner says:

    It may just be a matter of phrasing technicalities, too. Do I think we “ought” to help people in desperate circumstances through no fault of their own? Sure. Do I think we’re “obligated” to do so? No.

    Indeed, I’m not sure where the obligation would come from. Certainly, throughout most of American history, there was no governmental assistance for the disabled. We didn’t even help those debilitated in war until the 1860s. And, certainly, we weren’t going off to aid victims of famine and disaster overseas.

    We’re pretty generous as a nation, as is befitting a society of our wealth. But that doesn’t mean we “owe” that help to others, just that it’s a decent thing to do when you can.

  5. Anna Tarkov says:
  6. It is my opinion that Ayn Rand embraced too much government. I am not particularly a fan of her Objectivism. I have only read her book on Capitalism, and some on her virtue of selfishness, but in the long run I see little ethical foundation for her perspectives.

    As a libertarian / anarchist I am unimpressed with these stances. I may agree on a few but if any strand of capitalist thinking is truly one that embraces the common attacks on capitalism and exemplifies this I feel it is what Rand preached.

  7. Brian J. says:

    Ought does imply some sort of compulsion to punish those who do not. It might be a reaction to the fact that the altruism is increasingly enforced by government dictates, not conscience or theological imperatives.

  8. Franklin says:

    Most of those interviewed said that it is nice if people help others …

    Apparently some didn’t even think it was *nice* to help others.

  9. sam says:

    Hmmm. Didn’t the 18-24 demographic go heavily for Obama in 2008? I mean, I know we live in accelerated times, but going from liberalism to randian supermanism in two years is a stretch, wouldn’t you say?

  10. john personna says:

    I’ve always thought that Rand has special significance to 18-24 year olds because it is the perfect antidote to the public school system. But once you’ve taken the antidote, it’s time to move on.

  11. carpeicthus says:

    Rand is perfect for teenagers because generally none of them have a deep grasp of philosophy, so a cartoonish, broad brush version with easy-to-grasp slogans is a nice first leap. Sadly some people never outgrow her.

  12. Alex,
    Your link to Cornithians is not the the best one in this situation; Hannah Arendt said it best when she wrote “men, not Man, live on Earth and inhabit the world.” This notion doesn’t preclude one from being a libertarian, but certainly it negates whatever the hell “Objectivism” purports to be.

    Rand, like Hemingway, Bellow, Kerouac, Foucault, and many others, are meant to be read at a certain time in life and then grown out of — left behind in favor of more substantial ideas about the realities of society.

  13. Michael Caution says:

    At 26, I’m just a little out of the age range but I don’t see myself giving up on Rand’s ideas anytime soon. For a hint as to why Rand attracts such young readers, including myself, check out The Appeal of Ayn Rand by Onkar Ghate.

    “But when you actually consider the essence of what Rand teaches, the accusation that her philosophy is childish over-simplification stands as condemnation not of her ideas but of the adult world from which the accusation stems.

    The key to Rand’s popularity is that she appeals to the idealism of youth. She wrote in 1969: ‘There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days—the conviction that ideas matter.’ The nature of this conviction? ‘That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.'”