How “BioShock” misrepresents Ayn Rand

When I first heard about Bioshock I was 14 and totally pissed off as a Halo fanboy, as Bioshock got nominated as game of the year. As I later borrowed it from a friend, I was mind blown. I wasn’t interested in politics (or any intellectual topic for that matter) yet, but even back then BioShock fascinated me due to its philosophical and society critical theme, which I never had seen or even cared about in a videogame.

Even years before I read Ayn Rands books and started to view myself as libertarian, I couldn’t help but agree with much Andrew Ryan says (not does!) in the game. Just remember for example this radio transmission in Arcadia:

“On the surface, I once bought a forest. The Parasites claimed that the land belonged to God, and demanded that I establish a public park there. Why? So the rabble could stand slack-jawed under the canopy and pretend that it was paradise earned. When Congress moved to nationalize my forest, I burnt it to the ground. God did not plant the seeds of this Arcadia; I did.”

Andrew Ryan radio message in the level “Arcadia – Farmer’s market”

The only thing I thought was „Rightly so!“.

Thanks to a blogger I frequently read, I later realized that Bioshock is based upon Rand and her ideas. Since then I’ve been more and more consciously informing myself about her philosophy. Even though I was neither interested nor informed about any of this stuff and Andrew Ryan, who is supposed to be a figure of virtue, is being portrayed as the villain as well as all of Rands ideas (free market, limited government, rational (!) self-interest) seem to be put in an intentionally bad light, Ryan’s/Rand’s ideas still managed to convince me for the most part. A good example of her view of how powerful and important ideas are.

And that’s the point where I need to clear out some common confusions, which the game unfortunately also seems to convey:

  1. When speaking of „selfishness“ or „egoism“ she does this always with the prefix „rational“, which is to show that she isn’t talking about a „murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.“ (The virtue of selfishness, p. 1), because she argues that this is not in a persons best (long-term) self-interest – only fair, honest trade with others is (trader principle). You could also just call it „Individualism“ and people are more likely to understand what you mean and probably agree with you. Why she insisted to use the word she used, I still don’t fully understand.
  2. Objectivism’s ethics are virtue ethics, which means it is more of a guideline to help people navigate through life and give them generalized instructions how to act in and evaluate certain situations. The „good“ is hereby what furthers your life and the „bad“ is what doesn’t. This means that when Rand calls something „evil“, an individual which has done „evil“ is not necessarily supposed to be ashamed and punished. She merely tries to say that this individual is hurting itself and should reconsider its values or course of action.
  3. Rand was a minarchist, not an anarchist. She saw the role of the state as limited to military, police and courts.

As far as I remember, Rapture had none of those, except a council of unelected members and cronies of Ryan. Also the speech at the beginning about „petty morality“ goes diametrically against objectivism’s ideas of a proper morality being a necessity for (a good) life.

Rapture is more anarchistic than minarchistic, since – and correct me if I’m wrong – it had no real law enforcement or other institutions other then the council and Ryan’s goons. Besides, Ryan eventually betrays all his principles and with each betrayal alienating the people of Rapture further and driving them into the arms of Atlas. The biggest betrayals being:

  1. the ignorance towards the enslavement of innocents in the Little Sister- and Big Daddy programs and the experiments done to them
  2. the nationalisation of his opponents company
  3. torture
  4. murder (e.g. the mother of Jack)
  5. ban on religion and ultimately
  6. robbing the people of their free will (how ever little was left of it)

And I bet there are much more examples. Somehow the game tries to show how Ryan’s ideas can’t work in reality while also showing at the same time what happens when he betrays those ideas, which just seems odd.

I do like the attempt to criticize the other (altruist-collectivist-)side in Bioshock 2 though. Naturally it can’t compete with the story of the first, but it’s still interesting. But I had and still have a big problem with the character of Sofia Lamb, because I find it very hard to believe that Ryan – a self-made billionaire with very strong political convictions – is such a bad judge of character and dumb enough not to realize what kind of person Lamb is. Just read in the novel how cautiously Ryan recruits people like Bill McDonagh and then tell me it isn’t odd that he recruits his arch-nemesis, just because he mistook some statements of her…

Regarding Jack I must say that I normally don’t like silent protagonists, but in this game it at least made some kind of sense. Though I wished he started talking or making his own decisions after being freed from Fontaine’s control. But instead you’ve basically traded Fontaine for Tannenbaum and followed her orders/instructions instead.

Luke, the uploader of the video, is also right about the moral choices regarding the little sisters. I think it doesn’t make a big difference in the long run. If you are a completionist and want every upgrade and plasmid, you have to rescue/heal the sisters to get all the necessary adam. But normal players will hardly notice any difference. Which is a shame, because this whole morality system could have so effectively shown the difference between the short-sighted recklessness normally associated with selfishness and the rational self-interest Rand was talking about, which has it’s eye on the long-term consequences.

BioShock is one of the best games ever made. The setting, the atmosphere, the gameplay and many, many other things make it a modern classic. And even though the philopsophical critique of Rand’s ideas is incoherent and distorting, it raises the players interest and, in my case, even make you admire the alleged villain or rather his philosophy.

Reply to YouTube comment about Capitalism

yet pure capitalism means unsafe work conditions, low wages, and no workers rights because the government plays no role in regulating the system As they choose, this only changed when the government made laws protecting workers, broke up monopolies that controlled entire industries, and labor unions became common. The idea that capitalism is somehow a perfect system that doesn’t need improving is dangerous. Look at the third world, large corporations pollute the environment at will to increase profits and the government’s do nothing to protect the health, safety or even lives of its citizens. That’s why a system like in Europe, or Canada is best, balancing a capitalist system with social programs to help those the system would otherwise abuse, and protecting workers so everyone has the opportunity to succeed, because in a capitalist system most people need to end up at the bottom of the totem pole, someone has to do the hard dirty work in a society, and they should always at least be able to live a decent life.

Dylan Haugen

I’m not defending anarcho-Capitalism. Of course there needs to be a state guaranteeing the individual rights and „putting the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control“ like Ayn Rand put it.

The problem with terms like „decent“ is though that it’s highly subjective. In Germany it isn’t considered a decent living standard to live in a trailer park and you are not allowed to have it as your official address – even if you wish to. I, as a trainee, would love to have my own little trailer and only have to pay 100-150€ a month for a small spot to place it. But no: other people have decided that it’s „not decent enough“ for me to live that way. Instead, I have to pay 470€ for an Appartement and beg the state for money to even be able to pay for it. Money that it has stolen me in the first place. Money that I’m not getting back because the social security office and the employment office both told I’m not entitled to it. And then I read about some guy with 13 kids and 3 wifes living completely off of tax money. Very decent, right? That’s what happens when the state plays the “good Samaritan”, which is not his job.

Regarding Pollution: I once saw a documentary about jeans production in China. There was a father and his son, who lived next to a river near a jeans factory. They lived there for years before the factory started dumping all their toxic waste in it, so they were suddenly robbed of their livelihood (the fish they were selling on the market were dead). Such reports are often used to make us feel bad for our consumption. Yet, in reality, it only shows what happens in a collectivist system like China, where individual rights are either not sufficiently formulated or simply ignored because the collective matters more than the individual. The Chinese government, as far as I can tell, doesn’t give a shit about those people. Quite the opposite: They arrest reporters, when they point out these or similar conditions in factories. They sacrifice these two men for “the common good“. In western countries the two men could sue the hell out of the company.

It is, by the way, a common misconception that capitalism allegedly promises everyone to get rich or to become anything one wants. It promises only that neither the state nor other people will hinder you by force in trying. Also: “because in a capitalist system most people need to end up at the bottom of the totem pole“. That’s wrong. History has shown that this is total nonsense. Millions of people were lifted out of poverty, since China opened their markets. In my country, the ownership of a television is considered a subsistence*. A device that only wealthy people could afford half a century ago. People are so spoiled today that they won’t see how incredibly high the living standards for poor people have risen since the industrialisation.

“someone has to do the hard dirty work in a society”

  1. What is „dirty work“? Who decides what this is? One mans „dirty work“ is an other mans dream job.
  2. Nobody has to do anything. In a free society, nobody is forced to take any job.

“Productive work” does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.

Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

*At least that’s what I thought. When I googled it, I found out that there was only a woman filing a lawsuit for money to get a TV, but it was dismissed by the court. So a TV is not considered a substinence in germany. Unfortunately many other things, too many things, are.

BioShock: Objektivismus und Minimalstaat

Andrew Ryan ist der Gründer der utopischen Unterwasserstadt Rapture im Shooter “BioShock” und soll eine Anspielung und Kritik zu Ayn Rand und ihren Ideen sein. Wüsste ich nicht wie korrupt und wahnsinnig er am Ende würde, ich würde ihn wählen. Anfangs hatte er ja auch noch respektable Ideale, nur die Umsetzung in Rapture war dann ja ziemlich fragwürdig. Aus seiner Ideologie heraus konnte er natürlich nicht gegen Fontaine/Atlas vorgehen, aber es kann doch auch nicht im Interesse einer Gesellschaft sein, sich von einem Usurpator unterwandern zu lassen. Wenn die eigenen Prinzipien einem Schaden, sollte man sie noch mal überdenken. Ryan hat sich geweigert dies zu tun und hat sich stattdessen alles zurecht rationalisiert. Bis er dann völlig durchdrehte und zum Diktator und Mörder mutierte.

Auch wenn das Spiel wahrscheinlich eine Kritik am Objektivismus und Minimalstaat sein soll, zeigt es eigentlich eher was in einem anarcho-kapitalistischen System passieren würde (ich meine Luft privatisieren? Ernsthaft?). Egal wie ich mich drehe und wende, ich komme immer wieder zu dem Schluss, dass ein Minimalstaat in Form einer durch eine Verfassung begrenzten Demokratie mit einer Regierung die den Menschen dient (nicht umgekehrt) das beste System zum Schutz von Individuellen Rechten ist.

Die große Frage ist halt: Wie, wenn überhaupt, geht strong government ohne big government? Was muss ein Minimalstaat (zusätzlich zu Polizei, Militär und Gerichten wie Ayn Rand es befürwortete) leisten können/dürfen, um die Rechte der Einwohner zu schützen* und wie begrenzt muss er gleichzeitig sein, dass er sich nicht zu einem überregulierenden, paternalistisch-autoritären Umverteilungs-Wohlfahrtsstaat wie Deutschland heutzutage entwickelt?

Auch wenn es pessimistisch klingt: Es ist wahrscheinlich eine Utopie zu denken, man könnte sowas auf ewig verhindern, aber man kann diesen Prozess durch eine gute Verfassung zumindest verlangsamen und es den Parasiten, Dirigisten, Opportunisten usw. erheblich erschweren.

We are a nation that has a government - not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the earth.

-- President Ronald Reagan

Zwar ist auch Amerika mittlerweile ein reines Bürokratiemonster mit diversen Regulierungsbehörden. Aber man vergleiche nur mal die USA, ein explizit auf minarchistischen Prinzipien gegründetes Land, mit Deutschland, welches sozialistische Klauseln wie Art. 14 (2) GG aufweist („Eigentum verpflichtet“) in der Hinsicht, wie lange es gedauert hat, bis sie diesen Zustand erreichten: USA 150 Jahre und Deutschland 70 Jahre (sogar nur 30 Jahre im Falle Ost-Deutschlands). Und die USA haben immer noch sehr viel größeren Respekt vor individueller Freiheit, Unternehmertum usw.

Ich finde BioShock ist eine perfekte case-study für Politikwissenschaftler. Ich würde gerne mal eine in die Tiefe gehende Analyse dazu sehen. Auch gerne von Objektivisten, um zu erfahren, inwieweit Rapture überhaupt Ayn Rands tatsächliche Ideale abbildet (nicht viel schätze ich mal). Der einzige mir bekannte deutsche Objektivist Andreas Müller hat das Spiel zwar ein paar mal erwähnt, aber ist leider nicht weiter darauf eingegangen.

Edit: Herr Müller hat jetzt auch eine kleine Analyse zu Rapture geschrieben: Warum Rapture gescheitert ist.

*Können zb. auch wie im Fall BioShock Regeln für Werbung und Entwicklung gefährlicher Technologien aufgestellt werden, um die Leute vor Plasmidmissbrauch zu schützen? Immerhin zerstörte dieser ihre Vernunft und ihre Menschlichkeit, also die Grundlagen der Fähigkeit überhaupt Träger von Rechten sein zu können.

Political spectrums – Quora

I found this graphic of political spectrums today and found it very interesting. Don’t know how accurate it is, but I’d situate myself on the very top somewhere around the middle between liberal and libertarian (with a strong tendency towards libertarian). Though I generally think markets should be as free as possible, I’m not sure if there are maybe areas where free markets should exist (e.g. road construction) or not (e.g. health care) or a mix of both, but I’m not sure about that yet. But I know enough about politics and economics to realise the menace(s) of centralised power and big government though, so I’ll give the libertarian side the benefit of the doubt for the time being.