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.

What is consciousness?

Consciousness is a philosophical and scientific axiom. It requires a brain. It is real but not material. It is our means of knowing reality (though existence is the primary axiom). The conceptual (rational) faculty builds on the material provided by the senses. Consciousness as a faculty includes the conscious mind and material stored in the subconscious, which can become conscious. Both aspects work together, with the conscious mind being active and the subconscious relatively passive. Reason is fallible and requires an epistemology and the choice to expend effort. Consciousness is our main means of survival and of human progress.

Edwin A. Locke, The Illusion of Determinism

This is a nice little summary of the objectivist view of consciousness and free will. I share this view, but I have to say that I still think that the term “free will” is misleading and redundant.

First: People tend to understand the word “free” in an anarchist kind of sense (just as the free-market economy is often understood as anarchism), as if the will was completely detached from existence, i.e. context-free. That this is not the case, and that this circumstance is no proof of determinism, is what Edwin Locke explains in the book quoted above.

Second: It is simply unnecessary to put the adjective “free” before the term “will.” Through our capacity for conceptual thinking, we are able to make choices, so, unlike animals, we can consciously choose between alternative actions. This constitutes our freedom, because we are not completely determined by causality.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

But we have to consciously set and pursue goals based on a moral code. That’s our will. In other words: The will is free by definition, otherwise it would not be will.

This also raises the exciting question of whether AI can ever develop a consciousness without (free) will (if it is even possible to produce a consciousness or an awareness process with algorithms).

Ayn Rand: Moral cannibalism


„The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another.”

Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

“Der moralische Kannibalismus aller hedonistischen und altruistischen Lehren liegt in der Prämisse, dass das Glück des Einen das Leid des anderen bedingt.”

Ayn Rand, Die Tugend des Egoismus

Very important quote. That’s the premise of all socialist/statist ideologies which needs to be challenged. Too many people honestly believe that there is no other way to become a successful person like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos without “exploiting” others.

But socialism does not work (at least not then, when you have a modicum of self-esteem and don’t want to live as a drone on a sub-human level). Thus they enjoy every one of capitalisms products.
Hence their guilt, hence their self-hate, hence their hate on humanity, hence their hatred for every big company, free-market advocates and capitalism itself – all because they can’t stick to their own principles (how could they?).

One can be free in his/hers pursuit of happiness and material wealth without hurting others – but only in a free society under the rule of law which is based on a strict code of individualism (rational self-interest) and liberalism.

Picture source: fee.org

Andrew Ryan on Parasites

“Lacking its own ingenuity, the parasite fears the visionary. What it cannot plagiarize, it seeks to censor. What it cannot regulate, it seeks to ban.”

 

“What is the difference between a Man and a Parasite? A Man builds. A Parasite asks, “Where is my share?” A Man creates. A Parasite says, “What will the neighbors think?” A Man invents. A Parasite says, “Watch out, or you might tread on the toes of God…”

“Da dem Parasit jegliche Genialität fehlt, fürchtet er den Visionär. Was er nicht plagiieren kann, will er zensieren. Was er nicht regulieren kann, will er verbieten.”

 

“Was ist der Unterschied zwischen einem Menschen und einem Parasiten? Ein Mensch baut. Ein Parasit fragt: “Wo ist mein Anteil?” Ein Mensch erschafft. Ein Parasit sagt: “Was werden die Nachbarn denken?” Ein Mensch erfindet. Ein Parasit sagt: “Pass auf, oder du könntest es dir mit Gott verscherzen…”

– Andrew Ryan, BioShock

Picture source: vox.com