Does Silicon Valley need even more Ayn Rand to fix its ethical crisis?

Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand.
Image: AP Photo
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Silicon Valley is in the midst of an ethical crisis. A series of scandals in recent years—from Theranos to Zenefits to Uber and the systemic problem of gender bias and sexual harassment—have slowly eroded public perception of the tech industry. The venture capital ecosystem, long shrouded in secrecy, is increasingly being exposed for what it really is: a coterie of mostly white men who wield indiscriminate power over who has a chance at pursuing the American dream.

As the roots of the industry’s blind idealism are being surfaced, critics often point to the outsize influence of Objectivism, the philosophy founded by author Ayn Rand, as a dangerous ideology that underpins the worst aspects of Silicon Valley culture. The philosophy, embodied in her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, has impacted so many leaders in tech—from Peter Thiel to Evan Spiegel to Travis Kalanick—that Rand has been described as “perhaps the most influential figure in the industry.” Objectivism is probably best known for characterizing selfishness as a virtue.

Yaron Brook, executive chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, is on a worldwide tour to promote the philosophy (and dispel its myths) and recently took some time to catch up with Quartz and discuss Objectivism as it relates to the Valley’s ethical crisis.

QZ: One of the faces of Silicon Valley’s ethical crisis, Uber’s ousted leader Travis Kalanick, is famously inspired by Ayn Rand. Her name is now associated with affirming free-wheeling, sometimes-destructive cultures like Uber’s in the name of disruption. What do you make of this? 

YB: Silicon Valley for the most part has a completely confused understanding of what she even meant. There are entrepreneurs who are inspired by Ayn Rand, who get emotional fuel, a certain amount of courage, audacity, and spunk because of Ayn Rand. I don’t think Travis Kalanick ever claimed to be an Objectivist. He said The Fountainhead was his favorite book. Very few of them actually sit down and say, “Wow, that’s a life-changing philosophy here.” In some sense I understand it: they’re too busy living their lives, too busy changing the world and they take what they can from it. They get it superficially: go act, be entrepreneurial, start a business.

How does Silicon Valley get Ayn Rand’s philosophy wrong?

There’s a misinterpretation of what she meant by selfishness. The classic way they get it wrong is simply believing that Ayn Rand says do whatever you feel like doing, don’t care about other people, just do whatever is good for you. And there’s no delving into what she means by “good for you.” Being selfish is really hard work. It means really thinking about “what are my values, what are the most important things to me, how do I rank them, and how do I actually pursue them in a rational, productive way?” Ayn Rand’s philosophy is very challenging.

Bernie Madoff is a great example [of misinterpreting selfishness]. Does anyone really think that Bernie Madoff sat down one day and thought, “I want to live the best life that I can live”? He didn’t think. The whole point of Objectivism is living by what Ayn Rand calls the trader principle: to create as many win-win relationships as possible. Trade is always win-win. It’s a spiritual transaction, not a financial transaction.

America has traditionally been an anti-intellectual culture. And this is also true of Silicon Valley. Look at Peter Thiel, who says don’t go to college, just start a business. Now that’s good—if you have a good intellectual foundation.

The term “conscious capitalism” has gained traction in recent years, first popularized by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey (whose company was just acquired by Amazon) and now part of Silicon Valley jargon. Why do these entrepreneurs—who are the very faces of free-market capitalism and the American Dream—feel the need to qualify their pursuits by describing it as “conscious”?   

Conscious capitalism is a meaningless term. What John Mackey means by it is, “we create win-win relationships out there, we care about our customers, we care about our employees, we care about our community.” Of course they do. Capitalism requires the best in human beings. Anything good that capitalism claims to be is implicit. We don’t need a new term for it. Whole Foods is just another grocery chain with a great marketing campaign. I don’t think Jeff Bezos will buy into this “conscious capitalism.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is among the Silicon Valley leaders who have really embraced the concept of conscious capitalism—he’s working hard to convey a mission-driven image around a for-profit company. Do you think this kind of personal branding is working for him?

Mark Zuckerberg is a conflicted guy. All you have to do is read his open letter to his daughter. He’s very torn between what he does—his love of his own life, his mission, his passion—and being Mother Theresa. He still buys into that morality of sacrifice and selflessness and living for other people. He hasn’t replaced his philosophy.

As long as your fundamental moral ideals are focused on the other, the measure of morality is how much you sacrifice for the other. Look at Bill Gates. He is a giant in terms of improving the condition of mankind. Yet he gets zero moral credit for it because he made so much money doing it. So he feels that in order to get moral credit, to be viewed as a good person, he has to give his money away. But he’s doing it because he feels guilty, or he thinks he should feel guilty. It might be the second. He does these things to appease this conventional morality that exists out there.

Is the hype around Universal Basic Income a byproduct of this kind of guilt—Silicon Valley leaders seeking to justify eliminating millions of jobs, replacing them with robots?

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to think that they’re superior and the rest of humanity cannot take care of itself. I believe that people left alone, given the right tools, almost everybody can take care of themselves—even in a world of robots.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.