The original BioShock was a game released in 2007 by 2K Games. The main antagonist was Andrew Ryan, a “business magnate” who founded an underwater city, called Rapture. He was supposed to be guided by the same philosophy that Ayn Rand advocated in her novels and non-fiction books. Ayn Rand called this philosophy “Objectivism.”
I have played through the original BioShock and found all the recordings in the game that tell the backstory. I have also studied Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism for over 15 years, so I’m well qualified to comment on how accurately the game represents the philosophy.
The remastered version of the BioShock series was recently released, so I decided to take this moment to comment.
I find that BioShock seriously misrepresents Objectivism. One way it gets Objectivism wrong is in Andrew Ryan’s attitude toward morality. In his introductory speech in the game, Andrew Ryan says,
I chose… Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor; where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small!
Here Ryan dismisses morality as petty and insignificant. This was most definitely not Ayn Rand’s attitude toward morality. She was very concerned with morality, and morality is a central part of Objectivism as a philosophy. Any person who seriously agrees with her philosophy also takes morality very seriously, because it’s an extremely important guide to life. Objectivism has a whole code of values and virtues that it says people need to follow to achieve a good life and genuine happiness. (You can find out more about Ayn Rand’s ethics starting here and here.)
In BioShock, ADAM was an untested and potentially very dangerous drug. So, according to Objectivism, the splicers of Rapture were immoral for disregarding the long-term consequences of their actions in injecting themselves with ADAM. They were not being rational egoists as Ayn Rand advocated, but self-destructive “whim-worshipers,” in her terminology. Ayn Rand thought people should pursue their long-term happiness by careful thought, planning, and dedicated effort. The people of Rapture had no good reason to risk their long-term health and safety for rushes of brute physical power or cosmetic improvements. So, in this way, the state of Rapture in BioShock was the result of anti-Objectivist behavior.
Politically, Objectivism advocates a laissez-faire capitalist republic. This is fairly close to what the United States was early in its history. Ayn Rand believed there should be a government with a police force, a military, and a court system. The legislature and other major government officials should be elected by popular vote.
The government’s role is to ensure that the individual rights of its national residents are impartially protected–i.e. everyone’s life, liberty and property are equally protected from criminals, foreign aggressors, and the officials of the government itself. This means that the government needs to have institutional safeguards against abuse of power and corruption. It needs governmental branches with a separation of powers, election of governmental officials, and a written constitution.
Andrew Ryan’s Rapture had none of these things. Ryan was effectively a dictator who could enact laws at his whim. This is very much an anti-Objectivist form of government.
Ryan even used his power to shut down trade with the outside world. As a general rule, this is a very anti-Objectivist move. Objectivism is very pro-free trade, in both the domestic and international spheres.
In my understanding, there are only two circumstances in which a government would be justified in restricting international trade. The first is in the event of a declared war on another country. In this case, the government would be justified in cutting off trade between its country and the enemy country, strictly for the duration of the war.
The second case would be if a foreign country has effectively nationalized some of its businesses, and presents a clear, bona fide threat to the citizenry of the home country. In this case, the government could ban trade with those companies that have close associations with the foreign government. Such trade would effectively constitute aiding and abetting criminals–those who commit flagrant violations of human rights and threaten people under the home government’s protection.
To be legitimate, both of these restrictions would have to be enacted by a proper and duly elected government, not by the whim of a lone dictator. Andrew Ryan’s feeling that Rapture is a tempting target for raiders is not nearly enough.
So these are the four major ways I’d say Andrew Ryan and Rapture violated Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy:
- Ryan essentially disregards morality, in stark contrast to what Ayn Rand advocated.
- The citizens of Rapture disregarded morality, and their own long-term self-interests, by irrationally injecting themselves with untested and dangerous drugs.
- Andrew Ryan ran Rapture as a dictatorship, in contrast to what Objectivism advocates in politics.
- As dictator, Andrew Ryan cut off trade between Rapture and the outside world. He thus committed an immoral initiation of force against innocents.
If the citizens of Rapture had been mostly moral in the Objectivist sense, there would have been little to no demand for ADAM. Without Ryan’s wanton restriction of trade, Frank Fontaine could not have prospered as a smuggler. If Rapture had had a proper laissez-faire capitalist government, the criminal activity of gangsters and splicers would probably have been stopped before it got out of hand. What makes the downfall of Rapture possible is not Objectivism, but behavior and policies that violate Objectivism to its core.
The intent of BioShock’s makers was to show what happens to a society that fully embraces Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But they did not understand Objectivism well enough to represent it accurately. Their depiction is a wildly inaccurate caricature that bears very little resemblance to what Rand actually advocated.
If you want to learn more about Objectivism, I recommend reading Ayn Rand’s novels, such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. But the novels won’t give you the complete picture of the philosophy. I also recommend the nonfiction works of Ayn Rand and Dr. Leonard Peikoff, along with such works as Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It, by Craig Biddle and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, by Dr. Tara Smith.
In the meantime, there are also online resources. I have an Introduction to Objectivism page on this blog, as well as many essays. Ayn Rand Institute Campus has free video courses on Objectivism, as well.
Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy
Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others
Ayn Rand and the Crude Materialism of the “Rich vs. Poor” Worldview
Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life
The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse
On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same
Or you could also, you know… read Nathaniel’s work.
Thank you for a good post! Does the game have anything to say about its view on the core elements of Objectivism – epistemology and metaphysics?
No, it never gets that deep, philosophically. The game’s concerns and characterization are limited to ethics and politics.
I do believe all of the concepts you have introduced in your post. They’re very convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very quick for newbies. May just you please extend them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.
I believe the point is not that Rapture fell because of Objectivism, but rather it fell because of the intense difficulty of transferring the best of ideals into practice. This was stated by the developers in interviews. They are not criticising Andrew Ryan’s view, but saying that philosophy can become warped when put into real life.
Thanks much for this. I’d assumed it was a bizarre exaggeration of Rand’s views, but I wasn’t sure. Again, much appreciated.
Bioshock was NOT intended to show the failures of Randian philosophy. It was intended to show the failure of a beautiful ideal in application, not theory.
Ryan is NOT supposed to be an objectivist paragon, but a failed one.
Really, if you even read any of the interviews by the maker on this topic, this should be evident.
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I’m no expert on objectivism, but having read a couple of Rand’s books, one point I’d add which violates objectivist philosophy: Andrew Ryan says “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” So far so good, but then he treats the protagonist as a slave by issuing commands to him and going so far (spoiler alert) as to instruct the protagonist to kill him. https://youtu.be/P9DhpjRklgk?t=343
It is my understanding that objectivists do not wish to control other men. So Ryan couldn’t be said to be an objectivist on this point alone.