At the very least the player can take from BioShock some provocative ideas about free will vs. fatalism. ‘A man chooses, a slave obeys’ says character Andrew Ryan1, pretty much directly quoting Book 1 of Aristotle’s Politics, which argues that in a city state the population can be divided between citizens who are slaves to societal rules but who make choices, and natural slaves who follow the ideas of others unthinkingly2. This is said just before (spoiler alert) we find out the protagonist has had little to no free will throughout the course of the game. The character’s fate actually seems set, because of the fact he is being controlled by a player in a game world where he literally cannot die (thanks to the Vita Chambers). This in itself raises all sorts of interesting philosophical questions about free will, and what it means to talk about free will to a character that is being controlled by a player, but that is another discussion for another day.
It is important the idea there are ‘natural slaves’ is stated by Andrew Ryan because the whole purpose of the game setting, the underwater city of rapture, was an attempt to remove the best and brightest of society from these ‘natural slaves’ or ‘parasites’ who only wish to benefit from the successes of the able without needing to pay for the service. This is often justified by the philosophical concept of Altruism, which Andrew Ryan directly references during the game3. The concept of Altruism, as Andrew Ryan understands it, is when someone acts in the interests of other people while ignoring the possibility any kind of personal reward. Often this is done with appeals to the greater good, or the state. Rapture was an attempt to build a society that consciously rejects this ‘slavery’ to other people. The real world inspiration for this philosophical rejection of Altruism in favour of a ‘rational selfishness’4, where you do things for others because you also benefit, is the Russian-born writer Ayn Rand, famous for the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and the founder of the philosophical movement Objectivism. Andrew Ryan is an Objectivist, but what is not often discussed is how well Ryan implemented the concepts of Objectivism in Rapture. That is a very interesting, and often overlooked part of the game that adds a lot of depth to what could have easily been a simple horror-shooter.
Before we go on, it would first be best to explain Objectivism as a philosophical concept. It starts with the belief, treated as an axiom (or something self-evident that does not need to be proved) that reality is objective4, and is basically how any one of sane mind and good senses finds it. Next is the epistemological idea (epistemology: the philosophical branch concerned with how we learn things) that if reality is as we find it, and our senses can be faulty, we must use reason to find out if we are in any way mistaken about how reality actually is4. Next is the ethical theory, already discussed, of ‘rational selfishness’ or ‘rational self interest’, and since the Objectivist ethics promotes rational self interest the logical next step for an ethical society is the promotion of Capitalism.5 This is because in theory no business deal ever goes just one way, all transitions are ‘rationally selfish’ or they would make no financial sense.
There is, on top of all this, the fierce upholding of personal liberties that is ensured by the ‘Non-Aggression Principle’ which basically states that since a person’s mind is the tool with which they live, they are free to use it how they please, free from the interference of other people (see ‘The Objectivist Ethics’ by Ayn Rand, included in The Virtue of Selfishness). That is a lot of philosophy to take in, but when we explore BioShock’s game world we do readily find a society based on these principles of rational selfishness and capitalism, and where no one believes in God or the supernatural; something we will need to return to when we return to the Non-Aggression Principe a bit later on.
The very concept of Rapture itself as a place where Andrew Ryan takes people to live according to Objectivist principles, separate from the rest of society, takes direct influence from the plot of Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. In it the brilliant engineer and business man John Galt organizes a ‘strike of the mind’ with other wealthy capitalists, which in the novel causes the world economy to grind to a halt, since there is no one around capable enough to run the global economy properly in their absence. While we never actually see the world outside of Rapture in BioShock, we can assume from various hints that the world economy was not affected by wealthy industrialists following Ryan to Rapture, but that is beside the point. The point is, like John Galt’s ‘Atlantis’, Rapture is a place where Objectivist principles can dominate and be tested as a society.
Objectivist principles are referenced in the first moments of the game, when the protagonist Jack enters a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean to find a giant statue of a man, and a plaque reading ‘No Gods, No Kings, Only Man’, which expresses Rapture’s atheism and scientific rationalism. Soon after this we are treated to more visual hints of Rapture’s philosophy in the advertisements for Plasmids (ironically the very commodity that caused Rapture’s downfall in the game), and shortly after this again we find our first reference to the ‘Great Chain of Industry’, which again is ironic in referencing the Scholastic belief of the Great Chain of Being (which justified medieval royal rule – going God, King, Clergy, and the Peasants at the bottom) and hints to the player Rapture’s belief in Free Market economics5. These also serve as small hints to what went wrong – and reduced Rapture to the underwater warzone the player finds themself in.
The dream is over in Rapture, and Objectivism has failed. But how and why exactly did it fail? In the game we find an immediate answer in Frank Fontaine, the business mobster type and an almost perfect encapsulation of the Nietzschian Übermensch (German for ‘Over Man’ – in Nietzsche’s philosophy it is basically a person who lives by their own moral direction) according to someone who does not like Nietzsche very much. If we just take what the characters say about each other during the course of the game then we would lay all the blame for Rapture’s downfall on Frank Fontaine. He was, after all, the one who started the Rapture Civil War, he was a good manipulator of other people (as the game story clearly proves), and we can see from his ‘Fontaine’s Home for the Poor’ he had an apparently altruistic streak that at first appears out of place in Rapture’s Objectivist society. The game story focuses almost entirely on comparing and contrasting Andrew Ryan with Frank Fontaine, so we must do this too. Fontaine’s duplicity is made clear when we find out (spoiler warning) he took the alias ‘Atlas’ during the Rapture Civil War, leading to the poster ‘Who is Atlas?’ a direct reference to the often quoted line from Atlas Shrugged ‘Who is John Galt’. Fontaine was also, as we find out during the Dock level of the game, the one responsible for Rapture’s black market in smuggled goods that the Rapture police had to crack down on.
This is actually a very interesting point, one that often is overlooked. It would be wrong to suggest that, because everyone is economically absolutely free, there would be no form of government or police service in an Objectivist society. Ayn Rand was not, as has occasionally been said of her philosophy, promoting some kind of Anarcho-Capitalist society. There are not, actually, many references to the role of government in her writing, but one important reference to the role of government comes during the famous (or infamous, considering it’s extreme length) John Galt speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged, which says:
“The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law6.”
The purpose of a government in an Objectivist society is to ensure crimes are not committed, civil liberties are upheld, and invasions of the state do not take place (see also ‘The Nature of Government’ and ‘Government Financing in a Free Society’ in The Virtue of Selfishness). And that is it. So now we must ask the question: where is Rapture’s government? There does not appear to be an official one, or if there is it is very strange we see nothing of it, other than the police force, considering how much the player sees of Rapture during the game. There does not, also, appear to have been a formal military in Rapture, and the fire service was owned by Frank Fontaine.
This suggests all services, which in most western societies are largely government ran, are in Rapture private enterprises, including the police. Andrew Ryan’s application of Objectivism already has a serious problem because there is no neutral, outside authority to protect business deals in Rapture and nothing to ensure protection of the city from outside attacks.
Considering that Frank Fontaine’s smuggling operation was raided by the police, it seems reasonable to assume that the Rapture Police were at least sympathetic to Ryan’s business interests, which again is another failure of Ryan’s application of Objectivism. The fact that Fontaine even had a smuggling operation to begin with means certain items were banned and contraband in Rapture, which is another direct violation of the Free Market capitalism that Objectivism promotes, since the government according to Ayn Rand had no business interfering in the lives of citizens according to the Non-Aggression Principle. The types of items we find in the smuggled boxes in Fontaine’s docks are not drugs or anything many might consider risqué or untoward, and while there are weapons the most common items smuggled into Rapture appear to have been bibles, films, whisky, cigars and newspapers:
While a belief in religion might be counter to Objectivist ideas about Reason as the only tool fit to find the objective truth, that is just a personal failure of logic compared to the breach of ethics on the part of the Rapture police and Ryan when access to religious material was banned in an attempt to stop religious practice, which he had no right to do under the Non-Aggression Principle. This breach of ethics is a moral failing that Ayn Rand took very seriously, and importantly during the 70 pages of the John Galt speech the word ‘morality’ alone occurs ninety-five times. Banning tradable goods people wish to use for their own happiness is highly unethical in an Objectivist society.
So far this article has been very hard on Andrew Ryan’s application of Objectivism, and Frank Fontaine might be said to have almost slipped out a side door unnoticed, but we must now grab him by the scruff of the neck and have words with him about his own application of Objectivist principles.
The catalyst for the downfall of Rapture was the Plasmids, which were supplied for commercial use by Fontaine Futuristics, and thanks to no regulation on the Plasmid industry they quickly became readily available to all. Because there was no regulation, or testing of the long-term effects of Plasmids on either the human body or the human mind, the worst happened apparently without any warning: everyone became addicted to Plasmids, and started attacking each other for the hope they could steal enough money to buy more sweet – sweet plasmid goodness. The reader can decide for themselves if basically unleashing a strange new drug onto the free market was ethically sound according to Objectivist principles, or really ethically sound by any moral principles, but the damage to Rapture society seems inevitable given the power available through Plasmids. The people should have used their reason to see that the Plasmids were harming them with direct use, and their soon repeated violation of the Non-Aggression Principle means they share some of the blame too. However, we find out that the material for Plasmids is nurtured and farmed from inside the changed bodies of little girls, called in the game ‘Little Sisters’. Then the player enters Rapture these Little Sisters are wondering around Rapture, stealing ADAM (Plasmid power) from corpses, protected from harm by huge, metal monstrosities called ‘Big Daddies’. These Big Daddies symbolise the fall of Rapture itself, as they are both the people who literally built it (hence their deep-sea suits) and now the people who protect the very thing that caused Rapture to fall, and neither the Big Daddies or Little Sisters seem to be fully conscious of their situations anymore.
These Little Sisters and Big Daddies have been mentally brain washed into subservience, doing the tasks the Plasmid Industry requires. The Little Sisters were conditioned and genetically altered for their task in the ‘Little Wonders Educational Facility’, just as the Big Daddies were conditioned and genetically altered for their task in the ‘Proving Grounds’, and the protagonist Jack explores both locations late in the game. While we do not know very much about the men who became Big Daddies, we can be almost certain the little girls did not choose of their own free will from an informed and rational position to have their genetics altered and their minds conditioned to become servants of the Plasmid industry. This is unethical by any standard – never mind an objectivist standard with its Non-Aggression Principle.
What Fontaine did to ensure his Plasmid industry succeeded was monstrous, but Rapture had no government or unbiased police force to actually stop it from happening. Which leads us to the obvious question, who then is really to blame? Fontaine is an obvious choice, since he did take little girl’s lives away from them and made them slaves, but we cannot also forget that Andrew Ryan failed to establish Rapture as a place that ensured people would be punished for abusing the Non-Aggression Principle and everyone’s rights would be ensured. Both men, then, are really to blame for the fall of Rapture, one just had a more active part to play in the downfall than the other.
We will finish here by stressing that the story of Rapture and BioShock is not, as has sometimes been claimed, a refutation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. It is instead a critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, because it raises the question of how an Objectivist society should ensure Individual Rights and Non-Aggression Principle are not violated, ensuring no one is used, or manipulated into being used like Jack the protagonist is throughout the entire game. More importantly, the game serves as a way for players to have an access to Ayn Rand’s ideas, and have a way to think about them in context of a story that makes the ideas and issues easy to digest. BioShock, then, is an explanation, and presentation of Rand’s philosophy as well as a critique. It is also, more generally, a critique of how societies can fall into nightmares because of attempts to apply idealistic ideas to the real world, and having the ideas exposed to unforeseen, real world problems. Even if those ‘unforeseen, real world problems’ involve sea-slugs that can rewrite human being’s genetic material, the point of BioShock is not that Objectivism, or idealism is right or wrong, but instead, if people are to be idealistic then there must be something that keeps that idealism in check – because as Fontaine proves, humans always find ways to mess up a good thing. As it is commonly said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
1.) Youtube: ‘BioShock – Jack Kills Ryan (1080p)’
2.) Aristotle, Politics, (Oxford World Classics, Oxford, 2009)
4.) Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness, (Signet Publishing, New York, 1992)
6.) Rand, Ayn, Atlas Shrugged, (Penguin Publishing, London, 2007).
Main image: wallpaper by Adrian Lindner