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For some background, I'm not a serious academic or philosopher, but I have been studying Ayn Rand, her novels, and her philosophy of Objectivism in my English Literature class.

A large part of Objectivism is focused around the notion of rational self-interest and working towards bettering yourself and achieving your goals. There is no obligation to any other man, nor is any other man obligated to you. According to Ayn Rand, pretty much anything would be justifiable as long as it's working to benefit an individual's rational self-interest.

My question is basically this: if a whole society was to follow Objectivism, would it survive? If everyone was working for their own goals and for no one else, then not showing up to work, school, or even back to your family could be justified. Since you aren't obligated to serve/help anyone else, wouldn't society collapse?

The closest thing I've seen to this would be Sears, but if there's any other examples out there, I'd love to hear them!

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    If the society collapses the individual would not benefit from it, so rational self-interest requires following some social commitments. And that makes some of the social ethics derivatively justifiable despite no primary obligation to others. So it is unclear that objectivism would be that much different in practice from what we have, except in marginal situations. – Conifold Oct 16 at 5:35
  • @Conifold, we can't say no individual would benefit from it. Some minority of the population would benefit from it. And if some minority is being forced against their self-interest for the benefit of the majority, is that still Objectivism? – Ameet Sharma Oct 16 at 5:58
  • @AmeetSharma If the majority deems it in their self-interest to prop up society and a minority stands in the way nothing in objectivism would disallow the forcing in principle. There could be some practical considerations, but their weight dwindles with the size of the minority. Minority is screwed, under objectivism even more so than usual. – Conifold Oct 16 at 6:08
  • @Conifold, so slavery isn't in conflict with principles of Objectivism? – Ameet Sharma Oct 16 at 6:12
  • @AmeetSharma And neither is abolitionism and violent resistance, it's dog eat dog until they deem it more rational to come to an accommodation, or the majority turns against slavery, as historically happened. – Conifold Oct 16 at 6:14
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Rand's Objectivism is really Locke's 'State of Nature' argument (SoNa) on steroids. It imagines a world in which everyone is a rational, self-sufficient individual whose relationships to other people are strictly casual, functional, and arbitrary, and whose only real relationship is to property. Locke used this SoNa as the beginning point of his philosophy because he wanted to investigate what people were like without the oppressive social and political structures that plagued his era; Rand took this SoNa as gospel truth and constructed an ideology that advanced and defended it.

If you want an exemplar of a perfect Lockean SoNa individual, read Robinson Crusoe (which was written a decade or so after John Locke's death). Crusoe decides to head out into the 'unpeopled' wilds to make his fortune. He claims a stretch of land, builds himself a small fortress, and spends 27 years all alone extracting the bounty of nature before returning to sell it to others. It's a perfect encapsulation of the kind of 17th century rugged individualist model, spoiled only by the appearance of a hapless native whom Crusoe rescues and lazily names 'Friday' (after the day Crusoe saves him from cannibals), and whom Crusoe takes on as a servant and subordinate.

Now, it's obviously impossible to have a world of Robinson Crusoes with a population of seven billion people. There simply aren't enough 'unpeopled' lands for each person to charge off and make a fortune (though, granted, if every man spent 27 years alone in the wild it would have a significant impact on birth rates). Rand was aware of this, but rather than try to rebuild a social context the way Locke did, Rand makes the brutal, calculated distinction: those who manage (though skill, talent, hard work, brutality, or pure luck) to acquire and productively use property are deserving of the wealth that comes from it; those who do not are consigned to the role of 'Friday' and are contemptuously dismissed, existing only on the 'compassionate' generosity of their betters. It's the original form of trickle-down economics.

Obviously this form of society can and does exist. Just think of the Gilded Age, or the modern wealth divide, where those who 'own' progressively increase their wealth at the expense of those who do not 'own' (all the while lauding themselves for being 'job providers'). Of course, most Objectivists would say that's an unfair assessment of the spirit of the ideology. Objectivism is meant to be a moral system in which success is a function of skill, talent, and hard work, available to anyone who puts in the elbow work. But the only way to properly universalize Objectivism in that way is to give everyone the opportunity of ownership: i.e., to shift to a Marxist model that protects the individual from the oppression of capitalist social structures. But that model would be vigorously rejected by all Objectivists.

Honestly, Objectivism is merely an ideology that asks people to look at hard-line capitalism through rose-colored glasses, accepting its moral turpitudes as natural and justifiable, while celebrating its successes as moral virtues. As long as one keeps the glasses on, one can see the fruits of Objectivism everywhere.

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if a whole society was to follow Objectivism, would it survive?

The short answer is no, because there is no such society as that assumed by Ayn Rand. In Rand’s novels, everyone is a healthy adult. If everyone were a healthy adult, there would be nothing for a welfare system to do. There would be no point to it.

More broadly, a society free of risk could permit each individual to focus solely on their own personal creativity and their own needs.

Without children, disabled persons, and COVID-19, each person could realize their own potential. But there is no such place, and there never will be. Risk simply must be recognized and covered in some manner.

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