Author’s note: This article contains spoilers for Atlas Shrugged.

Love is about sacrificing, serving, surrendering, sharing, supporting, and even suffering for others,” writes pastor Rick Warren.1 He’s not alone in this view; many claim that sacrificing for someone is a clear demonstration that you truly love him or her. People often hold up sacrifice (real or supposed) as the true measure of love—whether the sacrifice is big, as when Jack sacrificed his life for Rose in Titanic; or small, as when Landon gave up his reputation for Jamie in A Walk to Remember.2 But is it true that love requires sacrifice?

First, what is sacrifice? Many consider giving up anything of value, regardless of what one gets in return, to be a sacrifice. For example, people often say that to succeed in your profession, you need to “work hard and sacrifice.” In this context, “sacrificing” supposedly means applying one’s time and energy to building one’s career and giving up or forgoing other goals or activities one might otherwise have pursued. But if you value your career more than those other things, this is not a loss of value but a gain of value. And to call that a sacrifice makes no sense. The reason we need the concept “sacrifice” is to identify instances when one gives up something of greater value for something of lesser value or of no value. For example, if someone wants to succeed in his career but fritters away his time on social media and thus fails in his career, he has engaged in a net loss. He has committed a sacrifice.

Given that we do not have unlimited time and resources, we must prioritize some values above others. To do so rationally, we must consider which are most important to building a thriving life and which are less important. For example, a career one loves and a creative hobby are both life-serving values, but people tend to spend more time on the work they love than on hobbies, not only because the work pays their bills, but also because a career one loves is a long-range activity that provides meaning and purpose in their lives. To spend one’s time and energy on hobbies to the detriment of one’s career would be a sacrifice. As Ayn Rand defined it, a sacrifice is giving up a greater value for the sake of a lesser value or a nonvalue; it’s an action that violates your value hierarchy.3 She further explained:

If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.4

As Rand depicted in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, healthy romantic relationships exclude sacrifice. By examining a few of the most important relationships in the book, we can better understand how sacrifice is incompatible with love and how a totally different approach paves the way for strong, loving relationships.

Lillian Rearden: The Ball and Chain

Hank Rearden is an innovative, self-made businessman. He struggled for decades to build up a steel business and develop a groundbreaking new alloy, Rearden Metal. He holds himself to high standards of integrity and productivity, and he takes pride in his work.

But he’s miserable at home. His mother and brother shamelessly live off him, while his wife, Lillian, not only fails to appreciate his achievements but openly mocks them. They look down on him as a greedy materialist, and he accepts their standards and resulting evaluation, thinking, “If his family called him heartless, it was true.”5 More and more frequently, he escapes his home to spend time at his steel mills, where he uses every ounce of his rationality and energy to produce and innovate. In this, he excels, and his employees and customers appreciate him for it.

But Lillian, an icy, indifferent woman, doesn’t appreciate Hank and instead demands that he essentially become someone he’s not. She tells him,

To love a woman for her virtues is meaningless. She’s earned it, it’s a payment, not a gift. But to love her for her vices is a real gift, unearned and undeserved. To love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake—and that is a real tribute of love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem.6

In other words, she demands that he sacrifice his mind, judgment, and values to prove his love for her. Hank cannot fathom such an idea; to expect a person to love another causelessly—or worse, for her failings—is beyond his comprehension. Why would he love a woman he doesn’t admire or even respect?

Although Lillian’s standards don’t make sense to Hank, he implicitly accepts the destructive idea that moral truth is different for different individuals. Having adopted this premise, he proceeds on the idea that if Lillian holds that sacrifice is how one shows love, he should respect her view and act accordingly. This very decision requires that Hank sacrifice his independent judgment and go by hers—something he would never dream of doing at work, because it is through his rational judgment that he’s built his business. But in his marriage, he struggles to act on the idea that “real devotion,” as Lillian tells him, “consists of being willing to lie, cheat, and fake in order to make another person happy—to create for him the reality he wants, if he doesn’t like the one that exists.”7 And though Hank fortunately never engages in that level of self-deception, he does continue in their marriage for seven years, bound to her by a sense of duty. He spoils his own happiness by choosing to be weighed down by a wife whose values are the opposite of his own—and moreover, are self-destructive.

“Surrendering that which makes life meaningful makes life meaningless,” as one author put it.8 Though Hank would never do that at work, he does it at home. Hank is unhappy because he’s sacrificing his values in his personal relationships. But when he pursues his true values—notably, another woman, one who embodies his ideals of rationality, productivity, and justice—he begins to achieve some measure of happiness. . . .

In #AtlasShrugged, Ayn Rand shows that healthy relationships are based on shared moral values and a harmony of self-interest, and they exclude sacrifice.
Click To Tweet

1. Rick Warren, Facebook, November 21, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/pastorrickwarren/posts/10152064979745903.

2. Anna Livia Brady, “5 Cinematic Couples Who Showcase the Power of True Love,” Family Theater Productions, February 10, 2023, https://familytheater.org/blog/movies-selfless-love-princess-bride.

3. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 50.

4. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, Kindle edition), 1027.

5. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 128.

6. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 305.

7. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 304.

8. Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters (New York: Union Square Publishing, 2019), 93.

9. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 371.

10. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 255.

11. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 484.

12. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 373.

13. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 376.

14. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 425.

15. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 529.

16. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 858.

17. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 974.

18. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 108.

19. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 493.

20. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 797.

21. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 797.

22. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 797.

23. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 767–68.

24. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 767.

25. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 861.

26. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1002.

Return to Top
You have loader more free article(s) this month   |   Already a subscriber? Log in

Thank you for reading
The Objective Standard

Enjoy unlimited access to The Objective Standard for less than $5 per month
See Options
  Already a subscriber? Log in

Pin It on Pinterest