No Gods, No Men, No Future: Bioshock’s Unregulated Nightmare


In “The Battle for Galt’s Gulch: Bioshock as Critique of Objectivism,” Joseph Packer argues that Rapture, the Objectivist underwater dystopian setting of Bioshock (2007), is full of  “dangerous [Objectivist] enemies, seeking to inflict harm for their own personal gain” (215). He consistently reiterates his argument that these enemies, called splicers, are acting in accordance with Objectivism’s core tenet of rational self-interest (216-21), suggesting that they are making these choices consciously and of their own volition. In painting all citizens of Rapture with such a wide brush, Packer misinterprets the motivations behind Bioshock’s enemies, and in doing so, he also misses the central catalyst for Rapture’s ruin in general. Society has collapsed in Rapture not because its citizens are selfish, but because there of the lack of government intervention to counter the moral bankruptcy of the business world of rapture.

In Brigid Tenenbaum’s audio diary “ADAM Explained,” she reveals the negative effects of ADAM, a popular substance in Rapture that allows for instant genetic modification. ADAM’s process of cellular regeneration, she states, causes “cosmetic and mental damage. You need more and more ADAM just to keep back the tide.” Because its debilitating effects can only be subdued by repeated applications, users are caught in a trap of psychological dependence after using it, leading to their violence against others who have ADAM. Therefore, Packer’s explanation of the splicers’ violence is inadequate. They attack the player not because of their ideology, but for physiological reasons beyond their control. The splicers are essentially stand-ins for drug addicts with no access to rehabilitative services.

In response, one might wonder why there are no rehabilitative centers in Rapture when there would certainly be a high demand. After all, Rapture is a free market society. The answer is that there is more money to be made from selling to the users of ADAM than rehabilitating them. As Tenenbaum also states in “ADAM Explained,” “From a medical standpoint, [the addictive nature of ADAM] is catastrophic. From a business standpoint, well… Fontaine sees the possibilities.” Frank Fontaine is the founder of Fontaine Futuristics, the business enterprise that funded Tenenbaum’s experiments leading to the discovery of ADAM. The high demand for ADAM only increases during the civil war, when “Johnny and Janey Citizen are lined up round the block for Plasmids” (Bioshock, “Fontaine’s Legacy”). In Rapture, there is no institution in place to stop someone like Fontaine from taking advantage of the masses’ dependence on ADAM.

Another prime example of the dangers of unmitigated ADAM distribution and consumption is Dr. Steinman. Steinman is a plastic surgeon in Rapture’s Medical Pavilion who becomes obsessed with elevating his trade to an artform. He pontificates about Pablo Picasso’s deconstructivist experimentalism and suggests that it has influenced him to perform unorthodox procedures on his patients (Bioshock, “Surgery’s Picasso”). Thus, his unregulated and unconventional practice usurps the desires of his patients, leading to horrifying deformations and even deaths (Bioshock, “Not What She Wanted”). Steinman, like the nameless splicer enemies, exemplifies how well-adjusted citizens can be destroyed by the unchecked, amoral free-market economy of Rapture.

The lack of official oversight in the form of safety nets in Rapture leads to class inequality. Because Fontaine has control over ADAM production, he is able to hoard the wealth of Rapture for himself, leaving the masses poor. He further takes advantage of them, as he explains in the audio diary “Sad Saps”:

These sad saps. They come to Rapture thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry, but they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets. What an angle they gave me… I hand these mugs a cot and a bowl of soup, and they give me their lives. Who needs an army when I got Fontaine’s Home for the Poor?

He is able to use these vulnerable citizens as soldiers to insulate him against any retribution. Once again thanks to the lack of government regulation, Fontaine is able to build a private army with deadly weapons and plasmids, exploiting the lack of a state-sanctioned military in Rapture.

To understand the graveness of the oppression brought on by the free market economy in Rapture, one needs only to listen to Julie Langford’s audio diary “Arcadia and Oxygen.” In it, Langford reveals that oxygen production and distribution in Rapture is also a part of the free market. Since Rapture is located at the bottom of the ocean, breathable oxygen is not naturally occurring and has to be farmed from trees in an area called Arcadia. Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder, demonstrates the dangers of such an arrangement when he kills the trees with herbicide, putting all of Rapture in jeopardy due to its oxygen dependence. Because oxygen is privately owned, prices can go unregulated, and the very life of public is determined by the state of the market. This is an extreme analogy that parallels real-life anti-government sentiments that oppose universal healthcare, food stamps, and other state-funded social safety nets.

Another injustice inherent in the absence of centralized government in Rapture is the lack of a public police force. Ryan has the privilege of employing a man named Sullivan to investigate anything Ryan perceives as criminal activity (Bioshock, “Timmy H. Interrogation”). These investigations often result in the murder of Ryan’s enemies, such as smugglers working for Fontaine that harm Ryan Industries’ profits and a young singer who gained popularity by singing protest songs (Bioshock, “Picked up Timmy H.”, “Artist Woman”). Again, the privatization of a force that is meant to protect the public leads to more inequality in Rapture. Even Sullivan becomes disillusioned by the impropriety of his own job and threatens to quit in his audio diary “Have My Badge”. Without public servants to protect the rights of the lower-class citizens of Rapture, the social disparity that is already so pervasive will perpetuate.

Similarly, if there had been an ethics committee to regulate scientific experimentation, all of the multitude of problems caused by ADAM would be non-existent in Rapture. Ryan openly celebrates the lack of ethical oversight in the sciences at Rapture. In the video that accompanies the first bathysphere ride, Ryan describes Rapture as a place “where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.” In another, particularly dark, revelation, it is revealed that Tenenbaum’s genetic experimentation that lead to the discovery of ADAM was likely a continuation of Nazi eugenics, in which Tenenbaum participated as an assistant in the concentration camps (Bioshock, “Useless Experiments”). The indifference toward using Nazi science is a clear indicator of the fatal extremes of Rapture’s laissez-faire take on science. As a result of being unhindered by government intervention, “Fontaine Futuristics is the biggest thing going in Rapture” according to Bill McDonagh, one of Rapture’s city council members (Bioshock, “Arresting Fontaine”). Thus, Fontaine Futuristics jump-starts the end of Rapture by mass-producing and distributing ADAM, completely unregulated and in defiance of ethical business practice.

Ryan’s favorite analogy for the free market is the Great Chain. He likens the path of the market to human industrial progress being pulled in the right direction (Bioshock, “The Great Chain”). This is ironic because there is no universal morality in Objectivism since every person has their own independent moral compass. As Ayn Rand writes in The Virtue of Selfishness, “the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose” (23). Thus, each puller of the proverbial chain is pulling in his or her own direction, without regard to the others, leading to stagnation. This is where Ryan’s Great Chain analogy falls flat, and his philosophy is complicit in the every aspect of the downfall of his city.

Ryan’s motto for Rapture is “No gods or kings. Only Man,” and that in itself is not problematic. But the overall sentiment is that Man doesn’t need anyone else to survive and prosper, which the downfall of Rapture has shown to be false. Government intervention is not a mere moral obligation, it’s also a rational one for a society to prosper. Public institutions help offset the greed, dysfunction, and chaos that arise from any the social interactions of any complex society. In denying the citizens of Rapture such benefits as medical regulation, social services, free access to breathable air, and a public police force, Ryan launched his city in a doomed trajectory for the masses.