Editor’s Note: Friends and members of The Atlas Society are a major source of wisdom, inspiration, and moral and financial support. Legacy Donor Gregory B. Bulkley, M.D., F.A.C.S., Dr. Med. (hon., Uppsala), was born in Spokane, raised near Chicago, and educated in New England for a career as an academic surgeon-scientist in Baltimore. In 2005 he and his wife Jacqui retired to their Black Drake Ranch near Bly, Oregon where they are feeding cattle and restoring five miles of the Sprague River watershed, which is some of the best trout water on earth. Dr. Bulkley graduated with honors from both Princeton, where he was a fairly decent competitive swimmer, and Harvard Medical School, and then trained for eight years at Johns Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute for a career in academic surgery. Following his training in 1978 he joined the faculty at Hopkins where he served for 27 years as a busy operating surgeon as well as the Director of Surgical Research and became a professor holding an endowed chair.
MM: You are a long-time Objectivist. How did you first learn about Ayn Rand?
GB: A high school English teacher recognized my individualism. He introduced me to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” George Orwells’ novels 1984 and Animal Farm, Ibsen’s play “The Enemy of the People,” and David Karp’s novel One. A few years later, as an undergraduate at Princeton, I read The Fountainhead. I had the experience that so many people who first read Ayn Rand have had. It wasn't that I was reading something new that I had never thought about before, but rather, for the first time, here was somebody who agreed with what I had been thinking all along. And Rand impressed me so much because she really understood the moral arguments against totalitarianism.
MM: What is your favorite Ayn Rand novel?
GB: Atlas Shrugged. The ideas and particularly the morality of her laissez-faire approach to government had an extraordinary impact on my thinking, and that continues to this day. Hayek and Mises and a lot of other really good scholars have pointed out how impractical, inefficient, and venal statist-collectivism is, but Rand is the one who made clear how fundamentally immoral it is.
MM: You subscribed to The Objectivist Newsletter, the periodical published by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden in the 1960s, The Objectivist, and later The Ayn Rand Letter. What was it like to be part of that intellectual community?
GB: That's a great question. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, majoring in biology, from a philosophical and political point of view I felt totally isolated.
In a basic economics class one semester I mentioned Adam Smith. I was gently, but firmly reprimanded by my professor, who told me that no one believes in that kind of thing anymore.
I concluded that his course had nothing to offer. I stayed enrolled, taking the exams, but never attended another lecture. And I passed. It was easy to figure out the “correct” exam answers the professor sought, based upon his frankly bigoted world view. I like to say I “psychoanalyzed” the exam. Later I got into medical school, so I must have done alright. But I never again took another economics, political science, or history course at Princeton. This is not to say I did not get a great education. The professors and mentorship I received in the Department of Biology were wonderful. Even then, education in the liberal arts (supposedly Princeton’s strength) was already being replaced by indoctrination, just as Rand had described the takeover of the arts community in The Fountainhead.
So reading those newsletters was the only community I had in that regard. It was critical for me to be part of that community. It’s not that I was antisocial. I had a lot of friends, and my swimming teammates, but none of my friends at that time seemed to share my political and philosophical views. Actually, I never really knew, as I consciously avoided these subjects.
MM: Has Objectivism influenced you professionally?
GB: Yes. Ayn Rand’s way of thinking is fully integrated into the way I approach the world. Her worldview is so similar to mine – I'm not saying I didn't learn anything from her because I did – but her philosophy, for me it's just always been there.
That said, Rand did influence my views on affirmative action. She’s a wonderful model for feminism, by the way. In the early days, affirmative action took into account the particular obstacles and lack of opportunity that an individual person might have had. As faculty members, this approach helped us find more than one diamond in the rough. Why? Enlightened self-interest. When we were interviewing candidates for our residency program, which by the way was by far the most competitive and most difficult program in the world, it was in our rational self-interest to find the best candidates, period. And most of the top minority candidates did come to us. But we dealt with each person as an individual and not as a member of a group. We never denigrated minorities and women by holding them to a lower standard. It seemed to work because outstanding minorities and women chose preferentially to work for me in my research laboratory. Unfortunately, that approach is no longer the case in academia today.
MM: You've been practicing Objectivism for a long time. The goal of Objectivism is happiness. So my question for you is, does it work?
GB: For me it works exceedingly well. Objectivism is a fundamental way of looking at the world. It's very important to me that things make sense.
If the way I look at what's right and wrong didn’t fit with the way the world works, it would be hard for me to live. So that feeling of integrity allows me to be happy. On the most fundamental level Objectivism not only works for me, but I can't imagine anything else that would. Rand’s greatest gift to us was emphasizing that thinking and behaving morally is practical.
On another level, there is absolutely nothing more corrosive than guilt and envy. Feeling guilty about wanting to take care of yourself, your family, and your friends before you take care of “other people” is what altruistic self-sacrifice is all about. It’s an evil idea that is used to exploit people to get control of their lives. No one stated that more clearly and explicitly than Rand. Objectivism has emancipated me from that kind of unearned guilt.
MM: What do you think about Open Objectivism?
GB: The wonderful thing that David Kelley brought to Objectivism was the acknowledgment that as individuals, people are going to disagree. The purges and the schisms, the idea that no one could entertain an idea, listen to a song, or read a book that Rand didn’t sanction, that closed-system view of Objectivism was killing the movement. Kelley in no way diluted or weakened the strength of Rand’s ideas, but he did realize that as indispensable as reason is, it is not infallible. Therefore not every Objectivist has to agree about every single thing. As soon as he published Truth and Toleration, I was a big fan.
MM: You’re retired now, an avid fly fisherman, and you look out on three miles of trout stream on your ranch in Oregon. Which came first, the fly fishing or the stream?
GB: Some of the best trout water in the world. To answer your question, I started fly fishing at a dude ranch with my daughter when I was around 40. I had fished all my life, but never that enthusiastically. I got bored waiting passively for a tug on the line fishing with gear or bait.
But fly fishing is like hunting. It's active and largely visual. And continuously searching, not sitting around waiting for something to happen. I became really hooked, as it were, and decided that's what I want to do. I was born in the west, in Spokane, and I always wanted to come back to the west. I looked for 20 years to find a place with what we call fly water, meaning private trout water. I finally found it.
MM: Thank you. I enjoyed our talk.
GB: You’re welcome. I’m flattered.