Keating is a conformist. He surrenders his judgment and allows other people to dominate his life. In this regard, he is the story's foil, a contrast to its hero, Roark. Everything that Keating does is done under the influence of others. He becomes an architect (although he would prefer the career of a painter), because his mother chooses it. He marries Dominique (although he loves Catherine Halsey), because Dominique's grace and beauty impress other people. In all the important decisions of his life, Keating gives up his own values because other people disapprove of them. Keating lacks the strength of character necessary to stand on his own judgment.
An aggressive social climber, Keating desires prestige above all else. Because Keating attempts to rise to the position of partner in the country's most prestigious firm — and because he uses any means necessary to attain this end, including flattery, deceit, and, in the case of Lucius Heyer, near-murder — he is conventionally thought of as selfish. But Ayn Rand presents a revolutionary analysis of such a status-seeker's nature. Peter Keating, she says, is selfless. He sacrifices the things that he wants in order to please others. He surrenders his own loves and values in an attempt to win social approval. He relinquishes autonomy and permits others to dominate his life. Ayn Rand argues that in order to be selfish a man must be true to his self — and that the self is fundamentally a man's values along with the thinking he does to form them.
The meaning of the novel can be expressed in two words: judgment and values. A man must live by his own judgment and form his own values. He needs to understand that this is the sole means to the attainment of happiness. To yield on these fundamentals is to betray the self, it is to surrender the essence of what makes an individual uniquely and distinctively himself. Peter Keating surrenders his self in this way, and this is why, inevitably, he ends an empty shell of a man. If a man surrenders the things and/or persons he loves, then he will not achieve happiness. But Ayn Rand points out something deeper: If he abdicates his judgment, then he surrenders the very part of him with which he can experience happiness — his self. This is the meaning of Keating's life. He is selfless in a literal sense — he is without self.