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Force and Flourishing in the Objectivist Political Philosophy

by Matt Zwolinski

Forum: Enlightenment's Online Conference
December 4, 2000


In this essay, I seek to explore the connection between the Objectivist conception of political rights and the initiation of physical force. I argue that, contrary to Objectivist claims, the initiation of force is neither necessary nor sufficient for the violation of libertarian rights. I conclude my paper with a brief look at the argument that Objectivist rights are grounded as being the best way to promote the survival of individuals as rational beings.

In this essay I wish to set out some considerations against the Objectivist conception of political rights. The bulk of the essay will be concerned with exploring the connection between Objectivist rights and the initiation of physical force. After showing why I believe this supposed connection to be unsound, I will set out what I take to be the best alternative grounding for the Objectivist conception of rights-that such rights best promote the survival of man as a rational being. Though I will not address this suggestion completely here, I will set out some by now well-known worries with such defenses of libertarian rights.

My first point deals with the role of "the initiation of physical force" in Objectivist political philosophy. Objectivists defend a set of specific political rights, which I group together under the rough heading of "libertarian rights." [1] Their defense of these rights, it appears, is based on the claims that a) people have a right to be free from the initiation of physical force, and b) libertarian rights, and only libertarian rights, protect people from the initiation of physical force. In this essay, I do not wish to address the question of whether this set of rights is, in an all-things-considered sense, defensible. Instead, I shall simply take the legitimacy of these rights for granted, and aim only to show that even as these rights are understood by Objectivists, the initiation of physical force is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for the violation of these rights. In other words, I will argue that a) libertarian rights can be violated without the initiation of physical force, and b) not all instances of the initiation of physical force are violations of libertarian rights.

By "libertarian rights," I mean roughly that set of rights which is associated with a regime of private property and laissez-faire capitalism. In such a system, property-owning individuals can dispose of their property in any way they see fit, whether through trade, donation, destruction, or otherwise, so long as in so doing they do not violate the rights of others in society, where these rights are understood as rights to be free from the initiation of physical force. [2] The only means for which the state may legitimately exercise force, then, is in a retaliatory manner, in response to the initiation of force by some individual or collective agency. [3] "Paternalistic" laws limiting the freedom of individuals for their own well-being are thus ruled out since they themselves constitute the initiation of coercion. The same is to be said of all acts of property-redistribution undertaken as a means towards establishing greater social equality or "social justice." [4]

The supposed link between the violation of rights and physical force is essential to Objectivists in establishing the objective nature of rights. As Leonard Peikoff writes, the reduction of rights-violation to the initiation of physical force allows us to grasp rights-violations as "a tangible fact, available in principle to sense perception," rather than by mere "intuition" or "feeling." [5] If we want to know whether the action of an individual, or the policy of a government, violates an individual's right, all we need do is look and see, in essence, who hit who first. Who was the first one to perform the concrete observable act of initiating physical force?

I do not believe that the initiation of physical force provides sufficient grounding for the concept of rights-violation. Let us first see why the initiation of physical force is not necessary to constitute a violation of libertarian rights. Suppose that we have a society in which libertarian rights are fully instantiated. Bill owns a substantial amount of property under this system, including a very expensive new sports-car, which he leaves parked on his driveway. One day, Alastair, another individual in this society, passes by Bill's house and sees this car. He decides that he wants it, so he opens the door (which Bill has thoughtfully left unlocked), hotwires the car, and drives off, leaving Bill sitting none-the-wiser in his living room.

Have Bill's rights been violated? Most certainly. He has a property right in his car which gives him the exclusive right to, among other things, decide how and when his car is to be used—a right which Alastair has clearly violated by taking his car without his permission. Did the rights-violation involve the initiation of physical force? It seems clear to me that it did not. Alastair encountered no human being in the course of his theft—Bill was tucked safely away within

the confines of his home, his physical body utterly unmolested. Against whom, then, was force initiated? The car? It was, after all, hotwired. But this seems implausible. Cars don't have rights; people do. We might think that the force Alastair exercised on the car was somehow transmitted through to Bill, such that Alastair, contrary to appearances, really did, in a roundabout way, initiate force against Bill. But why would we think this to be the case? We cannot simply assume that because a right has been violated, some force must have been initiated somewhere – for whether this is the case is the very question under debate. Rather than make this assumption, then, we must instead begin with some independent idea of what the initiation of force is, and proceed to examine whether such a conception captures the sort of activity in which Alastair engages in the present example. It is not immediately obvious what notion of “force” could capture the above sort of case while remaining true to more everyday uses of the term.

Let us put this argument to the side for the moment (we shall return to it later in this essay), and consider instead whether the initiation of force is a sufficient condition for the violation of rights. Suppose that Bill's seemingly careless lack of security regarding his car was, in fact, part of a complicated sting operation against Alastair, known to police as a notorious car thief. The police follow Alastair to his residence and, just as he pulls in to his driveway, surround his car, drag him out by the scruff of his neck, tackle him to the ground and restrain him with handcuffs. As one of the officers hauls him off to the back of a waiting police car, another gets into the ill-gotten sports car, starts it up, and drives it back to Bill's home.

We have here a clear instance of the use of physical force by the police. Is it an instance of the initiation of force? One's answer to this question will depend, in part, on one's views of the previous case. If one thinks that Alastair initiated force by stealing Bill's car, one will likely view the rough methods used by the police as retaliatory, rather than initiatory force. But I have already given the reasons why I think this is an implausible view. To all appearances, it looks as though Alastair did not initiate physical force against anyone. Indeed, given our ordinary understanding of the term "physical force," it looks as though the police were the first ones to use physical force against another human being. That this is the judgment most naturally supported by observation (especially if we were not to know who owned the car) is a consideration which we should weigh quite heavily if we are to take Peikoff's comments regarding rights-violation and sense-perception seriously.

What is clear is that, so long as the force exercised by the police was not excessive, Alastair's rights have not been violated. Contrary to the Objectivist hypothesis, however, we need not assume that he was guilty of some prior initiation of force to suppose this. All we need claim is that he violated Bill's property rights (albeit in a non-forceful way) and thus left himself open to the legitimate use of physical force by Bill or those in charge of defending Bill's rights. Alastair's initial non-forceful action was a violation of Bill's rights, and it is for this reason that the police's later forceful actions were not a violation of Alastair's rights. In this way it is perfectly possible to explain the above cases, then, without putting any explanatory weight on the concept of "initiating force."

The point here is that if Objectivists insist upon saying that Alastair initiated physical force, and that the police did not, it can only be because they are using language in a rather unusual way. It is no doubt true that many of the paradigmatic cases of rights violations are initiations of physical force. Slavery, murder, assault, rape are all clearly initiations of physical force and all clearly involve the violation of some individual's rights. It is therefore quite tempting, from a theoretical perspective, to attempt to assimilate all cases of rights violations as likewise initiations of force. But, as I have tried to show with the above examples, this does not work for all libertarian rights. Not all violations of libertarian rights involve the initiation of physical force, and not all initiations of physical force involve violations of libertarian rights.

We must, then, either abandon our defense of libertarian rights altogether, or provide a defense for libertarian rights which is not dependent on their connection with the initiation of physical force. Thankfully, I believe that Objectivists need not rely completely on the initiation-of-force argument. It is, of course, true that Objectivists sometimes write as though one need only look to see whether force has been initiated to determine whether a right has been violated. But in Rand's foundational essays on the subject ("Man's Rights" and "The Nature of Government"), she clearly sets out man's life as the foundation for rights. In a definitive passage, she writes:

A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man's right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action-which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. [6]

The rights we have are thus not determined, fundamentally, by what we can do without initiating force against another human being, but rather by what is required by our survival as a rational being.

There are several ways of understanding this idea. The challenge, in each case, will be to discover a grounding which provides support for libertarian rights and does so for all individuals. This last consideration is key. Given the egoist Objectivist ethics, and its more fundamental position in the philosophical hierarchy of Objectivism, it seems to me essential that Objectivists be able to validate rights for all individuals, i.e. that they be able to show not just how libertarian rights are conducive to the life of "man" considered as some abstract entity or aggregation, but to the life of particular men and, in particular, to mine. Thus, even if it is true that libertarian rights make most men happy, or allow them to live long lives, or allow them to be financially successful, we still must worry about how it will affect, say, those born with little in the way of natural talents or inherited wealth. If there is even one alternative system of rights under which such a person would be better off by any of these measures, then we will have failed to validate libertarian rights for that individual. We will, in effect, be asking him to sacrifice his well-being for the well-being of others—a suggestion seemingly at odds with Rand's fervent opposition to altruism.

Let us look at this in more detail. Many Objectivists will argue, as Rand seems to above, that the fundamental concept in political philosophy is not force as such, but rather that of man's nature. To quote from Leonard Peikoff,

To sustain his life, man needs a method of survival-he must use his rational faculty to gain knowledge and choose values, then act to achieve his values. The right to liberty is the right to this method; it is the right to think and choose, then to act in accordance with one's judgment." [7]
Man's nature, then, is that of a rational being. His means of survival is his rationality, but his rationality is only effective insofar as he is able to *act* on the conclusions of his reasoning mind. If the initiation of force violates man's rights, then, it is not because of any intrinsic evil in physical force, but rather because the initiation of force tends to subvert man's rationality-his means of survival. [8] So libertarian rights, if they are to be defended at all, must be defended on the grounds that they are better suited to man's survival, or flourishing, than any alternative system. Can a successful defense of libertarian rights be made on these grounds?

I do not think so. Or at least, I do not think any defense rendered in such terms will satisfy an Objectivist framework. We can, to be sure, certainly provide some defense of private property based on the above sorts of considerations. One classic defense of private property is that without it, long-range planning, on the part of either the individual or society, is impossible. If one's home, one's food, one's tools of production are always at the mercy of whoever might have the brute strength to take them from you, one simply cannot plan one's life in the long term. No rational individual will save and invest when he knows that the fruits of his investment could be seized from him at a moment's notice. In this respect, there is a lot of truth in Rand's depiction (in Atlas Shrugged) of the effects of the utter neglect of private property on society as a whole, and on the individuals who comprise it. But justifying private property (in some form) is a long way from justifying laissez-faire. Indeed, the basic thrust of many leftist critiques of libertarianism is that if private property is important, it is important for all individuals. [9] What, then, justifies letting some individuals go utterly without it, and what justifies permitting tremendous inequalities among those who have some? An appeal to that which is necessary for man's survival will do us no good here, for the poor require property to survive just as much as the rich. And yet, in a capitalist society in which all property is privately owned, a non-property-owning individual would almost *never* be free to act on the judgments of his mind. Such an individual, in such a society, is at the mercy of others with respect to every decision of his life - what to eat, where to sleep, what to do with his time (don't go for a walk down the privately owned streets!)—and this subjugation is enforced by men with guns from the government. If he tries to act on the conclusions of his mind without permission from the property-owners in society, he will be stopped, arrested, or possibly even shot. The propertyless individual is an extreme example, of course, but the general principle is still damning. An individual is less free to act on his judgments the less property he has, and more free the more property he has. There is almost no one in society who is allowed to act on the judgment of his mind at all times. [10] If this, then is the foundation upon which political rights must rest, the ability of Objectivists to defend libertarian rights looks very shaky indeed.

As an aside, it is considerations such as those given above which provide the foundation for the proper response to many Objectivist criticisms of the sort of example I gave above, regarding Alastair's theft of Bill's car. I claimed that it is not apparent how Alastair's act of theft constituted the initiation of force in any obvious way. Many Objectivists have responded to such arguments by stating that the force, though perhaps not directly observable, is nonetheless there since Alastair, in taking Bill's car without his permission, has taken something to which Bill had a right without engaging his conceptual faculty. [11] This severing of the connection between Bill's judgment and his ability to act on his judgment is precisely what constitutes the initiation of force by Alastair.

However, this argument runs into exactly the same problem as does the argument from man's nature. If force is simply that which interferes with a person's ability to act on the conclusions of their conceptual facility, then it looks as though it's actually Bill who initiates force against all sorts of people. For, presumably, Bill is not always so careless with his auto as he was in my earlier example. Sometimes he locks it up. When he does, many people (whom Bill has never met and who have never, let us suppose, initiated force against Bill) are denied access to the use of his car, even if they judge (correctly, even) that their furtherance of their lives depends on the use of it. The definition of force implied in the above argument leads is thus far too encompassing, for it leads us to conclude not only that the theft of property is force, but also, following Proudhon, that property itself is force. By fencing up a piece of land, or locking up some other tangible good, we interfere with others' ability to act on the judgments of their conceptual faculties, and thereby initiate force against all of mankind.

One who seeks to maintain a commitment to the flourishing-based argument might be tempted to avoid problems by building some moral connotations into "the survival of man qua man." One might argue, for instance, that it is not mere physical survival which is important, politically speaking, but rather survival in accordance with a proper moral code. This may be an acceptable move, but we must be careful. So long as the connotations built in are strictly moral, rather than political, there is no problem. If, for instance, we have independent moral grounds for believing, say, honesty to be a virtue, and we can show that libertarian rights promote honesty better than any other alternative system of rights, then we have, at the very least, begged no questions in our argument for the desirability of libertarian rights. The strength of this argument will then depend simply on the strength of the original argument for the importance of honesty, and the strength of the alleged connection between honesty and libertarian rights.

Some Objectivists, however, attempt to sneak in political connotations to "the survival of man qua man." So, for instance, if engaged in a debate about whether man's survival qua man is best supported by libertarian rights or, say, by socialist rights, some Objectivists will claim that the latter alternative must be rejected because "socialism is institutionalized thuggery," or because "socialism entails theft of what a man has produced." These arguments, though rhetorically appealing, are ineffective in the current context. For the notion that socialism is thuggery, or that it is theft, depend on our underlying conceptions of property-rights. Socialism is theft if a man has a property right in that which he produces with goods that he owns or rents. But to raise that point in this argument is to beg the question, for we are trying to establish exactly what rights individuals ought to have. We cannot assume that libertarian property rights are correct and then reject alternative accounts because they violate libertarian rights! Pre-existing considerations of what political rights people have must not enter into our argument for what political rights they have; our argument must be established on independent grounds.

Where, then, does this leave the Objectivist argument for libertarian rights? I have tried to show that it is not the case, contra Ayn Rand, that man's rights can be violated only by the initiation of physical force. Indeed, the initiation of physical force is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the violation of libertarian rights. Libertarian rights must therefore be given some other grounding, such as would be provided were it shown that they promote the survival of man as a rational being. We must be careful, however, that our argument to this effect establishes that libertarian rights are validated for all persons, lest we violate the egoist foundations Objectivists ought to provide for rights. And we must be careful that the argument we give is truly an independent argument, not relying on any pre-existing conception of rights in the process of arguing for a certain conception of rights. As I have tried to show above, this is not a challenge which Objectivist defenders of libertarian rights have successfully met.


[Note 1] I am aware of the hostility which many Objectivists, including Rand herself, harbor toward the term 'libertarian.' I hope the reader can set aside, for now, any such reservations, as I intend the term only as a shorthand for that set of concrete policy proposals which Objectivists do, in fact, endorse.

[Note 2] Ayn Rand: “Man's rights can only be violated by the use of physical force,” from “The Nature of Government,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), 330.

[Note 3] Ibid., 330.

[Note 4] See Rand's essay “Man's Rights,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, esp. pages 324-6.

[Note 5] Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), 359.

[Note 6] “Man's Rights,” 322.

[Note 7] Peikoff, op. cit., 352.

[Note 8] For an elaboration on this theme, see Gary Hull, "How Force Stops Thinking," The Intellectual Activist, vol. 8, no. 5, September, 1994, pp. 15-22.

[Note 9] See, for instance G.A. Cohen's Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (New York: Cambridge, 1995).

[Note 10] Many Objectivists respond to this sort of argument by saying that it equivocates on the term "freedom." The freedom Objectivists wish to defend, such people say, is the freedom of rational individuals to lead happy productive lives. It is not the freedom to have one's every whim satisfied. The propertyless individual is not rendered any more unfree by the fact that he lacks money, than all human beings are rendered unfree by their inability to fly. This objection, however, utterly misses the point. The standard of freedom which seems to be put forward by Peikoff and other Objectivists is the ability to act on the decisions of one's mind. The propertyless individual in a libertarian society is almost never free in this sense. He is not free to act on his "whim" to walk down the street any

more than he is free to act on his "whim" not to starve. If he gets no permission from the owners of property to eat their food, he will die. And the cause of his starvation will not be the laws of nature (as in the case of humans' inability to fly) but rather the laws of man-laws which prescribe certain rules for the distribution of property and certain punishments for the violations of those rules.

[Note 11] Thanks to Carolyn Ray for the clearest statement of this objection.