Monday, May 16, 2011

On the Principle of the Non-Initiation of Physical Force

I’ve left some comments on an article at First Things by David Bentley Hart entitled “The Trouble with Ayn Rand”. (The article is still available, but the comments section is apparently closed, at least to non-subscribers.)

The article itself is not worth commenting on, not because it is a critique of Objectivism, but because it isn’t. When the author begins his attack by referring to the cultural blossoming of her ideas as “the fashion of the moment” and refers to “Ayn Rand and her idiotic ‘Objectivism’ [as not] so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like”, you know you’ve encountered a person intent on discrediting ideas by evading them. This piece is more accurately characterized as a rant or a hissy fit or a childish temper tantrum.

It’s a shame, though, that the comments section is no longer – or at least not so easily - available as it originally was. It is much more interesting than the article, because it featured a dialogue about Rand’s actual ideas. It is a lively, informative back-and-forth featuring 168 comments. Many correspondents simply echoed the author’s anti-intellectuality. But other Rand critics at least attempted some measure of objectivity concerning her ideas. There was also a healthy dose of Objectivist commentary worth reading. Here was my contribution in response to a Rand critic’s question to those who adhere to at least parts of her philosophy.


“So I'm interested to hear from those people who _do_ find something in Ayn Rand to like. What is it? You don't have to defend her whole body of work or philosophy, just offer one or two things that you think she really does get right.”

Thanks to Josh W. for posing that question.

Since Objectivism is a comprehensive, integrated philosophic guide to living, it is hard to know where to begin to defend it in this forum. Since the question asked for one thing that Rand got right, I’ve chosen to offer a universal political truth she posited. Keep in mind that this statement is presented out of the context of her deeper metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical foundations. Politics rests upon those.

Rand identified the initiation of physical force by one human being against another as the fundamental political (i.e., social) evil that must be expunged from human relationships if a truly benevolent, live-and-let-live society is ever to be established. Once force is eliminated from human relationships, by design and by law, the only means of human association left is rational persuasion, and voluntary association and trade – i.e., reason.

Everyone agrees that the private initiation of force – armed robbery, fraud, murder, breaking and entering, etc. - is wrong, whatever the reason, and should be punishable by law. Force, Rand held, is essentially the only way to violate the rights of another to think and act upon his own judgement. (Force initiation includes indirect coercion, such as fraud and breech of contract, whereby the victim is separated physically from his property under false pretenses – which is basically no different from armed robbery.) But Rand saw a way for men to make an end run around the moral law that private citizens must abide – employ the mechanism of government’s legal monopoly on physical force in order to act as criminal, and get away with it – i.e., through legislative law-making powers, under the guises of “democracy”, the “public good”, and so on.

How to bring people in their capacity as government officials under moral law? The principle of individual rights. Individual rights, properly understood, is the principle that sanctions a man’s rights to freedom of action. Since rights are unalienable and held equally and at all times by all people, the exercise of one’s rights is conditional upon refraining from violating the same rights of others. In other words, the principle that guarantees your right to act also limits your freedom of action to renouncing the use of force to achieve your goals. Applied to law, it is the means of subordinating society and government to moral law. (ex. - no law may initiate force against private citizens, say by forcing you into government-run social programs, or by taxing you to support corporate subsidies.) Simply put, force is banished from all realms of human association. The end result is a laissez-faire capitalist society, where everyone’s rights are upheld and no one’s violated, and government performs its vital function of protecting those rights.


In practice, this principle is more complex than my brief commentary may make it seem at a glance. It’s easy to understand the arrest and incarceration of a street thug. The thug robbed someone at gunpoint, marking the initiation of physical force. The apprehension by law enforcement thus represents the retaliatory use of force. How the principle of the non-initiation of physical force applies to a nation’s laws is not always readily apparent. Let’s briefly examine one such case.

What of forcing a man (or woman) to pay child support to a former spouse who has custody of the couple’s children, especially in light of the passage in Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” (quoted in the article) in which Roark declares “I came here to say I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life, nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine.” After all, isn’t state-imposed child support forcible redistribution of a person’s wealth – the initiation of force against a man whose life, energy, and achievement is unalienably his? Why should a man be forced to support children if he no longer wants to?

The answer lies in the nature of individual rights. Rights, properly understood, are inalienable possessions of each individual human being, by virtue of the natural fact of his being born. But those rights – unique, properly understood, to human beings – are of no direct relevance to an infant. Like all of the higher animals, man’s young must be reared into adulthood over a period of time, before they are capable of fending for themselves and fully employing their particular means of survival. Since rights are an attribute of man by virtue of his rational, conceptual mind as his main means of survival, the minor child is rightfully entitled to be supported until he is fully capable of exercising his rights, on his own, in service to his own life: i.e., until he has acquired the necessary mind training, knowledge, and physical capacity, which means the age of majority as objectively codified into law. If he is entitled to this support, who holds the obligation to issue that support? It is the parents who brought him into the world.

By the nature of things, the minor child’s rights are thus vested in the parents. There is no conflict of rights here. The state, in its proper role as protector and enforcer of individual rights may step in on behalf of the child in cases of physical abuse and neglect, when the child is as yet incapable of fully exercising his rights. In other words, by neglecting his own child - thus violating that child’s rights – the parent may be compelled to fulfil the responsibility imposed upon him by nature. The state’s compulsory child support actions are retaliatory, not initiative. The above-cited quote from The Fountainhead, as well as others cited in the article, must be taken in full context. (Context-dropping is rampant among Objectivism’s antagonists.) It is a claim relevant to adults, first of all. And second Roark refers to unchosen obligations – obligations not related to one’s own actions and choices - which others may seek to impose on him. A man may stand on Roark’s principles in regards to welfare state programs that force him to support other people’s children, but not his own. In a very valid sense, there is an implied contract between a parent and a child, which neglectful parents may be considered to have broken, inviting intervention by legal authorities. Objectivism is not a license to shirk one’s personal responsibilities; i.e., to have it both ways.

There are obviously complexities to this specific issue that I have not dealt with, and the application of the principle of the non-initiation of physical force to the broad field of law is obviously very complex. But this principle, which as can be seen is rooted in deeper Objectivist principles, is a necessary building block of a free society.

2 comments:

mike250 said...

what is the difference between civil and individual rights?

Mike Zemack said...

I use the terms interchangeably, because the fundamental issue is rights. Rights, properly understood, pertain only to the individual, are unalienable, and are held equally by all people at all times. Rights pertain only to individuals because that is the only human entity that exists. Rights, by definition, then, cannot conflict, meaning that the exercise of one person’s rights must not negate the rights of any others. A civil “right” that doesn’t conform to these principles is not a right at all, but a privilege.

Objectivists fight hard to spread the proper understanding of rights, because the lack of understanding of what they are (and their source) is leading progressively to a rightless society. For example, check out the various definitions cited below:

Dictionary.com -

1. rights to personal liberty established by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. constitution and certain Congressional acts, especially as applied to an individual or a minority group.
2. the rights to full legal, social, and economic equality extended to blacks.


The Free Dictionary

The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and by subsequent acts of Congress, including civil liberties, due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from discrimination.

Rights are defined as belonging to “an individual or a minority group”, implying a distinction between the individual and the group, which is itself made up of individuals – a blatantly contradictory proposition. If a group has rights, then how are they exercised? The only answer is that some individuals (i.e., its leaders) may supercede the rights of all other individuals, obliterating the concept of rights.

What is “legal, social, and economic equality”? This vague term seemingly conflates equal protection under the law with a government guarantee of material benefits, which is what “economic equality” has increasingly come to mean. When some people are entitled to unearned economic benefits, then others must be forced to provide it, again obliterating actual rights (and, in fact, equal protection). And what is meant by “freedom from discrimination”, if not the trampling of the actual rights of freedom of association and disassociation.

The term “certain Congressional acts” implies government as the source of rights, which means any political majority (or even powerful minority) can declare (or rescind) any arbitrary “right” it pleases, and that rights have no objective meaning. A “right” that is subject to political (i.e., government) approval cannot logically be a right.

The kicker is the term “fundamental freedoms and privileges”. The concept of privilege implies a special benefit bestowed by some authority, usually to some and excluded to others. This obliterates the concept of unalienability, which negates the concept of rights.

All of these definitions contradict the premise of rights and of political equality. So, no matter what descriptive term precedes it, rights are rights. For a full understanding of the concept of rights as I use them, please read the essays Man’s Rights and Collectivized Rights.

Thanks for the inquiry, Mike250