The Objectivist Validation of Individual Rights
The following is a lecture I delivered at a Libertarian congress in Stockholm in 1986. Some background information:
The organizers of the congress had invited Walter Block to give an answer to Peter Schwartz pamphlet Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty, which had recently been published, and they wanted me to appear in defense of it. Although I essentially agree with Schwartz, I did not want to appear as a “stand-in” for him. (They could have invited Schwartz himself, although I think he would have declined.) But I had recently written an essay on the Objectivist validation of human rights in Swedish which had not been published; so I thought this was an opportunity to present the essence of my essay. (I wrote the essay basically to check my own understanding of Objectivism as a system; those of you who understand Swedish can read it here.)
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
The subject of my talk this afternoon will be the Objectivist validation of individual rights. But before I get into that, I want to make some preliminary remarks.
To begin with, I think I have been announced in the convent program as an “Objectivist writer and translator”. So I want to make clear first of all that I do not want to be regarded as a kind of official spokesman for Objectivism. Now, you know of course that Miss Rand, when alive, was very wary of people posing as spokesmen for her philosophy, when she had no control over the content of what they said. I think that was a very prudent policy, so I will comply with it.
This of course doesn’t mean that I intend some wild departure from Objectivism. On the contrary, I will try to present the subject as well as I can and be as strictly Objectivist as I can. But this speech is wholly my own responsibility, and I do not want anybody else to be saddled with any mistakes I might inadvertently make.
Secondly, I do not want my appearing here to be construed as any approval or sanction of Libertarianism. As you all know (or should know), Objectivism repudiates Libertarianism. Now, this speech is not primarily intended as polemics, but if any of you see more clearly after I’m finished why Objectivism repudiates Libertarianism, then so much the better.
My main motive for coming here and talking is of course a selfish motive. I wrote this thing down in Swedish a few weeks ago with a view to presenting Objectivism to Swedish readers. But I have no idea whether I can get it published, and so I thought it would be better to take this opportunity than to simply let the manuscript gather dust in some desk drawer.
Now, to those of you who are very familiar with Ayn Rand’s writings what I’ll say today won’t be terribly new. The things which cannot be found in Miss Rand’s published writings can be found in Leonard Peikoff’s tape course The Philosophy of Objectivism. My aim has been to select those points in the philosophy that I regard as essential to the validation of individual rights and try to make the connection clear.
Now, everyone who is interested in natural rights and in a free market society in general should, I think, be very concerned about the validation of those rights. Nevertheless, I time and again hear from advocates of natural rights the idea that those rights in themselves are unprovable, a matter of opinion, and so on. Now, there are thinkers who advocate a free market on utilitarian grounds and who are therefore not concerned with rights, and their attitude is of course understandable. But that those who do advocate natural rights should take this sanguine attitude toward the base of their own theory, that is indeed very strange.
The best illustration of this attitude is a quote from Robert Ringer’s book Restoring the American Dream. Now, Ringer regards natural rights as the foundation of his whole reasoning. But does he start then with an attempt to validate the principle of natural rights? No. He starts with an attempt to undermine it. As follows:
It does not matter whether a concept seems self-evident or whether people hold it to be axiomatic; a truthful philosopher will always admit that the starting point of his philosophy in the last analysis is nothing but an opinion. [Note that this is a “back-translation”; I read Ringer’s book in a Swedish translation.]
I won’t bother to analyze this statement in detail. I merely want to point out that on this view anyone can refute Ringer simply by having another opinion. Thus there is only a clash of opinions and no firm base at all, and it’s deuces wild.
What is a proof?
What is needed is obviously a proof of the thesis that man has certain inalienable rights. And what would such a proof consist of? Well, I will try to give at least a sketch of it.
The first question to be asked in this connection is obviously: what is a proof?
To prove a statement means to derive its truth from antecedently known facts.
A simple example of a proof is the classical “Socrates” syllogism:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.
The obvious question then is of course: how does one prove the premises of the syllogism? Well, the minor premise here is proved simply by direct observation. And the major premise is validated ultimately by induction.
Another example of a proof would be a geometrical proof such as presented by Euclid in his Elements, where one theorem is proved by reference to earlier, already proved theorems, but where one ultimately has to rely on basic definitions and axioms.
Obviously, all proof has to start somewhere, with statements which cannot themselves be proved and which need not be proved, i.e. with axioms.
So the question is: where do we start? What axioms do we choose? What qualifies as an axiom?
Now, the “modern” approach to axioms is that anything qualifies as an axiom, that they are a matter of arbitrary choice, convenience, etc. Objectivism, as you might know, repudiates this view of axioms, and I hope you will see why.
There are three criteria of an axiom:
- It must be self-evident, by which I mean it must be as clear as our direct perception of reality, as clear as the fact that I’m now standing here talking to you.
- It must be irreducible, by which is meant it is not possible to analyze it further or split it up into more simple constituents.
- It must be fundamental, i.e. it must be at the base of and be implied in all knowledge in that subject for which it is an axiom.
Now, the axioms of Euclid answer those criteria for the subject of geometry. But here we are looking for philosophical axioms, that is, axioms which are implicit not merely in some specialized branch of knowledge, but in all of our knowledge.
Well, what is implicit in all knowledge?
- There must be something to know; something must exist.
- There must be someone to know it, a conscious being.
- The thing known must be something, something in particular. (If it’s nothing in particular, it’s nothing.)
From this we have three axiomatic concepts: existence, consciousness, identity; and three axioms: existence exists, consciousness is conscious, A is A.
These form the base of all knowledge. Now, the axioms may seem delusively simple, but the point is of course that they are simple, but it is still crucial to recognize that they are the base of all knowledge and that this base has to be identified.
Apart from axioms there is a category of truths which follow directly from them and are actually restatements of the axioms, seen from some particular aspect. Those are called corollaries. For example, the law of causality, which is really the law of identity, applied to action. (Things are what they are; therefore they can do only certain things and no others.) Or the law of non-contradiction, which is also a restatement of the law of identity, of which the point is that it lays the base of logical reasoning: never endorse contradictions.
The most important corollary in this context is the one called “the primacy of existence”. This corollary tells us the relation between existence and consciousness. It tells us that that which exists exists independent of our consciousness, and that the task of consciousness is to discover what exists, not to create it.
Now, this may seem like plain common sense (and it is), but the truth is that most of philosophy has discarded the primacy of existence and embraced instead some variant of its opposite, the primacy of consciousness. For example, the idea that the world was created by a supernatural consciousness, or the idea that the world is created by our own collective consciousness.
In the history of philosophy there have only been two philosophers who have been consistently on the primacy of existence premise: Aristotle and Ayn Rand. And if I had to choose one element as the most distinctive one to Objectivism, I would choose this one. I will return to it many times in this discussion.
There is a further axiom which should be mentioned, and that is that man has free will. According to Objectivism, free will is primarily an epistemological issue. man must choose to think, to use his mind or his consciousness – this is not given to him automatically. If man did not have free will, if he were like plants or animals, then the whole subject of epistemology, and of philosophy in general, wouldn’t come up. So it’s a very important point. But I’ve chosen to cut out all lengthy discussion of it today. I just want to mention briefly that free will includes the possibility of evasion or “blank-out”, i.e. the willful suspension of one’s consciousness in regard to some issue. I mention it because it has some bearing on the issue of ethics, when I come to it.
Now, man’s means of knowledge is of course his reason. But as most philosophers claim to accept reason in some form, it is important to reiterate here the Objectivist definition of reason, namely “that faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses”. And this definition rests on the axioms and corollaries, most specifically the corollary that existence has primacy. Why does reason have to build on the senses? Because they are our primary contact with reality, and a “reason” not building on the senses would be a “reason” divorced from reality.
But neither can man passively expose himself to reality and expect to gain knowledge of it automatically. man needs a method for gaining knowledge. And the specifically human method of knowledge is by means of concepts.
Now, the subject of concepts is a large one, and I cannot cover it here, but refer you to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. I will bring up only one crucial aspect of the theory, because it is important in relation to Objectivist ethics and politics.
I mean the principle that concepts are objective as opposed to subjective or intrinsic.
By intrinsicism is meant the idea that concepts exist in reality apart from our consciousness, as a kind of thing apart from us. The arch-example of intrinsicism is Plato’s “world of Ideas” or “world of Forms”, which says that universals (concepts) exist in another dimension, that the world we see is merely an imperfect reflection, and that the universals are ultimately grasped by some sort of revelation or intuition.
Subjectivism on the other hand says that concepts exist in our consciousness apart from reality, that they are our own arbitrary creations, which may or may not correspond to things in reality.
Objectivism finally says that concepts are based on the facts of reality, on observed similarities and differences between real things, but that they are formed by man according to the requirements of man’s means of knowledge.
Take as one example the concept “horse”. According to Plato’s intrinsicism there exists a kind of archetypal horse in another dimension, of which all the horses we see and ride on are just imperfect reflections, and the task of reason is to somehow see through and beyond all these horses and thus ultimately get a glimpse of this “super-horse”.
According to subjectivism, the concept “horse” is our own arbitrary construct, and it’s basically just a kind of fluke if any real creatures happen to correspond to it.
The Objectivist view is that the concept is based on actual observations of similarities between certain animals and their differences from other animals, that the concept is based on things “out there”, but that the forming has to be done by us in accordance with our means of cognition.
Take now a more abstract concept, such as “the good”. Again, intrinsicism views “the good” as some kind of separate entity, reflecting itself in all good things we experience, whereas subjectivism regards it as merely a question of taste, social convention or the like.
Now, on the horse example objectivism may seem just like plain common sense (which of course it is), while the intrinsicist and subjectivist views, as I presented them, may look like mere caricatures. But I don’t think anyone could raise the same objection with regard to the example of “the good”. Yet the pattern is the same.
The Objectivist view of the concept “good” is basically the same as its view of the concept “horse”. The concept refers to real things out there in reality, but seen in relation to a valuing subject. It is not an invention of our own consciousness, nor a revelation from some supernatural realm, it is something that we must discover.
This brings us to the Objectivist ethics.
Now, the first thing to be observed here is that ethics according to Objectivism is objective, i.e. based on actual facts as grasped by a human consciousness. And this is a radical departure from traditional ethics – whether it be religious ethics, which sees morality as a set of divine commandments or categorical imperatives, or social ethics, which sees it as society’s whims, or personal subjectivist ethics, which sees it as a matter of private whims.
The ethics of Objectivism, as its epistemology, is based on the primacy of existence.
The basic concept of ethics is the concept of value. Now, this is not merely, or fundamentally, a question of what values we should choose, but of why we need values at all, what facts of reality give rise to the subject of ethics.
What is a value? According to Objectivism it is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep”. Now, this of course is not an arbitrary definition, but based on observation. People do act to gain and/or keep things, therefore a concept is needed for it, and that concept is “value”.
The next point is that we grade our values. There are some things we value more than others. We prefer a wife to a mistress, or vice versa, and if one of them faces us with an ultimatum, we make a choice. We may value having a good time getting drunk, but if this means we will fail an important exam the next morning, we decide whether the state of intoxication is a higher value than our academic career or not, and choose accordingly.
Any code of values presupposes three things:
- That there is a standard or gauge of value, so that we can grade our values.
- That we have to act in situations where we are faced with an alternative.
- That our actions have a purpose.
If we never were faced with alternatives, no values would be possible. If we had no purpose in mind, there would be no point in grading our values. And if we had no standard, then we would never know what purposes to pursue or what values to prefer.
The most fundamental of all alternatives we are faced with is the alternative of life or death. And without this alternative, there would be no such things as values. Now, inanimate matter obviously doesn’t pursue values. But neither would a literally immortal, indestructible being pursue values (if such a being existed). Why? Because nothing could be for it or against it.
Because this is the fundamental alternative, this gives us the proper standard of values – namely life or, more specifically, man’s life. It is the concept of life, including the fact that life is conditional on a certain course of action, that makes the concept of value possible.
Now, what follows from this?
First of all, the Objectivist principle that selfishness or egoism is a virtue, and that self-sacrifice or altruism is a vice. This is simply a corollary of life as the standard. Because if life is the standard, the purpose of one’s life cannot be that it should be sacrificed, but that it should be lived.
Also, man’s life for each individual means his own irreplaceable life. This is the only life you can live. You cannot live another person’s life, neither can anybody else live your life. (I won’t go into a song and dance about what egoism means according to Objectivism, and why it doesn’t mean what its detractors say it means. I just want to point out its derivation from life as the standard, so that you see clearly that it is a derivative principle, not an out-of-context primary.)
But egoism according to Objectivism has to be rational egoism, which brings us to the fact that man’s basic virtue is his rationality, i.e. his full exercise of reason. All his other virtues are derivatives and applications of rationality.
Well, how could a man be anything but rational?
We have seen before that man has free will and that this implies the possibility of evasion, or willful suspension of one’s reason. Now, this is the Objectivist equivalent of “sin”, but it doesn’t necessarily have social consequences. If a man evades, he will to a greater or lesser extent destroy himself, but others could simply avoid him and leave him alone.
But in a social context, there is another thing which can suspend reason, and that is the use of physical force.
It follows from all I have said this far that there is in essence only one way of dealing rationally and morally with other people and of resolving disputes, and that is by rational persuasion. If life is the standard and my life is mine to live, then your life is yours, his life is his, hers hers, etc. And if rationality is the basic virtue, then the rationality of others is not a threat but a value (and a great value, too).
The use of physical force or even the threat of force is a negation of the mind. It means cutting the connection between mind and reality. It means that a person’s perception of reality no longer matters.
A simple example may serve to illustrate the principle.
Say a missionary comes along and says: “Follow me, and I’ll show you God.” Well, that’s an attempt at rational persuasion. You may follow him, and if he’s right you’ll discover God. Or you may disregard him and go your own way.
But say he comes with a sword or a gun and says: “Look! There is a God up there, and if you don’t see him I’ll kill you.” Well, he can certainly force a confession that way, and make you say you see God, but it won’t make you see him.
Now, this policy of force carried out fully would create a situation where you consistently would have to deny all the evidence against the existence of God, which means ultimately the destruction of your mind, at least with regard to this particular subject.
Now, obviously the same would apply if someone tried to enforce atheism by the same means. Atheism happens to be the truth in this case, but a gun won’t make a person see it, and will actually destroy the only means by which he could discover it, i.e. reason.
One point which has to be mentioned is that force destroys not only the victim but also the perpetrator. The person who takes to the sword not only will perish by the sword, he will become a slave to his own sword. Why? Well, because he negates the victim’s reason, he chooses not to deal with him by reason, and so he actually declares by that act that his own reason is impotent to deal with other people. And so he needs the sword as a substitute for reason.
But this fact alone does not prevent some people from using force. Remember, man is not automatically rational.
But there is only one way of dealing with an initiator of force, and that is by retaliation. And therefore, retaliatory force is not only permissible but mandatory. Turning the other cheek would only mean encouraging the initiator and egging him on.
Now we are on the threshold between ethics and politics, and we can derive the principles on which a rational society must be based.
We have seen that other men are a value to man. They are a value because we can learn from them and because we can trade with them.
On the other hand, other men can be a big threat to man, insofar as they can act irrationally and wield force.
The problem is to preserve the value and to counteract the threat.
A rational society must protect the use of reason or the mind, and ban as far as possible the initiation of physical force.
Now, if each person retaliated on his own as he saw fit, this would lead to a war of all against all. This is the reason he needs such an institution as a government. And this defines the proper functions of a proper government. All a proper government can do is handle the retaliatory use of force, which means, of course, police, military and law courts.
But to ban force and preserve the values of society, the government has to recognize the limits or borders between what a person may do and what he is forbidden to do.
This is where the concept of rights enters the picture.
The concept of rights serves as a bridge between ethics and politics. They translate moral principles into political principles. They are the means of subordinating politics to morality.
Then what are those rights?
One way to answer this question is that a man has a right to his own life and all that follows from it. This would be true, but it would be too generalized. It leaves open what follows from the principle.
Another way would be to make a long catalogue of concrete rights, but such a catalogue would obviously drown you with information and would never be exhaustive anyway.
There is, however, a tradition in natural rights philosophy to recognize four basic rights: the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Objectivism accepts this fourfold of rights and cannot claim originality in this respect.
But what I want to point out is that each of these rights corresponds to basic principles of the Objectivist ethics.
The right to life, of course, corresponds to the principle that man’s life is the ultimate standard in ethics.
The right to liberty corresponds to the principle that man’s mind requires freedom and doesn’t function under compulsion.
The right to property corresponds to the fact that man must live by applying reason to reality, i.e. by productive work, that he must act to gain and/or keep his values.
And the right to pursue happiness, finally, is the political implementation of ethical egoism, the principle that the purpose of an individual’s life is his own life and his own, personal happiness.
Have I Given a Proof?
Now, I have obviously not given you a full proof of the principle of individual rights, because one of my points is that this requires the whole of the philosophy of Objectivism, and I obviously couldn’t give you that in one lecture. But I hope that I have given you the basic blueprint of such a proof. I have tried to show that Objectivism is not just a grab-bag of disconnected ideas, but that there is a “red thread” from the axiom that existence exists to the principle of individual rights and the role of a proper government. Above all, I have tried to stress the primacy of existence, the need to always look at the facts of reality.
I’ve heard it said many times that there are “gaps” in Ayn Rand’s theory of rights, and I would be glad to know what gaps I have failed to fill in my speech today. And, on the other hand, I’ve often heard it said that the principle of natural rights doesn’t require acceptance of the rest of the Objectivist philosophy, that other philosophies may provide the necessary base quite well or better than Objectivism – and I would be glad to know what such a philosophy would look like.
Now, I said that my aim today was not primarily polemical, but let me end by reiterating some of what I’ve said in polemical form.
I’ve claimed that man’s right to life rests ultimately on life as the standard. Well, how does one defend the right to life on another standard, or on no standard at all? “Death as the standard”, for example, would only guarantee you the right to commit suicide, nothing else.
How could the right to liberty be defended, if not by reference to the fact that man’s mind doesn’t work under force? If it did, it wouldn’t matter if we are free or enslaved.
How could the right to property be defended, if the concept of value had no meaning, or if it meant something entirely different from what Miss Rand defined it as? All property would then be valueless, and it wouldn’t matter a continental whether we kept it or it were expropriated.
How could we have a right to pursue happiness, if the morality of self-sacrifice were true? Our personal happiness would simply be irrelevant, if the purpose of our life were service to God or society or any other altar of immolation.
So much for the connection between politics and ethics. Now, let’s look at epistemology, at the point I mentioned about objectivism as opposed to subjectivism and intrinsicism.
If we accept intrinsicism, then our rights depend ultimately on the edicts of God and not on the law of identity. And in that case I would be glad if someone could present me with a photocopy of the table of commandments which grants me my right to my own life – plus a divine guarantee that this right won’t be superseded the day it no longer fits his plan for mankind’s salvation.
If we accept subjectivism, then our rights become dependent on the arbitrary whim of our fellow man – which in our kind of society means the whim of the majority. And in that case I would like to know if simple majority will suffice to suspend my rights, or if 2/3 or 5/6 will be required, if the matter should be decided by parliamentary decree or be subject to a referendum, and whether my campaign will be subsidized or I will have to pay for it out of my own pocket.
If you accept Objectivism, the whole matter is simple and clear-cut: A is A – and man is man.
Finally, the metaphysical base. I have stressed repeatedly the primacy of existence. What’s distinctive to Ayn Rand’s way of philosophizing is that she always asks the question: what facts give rise to a certain issue? What facts give rise to the subject of epistemology? The fact that man has free will and therefore no automatic knowledge and therefore needs a method of using his mind. What fact gives rise to the subject of ethics? The fact that man is a living being and therefore must pursue values and needs a code of values. What fact gives rise to the subject of politics? The fact that other men are a value to man but also can pose a threat to him. Those facts are what they are, and we must think, act and organize accordingly.
A person who claims to accept the inalienable rights of the individual but at the same time discards the primacy of existence could do so in two ways. He could disregard entirely the question whether existence or consciousness has primacy (a viewpoint which is hard even to discuss), or he could claim that consciousness has primacy, that facts are what we make them, and that they had better adhere to us, not the other way round.
And what would such a person be able to say to an Ayatollah who answers him: “Those are your facts, shaped according to your consciousness – but you see, my facts are different, and my God is mightier than yours”?
And this is really exactly what is happening to the world. I’d like to end by answering an objection that some of you might have: After all, people like John Locke and the Founding Fathers did have, in essence, the right view of rights, even though they didn’t have Objectivism. That’s true, they were on the right track – but they did not have the full base. And that’s why man’s rights have steadily eroded over the past two centuries, and why the world is now being swallowed up by Ayatollahs of all descriptions.
Objectivism, as I see it, is our only chance to reverse this trend. And now, when Ayn Rand has so graciously given it to us, why not make the full use of it? It’s not for her sake, but for ours.
The lecture was quite well received, although I got some strange comments on it. A couple of persons wondered why it would be wrong to embrace freedom from the wrong reasons (for example if the value of freedom had appeared to him in a dream). I was baffled by this question, since I think it answers itself. – I experienced no animosity from the audience, but I do not think I managed to “convert” anyone to Objectivism.)
See also Appendix: An Answer to Walter Block.