Beyond Objectivism—Retaliation

In a previous article I addressed the second of three issues I said pertained to Ayn Rand's definition of concepts. The third, which is not the subject of this article, is a more general issue related to Objectivism's use of certain words. There are some word's used in Objectivism that are never clearly defined and their meaning is simply assumed. For that reason, some concepts described in terms of those words tend to be vague and imprecise, the very opposite of what Objectivist concepts ought to be.

The word used that way in Ayn Rand's definition of concepts is integration. I will discuss the use and misuse of that word in another article. The word I will address in this article is from a totally different aspect of Rand's philosophy, politics, and the word is retaliation.


The word, retaliation, is found in Objectivist politics, in the description of the purpose and nature of government. In Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal, (CUI), in the chapter, "Theory And History, What is Capitalism?", Ayn Rand writes:

"The government acts as the agent of man's right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use; thus the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control."

Please read these words carefully, "... government acts as the agent of man's self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation ...." But self-defense and retaliation are not the same thing.

If a man threatens you with a gun, and you shoot him to prevent him from shooting you, that is self-defense. If a man burglarizes your house while you are away, and you later find and shoot him, that is retaliation. Retaliation is not defense at all, but Objectivism completely blurs this distinction.

Retaliation No Defense

In CUI, "America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business" Ayn Rand wrote: "The proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect men from criminals; the military forces, to protect men from foreign invaders ...."

But the police do not protect men from criminals. Their sole purpose, according to Objectivism, is the enforcement of laws which determine how retributory justice or retaliation will be administered.

In CUI, "Appendix: The Nature Of Government," it is explained:

"The retaliatory use of force requires objective rules of evidence to establish that a crime has been committed and to prove who committed it, as well as objective rules to define punishments and enforcement procedures. Men who attempt to prosecute crimes, without such rules, are a lynch mob. If a society left the retaliatory use of force in the hands of individual citizens, it would degenerate into mob rule, lynch law, and an endless series of bloody private feuds or vendettas."

There is no explanation of a connection between an individual's right to use force in self-defense and some supposed right to use force to "retaliate". Whether or not retaliation is justified, it cannot be justified on the basis of self-defense, because it is always after the fact; that is, whatever one might defend themselves against has already happened.

Three False Reasons for Retaliation

The attempt to equate retaliation with self-defense is ludicrous on the face of it. If one seeks retaliation, it means whatever self-defense was attempted failed, because the crime has already been committed. Nevertheless, arguments are frequently made in an attempt to equate the two very different concepts, or at least to demonstrate that retaliation is justified. I'll briefly consider the three most common arguments to demonstrate how far removed from self-defense the concept of retaliation is.

1. Just "punishment." Rand said governments are needed to establish, "objective rules to define punishments." How punishment "defends" anyone is not explained. The idea of "justice" is sometimes invoked here, implying if someone harms an individual or his property, they justly deserve to have an equal harm visited on them. To assume, therefore, the individual harmed may rightfully punish (do harm to) the one who harmed them is essentially the principle of two wrongs make a right, or, that "revenge" is the equivalent of justice.

2. Correction. This notion suggests that punishment will teach the criminal a lesson or correct his behavior. It has nothing to do with defense or with justice. Beyond the fact that it cannot work (you cannot change people), if it did work, it would be a matter of benefiting a criminal for committing a crime at the expense of the victims.

3. Deterrance. The idea that the threat of punishment will act as a deterrent to crime might be considered a kind of defense—if it worked, but it does not. There are more criminals being punished (in jail) today than ever, and they all knew what the punishment was before they committed the crimes. Even in those countries with the most fearful and outrageous punishments, like cutting off the hand's of thieves or stoning to death, there is still crime.

Of all possible arguments to justify retaliation, deterrence is the closest to being analogous to defense, because it is aimed at prevention of crime, but there are very serious flaws in this argument. Remember, this argument is for a specific kind of political/legal system. The basis of this argument is not principles of ethical values or any other philosophical principles—this argument is based on psychology, on the belief that people will act in a certain way because of their fear of punishment. It assumes, in fact, something contrary to the Objectivist principle of volition; it assumes that people's behavior can, and ought to be, controlled by threat and intimidation. Do ( or don't do) this or go to jail.

Objectivists, of all people, should see immediately that deterrence cannot work, because it is a psychological theory. Even if threat and intimidation could be justified as a political means to anything, it would only work so long as the individuals it is directed at were psychologically normal. Objectivism regards the criminal mind an anomaly, a kind of mental aberration. The kind of mind that can plan and choose to use force and coercion against others is not the kind of mind that will be swayed by threats of punishment.

Better Than Retaliation

According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 10th Edition retaliate means: to repay (as an injury) in kind, to return like for like; especially: to get revenge [emphasis mine].

Retaliation is just a fancy word for vengeance. It is the ultimate principle of "Gods" and Monarch's who regard evil as a value. There is no way that revenge can be equated with defense. That Objectivism embraces this primitive concept of an eye for an eye as the means of implementing one of the only two legitimate purposes of government is mind-boggling. Retaliation can never reverse the harm the victim of crime suffers and frequently exacerbates it.

There is a much better word for a much better concept, one that is truly just, truly benevolent, and consistent with Objective principles. That word is restitution. It can even be justified as a kind of defense. If restitution, not revenge, were the objective, though it would not prevent crime, it would mitigate its consequences. Revenge only makes it worse, because it is, itself, an evil.

The question is, how can restitution, rather than retaliation, be implemented as the working principle of a criminal justice system?

[Note: Just in case someone thinks the use of the word retaliation occurs in the quoted passages as an anomaly, the word is used in just the same way over forty times in Rand's and Peikoff's works.]

—Reginald Firehammer