Initiatory Force vs. Retaliatory Force

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    Upon what logical basis can libertarians object to initiatory force but permit retaliatory force?

    I was listening to a critique of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy this morning and the speaker made some excellent points.

    His argument was basically this:
    (1) Rand objects to the initiation of force because humans have inalienable rights.
    (2) However, Rand permits force that is initiated in retaliation.
    (3) 1 and 2 are logically inconsistent. If initiatory force is wrong because it violates people’s inalienable rights, then retaliatory force is also wrong because it violates people’s inalienable rights.

    Thoughts? Comments?


    JohnD: This argument would seem to embody a fallacy of equivocation on the word ‘initiate’. In one sense of ‘initiate’, every action is initiated; in a second sense, where one has a sequence of actions and reactions, only the first action in the sequence is initiated in a way that is relevant to the libertarian prohibition. When Rand (and libertarians) object to the initiation of force, they are objecting to the first action in such a sequence, not to any forceful action at all. Applying this distinction to the argument you give, the word ‘initiate’ simply drops out of premise 2 and there is no inconsistency between premises 1 and premise 2.


    Good point, thanks Dr. Casey. However, that doesn’t really clear up the whole argument. Let me represent it without the equivocation.

    (1) Rand objects to the initiation of force because humans have inalienable rights.
    (2) Rand permits retaliatory force against these inalienable rights.
    (3) 1 and 2 are either inconsistent or incoherent. If the rights are inalienable, then upon what basis is retaliatory force that alienates them permitted? If the rights are not inalienable, then the statements are incoherent.

    I did not intend for the equivocation to slip in the first time; it was due to my wording. The argument above is more along the lines of what the critic intended


    Hi John D let me see if I can shed some light on it for you, and this may or may not be a total refutation but I do think it’s valid in that it shows that if the critics reasoning is valid then it leads to ridiculous consequences.

    Rand said that when force it initiated or threatened that ethics goes out the window (ethics ends where a gun begins I think is her quote) and that’s why it’s ok to defend yourself.

    If ethics doesn’t end where a gun begins then we would hold bank tellers legally accountable when a bank robber puts a gun to her head and demands that she puts the money in the bag. Now who in their right mind would say the bank teller is aiding in the crime of bank robbery? ( barring evidence that she conspired of coarse) No one. So If it’s valid that one cannot defend themselves from an aggressor because they would be violating the other persons rights, then it should also be valid to throw the bank teller in jail for aiding in a bank robbery because she violated the rights of the owners of the money as a means of defending herself.

    lastly I don’t remember Rand used the word inalienable in her writings when talking about rights. But I could be wrong about that.


    Let me make another example. When someone steals from you (or any other aggressive behavior for that matter) they are simultaneously affirming and denying property rights.

    (eg) He says, “This property belongs to me and not you!”

    What thief would allow you to take what is rightfully his in retaliation?

    The thief is the one that is holding a contradiction in philosophy and not the person defending.


    JohD &B Jerryb225: I’ve read your interesting posts and am mulling them over. It’s 8.30 a.m. here in Ireland and my day is just beginning. It’s a pretty full day with lectures, student consultations, entertainment of a colleague from Germany, and finishing with a debate in Maynooth University tonight on “Libertarianism vs Statism” sponsored by the Maynooth Skeptics Society! It will probably be sometime tomorrow before I can respond substantively to your posts.


    Dr. Casey, I will await your response, but of course you may respond at your leisure; that sounds like quite the crazy day.

    Jerryb225: Thanks for your input. However, the critic is not arguing that it’s unethical to permit retaliatory force. Rather, he was saying that Rand’s foundation of Man’s Rights (that they are inherent in his nature) provides no logical basis for permitting retaliatory force. Here is Rand’s Essay, Man’s Rights:

    The critic’s main point was that Rand’s foundation of for the non-aggression principle is inconsistent with our concept of justice. So, it appears all you have done with your example is reaffirmed the critic’s position. In other words, since retaliatory force is the only way to provide justice, then it ought to be permitted. The critic would agree with you, but he would say Rand gives us no logical basis for reaching that conclusion.


    John d , thanks for the clarification. I don’t know that I would consider retaliatory force to be the same as defensive force. Retaliation carries with it the assumption that the threat has left. Defensive carries with it that the threat is happening. In the former I would agree that that does not agree with our concept of justice.

    Also I’d like to mention that I gave up objectivist ethics a long time ago so I may be rusty as to Rand’s specifics in certain regards so I’d like to hear what you have to say about what I mentioned above and if you think it does or doesn’t affect the points made in your original post. If you meant defensive action and not retaliatory then I would say I don’t know how to answer you.

    Personally I take more of a consequentialist approach to ethics.
    That is to say that if the nap is valid, ‘this’ follows and if its not, then ‘that’ follows. ‘This’ is preferable to ‘that’ and here’s why……….

    Perhaps my methods of justifying the nap was coming through in my previous reply to you. But that would be my approach to the issue if its of any value to you.

    Have you tried taking your question to an objectivist forum?


    Jerryb225: Your examples seems to take the form of “See, wouldn’t this be absurd? Therefore, it cannot be right.” I totally agree with you on that. However, the critic I was listening to pointed out that Rand’s foundation is inconsistent with defensive force, retaliatory force, or any other kind of force.

    If it is true that rights are “natural” or “innate” and thus they are “inalienable” then I don’t understand her basis for permitting violations of rights, even when they are in self-defense. After probing a tiny bit further. It seems that the only answer She (and John Locke) gave for this is that when a person initiates aggression against another human, then they cease to be human themselves. Therefore, non-humans no longer possess the natural rights of humans.

    That explanation is consistent with their views, but seems totally bizarre. Do we really lose our nature if we become an aggressor? Such a view would seem to imply an odd definition of what “a nature” even is.

    Perhaps Dr. Casey will save the day with some clarifications. I have not taken this to an objectivist forum. I don’t know much about objectivism (is that what we’re talking about?) other than it’s the name of Rand’s philosophy.


    Now that you mention it I do remember her saying the thing about man ceasing to be a man when he violates rights. I might take that to mean that when a man chooses to violate rights he is implicitly saying that rights are not valid thus implicitly negating his own rights which would open him up to being attacked validly by the one being violated.

    It’s in mans nature to be a mammal but it wouldn’t make sense to say man has a right to be a mammal. So that would suggest that if something that would be considered a right must be something that is able to be chosen by man as well as being able to be violated by others. So rights only exist as a social abstract concept and not so much as a tangible concept.

    Some would say that this makes rights subjective but I would disagree. I would say that they are objective but not in the Objectivist sense. For example we wouldn’t say that the scientific method is subjective just because it can not be chosen in favor of some other method of obtaining knowledge such as say praying for the gods to bestow knowledge upon us while we close our eyes and mumble incantations. Clearly there is a preferable method to gaining knowledge about reality that has produced tangible results when compared to alleged other means of knowledge acquisition.

    I view ethics the same way. Man can choose a view of ethics that has more tangible results than other ethical theory’s. the reason for this would be that man has a nature in a social context. Such as the same reason the scientific method is the best method we have for leaning about reality is because nature, has a nature. Lol

    Thing always get convoluted when discussing abstract concepts like rights, ethics or the economy etc. There’s just so much room for two people to talk past one another and not realize that they are doing it and they both end up getting frustrated with one another. That’s why I believe a clear defining of terms and highlighting of underlining concepts implicitly assumed in all statements must be discussed.

    The main problem I had with Objectivist ethics is that it said the state is necessary. This glaring contradiction is what caused me to abandon it. It’s a violation of the nap. Maybe it’s because politicians cease to be man when they are elected?!? Lol! Hey maybe she was onto something here! Haha.

    Also she said man is born tabula rasa which to me is just totally wrong.

    But aside from Objectivist ethics Rand does have a rather robust view on epistemology that has shaped my world view. “Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology” is a book I highly recommend if you are interested in other aspects of philosophy.


    JohnD: At last I have the opportunity to respond to your posts. Your reformulation of the argument runs like this:

    (1) Rand objects to the initiation of force because humans have inalienable rights.
    (2) Rand permits retaliatory force against these inalienable rights.
    (3) 1 and 2 are either inconsistent or incoherent. If the rights are inalienable, then upon what basis is retaliatory force that alienates them permitted? If the rights are not inalienable, then the statements are incoherent.
    I’m going to try to address the issues that have been raised in logical terms rather than in substantive terms.

    First part: As things stand, your propositions 1 and 2 are not immediately inconsistent. What would be inconsistent would be (making minor verbal changes) either
    (1a) Rand rejects the initiation of force because humans have inalienable rights
    (2a) Rand accepts the initiation of force because humans have inalienable rights
    (1b) Rand rejects retaliatory force against inalienable rights
    (2b) Rand accepts retaliatory force against inalienable rights
    If your 2 were translatable into 2a (keeping 1 as 1a) or your 1 were translatable into 1b (keeping 2 as 2b) then we’d have a clear case of inconsistency but neither translation is obviously possible without changing the semantic content of the propositions.

    Second part: If we could get the argument into proper logical form, then we could assess it using the rules of formal logic. You will recall that arguments (formal arguments) can be criticized on two levels. If a formal argument is invalid, then we need proceed no further in our criticism. If, however, it is valid, then our attention turns to the question of the truth of the premises. Should the premises of our arguments turn out to be true and the argument valid, then the conclusion must be true as well.
    As things stand, propositions 1 and 2 are not obviously categorical in form. I have made several attempts to translate them into categorical form but nothing I’ve produced has been satisfactory.
    I next tried to see if I could deal with them using the forms of the hypothetical syllogism. The way in which you phrase the argument suggests we have something like a dilemma with this significant difference: in a dilemma, we have a disjunction between two propositions as constituent parts of the overall complex argument whereas in your argument, we seem to have a conjunction instead. Let me see if I can illustrate what I mean.

    Third part:
    Let A represent the proposition “Rand rejects initiatory force”
    Let B represent the proposition “Rand accepts retaliatory force”
    Let H represent the proposition: “Human beings have inalienable rights”
    The argument you give now seems to run:
    (1d) If A then H (If Rand rejects initiatory force, then human beings have inalienable rights)
    (2d) If B then not H (If Rand accepts retaliatory force, then human beings do not have inalienable rights)
    (3d) But (and here comes the conjunction) both A and B (Rand rejects initiatory force and Rand accepts retaliatory force)
    Therefore, (4d) both H and not H (Human beings have inalienable rights and human beings do not have inalienable rights)
    This argument is valid and its conclusion, being a contradiction, is necessarily false. That being so, the premises taken together must be inconsistent, that is, they can’t all be true together. If, as seems antecedently likely, 1d and 3d are true then the most likely culprit for falsehood is 2d.

    Fourth part: The burden of the messages that you and Jerryb225 have posted seem to circle around this premise (or something closely resembling it). A Randian might claim that 2d should read: If B then H (rather than if B then not H) and if pressed for his reason for asserting this, might respond that retaliatory force and initiatory force while both involving physical violence and so being indistinguishable from a physical perspective, nonetheless are morally distinct; just as if I were to drive your car away, what would be physically presented to us would be identical whether I was driving it with your permission or without your permission. Your grant of permission makes no difference to the physical dimension of the act but changes the moral (and legal) character of it completely.
    Having read all this (if you haven’t gone to sleep!) you may agree or disagree with this analysis totally or agree or disagree in part. In the end, logic helps to line one’s argument up in the most perspicuous way (or sometimes shows that this can’t be easily done) but, in the end, if an argument is valid, then we have to assess the truth (categorical or probable) of the premises and that is not the direct concern of logic, unless one or more of the premises are themselves conclusions of further argument.



    I tried to put them into a categorical proposition as well and failed. I was just assuming it was my level of logic skills not being up to par at fault. It seems that each statement has more than one subject and predicate and that is why it can’t be done?

    So I guess the lesson I take from this from a logical perspective is that not all arguments can be formulated into a syllogism. ( Or that you could at least form a categorical proposition out of one) Which kind of sucks. I was hoping that they could. : (

    Anyways I know you’re a busy man don’t feel pressured to answer right away. Thank you.


    Jerryb225: As I mention very early on in the lectures, there are always gaps between our natural reasoning and any formal system of logic. Sometimes, elements of our natural reasoning seem to be incapable of being ‘captured’ by our formal system; at other times, our formal system seems, as it were, to have a mind of its own and to come up with inferences that are, on the face of it, non-intuitive.

    The traditional system of logic I teach in the course has two basic types: the first, where we can analyse the internal structure of the proposition (categorical proposition) and derive inferences from that; the second, where we are concerned with the external relationships between propositions taken as a whole (the hypothetical syllogism). [Have you got to the section on the hypothetical syllogism yet?]

    If JohnD were to reformulate his argument, it might be susceptible to an analysis in the logic of the categorical proposition.

    As things stand, however, I give an analysis of his argument in the logic of the hypothetical syllogism upon which it turns out the argument is valid. That being so, our attention now turns to the truth of the premises. I suggested that premises 1d and 3d were most likely true (their truth to be established by extra-logical means) and that the problematic premise was 2d. The truth of this has to be established either on the basis of non-logical evidence or as the conclusion of yet another argument.

    As you can see from all this, logic is not a universal solvent for all our conceptual problems. In the end, the truth of our premises is, for the most part, derived from empirical evidence, history, and only occasionally by pure thought. Logic’s strength, however, is that, by allowing us to distinguish clearly between validity and soundness, it enables us to focus our attention where it needs to be rather than being distracted by the inessential.


    Dr. Casey, your analysis has been extremely helpful, very thoughtful, and painlessly instructive. I admit I have not yet worked through more than 4 lectures of the course, but as a beginner student in logic, I have greatly enjoyed them. I studied mathematics in college, and so I employed logic, but never with much of anything other than mathematical arguments. Here are some of my thoughts in response:

    1st Part:
    Let me start by saying that I agree with your reformulation of the argument. I would make some (minor?) changes to A and B. If you could let me know if this new argument makes sense that would be awesome.

    Let A = Rand rejects initiatory force because it violates man’s inalienable rights.
    Let B = Rand permits retaliatory force against man’s inalienable rights.
    Let H = Human beings have inalienable rights.

    The form of the argument would then be the same:

    (1e) If A, then H.
    (2e) If B, then not H.
    (3e) Both A and B.
    Therefore, (4e) both H and not H, a contradiction.

    So, if the premises are true, then Rand’s thoughts are shown to be inconsistent here.

    2nd Part:
    Would this not also be an indictment of Jefferson’s or John Locke’s thought? Simply replace “Rand” with “Jefferson” or “Locke” and the same argument initially seems plausible.

    However, as Jerryb225 and I discussed above, Locke attempts to reconcile the contradiction by changing (2e). In Locke’s thought, 2e would transform into something like:

    (2e*) If Locke permits retaliatory force against persons that are not human in nature, then human beings do not have inalienable rights.

    However, this is plainly false as the consequent is not necessarily true when the antecedent is true. But as I discussed with Jerryb225, I believe Locke’s analysis requires an untenable definition of “a nature.” It seems like a case of special pleading where he has defined “human nature” in such a way to avoid contradicting inalienable rights. Moreover, it appears to be quite a dangerous move regarding ethics, since there is no distinction remaining to prevent all initial aggressors from being treated as mere animals.

    Jerryb225 said: “Now that you mention it I do remember her saying the thing about man ceasing to be a man when he violates rights. I might take that to mean that when a man chooses to violate rights he is implicitly saying that rights are not valid thus implicitly negating his own rights which would open him up to being attacked validly by the one being violated.”

    This also seems to be odd analysis. If your interpretation is accurate, then would anyone who implicitly or explicitly denies the doctrine of inalienable rights forfeit his own rights? Or are you saying it is the case that such a man would not cirectly forfeit his own right, but rather forfeit his own nature?

    I find that untenable and inconsistent with a free society. Moreover, it gets even more odd when you consider the explicit/implicit paradigm. For example, in a free society, we would not be permitted to retaliate with force against someone who explicitly voiced an opinion against the inalienable rights of man (if we could, then then speech is not truly free). However, according to your interpretation above, implicit statements against inalienable rights are grounds for retaliatory force [i.e. punishment]. But upon what basis do we permit retaliatory force if the statement is implicit, yet exclude it if the statement is explicit? I know this is not your personal view, but I just wanted to comment anyway because I found the analysis you offered to be an interesting attempt at reconciling her thought. But I don’t find it do be tenable because it forces you to say: implicit statements against inalienable rights forfeit one’s human nature but explicit statements do not.

    Simply ask the question, who is more human?
    – The truly repentant sinner who at one time physically assaulted and beat up a homeless person.
    – The extreme Marxist who has always desired to treat populations as herds of animals, yet personally engages in no physical wrongdoing.

    I think the “more human” or “human or not” questions just become subjective and perplexing real fast. I think it is more consistent to conclude that all members of our species are human regardless of whether they initiate “inhumane” actions.

    3rd Part:

    Dr. Casey wrote, “A Randian might claim that 2d should read: If B then H (rather than if B then not H) and if pressed for his reason for asserting this, might respond that retaliatory force and initiatory force while both involving physical violence and so being indistinguishable from a physical perspective, nonetheless are morally distinct.”

    While this may true, I’d continue to argue that it does nothing to save the Randian from contradiction. Even if I grant that retaliatory force and initiatory force are morally distinct, that does not solve the question of inalienable rights. If rights are truly inalienable, then they cannot be alienated and force that permits their alienation should be rejected. One potential solution is the Lockean one that I discussed above, but merely asserting a moral distinction (that I agree with) does not solve the problem.



    I suppose the Objectivist would distinguish between what’s implicit in ones actions verses what’s implicit in his statements since ethics is about the choices (actions) one makes.

    Mr Casey,

    I have made it to the “syllogisms” section and was doing the examples you gave to do. I did get all but two correct. It seems my weakness in both cases being wrong was to incorrectly assign the copula in translation so that’s something I’m working on before I allow myself to move further.

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