Ayn Rand on Total War

 Posted by on 21 December 2005 at 8:52 am  Uncategorized
Dec 212005

I recently received the following inquiry by e-mail:

Some Objecivists rely on the first quotation cited by Rod Long in this blog post to argue for total war. I’ve never seen them grapple with other statements, including — but not limited to the others cited by Long — where Rand seems to argue against the killing of civilians and in general for a more measured approach to warfare than that argued for by more hawkish Objectivists.

Do you know of any Objectivists who have tried to reconcile these varying statements? Is there indeed a single coherent philosophy that can accomodate all of the public statements she made on these matters? Or is Long right, and perhaps Objectivists are making too much of off-the-cuff statements that Rand did fully think out?

If anyone has tried to address these issues, I’d appreciate it if you could point me to the work.

I must admit, I wasn’t exactly impressed with referenced post from Rod Long:

So is it morally permissible to kill innocent people in the course of retaliating against an aggressor? Ooh, good question; let’s ask Ayn Rand, a collection of whose responses to such questions has just been published as Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A.

A. Ayn Rand says: hell yes, kill the innocent

If we go to war with Russia, I hope the ‘innocent’ are destroyed with the guilty. … Nobody has to put up with aggression, and surrender his right of self-defense, for fear of hurting somebody else, guilty or innocent. When someone comes at you with a gun, if you have an ounce of self-esteem, you answer with force, never mind who he is or who’s standing behind him. (p. 95)

B. Ayn Rand says: hell no, don’t kill the innocent

Whatever rights the Palestinians may have had — I don’t know the history of the Middle East well enough to know what started the trouble — they have lost all rights to anything: not only to land, but to human intercourse. If they lost land, and in response resorted to terrorism — to the slaughter of innocent citizens — they deserve whatever any commandos anywhere can do to them, and I hope the commandos succeed. (p. 97)

C. Ayn Rand says: gee, there’s no right answer

Even as a writer, I can barely project a situation in which a man must kill an innocent person to defend his own life. … But suppose someone lives in a dictatorship, and needs a disguise to escape. … So he must kill an innocent bystander to get a coat. In such a case, morality cannot say what to do. … Personally, I would say the man is immoral if he takes an innocent life. But formally, as a moral philosopher, I’d say that in such emergency situations, no one could prescribe what action is appropriate. … Whatever a man chooses in such cases is right — subjectively. (p. 114)

I have a difficult time seeing a consistent principle underlying these different answers: Americans killing innocent Russians strikes Rand as obviously permissible, while Palestinians killing innocent Israelis strikes her as obviously impermissible; but when killer and victim are fellow-subjects of the same dictatorship all this obviousness suddenly vanishes. The acceptability of innocent casualties seems to vary depending on political rather than philosophical considerations; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was just giving her knee-jerk emotional reaction to the politics of the actors involved.

In general Rand tended to be rather cavalier with questions of casuistry (the application of moral principles to hard cases) — a symptom, perhaps, of what I’ve long considered her chief philosophical failing: impatience. Elsewhere in the Q & A book she notes that “if there’s one thing I cannot do mentally, it’s handle anything more than two ‘ifs’” (p. 170) — as though this were a feature, not a bug. In fact she’s quite mistaken; in plotting a novel she could be enormously painstaking and patient in constructing a complex and detailed structure and making sure every bit of it fit; that’s because, as I believe, she loved writing fiction far more than she loved writing nonfiction, taking up the latter primarily as a theoretical biologist might decide to act as a medic during a plague. That, I hypothesise, is why she had so much less patience for detail in her nonfiction than in her fiction (I’ve written more about this here), which, I further hypothesise, helps to explain why she tended to allow herself (I don’t mean consciously) to answer these sorts of questions on the basis of gut feeling rather than a consistent philosophical analysis.

Rand’s anti-Communism gave her a motivation to answer (A) in a way that would favour the Americans, but to answer (B) in a way that would favour the Israelis. (Rand’s support for Israel, perhaps along with her bizarre judgment that Israel’s Arab antagonists are “still practically nomads,” seems to have been motivated by the fact that “Soviet Russia … is sending the Arabs armaments.”: p. 96.) As nothing ideological was at stake in (C), she had no political motivation to answer it in any particular way. Hence, I suggest, the inconsistency. (For my own approach to the question of killing innocents see here and here.)

I was particularly annoyed by Rod Long’s claim that Ayn Rand “tended to be rather cavalier with questions of casuistry,” since if anyone was careless on this issue, it was him in this very blog post.

So here’s what I wrote to my e-mail correspondent:

I’m rather surprised that you would be taken in by Rod Long’s post. He’s totally ignoring the vastly different context of those quotes.

In the first, Ayn Rand is speaking of war of self-defense with Russia. The “innocent” in question were the passive supporters of the Soviet Union, i.e. the vast majority of Russians who accepted the horrors of the communist government without significant protest. Those people were morally responsible for their decision not to fight the communists, for their willingness to live as slaves to the Bolsheviks. Without them, the Bolsheviks never could have retained their iron grip on power. Such people were not innocent, but guilty — albeit perhaps less so than active supporters of the communists. Given their choice to live without any rights whatsoever under the Soviets, they have no grounds on which to protest their death by an American bomb rather than a KGB interrogator. The genuine innocents in Soviet Russia were the opponents of the regime — and those people would have welcomed an invasion from the US, despite the risk of being caught in the crossfire.

In contrast, the second quote concerns actual innocents, namely the ordinary Israelis conducting their daily, peaceful business within a fundamentally lawful, civilized society who are suddenly blown to bits by Palestinian terrorists. If the Palestinians had legitimate complaints against the Israelis, they ought to have settled them in a peaceful manner consistent with some measure of respect for law. They were not fighting a dictatorship — and so had no grounds upon which to inflict such senseless death and destruction.

The context of the third quote is substantially different from that of the first two, in that it concerns an ordinary person attempting to escape dictatorship, not a political conflict of any kind. It might be psychologically difficult for an ordinary person to kill under those circumstances, but that has nothing to do with the propriety of killing innocents (whether genuine or supposed) in war. And Ayn Rand’s answer in that case is consistent with her general view of the ethics of emergencies.

In “The Roots of War,” Ayn Rand said: “Consider the plunder, the destruction, the starvation, the brutality, the slave-labor camps, the torture chambers, the wholesale slaughter perpetrated by dictatorships. Yet this is what today’s alleged peace-lovers are willing to advocate or tolerate–in the name of love for humanity.”

The same assessment applies to the rationalistic libertarians claiming that the non-initiation of force principle prohibits self-defensive action against anyone other than a voluntary agent of a force-initiating regime. On that view, if Hitler ever invaded the US, US soldiers would be forbidden from defending the borders, since at least some of the enemy soldiers were unwillingly drafted. Similarly, the US military couldn’t bomb Hitler’s concentration camps — and thus save millions of genuinely innocent lives by destroying the machinery of the Holocaust — because we might kill or maim some of those innocents. The pacifist libertarians fail to appreciate the philosophical context of the non-initiation of force principle, particularly the fact that its purpose is to protect human life by making peaceful co-existence in society possible. Given that purpose, if it ever seems that the principle morally requires us to sacrifice the world to an evil tyrant, then it’s long past time to check our premises. If the pacifist libertarian merely claims that we are morally obliged to risk our own lives to prevent harm to those who refuse to fight that tyrant, as Rod Long does, then the checking of premises is still in order.

Just to be clear, I’m not attributing Rod Long’s errors to you. However, if you want to raise some questions about Ayn Rand’s statements on the proper conduct of war, you’ll have to find some more compelling quotes than those cited by Rod Long. (For the reasons you mentioned, her published, edited comments would be more compelling than those off-the-cuff remarks from her Q&As.) For a reasonably clear statement of her views on moral conduct in war, I would recommend her essay “The Lessons of Vietnam” reprinted in The Voice of Reason.

In that essay, Ayn Rand argues that a nation ought only go to war for self-interested reasons, for to do otherwise is to sacrifice our soldiers’ lives “in pure compliance with the ethics of altruism, i.e., selflessly and senselessly.” The same evaluation applies when the military is prevented from fighting for victory, as seen in the contempt leveled against that “modern monstrosity called a ‘no win’ war, in which the American forces were not permitted to act, but only to react: they were to ‘contain’ the enemy, but not to beat him.”

We may safely say that Ayn Rand was an advocate of fighting only selfish wars for the purpose of defeating the enemy. That’s exactly what it means to fight a total war, in that the guiding purpose of all political and military choices must be to end the conflict as quickly as possible by thoroughly defeating the enemy, with as little loss of life on your own side as possible, never sacrificing the lives of your own soldiers for the sake of the enemy. As a general rule, that method also preserves the most lives of enemy soldiers and civilians, even while eliminating the threat they pose. For example, by dropping the bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, rather than fighting a bloody land war, we saved hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, particularly and most importantly our own.

Provided that the war itself is legitimate, the responsibility for any and all loss of enemy life, whether soldier or civilian, falls squarely upon the shoulders of the enemy leaders who created the conflict. And ultimately, the majority of people are responsible for their leaders — whether by active choice in a democracy or passive acceptance in a dictatorship. As for those in genuine opposition, they cannot rightly expect the other countries threatened by their government to sacrifice themselves for their sake. As Ayn Rand so vehemently said in one of those Ford Hall Forum Q&As, that’s one reason why our choice of political leaders matters so very much.

I think that much more could be said on this difficult topic, but that’s enough for me for now!

  • Drain52

    Of course, if Rand is right that we may kill the innocent in war, then al-Qaida was justified in the 9/11 attacks.

    • PigManFan

      The two sides (US vs state Islam) are not morally equivalent. You are implying that the jihadists are in the right and that you want their goals (i.e. an Islamic theocracy & the abolition of individual rights) to be achieved. Yes, this is what the jihadists want. Read for yourself what they write–not what the mainstream news interprets via a PC filter that they want. http://www.c-span.org/video/?200888-1/words-raymond-ibrahim

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