Honesty Under Coercion

Mar 112002

In preparing for my talk on honesty to TOC’s 2002 Summer Seminar, I have been exploring the limits of the virtue of honesty. The standard Objectivist position is that honesty is not required when force has been initiated against us. Why not? Because the virtue of honesty is formed in the context of trading relationships. Because our virtues ought not be used against us in the service of evil. Because we can avoid irrational people, but people initiating force. In Basic Principles of Objectivism, Nathaniel Branden says that someone who has initiated force has “suspended morality” with respect to himself. Anything that the victim chooses to do in self-defense against the initiator of force is morally right. But of course, although honesty is not required where coercion is present, neither is dishonesty. Morality has been “suspended,” not inverted.

My thinking about this issue lead to me to the question: In situations where force is being initiated against us, when is it in our self-interest to lie and when is it in our self-interest to tell the truth? Given the prevalence of coercion in human history and even in a country as free as the US is today, some general principles would certainly seem to help us make better decisions.

I posed this very question to FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group) Saturday night in my presentation on honesty. I was completely surprised by the resounding and near-unanimous answer: There are no principles. Whatever people do is moral. People have their own unique breaking points. People have their own goals. So no general principles can be constructed. We make decisions based on the particulars of the context.

The primary problem with this account is that it seems to leave us with little guidance in dealing with coercion. How am I to decide what to do if there are no principles involved? Aren’t there any moral considerations at all?

Rand doesn’t have much to say on the subject, but I did find an interesting comment at the end of her essay “The Wreckage Of The Consensus” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She writes:

Once in a while, I receive letters from young men asking me for personal advice on problems connected with the draft. Morally, no one can give advice in any issue where choices and decisions are not voluntary: “Morality ends where a gun begins.” As to the practical alternatives available, the best thing to do is to consult a good lawyer.

There is, however, one moral aspect of the issue that needs clarification. Some young men seem to labor under the misapprehension that since the draft is a violation of their rights, compliance with the draft law would constitute a moral sanction of that violation. This is a serious error. A forced compliance is not a sanction. All of us are forced to comply with many laws that violate our rights, but so long as we advocate the repeal of such laws, our compliance does not constitute a sanction. Unjust laws have to be fought ideologically; they cannot be fought or corrected by means of mere disobedience and futile martyrdom. (CUI 325)

Rand seems to be drawing a distinction here between “moral” and “practical” advice. Such words seem ill-chosen, given the Objectivist rejection of a moral-practical dichotomy. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that there are prudential concerns even when force has been initiated against us. Whatever goals and values we have in life, there are better and worse ways of achieving those values, even when our freedoms are curtailed. In the quote from CUI, Rand is arguing precisely along those lines: If you wish to fight unjust laws, then fight them “ideologically” rather than through “mere disobedience” or “futile martyrdom.”

So, perhaps the only universal principle when making decisions in the face of coercion is: Act as best you can according to your hierarchy of values. Act to preserve what is more important to you before you act to preserve what is less important. Be willing to give up lesser values to preserve greater ones. To put it bluntly: save your spouse before you save your TV. To the extent that your hierarchy of values is rational, you will be acting in your own self-interest.

That’s not much of a moral principle, but it’s a good start.

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