In my professional ethics class the other day, the professor (about which I know next to nothing, so I don't know where he is coming from on this ) said something like

"An action, such as smoking marijuana, would not normally be immoral to me, and I would do it if I were so inclined. However, since there are laws against it, I would be putting myself and my family at risk by smoking to the point where I consider it immoral"

I started thinking about all of the different systems of morality I've learned about and how this might be applied. Objectivism has me slightly stumped. If we create a scenario in which a law is passed forcing one to engage in an activity they would normally find reprehensible, should one engage in this behavior or risk themselves by violating the law?

Originally, I was drawn to a quote by Rand to solve this.

"In my morality, the defense of one's country means that a man is personally unwilling to live as the conquered slave of any enemy, foreign or domestic. This is an enormous virtue." (WP speech, 1974)

However, I'm wondering if this could ever be applied to some "lesser" or temporary scenario. Is it always better for the objectivist to resist even when their long-term happiness and welfare might be at stake?

  • one question at a time, please. youve asked seversl completely unrelated questions.
    – user20153
    Jan 18, 2017 at 22:18
  • if somebody had murdered Adolf Hitler in his cradle, would that be "moral"?
    – user20153
    Jan 18, 2017 at 22:20
  • @mobileink I meant to only ask one question, but I asked it twice using different wording for the sake of clarity.
    – Patrick
    Jan 18, 2017 at 23:19

1 Answer 1


To me, it seems the professor's primary point was that her choice to break the law would put her family at "risk" or otherwise inconvenience them. Frankly, an Objectivist would not care about this, and would certainly not let it dictate their morality.

Furthermore, an Objectivist would reject such a law as immoral. In "What is Capitalism?", Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand writes (emphasis added):

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned. The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man's rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; 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.

Objectivism advocates a sharply limited form of government, where the state has power only to take actions that are necessary to secure the rights and freedoms of the individual. This, it is held, is necessary in order to prevent excess governmental power from being turned against individual freedom and being used to restrict it.

Although an Objectivist would concede that the government needs to provide civil law (contracts, torts, etc.) as a positive service, this should be restricted by clear, objective standards. The laws must be based in "essential principles", by which is meant "grounded in the principles of individual rights."

Thus, since government's only function is to protect rights, and the law that you describe does not protect rights—and moreover serves to restrict an individual's free exercise of rights—that law would be on face immoral and you could not possess a moral obligation to follow it.

I think you will find Rand's essay "Man's Rights" (reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness, as well as other volumes of her work) most illuminating of these views. Here is a relevant excerpt; you can read the full text online here:

“Rights” are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.

The most profoundly revolutionary achievement of the United States of America [in contrast to previous "statist" and "altruist-collectivist" societies] was the subordination of society to moral law.

The principle of man’s individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system — as a limitation on the power of the state, as man’s protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right. The United States was the first moral society in history.

All previous systems had regarded man as a sacrificial means to the ends of others, and society as an end in itself. The United States regarded man as an end in himself, and society as a means to the peaceful, orderly, voluntary coexistence of individuals. All previous systems had held that man’s life belongs to society, that society can dispose of him in any way it pleases, and that any freedom he enjoys is his only by favor, by the permission of society, which may be revoked at any time. The United States held that man’s life is his by right (which means: by moral principle and by his nature), that a right is the property of an individual, that society as such has no rights, and that the only moral purpose of a government is the protection of individual rights.

A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action — which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

The concept of a “right” pertains only to action — specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive — of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

That last paragraph in particular should really clench your understanding of why an Objectivist would take issue with a law like the one to which your professor alludes. It is inconsistent with the singular purpose of government, it is coercive to the individual in that it prevents her from exercising her own voluntary freedom of choice—to live her life as she sees fit. The state would be compelling the individual to act against her own judgment, and that would be intrinsically immoral. The government, even as it represents a collective of individuals, cannot thus force positive moral obligations upon its individual members.

  • I understand how the law would be viewed, this makes perfect sense that the Objectivist would view such a law as immoral. Clearly, it would be viewed as moral to not follow that law. What I still don't understand is, is there a point in which it becomes immoral to disobey because of the risk involved, or moral to obey because of the interest of self-preservation?
    – Patrick
    Jan 18, 2017 at 20:11
  • Additionally I'd like to ask, and maybe it will help my understanding. Does Objectivism fall under consequentialism or something like virtue ethics?
    – Patrick
    Jan 18, 2017 at 20:15
  • 1
    The law would obviously be immoral; but that doesn't mean that disobeying the law is always the right thing to do. At the most fundamental, Objectivism would demand that you use rationality, applied to the facts of reality (which include legal ramifications) to make decisions that are the most selfish (beneficial to yourself in the long-term sense). Jan 18, 2017 at 20:45
  • Wow, nice to see you back...!
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 18, 2017 at 21:13
  • @kbelder that does finish answering my question. Now I'm still left wondering though, under an academic lense, does Objectivism fall under consequentialism or virtue ethics (or rule somehow)?
    – Patrick
    Jan 18, 2017 at 23:18

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