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Use of Force and Rational Self-Interest

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Why can't I use force to obtain the things that will make me happy? Lets say I want to steal some money. I won't say I know I won't get caught; to do so would be asking you to speculate on the morality of an omniscient being. Let's say I'm 99.99% sure I can steal a million dollars and not get caught, and that that number is accurate. This money would aid my survival. Why shouldn't I do it?

I can't find a good moral justification for this anywhere. I understand why, at a government level, force should be banned. A society where we can't use force is good for everyone, even the would be criminals. But I can't see why force with little chance of counter-force is against my self-interest.

Any ideas on this would be useful. If Rand or anyone else has writings on this, a source would be good too. But I have read most of Rand's stuff and haven't found many useful ideas on this. Just assertions without backup.

Note: I do "feel" that use of force is wrong, but I can not prove it.

- Dave

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I can't find a good moral justification for this anywhere. I understand why, at a government level, force should be banned. A society where we can't use force is good for everyone, even the would be criminals. But I can't see why force with little chance of counter-force is against my self-interest.

Try shifting your perspective on the question a bit. Instead of focusing on the one specific, concrete action, look at it from a character-centric perspective. What kind of person would use force if they thought they could get away with it, and is it in your overall self-interest to be that kind of person? There are two basic alternatives. You could be someone who acts on principle, long-range, and accepts a principle advocating the initiation of force against others. In that case, though, you will find that you cannot rationally validate such a principle consistently. It leads to double-standards -- others produce, you take. It turns the rationality and insight of other men into your enemy, because they might catch you. It undercuts your self-esteem because you know you can't create the values you need to survive on your own. It makes you second-handed, because you need to focus on deceiving other men to survive. And so on. A principle that validates the initiation of force against others comes into conflict with most if not all of the principles defining the other Objectivist virtues. If you accept such a principle in spite of all this, you are effectively rejecting the sovereignty of reason over your beliefs and actions, because you are allowing your actions to be guided by a principle that you know you haven't rationally validated. And since reason is your basic means of survival, it should be obvious that rejecting it is not and cannot be in your self-interest.

The other possibility is that you are someone who does not act on principle, long-range. You allow your actions to be controlled by short-range desires, out of context, even when the principles you otherwise claim to accept counsel otherwise. This is a much more direct route to rejecting reason. Is it in your self-interest to be a short-range pragmatist? Again, no.

One might ask "Why can't I act on rational principle, drop the principle just this one time because the payoff is huge, and then go back to acting on rational principle afterwards? Why does, say, stealing a million dollars now prevent me from being totally honest afterwards?" Simple. If you have really gone back to being totally honest, then you are an honest person in possession of a million dollars that belongs to someone else. What would an honest person do in such a situation? Give the money back to its rightful owner. Obviously, if you do this, you won't benefit in any way from the theft. (Quite the opposite.) And if you don't, then you aren't being honest any more -- you have rejected the principle of honesty on an ongoing basis.

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Thanks for the replies, everybody. The page linked by Eiuol is 36 pages, I am on page 8. It will take me some time to get through it all.

Most arguments, such as the one linked by Marc K, suggest that it is wrong because you might get caught, or fear getting caught, or have some other social difficulties due to your crime. While this is true in 99% of cases, it isn't hard to imagine a situation where the crime was so perfect, you are going to get away with it and have nothing to fear. Maybe you are even in a non extradition country where you can admit your crime openly, and have no trouble spending your money. Basically, those arguments don't prove that use of force is inherently wrong, no matter the situation, and that is what I am after.

khaight's argument is much more in line with what I am looking for, but I have yet to be persuaded by any such argument. I'm just not making the leap from reason as man's primary means of survive to never use force under any situation.

Let me finish reading the link Eiuol provided, as well as various other discussions that are linked there, and if I'm still unconvinced, I'll come back and state my specific problems with khaight's response. I don't want to waste your time if the answer has already been provided somewhere.

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Most arguments, such as the one linked by Marc K, suggest that it is wrong because you might get caught, or fear getting caught, or have some other social difficulties due to your crime. While this is true in 99% of cases, it isn't hard to imagine a situation where the crime was so perfect, you are going to get away with it and have nothing to fear.

The idea that it "isn't hard to imagine" such a situation suggests you haven't really given much consideration to just what would be involved in "getting away with it".

Which is disappointing since you yourself gave the 99% estimate already... that should tell you that it *IS* hard to imagine such a situation - and I dare say its closer to 99.99999% when dealing with LARGE values (ie: millions of dollars).

Which is not to say that the fear of reprisal is the only or primary reason - it's just the most easily understood. It's the destruction of one's own integrity as a rational being which is the primary reason not to sanction the initiation of force against other rational beings.

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I don't think anyone here would say that it is impossible to commit a crime with no external consequences, or rather, no counter-force applied. And because it is not impossible, that argument can't prove that initiation of force is inherently wrong.

However, I think many people here do claim that initiation of force results in, as you say, "the destruction of one's own integrity as a rational being". If this is true, it is destroying man's means of survival, and therefor certainly not in his interest, regardless of rewards, and is therefor wrong.

Here is what I am missing, and I suppose I'll get in to this now because the other discussions I have been reading are starting to deteriorate as the participants grow angry with each other.

Reason is man's primary means of survival, but at some point, man must act on what his reason has shown to be right. Objectivists seem to claim that if you are initiating force, you somehow failed to exercise reason. This is the issue I am struggling with.

Let us take, as an example, an 18th century American plantation owner. He owns slaves, becomes wealthy, grows old, and eventually dies. He could do this openly and honestly, as the government recognized this as acceptable. He didn't have great alternatives. To pay free workers a wage they would accept would price his product out of the market, as there was no way he could compete with slave labor.

How is it against his self-interest to own slaves? How does it destroy his reason?

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I don't think anyone here would say that it is impossible to commit a crime with no external consequences, or rather, no counter-force applied. And because it is not impossible, that argument can't prove that initiation of force is inherently wrong.

However, I think many people here do claim that initiation of force results in, as you say, "the destruction of one's own integrity as a rational being". If this is true, it is destroying man's means of survival, and therefor certainly not in his interest, regardless of rewards, and is therefor wrong.

Here is what I am missing, and I suppose I'll get in to this now because the other discussions I have been reading are starting to deteriorate as the participants grow angry with each other.

Reason is man's primary means of survival, but at some point, man must act on what his reason has shown to be right. Objectivists seem to claim that if you are initiating force, you somehow failed to exercise reason. This is the issue I am struggling with.

Let us take, as an example, an 18th century American plantation owner. He owns slaves, becomes wealthy, grows old, and eventually dies. He could do this openly and honestly, as the government recognized this as acceptable. He didn't have great alternatives. To pay free workers a wage they would accept would price his product out of the market, as there was no way he could compete with slave labor.

How is it against his self-interest to own slaves? How does it destroy his reason?

The ownership of a slave is intrinsically an act of initiated force against another.

To own a slave is to claim ownership of a human being, denying that human the right to determine their own course of action. It denies the slaves the right to use THEIR own primary means of survival.

To own slaves is to sanction the idea that a person can be property - thus sanctioning the idea that ones own SELF can be property. Thus, by owning slaves, the slave owner denies that Man must be free in order to live qua Man.

Edited by Greebo
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To own a slave is to claim ownership of a human being, denying that human the right to determine their own course of action. It denies the slaves the right to use THEIR own primary means of survival.

He doesn't care about their survival, or their use of reason. He is perfectly happy to substitute his reason for their own.

To own slaves is to sanction the idea that a person can be property - thus sanctioning the idea that ones own SELF can be property. Thus, by owning slaves, the slave owner denies that Man must be free in order to live qua Man.

And in doing so, he lived a long, happy, prosperous life.

Perhaps the slave owner recognizes that he too could be enslaved and would have no moral argument to make in response, but he is white in 18th century American, so this is very unlikely. And he doesn't care if his slaves live qua man.

To be clear, I agree that the slave owner should want to live in a world without slavery. He should vote to abolish slavery. But since it is legal, and he can't change it, how is it in his interest to abandon slavery?

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He doesn't care about their survival, or their use of reason. He is perfectly happy to substitute his reason for their own.

He's not alone, but that still doesn't make it rational.

And in doing so, he lived a long, happy, prosperous life.

Constantly on guard against the threat of revolt, sure.

Perhaps the slave owner recognizes that he too could be enslaved and would have no moral argument to make in response, but he is white in 18th century American, so this is very unlikely. And he doesn't care if his slaves live qua man.

To be clear, I agree that the slave owner should want to live in a world without slavery. He should vote to abolish slavery. But since it is legal, and he can't change it, how is it in his interest to abandon slavery?

The should is the answer to your question. The alternative, accepting and prospering off of slavery, destroys his integrity as a rational being, even though it doesn't harm him from a materialistic sense. Thus he chooses to accept a division of his reason from his action, and thus he lives as someone who is NOT fully integrated in reality.

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Most arguments, such as the one linked by Marc K, suggest that it is wrong because you might get caught, or fear getting caught, or have some other social difficulties due to your crime. While this is true in 99% of cases, it isn't hard to imagine a situation where the crime was so perfect, you are going to get away with it and have nothing to fear. Maybe you are even in a non extradition country where you can admit your crime openly, and have no trouble spending your money. Basically, those arguments don't prove that use of force is inherently wrong, no matter the situation, and that is what I am after.

But that wasn't the main thrust of Schwartz's argument, he mentions being pursued by the police but his main argument consists of identifying the damage done to one's own self-esteem (which is one of the three cardinal values in Objectivism). He talks about the long term damage done by having to fake reality, how you set yourself against reality by having to pretend that what you know is not yours, is.

You counter above that the criminal may live openly with his crime, but consider what kind of life that entails. Even though you are open about it you still know in your own mind that you are a non-productive leech living off the production of others, your mind is impotent which is what you are admitting that when you steal. Think of other crucial values such as friendship and love, can they be achieved by theft and dishonesty? If you live openly with your crime what kinds of "friends" will you have? Only other criminals because no rational person will want to associate with you. What kind of woman will would love a criminal?

As Schwartz says at the end of his answer "I think the person who works at McDonalds will end up being much happier than you".

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The alternative, accepting and prospering off of slavery, destroys his integrity as a rational being, even though it doesn't harm him from a materialistic sense.

This is the core of what I am failing to grasp. Could you (or someone else) go into more detail on this?

I wonder if I may just been looking for too simple of a solution where non exists.

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This is the core of what I am failing to grasp. Could you (or someone else) go into more detail on this?

It may be too abstract to discuss integrity just yet. Be more concrete about your example. What is your process to steal the money? What will you do with the money once you get it? What other things make you happy besides the money? How does stealing this money affect your values, if at all? That's what I mean by be more concrete.

Edited by Eiuol
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He is perfectly happy to substitute his reason for their own.

One of the things that typically comes up in discussions like this is "are they really happy?" The best one can do when making an observation about another person's emotional state is say "He seemed or appeared perfectly happy...."

So, even though I'm sure you can imagine someone being "perfectly happy" as a slave owner, are they really?

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I think I've come to two possible errors in my reasoning, and you two may have just touched on one of them.

1) I am expecting the initiation of force to be intrinsically wrong, to be wrong regardless of the consequences, and this is what I am asking to be proved. This is a manner of thinking I thought I had dropped years ago. I remember back in a high school ethics class, I said that it was wrong to lie, regardless of the consequences. That if someone with an axe showed up at my door and asked if my wife was home, I should tell the truth. I view that as insane now, but that is basically what I am asking to be proved now in regards to the use of force.

2) I am possibly giving other people too much credit. This is what you each touched on. Objectivism works for me as a moral system. I wouldn't steal because I would feel horrible doing so. There is no amount I could steal that would make it worth it, because the more I steal, the worse I'd feel. But there are people who seem to be able to steal without it effecting their psychology. They seem to be able to initiate force without consequence. However, I've never understood people. It's always been a mystery to me why they do the things they do. So is the slave owner happy? I have no idea. I do know that if I have to understand the minds of others in order to understand what is right, I'm in a lot of trouble.

I'll follow Eiuol's path to see where it will lead.

Lets say I see a wallet on the street, I pick it up, and take $300. Now, my primary value is my life. The things that make me happy are things that further my life. I have plenty of resources to meet my immediate needs (food, shelter, etc.), so I am going to take this money and buy books, which I will use to learn or improve skills, which I can trade for more money. Stealing this money does not effect my values (my life). In fact, as it secures my life, it achieves my values. Shouldn't I be happy?

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I am possibly giving other people too much credit. This is what you each touched on. Objectivism works for me as a moral system. I wouldn't steal because I would feel horrible doing so. There is no amount I could steal that would make it worth it, because the more I steal, the worse I'd feel. But there are people who seem to be able to steal without it effecting their psychology. They seem to be able to initiate force without consequence. However, I've never understood people. It's always been a mystery to me why they do the things they do. So is the slave owner happy? I have no idea. I do know that if I have to understand the minds of others in order to understand what is right, I'm in a lot of trouble.

Yes, there are people out there who are habitual liars to themselves, people who have built in thick rationalizations that kick in whenever they start to think about their actions, to block out the fact that they are living off of what doesn't belong to them. However, self-deception is itself a very dangerous and destructive habit. People who live as parasites might indeed seem to be happy, but just from the fact that they're happy with their life, we can already tell that they are habitual liars to themselves. Obviously, in a world where wishing doesn't make it so, breaking contact with reality in any way is a negative for one's life, and habitually breaking that contact makes one much more ineffectual at dealing with the issues reality presents.

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