The Virtue of Self-Defense
After September 11, some Objectivists wrote that it is defensible
to kill innocents during war time; a position of which received backlash. One
person told me, "Objectivism is about absolutes. It applies its principles
consistently. Objectivism rejects killing innocents therefore, in war-time, it
must still apply."
First of all, anyone who thinks Objectivism is about
wholesale “absolutes” has no understanding of Objectivism whatsoever. There are
few “absolutes” in Objectivism. Ayn Rand wrote that Objectivism is "the
concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose
of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason
as his only absolute” (emphasis mine). The lady who coined the term “best
of premises” is hardly an advocate of “absolutes.”
All political conclusions in Objectivism are contextual
in nature, not absolute. This is to say they logically flow from a set of
premises. Freedom (from physical force) is a contextual political conclusion
based on specific unwavering principles. The unwavering principle it rests on
is the virtue of selfishness. The Objectivist morality states that man has the
right to pursue what makes him happy and what will aid his life. From this,
political conclusions are derived. A properly designed government rests on an
“if" statement: "If … man is to survive, then … he must
have freedom." A free man is left to think and produce, thus creating prosperity.
This is the heart and soul of freedom. The practical application of it has been
more than successful, for an example, see the success of America.
In war time, the virtue of selfishness still applies. A man
still has an unwavering right to life. But the conditions under which he must survive
change. The "If" statement during war-time changes to "If man is
to survive, then … he must eradicate all threats to his life." Because
man is now under a threat, as he is in war, the virtue of selfishness dictates
that he has the uninhibited right to self-defense. Anyone who has a
shred of desire to live will, when faced with a threat, go to battle with
whoever is threatening his life.
The virtue of self-defense always—and only—applies when
someone has you under a threat. If a thug has a gun to your head and says,
"Kill this person or I kill you,” you have full right to kill who you must
to save yourself. The thug left you two options: life or death. Objectivism
advocates that you be allowed to choose life. The thug is responsible,
When America was attacked on 9-11, that gave her full moral
right to do whatever she had to in America’s defense. America's goal is to win
the war. If, in the pursuit of eradicating threats to our country, innocents
are killed while pursuing the enemy, it is the terrorists who are to
As noted, self-defense always but only applies when
someone has you under a threat. A person’s only moral right is to remove that threat,
whatever means necessary; a goal which should be pursued quickly and with
laser-like focus. War, however, is not an exact science. If there is accidental
loss, it is unfortunate, but should not stop the pursuit of the enemy. Once the
threat is removed, a goal of which ideally happens quickly, peace can return.
This position, however, cannot be left at just this. If the
guiding moral compass has these two goals, in order of importance, 1) remove
the enemy and 2) have as little loss to your side as possible … the wanton use
of nuclear bombs starts to seem ideal. This is a horrifying position that
should be shunned. Clearly, more moral guidance is needed on this issue.
I propose that, even under those circumstances when freedom from
physical coercion can be morally abridged, the principles of objectivity and
reason must still apply and govern policy. This article will discuss two
such scenarios: one, the issue of innocents during war time, and two, the
appropriate times which civil liberties can be abridged for the sake of
The issue of innocents in war really should be almost common
sense. The only reason why there is a focus on innocents in war is because this
is the very grisliest part of war that everyone agrees is unfortunate. The people
focused on it are ones who are anti-war and want to demoralize a country about
war. Advanced weaponry has made it more and more possible to kill precisely the
enemy and not innocents. According to fas.org, "In
1944, it took 108 B-17s dropping 648 bombs to destroy a point target. In
Vietnam, similar targets required 176 bombs. Now, a few precision guided
munitions (PGM) can do the job." Despite the amazingly precise
capabilities of the U.S. military, which no doubt minimize loss of life and
damage, anti-war peaceniks bring up this issue, over and over. They do it for
the reason to try to demoralize a country.
While the manipulative anti-war peacenik’s insistence on
laying moral guilt at our military’s feet is wrong, the reaction should not be
“to hell with innocents!” Instead, just call it for what it is: a pathetic and
egregiously evil attempt to demoralize our military.
To bring more precise clarity to the issue, when one thinks
of the wanton use of nuclear bombs, the moral issues involved start to become clearer.
Two issues come to mind: the horrifyingly large scale loss of life and the
possibility for retaliation, escalating the conflict and causing an even larger
scale loss of life. As such, I propose there should be a third moral goal (or
an augmentation to the first goal) in guiding military policy, which is the
minimization of killing innocent life. The goal should be to kill precisely the
enemy and nothing else. A policy that has complete disregard for
innocent life or outright advocates targeting innocent life is both unethical and
One thing that needs clarity brought to it is the moral
status of innocent civilians. On one hand, they seem to be regarded as “gee
golly gosh good” regular people with families and jobs and are surely
good-hearted people. On the other end are people who say their silence equates
to agreement with a dictatorial government and thus all civilians are deserving
of the same death as their dictatorial leaders. It is clear a person's moral
evaluation of innocents will affect how they treat them in wartime.
Neither position—assuming the people are gee golly gosh good
people or damnable for their silence—are appropriate without evidence. As far
the notion that they are surely good-hearted people, it’s hard to regard many
of the civilians in some Muslim countries as good-hearted people after they
came to the streets and celebrated on 9/11. At the same time, there are some
very good people in Muslim countries who are oppressed by their leaders and are
more desirous to see their own dictatorial government topple than I am. An
example of this is the Iranian student dissidents.
Silence should be taken as just that: silence. A silent
person should not be branded as morally good or bad. Unarmed civilians should
not be regarded as an automatic friend or enemy. They should be regarded as
neutral. And, if they are opposed to the dictatorial government, they
can prove to be an invaluable ally. People should always be treated as what
they are. To treat enemies as innocent or innocents as enemies is to beg for
negative consequences or missed opportunities.
Not only is actively targeting innocents morally wrong, targeting
or carelessly treating innocents in wartime does not make for effective
military strategy. Military leaders agree. Sun Tzu, author of Art of War:
In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to
take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so
A good military strategy is clever, stealthy, and focused. The
best of all policies is, if possible, to not fight at all. A policy that
is careless or boorish about innocents is essentially one of “slaughter them
all,” a policy of which is ultimately ineffective. Sun Tzu again:
The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch
his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of
his men are slain, while the town still remains un-taken. Such are the
disastrous effects of a siege.
Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops
without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he
overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.
With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the
Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is
the method of attacking by stratagem.
A military policy that is boorish about innocents and seeks
to kill them or is so heavy-handed, it will kill the enemy and also many more
people, is a waste of resources, taxing on a military, and as such,
ineffective. Killing innocents does nothing to break the actual enemy. It
wastes resources, kills men on your own side needlessly, and demoralizes your
A very persuasive argument against a “slaughter them all”
policy, in my opinion, is the position it puts soldiers in. Soldiers sign up
for military service to kill the bad guy and protect the good guy. Asking the
soldier to raze a city without regard to human life puts the soldier in a very
unenviable position. It is likely to mentally scar him or her for life. There
was a TV special on the B-2 bomber recently. In interviewing one of the pilots,
he said they never train while carrying nuclear weapons for safety reasons and
it would be the worst mission possible to be asked to carry and drop nuclear
bombs on a live mission. Ask yourself how this pilot, surely one of America's
finest and bravest, would think this.
As far as displaying force, Sun Tzu writes that war is about
deception. When strong, pretend you are weak. When organized, feign chaos. “Hold
out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.” As such, a war
is won by actually breaking an enemy not with a display of
force, which is sometimes the argument for a heavy-handed military policy. The
U.S. military does not have to actively try to shock and awe. An F/A-18 roaring
overhead on any mission whatsoever is enough.
To summarize and give a concrete example of healthy self-defense,
I give the example of the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan during World War
II. First, although some think that the bombs were wantonly dropped on cities,
they were not. They were dropped on valid military targets. However, given the
area of destruction of the bombs, it was inevitable that innocent civilians
would die. U.S. leaders decided to drop the bombs. Preventing civilian death
was not considered a reason to cower the U.S. into inaction. In the end, more
lives were saved than lost. After those bombs dropped, the war quickly
came to an end, and thus there was an end to the killing, the most
desirable outcome of all. This is how war should be waged: as quickly as
possible, with devastating, laser-like focus designed to break the enemy and a
return to peace as soon as possible. To this day, Japan has remained
non-aggressive. I believe this is a success story.
One thing about World War II is that it was difficult to
plan the mission to drop the nuclear bomb. Not only was there the task of
building and testing a bomb, there were no bombers that could fly on such a
long mission as to penetrate deep within the belly of Imperialist Japan.
Diligent engineers worked hard to make this a reality. At no point was the devastating
might that they were developing taken for granted.
I worry now however that the sentiment seems to be,
"America is so strong! It can take out anyone anywhere!" said by
people who ask America to do the world's bidding and to take out any perceived
enemy. It should be said: war is taxing. No matter how big or small the
military is and no matter how big or small the threat is, there is a cost in blood
and money to war. What I am asking is for people to be somber about
advocating the use of military force … especially by people who have never
served. If you want the military to do the world's bidding, I would ask you to
first sign my pledge. In
my opinion, a military should be kept robust, trained--and mostly unused.
Finally, Ayn Rand on war:
I would add to that: and now, after several wars in the
Middle East, many totalitarian Islamist dictatorships are rising.
Certainly, war is necessary, and I definitely think it was
necessary to stop Hitler and to stop al Qaeda. But consider the wake war leaves.
Consider how war is waged and what happens after war that can be
improved. Consider what some more clever solutions may be instead of or in
augmentation to the use of military force: attacks by stratagem.
I want to end by saying that the American military has been
absolutely top notch in maintaining a military that is robust, trained,
courageous and able to defeat enemies while at the same time being respectful
to human life.
Another situation of contextual liberty is the debate of
civil rights versus national security. Again, this issue must be put into
As a general rule, as a matter of national security, it is
permissible to violate civil rights but we should be damn slow to do so.
A person’s right to not get blown up in a terrorist attack
has higher priority than a nuisance civil rights violation. Adam Smith, one of
the greatest free market thinkers of all time, says a similar thing. He says
there are only two reasons to inhibit freedom. The first is that by inhibiting
freedom temporarily, you may secure freedom in the long run. An example is
putting a ban in importation on one country in order to pressure them to lift a
ban on importation on your country. The second reason is if it is in the
interest of national defense to inhibit liberty. “Defense” wrote Smith, “is
superior to opulence.” (Note also that this statement underscores the real
underlying purpose of liberty: progress, i.e. “opulence,” which is an argument
in favor of the virtue of selfishness.)
With that said however, a country should be very slow
to inhibit freedom in the name of national security. There needs to be a very
clear objective threat to the country that requires an abridgement of freedom.
Anything else is a slippery slope to dictatorship. Unfortunately, immediately
after an attack, people often get spun up emotionally and will let almost
anything pass. Objective rules should be laid out for when freedom can be
abridged for security reasons.
First, a requirement must be laid down. A simple and
obvious requirement is “Reduce or eliminate the number of terrorist attacks.”
Then when a policy is put in place, it must be measured against the
requirement: have the measures put in place actually increased security?
An example to look to is El Al, an Israeli airline
company. In the past 30 years, they have not had one single terrorist attack.
This impressive track record certainly isn’t for lack of terrorists trying.
Clearly, what they do should be studied. Their security policy does not have
any of the pat downs or baggage checks that Americans are used to. It involves
a set of interrogators who talk to passengers. They are highly skilled and can
tell if a person is lying or seems suspicious. Certain groups of people, such
as people of a certain age, gender, ethnicity or religious faith are likely to get
interrogated harder. You can lament about the seeming racism in this if you
want but it’s hard to argue against El Al’s track record. And if you want to
talk about racism, you can see genuine racism in action by looking at Saudi
Arabia’s airlines, which have a “No Jews allowed” policy.
I am of the belief that the response to start outlawing
things or even the advocacy of the wanton use of military force stems from a
position of fear. People are genuinely scared for their security or even life,
with no means to defend it themselves, and thus want heavy-handed government
policies. But I want you to do this: think of the last time you advocated an
abridgement to civil rights in the name of security. Now I want you to ask
yourself: did that policy actually make you, or any other innocent person,
I believe our current policies are misguided. Baggage
checks, taking off our shoes, patting down little old ladies--it's all stupid! I
believe one of the best ways to preserve national security is not civil rights
violations but freedom, specifically the right to bear arms. I don't think that
a terrorist would be as quick to act if everywhere he went, he had to worry if
a person was carrying. I also think those who own firearms and have mastered
the mechanics of deadly force are less likely to live in fear and are less
desirous for civil rights violations in the name of national security.
This debate has long been marred by people on extreme ends: either
those who believe civil rights can never be abridged or those who, having
decided it may be appropriate, wildly advocate for any abridgement of freedom
whatsoever. An abridgement to freedom for national security is appropriate at times, but, when done so, should be governed
by objectivity. The guiding principle should be: is a policy actually making
the country safer?
The rejection of the initiation of force is not a primary.
It is not an absolute law of reality. Freedom is conditional. It applies in
peace time. In war time, however, different measures are needed for man's
survival. The virtue of selfishness still applies, but its conclusions differ.
Rational self-interest is no longer the conclusion; self-defense is.
November 2, 2001
Revised December 10, 2011
"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 one ounce of self-esteem, you
will answer him by force, never mind who he is or who is behind him. If he is
out to destroy you, that is what you owe to the sanctity of your own
life." -- Ayn Rand Ford Hall Forum 1972: "A Nation's Unity"