This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 3.
Author’s note: This is chapter 7 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), which is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism. Chapters 1–6 were reprinted in prior issues of TOS.
We have seen that being moral consists in being self-interested—acting in a life-promoting manner. We have also seen that what most fundamentally makes life-furthering actions possible to human beings is rational thinking. In order to live, we have to use our mind to discover the requirements of our life, and we have to act accordingly. We begin this chapter with the question: What can prevent us from acting on our judgment? What can stop us from employing our means of survival?
Observe that if you are alone on an island, nothing can stop you from acting on your judgment. If you decide that you should acquire some food, you are free to make a spear and go hunting, fashion some tackle and go fishing, or plant a garden and tend to it. And if you obtain food, you are free to eat it, save it, or discard it. Likewise, if you decide that you should build a shelter, you are free to gather materials and construct one. And if you do, you are free to live in it, build an addition onto it, or tear it down. Alone on an island, you are free to act according to the judgment of your mind.
But suppose another person shows up on the island, grabs you, and ties you to a tree. Clearly, you are no longer free to act on your judgment: If you had planned to go hunting, you cannot go. If you had planned to build a shelter, you cannot build it. Whatever your plans were, they are now ruined. And if you are not freed from your bondage, you will soon die.
The brute’s force has come between your planning and your acting, between your thinking and your doing. You can no longer act on your judgment; you can no longer act as your life requires; you can no longer live as a human being. Of course, the brute could feed you and keep you breathing; but a “life” of bondage is not a human life. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.
In order to live as human beings, we have to be able to act on our judgment; wild animals aside, the only thing that can stop us from doing so is other people; and the only way they can stop us is by using physical force.
Consider another example. A girl is walking to the store intent on using her money to buy some groceries when a man jumps out from an alley, points a gun at her head, and says: “Give me your purse, or die.” Now the girl cannot act according to her plan. Either she is going to give her purse to the thief, or she is going to get shot in the head. In any event, she is not going grocery shopping. By placing a gun between the girl and her goal, the thief is forcing her to act against her judgment—against her means of survival. If she hands her purse to him, and if he flees without shooting her, she can resume acting on her judgment—but, importantly: not with respect to the stolen money. While the thief may be gone, the effect of his force remains. By keeping the girl’s money, he continues to prevent her from spending it; and to that extent, he continues to stop her from acting on her judgment. This ongoing force does not thwart the girl’s life totally, but it does thwart her life partially: If she had her money, she would either spend it or save it; but since the thief has her money, she can do neither. She cannot use her money as she chooses, and her life is, to that degree, retarded. . . .