Ethical objectivism maintains that the true moral position is one of rational self-interest. It is reasonable for a person to want property and a comfortable life. Desire is not an evil, and reason can be applied to human desire. An underlying tenet of objectivism is taken from the writings of Ayn Rand, who believed that human beings did simply perceive reality. Human perceptions are objective, thus these thinkers called themselves objectivists. With this objectified view of the world, the objectivists believe that the best reality for humankind was to create a laissez-faire capitalistic society, which would not inhibit an individual rationally seeking his or her self-interest. Systems, either societal or governmental, that failed to recognize the importance of maximizing individual freedom would fail for what the objectivists believed to be objective reasons. This ethical stance is translated not just into ethical behavior of one person toward another, but also into all aspects of one’s life: politics, sociology, economics, and criminal justice.
One of the objective beliefs ascertained by objectivists is that governments were necessary only to promote the freedom of the individual by protecting the citizenry from foreign invasion and criminal behavior. If government or laws of government deny individual freedom, the state or the legal system will fail. The failure may be in the form of open opposition to such governments or from the inability of such governments to maintain sufficient order to sustain themselves. Again, failure to recognize individual freedom, according to the objectivist, would cause objective failure. While objectivists discuss at great length the role of government, they do not discuss the issues of crime as a social problem, but rather view crime as an infringement of the rights of every individual. Implied within the context of individual freedom is the concept of individual rights, for example, the right to own property.
The emphasis ethical objectivists place on property rights is that one’s property rights should not be limited by the state; however, one can see that ethical objectivists also believe that the state should protect an individual from losing his property in some unethical manner, such as being robbed. Some controversy exists among ethical objectivists regarding formal governmental controls used by retributivists, relating to the ethical objectivist’s concern for the rule of law. The ethical objectivist may believe that all individuals’ rights are above the law and the rule of law should not be used to reduce individual rights. Ethical objectivists find discussions about the law that do not relate to property of secondary importance, and the issue of discretion within the law becomes vague when property is not being discussed. Some libertarians who associate themselves with the ethical objectivists make a clearer connection by associating themselves as property that is subjected only to self. In this manner, offenses against the person still fall under the protection of property, and discretionary judgment should always be used to maximize the individual’s property rights even if the law is not specific. Not all ethical objectivists agree with the libertarian position, and their exact position is not clear on what should be done about crime, punishment, or allowing criminal justice professionals degrees of freedom in making legal judgments.
In American society the primary justification for the use of punishment by the criminal justice system is for the purpose of retribution. Many Americans believe that persons who have violated the law deserve to be punished. Whether this perception is an objective reality is disputed in ethical objectivist circles. Some ethical objectivists flatly refute retribution as an unnecessary power of the state. Some see retribution as an objective position borne out in experience. Other ethical objectivists may believe that the justification of retribution is enhanced by their interpretation of a social contract. Some ethical objectivists adopt while others reject these various concepts, and thus as a group they are split. Some libertarians align themselves with the ethical objectivists’ camp and many libertarians are also retributivists. Other retributivists, conservatives, who are difficult to distinguish from one another, often will adopt a portion of the ethical objectivists’ position, primarily that limited government is better government, but do not agree with the ethical notion that the primary moral position should be rational self-interest. They may have other priorities based on religion or patriotism and seem to feel justified in seeking punishment as a form of retribution. Ethical objectivists do not appear to have established a defined position regarding punishment of criminal offenses, though thinkers closely associated with ethical objectivism—political conservatives, Tea Party activists, libertarians, political reactionaries, and legal originalists—may have adopted retribution as formal policy.
Separating ethical objectivists from conservatives and libertarians makes it easier to understand what ethical objectivism is not, but the ethical objectivists themselves do not clarify the role of punishment of criminal offenders. They would define government action that inhibits the rational expression of self-interest as a form of governmental unjustified punishment. Perhaps a couple of the reasons that the ethical objectivists have not focused on punishment of offenders are that ethical objectivism has never become a mainstream ethical position in American society, and/ or their focus has been to establish an elementary relationship between the public and government before trying to establish a theory of punishment. Critics of ethical objectivism attempt to show the difficulty of living in a laissez-faire society and suggest that developing rules for social control may overwhelm the ethical objectivists.
The Rule of Law
Accepting that no one is above the law, a basic concept within the rule of law, has had dramatic influence on the criminal justice system. From the rule of law stem criminal procedures, processes that protect individual rights and ensure that there procedures not only apply to all citizens but also that criminal justice professionals are not above the law and must follow the procedures set forth by the law. The ethical objectivists see the law a bit differently than some of the other ethicists. Typically, the connection between law and morality is that laws are rules based upon ethical principles. Ethical objectivists typically may see some laws in opposition to their ethical position. Ethical behavior for the ethical objectivists is behaving rationally in their own self-interest and in some cases they believe the law is not rationally supporting their self-interest. Laws are sometimes created to limit behavior designed to be in one’s own interest, and ethical objectivists resist these paternalistic laws. Laws designed to support the welfare of the public over the individual give the ethical objectivist reason to be suspicious of the state’s motivation, appearing to be acting in opposition to the individual.
It is tempting to believe that the ethical objectivists support laws that support their self-interest and oppose laws that do not. One may suspect that this belief is no truer for the ethical objectivist than for anyone else. If ethical objectivists were the primary policy makers in criminal justice, the exact results would not be clear, though it appears that conservatives and libertarians who align themselves with ethical objectivists would support a retributive agenda toward offenders, and also a legislative agenda that would reduce the power of the state, but again critics wish to point out this possible conflict or contradiction. The ethical objectivists are continually battling between using the law as a means to an end and believing that the ultimate end for the individual is to be free. What is not clear is whether the state can or should assist the individual to be free.
Ethical absolutists may use the law as a means to an end. For instance, if an absolutist holds that the law prohibiting littering is based on the welfare of public order, the absolutist may sense justification in supporting the law. The ethical objectivist does not find justification for the law in recognition of benefits to public order, but rather in benefits to individual freedom. The law should be rational, by which it allows as much individual freedom as possible. If the individual freedom for some is exercised in excess, by infringing on the freedom of others, this practice may affect public opinion and possibly curtail individual rights beyond that necessary to protect the individual freedoms of all. Rational self-interest focused on the individual provides equal protection to all.
The ethical objectivist places the individual above the law in that the individual’s needs are more important, ethically and objectively, than the needs of society. While most ethicists see the role of law in society as assisting in the maintenance of social order, the ethical objectivist sees social order as potentially threatening individual freedom; further, the ethical objectivists see those wishing to conform to social control of the state as individuals being victimized by the state because they are not free to exercise their objective individual rights.
Discretion Within the Law
While ethical absolutists have a tendency to believe that discretion should be discouraged, and ethical pragmatists believe that discretionary judgment should be encouraged, ethical objectivists have not developed any clear standards for the use of discretion. The differences between the absolutists and the pragmatists center on empirical factors. The less empirical the basis of the law the less discretion is allowed within the law. Unfortunately, while this definition is helpful to distinguish between absolutists and pragmatists, the vagaries of the origin of ethical objectivism makes it difficult to predict how an objectivist will view discretion. Some ethical objectivists believe they have found a discoverable truth, which appears to align them more closely with the absolutists. Others seem to treat their ethical propositions as theoretical possibilities that remain unconfirmed but reasonable based upon their experience, and consequently, afford more use of discretion by criminal justice professionals, similar to the pragmatists’ stance. Like the other theorists, the ethical objectivist emphasizes moral decision making when discretion within the law is permitted.
Critics of ethical objectivism question whether the principle of self-interest is rational or rather a rationalization for preferred behavior. This criticism is crucial, because if the public believes that the discretion within the law is not based on a genuine ethical principle, then the public will lose confidence in the criminal justice system.
- Carel, Havi, Darian Meacham, and Eran Dorfman. “Naturalism, Objectivism and Everyday Life.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, v.72 (2013).
- Dworkin, Ronald. “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, v.25/2 (Spring 1996).
- Piekoff, Leonard. Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Volume 6. The Ayn Rand Library. Meridian Reprint Edition, 1993.
- Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Realism and Truth: Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Shafer-Landau, Russ. What Ever Happened to Good and Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Stavropoulus, Nicos. Objectivity in Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
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