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Ayn Rand on Torture

Ayn Rand never thoroughly addressed the question of government managed torture. This failure should come as no surprise. Ayn Rand did not waste her time writing commonplaces, and in the U.S. – in her saner era – denouncing torture would have been a bromide. It would have been like your mother lecturing you never to rob a bank – your not robbing banks could be taken for granted.

Still, there are hints here and there in her writing, and more than hints.

In the article “Brief Comments” in The Objectivist of February 1969 she states a premise and then concludes:

“... thus endorsing the moral premises of thugs who regard torture as a legitimate method of inquiry.”
As is clear from the context, she uses the conclusion to disprove the premise:  For
‘A’ thus ‘B’, therefore ‘A’ is false
to be valid argument we must believe that ‘B’ is false, that torture is not a legitimate method of inquiry. She takes the iniquity of torture for granted, like any decent person.

Further supporting Ayn Rand having a dim view of torture is that “thugs” is not an endearing epithet.

Though the burden of her article is tangential to my purpose, I’ll quote the meat of it because it illustrates in passing her contempt for governments that engage in torture.

First some background. In January 1968 North Korea attacked the USS Pueblo, a small and only lightly armed spy ship, in international waters. The Pueblo was no match for the Koreans’ torpedo boats and MIG fighters. The Seventh Fleet failed to come to the Pueblo’s defense, the commander quickly surrendered to save the crew, and the Koreans took all the survivors (which was all but one of the crew) prisoner. The Koreans severely beat commander and crew over the course of eleven months and forced them to confess, in writing and on film (though they made it look ridiculous), that they had invaded North Korean waters, that conditions in the U.S. were oppressive, and that the Koreans were treating them well. Eventually the U.S. government itself issued an official statement along similar lines, and retracted it after the men were consequently released.

There followed a military Court of Inquiry and a Congressional investigation of the incident. At the time of Ayn Rand’s article Commander Bucher was facing court-martial.

Were the men right to “confess?” After their release the New York Times published a letter saying that here was a “moral dilemma.” Ayn Rand disagreed, and wrote a letter of her own, which she published in “Brief Comments.” (And sent to the NYT – which never published it.) She said that Commander Bucher was a hero and should be given the Congressional Medal of Honor, and that the U.S. government is trying to make him the scapegoat:

“... on the grounds of an immoral and irrational military code. That code ignores the difference between a voluntary statement and a forced statement, thus endorsing the moral premise of thugs who regard torture as a legitimate method of inquiry.

“We recognize the difference in our criminal law – see the Supreme Court decisions which invalidate the confessions of criminals, if obtained by pressure. Yet we do not grant the same considerations to the protectors of our country when they are in the hands of savage killers.

“When we ascribe validity to the ‘confessions’ of men imprisoned by communist governments ... – when we do it in spite of the fact that the unspeakable atrocities practiced by such government are a matter of record – we endorse and invite the atrocities.
She elaborates, then suggests the following to put an end to such extorted “confessions”:
“Let the U.S. government publicly order our armed forces to say, sign, admit or confess anything demanded of them when they are seized by an enemy ... . ... Let the government declare to the world that we will not accept as true, valid or meaningful any statement extorted by force, i.e., any statement made by an American prisoner in a foreign country – and that all such statements are repudiated in advance, in his name, by his government.

“This would re-establish the moral meaning of freedom and of truth. It would put an end to the martyrdom of innocent victims, to the kind of ordeal Commander Bucher and his men had to endure.

“In principle, this was the policy adopted by our government to obtain their release. Let this become our official policy, to be practiced by individual prisoners – as a proper expression of contempt for the social systems ruled, not by reason, but by brute force.”

I would call the above more than a hint. Now for a hint. In 1946 Ayn Rand began writing “Textbook of Americanism,” a series of articles for The Vigil published by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (of Beverly Hills, California, founded in 1944 by the actor Ward Bond and others, including Walt Disney as vice president). She completed about a third of the planned series. The following is from the section “Does the Motive Change the Nature of a Dictatorship?” Because of her extensive quotation I leave off outside quote-marks:

A great many people believe that a dictatorship is terrible if it’s “for a bad motive,” but quite all right and even desirable if it’s “for a good motive.”  Those leaning toward Communism (they usually consider themselves “humanitarians”) claim that concentration camps and torture chambers are evil when used “selfishly,” “for the sake of one race,” as Hitler did, but quite noble when used “unselfishly,” “for the sake of the masses,” as Stalin does.  Those leaning toward Fascism (they usually consider themselves hard-boiled “realists”) claim that whips and slave-drivers are impractical when used “inefficiently,” as in Russia, but quite practical when used “efficiently,” as in Germany.

Let’s pause right here. She is not saying torture chambers are good when used “selfishly.” And though she doesn’t explicitly say it, the reader can easily infer that torture chambers are just as bad when used “selfishly” as “unselfishly.”

This notion is further supported by the fact that in her discussion on force – meaning force against someone not in one’s control – earlier in the essay, she does explicitly say that force can be used for good or evil. In the above, regarding torture, she does not.

After a parenthetical remark she continues:

When you argue about what is a “good” or a “bad” dictatorship, you have accepted and endorsed the principle of dictatorship. ... From then on, it’s only a question of who will run the Gestapo. You will never be able to reach an agreement with your fellow Collectivists on what is a “good” cause for brutality and what is a “bad” one. Your particular pet definition may not be theirs. You might claim that it is good to slaughter men only for the sake of the poor; somebody else might claim that it is good to slaughter men only for the sake of the rich; you might claim that it is immoral to slaughter anyone except members of a certain class; somebody else might claim that it is immoral to slaughter anyone except members of a certain race. All you will agree on is the slaughter. And that is all you will achieve.
The issue is not: for what purpose is it proper to enslave men? The issue is:  is it proper to enslave men or not?

There is an unspeakable moral corruption in saying that a dictatorship can be justified by “a good motive” or “an unselfish motive.”  All the brutal and criminal tendencies which mankind – through centuries of slow climbing out of savagery – has learned to recognize as evil and impractical, have now taken refuge under a “social” cover. Many men now believe that it is evil to rob, murder, and torture for one’s own sake, but virtuous to do so for the sake of others. You may not indulge in brutality for your own gain, they say, but go right ahead if it’s for the gain of others.

Again, she is not saying torture is right if done for one’s own sake. Indeed her choice of words – “brutality” – suggests state torture is wrong in itself. Like dictatorship, it cannot be justified by “a good motive.” The issue is not: for what purpose is it proper to torture men? The issue is: is it proper to torture men or not?

Perhaps the most revolting statement one can ever hear is: “Sure, Stalin has butchered millions, but it’s justifiable, since it’s for the benefit of the masses.” Collectivism is the last stand of savagery in men’s minds.
And we can easily infer that savagery by anyone is as bad as savagery by Stalin. Though she does not explicitly say that state torture itself is wrong, she – I would say – took that for granted.

Yaron Brook, the director of the “Ayn Rand” Institute, and Leonard Peikoff who appointed him, both have advocated U.S. torture.  (See  Torture and Intrinsicism  on this website.)  Doubtless on questioning they would say the torture has strings attached, but it really doesn’t matter once we have gone down that road. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, when you argue about what is “good” or “bad” torture, you have accepted and endorsed the principle of torture. Per above, and simply from her evident intelligence, I think were she alive today Ayn Rand would be aghast at what our government is doing, and have a few choice words to say about the nincompoops at ARI.