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Are citizens morally responsible for the immoral actions of their government? If so, why? If not, why not?

asked Aug 03 '14 at 00:02

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦
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edited Aug 03 '14 at 10:51

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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A fully comprehensive and systematic intellectual analysis of this question probably would need to consider one or more specific contexts, and issues such as the following in each context: What does "morally responsible mean" in a specified context? Is there any difference between "crimes" and "immoral actions"? Immoral actions toward other nations, or internally toward a nation's own citizens, or both? What kind of government, i.e., political system? Founded on what?

In general terms, Objectivism emphasizes: "A country's political system is based on its code of morality." (Galt's Speech, p. 204 in the Signet paperback edition of FNI.) This is as true in a dictatorship as it is in a free country. Even dictators need and crave a moral sanction from their victims. Objectivism refers to this as "the sanction of the victims," essential for sustaining a dictatorship and any other political system that violates individual rights. (A capitalist government, too, needs a moral sanction from its citizens.) FNI p. 181 explains: "Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their [independent rational] agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims -- as his consciousness is surrendered to theirs. He wants to deal with men by faith and force...."

FNI p. 179 explains: "Make no mistake about the character of mystics. To undercut your consciousness has always been their only purpose throughout the ages -- and power, the power to rule you by force has always been their only lust." FNI p. 180 mentions the issue of moral sanction: "But it cannot be done to you without your consent. If you permit it to be done, you deserve it."

One scene that I find particularly memorable in this regard in Atlas Shrugged appears in Part III, Chapter III, second third subsections. Dagny has just returned from a month-long absence following her plane crash in the Rocky Mountains, and she is informed that she is expected to appear on Bertram Scudder's radio program. She initially refuses, but then accepts after being informed of recent developments involving Hank Rearden. The short speech that she delivers on the radio program nicely concretizes her refusal to grant a moral sanction to the looters. The "intellectual cop" then cuts the broadcast off the air just as Scudder is knocking the microphone away. Upon returning to her apartment, she finds Hank Rearden waiting for her, and they talk further about moral sanctions. The scene ends with a dramatic description of how Hank came to learn where Dagny had been for the past month, whom she had met there, and what it means for Hank and Dagny's future relationship. As for the looters, neither Hank nor Dagny is quite ready yet to "shrug," but they're getting closer. Near the end of the scene, Dagny asks:

"Hank, could you give up Rearden Steel?"

"No!" The answer was fiercely immediate, but he added, with the first sound of hopelessness in his voice, "Not yet."

Another memorable scene appears near the end of Part II Chapter VII, involving the sending of a passenger train with a coal burning engine into the long tunnel near Winston Station. The use of a coal burning engine in the tunnel was known to be prohibitively dangerous due to lack of ventilation and virtual certainty of suffocation of everyone aboard the train:

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

This is followed by a brief list of passengers and the ideas they accepted and espoused -- mystic-altruist-collectivist ideas.

These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.

In a different context, the context of an outlaw nation at war with other nations, Ayn Rand expressed essentially the same basic ideas. Her answers are published in Ayn Rand Answers, pp. 94-96:

  • (p. 94) "The majority in any country at war is often innocent. But if by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness they couldn't overthrow their bad government and establish a better one, then they must pay the price for the sins of their government, as we are all paying for the sins of ours. And if people put up with dictatorship -- as some do in Soviet Russia, and some did in Nazi Germany -- they deserve what their government deserves."

  • What about any individuals in a communist dictatorship who oppose communism (pp. 94-95)? "The question assumes that an individual inside a country should be made secure from the social system under which he lives and that he accepts -- willingly or unwillingly, because he hasn't left the country [i.e., he accepts the system, perhaps only by implication, because he continues to live in it] -- and that others [in a retaliating country] should respect his rights and succumb to aggression [from the initiating country] themselves.... If this were correct, nobody would have to be concerned about his country's political system. But we must care about the right social system, because our lives depend on it -- because a political system, good or bad, is established in our name, and we bear the responsibility for it."

  • (p. 95) "[W]ho permits governments to go to war? Only a government can put a country into war, and the citizens of that country keep their government in power. This is true in the worst dictatorships [as well other countries]. Even the citizens of Soviet Russia -- who did not elect the Communists -- keep them in power through passivity. Nazi Germany did elect its dictatorship, and therefore, even those Germans who were against Hitler were responsible for that kind of government and had to suffer the consequences. Individual citizens in a country that goes to war are responsible for that war. This is why they should be interested in politics and careful about not having the wrong kind of government.... We are responsible for the government we have, and that is why it is important to take the science of politics very seriously. If we become a dictatorship, and a freer country attacks us, it would be their right."

  • (p. 96) What, then, should opponents of a dictatorship do if they live there and can't change the government? "Get the hell out of there as fast as possible. You cannot live nor maintain any values for long under a dictatorship."

The issue of citizen responsibility also arises in the context of a free country. Our own U.S. Declaration of Independence expresses it as: "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," and "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [protecting man's rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

Update: Choices in a Dictatorship

A comment mentions:

...innocent men, women and children born in slave pen dictatorships have two stark choices....

Dictatorships do, indeed, leave few choices for those residing in them -- and still fewer choices when the dictatorships initiate war against other nations. It is misleading, however, to describe the retaliatory use of physical force by a free nation against an outlaw nation as bombing "with impunity by enemies of the dictatorship." Strategically, the goal of a retaliating free nation isn't to target civilians per se, but to end the outlaw nation's aggression and its underlying causes. For more explanation, refer to a previous question on this website, here. It's also important to emphasize the context of retaliation by a free nation. Bombings by dictatorships are not sanctioned by Objectivism at all, even if the target is also a dictatorship. Dictatorships drop bombs for very different reasons and objectives than a retaliating free nation.

answered Aug 03 '14 at 21:08

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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edited Aug 16 '14 at 01:38

This has always been hard for me to understand: innocent men , women and children born in slave pen dictatorships have two stark choices: go up against a well-armed dictatorship and risk torture and death or be bombed with impunity by enemies of the dictatorship. What a choice...

(Aug 15 '14 at 12:15) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Misleading descriptions aside, I can see not wanting to accept it, but not being able to understand it?

(Aug 19 '14 at 21:16) anthony anthony's gravatar image

OK, hard for me to "accept" :-)

(Aug 20 '14 at 10:09) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

It is a sad thing that they have such stark choices, but remember that it is not your fault that they are in that situation. We can sympathize with them...even try to help them if we can...but their sad state does not impose a moral obligation on us. If a thug strapped an innocent person to a tank and came rolling down the street to kill you, and you had a rocket launcher that could destroy the tank, should you use it? Of course you should! You have to defend yourself. Even if the innocent person strapped to the tank must die? Yes. It is sad, but the blood is on the thugs hands, not yours.

(Aug 28 '14 at 14:09) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Rand has said "[m]en have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use."

How does this reconcile with your tank hypothetical (and/or the larger hypothetical about dictatorships)?

(Sep 08 '14 at 16:16) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Aug 03 '14 at 00:02

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Last updated: Sep 08 '14 at 16:17