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In a letter contained in Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 558-560, Rand is quoted as having said this: "If there were a proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way of preventing future crimes (which does not exist), it would not justify the idea that the law should prevent future offenses and let the present one go unpunished. It would still be necessary to punish the actual crime." (http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/texts/punish.html)

Why is it "necessary" to punish a crime, even if one knows it will not help prevent future offenses. Isn't this cutting off your nose to spite your face?

asked Sep 03 '12 at 19:06

anthony's gravatar image


Punishment for crime (if "crime" is rationally defined) is a form of retaliatory physical force, i.e., physical force used against someone who has initiated physical force against someone else. The moral status of retaliatory physical force is explained in Galt's Speech, in an excerpt that is included in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Retaliatory Force":

It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use. No, I do not share his evil or sink to his concept of morality: I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own. He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction.

This is a form of "retributive justice," making a wrongdoer pay in some manner for what he has done, i.e., "destroying destruction." To allow a crime to go unpunished is to deny justice, both to the victim and to the destroyer.

Another Lexicon topic, "Crime," discusses and rejects the view of crime as crime against society, emphasizing that crime is crime against one or more individual victims.

The full text of the reference cited in the question (Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 558-560) makes additional points about the purpose of punishment:

  • The purpose of punishment is not to deter the criminal or other would-be criminals from committing additional crimes in the future. Deterrence is not the purpose or moral justification of retributive justice. Retributive justice simply means that if one destroys others, one will be destroyed in return, to the same extent as his destruction of them.

  • The purpose of punishment is not to rehabilitate the criminal. Rehabilitation is not the purpose or moral justification of retributive justice.

Ayn Rand writes (ibid., p. 559):

What punishment is deserved by the two extremes of the scale [of crimes] is open to disagreement and discussion -- but the principle by which a specific argument has to be guided is retribution, not reform.... When I say "retribution," I mean ... the imposition of painful consequences proportionate to the injury caused by the criminal act. The purpose of the law is not to prevent a future offense, but to punish the one actually commmitted.

On p. 558, Ayn Rand further explains:

[T]he basic principle that should guide one's judgment in issues of justice is the law of causality: one should never attempt to evade or to break the connection between cause and effect -- one should never attempt to deprive a man of the consequences of his actions, good or evil.

This principle subsumes upholding the property rights of value-creators and not rewarding a "lazy, irresponsible loafer," as well as not deflecting the self-destruction which a destroyer of values deserves.

answered Sep 19 '12 at 15:43

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

I see no purpose in retributive justice. Killing a murderer has no utility for the victim. Once a person is murdered, justice can not be served. The only obligation that remains is preventing a future offence.

So a punishment would be necessary, if that punishment is to protect society from a potential harm. Rand claims that we can not for certain prevent future offences, but that is beside the objective.

Even if we have a small hand in preventing a future offence, we would be morally obliged to pursue it.

(Oct 02 '12 at 02:56) Moo Moo's gravatar image

Moo, some of the "buzz words" you are using (for example, "utility" and "obligation") makes it seem to me that you might not fully grasp Rand's ethics. I do not mean that as a slight on you, but rather I wanted merely to point out that you might get Rand's position better if you had a fuller understanding of her system as a whole. Objectivism rejects Utilitarianism and also rejects deontological ethical systems (duty systems) such as Kant's.

That being said, the prevention of future crime certainly is a part of a proper justice system.

(Oct 20 '12 at 15:05) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Ideas, I must respectfully disagree that the Objectivist position on crime and punishment is a "retributive justice" position, at least as that term is understood in legal circles. "Retributive justice" systems are generally deontological systems that argue that punishment must be meted out on the head of the wrongdoer for no instrumental reason, but merely because it must be done. I do not believe that Rand is endorsing such a view point. However, this (and other concrete legal issues) were not extensively fleshed out by Rand, and so finding the "official" position might be impossible.

(Oct 20 '12 at 15:11) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I realize that Rand calls her position "retribution", but I am not sure she was aware of the baggage that comes along with that term of art.

Furthermore, the portions of Rand's letter quoted above seem to me to be more directed against the idea of preventative law in the sense of punishing someone before they have done anything wrong, merely because we think we know that they will do so in the future. She says "the purpose of law is ... to punish the [offense] actually commmitted" but this leaves unanswered what the purpose of punishing an offense is. It clearly is not some cosmic duty.

(Oct 20 '12 at 15:18) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I asked this question largely because I found the quote to be advocating retributive justice. The quotes from Ideas seem to further emphasize this.

Another quote from the same source is "The law should [...] impose restraints on the criminal, such as a jail sentence, not in order to reform him, but in order to make him bear the painful consequences of his action (or their equivalent) which he inflicted on his victims"

(Oct 20 '12 at 16:46) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As for the answer to my question (why is it "necessary" to punish a crime), the only attempt I can find is "To allow a crime to go unpunished is to deny justice, both to the victim and to the destroyer."

But that begs the question. My question is why does it deny justice to allow a crime to go unpunished.

(Oct 20 '12 at 16:49) anthony anthony's gravatar image

That said, I think it is possible that I misread Rand's hypothetical of "a proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way of preventing future crimes". I think I read it as "a proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way" to change the character of men, specifically to change it such that no one would ever commit a crime.

But that would imply eliminating volition, in which case there would be no ethics in the first place, so it's probably not what she meant.

(Oct 20 '12 at 16:55) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I just found that a similar question has been asked previously: For those interested, see http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/3746/what-is-the-objectivist-theory-of-criminal-punishment

(Oct 20 '12 at 17:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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[Update:] I came across a lecture of Leonard Peikoff's regarding justice in which Retributivism vs Utilitarianism was discussed. I believe that it is relevant to this question, and in particular that it supports the arguments I originally made, which appear below this update. The lecture can be found at the ARI Campus under the course "Moral Virtue". I transcribed some relevant portions of the lecture, which are quoted below. The portions I quote can be found in the "Course Audio" section, "MoralVirtueModule1", times 46:08-49:44 and 108:11-109:45.

“Retributivism . . . attempts to validate this aspect of justice—why you should punish the evil and reward the good—and it says in essence that a man must be recompensed for his actions as an absolute, independent of any consequences simply because he deserves a certain treatment. So they stress the idea of desert. An evil man deserves a punishment as an absolute, no matter what the results. . . .

Now their opponents . . . Utilitarians . . . reply that there are no absolutes and that the decision to reward or punish a man must be made by reference not to objective deserts but to consequences—and of course they hasten to say that we can never be certain—[and thus the decision must be made with reference to] probable consequences.

Now in this war between Retributivism and Utilitarianism we see the false alternative of [] two basic wrong philosophies. . . Intrinsicism versus Subjectivism. The Retributivists are arch Intrinsicists—“thou shalt punish”—period, no matter what and without [reference to] any consequences and not as a means to anything. As against “no, no we have to judge the effects on the public welfare.” How do you know that? Well, its what I, and the public, and John Dewey, and all of our friends feel is good for the public. . . .

Now of course Objectivism sweeps aside both of these completely. Desert, the concept of desert, is essential to the concept of justice. So on that point, the Retributivists are correct. But desert is a moral concept and morality is a means to an end. All virtues accordingly, justice included, must be validated by reference to consequences. So on that point, the Utilitarians are right. But, consequences—and here we are talking about the long-range consequences of an action or a policy for human life—consequences are precisely that which can be predicted only by means of principles. And principles can function as such only if practiced as absolutes.

So, therefore, desert as the one school insists is an absolute, but only because, as the other school says, because the test of virtue is its results. In other words, you see here as elsewhere that it is senseless and utterly destructive to introduce a dichotomy between principle and life, which is another way of introducing a dichotomy between morality and practicality.


Forgiveness which is legitimate when earned must be distinguished from mercy—that’s always wrong. . . .[M]ercy is the policy of identifying [what a man deserves] and then not acting accordingly. In other words lessening the appropriate punishment in a negative case, or failing to impose any punishment. . . . Now the practical consequences of mercy I think are obvious . . . [for example] today’s courtrooms, where criminals of all ages and types are righteously set free not owing to any doubt about their actions or any objective mitigating circumstances, but as an act of compassion for so-called helpless products of society. Who gains by such an act? The criminal. Who loses? His victims—both the person he preyed on . . . and the future victims whom the criminal unpunished and undeterred is now free to go after."

(italics represent verbal emphasis in original recording; underlining represents emphasis added by me)

The above doesn't answer all the questions about justice (for example, exactly what punishment fits which crime?). But I believe it does provide some context. I believe, as noted below, that Rand's on-the-fly comments were directed toward establishing the fact that justice is an absolute and toward combating Subjectivism. I believe that she meant to align herself with the Retributuvists only in this respect (that justice is absolute), but certainly not in their Intrinsicist justification for their position. The justification underlying the position matters a great deal, as argued below, because it provides context (remember, principles are contextually absolute) that can help us delimit the requirements of justice, just as remembering the justification for the virtue of honesty can help us determine exactly what honesty requires (which is not, for example, what Kant thought it required).

[end Update]

The justification for punishment has not, in my opinion, been adequately addressed by Objectivist scholars. I myself have asked questions on this very website on the subject, and have not been fully satisfied with the answers. The letter of Rand’s cited by the questioner throws light on some issues, and further obscures others. It certainly gives Rand’s position on what sort of punishment a proper system would mete out (nothing related to rehabilitation). However, it never answers the question of why punishment is justified in the first place. For example, Rand says:

“The law should . . . impose restraints on the criminal, such as a jail sentence, not in order to reform him, but in order to make him bear the painful consequences of his action (or their equivalent) which he inflicted on his victims.”

But surely making the criminal bear the painful consequences of his actions cannot be an end in itself. There is not some intrinsic value to it. The unanswered question is why should society make him bear the painful consequences of his actions. Perhaps Rand believed that the connection between the intermediate goal of making the criminal bear the painful consequences of his actions and the ultimate goal, which serves as the final justification of punishment, was so obvious that it did not need to be mentioned.

Ideas answer to the above question (“why should society make the criminal bear the painful consequences of his action”) appears to essentially be that “To allow a crime to go unpunished is to deny justice.” But that is too circular for my taste—justice consists in punishing wrongdoers and we need to be just (i.e., punish wrongdoers) because if we aren’t then we will be denying justice. The whole point of the questioner’s question is to find the justification for punishment. If justice comprises punishing wrongdoers, then the question becomes “then why be just.” It certainly is NOT because we have a duty to see justice satisfied. Objectivism rejects deontological ethics.

Rather, moral principles on the Objectivist view are if/ought propositions, with the life of man as the most basic standard upon which moral principles for individual morality are formed. Thus, for example, the reason to be just on the level of individual morality is that being just promotes one’s life and not being just harms one’s life. In other words, the justification for justice on an individual level is entirely goal oriented—there is a result we are seeking (my flourishing life) and the principle of justice is a factual statement about how that goal can be obtained. It is not a deontological duty. Nor is it a case-by-case balancing act, as the pragmatists would have it. Instead it is a principle, but a goal directed and result-justified principle.

But merely claiming that individual justice promotes life is not sufficient if one is seeking a justification for or proof of the principle. How do we know that being just individually promotes our lives? In what specific ways does it promote our lives? Rand did not leave such important questions unanswered, and provided a detailed proof for the validity of the virtue of justice. An essential part of the proof that justice promotes one’s life is that people can influence our lives for good or for ill, and that it is in our interest to promote the good in people and hinder the bad. We do so by rewarding the good and punishing the bad. But we are not punishing the bad merely because it is a duty, as if we were causality’s avengers—we are doing so because we believe it will, in some way, result in fewer harmful results accruing to us from the bad people. This might be because we reduce the harmful people’s ability to harm us by making it harder for them to operate. It also might be because we deter them from engaging in future bad behavior by the disincentive of our actions towards them. Thus it would be entirely proper to say that part of the justification for being just in our individual lives is that doing so deters bad actions in other people. That is not the sole purpose of justice, but it surely is part of it. If how you treated bad people had no influence on their behavior, a large part of the justification for the principle of justice would be lost.

Justice in the political realm is not necessarily identical to the principle of justice in the individual realm, although the two are related. (For example, the disvalues an individual can inflict on a bad person do not generally include jail or death, barring immediate self defense). However, just as there must be a thorough justification for the principle of justice in individual morality, there must also be a justification for the principle of justice in the political realm. We cannot simply say that justice is an end in itself. The justification, as far as I can determine, is that a society must be just in order to better secure individual rights. The reasons are parallel to those associated with individual morality, although the details differ. Harming those who violate individual rights (“destroying destruction” as Galt puts it) protects individual rights by diminishing the number/severity of future rights violations. It does so in various ways, including by impeding rights violators’ ability to perform rights violating actions (e.g., you can’t rob a bank while you are in jail), and also, at least, by deterring further rights violating actions, both in the individual punished and also in those who might be inclined to violate rights but refrain for fear of similar punishments being visited upon them. Deterrence of criminal conduct is clearly one of the intermediate purposes of justice in the political realm, which serves the larger purpose of diminishing the number/severity of rights violations, which furthers the ultimate end of politics—the preservation of rights. Deterrence is clearly compatible with Galt’s statement quoted by Ideas: “He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction.” Destroying destruction is obviously not an end in itself, but an means to a larger goal, and destroying the destroyers’ motivation to destroy (i.e., deterring their destructive behavior) is clearly an important part of destroying destruction. I do not believe that Rand was saying otherwise in the quoted portions of the letter.

Saying that deterrence is part of the purpose of justice is not the same as taking the utilitarian position that anything that deters is okay to do, even if, for example, no wrong has actually been committed yet. The principle of justice entails objectively judging people and does not allow punishment of the innocent, even if such punishment might in some way deter some other behavior. It also does not mean that we don’t punish someone who deserves it just because for some reason in a given situation deterrence of future crime is not possible. Deterrence is not the summum bonum of justice; it is simply a part of the justification. For example, even if deterrence were impossible in a given case, the punishment could nonetheless further the ends of justice by hindering the ability of the destroyer to engage in destructive activity.

The point, however, is that the principle of justice in the political realm is at least in part justified on the grounds that it deters criminal behavior. It is simply wrong to say that deterrence is not at all a purpose of punishment. It may not be the purpose of punishment, in the sense that it is not the only purpose nor the ultimate purpose, but it certainly is one of the intermediate purposes.

answered Oct 21 '12 at 15:34

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Mar 14 '13 at 20:34

Thanks for providing this detailed answer.

I'm not sure to what extent Rand should be taken literally when she discusses a hypothetical "proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way of preventing future crimes". On my initial reading, I saw this as not only precluding the justification of deterrence, but also precluding the justification of incapacitation. If we can be certain of preventing future crimes without incapacitating the perpetrator, then there is no need to hinder the ability of the destroyer to engage in destructive activity.

(Oct 21 '12 at 16:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image

It is possible that I misread this, though. For instance, maybe this hypothetical "proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way of preventing future crimes" placed some burden upon those who implemented it.

Based on the full text of what Rand has said I believe she was definitely advocating retribution. However, surely she wasn't advocating retribution for the sake of retribution.

Maybe Rand never commented on exactly why retribution was justified (I agree thatsaying that justice demands it is circular). If so, I'd still be interested in hearing it defended by others.

(Oct 21 '12 at 16:43) anthony anthony's gravatar image

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Asked: Sep 03 '12 at 19:06

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Last updated: Mar 14 '13 at 20:34