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Review: Moral Rights and Political Freedom

Review: Moral Rights and Political Freedom

January 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Moral Rights and Political Freedom . By Tara Smith. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. 224 pp. $57.50; $23.50, paper.)

In Atlas Shrugged , Ayn Rand offered this stirring summary of the theory of human rights implicit in her novels:

If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being.

Rand's passionate argument connected a practical moral vision with the Enlightenment belief that people possess rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and in this way she seemed to make sense of the idea that rights could be "natural" and "inalienable."

But many libertarian thinkers, though inspired by Rand's vision and agreeing with her political conclusions, have doubted that her theory is clear, accurate, and strong enough to stand up to philosophical scrutiny. For instance, they have argued that man is living on earth, and without all the rights Rand wants; therefore, her conclusion is contradicted by the facts. They have also observed that Rand uses the word "right" equivocally, for the term has one meaning in the phrase "it is right" but quite another in the phrase "he has a right." Lastly, Ayn Rand's argument seems to support the conclusion that one has only the right to do what is right, that is, what is virtuous. But of course that is not what Rand meant, as her essays on rights make clear. Unfortunately, those essays are primarily directed against bad theories of rights and leave unanswered many technical criticisms of her argument for rights. Thus, it has been left to later Objectivists to develop Rand's argument and reply to its critics.


Tara Smith's Moral Rights and Political Freedom is an academic work that uses Ayn Rand's theory of rights and the ethical stance of Objectivism to clarify and defend the idea of unambiguous rights to life, liberty, and property. This is not to say Smith avows her Objectivism outright, but the content of her philosophy makes clear her Objectivist outlook, as do several endnotes to the effect that "This resembles Ayn Rand's account." (29) Smith's aim is to present Rand's rhetorically compelling argument in formal terms and show its superiority over other approaches to rights. The task is a challenging one and taking it on provides no guarantee of success.

Moral Rights and Political Freedom is divided into two main parts. The first section, called "Rights," discusses different conceptions of rights and puts forward Smith's own formulation of Rand's argument. The chapter titles in this section give a fair notion of the content: "What Rights Are," "The Justification of Rights," "The Egoism of Rights," "The Failures of Deontology and Consequentialism," and "Teleological Rights: Purpose Through Principle."

The second section of the book, "Freedom," is devoted "to clarifying the nature of the freedom that rights protect." (121) Smith here defines freedom as freedom of action, argues that only physical force can violate rights, and gives some intimation of what concrete rights she believes people have. She also criticizes the ideas behind "welfare rights." The chapter titles include "Freedom's Nemesis: Physical Force," "'Positive' Freedom," and "The Rights We Hold."

Smith's pleasant, scholarly style eases one gently into the flow of her argument. She is first concerned to establish some rather abstract propositions about rights: Rights are general moral claims, not part of a political code, and they are moral trump cards that override other claims. Rights protect freedom, and so one has "the right to do wrong." (21)

Smith's definition of a "right" echoes Rand's formulation. According to Rand: "A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." (Ayn Rand, "Man's Rights," The Virtue of Selfishness) According to Smith, "Rights are authoritative claims that individuals are entitled to in virtue of the particular moral principle governing people's freedom of action in social contexts." (26-27) Smith's version adds the thought that one has rights because of some "particular moral principle," but she never states explicitly what this particular moral principle is. As a result, one gets the sense that her definition is simply an attempt to translate Rand into professional jargon.


Smith's formal argument for rights is also essentially an elaboration of one of Rand's arguments, namely the argument "It is right to....He has a right to" that was cited at the start of this review. Smith's version has four main premises, and she follows each premise with brief supporting statements. In general, the points Smith makes in defense of her premises are good ones, but they are not likely to convince a skeptical reader without further evidence.

This reviewer has tried to reconstruct the Objectivist argument for rights by first establishing Rand's "trader ethic," including a principle mandating the non-initiation of physical force. Rights to life and property then implement the good society in political life. In this way, rights become (as Ayn Rand put it) "the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society." (Ayn Rand, "Man's Rights") Smith, on the other hand, gives almost no attention to the implementation of rights in a political system. For her, rights are simply part of the individual's moral code, as the following argument illustrates.

Premise 1: "Human life requires productive effort." (33) Smith points out that human beings must act to sustain themselves because "our environment is not stocked exclusively with life-enhancing goods which we conveniently absorb through osmosis." (33) "Imagine that people engaged in nonproductive activities," she writes. "... After a brief passage of time, people would perish." (34)

Premise 2: "Productive effort requires reasoned action." (34) Smith here bridges the mind-body dichotomy in classic Objectivist fashion: "Production is purposeful. It is intended to accomplish an objective. . . . [Thus,] in any productive enterprise, a person must determine what [he] is attempting to accomplish. . . . [And] thought is also essential in charting a course for realizing one's objective." (34-35) Having insisted that production requires more than muscle, Smith is also careful to insist that it requires more than passively accepted tradition. "Individuals benefit enormously from knowledge that others have acquired. Yet in doing so, a person cannot lapse into unreflective acceptance of others' claims or rote adoption of others' procedures." (36)

Premise 3: "Reasoned action is individual and self-authored." (37) Sounding increasingly like Rand, Smith declares flat out that "There are no collective thought processes.... No collective mind has ever been found.... A group can 'act' only in the sense that each of its constituents may agree to act in the same manner." (37) She is careful to distinguish her Objectivist view of rationality from the view more common to analytic philosophy: "'Rationality,'" she writes, "does not refer to ideas or actions in themselves, but only to ideas as understood and to actions as performed by particular human beings." (38) Thus, one cannot say of a given idea that it is rational, while ignoring the reason it is believed; and one cannot say of a given action that it is rational, while ignoring the reason that it is undertaken.

Premise 4: "Reasoned action requires freedom." (40) "Either the application or threat of force...hinders its recipient's ability to engage in reasoned action," Smith argues. (41) To illustrate this point, Smith picks a strong instance of unfreedom: "Locked in a room, beaten to a pulp, or threatened with such prospects, a person is not in a position to act on the basis of [his] own reasoned conclusions." (41)

Together, Smith believes, these four premises justify this conclusion: "If we seek to live in a society in which individuals are to have a chance to maintain their lives, we must recognize individual rights to freedom." (42)

The main points Smith makes in laying out her argument should give the reader a sense of her perspective. Plainly, Smith is a thinker well steeped in Objectivism, and this influence pervades her book's contents. For example, when Smith elaborates the kind of life that rights protect, it is obviously "man's survival qua man," as Rand called it. Smith decries altruism and argues that egoism is the only basis for rights. She roundly criticizes both duty-based ethics and unprincipled pragmatism. She devotes several chapters in the second half of the book to clarifying the Objectivist view of personal freedom, arguing that only physical force can impair it. She rejects all forms of "positive" or "welfare" rights, concluding that a person ultimately has "a single right: the right to freedom of action," (185) and that this must include a right to property. Surveying Smith's argument at this level of abstraction, one can only agree with it.

But Smith's Objectivism is a closed system. She makes the connections between the essential points of the Objectivist epistemology and ethics but takes no deeper look into those links or the facts that give rise to them. Thus, one gets the sense that Smith has internalized Objectivism at the level of Rand's essays or Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand but is unable to improve upon the formulations in those works.


Ayn Rand rooted her ethics (and thus her politics) in the alternative of existence and nonexistence, but she argued that the standard of ethics is "man's survival qua man," something more than the mere staving off of nonexistence. This separation of the standard of ethics from its goal has proved to be a bone of contention among Objectivists. Some think that human survival is a rich kind of "flourishing," in which the practice of such virtues as rationality is as much a part of being a person as growing a flower is part of being a lily. Others argue that, although rationality is indeed part of the full development of a person, what we mean by "fully human" or "truly human" must be philosophically grounded in the alternative of life and death. Many interpreters have concluded that Rand was simply muddled on this issue and that her entire ethical project is therefore doomed to failure.

Early on, Smith makes it clear that, for her too, "life" is the foundation of her argument. She declares that her purpose is to show: "Individual freedom is necessary for human life and well-being." (6) She calls life "rights' telos," by which she means simply that rights have a natural purpose—telos in Greek—and that the purpose of rights is life.

Given the importance of the concept "life" in her argument, it is not surprising that Smith devotes parts of two chapters to clarifying what she means by the term. She states that "life" in this context means "a happy life, one of flourishing or well-being." (44) She also says that "'life' and 'a good life' reflect alternative perspectives on the same phenomenon." (45) For this reason, Smith frequently substitutes the Greek word "eudaimonia" for "life" or "the good life," taking the Greek term to mean "well being." Thus, one may also say that rights' telos or natural purpose is eudaimonia. And this eudaimonia, Smith insists, is a way of living. It does not attach to any accumulation of transferable goods and so it "cannot be handed from one person to another." (68)

Because Smith uses the jargon of Greek philosophy, one might think she has allied herself with Aristotle and neo-Aristotelians such as Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen. But the association seems to be one of convenience, Aristotle being less controversial than Rand. Smith does not relate her ideas to the substantial literature that has given new currency to such terms as "flourishing" and "eudaimonia." In particular, she neglects to discuss Rasmussen and Den Uyl's Liberty and Nature, a prominent neo-Aristotelian treatment of individual rights.

Unfortunately, Smith does share with the neo-Aristotelians (and many other ethicists) a tendency to stipulate rather than prove what the good is. Any view grounded in human nature—human life, human well-being—should appeal to a rich body of evidence from the biological and social sciences to corroborate its claims about man. Smith does not even attempt to do this. Her idea of eudaimonia is merely asserted.

This indifference to relevant evidence and facts weakens Smith's argument. Her formal case, remember, is that life requires production and production requires free, individual, reasoned action; thus, life requires freedom. But a key question concerns the first link in this chain: Whose life requires whose production? All Smith has shown is that humans cannot live without produced goods, and therefore some people must produce if any are to live. She has not shown that a person must produce goods for himself (or acquire them by trade). Indeed, she concedes that a person does not have to support himself, saying he "can produce what's needed in order to maintain [himself] or [he] can consume the products of others efforts." (34) Why, then, should a person not produce when he has to but mooch or steal when he can? Why should the egoist not survive by pillage? This is what Smith must show: that predation can never pay. Until she shows that, her argument for rights fails.

It is a challenge that deserves more attention than Smith gives it. Although she spends three pages arguing that self-interest requires respect for others' rights, the following is representative of her simplistic rhetoric: "Is a stream of rights abuses—a life cluttered with acts of cheating, stealing, fraudulent misrepresentation, beating, silencing—really the ideal to strive for?" (71) Well, ask Constantine the Great, Genghis Khan, and the owners of the British East India Company.

Smith also tries this tack: "Remember that well-being is not transferable. . . .  Consequently, a person cannot advance [his] own interest by seizing something that belongs to others. The pursuit of eudaimonia is not a zero-sum game." (71-72) Apparently, Smith is so convinced of her position that she sees no need to offer reasons for it. Is the pursuit of eudaimonia not a zero-sum game simply because Smith said so earlier in the chapter? Smith succeeds in describing the open-hearted, rich life of rational egoism, but her argument in support of it has significant gaps, and she presents little convincing evidence that her vision is true of this world.


In chapters four and five, Smith attempts to distinguish her own theory from the broader class of consequentialist ethical theories.

A consequentialist ethics holds that an action is right only if it serves some end. Utilitarianism, for example, is a consequentialist theory: if an action increases "utility," it is good; if not, it is bad. Quite rightly, Smith decries the unprincipled pragmatism that underlies "consequentialism's readiness to violate rights on any occasion in which honoring rights will not actually achieve the sought end." (103)

But in a broad sense, the Objectivist ethics is also consequentialist. For each individual, his own life is his ethical purpose; which means, his own life is the end that his virtues and actions should serve. However, the Objectivist treatment of rights stands out from other consequentialist theories because of Ayn Rand's recognition that principles are contextually absolute.

This reviewer would argue for contextually absolute principles by first conceding that people should not behave "virtuously" when they know that doing so would be contrary to their best interests. That said, however, one must realize that the full costs and benefits of an action are rarely obvious; human beings are not pragmatic supercomputers, able to calculate the effects of everything they might do at every instant in time. A person needs principles to organize his grasp of the complex world around him and to provide straightforward guidance for the vast majority of situations he encounters in life. A person must also form moral habits, in order to automatize much of his behavior and free his mind for other work.

On occasion, certain principles and habits may prove impractical. And if a person has a way of knowing that they will not work, then violating the principles and breaking the habits may be the right thing to do. However, only in the most extraordinary circumstances would a person have any means of knowing that his principles and habits had been superseded by circumstances.

Smith does not take this epistemological approach to explaining principles. Instead, she argues that "the obligation to respect rights never wavers," and "we should recognize inviolable rights to freedom." (108) To make this concrete, imagine a mugger is chasing his quarry. In order to escape, the intended victim jumps into some householder's backyard and thus violates the homeowner's property rights. Is that the moral thing to do? Obviously. But because Smith is committed to saying it is never moral to violate rights, she has to assert that "rights do not obtain" in this situation. (113) Why? Surely, the homeowner retains a property right to his backyard regardless of how many muggers are chasing people past it.


In addition to the foregoing difficulties with her version of the Objectivist argument, Smith's text is characterized by several other shortcomings. The first is logical circularity. In broadest terms, this circularity pervades the very structure of Moral Rights and Political Freedom. Smith's fundamental proof of rights in chapter two depends on definitions worked out in later chapters. But those definitions are themselves justified by the conclusions of the earlier argument.

For example, in chapter seven Smith writes: "Bear in mind that I am not attempting to show why individuals are entitled to freedom. That was the object of chapter [two], and I am now treating that conclusion as proven." (156) But the argument in chapter two cannot be adequate to prove individuals are entitled to freedom, for at that point Smith has not defined what she means by "freedom" or made clear the circumstances under which it does and does not exist.

Nor is it only freedom that Smith treats in this confusing way. While isolating physical force as the type of action that undermines human freedom, Smith writes:

My analysis of when force is used "against a person's will" implies that it is impossible to identify freedom-violating force without relying on prior beliefs concerning the sorts of treatment that individuals are entitled to. . . . The normative element operative in my account may provoke suspicion of circularity. That is, I may seem to be attempting to explain when force violates freedom (and thus how much individuals are entitled to) while already assuming that I know what individuals are entitled to. (155)

Against this charge, Smith says: "On my account, the basic, ineliminable normative premise is that each individual's life is [his] own. By the reasoning in chapter [two], we can justify the further conclusion that each individual is entitled to rule [his] own actions." (157)

But this is a poor defense on several grounds. In the first place, if "each individual's life is [his] own" means that each person controls his actions, then it is questionable whether Smith has stated a "normative premise" at all, that is, a premise dealing with what one ought to do. She has simply stated a fact.

Secondly, assuming Smith does intend her statement to have an ethical content, how can she call the statement an "ineliminable normative premise"? In Objectivism, all moral statements are supposed to be derived from facts. Is this a moral statement that cannot be derived from fact? Smith ignores this point, and, as a result, seems to be making an appeal to the analytic philosopher's notion of a "moral intuition."

Lastly, in her discussion of force, Smith relies on a much richer body of assumptions about property entitlements than are justified by her conclusion that "each individual is entitled to rule [his] own actions." For instance, she clearly thinks that a mugger is not entitled to the action of theft. But money is not an action: to explain why one would be entitled to it, one would have to connect money to the act of its production. And in the course of doing so one would have to deal with related issues such as the social nature of much production, the propriety of inheritance, and the right to use unclaimed resources. Far from justifying the entitlement to property, Smith reveals that she has simply taken it for granted. Ironically, it is her very defense against the charge of circularity that makes her circularity most plain.


A second failing that plagues Moral Rights and Political Freedom is Smith's tendency to make abstract statements without sufficient consideration of their real-world implications. For example, Smith lays out her entire argument for rights in chapter two without a clear explanation that the term "rights" includes rights to speech, property, and contract. Smith is no doubt attempting to write in essentials, but this is a more delicate task than she seems to realize. In addition to offering ungrounded abstractions, she puts forward definitions that cannot, strictly speaking, support her argument and formulates statements so sweeping that one must conclude she either does not mean them literally or does not understand the vast body of evidence their justification requires.

"My substantive argument for rights," Smith declares in chapter five, "holds that freedom is necessary for life. A person could not maintain [his] life or achieve eudaimonia without freedom." (108) What does this actually mean? At one point in her second chapter, Smith reasonably comments "To whatever extent one is free, reasoned action [and thus life] is possible." (42) But a few pages later, Smith steps back from this commonsense recognition. She states that "freedom is not divisible. A person either is or is not free to rule [his] actions." (49) And none of her later discussions admits of degrees of freedom. Thus Smith's declaration in chapter five seems to mean that without full political freedom, life and well-being are impossible. Now, the ancient Greeks did not have full, principled rights, yet it was they who came up with the idea of eudaimonia. So, Smith's formulation implies that Aristotle devoted his ethics to a human condition he could never have observed. For that matter, it implies slaves could not survive. Obviously, these are absurd implications and one would like to think Smith realizes it, but her text does not encourage a more subtle interpretation.

Nuance is no more in evidence when Smith turns to defining "the freedom that rights protect." (121) She concludes flatly that "political freedom is the absence of others' interference with a person's ability to direct [his] own actions." (161) Taking that formulation seriously, one must conclude that restrictions on any action, even restrictions on violent attacks, are violations of freedom. For example, when the police arrested Ted Bundy for murder, they were obviously interfering with his "ability to direct [his] own actions" and so interfering with his freedom. One would expect Smith to accommodate such cases by explaining that it is moral to restrict the freedom of murderers and other aggressors. But she argues instead that "uses of force [in self-defense] . . . do not deprive [attackers] of freedom because [the attackers] were not free to do whatever they did that occasioned this reaction." (143) This is incoherent, given Smith's definition of freedom.


A third flaw in Smith's book concerns the type of illustrative example she habitually chooses. Hypothetical examples are standard fare in philosophical discussions, and contemporary philosophy abounds in hypothetical examples of dubious value, such as "I might be a brain in a vat." But a well-formed example can illustrate the practicality of an idea or expose essential distinctions, thus making a philosophical argument clearer and more convincing. A hypothetical example can also remind a philosopher of concrete details that might slip by him in the course of extremely abstract reasoning.

Smith's examples are almost always unilluminating. Most frequently, they fail to capture the differences between the Objectivist view and opposing views. For instance, in order to illustrate the way force restricts freedom and hinders life, Smith recurs frequently to the story of an artist named Valerie who is attacked by a mugger named Outlaw. The trouble is: philosophers who condone mugging or murder are few and far between. John Rawls might well agree with Smith that the mugging of Valerie is wrong—without changing his view of the welfare state. For there is nothing in the story of Valerie and Outlaw to show how the mugging of Valerie is essentially similar to the enforcement of taxation, building codes, workplace safety regulations, or race-based hiring quotas. These, too, are violations of rights in the Objectivist view (and presumably in Smith's view), but they are not violations of rights in the view of most philosophers today. Yet these are just the sorts of situations Smith needs to concretize in examples if she wants to expound her theory persuasively.

At another point, Smith attempts to show that psychological and economic manipulation are never as fundamentally harmful to human life as the use of force is. That is a crucial issue, and it is not an easy one. This reviewer expected discussions of racism and sexual harassment, economic monopoly, or the possibility that the wealthy can buy special treatment from judges and government officials. But Smith sticks to safe examples: parents who will not pay for their (grown) child's college tuition if they disapprove of the school; an employer who sets a deadline for job applications. (147) What about employers who pressure employees to do dangerous work? or an employer who holds on to an employee by threatening not to give him a letter of recommendation if he leaves? Such examples are not, in the end, fatal to the Objectivist position on rights. But they represent situations where the advocate of rights has some explaining to do, unlike the noncontroversial situations Smith considers.


As noted earlier, Smith's book contains much solid Objectivism. For example, in her discussion of altruism, Smith goes to great lengths to show that altruism is fundamentally incompatible with human rights. In a well-taken point, she argues that an altruist cannot base rights on the fact that "ought implies can," that is, on the fact that to act morally, one must be free to make choices. To an altruist, doing good must at some point involve interfering in the lives of others for their own sake. (77-79) Smith also presents a clear discussion of the "choice to live" as the basis of ethics (43-44). And her attacks on theories of "positive rights" as incompatible with the very idea of rights are, if monotonous, on target.

But that is about the best one can say for the book. With its circular, rationalistic arguments and sloppy formulations, it is not likely to increase the reputation of Objectivism in academia. And because it does not engage major points of scholarly debate about Rand's arguments, it does not help to clarify or shed new light on existing Objectivist literature. Readers of the IOS Journal who are looking for a detailed treatment of Ayn Rand's theory of rights can profit from various parts of Smith's book and enjoy the author's fresh expression of many standard points of the Objectivist ethics. But those unacquainted with technical philosophy should be wary of the work's shortcomings.

Editor's Note: In her book Moral Rights and Political Freedom, Tara Smith frequently uses a pronoun of the feminine gender where English grammar demands a pronoun of the common gender. In William Thomas's review, quotations containing such pronominal errors have been corrected through the use of editorial brackets. Those corrections are not the work of the reviewer but of this journal's editor.
—Roger Donway

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