Reason as the Leading Motive

Immoral and Illegal

Posted by Jerry on December 6, 2007

The distinction between immorality and illegality is the distinction between that which applies to the private sphere of a man’s mind and that which governs the behavior of men in a social setting. However, because man is an indivisible entity possessing both mind and body, the specific nature of his thoughts can certainly inform the nature of his actions. In other words, a man can have immoral thoughts and act upon them, which would make his actions also immoral; nevertheless, his immoral actions may not necessarily be illegal or criminal acts.  

All that which is immoral is not necessarily also illegal. For example, it is immoral to pleasureably fantasize about plundering your neighbors home, raping their 10-year-old kid, and then hacking them all to death. Insofar as these remain merely fantasies, no crime–no act of force or fraud–has been committed and therefore there is nothing illegal or criminal about the thoughts. Nevertheless, in the privacy of his own mind, this person is an immoral–possibly deranged and psychopathic–individual; and if these thoughts were ever expressed in words to another sane individual, the proper response would be to condemn such fantasies as disgustingly immoral. One cannot respond with a neutral or amoral evaluation.

Morality is a private, individual affair: each man requires (and has) a moral code to guide him in living his life. His life can only be lived by him. His thoughts–about morality or anything else–can only be thought of by himself in his own head. Thinking–the process of cognition–is a private affair. Thoughts, therefore, belong only to an individual. Evaluating the morality of thoughts, therefore, is an evaluation of a private process of cognition.

Virtues, for example, are qualities and actions of an individual in pursuit of his values in reality. The virtue of honesty is a policy set by a man in relation to his mind’s grasp and acknowledgment of reality and facts–it is his commitment to never fake or evade the matters of fact as they objectively exist; only derivately is the virtue of honesty related to man’s interaction with others: a man could very well lie to himself and evade certain facts in the privacy of his own mind. Such a person is not practicing the virtue of honesty–even though he has lied to no one else; and to that extent, this person is immoral and irrational. His immoral thoughts, however, are not criminal or illegal.

Objective law does not punish a man for holding the wrong ideas or for being an untrustworthy character; usually, the punitive consequences of private immorality and irrationality arise from reality’s own exacting nature, from the requirements of survival, and the nature of an entity (for example, a man’s immoral thoughts may create a reciprocal relationship with feelings of self-disgust, repulsion, low self-esteem, psychological insecurity, repression of certain motives and emotions, evasive psychology, unhappy relationships, etc.).

Now, only when man puts his morality into practice or expresses his thoughts in explicit actions, is he stepping out of the private sphere of his mind–and even then, unless man is not surrounded in a social context with other men, the physical manifestation or practice of his immoral thoughts does not amount to a crime, they remain his own immoral actions.

The concept of crime exclusively denotes a certain set of actions in a social context, namely acts of force or fraud against others:

A crime is a violation of the right(s) of other men by force (or fraud). It is only the initiation of physical force against others—i.e., the recourse to violence—that can be classified as a crime in a free society (as distinguished from a civil wrong). Ideas [even immoral ideas], in a free society, are not a crime—and neither can they serve as the justification of a crime. — Ayn Rand

A social context is necessary for human flourishing, because–among other benefits–it provides the framework within which a division of labor society can emerge and thrive. Thus, man has to live in a society with other human beings and derive the benefits of voluntary trade in order to achieve flourishment. The concept of rights are the conditions that allow a man to enter a social context with a guarantee of life and liberty; rights allow man to practice his moral code and pursue his values (and disvalues) in a social context.

Therefore, the concept of rights is a political and social concept and applies exclusively to actions–not thoughts. That which is illegal necessarily requires the violation of rights, i.e., an action that mitigates or suppresses someone else’s rights by the introduction of force or fraud. In contrast, the immoral is not judged primarily against a social context, but against the context of an individual and his relationship to reality.

Therefore, the business of government is not to interfere in the advocacy or suppression of whatever ideas it considers moral or immoral. The purpose of the government–and of law enforcement agencies–is solely to examine individual actions to ascertain whether a crime (force or fraud) has been committed, and act in response to the severity of the crime. When the government punishes a criminal, it is not for his immoral ideology or set of beliefs that the punishment is awarded but specifically for his crime–the act and its severity.

To claim that the government can punish a man for his ideas is to grant the government legitimacy as a moral arbiter. Once this is granted to the government, it is only a matter of a few more rationalistic deductions thereafter to argue that the government should get into the business of ideological advocacy or suppression, i.e., become the thought-police of society, or institute a Communist state (see “Enforcing Moral Values“).

Few would defend the view that the government should reward men who have moral ideas by granting them (say) free property, health care, trips to the Bahamas, etc. Then, on what grounds can the government legitimately punish a man for immoral ideas, or what it may consider to be “thought-crimes”? On what grounds can the government punish people with immoral ideas (like racism or Nazism, which motivate so-called “hate crimes”), monitor the “moral fiber of society,” and censor certain ideas (like pornographic stories)? If it is not sufficient–or even permissible–to convict an individual for homophobia or racism, then why should there be special status granted to actions motivated by such thoughts that are clearly out of the bounds of legal punishment? Why are crimes motivated by homophobia or racism considered particularly heinous “hate crimes” that require special legislation and sentencing?

There is simply no legitimate ground for such government interference in the realm of ideas–be they moral or immoral–unless one subscribes to the notion that the government is a legitimate authority on morality and is the ultimate arbiter in moral affairs; this notion, in turn, has no other foundation other than the basis of collectivism, according to which, morality is not a private individual affair but a collective one and that an individual alone has no use or need for a moral code of principles.

Thus, maintaining clear boundaries between the spheres of the individual and the social, the domain of morality and legality, the concepts of morals and rights, the concepts of thought and action is as crucial as choosing between life and death, slavery and freedom, a dictatorship and a free society.

[Edits: Added a paragraph on the necessity of a social context for rights and human flourishment and an elaboration on hate crime laws.]

13 Responses to “Immoral and Illegal”

  1. escapefromindia said

    In India Immoral and Illegal are closely related to religious values of Hinduism. Again, it depends upon the local traditions too. For eg, Temple Prostitute known as Devdasis (joginis) are tolerated as moral in Andhrapradesh state. But it may be immoral in another part of India.In both cases they are illegal per Indian Laws, but it can acceptable to communities.

  2. Moris said


    My Man…I have read your thoughts with earnest for over a month now…Ayns Rand & Objectivity..I have gone through the other side so to speak.

    However, I would love to know from you, How many of you guys calling yourself objectivist have dared to look at other side of things….

    Have you dared as a true objectivist to look into Indian spirituality.

    Do you know on what basis the morality of Hinduism is based.

    You just judge by the masses, so lots of illiterate Indian follow a stone idol..so must everything be a lie..

    Have you ever dared to even read one line of Swami Vivekananda and grap his meaning with full sense.

    Just because India is dirty and poor, everything has to be sub-standard.

    But, I know you are a breed of few really hardcore Indians objectivist who would look into other side of things.

    Western Foundation is so shaky and they haven’t experienced as much as our forefathers have.

    All of Ayn Rand concept and everything the west stands on one sentence.

    “The Preservation Of Our Bodies”

    Just body, body, body..the greatest good that can come to our body is the best solution to man kind.

    Every philosophy from west is for preservation and love of our bodies.

    Your article on AIDS was with full of fear and its basis were in the preservation of bodies.

    Everything that will ever come out of the west will always be about our bodies and our existance.

    As much as i would really love to follow your thoughts, cos it is neccesary for my work and existance…the more i get the call from other side to see things differently.

    Painfully, Indian philosophy starts exactly where the western philosophy ends and unfortunately….we have to be born in India as an Indian really to relaise why India is still alive with all the doomed quialties that west see in us.

    I know you will take it as a positive comment. I must also thank you for writing so much thought provoking articles which make me really think deep and contemplate.


    • Sandeep said

      The law is an obective set of codes which tries to stabilise the community and protect the rights of it’s members. As for the spirit, I don’t know what that means, but I take it to mean the mind. So are you suggesting that certain ideas contrary to hinduism should be suppressed? I am an Indian and an atheist living in kerala. The culture of my place has nothing to do with India. A pakistani, to me is no different from another Indian. Your ideas suffer from the fatal flaw, your assumption that the law exists to protect and foster a certain ideology. It exists to ensure peace and cooperation. But I disagree with the writer when it comes to hate speech. It can be potentially dangerous, a possibility that is by no means negligible.

  3. Ergo said


    Thanks for your comment. I keep getting several commentors directing me to investigate Indian philosophy because apparently some Indian thinkers have produced thoughts that are remarkably close to Objectivism. I don’t know. I can’t say either way. As far as I’m concerned, Objectivism is a framework for a complete philosophical system; if there are other similar ones out there, I would actually be happy about it and hope that more people would follow rational, egoistic philosophies. Unfortunately, my general experience, observation, studies in philosophy, and my encounters with people from different schools of thought give me the impression that what’s out there is bad to worse to downright evil!

  4. cafedog said

    Ergo i have been reading into objectivism.
    what i like is that objectivism has room for self authority (free will, responsibilty, etc.)
    what seems to make it different from existentialism, is that
    the existentialism is a subjective phenomenology emphasising bodily feeling and mind,
    and objectivism is phenomenology thru the subjective rational and reasoning
    What i really would like clarification is the Nature of intuition as defined by the objectivist (like your self or a link)

  5. moris said


    Thank you for your reply, Sorry for writing some strong words…its just that…I’m torn apart between objectivity, existance & having a rational mind to go in this world..which is very much true as we see it and experience it.

    And then, there are words of Vivekanada, he makes so much sense..even looking through and through objectivity…he refuses to go away and his words are so much relevant in todays world..just like Ayn Rand are.

    I’m very much interested to see your opinion about Vivekananda. I would be eased in a way with your views on him.

    Thank you again,

  6. […] Offending somebody is therefore not a crime.  It may be immoral, if it’s irrational however.  But the immoral is not the illegal. […]

  7. E. Christie said

    Bored this evening, surfing for immorality, I happened upon your fascinating site and will visit it often in the future.

    Reading this post, I felt an impulse to reply with 2 points which you may or may not have considered. If you have addressed these in this post (and I missed them) or in another post, I apologize in advance.

    Firstly, immorality is a purely subjective and/or religious/sociological tainted idea which can not by its definition be considered when looking at the world objectively. Its very basis is rooted in the mores of the social/religious system in consideration and has no true lasting impact on the human condition. What is considered moral is the U.S. may or may not be moral in France or China or etc. Further, and more importantly many things viewed as moral behavior now were not considered such in the past, and vice versa.

    It is obviously very difficult to accept that a discussion of morality has any business in objective thought, as it is like discussing the movement/state of the universe using astrology.

    Secondly, the essential function of morality is judgement and ultimately control as you excellently discuss in this post however I am bothered by the following:

    “if these thoughts were ever expressed in words to another sane individual, the proper response would be to condemn such fantasies as disgustingly immoral. One cannot respond with a neutral or amoral evaluation.”

    The assumptions and subsequent judgement you make in this statement are no different than the governmental ones which you discuss later. “Sanity” has only a legal connotation, and is only a measure of what is legally accepted in the society being discussed. While I find the thought you brought up (killing and raping) disturbing, I can not say truly that is immoral unless I believe that immorality is an absolute which I do not. Do I find it personally disturbing, yes. Immoral? I will let a judge, a priest, or a person given to such trivialities that judgement.

    Thanks for getting my head working this morning,

  8. John Goodyear said

    The assumption of the Objectivist philosophy that runs into problems is just this issue of values and morality.

    Postmodern relativists cannot really be objective because to them all values are equal; my view of reality and morality is as good as yours. “Reason” for a true relativist has minimal bounds and minimal need for verification by agreement by others or empirical evidence. It is all subjective in the end.

    If one is to be ultimately objective, one must believe in an objective reality, which is absolute, not relative. When one posits an absolute, objective reality (“truth” as it were), then one generally looks to empirical science— but this also opens the door to religious beliefs and spirituality. We look for evidence both within ourselves (subjective) and outside of ourselves (objective). In other words, there is no way Objectivists can avoid subjective perception and feelings (morality and values), even as we also rely upon the use of objective evidence.

    If there really is an Ultimate Absolute, such as the Judeo-Christian God or Islamic Allah, then all of the above reasoning (and all of the Objectivist philosophy) is just so much intellectual fluff and mental masturbation.

    • Jerry Johnson said

      If there is an ultimate god…. then Objectivist philosophy is just fluff?

      However, the fact is there ain’t no god — ultimate or any other kind. So what does that tell you about Objectivism? Properly, nothing. So your syllogism above is flawed.

      • gretelsbrother said

        Jerry, there is no condamnation without proof. God should stay innocent until proven guilty of non-existence. It is not a matter of any scientific reasoning, because where there is only belief, science fails.
        Your point lacks consistence. You created an irrelevant basis and built your thought on it. Everything that will flourish from it would be already wilted. It’s like saying:
        Then yes,
        That doesn’t make it right, does it?

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