In this next1 post of my series explaining how Rust is better off without Object-Oriented Programming, I discuss the last and (in my opinion) the weirdest of OOP’s 3 traditional pillars.

It’s not encapsulation, a great idea which exists in some form in every modern programming language, just OOP does it oddly. It’s not polymorphism, also a great idea that OOP puts too many restrictions on, and that Rust borrows a better design for from Haskell (with syntax from C++).

No, it’s that third pillar, inheritance, that I am discussing today, that concept that only shows up in OOP circles, causing no end of problems for your code. Unlike encapsulation and polymorphism, Rust does not have any direct analogue.

Side note: In this series in general, but especially in this post, I am primarily discussing static OOP languages, like C++ and Java, where interfaces have to be explicit and where classes correspond to different static types. Much of what I write would have to be adapted to apply to more dynamic “duck-typing” styles of OOP like in Python or JavaScript (or Smalltalk), and won’t apply as directly. This series is about why Rust isn’t OOP, and Rust is closer to C++ or Java than to a dynamic language, so this bias makes sense in context.

Why do people like inheritance?#

I can see why inheritance is so compelling. The entire system of education encourages us to categorize things into neat little hierarchies. Rectangles are a type of shape, and squares are a type of rectangle. Humans are a type of animal, and men and women are types of humans. Inheritance allows us to take this “X is a Y” and express it to a computer.

This “is a” relationship is seen as intuitive. As the entire point of OOP is to make programming more intuitive, more like reasoning about the real world, inheritance is a perfect match for it. Just like we reason about the real world with categories and subcategories, we can reason about the world of our program in a similar way.

And this allows us to feel smart when we read introductions to inheritance in various books on OOP programming. We see the Tiger class inherit from the Animal class, or the Rectangle class inherit from the Shape class.

We get so excited by the abstract principle of “is a” that we don’t even notice that the examples have nothing to do with programming. We don’t write code about shapes or animals. And even a drawing program or a zoo inventory app wouldn’t use inheritance like this! If inheritance was so useful as to be a pillar of OOP, why are there so few beginner examples that involve things programs actually do?

What do I mean by inheritance?#

First, let me clarify what I mean by inheritance, or rather what I don’t mean.

I don’t mean every subtype-supertype relationship, where all values of one type are also included in another, broader type. Subtyping shows up in Rust all the time, particularly when it comes to lifetimes.

I also don’t mean the version of inheritance that only involves implementing an interface. In C++, you implement dynamic interfaces through inheritance as a mechanism, even if the “superclass” is just a list of methods. In Java, inheritance and interface implementation are separate mechanisms. I am not talking about interface implementation as inheritance, even though it is technically considered the same feature in C++:

// This class has no fields, only virtual methods.
// In Java, we would call this an interface. In Rust, we would
// call this a trait.
class Shape {
    virtual void draw(Surface &surface) const = 0;

// This is considered inheritance in C++. The Java equivalent
// would use `implements` instead of `extends`. And you could still
// do this in Rust with a trait.
class Square : public Shape {
    int size;
    int x;
    int y;
    void draw(Surface &surface) const override;

I am only opposed to the type of inheritance that is still called inheritance in Java. Having a type implement an interface (a trait in Rust) is perfectly legitimate and still allowed in Rust, as is casting a reference to a value to a generic, “dynamic” value based on that trait or interface:

trait Shape {
    fn draw(&self, surface: &mut Surface);

struct Square {
    size: u32,
    x: u32,
    y: u32,

impl Shape for Square {
    fn draw(&self, surface: &mut Surface) {

// Assume square is Square, surface is Surface
let shape: &dyn Shape = □
shape.draw(&mut surface);

Shape, in this context, is a pure interface. It is only a structured form of polymorphism, not inheritance per se. Very importantly, Shape has no fields. It is defined based solely on what you can do with it. And accordingly, the “is a” language makes sense for interface implementation: Square is a Shape. A Shape has no state, though, just methods, just behaviors.

But some parent classes have fields. And that’s when inheritance really starts to have problems: when the “parent” class has fields. It is at this point that inheritance starts to seem really weird.

What does inheritance actually do?#

In my article on encapsulation, I discussed how a class is secretly two things with the same name, entangled and conflated:

  • A record type (or what Rust would call a struct), that is, a type whose values consist of a number of fields with fixed names and types
  • A module (a collection of code with enforced encapsulation boundaries), containing that record type and a collection of functions (called “methods”) for interacting with it

Inheritance does something different with each of these concepts. To start out, let’s discuss what it does to the record type. We’ll continue using shapes, a classic example for discussing object-oriented features. A circle is a shape, so we can use inheritance here:

class Shape {
    Color color;

class Point {
    int x;
    int y;

class Circle : public Shape {
    Point center;
    int radius;

So, what does this mean for Circle? Well, it means that all the fields of Shape (namely, color) are also fields of Circle. Therefore, references to Circle can be made into references to Shape, as everything you can do with a shape, you can do with a circle, like set the color, or get the color:

Circle circle;
Shape &shape = circle;
shape.color = Color::Blue;
assert(circle.color == Color::Blue);

The thing is, we already have a mechanism of taking all the fields of struct A and putting it in struct B: by putting a field of type A into struct B! Instead of inheritance’s “is a,” we can accomplish the same thing with having a field, or “has a.” In our example, we can do the exact same thing with Point that we did with Shape – it just involves being a little more explicit about what’s going on:

Circle circle;
Point &point =;
point.x = 3;
assert( == 3);

So, what does inheritance do to the classes from the record type perspective? It makes the parent class a field of the child class, just a field with no name. By writing:

class Circle : public Shape {
    // ...

… from a record type perspective, we were writing syntactic sugar for:

class Circle {
    Shape shape;
    // ...

And when we wrote:

Shape &shape = circle;

That was translated into something like:

Shape &shape = circle.shape;

“Is a,” from a record type point of view, is just syntactic sugar for “has a.” If you want to do something similar in Rust, just make a has-a relationship, rather than creating an implicit field with no name. Rust doesn’t like implicit nameless things anyway.

This will also save on arguing about whether two types have an “is a” or a “has a” relationship. I regret all the time I’ve spent splitting hairs about that distinction, when really, it’s just a matter of whether we want a field to be implicit or not.

OK, so that covers what inheritance does to the record types, but what about the rest of the class, the module? What happens to the methods?

Well, for non-virtual methods, it’s also straight-forward. Instead of doing inheritance, you can still just use has-a instead, and do a field access. Instead of calling, say, circle.get_color(), we could always call circle.shape.get_color().

So far, with the fields and non-virtual methods, inheritance just seems a bit weird and overrated. Like, we don’t see any reason yet why a programming language would want to support it, when just having a field of a superclass type does everything. But on the other hand, some people like implicit fields and convenient short-hands, so there’s not much of a downside either.

Inheritance without virtual methods may seem harmless, but it doesn’t have much to do with the concept of “is a.” Technically, you can use a field access as an implicit conversion, and think of it as a subtyping relationship, but it doesn’t actually correspond to how the world works. Even in the world of shapes, it doesn’t make sense: if a square is a rectangle, how come it has less state than a rectangle, with only one field for side length instead of two for width and height?

But we’ve not yet talked about virtual methods. When we do, you will see why I think inheritance is not just an unnecessary feature, but an ill-conceived anti-feature.

But what about the virtual methods?#

So, earlier we discussed a class as being two things, a record type (with fields) and a module (with methods and visibility restrictions). But once we consider virtual methods, a class is actually three things with the same name:

  • A record type: each object has the fields
  • A module: the type, trait, and other methods, are all in an encapsulated module
  • A trait or interface: the virtual methods form an interface

Side note: some programming languages consider all methods to be virtual for some reason. For these programming languages, everything I say still applies, but all methods are in the trait as they’re all virtual.

Given that most methods aren’t self-consciously written with the intent to be virtual, making methods implicitly virtual seems like a good way to set the programmer up for surprise – that is, a horrible idea. But nevertheless having all virtual methods was for a long time considered the more ideological, more purely OOP way to do things, and so languages which strove to be purely OOP (like the original Java) did it.

Up until now, we have ignored this additional conflation, this additional role that a class plays. In discussing encapsulation, we were discussing simply how classes conflate the two distinct concepts of record types and modules. In discussing polymorphism, we were assuming interfaces, and discussing how OOP’s version of interfaces were constrained by insisting on a specific dynamic implementation. Only now, now that we discuss inheritance, do we see that OOP not only conflates record types and modules, but it also conflates record types and interfaces.

When a class has virtual functions, that constitutes an interface, implemented by dynamic polymorphism. But the only way you are allowed to implement the interface is by inheriting from the class – that is, by also having a (secret, unnamed, implicit) field of the record type.

See, as discussed above, inheriting from a class without virtual methods, a class with just fields and regular methods, is no biggie. It’s just a weird way of writing a has-a relationship that comes with some syntactic sugar and automatic conversions – things I’m not a fan of and wouldn’t put in my programming language, but not that bad.

Similarly, inheriting from a class without fields, a class with just virtual methods (and perhaps regular methods, it turns out they barely matter) is also no biggie. It has all the downsides of OOP-style polymorphism, but is fundamentally just a way to indicate that you’re implementing an interface. In languages like C++, inheritance is the mechanism by which you implement interfaces, and in languages like Java, a methods-only class should probably be an interface.

(To round out all the possibilities, I will mention that a class with neither virtual methods nor fields is just a traditional module.)

But if you have both fields and virtual methods, then you have true OOP-style inheritance, with all of its problems. You have an interface that you can only implement if you inherit from the class. If you did not intend this, perhaps because you are writing in a language like Java where allowing inheritance is the default for classes and virtual is the default for methods, you are setting yourself up for surprises when someone inherits from your class and starts overriding methods.

If you did intend this, however, why? Why make implementing an interface contingent on having certain state, on having a special unnamed field? Why conflate these two fundamentally different concepts of containing another record type’s state and having the new record implement an interface?

There’s a number of problems with this conflation. Why would we assume that in order to implement the methods, you need that state? What if that state is represented differently, like on a disk, or over a network, or as mathematical consequences by a formula? This conflation of implementation and interface means that there is no sane way to implement proxy objects.

But more importantly than that, I’m not entirely sure what the upside of this conflation is. It seems to make programming simpler in one particular scenario, a scenario that I rarely see come up in real life, a scenario that frankly seems like a code smell.

So what can we do instead?#

There is no inheritance in Rust. There are no fields in traits. There is simply no way of saying that in order to implement a trait, your type must have certain fields. Rather than conflate the concepts of record types, modules, and traits in this God-concept of “class,” Rust keeps these three concepts quite separate.

So if we have a design that requires inheritance (either because we think in OOP or because we’re translating from an OOP programming language), how would we represent that in Rust?

Well, the most straight-forward way would be to separate out the different parts of the base class. Such a refactor would allow us to express our design in Rust, as literally as possible. This is just meant as a starting point, a proof of concept that our design can survive in a language without inheritance. Alternative, often better ways of replacing inheritance will follow subseqeuntly.

But here’s the straight-forward method: If the base class has just fields, or just virtual methods, that’s easy: it becomes a struct or a trait, respectively. Instead of inheriting from the class, a type would have that struct as a field, or implement that trait. Actually, in this case, the straight-forward method might just be perfect – you weren’t actually using inheritance per se, just an odd syntax for a field or for implementing an interface.

If it has both, we’d have to extract both a struct and a trait. The fields would become a struct, of its own type. The interface of the virtual methods would become a trait. The implementation of the virtual methods would become the implementation of that trait for that struct, or provided methods on the trait, depending on what makes more sense. Any non-virtual methods would then become methods of the struct or provided methods on the trait, again depending on what makes more sense in context.

At this point, it might make sense to consider some of the alternatives that Rust provides to run-time polymorphism, as discussed in the polymorphism post. Is a trait, especially an OOP-style, object-safe trait, really what we want here? We’ve opened up alternative designs now, and perhaps one of the alternatives makes more sense.

Assuming we do want a trait, we can then go to all the “child” classes and make them implement the trait. They also get a new field, perhaps named super, to contain the parent. Their trait implementations would then do a mix of implementing new methods, calling the same method on super, and defaulting to the provided method.

And again, at this point it would be appropriate to consider whether we even need the super field, or if perhaps we can get away with not having it.

After this transformation, we have valid Rust code out of our inheritance-based OOP-style design pattern. But there’s nothing requiring us to use Rust to do it: you could do the same refactor of inheritance structures in an OOP language.

If we were to do this transformation, we’ve paid a small cost of having to potentially write .super (or whatever name we’ve given the parent field) every once in a while, as well as writing trait implementations that forward some method calls to the super field. In return, we’ve deconflated the two very different concepts of interface and fields, and opened ourselves up to more possibilities.

What should I actually do in Rust instead of inheritance?#

But notice that in discussing this transformation, I encouraged you to consider alternatives at two points. Rarely does this transformation make sense literally, which is to say, rarely does a literal translation of inheritance into Rust make sense. I find this quite telling, as it implies to me that inheritance itself only rarely makes sense – and indeed, I only tend to use inheritance in OOP languages where a framework requires me to, or as an ersatz2 replacement of sum types (i.e. Rust enum).

Here are some other patterns that replace inheritance hierarchies, that you might find yourself considering instead:

  • A regular enum. This actually covers most situations for me. Methods that would be overriden just do a match on the enum contents, and methods that would not, do not.
  • struct types that contain a field with an enum types. The enum type represents all the different options, but the struct type contains the fields that are always the same.
struct MessageHeader {
    source: Address,
    destination: Address,
    seqnum: u32,

enum MessageBody {

struct Message {
    header: MessageHeader,
    body: MessageBody,

Isn’t this so much nicer than putting source, destination, and seqnum in the base class?

  • enum variants that themselves contain enum types.
enum Message {

enum ClientMessage {

enum ServerMessage {

Now, if you want any message, your type is Message. If you know for sure you have a client message, you can say ClientMessage. Or if you know for sure it’s specifically a ping, you can say PingMessage. It’s like a class hierarchy!

  • A struct with a template-parameterized member to set a policy.

This is perhaps the most sophisticated replacement. Imagine you have a class SocketHandler that handles reading from a socket. Imagine it looks like this:

class SocketHandler {
    CircularBuffer socket_data;
    void data_available(int fd);
    virtual size_t message_size(const char *data, size_t size) = 0;
    virtual void process_message(const char *data, size_t size) = 0;

How this is going to work is, data_available is going to grab more and more data from the socket fd until message_size returns a non-zero value. Then, it’ll call process_message with that data. During this time, it’ll store the data in socket_data. All of that work is being done by data_available, in the parent class, and you can imagine that the socket dispatching library has a collection of these socket handlers, something like std::vector<std::unique_ptr<SocketHandler>> (or perhaps a map indexed by file descriptor).

The child class is responsible for overriding message_size and process_message to actually interpret incoming data for a specific protocol. You’d have a child class for each SocketHandler protocol, and it would include internal state like sequence numbers, etc.

But rather than have these methods overriden by a child class, the right way to do it is to have just those methods in a trait that a SocketHandler has. You can see this when you extract the implicit trait for SocketHandler for the Rust version:

trait SocketProtocol {
    fn message_size(&self, data: &[u8]) -> usize;
    fn process_message(&mut self, data: &[u8]) -> Result<()>;

struct SocketHandler<P: SocketProtocol> {
    buffer: CircularBuffer,
    protocol: P,

trait SocketHandlerTrait {
    fn data_available(&mut self, fd: u32) -> Result<()>;

impl<P: SocketProtocol> SocketHandlerTrait for SocketHandler<P> {
    fn data_available(&mut self, fd: u32) -> Result<()> {
        // Call `self.protocol.message_size/process_message`

So, rather than each socket protocol inheriting from socket handler, with its common state, the socket handler has a socket protocol, as a policy. The SocketProtocol trait here can then be a compile-time, static trait and SocketHandlerTrait can be the object-safe, dynamic one, and the std::vector<std::unique_ptr<SocketHandler>> can be replaced with Vec<Box<dyn SocketHandlerTrait>>.

This last refactor can be generalized. Instead of inheriting from a base class to implement specific functionality, inject that functionality using policies3, and parameterize the struct with members that implement policy traits. Then, if need be (and need might not be) write a separate dynamic trait for the overall struct.

  1. I know my last post hasn’t been since February. I’ve been procrastinating this one for a long time, mostly because my life has been so gosh-darn busy, and also mostly because I don’t really instinctively remember what I (or anyone else) really liked about inheritance to begin with. ↩︎

  2. Isn’t it weird that ersatz means replacement in German, but means mediocre as a replacement in English, so that “ersatz replacement” doesn’t mean “replacement replacement” but “mediocre replacement”? Or am I using the English word wrong? ↩︎

  3. Policies are known in Gang of Four terminology as strategies. I’ve touched on the policy pattern in some previous posts, and at some point should write a full post about it, as policies are my favorite thing. ↩︎