Judgment, Evasion, and Toleration
By Paul Hsieh
Date: November, 1994
From: Paul Hsieh email@example.com
Subject: An Open Letter To Both Sides of the Peikoff-Kelley Debate
I am writing this to clarify my position on a.p.o. with respect to the Peikoff-Kelley issue and other related matters.
Up until now, I've have attempted to cultivate a public stance of relative neutrality on this issue, although I have sometimes participated on various threads related to this topic. At times, I have asked others questions about these issues in order to elicit their responses and to clarify my own (and others') positions, particularly with respect to the issues of moral judgment, evasion, and toleration.
However, I have my own opinions on these subject (which some have discerned based on my pattern of questioning) and I would therefore like to make them more explicit.
First of all, based on what I know, I am in strong sympathy with the Kelley position. I have to admit that I have not yet gotten around to reading Truth and Toleration (since my copy is buried in a big pile of books next to my futon, covered by several other books that are higher in priority on my reading list), so most of my understanding of that position is based on what I've read on a.p.o., what I've retrieved from various ftp archive sites, and personal discussions with some Kelley supporters. (More on that later.)
Briefly, I'll spell out my position on these issues. Others are, of course, welcome to critique them.
Moral JudgmentHow do I judge others? I judge them based on a combination of their words, their ideas, and their actions. If I encounter someone who holds a demonstrably false set of ideas (such as Marxism or Christianity), then I am sure of one fact -- they they are in error.
The question is: are they making an error of knowledge or a more serious error of morality?
In one sense, it doesn't matter. If they are holding false ideas and they are in a position to harm me, I will take steps (whenever possible) to eliminate or minimize the harm that they can do to me. It would be as if someone were carrying around a loaded hunting rifle and waving it in my general direction. If he squeezes off a round or two, in one sense it doesn't matter whether he did so out of deliberate malice or accident -- a bullet wound is still a bullet wound. If I see someone with a loaded gun, I'll do my best to make damned sure that I am nowhere near the line of fire of that rifle barrel.
However, in a different sense, it does matter. Someone who is firing his rifle in a deliberate attempt to kill me is different from someone who honestly didn't realize that I was there and thought he was shooting at some deer.
Their moral status is quite different. I'll judge the first person far more harshly than the second person, at least as far as his morality/character. The first person will be clearly immoral, whereas the second person may be honestly mistaken.
Furthermore, we can distinguish the two of them by their response to attempts to persuade them of their error.
If you tell the murderer, "Hey, there's a human being in the line of fire!", he won't care. On the other hand, if you tell the honest hunter the same thing, he'll refrain from pulling the trigger.
I adopt a similar approach to someone who advocates ideas that I know to be false and harmful to me. Some of those advocates will be evil, whereas others may be honestly mistaken. Again, regardless of which category they belong to, I'll take steps to eliminate or minimize the harm that they can do me.
But how do I judge their moral character? Again, it primarily depends on their response to reason. If a person is fundamentally rational, then with careful discussion, it should be possible to get him to eventually change his mind. It may take a while, but eventually he'll come around to "see the light". On the other hand, if a person is fundamentally irrational, then he'll never see the light, and he's a lost cause.
The problem is -- how do you know whether a person is a lost cause or not? In general I don't think there are 100%, foolproof, hard-and-fast rules, although there are some useful guidelines. For instance, if a person persists in holding false beliefs despite the fact that the context of his knowledge is such that he has (1) sufficient information to reach the truth, (2) he has had sufficient time to reach the truth, and (3) the contradictions in his belief are glaringly obvious (given his context of knowledge), then these are all very powerful indicators that suggest that he is refusing to listen to reason. However, I don't consider them to be 100% foolproof, since it is still possible that he is just making a whopping error. Especially with certain self-reinforcing, complex belief systems (like Christianity or Marxism), what would be a glaringly obvious error to me may not be quite as obvious to someone immersed within the system, which contains its own set of self-supporting, semi-stable network of rationalizations to prop them up. Eventually a dedicated thinker will be able to work out all the bugs and find the flaws, but it may take a long time.
Thus one has the seeming paradox where a more intelligent person may take a *longer* time to find the flaws in those belief systems than a less intelligent person. In my experience, this is usually because the more intelligent person has integrated a few flawed premises much more thoroughly into his belief structure than his less intelligent counterpart. When a contradiction is exposed, he will need to overhaul a much greater portion of his belief system, usually digging much deeper into subtle aspects of epistemology and metaphysics before he roots out all of his errors. For that reason, I tend to cut people a fair amount of slack if I see them immersed in certain false belief systems like Marxism or Christianity, before I write them off as hopelessly irrational. It doesn't mean that I think that they are right or that I approve of their beliefs -- all it means is that I recognize the fact that these things take time. I consider this analogous to the fact that in Atlas Shrugged, it was the most rational "scabs", like Hank and Dagny, who took the longest to realize the error of their ways and join the strike.
But at some point, one has to decide if a person is beyond hope or not. Is he fundamentally rational (and just hasn't reached the truth yet) or is he fundamentally irrational (and evading)? To answer this, I need to explain my understanding of the concept of evasion.
EvasionMy understanding of evasion is that it consists of a refusal to focus one's mind on the facts of reality.
In one sense, all forms of error must come from some failure to correctly focus on reality. In some cases, the context of the person's knowledge is such that it is actually quite reasonable for him to arrive at a conclusion that I know to be mistaken (based on my presumably broader context of knowledge). In that case, he is *not* evading.
In some cases, the person is evading at a pretty low level -- the facts are blatantly obvious, they speak for themselves, and he is just refusing to recognize them.
In other cases, the person is evading, but at a very high epistemological level. Or he might be operating under some other faulty premise whereby he substitutes some other process for acquiring knowledge in place of reason. The problem is that it may not always be immediately apparent whether these forms of faulty epistemology are due to evasion or honest error.
Let me illustrate this with an example from my real life:
A friend of mine believes that God exists because of a strong moral intuition. He justifies it on the grounds that his moral intuitions have always worked well for him in the past, and that they are, in fact, revelations from God. Through introspection, he can directly sense God and God's truth (just as he can directly and immediately sense his own consciousness), and that is sufficient justification for him. Someone like that will gladly acknowledge that a non-believer like me won't be able to sense God, since I've closed my mind off to Him ("evaded" God, in a sense!). But if I were to open my mind and at least make the first efforts towards faith, I would be rewarded with the beginnings of a faint awareness of God. As I move further along the pathway towards religious faith, this awareness will become clearer and clearer, until it is as incontrovertible as any of my other sensory input.
It's very difficult to argue with this sort of viewpoint. He is clearly failing to understand that reason is the only valid means of acquiring knowledge. On the other hand, his very viewpoint gives him an explanation as to why reason is insufficient -- this incontrovertible direct experience supersedes it. (In my opinion, this "direct experience" of God is nothing more than a cleverly constructed system of self-delusion and emotion, but it is so well-structured in a self-reinforcing way, that it can stand up on its own for many, many years.)
Now the question is: Is he evading?
In a sense, yes. He is explicitly denying one of the fundamental tenets of Objectivism (and one of the fundamental facts of reality) -- that reason as applied to sensory data is the only valid means of acquiring knowledge.
But in another sense, it's not that clear-cut. His faulty epistemology could be a form of higher-order error rather than simple evasion. (An example might be a fairly subtle epistemological fallacy like the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. To detect the fallacy in that position is not easy. I had to think about that issue for a long time before I started to develop a firm grasp of many of the important implications.)
I supect that in most cases where an intelligent person sincerely holds false beliefs (such as a Christian professor of theology at Harvard's Divinity School or a Marxist professor of economics at Harvard's JFK School of Government), they are falling for some fallacy at a very high epistemological level. These people aren't so much evading the raw facts -- instead, they are failing to use the correct method for integrating these facts (or they are adopting a faulty method for determining their method of integration).
Perhaps they are evading. Perhaps not. I can't generally tell, unless I get a chance to discuss their beliefs with them in depth.
But my point is that even if a person holds demonstrably false beliefs, and the context of his knowledge is such that he has enough information to realize that his beliefs are false (i.e., he is sufficiently well educated, and he has had sufficient time to think over the issues), the mere fact that he hasn't yet shed those false beliefs doesn't mean that he *must* automatically be an evader. He might be, but he might still be just honestly mistaken, because he fell for a subtle fallacy.
Do I need to always take the time and trouble to determine which is the case? Absolutely not. Once I know someone is a Marxist (or a Christian), I usually have enough information to know how to deal with him in most contexts. I don't usually need to know any more than that -- i.e., whether he's honestly mistaken or evading. It's not my job to make that determination about every single mistaken person on the face of the earth.
But if there is a particular reason that I want to make that determination about a specific individual, from experience I've found that it often takes a fair amount of time and direct discussion.
So, is an academic Christian an evader? Based on past experience, I would have to say, "probably". But is he *automatically* an evader? My answer would be, "No, not always. He might still just be plain mistaken, most likely at a very high epistemological level."
(Similar remarks would apply to an academic Socialist.)
To tie this back to an earlier thread from a few weeks ago -- the whole Alan Greenspan issue. *If* it can be determined that he has repudiated his belief in the gold standard (which is a determination which, in fairness to Mr. Greenspan, I haven't yet made), would that mean that he *must* be evading? I would say, "No, not necessarily". Perhaps he is, but perhaps he isn't. He could just simply be making a BIG mistake -- all the bigger, since he has already clearly demonstrated that he has the necessary context to reach the correct conclusion on this issue. The only way to know for sure one way or another would be to take the time to explore his beliefs at length.
Certainly, if I have sufficient evidence that someone is an evader, I have no problems about labelling him as such. My position is that one cannot always make that determination simply by looking at the content of their beliefs and the context of their knowledge. One sometimes needs to know more than that -- i.e. a detailed understanding of their exact thought processes.
TolerationWhenever I've discussed ideas with people, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. My best discussions are often with people with whom I disagree. As long as the discussion stays on a polite and rational level, I get a great deal from talking with people who hold different ideas from mine. This includes people who hold different political, religious, and philosophical ideas from my own.
When I discuss an issue with others who disagree with me, one of two things usually occur:
(1) Either they are right and I am wrong. In those cases, I end up learning something from them. Or, (2) They are wrong and I am right. In those cases, I still derive some benefit. By being forced to answer their questions and counter their arguments, I often gain a keener understanding of why my own position is correct.
My own arguments are improved by this process, which will make me a better spokesman for my position in future discussions with others. Plus I gain a better understanding of the types of errors that people can make. I think that it is important to have a solid understanding of philosophical errors and fallacies if one is to advance the cause of truth.
(As an analogy, I have long had an interest in biological pathology, both because the subject is fascinating in its own right, and because knowledge of pathology is important if one is to treat diseases. Similarly, I have long had an interest in philosophical pathology, both for its own sake and because a understanding of these issues is invaluable in defeating philosophical errors and advancing the truth.)
Now does this mean that I will listen to everyone else in the world with equal gullibility? Certainly not. I choose my discussion partners carefully -- they have to be people who are fundamentally rational and are willing to discuss things politely with me. And the discussion has to be on a topic that is of interest to me for one reason or another. But within those constraints, I have managed to have many fruitful discussions with all sorts of people -- Christians, Socialists, Buddhists, Republicans, Democrats, etc. And I will continue to pursue these sorts of discussions for the best reason in the world -- it is in my self-interest.
I've often learned useful and interesting facts of reality from them -- facts that I wouldn't otherwise have learned. Someone who holds a mistaken philosophy can still be right about a lot of things, and they can often tie these facts together in interesting and still-rational ways that wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise. I just have to make sure to apply my own reason and judgment to everything they say.
Obviously if I deem that a discussion is *not* in my self-interest, I won't participate. That's why I don't waste any time talking about issues with people who are malignant, rude, or disrespectful to me. I have better things to do with my time. Similarly, I won't waste my time discussing issues I find boring. For instance, I won't waste my time with someone who believes that the earth is flat. I have nothing further to gain from a discussion of that particular topic.
On the other hand, religion and politics interest me greatly, which is why I am often willing to discuss these subjects with others, even if I already know that their beliefs are wrong. I don't expect that others will necessarily share my same hierarchy of values and interests. I am merely explaining what mine are.
A Few Last Words On Moral JudgmentA lot has been made of Rand's recommendation to "Judge and be prepared to be judged!"
In essence, I agree with this sentiment. However, there are a few nuances which I think bear mentioning.
First of all, I believe that moral judgment, like any other form of judgment, is an acquired skill that one becomes better at with practice.
We don't expect a third-year medical student to be able to judge a patient's state of health as accurately as a seasoned, veteran physician. Similarly, we shouldn't expect that a person who is relatively inexperienced in moral judgment to do as good a job as someone who has a keen understanding of philosophy, psychology, and human nature. To be a good judge of moral character takes skill, hard work, and time. Yes, some moral judgments will be pretty straightforward. But not all of them.
When I teach my medical students and residents how to interpret x-rays, CAT scan and MRI images, I expect them to use their medical knowledge, their reasoning abilities, and their capacity to judge to arrive at the correct diagnoses. I don't expect them to be always right. The field of medical diagnosis is not always easy, but as long as a student is trying conscientiously to use his skills and knowledge to the best of his ability, that all I can ask for.
But nothing turns me off more than an ignorantly overconfident medical student who thinks he knows more than he really does. Those sorts of students are a great danger to their patients, because they will often pronounce judgments in a high-handed and arrogant fashion. They'll look at a chest x-ray and leap to an unwarranted conclusion, saying something like, "Oh, that's obviously a lung cancer", without taking into account all the information available that might steer them towards a different (and correct) diagnosis. Curiously enough, these students are often the ones who most harshly criticize other students' abilities to make diagnoses.
If there weren't more senior physicians around to supervise them and let them know when they are wrong, all sorts of catastrophes could occur. These sorts of students need to learn to recognize their own limitations and flaws before they should presume to judge others' medical skills. (Occasionally, one runs into a brilliant student or resident whose judgment *is* superb. In that case, I don't mind if he criticises others harshly -- he has the talent and ability to back up his words. But that is the exception, rather than the rule.)
Similarly, I think there is a potential danger if Objectivists take the advice of "judge and be prepared to be judged" in the wrong way. If they start casting inappropriately harsh moral judgments without the requisite understanding of ethics and psychology, they can do a great deal of harm, both to others and eventually to themselves. The wise Objectivist (I hope) will exercise his judgment in a prudent fashion. He will be firm in his judgments when he is justified, and appropriately cautious where he does not have sufficient information. A wise Objectivist will evaluate and critique his own ability to judge just as strictly and carefully as he judges others' moral character.
At my workplace (a university medical center), we have a regular series of departmental quality assurance conferences where we analyze our own (and each other's) diagnoses, combining information from radiology studies, surgical specimens, pathology analysis, patient outcome data, etc. During these sessions, we analyze our own judgment processes and learn to critique and improve our medical judgment.
During these sessions, I've learned a couple of important lessons:
(1) My medical judgment is pretty damned good. I can take a rightfully deserved pride in that fact.
(2) My judgment is not infallible. Even at times when I've been *sure* of my diagnosis, there have been occasions when I have subsequently been proven wrong. I am not alone in this respect. The same thing has happened with everyone else, even some of the world-famous senior faculty in our department.
As a result of these sessions, I've learned to be have an appropriate level of confidence and pride in my medical judgment *and* to maintain an appropriate level of humility. These sessions provide us with regular opportunities to compare our judgments to the facts of reality. As a result I've learned to always keep my mind open to the possibility that my judgment might be mistaken. If I took any other attitude, I would be remiss in my job as a physician. I would be as dangerous to my patients as the ignorantly arrogant medical students that I've criticized above.
I take a similar attitude towards my moral and philosophical judgments. I make these judgments to the best of my ability, but I am always open to new ideas and new evidence that suggest that I might need to correct some errors. If I were less open or tolerant to careful evaluation of opposing ideas, I would be remiss in my job as a rational human being.
At this point in time, my understanding is that these views place me firmly within the Kelley camp. Of course, I am always open to any arguments that would show that I am in error (either in the actual content of my ideas or my assessment that this places me in agreement with the Kelley camp). I am keenly aware of the claim by the Peikoff supporters that his (Peikoff's) positions are constantly misrepresented on a.p.o. by the Kelley supporters.
(Similar claims are made by Kelley supporters, of course). That's why I chosen here to say what *I* believe, rather than try to defend or refute what others say that either Kelley or Peikoff are supposed to believe.
Dynamics On 'Alt.philosophy.objectivism'I have always endeavoured to maintain a polite tone on a.p.o., even towards people with whom I disagree. I like to discuss ideas, and I have little inclination to trade insults or engage in flame wars with others.
I've noted a tendency for threads on a.p.o. to degenerate into a tiring series of personal attacks whenever Peikoff-Kelley issues arise. Since I have an interest in some of the substance of these issues, I deliberately decided a few months ago to adopt a relatively neutral public stance, and hold off on explicitly declaring my views in public. A few people on both sides of the divide already know of my Kelleyite leanings, through private e-mail discussions.
The Kelley supporters, of course, have no problems with that.
My concern was that some Peikoff supporters would choose to engage in personal attacks rather than engage in polite discussions of the issues, which is why I decided to keep my own opinions close to the vest.
However, some of the Kelley supporters that I have been in contact with, in particular Diana Brickell and Jimbo Wales, have expressed concern that I am misrepresenting myself by pretending to be more neutral on this topic than I actually am. In order to allay their concerns, I am making this public statement of my beliefs.
Certainly, I am willing to discuss these issues in a polite fashion with members of both sides. And I have had many constructive e-mail exchanges with members of both camps (some of whom are already aware of my Kelleyite sympathies, and some of whom are not). In particular, on the Peikoff side, I have greatly enjoyed my correspondence with Betsy Speicher, Tony Donadio, Tym Parsons, Andrew Southwick, Brad Aisa, Jay Allen and others whose names I am currently blanking on. (If you are one of the Peikoff supporter that I have traded e-mail with, and I forgot to mention you, then I apologize!) In that group, I think Betsy is the only one who I have explicitly told that I have Kelleyite leanings. She, of course, believes that I am mistaken, but she has been willing to continue corresponding with me, since she believes that I will eventually come around to her point of view.
At this point in time, based on what I know, I think that it is extremely unlikely that I will "switch sides", and take the Peikoff side of the P-K debate. However, I am still open to any arguments or evidence that might prove me to be in error. I will be glad to continue to correspond with anyone on either side of the divide as long as they feel it is in their self-interest to correspond with me.
I also realize that by making this statement, I (potentially) run the risk of being banned from the IRC #AynRand channel. Although I haven't had the chance to show up there for the last few Friday night sessions due to various scheduling conflicts, I've always enjoyed my participation on that forum. However, if the channel administrators feel that they can no longer in good conscience permit me to participate (on the theory that they would be "sanctioning a sanctioner"), then I will accept their decision. That is their channel to administer as they please, and I have no "right" to join an IRC channel where I'm not wanted.
Similarly, I've wanted to meet and make personal contact with members on both sides of the divide. I have already had the opportunity to meet Diana Brickell, Jimbo Wales, and a few others, on the Kelleyite side. On the Peikoffian side, Betsy Speicher has been gracious enough to invite me to attend one of the meetings of her Southern California Objectivist Association during my next visit to Los Angeles, and I look forward to meeting her in person as well.
Eventually, I would also like to attend the major annual meeting of both groups -- I've forgotten the name of the annual conference put on by the Peikoff group, but the counterpart Kelleyite meeting is called the IOS Summer Seminar. My objective would be to check out both groups for myself, which would give me the most amount of information to make informed judgments about their respective approaches to Objectivism.
For what it's worth, I differ from most other Kelley sympathizers in one important respect -- I do *not* call myself an Objectivist. In that respect, my position on a.p.o is fairly similar to Robert Kolker's. I agree with many Objectivist ideas, but I also have some disagreements. My disagreements, questions, and reservations about Objectivism are primarily in issues in epistemology and metaphysics. These differences are sufficiently great that I consider it inappropriate to call myself an Objectivist. (I don't know where all of Robert's differences lie, so I won't presume to speak for him.) Until I resolve these differences to my satisfaction, I'll hold off on claiming the title.
A Personal NoteI am currently on the faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hence, the picture of the St. Louis Arch in my .sig.) By coincidence, one of the prominent Kelley supporters, Diana Brickell, is also a student at that same university. Hence, she was the first a.p.o. "regular" who I got to meet in person, approximately 3 months ago, and we socialize on a regular basis. Through her, I've also had the pleasure of meeting her boyfriend, Jimbo Wales, as well as some other Kelley supporters. I consider them all friends and I have greatly enjoyed the real-time conversations we've had. They are all intelligent, rational, pleasant, and benevolent people, and I value the time that I have spent with them. (When I first met Jimbo, I looked pretty closely for the horns, the forked tongue, and the cloven hooves, and I was greatly disappointed -- he looked nothing at all like the paragon of evil I was hoping for!)
I don't agree with them on all aspects of Objectivism, and as they can attest to, whenever I've had disagreements with them, I've had no hesitation whatsoever about aggressively asking them to explain and defend their views!
(Just as I do with others on a.p.o.) But I value their company greatly and I am proud to call them my friends.
If anyone has any comments or questions on anything that I have written here, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.
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