THE PROPER RESPONSE
by Martin Murray
In a recent issue of "IOS Journal", a publication of the Institute for Objectivist Studies, Dr. David Kelley
commented on some recent attacks directed at himself and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. I read this article, called "Better Things To Do," with great interest, especially Dr. Kelley's opinion about the nature of his dispute with Dr. Leonard Peikoff in a section entitled, "Moral Judgment and Objectivism."
In the first few paragraphs, Kelley explains that one cause of the split between himself and Peikoff was the question of how people who hold ideas contrary to Objectivism should be judged. He writes that his primary disagreement with Peikoff is not about whether moral judgment should ever be passed, but rather concerns the question of culpability on the parts of those who have arrived at mistaken ideas"
On the other side, Dr. Peikoff states in his article "Fact and Value" that honest errors of judgment occur rarely"
He writes that mistakes of a certain magnitude are without doubt the product of intellectual evasion and that those guilty of arriving at such positions should be morally condemned and despised. He has asserted that an Objectivist passes moral judgment at every opportunity and "about *every* fact within his sphere of action." To fail to do so is to fail to be "a valuer""
The break between Kelley and Peikoff erupted some years ago over a talk made to a libertarian organization by David Kelley. Peter Schwartz and Leonard Peikoff have both argued that anything short of condemnation and boycotts of any libertarian group is immoral and a sanction of a doctrine that is fundamentally irrational and evil. Kelley outlined that he believes many who support the doctrine of libertarianism have reached their position through honest error or insufficient intellectual context and that it can be worthwhile to associate with them so long as one never leaves any doubt as to the areas of disagreement between Objectivism and libertarianism"
However, Kelley apparently does not disagree with Peikoff about how to respond to people who arrive at their conclusions through intellectual dishonesty, since Dr. Kelley states that "many people *are* willfully irrational in their thinking and should be judged accordingly." Contained in the stated position of each side is the assumption that the proper response to evil is, in all cases, moral condemnation. This hidden premise, while not acknowledged by either side in this conflict to be an issue, has far more to do with the split between David Kelley and Leonard Peikoff than does a disagreement over the frequency of "errors of judgment vs. breaches of morality."
This is one of the most important and least talked about questions in Objectivism, and is one of the weak points in the Objectivist ethics. There is a direct correlation between our understanding and knowledge of this issue and our ability to teach the philosophy of Objectivism to others. This issue and the lack of knowledge about it have threatened more than once to blow the Objectivist movement apart, and if we don't address it with the rigor and methods of science, it may yet do so"
Dr. Kelley has identified an aspect of this problem. In "A Question of Sanction" he explains that to condemn "all moral error with the same fury" is to erase the relevant differences of degree between various human actions"
Although this is certainly true, it fails to fully address the question of how moral error per se should be treated"
To begin to fully answer this question, we have to review the Objectivist ethics, the nature of good and evil in that ethical system, and the purpose of holding a moral code and making moral judgments in the first place"
The Objectivist morality is a code of values based on man's nature: because man's survival requires the use of his mind to grasp reality, and because the use of his mind is not automatic, he must exercise the faculty of consciousness. This means that man's basic virtue is rationality. Rationality is the process of identifying the facts of reality using evidence provided by the senses and integrating that new knowledge with the sum total of one's knowledge and ideas. In contrast, man's basic vice is evasion. Evasion is the deliberate suspension of consciousness, the choice to not know the facts of reality, to ignore the evidence of one's own eyes and ears, or to default on the task of integration"
Ayn Rand wrote, in "The Objectivist Ethics," that "the Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the *standard* of value -- and *his own life* as the ethical *purpose* of every individual man." This means that each person should, in every choice open to him, act to further his own life; which means, be aware of what values he wants and needs to achieve, using all the data available, including the abstract principles which one must necessarily apply to determine what those values are and how to achieve them"
Observe that the Objectivist ethics is not primarily concerned with the question of how *men* live together, but rather with the question of how *man* lives. The Objectivist morality is a morality *of and for the individual*. On the most basic level, the consequences of every action, to which moral choice applies, benefit or harm the actor"
When a person evades reality, he himself is the first victim of the evasion. He has, to some extent, rejected reality and his own mind; which means his own method of survival. His ability to survive is reduced, and further negative consequences may ensue. On the other hand, when a person maintains awareness of the world around him, of his own mental state, or of the consequences of some new thought, he is enhancing his ability to survive by increasing his knowledge and self-confidence"
Such is the nature of good and evil in the Objectivist ethics; it has nothing to do with, and it is very different from, older, religious ideas of good and evil. It is a scientific view which holds that good and evil can be seen in their effects on particular men, in the real-world consequences of actions on those people who have taken them"
(This is certainly one of the plot- themes of Atlas Shrugged: the looters inherit the world they have created, down to the last drop of blood.) When a person acts immorally, he does violence fundamentally not to his neighbor, or the community, or the state, or the church or to the concepts of Good and Evil. He does violence to himself. Any harm he does to others flows out of the harm he does to himself; to his values, his future, his mind, his life, to the very requirements of his own survival"
(It is an unfortunate aspect of the intellectual context inherited by Ayn Rand, and by us all, that the concepts of "good", "evil", "virtue", "vice", "moral" and "immoral" are genetically connected to thousands of years of religious ethical dogma. All of these concepts connote, in the minds of many who use them, something beyond the effect of behavior on the individual acting. It requires intense personal scrutiny, and an awareness of the issue in the first place, to ensure that one is using these terms devoid of the emotional trappings of religion. Additionally, the "good", for example, applies both to metaphysics and ethics, further confusing the meaning of the word. Suffice it to mention that the concepts used to discuss moral ideas are far from scientific terms, that there are both good and bad reasons for this, and that because they are the best words we have at the moment we need to exercise care when using them.)
It is important to note that a person can do more harm to others than to self; such as the person who kills an innocent third-party while defending himself. In this case, we do not judge him to be morally wrong, unless it can be shown that he did not practice sufficient care in making his choice, i.e., he did not choose to consider or become aware of relevant facts that were within his range of awareness, or that he acted with disregard to available facts, such as a way to escape the situation without resorting to violence. The standard for measuring action is still that of the good of the individual who acts, i.e., his approach to the facts of reality"
When we say, as Objectivists, that someone is behaving immorally, we must mean that they are behaving in a way that is detrimental to themselves. To measure evil is to measure the harm men do first to themselves, and secondarily to other men"
In The Fountainhead, Roark exemplified this attitude when Keating came to ask him to build Cortlandt Homes"
Keating asked Roark if he was "turning the other cheek" by seeing him. Roark replied, "I don't know Peter. No, if they meant actual forgiveness. Had I been hurt, I'd never forgive it. Yes, if they meant what I'm doing. I don't think a man can hurt another, not in any important way. Neither hurt him nor help him. I have really nothing to forgive you." Roark said this, after seeing everything that Keating had become and everything he had done"
Roark responded to the changes he detected within Keating. He didn't reproach him for his past. He didn't criticize him for his evasions. He didn't tell him he was immoral, or corrupt or evil. He encouraged Keating to learn more, to expand on what he had learned already. He spoke to him benevolently and with increasing respect. Despite all of Keating's evasions, he tried to encourage the good within him"
Roark responded to Wynand in the same way, although Wynand was clearly no innocent. Never did he imply that happiness was impossible to Wynand because of his past mistakes, although Roark stated that he despised every action of Wynand's of which he had knowledge. He nurtured the good in everyone he met, treated their negative characteristics as less significant, and showed compassion towards their suffering even when he knew that they suffered through their own evasions and shortcomings"
To imply that one must either forgive or condemn breaches of morality is a false dichotomy. Roark never saw himself in the role of avenger. Nor should we"
In Objectivism, to pass moral judgment means *to identify the moral status of an action*, not to sanctify or damn. Moral judgment is the answer to the question: rational or irrational? pro-life or anti-life? healthy or unhealthy? In no way does it follow that contempt, vilification, hatred or humiliation are in any way necessitated by an immoral action, any more than undying gratitude, love or slavish devotion are necessitated by acts of virtue. The particular emotional responses that the actions of others arouse in us will be largely determined by the context of our individual lives. To claim that a particular emotional response to a particular fact or event is the mark of a true Objectivist is to substitute emotion for cognition in the most dangerous way. (That it also encourages emotional repression should be obvious; however, for more details I refer the reader to Dr"
Nathaniel Branden's The Disowned Self.)
Then what is the proper response to evil? It is, on the most fundamental level, the same as the proper response to good: self-interest"
The proper response to anything, and in all cases, is the response that will best serve our own self-interest, as that interest is best understood and can be projected through the application of the principles of a rational morality, a morality which uses human life and well-being as its standard of measurement. This type of response is what is denoted by the terms "rational selfishness" and "rational self-interest""
Within the time that we have to consider our actions, we must examine our choices in the context of our capabilities, our values, our desires, our long-range goals, and, if others are involved, the capability of those others to accommodate us and our actions. If we act while ignoring any of these factors, the results may or may not serve our interests"
We must strive to be aware of the likely consequences of our actions. If we do not know what the consequences will be, then, time permitting, we must try to find out. If we act without concern for consequences, the results may or may not serve our interests"
When we act, we must be aware of our purpose for acting. To act purposefully is to act to achieve a particular result. Without an awareness of our purpose for acting, there is no assurance that our action will coincide in any way with our rational self-interest"
To assert that it is somehow in our best interest to speak out against every immoral act, every act of self-destruction, self-betrayal, even short-lived acts of evasion, to assert that we somehow owe it to ourselves even to notice and take time to judge all such acts, is a gross perversion of the concept of selfishness. We all have our own lives to lead. No one has the time, and no one should have the interest, to police the moral character of every person around him. To suggest that we must, in order to let no immoral actions go without criticism, is to make each person a slave to all, put in the position of moral watchdog for all humanity. We each have interests, and friends, and insofar as these are affected by the actions of others, we often choose to judge them morally, but we may very well decide not to speak out against them or even praise them. To do so may not be worthwhile to us, or we may simply judge it to be a bad idea. It is potentially a far more powerful technique for change to allow each person to follow his or her own path, with little criticism, showing our respect for the sovereignty of their minds and their lives. In this way, we send them the message that they are responsible for themselves and that we know it"
Coming from this perspective, we can appreciate that, for Objectivists, to handle either errors of judgment or breaches of morality is not simply to choose between forgiveness and condemnation. It is to choose among all the actions open to us. But when choosing, we owe it to ourselves to know clearly what we are trying to do"
If our goal is to encourage better behavior or thought in another person, we should be willing to consider the question of how to best achieve that result. This is part of the subject matter studied by the science of psychology, and it is foolish to suppose that we can ignore what has been discovered in recent years about motivation, the effects of positive and negative reinforcement, and the role of self-esteem in learning and personal growth"
We cannot act for others. If we wish others to improve we must keep in mind that they must improve themselves. It is only logical that we would want to get the idea across to them that the task of change is worthwhile, that they are worthy of the effort. We cannot act for others, but we can help motivate them"
Without being condescending, we can get the point across that we expect they will do their best to understand or change and that they will be successful. We can challenge them to do so in non- threatening ways"
It is vital that one never sanction evil, not give any hint of agreement or willingness to cooperate with it. This can often be accomplished, however, with much more benevolent and life-serving methods than harsh criticism, angry demands for explanations or retractions, banishment, boycotts or denunciations. Sometimes a reaction such as this is required, especially when we are more concerned about how others will hear the issues involved rather than how those we are speaking out against will react, *but it has little place in rational, purposeful, philosophic debate*"
Philosophic insight is a form of intellectual growth. As such, it functions best in an environment that respects its needs. In "A Question of Sanction," Dr. Kelley wrote, "It [intellectual tolerance] is a recognition that certainty is contextual. It is a recognition of the fact that knowledge is neither revealed nor invented, but acquired by an active process of integration; that any conclusion we reach is tied to reality by a long chain of reasoning, and presupposes an enormous context; and that open discussion and debate is the proper means of intellectual exchange."
I would amplify Kelley's point by adding two of my own:
The first is that very little is known about how and why people develop ideas, philosophical or otherwise. We certainly know that for some people the ideas of Objectivism fail to resonate with them to the slightest degree"
They are human beings and yet the ideas strike no chord in their spirits. What is wrong? To assume that the fault lies with those who do not understand us is to make us helpless in the task of spreading our ideas. It is far more reasonable to assume that the fundamental truths we are advocating need to be communicated in ever more sophisticated ways. We need to study the reasons that people adopt or develop the ideas that they hold. I call this subject, "Developmental Philosophy."
Consider Ayn Rand, for example. She said often that she had held her basic ideas since a very early age. She developed her ideas essentially on her own. *How*? The answer to this question and others like it, related and unrelated to her, would obviously be helpful in the work of spreading Objectivism"
Theoretical and experimental work needs to be done to determine how people develop basic ideas, why they hold on to them despite evidence to the contrary, how they can claim to believe one creed and live by another, and much more. This is an area in which the disciplines of philosophy and psychology clearly meet, and on which Objectivism and writers associated with it (and others not associated with it) already have things to say"
We should start there and see what we can learn about the technology of spreading Objectivism"
The second point is that philosophy is a science, like any other. Personal attacks, name-calling, character assassinations and pointless psychologizing are just as inappropriate and ineffective in teaching or communicating philosophical ideas as they are in communicating ideas in abstract mathematics"
I do not think that tolerance, in any realm -- political, cognitive or whatever, is a primary virtue or vice. It depends, of course, on what is being tolerated and for what purpose. Rather, I consider intolerance, if it is directed at those with whom we wish to communicate, to be a method very unlikely to achieve the result that we want: the spread of Objectivism. We must keep in mind our purpose for communicating ideas in the first place, whom we want to convince and how we expect to do it"
To David Kelley's credit, he made it very clear that he had decided to speak to the libertarian group after careful consideration of the possible benefits and costs. He made it clear that he was acting purposefully. That his action was controversial should be a warning to us all that the ethics of Objectivism is no more a closed system of inquiry than any other part of this remarkable philosophy. There will always be a need for refinements, clarifications and corrections so long as we remain open to the expansion of knowledge.
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