What's REALLY Wrong With Objectivism?
by Chris Wolf
Why do so many Objectivists insist on attacking the honesty, integrity, and character of their opponents? Are such attacks an aberration, or is this sort of behavior actually advocated by Objectivism?
Such attack behavior, so prevalent among Objectivists, is not supported and advocated by the fundamental principles of the philosophy of Objectivism. However such behavior is personally supported and advocated by Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and many of their supporters. Such behavior is a clear case of misapplication of the fundamental principles of Objectivism. (If you think it's impossible for the originator of a philosophy to misapply it; think again.)
Anyone who has had much exposure to the philosophy of Objectivism, or the Objectivist movement, has observed the endless moralizing and condemnation which seems to characterize the philosophy of Objectivism and many of its adherents. People who oppose the philosophy of Objectivism, or who simply espouse ideas at odds with Objectivism, frequently find their character, honesty, and integrity under vicious attack.
For example, we are told that an academic Marxist is not merely mistaken, but is 'evil,' and is guilty of practicing 'evasion.' People who are the victims of such attacks frequently come away baffled. They cannot understand how their character and honesty can be judged solely by the ideas they have proposed or defended. These personal attacks cause many people to hurriedly back away from Objectivism, and refuse to have anything further to do with it. The victims of such attacks frequently conclude that Objectivism is simply another nutty cult, not worth wasting time on.
Anyone who has had much contact with the Objectivist movement knows that it is far from being a united movement. On the contrary, the in-fighting, warring factions, and schisms would rival those of any religious cult. This seems very strange, coming as it does from a philosophical movement that proudly claims its devotion to reason and logic, and insists that its entire philosophy is an integrated whole.
The fact is, Objectivists are in violent disagreement concerning the applications of their philosophy. Of course, disagreement as to the correct application of any philosophy is to be expected. This is inherent in the fact that conceptual knowledge is not automatically given to human beings. Such knowledge must be discovered by individuals who are not omniscient. But in Objectivism, the disagreement is seldom polite. Friendships, marriages, and lifetime associations are constantly torn apart by disagreements among Objectivists. Obviously there is much more going on here than a simple academic disagreement over the proper interpretation of a philosophy.
To repeat, there is no flaw in the fundamental principles of Objectivism, but there is a very great flaw in some of Ayn Rand's applications and interpretations of the fundamental principles of the Objectivist ethics. This flaw is based on Rand's seeming inability to separate philosophy from psychology, and her insistence on making unrealistic and inappropriate moral judgments about other people. She makes claims about human psychology that are never proved or defended. The claims are simply asserted as self-evident philosophical truths. These claims fall into three different, but closely-related categories:
* Inherently Dishonest Ideas
Let us look at each of these categories, in detail.
Inherently Dishonest Ideas
Like any philosophy, Objectivism has begun to fragment into various schools of thought, each with its own interpretation of Objectivism, and with each school convinced that its particular interpretation is the correct version. This fragmentation has been accompanied by tremendous bitterness and character assassination. Probably nowhere has this bitterness reached such heights as over the subject of inherently dishonest ideas.
Currently, the two main schools of Objectivist thought are headed by Dr. Leonard Peikoff and Dr. David Kelley. Peikoff is supported by the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), while Kelley is supported by the Institute For Objectivist Studies (IOS). Dr. Peikoff considers Dr. Kelley to be a dishonest renegade; a dangerous man who has abandoned and betrayed the fundamental principles of Objectivism, but who nevertheless continues to claim that he is an Objectivist, and falsely claims to be spreading the ideas of Objectivism. Dr. Kelley mostly ignores Dr. Peikoff, having written Peikoff off as a hopeless intrinsicist. Meanwhile, the supporters of Kelley and Peikoff wage constant, never- ending electronic war with each other.
David Kelley was kicked out of the ARI when he disagreed with Peikoff over the proper way to judge a man's ideas. However, unlike so many others in the Objectivist movement who had met similar fates in the past, Dr. Kelley did not simply vanish into obscurity. As a professional philosopher, he founded the IOS and began promoting his own interpretation of Objectivism which has attracted many supporters (including myself).
What exactly are Peikoff and Kelley arguing over? What has caused yet another bitter split in the ranks of Objectivism? A great deal has been written and argued by both sides, but the fundamental point of contention concerns the judging of the intellectual honesty of people. In other words, when someone espouses a false idea, how do we determine if he has merely made an 'honest error,' or is actually guilty of 'evasion,' i.e., refusal to think? The difference is one of crucial importance. Under Objectivism, one does not morally condemn a man for making an honest error in his thinking, however one never forgives (or fails to morally condemn) a dishonest evader, because Objectivism considers evasion to be the root of all evil.
Concerning the question of judging the intellectual honesty of others, Peikoff and Kelley give two very different answers. Peikoff puts forth his position in his essay, "Fact and Value". According to Peikoff:
"Just as every 'is' implies an 'ought,' so every identification of an idea's truth or falsehood implies a moral evaluation of the idea and of its advocates." In other words, according to Peikoff, as soon as we identify an idea as true or false, this immediately implies a moral judgment of the person who is advocating the idea. In this context, 'moral judgment' means we are trying to determine if this person is being honest, or dishonest. If the idea is true, we assume that he has sought the truth. However if the idea is false, then we must decide if he has committed an honest error, or has engaged in evasion. In other words, we must determine the person's state of mind. Peikoff offers a simple test to make this determination: "The general principle here is: truth implies as its cause a virtuous mental process; falsehood, beyond a certain point, implies a process of vice." In other words, if your idea is false, and the falsehood goes beyond a 'certain point,' then you cannot simply be guilty of an honest error in your thinking. Rather, you must have engaged in evasion, which is the root of all evil.
By claiming that false ideas are the result of evasion (at least beyond a certain point), Peikoff gives rise to the concept of inherently dishonest ideas. Peikoff never gives a useful definition of inherently dishonest ideas. In his entire Fact & Value essay, there are only two places where Peikoff makes an effort to provide a definition of inherently dishonest ideas. In the first case, he states that inherently dishonest ideas are an "explicit rebellion against reason and reality." Later on, he talks about ideas that are "openly at war with reason and reality." So the two 'definitions' we have are:
1. Explicit rebellion against reason and reality.
2. Openly at war with reason and reality.
Needless to say, neither of these statements are definitions, except in an extremely limited, technical sense. As Peikoff uses them, they are subjective rhetoric, little more than figures of speech. They are not precise, and they are not objective. A false idea is one that in some way contradicts reason and reality. That's what it means to be false. In that sense, any false idea could be described as an "explicit rebellion against reason and reality," or said to be "openly at war with reason and reality." This is why such 'definitions' are largely useless.
On the other hand, if we take Peikoff's definitions literally, then an inherently dishonest idea could only be an idea that explicitly comes out against reason and reality; one that says specifically, "I'm against reason. I'm against reality." Nihilism might qualify in this regard, but Communism, egalitariansism, non-objective art, or channelers, certainly would not. Nowhere do these ideologies explicitly state, "Down with reason! Down with reality!" Yet Peikoff claims that such ideologies are inherently
In short, Peikoff's definitions of inherently dishonest ideas are so vague and subjective as to be worthless, except to dogmatic moralizers who can use such definitions to declare any idea to be inherently dishonest.
Peikoff does give some examples of inherently dishonest ideas, such as Nazism, Communism, non-objective art, non-Aristotelian logic, egalitarianism, nihilism, the pragmatist cult of compromise, and channelers. As Peikoff puts it: "In all such cases, the ideas are not merely false; in one form or another, they represent an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and therefore, against man and values). The originators, leaders and intellectual spokesmen of all such movements are necessarily evaders on a major scale; they are not merely mistaken, but are crusading irrationalists. The mass base of such movements are not evaders of the same kind; but most of the followers are dishonest in their own passive way. They are unthinking, intellectually irresponsible ballast, unconcerned with logic or truth."
From the above, one would conclude that an inherently dishonest idea is an idea that cannot be held as a result of honest error. In other words, an academic Marxist must be holding his Marxism as a result of evasion. He cannot be holding it as a result of honest error.
Needless to say, this notion of 'inherently dishonest' ideas is not philosophy; it is simply Peikoff's personal evaluation of Nazism, Communism, etc. Of course Peikoff is entitled to his opinion, but he is not entitled to present it as a philosophical principle. It is okay to say, "I have met many academic Marxists over the years, and all of them turned out to be dishonest evaders." However it is wrong to conclude that all academic Marxists are dishonest evaders. This is a false argument. No matter how many dishonest academic Marxists a man might personally have met, this can never be used to prove that all academic Marxists are inherently dishonest. Human beings simply aren't that predictable.
Even if we could somehow demonstrate that most academic Marxists do, in fact, hold their Marxism as a result of evasion, this still would not prove that all academic Marxists must hold their Marxism as a result of evasion. Because human beings have free will, and can make enormous mistakes on the conceptual level, there is always the possibility that a particular academic Marxist is holding his ideas honestly. In such a case, it would be a monstrous injustice to morally condemn such a man, solely on the basis of the ideas he holds. There can be no greater injustice than to morally condemn a man, solely because the other members of his group are known to be dishonest. Obviously Peikoff's 'certain point' at which an idea becomes inherently dishonest, is critically important. If we know that a man is holding his false idea as the result of evasion, then we can immediately morally condemn him. Unfortunately, Peikoff never tells us where this 'certain point' is, nor how to determine it. This means that every Objectivist is free to determine, on his own, the location of that 'certain point.'
What this means, in actuality, is that every Objectivist uses his own internal standard of reasonableness, and his own knowledge of human psychology, to determine the location of that 'certain point.' He asks himself, "Do I think it's possible to hold such an idea as the result of honest error?" Needless to say, one would expect different individuals to have wildly different answers to such a question. What this does, in effect, is to make the process of judgment, in the realm of ideas, totally subjective. One merely hauls out one's own guess, or estimate, based on one's own limited observations (or feelings). There is no fact of reality on which one can reliably base such an estimate. Such a process is about as 'objective' as Trial By Ordeal.
What does the concept of inherently dishonest ideas mean in practice? According to Peikoff, there can be no such thing as an honest academic Marxist. To become an academic Marxist, a man "must have" engaged in evasion. How does Peikoff know this? He will tell you that the evidence of the falsity of Marxism is simply overwhelming, and no honest adult could be aware of this mountain of evidence and still honestly advocate Marxism. In other words, this is simply Peikoff's psychological guess. It is not proof of any sort. Yet on such shaky grounds, Peikoff (and many of his supporters) are willing to morally condemn human beings, and declare that such people are dishonest evaders.
David Kelley's position is just the opposite of Peikoff's. Writing in his monograph, Truth & Toleration, Kelley states:
"Can we tell from the truth or falsity of an idea, and from its consequences, whether those who accept it are rational or irrational? This is the central issue on which Peikoff and I disagree." Kelley goes on to say:
"This does not mean that all errors are honest. People subscribe to mistaken views, in philosophy as elsewhere, for any number of bad motives. But it does mean that we cannot judge a person's rationality solely by reference to the content of his ideas." Kelley's position on the subject of inherently dishonest ideas is quite different from Peikoff's. Writing in his monograph, Truth & Toleration, Kelley states:
"I believe it is fruitless to define a category of inherently dishonest ideas, and then try to list its members. A more accurate approach would be to rank ideas on a continuum defined by the likelihood that adherents of the idea are honest. At one extreme are issues about which any error is almost certainly innocent. As we move along the continuum, the probability shifts toward the assumption that the error springs from irrationality, and proponents of the ideas must bear an increasingly heavy burden of proving their intellectual honesty." Kelley does not say where on the continuum he would place an academic Marxist. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Kelley would not automatically conclude that the academic Marxist is dishonest, solely
because the man believed in Marxism.
What the Kelley-Peikoff split ultimately comes down to is a disagreement over the psychological nature of human beings. Peikoff claims that some ideas are so blatantly false that they could not possibly be held honestly. Kelley claims that even a blatantly false idea has at least the possibility of being held honestly. As a result, Kelley would never automatically judge a man as intellectually dishonest, solely on the basis of holding a false idea. The same cannot be said for Peikoff.
For Objectivists, the choice of supporting Kelley or Peikoff is not a trivial issue. Not only has the Kelley-Peikoff split torn the Objectivist movement apart (and continues to do so), but it's also (and more fundamentally) a question of justice. If an academic Marxist is always dishonest, then one should morally condemn him. On the other hand, if it's possible that an academic Marxist is honest in his belief, then it would be a great injustice to morally condemn him, solely on the basis of his Marxism.
In his article, "A Question Of Sanction," David Kelley writes:
"Soviet tyrants are not evil because they believe in Marxian collectivism. They are evil because they have murdered millions of people and enslaved hundreds of millions more." Here we see a concrete application of Kelley's position. Just because someone believes in Marxian collectivism does not automatically make him evil. Such a man is only evil if he holds his Marxism as a result of evasion. If he holds his Marxism as a result of honest error, then he is mistaken, but he is not evil. Simply knowing that a man is a Marxist does not automatically tell us that he is evil; we must find out why the man is a Marxist. (On the other hand, an action, such as murdering millions of people, can instantly be judged as evil, using life as the standard of value.)
Needless to say, Peikoff would instantly judge Soviet tyrants as dishonest, even if they had never murdered anyone, solely on the grounds that such men could not be Marxists as a result of honest error.
The chief problem with Peikoff's claim of inherently dishonest ideas is that it's an extraordinary claim, requiring extraordinary proof. Peikoff is claiming that certain ideas (such as being an academic Marxist) are impossible to hold honestly, rather than simply being unlikely to be held honestly (which would be in accordance with Kelley's position). Nowhere does Peikoff offer proof of such an extraordinary claim. He merely asserts that the evidence against certain ideas (such as academic Marxism) is so overwhelming, and so readily available, that no one could hold such an idea honestly. Unfortunately, this does not constitute proof. It's merely Peikoff's own opinion. No doubt this opinion is based on many years of first-hand observation of academic Marxists, but nevertheless, it's merely an opinion, and not a proven philosophical principle. An opinion (even an informed opinion) is not proof.
It's critically important to remember that the notion of inherently dishonest ideas is not a philosophical principle; it's simply Peikoff's personal evaluation of a group of particular ideologies. Peikoff is saying, in effect, "I've known a lot of Marxists, Nazis, Channelers, and Egalitarians over the years, and except for the illiterate, the retarded, and the very young, they always turned out to be dishonest." Unfortunately, while this may give us a general idea as to the typical honesty of Marxists, Nazis, Channelers, and Egalitarians as a group, it tells us nothing about any particular member of these groups. Peikoff is taking an overall judgment about a large group of people, and applying it to individual members of the group. There is a name for this sort of judgment. It's called Collectivism.
Peikoff's evaluation of Nazis, Communists, etc., is actually only one step above racism. Under racism, all members of a group are pronounced evil, solely because of their physical characteristics. Under Peikoff, all members of a group are pronounced evil, solely because of their ideas.
In his attempt to establish the validity of inherently dishonest ideas, Peikoff resorts to incredible intellectual contortions. He tries to establish the concept of inherently dishonest ideas as a principle, and at the same time, he barely admits that it's not a principle. In his article, "Fact & Value", Peikoff writes about the leaders of inherently dishonest movements, such as Nazism, Communism, and Egalitarianism:
"The originators, leaders and intellectual spokesmen of all such movements are necessarily evaders on a major scale; they are not merely mistaken, but are crusading irrationalists." Let us very carefully note that Peikoff does not claim that it is highly probable or very likely that the leaders of Communism and Egalitarianism are dishonest evaders. No, he states very clearly that they are necessarily evaders (and on a major scale, too). This leaves no room for the possibility that such leaders could be honestly mistaken; rather it means that it's impossible for such people to be honestly mistaken. One does not use the term 'necessarily' when one actually means 'highly likely.' Peikoff's language is the sort one would use when talking about an absolute philosophical principle, rather than simply offering one's opinion or evaluation. Even the term 'inherently dishonest ideas' is misleading. If one is simply giving one's opinion or evaluation, one does not use the term 'inherently dishonest.' Such a term does not mean highly likely to be dishonest; it means that it absolutely is dishonest. Such a term can only properly be used to identify an absolute philosophical principle.
Having made every attempt to establish inherently dishonest ideas as a philosophical principle, Peikoff then gives himself an escape clause by declaring that it is just barely possible that someone might be a Communist or Channeler through an honest error. Peikoff writes:
"Even in regard to inherently dishonest movements, let me now add a marginal third category of adherent is possible: the relatively small number who struggle conscientiously, but simply cannot grasp the issues and the monumental corruption involved. These are the handful who become Communists, "channelers," etc. through a truly honest error of knowledge. Leaving aside the retarded and the illiterate who are effectively helpless in such matters, this third group consists almost exclusively of the very young." Notice the phrase "almost exclusively" in the last line of the above quote. This phrase destroys the principle of inherently dishonest ideas, and turns it into a rule, or generality. Even after excluding the illiterate, the retarded, and the very young, it's still just barely possible to have an 'honest' communist. In other words, Peikoff is admitting an exception to his principle of 'inherently dishonest.' If it's possible to have an exception to your principle, then it's not a principle. Within its defined context, a principle is absolute. If you have an exception, then it's not a principle; it's a rule. A rule is something that is frequently true, but not necessarily true. That's the difference between a rule and a principle.If you state that Marxism is 'inherently dishonest,' then you are making a statement of principle. You cannot then turn around and say, "Well, yeah, it's just barely possible to have an honest Marxist." By allowing for an exception, you have just destroyed your principle, and turned it into a rule.
The concept of inherently dishonest ideas may be a good rule, but it can't be called a principle, because it can never be absolute. As long as men have free will, and can be mistaken on the conceptual level, there can be no such thing as an 'inherently dishonest' idea. To claim otherwise is to wipe out the concept of free will.
The concept of inherently dishonest ideas is not a philosophical principle; it's merely an unproven psychological assertion. It's in the same category as Rand's other famous psychological statement of "No woman should aspire to be President of the United States." It's interesting that Peikoff and his followers are quite willing to declare Rand's statement about a woman President to be separate and distinct from the philosophy of Objectivism, but apparently are willing to fight to the death to defend the equally-shaky psychological notion of inherently dishonest ideas. It is also interesting to note that Rand herself never wrote on the subject of inherently dishonest ideas. Her writings and public behavior would certainly lead one to conclude that she did support the concept of inherently dishonest ideas. How else could she instantly conclude, on the basis of a single question, that a questioner was evasive and dishonest? Nevertheless, the actual concept of inherently dishonest ideas is not to be found in Rand's writings, although it's implied in many ways. For example, writing in her essay, "The Psychology of Psychologizing," Rand states:
"A man's moral character must be judged on the basis of his actions, his statements, and his conscious convictions." Obviously Rand believed that a man's conscious convictions (his ideas) can be used to judge his moral character as good or evil. In other words, bad convictions imply bad moral character. It's only one step further to the notion of inherently dishonest ideas.
The actual concept of inherently dishonest ideas seems to have originated with Leonard Peikoff. It is briefly mentioned in his "Understanding Objectivism" tape lecture series, and made explicit in his article, "Fact & Value." Thus it's very difficult even to defend the notion of inherently dishonest ideas as an official part of the philosophy of Objectivism.
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