The Night Watchman

A Small Beacon in the Night of Unreason
raised and maintained by Per-Olof Samuelsson

Untangling "Objectivist Schismology"

This is in response to an essay by Robert James Bidinotto, titled "Facts, Values and Moral Sanctions: An Open Letter to Objectivists". But first some preliminary remarks:

Until a few years ago I was a staunch admirer and defender of Leonard Peikoff. When his essay "Fact and Value" was published in 1989 I accepted and defended (in quite strong words) the view he set forth. I have never received a "Thank you" from Dr. Peikoff for this, but this is excusable, since what I wrote was written in Swedish (and no Objectivist in Scandinavia seems to have informed him of it). I never thought that Dr. Peikoff was infallible (since no human being is infallible, obviously), but I did not think that he would ever commit a major moral breach or betray the philosophy whose guardianship Ayn Rand had bequeathed to him.

I was wrong. I won't have to go into details on this; you can read my essay "Why I Do Not Support the 'Official' Objectivist Movement'".

The actions perpetrated by Peikoff against Reisman and Packer and whoever refused to side with him in this dispute made me think I should perhaps re-consider the Kelley issue as well. But, in David Kelley's own phrase, I have had "better things to do" and I haven't gotten around to it until recently.

Now to the Bidinotto article. Bidinotto takes a strong, uncompromising stand against Peikoff, and for that I have to give him credit. Nevertheless, I do not think his reasoning is correct, at least not in every detail.

To begin with, Bidinotto claims that "Peikoff's interpretation of Objectivism represents ... an unconscionable injustice against Kelley". [My emphasis.] I have to say to this that if one is the victim of injustice, the last thing one should do is make a plea for tolerance. If you are unjustly treated, make a plea for justice. The very fact that Kelley builds his defense around the issue of "tolerance as a virtue" is (whether intentionally or not) an implicit confession that he is not the victim of an "unconscionable injustice".

Note, in this context, that when Reisman and Packer were "ousted", they did not make this plea for tolerance. They simply expressed their contempt. And I myself have certainly not pleaded for Peikoff's tolerance, nor have I granted such tolerance.

"Tolerationism" is simply a profound error. Tolerance might be the proper attitude to take when someone inadvertently steps on your toe; this does not transform it into a major virtue. Kelley and his adherents sometimes use the term "benevolence" interchangeably with "tolerance". But it is as absurd to be benevolent toward everything and everyone as it is to be tolerant toward everything and everyone. One certainly should not take a benevolent attitude toward one's own destroyers. So do not ever answer an injustice with a plea for benevolence, either: answer, again, with a plea for justice.

Secondly, Bidinotto claims that "Peikoff's interpretation of Objectivism represents a subtle, yet profound, perversion of the basic thrust of Ayn Rand's epistemology". Now, I agree that Peikoff is twisting Objectivism to fit an agenda of his own; but unfortunately I do not think Bidinotto succeeds in proving this in his article. (My own proof will be presented in due course.)

In "Fact and Value" Peikoff claims that we may infer from a good act that the mental processes behind this act are also good, and from an evil act that the mental processes behind it are evil. To me, this sounds like solid good sense. But Bidinotto claims that this means that we do not judge the act as "good" or "evil", we merely judge the thought processes behind it, and in effect treat the existential results as some kind of artificial by-product of those thought processes; thus he claims that Peikoff arrives at the idea that the only real crimes are "thought crimes". Thus, Bidinotto subscribes to Kelley's idea that "good" and "evil" apply only to actions, not to ideas -- and then ascribes to Peikoff the opposite error. But this accusation is manifestly unjust. To see this, let me quote the relevant lines from "Fact and Value":

"Now, let us consider what is involved in judging a man's actions morally. Two crucial, related aspects must be borne in mind: existence and consciousness, or effect and cause. Existentially, an action of man (as of sunlight) is good or bad according to its effects: its effects, positive or negative, on man's life. Thus, creating a skyscraper is good, murdering the architect is bad -- both by the standard of life. But human action is not merely physical motion; it is a product of a man's ideas and value-judgements, true or false, which themselves derive from a certain kind of mental cause; ultimately, from thought or from evasion. Human action is an expression of a volitional consciousness. This is why human action (as against sunlight) is morally evaluated. The skyscraper's creator, one infers in pattern, functioned on the basis of proper value-judgements and true ideas, including a complex, specialized knowledge; so he must have expended mental effort, focus, work; so one praises him morally and admires him. But the murderer (assuming there are no extenuating circumstances) acted on ideas and value-judgements that defy reality; so he must have evaded and practiced whim-worship; so one condemns him morally and despises him."

There is simply nothing in this quote to support Bidinotto's interpretation.

I certainly agree with Bidinotto that it is the skyscraper that we admire and the murder that we abhor. That the mental processes behind them are good in the first case and bad in the second case is something we infer. Peikoff wanted to show that there is no dichotomy between mental processes and existential results, nothing else -- certainly not that it is "only" the mental processes we judge morally.

I think Peikoff's point is clear, but maybe it can be made even clearer. Suppose this skyscraper were demolished by an earthquake. Earthquakes do not have free will; so we do not condemn it morally. By contrast, suppose it were demolished by government decree. The we would condemn the government morally -- and we would even look for "thought crimes" behind this action. But does this looking for thought crimes mean we exonerate the actual demolition?

Neither do I agree that this in any way constitutes "psychologizing". To state that the architect's mind is good and the murderer's mind is evil is so clear-cut that the opposite statement would simply be self-refuting (an evil architect creating a glorious building and a good murderer committing a heinous murder?). Now, if one starts making speculative assumptions about how the architect's and the murderer's minds work (beyond the obvious judgements "good" and "bad"), then that would be psychologizing; and if one's first thought is to look for "feet of clay" in the architect or an "unhappy childhood" in the murderer -- that would be psychologizing.

And in fact it is Bidinotto's attempt to find a "hidden intention" behind Peikoff's words that constitutes psychologizing. Bad things may certainly be said about Leonard Peikoff's psychology; but they cannot be read from the passage quoted above from "Fact and Value".

However, there is a third issue on which I believe Bidinotto is right. The architect and the murderer discussed above are extremes on a scale, and the people we actually encounter in life seldom, if ever, fall neatly into one of those categories. To put it another way, there aren't just Roarks and Tooheys in the world, and there aren't just Galts and Taggarts. But Peikoff divides mankind neatly into "thinkers" and "evaders"; he also claims that "honest errors" are "not nearly so common as some people wish to think, especially in the field of philosophy", and that such errors are restricted to the very young. I agree with Bidinotto's criticism of this claim. (In another essay, Kirsti Minsaas points out that this claim does not rhyme very well with Ayn Rand's fiction; she cites Gail Wynand and Hank Rearden as two obvious examples of "honest errors" of a very serious nature persisting long into adulthood.) Peikoff points out that "honest errors" are self-correcting (while errors grounded in evasion are not). This is true, but it does not mean such self-correction is a quick and easy matter.

But even here, I have to point out an odd discrepancy in Bidinotto's reasoning: when later dealing with the varying attitudes among proclaimed Objectivists, he writes:

"One's sense of life -- whether or not one loves this earth, and is confident in his ability to deal with it -- will determine how he views and utilizes the Objectivist philosophy. There are those who see Objectivism as an intellectual map or compass to help them explore a world filled with wonders and challenges. But there are others who view Objectivism as a mental refuge or shield from a world filled with evils and perils. The former see Objectivism as a key to unlock all doors to a rewarding, exciting world; the latter, as a door to slam shut against a threatening, revolting world."

Observe that here it is Bidinotto who divides Objectivists neatly into two mutually exclusive categories! What he actually describes here are two extremes on a scale, just like the architect and the murderer above. Now, I do not know every Objectivist in the world, but I know some; and few, if any, of them completely fits either description; they fall somewhere in between. I certainly could not put myself in either of those categories. I know, intellectually, that the first attitude is the right and rational one. But I am certainly not free of the bitterness and disappointment that might prompt someone into the second category. (Whoever is, cast the first stone...)

Now I have to say a word about "meek little Immanuel Kant" (since Bidinotto sees "lack of proportionality" in claiming he "is more evil that Hitler and Stalin"). I would grant anyone that Kant's evil is not readily apparent, the way Hitler's or Stalin's is; before one passes such a judgement, one should at least know something about his philosophy, at least to the extent of having read Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. But the point of Kant's evil is not something Peikoff has arbitrarily superimposed on the philosophy of Ayn Rand: it was she who called him "the most evil man in mankind's history". (The Objectivist, September 1971.) ("Most evil", if anyone wants to nitpick, means "more evil than Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or whoever".) As to why she considered him so evil, this is probably known to this audience: his philosophy paved the way for their atrocities.

Also, it was Ayn Rand who once taught us about the two archtypes who, in symbiosis, work to destroy the world: Attila and The Witch Doctor. The Witch Doctor's crimes are certainly, in Bidinottos words, "thought crimes", while Attila's crimes are existential crimes, committed "out there", in reality. But Attila is in need of The Witch Doctor; it is he who provides the rationalizations. Thus, it is by no means a lack of proportionality to condemn him along with Attila; it is simple recognition of cause and effect. I mention this for a specific reason. That some Objectivists, myself included, get so furious with Kelley is not just due to the fact that he preaches "toleration" (that is a mistake that possibly could be tolerated) but that he picks "academic Marxians" as a specific target for toleration. If an "academic Marxian" is not a Witch Doctor, then who is?

Incidentally, I think there is a logical error in the "proportionality" argument. That there are degrees of evil does not justify treating a small evil as if it were good. E.g.: we might "reintroduce the measurements" and find a vast difference between Stalin and Clinton. This does not make Clinton good. But, having said that, I also have to say that when it comes to judging personalities -- who are usually "mixed" -- one cannot judge them rotten merely for being mixed.

Those are my main points. I have not covered every conceivable issue, since that would probably violate the "crow epistemology". But I would like to say a word about the "root cause" behind all those recurring schisms among Objectivists.

Peikoff says in "Fact and Value" that the root cause is some people's failure to grasp the concept "objectivity". I cannot agree with that. I do not think grasping this concept is very hard -- what is hard is applying it consistently, in every issue. And as long as men are infallible (which is a complicated way of saying "always"), failures of application are possible and will occur. (Besides, I do not think a person who has told me that his view on a certain subject is "objective to me" but cannot "be made objective to others" has any business even talking about the concept of objectivity; he should purge every subjectivist from the "movement" -- and start with himself.)

But neither do I agree with Bidinotto's contention that the cause has anything to do with "disturbing disclosures concerning Ayn Rand's personal life" or the fact that Peikoff made people's reaction to The Passion of Barbara Branden a "litmus test". (I believe he did; but that is his problem, not mine.) I read Passion when it appeared, and although it "disturbed" me slightly, I cannot say that those "disturbances" left a lasting impression. (I do not think this is an "evil" book; I merely find it stupid.) If some people "tolerate" this book and others find it an outrage, I regard this as a minor issue.

But I do think that a root cause of those schisms is that Ayn Rand is not read thoroughly enough.

For example, what does Ayn Rand actually say about the "movement"? This certainly has bearing here, because it is from this "movement" that Kelley and Bidinotto and Reisman and Packer and myself and numerous others have been "excommunicated". Nobody has been "excommunicated" from the philosophy of Objectivism. Such a thing would be a contradiction in terms. To be "excommunicated" from a philosophy would literally mean that one could be kicked out of one's own convictions. So what are Ayn Rand's own words? I quote from "To Whom It May Concern":

"I never wanted and do not now want to be a leader of a 'movement'. I do approve of a philosophical or intellectual movement, in the sense of a growing trend among a number of independent individuals sharing the same ideas. But an organized movement is a different matter."

Then she goes on to discuss some of the problems of NBI. But it would be extremely concrete-bound to think her words only apply to NBI. They apply as much to ARI or to any institution which attempts to "organize" Objectivists. (Incidentally, I believe Bidinotto will agree with me on this point.)

If Objectivism isn't an organized movement, what is there to throw us out of? If, on the other hand, Objectivism is "a philosophical or intellectual movement, in the sense of a growing trend among a number of independent individuals sharing the same ideas", there would still be any number of disagreements among us -- fur would still be flying and some shit might still hit the fan -- but there would never be such a subject as "Objectivist Schismology". There would not be the two "kinds of Objectivists" that Kelley and Peikoff have come to represent: the kind that condemns only bad actions and tolerates bad ideas -- and the kind that condemns only bad ideas and tolerates bad actions, even atrocious ones.

Now, is Ayn Rand herself responsible for any of the ugly stuff that is going on?

I think in one respect, yes. She of course was not infallible, but I think the one really serious mistake she made, and for which we are suffering, was her appointing of intellectual heirs. She once appointed Nathaniel Branden her intellectual heir, and we know where that ended. She then appointed Leonard Peikoff her intellectual heir, and today we know where that has ended. But the point goes beyond the personalities of Branden and Peikoff. Nobody could ever literally be someone else's intellectual heir. Nobody could inherit someone else's mind. And to bequeath one's mind to someone is to commit a double injustice: first toward oneself -- since it is virtually certain that the "heir" will betray one, even if the "heir" has the best intentions in the world -- and secondly to this "heir" who is loaded with a responsibility which is actually impossible to live up to.

How could Ayn Rand commit such an egregious mistake? Don't ask me. I'm not her heir.

Footnote (August 18, 2004): In a personal communication, Barbara Branden writes the following:

Ayn Rand did appoint Nathaniel as her intellectual heir, but after she broke with him she told me that that had been a mistake, and that she never would make such a mistake with anyone else. As a result, I believe Peikoff is her intellectual heir only in his own imagination, and that she never gave him that title. I have never seen any written or spoken statement by Rand that Peikoff is her intellectual heir, only in written and spoken statements by Peikoff.

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