The Night Watchman

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


Leonard Peikoff on "Warring Friends"

This essay was originally written some time in 1997, but I have not made it public before. I have been thinking of revising if before publication, but I found that very little revision was necessary.

The incontrovertible proof that Leonard Peikoff has left the narrow path of strict and scrupulous objectivity is the part of his lecture at Lyceum Conferences 1995, "Judging, Feeling and Not Being Moralistic"1) that deals with the issue of taking sides between warring friends.

Let me begin with some elementary syllogistic logic. Suppose a logician points to a visibly triangular shape and then gives you this syllogism:

All circles are round
This figure is a circle
This figure is round

The fallacy here of course is that the minor premise is a plain falsehood. An abstraction that is true has simply been applied to the wrong concrete.

Now take a situation that could actually occur in real life. A prosecutor wants to convict someone of murder, but he knows he has no proof or that his proof is too flimsy for conviction. So instead of trying to prove what he cannot prove, he delivers a lecture on the immorality of murder. This also can be expressed as a simple syllogism:

Murderers ought to be punished (true)
This man is a murderer (false or at best unproven)
This man ought to be punished (false or at best unproven)

But this is not merely bad syllogistic reasoning, it is also immoral, for to sentence someone innocent is immoral. (Agreed?)

Now, the part of the lecture I mentioned is supposedly meant to "help" people take sides in the conflict between Dr. Peikoff himself (and some others) on the one hand and George Reisman and Edith Packer on the other. But Reisman and Packer are not even mentioned in the lecture. Nor are any details of the concrete conflict mentioned. Thus, even if the lecture were completely valid as a major premise of a syllogism (it is not, and I will return to that), it would prove exactly nothing about the actual case. The syllogism may be stated this way:

In a conflict, always take the right side (uncontrovertibly true)
My side is right (unproven, not even discussed and furthermore a plain falsehood)
Take my side, or else!

But then, how do I know the purpose of the lecture was to make people side against Reisman and Packer? How do I know it was not just a "general discussion" (on the famous premise that "philosophers know everything in general but nothing in particular")? Well, if anyone doubts it, we have Dr. Peikoff's own word. In a letter addressed to Richard Sanford and Genevieve La Greca (who had asked for evidence rather that unsupported allegations in the case at hand) and dated 17 September 1995, he writes:

Since it is not possible for me to give you a lecture on the philosophical issues involved personally, I did the next best thing. I delivered some 30 minutes of relevant materials as part of a lecture on morality to an audience in San Francisco last month. These 30 minutes were specifically devoted to a refutation of your letters [i.e. to a refutation of the idea that moral condemnation requires evidence], although of course I kept the discussion completely abstract, mentioning no names of any kind.

What does this mean if not that Leonard Peikoff is on the "evil prosecutor premise" I mentioned above? He accuses people of murder, but he will not tell what murder has been committed, when or how; all he can do is keep the discussion completely abstract; all he can do is deliver a lecture on the immorality of murder, a lecture with which hardly anyone will disagree, anyway.

This should be enough to prove my point. But there is more. Because the abstract discussion itself is a web of sophistry.

Dr. Peikoff starts out with saying that if close friends of yours start warring and accusing one another of immorality, you cannot avoid taking sides. Now this much is true. In such a situation it is impossible for you to keep both friends, even though you might want to. Then he goes on to say that you cannot decide blindly: you have to investigate the matter carefully by asking questions of both sides. Again true (but then, who would disagree?) Then he says that one should be on the lookout for contradictions and/or plain lies, because the party that is wrong will sooner or later have to resort to those things. Let us stop here for one moment.

Dr. Peikoff could also have mentioned evasions as things to be on the look-out for. And he could have mentioned plain refusals to answer. But he does not. Yet a simple way of avoiding telling lies and avoiding one's contradictions coming out in the open is precisely this: to refuse to say anything at all. And anyone who has tried to get to the bottom of the "Reisman conflict" should know how relevant this is.

Neither does he mention hiding behind authorities as something to be on the look-out for. Yet this phenomenon is rampant in the current conflict. People on the "Peikoff side" are routinely hiding behind Leonard Peikoff's authority (when they are not referring to some "consensus" among "leading Objectivists"). And Leonard Peikoff, when asked, is hiding behind the authority of those others who are hiding behind his authority. (Kenneth Lansing's wise words, in The Fountainhead, about how committees work, seem to have been completely forgotten.)

But perhaps all this is implicitly subsumed under "lies and contradictions"? If so, Dr. Peikoff has simply given us an airtight case why we should side with the Reismans and against him and his associates.

Then Dr. Peikoff goes on to say that it is still possible that you cannot make up your mind, since the evidence is so "evenly balanced". Now, some people may think that the evidence in the actual conflict is "evenly balanced", but it certainly is not. It is overwhelmingly on one side, and you know which. But Dr. Peikoff goes on to say that now you must "call on all your resources". But this is fantastic. You should have "called on all your resources" in the first place. And then: you should ask yourself which of your warring friends is the most prone to rationalistic "building castles in the air". How are we supposed to apply this to the current conflict? Are we to tell ourselves, without further investigation, that George Reisman and Edith Packer are "castle-in-the-air-builders"? Well, actually we do not have to, since Dr. Peikoff's own reasoning (with "roundness" applied to something visibly triangular) is the most excellent example we may wish for.

It should also be noted (in case it has slipped anyone's mind) that Dr. Peikoff is violating a principle he himself has stated and stressed many times (e.g. in his essay "Maybe You're Wrong" and again in OPAR, p. 177). From a general observation such as "Man is capable of immorality" or "Friends are capable of betraying their friendship", one cannot even infer the possibility of Dr. Reisman's and Dr. Packer's guilt. Some factual information is needed even to infer a "maybe". A discussion about the generality does not establish anything whatsoever regarding the particular conflict. Yet all Dr. Peikoff is trying to do is smuggle a "maybe" into our minds.

But there is more, and worse. There is a lot of talk in the lecture about "moral agnosticism". Now, if a person refuses to take sides – if he refuses to even look into the matter, or if he remains undecided even when he has abundant evidence – then he may be called a "moral agnostic". On this grain of truth Dr. Peikoff tries to build up a case that one must side with him to avoid being accused of "moral agnosticism".

Note first: one is not an agnostic for merely saying "I don't know" when in fact one does not know. And one is certainly not an agnostic for saying: "I need more evidence than you have given me so far." Only an agnostic would ever call this agnosticism.

And furthermore: if one does look into the matter – if one does try to get the story from both sides in the conflict – and finds that one gets clear, non-evasive, factual answers from one side and nothing but rationalizations, ad verecundiams and plain evasions from the other side, then which side should one take? The answer is too obvious to need stating.

But this is not what Dr. Peikoff wanted to put over on a trusting audience, for if he had, he would have had to condemn himself and his own closest associates. What he wanted to put over was this: if you do not take my side, you are a moral agnostic. So you are looking for some evidence beside my mere say-so? Then again you are a moral agnostic.

But this is turning the concept "agnosticism" into the exact opposite of its actual meaning. The original meaning of "agnosticism" is refusing to take sides between reason and blind faith. The new meaning Dr. Peikoff wants to put over is: refusing to reject blind faith.

None of the errors I have pointed out are morally innocent. In fact they have to be designated as evil, since the only discernible motive behind them is sheer power-lust, which is a species of destruction for the sake of destruction. A great man's reputation is to be destroyed for no sensible purpose whatever; and a revolutionizing work on economics is to be prevented from being promoted by the very people who should be the first to promote it, namely the Objectivists.

But suppose I am overestimating the greatness of George Reisman and his treatise? It would not change my criticism one iota. For what Dr. Peikoff is destroying is also the philosophy whose integrity he is pretending to guard. What else is the meaning of the attempt to redefine "agnosticism" to mean refusing to take him on faith? What else is the meaning of the advice to resort to psychologizing when judging a conflict? And what else is the meaning of the policy of trying to inflict punishment on dissenters? (To take an example close to home, Dr. Peikoff does not want Ayn Rand's works to be translated into foreign languages by people who take the Reismans' side.)

Dr. Peikoff has once said that he wants it written on his tombstone that he never allowed anyone to water Objectivism down. [See interview with Dr. Peikoff in The ARI Newsletter, February 1993.] Well, strictly speaking, what he is doing is not "watering down", since water is a clean substance. The correct term is pollution. And it was Leonard Peikoff who once told us (in his lecture series "Objectivism: State of the Art") that "to be good is to be good all of the time; to be evil some of the time is to be evil". One should not say such a thing, unless one means to live up to it.

None of this is hard to see; yet it seems that few people have had the courage to stand up for the Reismans against the unjust attacks, and fewer still seem to be prepared to morally condemn Leonard Peikoff for his behavior in the matter.

One reason for this may be that people trust Leonard Peikoff because of his past record. But then people should know that a person's past record is never a guarantee for the future. Good people have gone bad before. (Old-timers may recall the events of 1968.) And people should also know that it is always the factual evidence that counts, not the "who says so?".

What, then, are we to do? In the name of justice we should speak out and not permit ourselves to be intimidated into silence.

But Leonard Peikoff is Ayn Rand's designated heir – and speaking out against the movement's leadership might hurt the movement?

Unfortunately we cannot resurrect Ayn Rand from the dead and ask her to reconsider her choice of heir in the light of what has come forward more than a decade after her death. I can guess how she would have reacted, but I have no telepathic contact with her spirit. I also believe that Leonard Peikoff was the worthiest heir she could have found. Was. And this is what makes his development such a tragedy.

As to "hurting the movement", nothing can hurt a movement more than leaders who betray the movement's principles. But then, strictly speaking, Objectivism is not a "movement". Objectivism is a philosophy. And a philosophy remains what it is, regardless of anyone's attempt to turn it into a pretzel.

John Galt discovered the Fountain of Youth on the top of a mountain, and then found it could not be brought down. Conclusion: whoever wants to drink from this fountain has to climb the mountain himself. People who have gone before may certainly help you find your way. But what are you to do, if the "accredited guides" do not want you to find the fountain and deliberately lead you astray?

Per-Olof Samuelsson

1) The very title of this lecture series, by the way, is ridiculous. If the issue is moral, one damn well should be moralistic. If you think otherwise, you might as well join the tolerationists. - But perhaps Dr. Peikoff merely meant "not being improperly moralistic"? Then I would like to hear an explicit discussion of exactly where the line of demarcation should be drawn between "proper" and "improper" moralism. There is no such discussion in this lecture series.

© 2002 Per-Olof Samuelsson
May be quoted freely as long as the URL to this web site is included. May not be quoted out of context.

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