Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Addendum to “Justice for Leonard Peikoff”

The following article was written by Glenn Jorgensen to address an issue not raised in his previous article.

I previously wrote about the fundamental issue in the Peikoff/McCaskey controversy; namely that McCaskey’s viewpoint is inconsistent with the principles of Objectivist epistemology and therefore Dr. Peikoff was right in demanding McCaskey be removed from the board of ARI. This addendum discusses another issue that deserves attention as well. For reference, see Peikoff’s private email to Arline Mann of the Ayn Rand Institute that was subsequently made public.1 The issue is a premise underlying the attacks leveled against Peikoff for making the statement “…I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism….” The premise in these attacks is altruism and, by implication, a lack of understanding what objectivity is.

As Objectivists know, justice demands judging a man’s character and actions objectively and granting to each that which he deserves. What Peikoff’s detractors don’t understand is that this principle applies equally in judging oneself. These detractors are demanding that Dr. Peikoff deny his own achievements. It is objectively verifiable that he is the pre-eminent living Objectivist scholar. Peikoff’s lifelong commitment to learning, teaching and writing about Objectivism has earned him this status. To validate this, one can listen to his lecture courses and read his works, including; The Ominous Parallels, The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy, Fact and Value, and most importantly Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. These works (and many others) make it clear that he understands Objectivism down to the root. And, as further evidence, he was considered by Ayn Rand as the person most knowledgeable of her philosophy and so she chose him as her intellectual heir.

Now let’s turn to the email referenced above. It is clear that Peikoff and some board members of ARI (I do not know who, or how many) had prior discussions over McCaskey’s continued presence as an ARI board member. The details of these discussions are not known, however, the evidence indicates the issue was not resolved in a timely manner. Whether the board’s inaction was a result of outright disagreement with Peikoff, an indifference to the issue, or pragmatism on the part of some members, or something else, is not known. What is known is that a resolution was needed on a very important issue, and one was not forthcoming.

Peikoff identified a fundamental philosophical disagreement between McCaskey’s position and Objectivism. In addition, while advancing Objectivism as a board member of ARI, McCaskey disagreed with the essence of Objectivist epistemology, thereby endorsing a breach between thought and action. This shows a lack of integrity and is an instance of the mind/body dichotomy; a dichotomy that Objectivism emphatically rejects.

Knowing that McCaskey’s position was inconsistent with Objectivism and that allowing him to remain would be equally inconsistent, what should Peikoff have done when faced with reluctance on the part of the board to removing McCaskey? For a clue to the answer, I refer to the following quote from Ayn Rand’s article The Age Envy:
As a rule, a man of achievement does not flaunt his achievements…If, however, he encounters an envious hater who gets huffy, trying to ignore, deny or insult his achievements, he asserts them proudly. 2
While I’m not suggesting the board members of ARI were “envious haters” this quote does identify an important principle; one must stand up for oneself and proudly assert one’s achievements when appropriate. Note that Peikoff gave ARI an ultimatum; choose either him or McCaskey. Peikoff, like everyone else, has a right to remove support from an organization if he thinks that organization is inconsistent with the ideals he upholds. Think about how much more important this is for Peikoff when the organization in question is one he founded, and one that has a mandate to spread the ideas of a philosophy that he is more familiar with than anyone else. A decision had to be made regarding McCaskey and when agreement could not be reached, Leonard Peikoff had every right to assert his status as the pre-eminent Objectivist scholar.

To suggest that Peikoff not assert his status when it is appropriate to do so, is to demand self-denial, self-abnegation, and self-sacrifice on his part i.e. altruism. If Peikoff had acquiesced on this issue, as many of his detractors are suggesting he should have, he would have been inconsistent with the virtues of justice, integrity, and pride as defined by the Objectivist ethics. And, as noted by Peikoff in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, when a person abandons even one virtue, this would lead to a compromise on all the Objectivist virtues, and to the eventual loss of the values one is trying to gain. In the midst of this entire controversy and all the criticisms of Peikoff, it is he who has been the most consistently objective.

This whole McCaskey incident has been disturbing to many Objectivists, but to a large extent for the wrong reasons. What is disturbing to me is that the attacks on Leonard Peikoff show that some very prominent Objectivists lack a thorough understanding of epistemology and ethics. It is interesting that these two areas are where the lack of understanding is, because there is a common concept uniting the two. Just as concepts in epistemology are objective, so too are values and the virtues required to attain them. Objectivity pertains to the relationship between existence and consciousness. It means adhering to reality and accepting reason as one’s only means of acquiring knowledge of reality. If one understands and accepts objectivity, one’s concepts are tied to reality and are formed in accordance with the requirements of man’s conceptual faculty; one chooses values and practices virtues with man’s life as the standard; and one judge’s people according to whether or not their ideas and actions promote man’s life. Objectivity leaves no room for dogma or whim when acquiring knowledge, choosing values, or judging people.

But, if one fails to grasp what objectivity is, one falls into the intrinsicist/subjectivist trap. Typically, a person like this embraces Objectivism as dogma, then recognizes conflicts in the two positions, but cannot resolve them objectively. They then swing to the subjectivist side. To such a person, the only alternatives when judging people are either dogmatic authority, or tolerance for all viewpoints. They will view the disagreements between McCaskey and Peikoff/Harriman as merely a “difference of opinion” between scholars. And they will condemn Peikoff as “authoritarian” for his stance against McCaskey. The possibility of an objective condemnation does not occur to them.

And, as Dr. Peikoff states in Fact and Value:
…if you grasp and accept the concept of “objectivity,” in all its implications, then you accept Objectivism, you live by it and you revere Ayn Rand for defining it. If you fail fully to grasp and accept the concept, whether your failure is deliberate or otherwise, you eventually drift away from Ayn Rand’s orbit, or rewrite her viewpoint or turn openly into her enemy.3
If Objectivism is to have a future, anyone who admires Ayn Rand and wants to promote her philosophy must fully understand objectivity and apply it consistently. This includes passing judgment objectively, and never granting equal status to truth and falsehood. But if they don’t grasp what objectivity is, they will either abandon the movement, or, in their attempts to rewrite Ayn Rand’s viewpoint, they will empower the enemies of Objectivism. This can only lead to failure in their goal of trying to gain a world wide influence for Objectivism.

(Thanks to Brian Phillips for very valuable suggestions in writing this article.)

2) The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, page 152