Stinky Garbage on Honesty

 Posted by on 5 August 2005 at 10:06 am  Uncategorized
Aug 052005

Given my well-known views of The Objectivist Center, it’s rather strange that they still publicly list my “Objectivism 101” course for sale as part of “TOC Live 2003.” (Oddly, the course is not listed under my name; the named author is “The Objectivist Center.” I have no idea whether that is intentional or not, given that my name is still mentioned in the description.) It’s also rather strange that TOC continues to send me The Navigator, now reborn as The New Individualist. On rare occasion, I do peruse on issue. (Based upon the still-persistent complaints about the sheer boredom induced by the magazine, that probably means that I read them far more often than most staunch supporters of TOC!)

A few days ago, while frantically and fruitlessly searching for a Toastmasters manual, I picked up their March 2005 issue and began reading a commentary on the treatment of honesty in film by Frederick Cookinham entitled “You Can’t Handle the Truth!.” (The author is unknown to me.)

I didn’t manage to read far into the article before being completely confused by its random leaps from one random topic to another. So let me quote the first few paragraphs in their entirety, with a quick comment or two after each.

“You can’t handle the truth!” says Jack Nicholson in the climax of the 1992 movie A Few Good Men. This is a good theme for movies because it names a universal concern: that moment when I know a crucial piece of information that I may or may not decide to let you in on.

That’s a rather bizarre characterization of the theme of A Few Good Men.

It is also an important theme for a philosophy student to think about, for the same reason. It is an issue in which art is doing what art is supposed to do–making us aware and making us care about a moral issue–and philosophy is doing what it is supposed to do–helping us make the right decision.

But the purpose of art is not moral instruction!

Generally, honesty is a good thing. Everyone says so, but Objectivists–having a new moral code to explain, defend, and apply–have to come up with convincing new reasons to defend honesty, reasons based on self-interest. The Objectivist position has to cover four different kinds of cases: fraud perpetrated on others for gain, dishonesty toward oneself, dishonesty to defeat the bad guys, and dishonesty toward others for their own good.

Honesty is a contextually absolute virtue, not “generally… a good thing.” Moreover, although most people say that honesty is good, often that is no more than hypocritical lip service. I wonder: Why do Objectivists have to come up with “new reasons” for honesty? Is what Ayn Rand said about the virtue as the rejection of unreality wrong — or just unimportant? And why must we cover those four kinds of cases? Shouldn’t we understand the general argument for honesty before considering particular kinds of cases? The author offers no answer to such reasonable questions.

D.W. Griffith considered movies a new language. He had a point: we have now had a hundred years to learn the grammar of film–establishing shots, close-ups, reaction shots, fast editing, and so on–and also a common vocabulary of film. Moviegoers all over the world, speaking no common verbal language, all know what is meant by the scene in which Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs, or Victor Laszlo leads the crowd at Rick’s in singing the “Marseillaise,” or Citizen Kane’s giant lips say “Rosebud!”

Ack! I thought we were talking about honesty, perhaps in the context of firm, but now suddenly we’re talking about “the grammar of film”? And who is this “D.W. Griffith” guy? Not to worry, this topic will be long gone by the next paragraph.

Films, like any form of fiction, give us more information in their parables than a philosopher’s one- or two-line hypothetical, and give it more convincingly. A college seminar can shoot the bull so airily about the hypothetical question: Should the relationship of parent to child be considered one of ownership? I was present at that actual discussion, and the group decided yes, parents own their children. It was just a college seminar question, after all, and they were not in the least bothered by their own outrageous conclusion. But would the same group of students have felt so cool and unattached if they had been watching the episode of M*A*S*H* in which a Korean farmer sends his daughter ahead of him as he plows his field… which is mined? His family is hungry, and he can spare one daughter more easily than he can spare the spring planting, apparently. The student will be more engaged emotionally by a film than by a dry discussion of abstractions, and will therefore take ideas more seriously.

As a philosopher, I have a profound appreciation for the philosophic power of art. Students do generally regard philosophic discussions as disconnected from the concerns of everyday life. That’s one of the huge failures of contemporary academic philosophy. Yet notice that dismissive disdain in the above paragraph is not just directed at those floating discussions, but at philosophic discussion per se. That’s really, really wrong. (And I believe that the proper term is “detached,” not “unattached.”)

Wall Street is a typical cinematic product of the altruist world. The moral, in a nutshell, is that treed leads to downfall. American capitalist materialism, yadda, yadda, yadda. But the real mechanics of the story focus on dishonesty: if you are dishonest toward others, they are not going to just take it; they will defend themselves, and since dishonesty means pitting yourself against facts and truth, you lose.

Wait, now we’re discussing altruism in Wall Street? (In case you’re wondering, the typo of “treed” for “greed” is in the print version too.) Oh, but now we’re back to honesty again, but not in any clear way. Although I haven’t seen the movie in years, I suspect that the claimed lesson about honesty is far from obvious, if present at all, yet here it is asserted without any supporting evidence.

In few instances might dishonesty be warranted. Two possible excuses for not telling the truth are that your listener needs to be led to discover this particular truth himself, and that in war no honesty is owed to one’s sworn enemy. The first is heard in the familiar words of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Why didn’t she tell Dorothy the simple procedure for getting back to Kansas? “Because you wouldn’t have believed me,” she explains. “You had to learn it for yourself.” That reasoning flies if your listener is a child and you have responsibility for that child’s enlightenment, but not if your listener is an adult.

Wow, where did that come from? Certainly, people sometimes do need to discover certain truths on their own. Dagny Taggart could not have helped Hank Rearden by lecturing him on the proper relationship of mind to body. Apart from a few hints, she let him sort through the issue on his own in the course of their affair. But that meant keeping silent, not lying! So why is dishonesty supposedly justified in such cases? We’re never told. Nor are we told why some truths must be discovered independently, nor what kind of truths those would be. In fact, the only limitation on this license to dishonesty is its application to children. So I guess that it would be just peachy for a wife to lie to her husband to conceal an affair, since he “needs to be led to discover this particular truth himself.”

The chilling mirror image of Glinda’s “You wouldn’t have believed me” argument is President John F. Kennedy’s retort when his girlfriend, Judith Exner, threatened to blow the whistle on their affair: “No one will believe you.” Young Bill Clinton was taking notes.

How is this relevant to the discussion at hand? I have no idea.

The article continues in a similar vein, including little gems like “Here, Rand’s morality is revealed as one of positives over negatives, thou shalts over thou shalt nots.” The four particular lines of text highlighted in the print version are also interesting, although I should note that they surely reflect the choices of the editor, not the author. Here they are:

“Objectivists defend honesty as self-interested.”

“Sometimes dishonesty might be warranted.”

“Deception can be acceptable in wartime.”

“Need one tell a truth that can make no difference?”

Oh, what powerful and exciting statements in defense of the Objectivist virtue of honesty! They are sure to capture attention of the potential reader! Or maybe not.

All in all, the article is pretty appalling. It combines superficial, arbitrary, and just plain wrong philosophic analysis with unclear, jumpy, and confusing prose. Of course, that’s just par for the course for The Objectivist Center. The organization can rename itself and its magazine as many times as it pleases — but rotten garbage by any other name smells just as stinky!

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