Documents, Sanction, and Confusion

 Posted by on 1 August 2004 at 12:02 pm  Uncategorized
Aug 012004

This post is largely a response to the issues raised by Eyal Mozes in his long comment on my disassociation from The Objectivist Center, the Kelley split, the history of ARI, and so on. Let me begin with an issue that has been on my mind of late, namely the relationship between David Kelley’s initial short essay “A Question of Sanction” and his longer monograph “Truth and Toleration.”

In his comment, Eyal Mozes charged that “ARI’s entire policy on this matter constituted a complete rejection of the Objectivist view of independence, because it was based on the expectation that people will accept the condemnation of Kelley on authority, with no need for rational argument.” Don Watkins responded thusly:

This is either confused on dishonest. The Objectivist response to Kelley’s views is contained in Peikoff’s article “Fact and Value” as well as a host of other essays responding to Kelley’s essay, “A Question of Sanction.” The fact that Kelley chose to write a lengthier tract on these issues did not impose an obligation on any Objectivist to do the same. On the contrary, to do so would have been to grant “Truth and Toleration” more attention and respect than it deserves. (It is proper for Diana to give it that much attention given her history with TOC.)

I am in complete agreement with Don on this point. Let me indicate my reasons.

When I originally sided with David Kelley ten years ago, I regarded the lack of a response to Truth and Toleration (T&T) as quite telling. It seemed to be a tacit admission of weakness in Peikoff’s position, perhaps even an appeal to authority. At the same time, I was also rather befuddled by some of the claims Kelley made in “A Question of Sanction” (AQOS). (Given that I was brand-new to Objectivism, that’s hardly surprising.) The then-IOS certainly downplayed AQOS in favor of T&T; I followed that suggestion in my own thinking about the split. (In July 1994, a staff member at IOS said the following to me in e-mail about “A Question of Sanction”: “[It is] an out of date, 4 page essay circulated in March 1989. We do not want to encourage its continued circulation because _Truth and Toleration_ gives a more thorough treatment of the issues and that is where interested people should look.”)

But as I have pondered the arguments surrounding the Kelley split over the past few months, I’ve concluded that the major errors of T&T are all present — and are more apparent — in AQOS. (That was based upon my re-reading of T&T, noticing various substantial errors, then later re-reading AQOS.) Perhaps a critique of T&T would have helped confused newbies like me understand the issues better. But such a response was hardly incumbent upon Peikoff or his supporters, given that Kelley had already laid out the essentials of his views in AQOS, to which responses were written. In the Q&A of his Moral Virtue course, which was given after AQOS and F&V but before T&T, Peikoff explicitly said that he would not respond to any longer treatise from Kelley, since he had already addressed the essentials in “Fact and Value.” I think he was right to do that; life is too short.

Notably, T&T is not some fundamentally new and different document. It is an elaboration of the ideas found in AQOS, plus a few responses to criticisms of that article. As such, if AQOS represented a substantial departure from Objectivist principles, then T&T would too. Examples are not exactly difficult to find. For example, in AQOS, Kelley claims that he “cannot engage [his] opponents without conferring some benefit on them, in some indirect and attenuated fashion as buying their books, helping them retain their audience, or the like.” In light of such inevitable benefits to evildoers, he then outlines his method of deciding upon speaking engagements:

In any given case, therefore, I weigh the costs of association against the possible gains. Before I accept a writing or speaking engagement, I consider whether my sponsors are offering me access to an audience I could not otherwise have reached; or whether I would be helping them attract an audience they could not otherwise have earned. I consider whether my sponsors have a definite editorial policy or ideological commitment opposed to Objectivism, and, if so, whether they are willing to have me state my disagreement explicitly. I consider whether the format of my appearance would suggest that I endorse other speakers and their views. And I consider what I know of their moral and intellectual character. In weighing these and other matters, I am always looking for long-range strategic gain at minimal cost. That’s how you fight a war of ideas.

In “On Moral Sanctions,” Schwartz criticizes this view as pragmatism, writing that:

Moral judgment, and not some pragmatic calculation of losses and gains, is what must precede any decision about whom to associate with. As Dr. Peikoff makes clear (in his lecture “Why Should One Act on Principle?” and, much more extensively, in his forthcoming book on Objectivism), there cannot be any “cost-benefit analysis” of justice versus injustice, or of not sanctioning versus sanctioning evil (or of the alleged pro’s and con’s of any proper moral principle). The moral is the practical. No matter what the short-range appearances may be, there are no real “benefits” in acting unjustly, and no “losses” in acting justly. There can be no value in pretending that the irrational is rational. The moral principles of Objectivism identify the kind of action — the only kind of action — that is in accord with the demands of reality and therefore beneficial to man’s life. If an action is consonant with moral principles, then and only then can the question of costs versus benefits legitimately arise. Only then can various alternative courses offer genuine advantages and disadvantages that need to be compared. But the immoral — the unjust, the dishonest, the irrational — is by its nature the anti-life and can offer no value.

So we might wonder: Does T&T in any way counter this charge of pragmatism? Not one iota. Kelley merely repeats and expands upon his claims from AQOS. After a discussion of his idea that benefiting evil is necessary in the pursuit of value, Kelley writes:

Within this context [of participating in the marketplace of ideas], our goal should be to avoid aiding evil any more than necessary. We should make sure that any such aid is an unavoidable byproduct of a rational purpose. We should try to tailor our action so as to minimize such aid. And we should avoid the action when the evil is of a magnitude that outweighs the positive benefits of the action. These commonsense standards require that we weigh the costs and the benefits of an action, including the particular degree of good and bad that may result. This is not a policy of pragmatism, as Schwartz alleges. A benefit is a value, and a cost is a disvalue. The essence of pragmatism is not its concern with costs and benefits; that concern is shared by any value-oriented, teleological ethics, including ethics. The essence of pragmatism is its claim that costs and benefits can be measured without the use of principles. That is why, as the old joke says, pragmatism doesn’t work.

Moral principles tell us what kinds of things are valuable or harmful, beneficial or costly to our lives. They tell us which traits of people are virtuous or vicious, and thereby tell us whom it is in our interest to deal with. To pursue our interests, therefore, we must act on principle: the moral is the practical. This point is not in dispute. But Schwartz writes as if every action we consider is governed by a single principle. In fact, that is almost never the case. The circumstances in which we are normally complex, and the consequences various. We use principles to identify the goods and ills at stake, but we must then weigh the good against the ill, in the manner I’ve indicated. This normally requires that we consider specific degrees of good or harm. For example, we do not hesitate to put our money into savings instruments, despite the fact that we thereby lower the cost of loans to evil governments, because the benefits are substantial and the harm negligible. These are quantitative judgments, and they are not always this obvious. Such weighing of costs and benefits is the only possible method of acting on principle, and it is therefore morally required of us: the practical is the moral. (T&T 21)

Notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, Kelley’s view is most certainly a form of pragmatism. Objectivism holds that moral principles are contextually absolute guides to action, not merely means of identifying goods and ills for later weighing. In moral decision-making, we do not weigh the costs and benefits of honesty and productiveness against those of lying and thieving. The whole point of thinking in and acting on principle is to absolutely rule out lying and thieving in advance, since we already know that the apparent gains of lying and thieving are illusory in the context of a whole life. And then, as Schwartz notes, “if an action is consonant with moral principles, then and only then can the question of costs versus benefits legitimately arise.” (Notably, the plausibility of Kelley’s whole analysis rests upon the initial false premise that the pursuit of values necessarily requires benefiting evil.) Kelley’s view is fundamentally at odds with the Objectivist view of moral principles. I defy any defender of Kelley’s views to find a passage in Ayn Rand’s writings (or those endorsed by her) that even remotely resembles Kelley’s view as quoted above.

As such, Schwartz’s criticism of AQOS on this point is just as applicable to T&T; no separate response is required. (Of course, I would not say that all supporters of Peikoff have accurately represented or adequately understood Kelley’s views. And I do think that my own history with IOS/TOC renders a detailed commentary on the issues a worthwhile activity, if not morally obligatory. But those are separate issues.)

Eyal does have some justification to complain about the delay in my own detailed commentary on Kelley’s views. When I published my public statement disassociating myself from TOC, I expected to finish my longer commentary in a few weeks. That was a reasonable estimate, given that I had already written most of it. However, as I thought about and discussed the issues further, I realized that I needed further time and study to allow my understanding of the issues to mature in both breadth and depth. (That is not to say that I wasn’t wholly justified in disassociating myself from TOC when I did. Rather, my point is merely that a detailed philosophic analysis demands more.) Happily, I’m finally at a point where I can resume active work on the project, as I have over the past week. (I will, however, largely need to start from scratch in my writing.) Also, all of my reading, thinking, discussing, and writing about Kelley’s views last spring took time away from graduate school. So this summer, my top priority has been to write the papers to close out my three incompletes, two of which were from the spring semester. And that means much less time to write on the Kelley issue. (Frankly, I’m not sure when it will be finished. But I am working on it.)

However, I do not think that Eyal has much cause to complain about my claim that “at least some supporters of Kelley are honestly in error, either confused about the philosophic issues or confused about Kelley’s own views” just because my own analysis has yet to be published. That judgment is largely based upon my own intellectual history, as well as lengthy and lengthy conversations with past and present supporters of David Kelley, many of whom I’ve known for over 10 years. And of course, it was merely an observation emphasizing my rejection of the idea that all supporters of Kelley’s views are dishonest, not any kind of argument.

However, I should note that Eyal represents a very interesting case for me. Like a small number of other friends and acquaintances, he is very knowledgeable of and committed to Objectivism, dissatisfied with TOC’s course in recent years, yet strongly committed to the ideas in T&T. To be clear, the existence of such people does not raise any doubts in my mind about the substantial errors in Kelley’s views on moral judgment, sanction, toleration, and Objectivism as an open system. (That would be second-handedness, after all.) But I will be particularly interested in their responses to my future analysis of Kelley’s views, as I expect it will be illuminating for both sides.

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