Private Judgments and Cults of Personality

Apr 102012

On Saturday, I posted a notable comment on the thread of On Jim Valliant. (It was written in response to this comment from Jim.) It explains as much as I plan to say about my personal judgment of Leonard Peikoff, so I’m reposting it here, with some editing, plus an addendum on the “Premise Checkers.” Hopefully, these will be my very last remarks on these ridiculous WTFuffles.

Jim claims that I am “simply trying to conceal [my] true opinion of Leonard Peikoff from others” because “this would alienate a whole class of readers.”

That’s wrong, and it’s unfair. I am refusing to talk about my own judgment of Leonard Peikoff as a person because it’s a personal and private matter. It’s none of the world’s business.

Some years ago, I was friends with Dr. Peikoff. I didn’t discuss that publicly. Then, the friendship disintegrated. Again, I didn’t discuss that publicly. As usually happens when a friendship sours, I lost some respect for Dr. Peikoff as a person as a result of what happened. Again, I won’t discuss that publicly.

Basically, I regard my personal judgment of Dr. Peikoff as my private business, and I’m entitled to keep it that way. It depends on my private experiences, as well as my personal context of knowledge and values. For me to expose my personal conflicts with Dr. Peikoff to the world would be morally wrong. I won’t do it, no matter how much some people attempt to pressure or provoke me.

Other people can and should should judge Dr. Peikoff for themselves, based on their own experiences, as well as their own contexts of knowledge and values. Even though I might disagree with other people’s judgments, often strongly, I don’t regard the matter as suitable for public debate. That could only be a source of bitter conflict and pointless distraction at a time when our culture desperately needs an infusion of rational ideas.

My personal rift with Dr. Peikoff has not affected my intellectual judgment of his achievements as a philosopher. I don’t always agree with him, but his courses and lectures are indispensable to anyone interested in deeply understanding Objectivism. I’ve learned more from him than I can say, and I’m hugely grateful for that. That’s why I routinely recommend his lectures and books, and I will continue to do that.

Yes, I’ve had some serious disagreements with some of Dr. Peikoff’s remarks in his podcasts over the last few years. I’ve spoken publicly about some of them, partly as an expression of my respect for his importance and relevance to Objectivism. When my disagreements were strong, I expressed them in strong language — rightfully so, I think. I take full responsibility for what I’ve said, and I explained my views in my January blog post, On Some Recent Controversies.

As a result of expressing those disagreements, I’ve been unjustly attacked, harassed, lied about, and defamed on the internet. I can bear that well enough, but it’s an unpleasant distraction, to be sure. I’ve got better things to do than deal with the Premise Checkers and their ilk — as does every other rational and productive Objectivist.

That’s why I don’t plan to comment further on Dr. Peikoff’s podcasts, whether I think them right or wrong. I’ll simply talk about the substantive issues of interest to me, as I did in my recent webcast discussion of consent in sex. That’s a sad state of affairs, in my view: Objectivists should be able to discuss their disagreements openly, without worry that they’ll be unjustly smeared by a bunch of random strangers on the internet.

My critics can choose to interpret all that as me dishonestly concealing my true opinions of Dr. Peikoff. That would be completely wrong, however. I’m trying to be fair to a philosopher who has produced a fantastic body of philosophic work, who I’ve had a personal and private falling out with, and who expresses opinions on occasion that I think seriously wrong.

I will continue to expand my knowledge, pursue my values, cultivate my skills, act on principle, advocate good ideas, and enjoy my awesome life. Yes, I can do that while studying and enjoying Dr. Peikoff’s philosophic work, yet not revering or admiring him as a person.


The latest essay from the “Premise Checkers” — Diana Hsieh’s Subjective Morality by John Kagebein — aims to prove that I’m a moral subjectivist and a coward. That’s absurd, as anyone familiar with me and my work knows. (In addition to poor writing and poor argumentation, the essay seriously mispresents the cited exchange on Facebook. In fact, John and other soon-to-be “Premise Checkers” trolled a thread of mine with hostile comments that began with John saying, “Really, Diana? Your’re [sic] just going let the overt, mindless Peikoff-bashers have free reign on your wall?” It went downhill from there. Yes, I got irritated. Yes, I was rude. They earned it — in spades.)

The essay is informative on one point, however: it clearly states the basic moral standards and values of the “Premise Checkers.”

First, John is not merely concerned to defend Dr. Peikoff’s philosophic work, but rather his whole life: “Leonard Peikoff’s life, his work, stands nearly equal to that of Ayn Rand’s in the promotion of reason and Objectivism.” Then, after enumerating some of Dr. Peikoff’s accomplishments, John writes:

Every person who dares to call himself an Objectivist should have nothing but the profoundest respect for Leonard Peikoff and should demand nothing less from their friends and cohorts who also call themselves Objectivists. To fail to do so is an act of injustice!

That’s quite revealing of the core dispute here. The Premise Checkers are not merely lauding Dr. Peikoff’s achievements. They are not merely judging Dr. Peikoff to be a great person. That would not be controversial or problematic. Instead, they are claiming that anything less than “the profoundest respect” for Dr. Peikoff’s whole person constitutes as an intolerable moral failing in an Objectivist. That’s deeply wrong, even alarming.

Personally, I’m not interested in any such cult of personality — and I don’t wish to see the Objectivist movement transformed into that.

A person is an Objectivist or not based on his agreement with and practice of the principles of Objectivism. Objectivists can reasonably disagree amongst themselves about applications of Objectivist principles, as well as about issues outside the scope of the philosophy. Similarly, Objectivists can reasonably disagree in their judgments of any given person due to differences in their knowledge of and experiences with that person.

Some criticisms of Dr. Peikoff are unjust, but that’s not always the case. People can disagree in their judgments of him — or have less than “the profoundest respect” for him — without being irrational or unjust. Here, recall that a number of prominent Objectivists in good standing with ARI have conflicts with Dr. Peikoff. (He said in his statement on John McCaskey’s resignation that he is “on terms of personal enmity” with “a few longtime Board members” of ARI.)

Ultimately, to demand that every Objectivist experience and display “the profoundest respect” for Dr. Peikoff means demanding that some people ignore what they’ve seen and heard for themselves. Basically, it’s a demand for blind worship of a person — meaning: a demand that Objectivists repudiate the virtues of rationality, independence, and justice. Revering Dr. Peikoff based on your own judgment is not wrong. Loudly demanding that others do so, despite their own judgment, is deeply, deeply wrong.

If this cult of personality gains traction, the Objectivist movement will become insular, dogmatic, and repressive — as I’ve said before. Happily, I see much resistance to this trend, particularly from some of the most productive, benevolent, and effective Objectivist activists.

At this point, the “Premise Checkers” have revealed enough of their own premises, motives, and methods that I don’t plan to say anything further about them or their defamatory campaign against me. It’s just a waste of my time. The “Premise Checkers” will likely continue their attempts to intimidate Objectivists into their cult of personality. I hope that people resist, whatever their view of Dr. Peikoff and whatever their view of me. It’s a matter of principle, not personality.

Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth… thank goodness!


Several people have asked me about Jim Valliant’s recent public condemnation of me on Facebook. I’ve struggled with what to say about it because I think that Jim has judged me too hastily, based on some serious misunderstandings. He cut off our discussion prematurely, and much of what I say here is what I’d planned to explain to him. So I hope that he’ll reconsider his judgment.

Jim e-mailed me in mid-March because he wanted to write for “Checking Premises.” He didn’t wish to offend me, but he wanted to defend Leonard Peikoff against criticisms by others that he regarded as grossly unfair. In particular, he criticized Trey Peden, Kelly Valenzuela, and Jason Stotts in harsh terms to me.

As you might expect, I told Jim that I couldn’t look kindly on his writing for “Checking Premises,” and I gave my reasons for that view. As for the rest, that turned into Jim repeatedly demanding my view of claims made by Trey and Jason, usually framed in morally-loaded language.

I was perfectly willing to discuss any beef that Jim had with me — meaning, any problems with what I’d said and done. However, I didn’t think myself obliged to jump into the middle of Jim’s conflicts with other people, simply because those people were friends and acquaintances of mine. Speaking generally, disputes about whether one person has insulted or shown insufficient respect for another person usually generate more heat than light. A dispute about whether my friend Trey Givens insulted Jim’s friend Leonard Peikoff was sure to be hopelessly confused and painfully heated, in my view.

Basically, I didn’t want to get in the middle of conflicts between Jim and anyone else. Moreover, I didn’t think that Jim was entitled to interrogate me about the views of my friends. People can judge me on whatever basis they like, but some aspects of my life are private, and I plan to keep them that way. That includes many facets of my friendships.

My friends are my friends for good reasons, grounded in my own personal context and values. If I have a problem with a friend, I’ll discuss that with him or her privately. I don’t publicly announce every agreement or disagreement with a friend, even when substantial. I don’t feel any need to justify my friendships to others, and I don’t take kindly to insults of my friends from people who don’t know them. Hence, people ought to assume that I regard my friends highly, but not that I agree with everything they say or do. Some of my friends might dislike or even despise each other: I expect them to manage that civilly, with respect for my context of knowledge and values, as well as my independent judgment. If they can’t do that, they should distance themselves from me as needed.

I’ve been friends with Kelly and Trey for many years: we interact routinely online and in-person. I don’t always agree with them, but I respect, value, and trust them — hugely. I don’t know Jason well, but I’ve interacted with him enough to regard him as honest, careful, and fair.

As I mentioned, Jim attacked these people repeatedly in his e-mails to me. From the outset, I knew that those judgments were seriously mistaken, simply based on my personal knowledge of their history, personality, and character. In contrast, Jim has never met these people: he only engaged them online, and he did so for the first time recently over contentious issues. That, in my experience, is an easy way to misjudge a person.

Jim’s claims against Trey, Kelly, and Jason were not of a kind that could affect my own first-hand, in-person judgments of them, established over the course of many years. That’s why I told him that my friendships were not negotiable.

Unfortunately, Jim ignored or rejected my attempts to show that his judgments of these people were in error, despite my far better knowledge of them. After that, I declined to discuss them further with him, although he repeatedly queried me about whether or not I agreed with their views.

As I told Jim, I didn’t want to play defense attorney to my friends. Plus, I knew that any discussion about what others said was sure to become a terribly confused mess. For me to read Trey’s many controversial blog posts with a fine-tooth comb, trying to parse sentences for disagreements of substance versus style, would have been a waste of my time. Also, I wasn’t willing to pass judgment on a short phrase of Jason’s repeatedly quoted by Jim — not when its meaning and context were unclear to me. (The phrase was not from any public statement by Jason, but rather taken from a private conversation between Jason and Jim of which I knew nothing.) I said that I wouldn’t use such a phrase, but that wasn’t enough for Jim.

Instead of discussing the views of other people, I proposed to Jim that we discuss our own disagreements directly. I outlined my views on the date rape podcasts in an e-mail to him, but he ignored that. Also, as I told him, I thought he was seriously misinterpreting some of Peikoff’s remarks on controversial topics, which I thought was unfair to Dr. Peikoff and unfair to Dr. Peikoff’s critics. His reply mostly focused on Trey’s claims, yet again.

Basically, Jim was focused on what other people said and whether I agreed with them. I thought that line of conversation not just futile, but also inappropriate. I’m happy to defend my own words and deeds, but I didn’t see any reason why I was obliged to defend the words and deeds of other people acting independently of me, simply because I’m friends with them or because I’ve mentioned them favorably on NoodleFood. My refusal to discuss his charges against others was a matter of principle: his questions were intrusive and inappropriate, in my view.

In addition, Jim says the following in his Facebook comments:

[Diana] has also repeatedly indicated to me, without qualification, that she agrees with what Peden wrote in his attacks on Piekoff [sic] in this post specifically. Since she did not attempt to distance herself form [sic] any of it, I must conclude that she agrees with all of it, including the unnecessary personal attacks on Peikoff himself.

That is just not true.

First, I never claimed to agree with Trey’s public blog posts, nor his remarks on Dr. Peikoff. Instead, when I told Jim that I agreed with Trey’s arguments, I was referring specifically to Trey’s arguments on transgenderism from his private correspondence with Jim. (Jim sent me that correspondence with Trey’s permission.) Jim misunderstood that as a more global endorsement in his reply, so I explicitly clarified what I meant in a subsequent e-mail. Jim seems to have missed that, and the result is that he’s seriously misrepresenting me.

Second, I’ve not publicly commented on Trey’s controversial posts, either in agreement or disagreement, except to link to a post on transgenderism for its factual content. That silence should not be construed as agreeing with Trey’s other controversial posts in whole or in part. I’ve not publicly stated any opinion, and I don’t plan to do so.

Moreover, I’m not interested in stirring up any more pointless controversy among Objectivists. At this point, I’ve already said all that I wish to say publicly on some controversial topics, such as Peikoff’s views of transgenders. I’ve deliberately refrained from making any public comment about more recent controversies, such as Peikoff’s podcasts on date rape. Similarly, I’m not interested in discussing my private views of Objectivist public figures with anyone but close friends, as my views are personal to me and my context of knowledge and values. I’m certainly not obliged to discuss such topics, simply because other people are doing so.

If people find my refusal to say more than I have on these issues unacceptable, then they are welcome to judge me and act accordingly. Still, I don’t regard myself as obliged to submit to unwelcome and intrusive interrogations.

Based on his e-mails, Jim was deeply unhappy with my refusal to discuss what Trey and others wrote. I wanted to explain my reasons for that in greater detail, as I’ve done above. I didn’t know what the result would be, but I liked Jim enough from our interactions many years ago to make an attempt.

Unfortunately, that attempt didn’t go as planned. Jim repeatedly insisted that I respond to his e-mails immediately, even though my schedule did not permit me to do so. My mother was visiting, and then I had a lecture to prepare for Wednesday night. Plus, I wanted time to think through the issues carefully, rather than replying hastily.

Repeatedly, I told Jim that I was occupied with prior commitments, but that I would reply late this week. For reasons that I cannot understand, he found that unacceptable. He unfriended and denounced me on Tuesday evening.

Basically, Jim cut off our conversation prematurely, based on incomplete information and misunderstanding. That’s unfortunate, in my view. Again, I hope that he will reconsider.

To summarize:

(1) I value my friends, but that doesn’t make me responsible for what they say, nor imply that I agree with everything they say.

(2) I regard arguments about whether your friend insulted my friend as confused messes of fruitless conflict.

(3) I’m entitled to keep some of my views private, even when people inquire about them.

And that’s that, I hope.

P.S. I sent Jim Valliant a draft of this statement last night. He replied, but in a way that didn’t address my objections to his inquiries. In any case, he’s welcome to post that reply in these comments.

Dr. Peikoff on Objectivism Versus Applications Thereof

Jan 312012

On Monday, Dr. Peikoff released a podcast with the following question:

Do you distinguish official Objectivist doctrine from Ayn Rand’s personal views?

His answer was excellent: it’s a brief but clear explanation of the meaning and implications of the “closed system” view of Objectivism. That’s what I advocate, what I practice, and what I defended in my recent blog post. If you’re interested in these matters, I recommend listening to his answer. (It’s only 2 minutes, 31 seconds long.)

Here’s the transcription, courtesy of D Jason Fleming:

Philosophy is broad principles, about the nature of the universe, the means of knowledge, the nature of man, and then the value doctrines that all that leads to. All this is interconnected. In a proper philosophy, it’s one system, as in Objectivism.

Now that does not mean that every specific application of that philosophy is inherent in the philosophy. A philosopher can hold views that do not necessarily follow from the philosophy, but are its application to a realm where facts are established by science, or observation, or some other appropriate means.

Philosophy is wide abstractions. That does not entail specific choices or specific interpretations of how they apply to concretes. For instance, take my theory of history presented in the DIM book. I make a definite distinction between official Objectivst doctrine and Peikoff’s theory of history. Now, I believe that my theory is based on Objectivism, but it does not follow from Objectivism, it is not therefore Objectivism as such. It is my application and each person has to decide is this the correct application or not? It is not subjective, but it’s still not a question of what is the philosophy, but what is its applications? And in that regard, Ayn Rand and I and others can disagree without anybody contradicting the philosophy.

Remember also that there are personal options in applying broad philosophic principles. You can say that, for instance, “sex is good” is a philosophic principle, but that does not necessitate any special particular position or clothing, et cetera. It does specify that the general principles of morality apply, such as fraud, force, evasion, et cetera. But as apart from that, there are many different interpretations and complete options which would be personal, not official.

So: yes, but without that implying a contradiction or a subjective viewpoint.

Hear, hear!


Yesterday on Facebook, I was alerted to a new web site attacking me: The web site claims to be “in response to the danger that some, who may seem in agreement with the philosophy, are in fact subverting it.” It has pages on “The Brandens,” “David Kelley,” and “Libertarianism,” with a few perfunctory links. Then, under “Current Controversies,” you’ll find six pages on me, albeit with little of substance. The site claims:

We believe [Diana Hsieh] has revealed herself to not understand and/or to not agree with certain aspects of Objectivism. In addition, we have serious concerns about the nature, frequency, and tone of her public disagreements with Dr. Leonard Peikoff.

The purpose of the web site is clearly to attack me, and I was expecting that something like that might happen. As many of you know, a handful of people have been loudly condemning me on Facebook in recent weeks, demanding that our mutual friends un-friend me, and so on.

The site is not something that I can take too seriously. A handful of people — none of whom I know, except to barely recognize a few names — think poorly of me. Mostly, I regard the site as an embarrassment to Objectivism: it deserves to disappear into the ether.

For obvious reasons, the creators and supporters of this web site are not welcome in my life, including online. They are not entitled to post belligerent comments on my Facebook wall or in these NoodleFood comments, as happens periodically. They should have had the good sense to unsubscribe themselves from my OLists, rather than obliging me to remove them. Most of all, they’re not entitled to violate my rights, such as by reposting video segments from my webcast without my permission. (Happily, I was able to remove such a video with a DMCA takedown request.)

Here, I’d like to explain my views on some of the controversial topics, so that anyone confused by this brouhaha can know where I stand and judge me accordingly. If you have any further questions, please e-mail me privately.

For me, discussion between thoughtful and friendly Objectivists — not just on the proper application of our common philosophic principles, but on a wide range of practical topics — is a huge value. In such discussions, reasonable people will disagree from time to time, particularly on complex topics. Such disagreements can provide an excellent opportunity to question assumptions, consider new facts, understand opposing views, and more. That’s a value to me — and to many others too.

Such friendly discussion doesn’t happen automatically: it requires purposeful effort. The people involved in the discussion need to focus on the substantive issues. They need to strive to be rational and benevolent, including in their assumptions about and treatment of others. They need to give others the necessary time to think through the issues on their own. They need to consider the judgments of experts carefully, yet come to their own rational, independent conclusions. By such means, disagreements can be friendly, or at least civil, and even a passionate disagreement need not cause rifts among good people.

I learn lots through such discussions with my fellow Objectivists, and I hope that others do too. That’s part of the purpose of the various OLists, and I’m proud of the success of those lists.

If Objectivists don’t nourish and protect that kind of rational culture, then a self-destructive culture of suspicion, hostility, and dogmatism will take its place. Then, any disagreement — even if trivial, even if outside the scope of Objectivism — will become grounds for denouncing someone else as dishonest and attempting to ostracize them. Any connection with a condemned person will be grounds for your condemnation too. People will fear speaking their minds, and some will even forego thinking for themselves.

That kind of repressive culture actively undermines the virtues of rationality, justice, and independence. It’s not compatible with the fundamental principles of Objectivism, nor is it the kind of culture that can revitalize America.

To promote a rationally benevolent Objectivist culture does not mean eschewing moral judgment, nor that every Objectivist will join hands to sing kumbaya. A person may falsely describe himself as an Objectivist, meaning that he rejects core principles of the philosophy in word and deed. Such people, as well as the dishonest critics of Objectivism, should be judged and treated according to their merits (or lack thereof). Moreover, some Objectivists just might not wish to work together due to personal conflicts. That’s to be expected — and while sometimes unfortunate, that’s hardly unusual for intellectual movements.

As for me, I occasionally disagree with other Objectivists — including with scholars and intellectuals who I like and respect — on various topics. When their publicly-stated views are relevant to my projects or of sufficient interest to me, I might discuss my disagreement publicly. That’s been my longstanding policy. People familiar with my history know that I’ve spoken out on controversial topics before, and that I’ve sometimes taken heat for doing so. That’s nothing new for me.

Of course, I’m always interested in substantive arguments against my views. I’m happy to change my mind when I see that I’m wrong — or at least to accept that my opponents have a better case than I realized. However, I’ll never accept someone else’s say-so, nor hide my views because I think they might be unpopular. That’s just not the kind of person I am, nor the kind of person that I’d ever want to be.

As it happens, Dr. Peikoff has said some things in recent podcasts that I disagree with, sometimes very strongly. Twice, I’ve made my disagreement known — in my webcast discussions of compulsory juries (May 2011) and the transgendered (Oct 2011). (In the debate about the NYC Mosque, I blogged my view before Dr. Peikoff’s podcast on the topic, and I continued to disagree with him on that issue.) Given that Dr. Peikoff and I happen to share some similar interests in practical philosophy, such periodic disagreements are hardly surprising.

On the whole, I’ve tried to be careful in my tone and manner, as is evident from my writings on the NYC Mosque and John McCaskey’s Resignation. Alas, I didn’t take proper care in my discussion of compulsory juries. Unfortunately, some people wrongly interpreted my enthusiasm for the topic as enthusiasm for criticizing Dr. Peikoff. I didn’t intend any disrespect, and I regret that I could be interpreted that way. (I say more on this later.)

Because I expect to disagree with other Objectivists from time to time, particularly on applications of the philosophy, I don’t regard my occasional disagreements with Dr. Peikoff as of much significance. I almost always agree with him, so disagreements are a kind of interesting philosophical mystery that I like to unpack. Sometimes, after further reflection, I find that I was wrong, and that Dr. Peikoff is right. But that’s not always the case.

Of course, I regard Dr. Peikoff’s books and courses as a huge value: I’ve learned more from him over the past two decades than I can properly express. As I routinely tell people, anyone who wants to deeply understand Objectivism simply must read his books and listen to his major courses. Nonetheless, I’ve never thought myself duty-bound to agree with Dr. Peikoff, nor to be silent about any disagreements, due to that appreciation for his work. To remain silent would not be respectful: it would be either patronizing or cowardly.

Unfortunately, a few Objectivists seem to regard any disagreement with Dr. Peikoff as some kind of personal attack on him. That’s wrong. To criticize a person as wrong — even very seriously wrong — on some particular issue is not the same as condemning the person. Good people can be very seriously wrong sometimes. To personalize mere disagreements over ideas by interpreting them as personal attacks is unwarranted, as well as unfair. It’s also toxic to the Objectivist movement, as that approach erodes the much-needed culture of independent thinking and rational judgment.

Notably, my occasional disagreements with Dr. Peikoff and other Objectivists are not disagreements about the principles of Objectivism — like that humans have free will or that integrity is a virtue. At most, they concern the application of Objectivist principles to circumstances and questions not considered by Ayn Rand. As such, they’re outside the scope of Objectivism. They are the kinds of peripheral issues about which Objectivists sometimes disagree, and when they do, they should do so civilly, particularly if they wish to succeed in their own lives and change the culture.

Remember, Objectivism does not encompass all philosophic truth. It’s the philosophy developed by Ayn Rand, and it’s a closed system. Hence, even the best scholarly work done by Objectivists since Ayn Rand’s death cannot be regarded as part of Objectivism. As Leonard Peikoff himself explains in Fact and Value:

“Objectivism” is the name of Ayn Rand’s achievement. Anyone else’s interpretation or development of her ideas, my own work emphatically included, is precisely that: an interpretation or development, which may or may not be logically consistent with what she wrote. In regard to the consistency of any such derivative work, each man must reach his own verdict, by weighing all the relevant evidence. The “official, authorized doctrine,” however, remains unchanged and untouched in Ayn Rand’s books; it is not affected by any interpreters.

Objectivism doesn’t have a theory of induction or a theory of children’s rights. It doesn’t tell us who to vote for in 2012 or whether Agora was a good movie. Many Objectivists have views on these topics, and those views might be more or less consistent with Objectivist principles. However, there is simply no such thing as “the Objectivist position” on the NYC Mosque or “the Objectivist position” on gun rights or “the Objectivist theory of induction.” (People often loosely describe new philosophic works that are consistent with and based on Objectivism as “Objectivist,” and that’s fine. However, such works are not part of the “official, authorized doctrine” of Objectivism.)

To claim that my few disagreements with Dr. Peikoff on issues outside the scope of Objectivism prove that I don’t understand or don’t agree with Objectivism is just plain wrong. Although Dr. Peikoff understands Objectivism thoroughly, he’s not immune from error, particularly in the application of Objectivist principles to current events or new questions. Everyone must judge for himself the truth of Dr. Peikoff’s claims, as well as their consistency with Objectivism.

Personally, I take the closed system view of Objectivism very seriously, particularly because I thought long and hard about it some years ago. (See my essays Ayn Rand on David Kelley and The Open System, One More Time.) I’m an Objectivist because I agree with and practice the principles of Objectivism. I don’t claim to speak for Objectivism, nor do I regard my new philosophic work as part of Objectivism. (That’s part of the reason why my webcast is “Philosophy in Action,” not “Objectivism in Action.”) I regard my philosophic work as compatible with Objectivism. But it is my own work, and others can and ought to judge its compatibility for themselves. As always, I welcome substantive comments and criticisms, particularly from an Objectivist perspective.

As for some of the particular objections raised against me, I’d like to explain a few points that might not be apparent from a distance. (I’ve explained much of what follows to people who inquired with me, usually to their satisfaction. A person’s action and motives are often not what others suppose from afar. That’s why justice often requires inquiring with a person about the facts in a civil way before judgment.)

NYC Mosque

All of Paul’s and my blog posts are collected here, in reverse order: NYC Mosque.

This issue was hugely controversial among Objectivists. It is a complex and difficult subject, partly because the debate concerned what people ought to do given that our government refuses to do the right thing, namely protect us against terrorist threats from Islamists by declaring war against states that sponsor terrorism. With the proper course closed off, our only options were “bad” and “worse,” and Objectivists were arguing over which was which. (That’s similar to debates about the proper rules for government schools: since government schools ought not exist, plausible arguments can often be made both for and against some proposed rule.)

I stand by the concerns that Paul and I raised in our blog posts, but I understand — mostly thanks to Amy Peikoff’s posts — why others saw the matter differently. I was, and still am, disturbed by Dr. Peikoff’s manner in his podcast discussion, and I found much of his argument unpersuasive on its own.

Mostly though, I think that Objectivists ought to be able to disagree about this kind of topic in a friendly or at least civil way.

John McCaskey’s Resignation

Paul and I have already said all that we wish to say about this matter in these posts. We think that our concerns about Dr. Peikoff’s letter were warranted, and we think that the dispute between Dr. Peikoff and Dr. McCaskey could and should have been handled better by ARI.

Compulsory Juries

As I said earlier, I should have been more careful in how I expressed my disagreement with Dr. Peikoff in my webcast discussion of compulsory juries. As my regular webcast viewers know, I love wrangling with difficult issues, particularly when I think I can cut through them clearly. I was enthused about this particular topic, and I knew that my arguments on it were solid. I didn’t intend any disrespect to Dr. Peikoff: I was too focused on the substantive issues to even think about that. That was a mistake, of course, and I don’t intend to repeat it. (It’s easy to make such errors in speaking extemporaneously, as everyone who speaks extemporaneously knows.)

My views on the issue have not changed: I do not think that compulsory juries are compatible with individual rights, particularly given Ayn Rand’s clear rejection of the draft and compulsory taxation. Moreover, a compulsory jury is an attempt to force men to think, and that’s something that Ayn Rand knew to be impossible and dangerous. Also, I think that my summary of Dr. Peikoff’s stated views was fair. Mostly, I quoted him at some length. Although he was uncertain whether juries would be used in a free society, he clearly stated that they could be compulsory, if so.

Dr. Peikoff didn’t offer any substantive justification for his views in his two podcasts. After my webcast, Amy Peikoff attempted to defend his view in this blog post by appealing to tacit consent to a social contract. Her argument fails for the reasons given in this comment by NS. (When preparing for the webcast, I thought that Dr. Peikoff’s remarks perhaps suggested an appeal to social contract. However, I never would have attributed that view to him, not even provisionally, because I’ve long known that social contract theory is wholly incompatible with individual rights.) Also, for more on the errors of social contract theory, I’d strongly recommend reading Harry Binswanger’s April 29th, 2011 post to HBL. (That’s only available to subscribers of HBL, but it was sent to me as the “HBL Monthly Enticement” on May 30th, 2011.)

I’ve not yet seen any plausible defense of Dr. Peikoff’s views, and I hope that he reconsiders his position at some point.


I discussed the rights of the the severely mentally disabled in a May 2011 webcast. My basic view is that normal children, as well as mentally impaired children, have all the usual rights to care from their parents. However, in the rare cases of complete mental incapacity — such as in the horrifically tragic cases of anencephalic babies, where only the brain stem exists — rights cannot apply. Rights are not inherent in our DNA; they’re based on the role of reason in man’s survival. Hence, if a child is proven in court to have zero current or future capacity to reason — or, as in the case of the anencephalic, not even the potential for consciousness — then that child could be humanely enthanized by its parents.

On hearing this view, any thinking person will immediately inquire about the logical implications of saying that anencephalic babies have no rights. Consider the extreme cases: Does that mean that they could be treated like any other animal, e.g. used for medical experiments, kept as a pet, or even eaten for food? (UGH!) The thought is repulsive, undoubtedly, but that’s not a reason to refuse to think about it. An honest person’s thinking is guided by facts, not emotions, and refusing to examine the logical implications of views under consideration is just evasion. (I was asked about this very issue in a discussion over dinner with some Objectivist friends prior to the webcast. It’s a natural question.)

In the webcast, I said that using such babies as a food source, even if legally permitted, would be morally horrifying. That feeling would be pretty near universal, however, so I couldn’t imagine that any kind of widespread problem with that would ever exist. That wasn’t a pleasant thing to say, but I didn’t want to evade the question.

Later, someone seemingly determined to misrepresent what I said in the webcast — as if I was all in favor of eating babies for breakfast — questioned me about my views. Part of that discussion showed up in these NoodleFood comments. I found the whole discussion pointless and irritating, but I was thinking through my views as I posted comments. Hence, some of what I said earlier in that thread is definitely wrong. My current view can be found in this comment. Basically, I can imagine a few far-fetched scenarios in which consuming human flesh would not be horrifyingly immoral, provided that no rights were violated in doing so. (I’m still uncertain about Case #3: I feel an overwhelming sense of revulsion at the thought of doing that, but I’m uncertain that every rational person would necessarily feel that way. When in doubt, I will not condemn.)

The whole topic is so ridiculously far-fetched that I just can’t see any point in further discussion of it. I’d be far more interested to hear a well-reasoned defense of some kind of legal protections for anencephalic babies, even if not rights. (That could have fascinating implications for laws pertaining to the treatment of animals.) Of course, any such attempt would have to be based on the Objectivist theory of rights, as opposed to the intrinsicist view. That intrisicist view says that rights are inherent in human nature, and it leads to granting rights to zygotes.

If anyone wants to assess my understanding of rights, I’d recommend reading my two published writings on the nature and basis of abortion rights, both co-authored with Ari Armstrong:

I’d also recommend reading my two graduate papers on the follies of animal rights:

The second paper discusses what rights humans without any capacity for rational thought might have, and the implications of that for claims about animal rights.

The Transgendered

I strongly disagree with Dr. Peikoff’s moral condemnation of the transgendered and their surgeons. In this December 13th, 2010 podcast, he claims that transgenders are engaged in “a war against reality.” He also says that the doctors who perform sexual reassignment surgery are “corrupt without qualification,” and he likens them to the doctors who performed experiments in Nazi concentration camps. In this June 20th, 2011 podcast, he claims that a person’s sex is immutable, that sexual reassignment surgery does not change it, and that such surgery destroys a person’s capacity for sexual enjoyment. In this January 2nd, 2012 podcast, he says that transsexualism is a “metaphysical assault on reality” and “a thorough corruption” that he would “never voluntarily associate with.” He thinks that gay groups should be opposed if they welcome transsexuals. (Note: This third podcast was posted after my webcast discussion.)

I briefly registered my strong disagreement in this webcast discussion: Restrooms for the Transgendered in Transition. I regard Dr. Peikoff’s views on this subject as terribly ill-informed and his moral condemnations as unjustified. I was particularly disappointed because his moral condemnation of transsexualism seems exactly like the moral arguments against homosexuality that used to be common in Objectivist circles.

Given that I know some transgendered Objectivists — and that OHomos @ welcomes transgenders — I didn’t want to remain silent about these repeated public condemnations of the transgendered, particularly not when I was answering a question on the transgendered in my webcast. Others have spoken up too, and I’m glad of that. People — particularly the transgendered — should know that Dr. Peikoff doesn’t necessarily speak for other Objectivists on this topic. Also, I wanted transgender Objectivists to feel welcome in the forums that I manage.

In the webcast, I said that Dr. Peikoff’s comments on this topic are “horribly ignorant” and “armchair philosophizing.” I stand by those remarks, strongly-worded as they are. Dr. Peikoff doesn’t seem to be aware of the basic claims about the psychology of transgenderism. He would likely disagree with those claims, but a fair judgment of the transgendered and their doctors requires some familiarity with them. His remarks are premised on other critical factual errors, as Trey Givens discusses in this blog post. Moreover, in light of the strength and vehemence of Dr. Peikoff’s repeated condemnations of the transgendered, I don’t think my language was out-of-proportion. Of course, my criticisms are limited to his comments on this particular topic, which I regard as a striking exception to the keen insight that I’ve enjoyed in Dr. Peikoff’s lecture courses, time and again.

Privacy Lies

For many years — probably more than a decade — I’ve been interested in the question of the morality of lies to protect one’s privacy. That’s part of my broader interest in the virtue of honesty — as evidenced by my two published papers on the topic: “Dursley Duplicity: The Morality and Psychology of Self-Deception” in Harry Potter and Philosophy and “False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth” in the Journal of Value Inquiry. Privacy lies are of particular interest because Objectivists often disagree about them, and I enjoy sorting through such moral tangles. However, there’s more to the story.

For many years, I knew that Nathaniel Branden condemned such lies in very clear terms in his “Basic Principles of Objectivism” course. (That course was originally given at NBI, and it was approved by Ayn Rand.) However, the version of that course available to the public (which I own) was actually re-recorded after his break with Ayn Rand. I worried that, particularly on this issue, Branden might have changed the content. Recently, I was able to get my hands on a rarity: the original lectures recorded at NBI. To my surprise, the discussion of privacy lies was exactly the same as in the publicly available versions. Moreover, Ayn Rand didn’t seem to change her view later in life: her remarks in the Q&A of Dr. Peikoff’s “Philosophy of Objectivism” course indicate that she still regarded lies for the sake of privacy as wrong in 1976.

However, Leonard Peikoff has claimed that lies for the sake of privacy are justified. He discusses the issue in Understanding Objectivism, and he has a line about it in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. When I asked him about the issue during an OCON Q&A, he wasn’t able to offer a suitable example of what he meant. (I don’t mention that to fault him, but rather only to indicate my longstanding interest in this topic, including my attempt to get a better understanding of Dr. Peikoff’s views.)

Personally, I’m fascinated by this apparent difference of opinion between Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff. I want to consider what each side has to say in depth, and I’d like to see if their views can be reconciled. Mostly though, I want dive into the substantive question, then develop a clear and cogent analysis of these kinds of lies from an Objectivist perspective.

My own view has long been that privacy lies are dangerous (like other kinds of lies) and unnecessary (provided that a person thinks ahead). Ultimately, if Dr. Peikoff disagrees with Ayn Rand on privacy lies, I won’t consider that any reason to cast doubt on his understanding of and committment to Objectivism. Given that the topic is so narrow, that would be silly and wrong for anyone to do that.

When I was playing the relevant segments of audio from the tapes of the “Basic Principles of Objectivism” to create MP3s on my computer, I posted a quick status update to Facebook on the topic. I said, “I’ve been doing some fascinating historical digging on Ayn Rand’s view of ‘privacy lies’ today. Her view, in contrast to that of Leonard Peikoff, was that such lies are wrong, and often downright vicious. And she’s right!” In the first comment, I said, “Hopefully I’ll have the time to put together a blog post on this topic sometime in the next week or two.” Later in that thread, I said more about my sources and my own views.

I thought that people might be curious about the issue, as I was. Naively, I never imagined that people would get upset about the matter. (Alas, I’ve learned that anything that can be taken out of context via unfavorable assumptions about my motives probably will be. Recently, I posted a simple quote from Ayn Rand on rights. Much to my amazement, some people interpreted that as “quoting Ayn Rand out of context as a weapon against Leonard Peikoff.”)

According to my critics, I’m culpable on this issue of privacy lies because I’ve not yet blogged about it. Of course, if anyone had asked me why, I would have given them a very simple answer: I’ve been very busy of late, and I have about 20 blog posts that I’d like to write at any given moment. I will blog about it — although I’m not sure exactly when — precisely because privacy lies have been such a longstanding topic of interest for me. In the meantime, anyone else can investigate the matter for themselves, as all the sources are public.

Objectivists ought to be able to discuss — and disagree on — the morality of privacy lies in way that respects each person’s independent judgment and context of knowledge. Ultimately, I suspect that a person cannot coherently advocate for the morality of privacy lies and uphold the virtue of honesty. However, that’s far from self-evident, and some might argue that privacy lies don’t aim to gain a value but only to keep it. Among Objectivists, any such claims will have to be argued carefully and chewed over thoroughly, as people think through a wide range of cases in light of the virtue of honesty and other relevant principles. Objectivists can foster that kind of discussion by scrupulously respecting each person’s independent judgment, rather than demanding deference to experts. I’d like to see that happen, and I hope that my future writings on this topic contributes to that.

* * *
Objectivists will disagree with each other on occasion: that’s inevitable. To be happy in our own lives, as well as promote rational ideas in the culture, we must keep those disagreements in perspective. We must take care to practice the virtues and respect them in others. By doing that, we can create a vibrant, healthy, and friendly community of Objectivists. That will attract others to our ideas, and enable us to be better advocates for Objectivist principles in the culture.

I’ll continue to promote that kind of Objectivist culture — and to fight for reason, egoism, and rights in America. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, and I’m eager to do even more in the years to come. Surely, I’ll err on occasion — but I’ll always strive to correct my errors and do better in the future. I appreciate substantive arguments against my views, but I’ll pass on the circular firing squad. I’ve got too many positive values to pursue and too much statism to fight for that kind of silliness.

Again, if you have any burning questions, please e-mail me privately.

The Ethics Of Giving Up Valuable Sports Memorabilia

Sep 132011

As part of Diana’s September 11th Rationally Selfish webcast (NoodleCast #96), she covered the following question:

Is it dumb to return a valuable home run baseball to the team? When NY Yankees star Derek Jeter hit a home run for his 3000th hit, the fan in the stands Christian Lopez who caught the ball returned it to the Yankees, even though he was legally entitled to keep it. Some experts estimate it could have been sold on eBay for up to $250,000.

The Yankees did give him some season tickets and team memorabilia but nowhere near as valuable. (In fact, he may have to pay thousands of dollars of taxes for those gifts he received from the Yankees.) Some people praised Mr. Lopez for doing the “right thing.” Other said he was foolish for giving up something valuable that could have, say, paid for his kids’ college or been used for other important life goals.

Was he moral or immoral for returning the baseball with no expectation of reward?

Here’s Diana’s discussion:

For the record, Dr. Leonard Peikoff answered a similar question on his own webcast on August 22nd, 2011.

Assuming the perspective of a rational ethical egoist, this is a very interesting question. (For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll assume there are no tax implications, just as Diana assumed in her webcast).

First of all, I want to state that I agree with Dr. Peikoff’s general principle that not all value is monetary.

Second, I also agree with the general Objectivist ethical principle that one should not sacrifice a higher value for a lower value.

So the question becomes: Did Mr. Lopez sacrifice a higher value for a lower value in giving the baseball back to the New York Yankees?

Another point I’d like to highlight is that on various discussion boards, Lopez was praised for doing the “right thing”, but this assessment presumes the conventional altruist code of morality. A typical example is this comment in the New York Times:

Of course he did the “right” thing. He acted selflessly; he didn’t do something expecting a quid pro quo. We can all learn and benefit from his example.

According this view, Lopez was moral because his action represented a deliberate sacrifice without benefit to himself.

Of course an ethical egoist would reject this view. But could an ethical egoist have a non-sacrificial reason for giving up the baseball, rather than selling it for $250,000 or keeping it for himself?

I think it’s theoretically possible, but I don’t know how likely it would be.

For instance, if Derek Jeter had been a long-time personal hero for a baseball fan and if the fan had drawn personal inspiration throughout his life from Jeter’s many accomplishments, I can see how a fan might wish to repay Jeter by giving him the gift of that historic baseball. Similarly, someone who was a die-hard Yankees fan might wish to become a permanent part of Yankees history and tradition by returning the baseball. In such cases, I can see how giving the baseball back to the Yankees might be a gain of a higher value for a lower value, rather than a sacrifice of a higher value for a lower value — if it was the result of a rationally constructed hierarchy of values.

And not knowing much about Mr. Lopez other than what’s available in public accounts, I can’t know his actual hierarchy of values or to what extent it’s based on reason.

However, it can also be entirely rational and moral for someone who had caught the baseball to decide to sell it. He might quite reasonably decide that this $250,000 would allow him to, say, start a new business, buy his beloved parents a new house, or guarantee his kids’ college education. I think many American baseball fans would make this choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If someone decided that advancing his own life goals (or promoting the well-being of his loved ones) was more important to him than being part of Yankees history, he should feel proud of that decision and not accept it as any form of moral guilt.

I can also see a fan deciding to keep the baseball in his personal collection as a tangible reminder of a great achievement (which he could sell in the future if necessary due to financial hardship).

Now some egoists have defended Lopez’s decision on the grounds that returning the ball gave him great personal satisfaction. I think this merely begs the question. Whether his satisfaction was proper depends on whether his hierarchy of values was rational or not (something I do not and can not know). I just want to caution against relying on a subjective sense of “happiness” or “satisfaction” as a necessarily reliable indicator of a decision being morally correct.

Finally, it’s also possible for a baseball fan to offer to sell the baseball back to the Yankees at a discount — less than the full market value in the collectors’ market, but more than the value of some season tickets and memorabilia. Again, the proper intermediate amount would depend on the seller’s precise hierarchy of values.

For what it’s worth, when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were setting home run records in 1998, some of those baseballs also sold for many thousands of dollars in the collectors’ markets. I don’t recall much condemnation in the popular press of those sellers for cashing in on their good fortune. And I’m glad there wasn’t.

In sum:

1) Dr. Peikoff is correct that not all values can be reduced to money.

2) For an egoist, returning the baseball could be a sacrifice (in which case it would be wrong), or could be a rational non-sacrifice (in which case it would be proper). I personally think the second possibility is possible, but relatively unlikely for most people. (For what it’s worth, Diana and I diverge somewhat on this point — she regards it is much less likely than I do, closer to “nearly inconceivable”.)

3) We should reject the altruist code praising the return of the ball as “the right thing” because it was “selfless”.

Does the Right to Life Trump Property Rights?

Aug 012011

For the past year-and-some, I’ve been re-reading Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand with a few local Objectivist gals. (We only read about 30 pages per month, so our progress is slow!) A few weeks ago, we read the chapter on “Government” — and doing so raised a nagging question that I’ve had related to last summer’s heated debate about the NYC Mosque.

On Facebook, I’ve seen some Objectivists defend Leonard Peikoff’s position that the NYC Mosque ought to be forbidden by law by saying “the right to life trumps the right to property.” At first, I thought that Peikoff must have said something like that in his podcast on the topic. However, I was pleased to discover that, although I still disagree with aspects of that podcast, that’s not true. Here’s what Peikoff said, according to Trey Givens’ transcription:

Let’s start with property rights. Property rights are limited and they are contextual. You cannot do anything you want with property even though it is yours, not if its ramifications objectively entail a threat to the rights of others. You can’t build a bomb in your home. You can’t even build a big bonfire in your backyard legitimately because the principle of rights is that property rights are a derivative of life as the standard and there can be no right to threaten anyone’s life nor indeed to threaten anyone’s property.

Second, rights are contextual. In any situation where metaphysical survival is at stake all property rights are out. You have no obligation to respect property rights. The obvious, classic example of this is, which I’ve been asked a hundred times, you swim to a desert island — you know, you had a shipwreck — and when you get to the shore, the guy comes to you and says, “I’ve got a fence all around this island. I found it. It’s legitimately mine. You can’t step onto the beach.” Now, in that situation you are in a literal position of being metaphysically helpless. Since life is the standard of rights, if you no longer can survive this way, rights are out. And it becomes dog-eat-dog or force-against force.

Now, don’t assume that any unsatisfied need therefore puts you in this metaphysical category. For instance, you are very poor and you are hungry. Well, you need feed. But in a capitalist society, even in a mixed economy, that is not a metaphysical deprivation. There’s always all sorts of choices and ways in a free society for you to gain food. Always.

I agree with that portion of his podcast, and I think that’s consistent with what he says in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand about rights as as unity:

In content, as the Founding Fathers recognized, there is one fundamental right, which has several major derivatives. The fundamental right is the right to life. Its major derivatives are the right to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

The right to life means the right to sustain and protect one’s life. It means the right to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the preservation of his life. To sustain his life, man needs a method of survival—he must use his rational faculty to gain knowledge and choose values, then act to achieve his values. The right to liberty is the right to this method; it is the right to think and choose, then to act in accordance with one’s judgment. To sustain his life, man needs to create the material means of his survival. The right to property is the right to this process; in Ayn Rand’s definition, it is “the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.” To sustain his life, man needs to be governed by a certain motive—his purpose must be his own welfare. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to this motive; it is the right to live for one’s own sake and fulfillment.

Rights form a logical unity. In the words of Samuel Adams, all are “evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.” It would be a crude contradiction to tell a man: you have a right to life, but you need the permission of others to think or act. Or: you have a right to life, but you need the permission of others to produce or consume. Or: you have a right to life, but don’t dare pursue any personal motive without the approval of the government.

I don’t think that Peikoff’s views in his podcast or book can be properly summarized as “the right to life trumps the right to property.” That implies a false theory of rights, according to which rights can conflict, and when they do, the “lesser” rights must give way to the “greater” rights. That’s not just wrong: it’s an outright rejection of the demands of logic in politics. That’s because the whole point of calling something a “right” is to identify it not just as one value among others to be weighed, but instead to say that it’s a “trump.” Rights are supposed to settle — authoritatively — what people should be permitted to do. If rights can conflict, then rights aren’t meaningful any longer. They’re just a mush of who-knows-what.

Of all the errors in modern politics, the idea that people’s rights routinely conflict is probably the most pernicious of all. It opens the door to any and all rights violations — from OSHA to Medicare to the ADA to the Drug War — because when logic is removed from politics, it’s deuces wild.

So if you want to summarize Dr. Peikoff’s position, I’d think that something along the lines of “property rights are contextual, and in the context of America’s war against militant Islam, the property rights of the enemy are null and void” would be more accurate.

As for my own views, I agree with Peikoff’s general claims about rights in wartime. I continue to disagree about the proper application of those principles in the context of American’s current foreign policy. In particular, I regard voiding anyone’s property rights by any means necessary in an undeclared and unfought war as extraordinarily dangerous to the liberties of all dissenting Americans, including Objectivists. However, as is true for all mosques, any terrorist connections should be vigorously investigated — and prosecuted if confirmed.

Over the last year, the controversy over the project has died down, but I’ve not heard whether the project has been abandoned, delayed, or continues. I hope that it’s deader than Bin Laden, but if not, I’d be interested to hear about its current state.

Closing Thoughts on ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey

Nov 202010

Note from Diana Hsieh, 22 Feb 2012

If you’ve come to this page via “Checking Premises” or something similar, please note that I’ve written a length commentary on the criticisms circulating about me, including explaining my views of various controversial matters, in this post: On Some Recent Controversies. I’d recommend reading that, then judging me based on my full range of work, not just a few out-of-context snippets. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me privately at [email protected].


Paul wrote this post, and Diana edited it with him. We meant to publish it under Paul’s account, but we messed that up by mistake.

Last week, Dr. Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute issued statements regarding John McCaskey’s resignation from the boards of the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation:

Diana and I have been giving serious thought to these statements. In addition, we had an in-person meeting with Yaron Brook in Denver on November 11th when he came to town on business, followed by a phone call on November 19th. We greatly appreciate the fact that he was willing to talk with us and help us better understand these issues. We had frank and constructive conversations, and at his request we are keeping the details private (with one exception below where he has granted his permission to discuss it publicly).As a result of this new information, we’ve had to do a lot of hard thinking, and we’ve reconsidered some of our earlier views and actions. Our purpose here is to discuss our current evaluation of the events, including acknowledging some of our errors. In this post, we will discuss what we regard as the three most important issues, namely:

  1. ARI’s statement
  2. Peikoff’s statement
  3. Our “Fact Finding” Post

We will offer our judgments on some topics but not others. Now that ARI has clarified its view of recent events and its policies, each person can now fairly determine his future relationship with ARI, based on his concerns and interests. We don’t regard our thinking and decisions on some matters as appropriate fodder for public discussion, although friends may inquire with us privately.1) ARI’s statementFirst, given ARI’s position that The Logical Leap is a “major ARI project” on which they must take “one consistent position”, then it makes sense that McCaskey’s criticisms of the book constituted a conflict of interest incompatible with his serving on the ARI Board. We’re glad that ARI has made this known in its recent statement. In earlier internet discussions, some people made similar arguments, and in retrospect, one of our errors was to not give this view sufficient credence.As an explanation of our earlier views, I (Paul) have served on the Board of Directors of a corporation — namely, my own medical practice. My medical group is not a small office practice but rather a major business operation with over 300 employees doing over $40 million of business a year. Its board members routinely make multimillion dollar decisions, and they take their fiduciary and conflict of interest policies very seriously.As part of that conflict of interest policy, board members of my practice cannot undermine or criticize major board decisions once made — such as opening a new branch office or signing a new hospital contract. In other words, the group has a “one consistent position” policy on such major issues, much like ARI. Board members are expected to freely debate such issues as part of the process of arriving at a decision. But once the board has made its decision, individual board members are expected to support it publicly, or at least keep their disagreements private. (The board also has a mechanism for revisiting prior decisions when new evidence warrants.)Furthermore, the board also supports for-profit medical conferences, lectures, and books, with the revenue flowing back to the medical corporation. So in this respect, there is a loose similarity to ARI. For such work, my medical group has established a policy that board members are allowed to dissent with medical and scientific conclusions expressed in books and lectures sponsored by the group, without that dissent being considered a conflict of interest. Hence, if a board-supported book written by one of the group’s physicians takes a particular position on, say, the proper use of MRI to diagnose certain cancers, any board member would be free to respectfully dissent in his own speaking or writing on that subject. In other words, my group exempts that sort of professional disagreement on medical issues from its “one consistent position” policy.We assumed — wrongly, in retrospect — that ARI had a similar policy towards McCaskey’s disagreements with The Logical Leap, given that its theory of induction is new work, not part of Objectivism. We weren’t aware of our error until ARI released its recent statement. ARI’s statement does not say when the Board decided to apply this policy to The Logical Leap. Yet we recognize that once that policy was in effect, McCaskey could not be on ARI’s Board. We’re pleased that McCaskey is now free to state his views of The Logical Leap, whether we agree with them or not in the end.The range of views that ARI should support under its “one consistent position” policy is a separate question. We regard this policy as wholly proper for Objectivist principles and their public policy applications. Diana has serious concerns about applying it to new philosophic or other scholarly work, however good, including The Logical Leap.Of course, ARI’s decision to apply their “one consistent position” policy to The Logical Leap is entirely their prerogative. That’s their decision to make, which donors can support or not.2) Peikoff’s statementWe also appreciated Dr. Peikoff’s statement stating his reasons for demanding that the ARI Board remove McCaskey. In particular, as donors we appreciated his clarifying the nature of his relationship to the ARI Board. He has stated that he has and will exercise veto power over ARI’s Board, according to his judgment. In effect, Peikoff assumes the role of final Quality Control Officer over ARI’s Board, with ARI’s assent.Prospective donors can have a range of legitimate responses to this new information. If a donor has confidence in Peikoff’s judgment on such issues, he may choose to maintain or increase his financial support. On the other hand, if a donor has concerns about Peikoff’s judgment on such issues, he may wish to earmark or reduce his donations so they won’t be affected by Peikoff’s judgment. Each donor will have to make this determination for himself. As donors, we are now glad to have this greater clarity which will allow us to better decide whether and how we wish to financially support ARI.Peikoff also clearly expressed his personal negative moral judgment of McCaskey. Based on our own knowledge of McCaskey, we completely reject Peikoff’s characterization of him as “an obnoxious braggart” and “a pretentious ignoramus.” We regard that as a serious misjudgment of McCaskey. In the seven years we’ve known him, McCaskey has always acted as a gentleman and a scholar. Similarly, we still regard Peikoff’s earlier characterizations of McCaskey’s actions and views as unfathomable. Peikoff is not required to explain his personal judgments, nor are we asking him to. We merely wish to register our disagreement. We expect to continue to enjoy McCaskey’s intellectual work as well as our friendship with him.Such disagreements over personal judgments are not unusual in intellectual movements. Peikoff himself notes that he is at “personal enmity” with some long-standing ARI Board members to the point that he is no longer on speaking terms with them — and this includes individuals that many other Objectivists deeply respect. Such disagreements need not be a problem provided that the relevant parties behave objectively towards one another.3) Our “Fact Finding” PostSome people have publicly criticized us for making our inquiries about this issue and publicizing our findings in our NoodleFood post, “The Resignation of John McCaskey: The Facts.” Our actions and motives were also criticized by ARI during their call to the OAC students in ways we considered inaccurate and unfair; we were greatly disturbed and angered when we learned of them. Yaron Brook also bluntly criticized our actions during our in-person meeting with him on November 11, and we had a frank discussion about this issue.Yaron Brook has granted us his permission to publicly discuss his criticisms of our actions, so that we could publicly respond — and we greatly appreciate that.In ARI’s view, the fundamental problem wasn’t that our post was inaccurate or biased. Rather, the problem was our very attempt to inquire about what they regarded as a fundamentally private matter, including Peikoff’s initial e-mail. Yaron Brook explained to us that the core issues were covered by ARI Board confidentiality provisions, and that anything we discovered could only be “nibbling at the edges” of a core that we could not know about. Hence, our inquiries as such were inappropriate and would only fuel more unwelcome public debate at a time when the right thing would have been to encourage others to remain patient and calm. He told us that the proper alternative would have been to express our concerns to him privately (which Diana did shortly after McCaskey resigned), accept the fact that he could only tell us some information, and then deal with the inherent uncertainty as best we could — which might in essence include telling him, “We don’t like what’s going on, and as donors we’re keeping our eye on you.” (Yaron Brook’s words, not ours.)We understand his position, and in retrospect we can see why ARI takes that position. Unfortunately, ARI contributed to this difficulty by allowing the release of Dr. Peikoff’s e-mail, then refraining from substantive comment for two months. They’ve subsequently apologized for that, and we appreciate it.As for us, we had important values at stake as moral and financial supporters of ARI — as we explained in our post. We didn’t know what Peikoff’s letter implied for ARI’s future, particularly whether ARI would turn away from its policy of “fostering a rational, vigorous discussion of Objectivist ideas” — a policy we greatly valued and supported. We couldn’t ignore Peikoff’s letter and continue to support ARI, as if nothing had happened. Yet we didn’t want to withdraw our support from ARI absent compelling reasons. Basically, we were stuck in limbo due to our lack of information about what had happened and what ARI’s future policies would be. We didn’t expect that more information would be forthcoming from ARI or Peikoff, after our initial inquiries. Hence, we attempted to gather whatever relevant information we could, so we could make the best possible decisions.In essence, we wanted to learn precisely the kind of information that Peikoff and ARI have now provided.As to why we published our factual post, we knew that many of our friends felt similarly confused and conflicted about the implications of Peikoff’s letter for ARI and the Objectivist movement as a whole. Many were struggling to understand the basic facts, such as what the “forum” was that Peikoff referred to in his e-mail. We were troubled that so many online arguments were premised on false factual claims — for instance, that McCaskey published his Amazon review before resigning from ARI’s Board. Also, Diana planned to write a post on Robert Tracinski’s “Anthemgate” essay, which we regarded (and still regard) as an unfair and dishonest attack on ARI. To do that, readers first needed to be clear about the publicly-available facts about McCaskey’s resignation. For these and other reasons, we regarded our factual post as helpful to people sincerely concerned about these events. And at the time, we received many supportive e-mails from people on all sides thanking us for our factual post.Notably, during our “fact finding” inquiries, we never asked anyone to breach any confidentiality agreements. We made sure to first secure McCaskey’s permission for the release his e-mails (or to report on his spoken remarks) about The Logical Leap before inquiring with those who received those e-mails (or heard those remarks). We didn’t pester strangers, but only contacted people we already knew. We never asked any ARI Board members for confidential information. Rather, we wrote Yaron and one other Board member we knew to express our concerns as donors. Our motive was not to dig into private matters, but to learn what we could about matters already made public by Peikoff, ARI, and McCaskey in order to guide our own choices. Moreover, we were careful to identify the limits of our knowledge as best we could.Furthermore, recall that the online debates at the time were highly charged, fast-paced, and divisive. We hoped to help steer them in a more constructive direction by encouraging people to focus on facts rather than engaging in speculation, to remain calm rather than acting in anger, and to keep the full context in any moral judgments. In addition to our public posts and comments, we made numerous private efforts to discourage friends from making baseless attacks or overblown criticisms of ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey. We think we helped reduce some of the most egregious speculations and wild emotionalism by our public and private comments. Ultimately, the online discussions snowballed wildly out-of-control, particularly in the wake of the OAC call. To some extent we were caught up in that, and we regret that. However, once the statements by Peikoff and ARI were published, we realized that people (including us) needed time to think rather than to continue the heated arguments, and so we closed the relevant NoodleFood comment threads.In retrospect, we recognize that we did not (and could not) have understood some critical issues at the core of the controversy until Peikoff and ARI released their respective statements. Most illuminating were their statements about their respective policies for dealing with these kinds of conflicts. Since meeting with Yaron, we’ve re-examined our choice to make our inquiries and write that factual post. After some hard thinking, we believe that we acted reasonably on the whole, given what we knew at the time. Of course, knowing what we know now, we would have acted differently. But we cannot criticize ourselves on that basis: actions should be judged in their actual context, not in retrospect.4) Concluding ThoughtsIn this post, we’ve tried to give a fair evaluation of the major events and to explain why we acted as we did. On the whole, we attempted to steer the debate in a constructive direction. Yet sometimes we acted hastily, from anger, or based on supposition. That was wrong of us, and for that we apologize. We’re certainly willing to take any justly-deserved lumps for our mistakes and to learn from them. We’re willing to accept criticism, but we think that any such criticism should be based on our actual actions, statements, and motives — as opposed to inaccurate portrayals thereof. So if you believe that we owe you an explanation or apology for something we’ve done — or if you want the facts about what we’ve done and why — please e-mail us.Now that ARI has explained recent events and its future policies, we do not regard further debate on those matters as fruitful. Donors, students, and intellectuals can and should decide for themselves the nature and scope of their future support for and involvement with ARI based on their individual context of knowledge and values. Personally, we’re glad for the clarity we’ve gained from the recent statements from Peikoff and ARI, as well as from our discussions with Yaron Brook. We’re now able to evaluate these matters for ourselves and act accordingly. We do not plan to offer any further public comments on our views. Instead, we plan to return to our own intellectual and activist projects.During this process, we never wanted ARI to implode over this matter — unlike Robert Tracinski or the supporters of David Kelley. Even when angry and distressed, we still hoped that ARI would weather the storm and thrive. We still want that now, even though our own future relationship with ARI is not fully settled.For now, we merely want to repeat something I (Paul) wrote on November 2, 2010:”As the current election shows, America needs Ayn Rand’s ideas more than ever, and we need the ARI to help disseminate those ideas.”We still believe that. With ARI’s latest statement, we hope that it will be able to return to devoting its full energy to spreading Objectivist ideas in the culture. We hope they succeed in this vitally important task.Note: Because we do not wish to fuel any unnecessary further online controversy, we are disabling the comments for this post. Anyone with comments or questions can e-mail us privately.

Leonard Peikoff Explains

Nov 102010

Leonard Peikoff has posted a statement explaining why he demanded John McCaskey’s resignation from ARI’s Board. People interested in this matter should read it. I should mention, for the sake of clarity, that Craig Biddle is the magazine founder and I’m the PhD with a podcast.

Paul and I will comment on this statement and some other matters later, likely early next week. Until then, and thereafter, I can only ask that my Objectivist friends and supporters, however upset, strive to be calm. We’re all in danger of saying things in the heat of anger that we’ll later regret, and I’d recommend against that. My hope has always been that the Objectivist movement not self-destruct over this issue, and I still think that’s possible.

My super-strict comment policy will remain in force on this post.

Should McCaskey Have Released Peikoff’s Letter?

Nov 022010

Note from Diana Hsieh, 22 Feb 2012

If you’ve come to this page via “Checking Premises” or something similar, please note that I’ve written a length commentary on the criticisms circulating about me, including explaining my views of various controversial matters, in this post: On Some Recent Controversies. I’d recommend reading that, then judging me based on my full range of work, not just a few out-of-context snippets. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me privately at [email protected].


In the debate about John McCaskey’s resignation from the Boards of ARI and Anthem, one point of contention is whether McCaskey acted properly in publicly posting Leonard Peikoff’s letter. No one denies that he had permission to do so, from both Peikoff and ARI. The question is whether he had good reason to make the letter public, given the ensuing controversy.

Although I can’t speak for McCaskey, I believe that a person is entitled to defend himself against claims and demands he regards as unjust by sharing the relevant facts with interested parties.

In this case, McCaskey had a legitimate interest in ensuring that he was judged fairly by friends, colleagues, and donors in light of his resignations from the ARI and Anthem Boards. Given the serious accusations made by Peikoff, that required McCaskey to reveal the precise claims and demands made by Peikoff, in Peikoff’s own words.

Furthermore, McCaskey’s resignations from the ARI and Anthem boards would be public knowledge and, given McCaskey’s prominence in both organizations, would be natural topics of public discussion by Objectivists. Hence, as I shall explain below, it was appropriate for McCaskey to publicly post Peikoff’s letter as part of his explanation for his resignations.

At the time McCaskey was considering resigning, for him to request some public statement from Peikoff as to what exactly Peikoff believed McCaskey to have done was reasonable. As we’ve learned, Peikoff subsequently chose to make his previously private letter to Arline Mann as his statement for public consumption — as opposed to editing it or issuing a different statement. That decision was entirely Peikoff’s prerogative. And once Peikoff made that choice, McCaskey was then entitled to use that letter as his basis for explaining his resignation.

In various e-mail and internet discussions, some have suggested that McCaskey could have resigned from the ARI and Anthem Boards without releasing Peikoff’s letter. They further claim that McCaskey should have done so, given how damaging the public release of that letter has been to ARI, Anthem, and Peikoff himself.

If McCaskey resigned without releasing the letter, supporters of Anthem and ARI might naturally wish to know why he resigned. His choices would then include:

1) Giving a false excuse (e.g., “family demands” or “other commitments”).

2) Refusing to offer any reasons (even to friends/donors) and instead remaining silent on the issue.

3) Explaining his reasons, but paraphrasing (without quoting) the reasons cited by Peikoff.

4) Explaining his reasons but only circulating Peikoff’s e-mail via private conversation and/or correspondence.


1) Would have been dishonest.

2) Would require McCaskey to remain silent in the face of suspicions of wrong-doing by his friends, colleagues, and donors that he could only regard as undeserved. A silent resignation would naturally lead people to wonder whether McCaskey had done something wrong to force his resignation — or if he had quit on a lark. But on this approach, he would be unable to defend himself by explaining what had really happened. Expecting him to silently fall on his sword in such a fashion would be asking him to commit self-sacrifice.

A silent resignation would have also been a grave disservice to ARI and Anthem donors who have donated substantial sums based (in part) on confidence in McCaskey’s work and judgment. Many donors, including Diana and me, would want to know the facts, so that we could act on those facts, rather than from ignorance or supposition.

3) Would have strained people’s credulity given the surprising accusations made by Peikoff against McCaskey. Any summary or paraphrasing that McCaskey offered would have seemed incredible, and many people would have doubted McCaskey’s truthfulness. Again, this approach would subject him to unjust moral judgments from friends, colleagues, and donors.

Instead, McCaskey could have been more vague: he could have merely cited some intellectual disagreement between himself and Dr. Peikoff. However, that might have raised doubts about his commitment to Objectivist principles, unfairly so, in his view. Moreover, McCaskey’s resignation was due to Peikoff’s ultimatum, not merely an intellectual disagreement. That ultimatum is essential to any explanation for the resignation, particularly from Anthem, an organization that McCaskey founded. An explanation without mention of the ultimatum would have been less than honest, and it would have only raised more questions.

4) Would have been untenable in the long run. Given the number of people reasonably wanting to know why McCaskey resigned and given the nature of Peikoff’s letter, that letter would have been publicly posted somewhere in short order — but in a far less-controlled fashion.

Such a posting would have created a controversy similar to what we’re seeing now, but with much wilder and more baseless speculations. The current firestorm has been bad enough. But that controversy has been made more manageable by the fact that that McCaskey cited Peikoff’s letter in the up-front, sober fashion that he did, rather than having the letter be first publicly posted on any of the various disreputable anti-ARI websites.

Given these other four alternatives, I think McCaskey acted reasonably in requesting that any accusations against him be made available to the public in a form authorized by Leonard Peikoff himself. That way, others could judge for themselves whether Peikoff’s claims and demands against McCaskey were appropriate.

Of course, people can (and do) differ in their judgments as to whether Peikoff’s claims and demands against McCaskey were accurate and just. But at least the various discussions are made easier by the fact we know in Peikoff’s words, what Peikoff believes McCaskey to have done wrong. Think of how much more contentious any discussion would be without that information.

In summary, McCaskey was morally entitled to defend himself by releasing Peikoff’s charges against him in Peikoff’s own words. If the specific tone and contents of Peikoff’s letter has caused any damage to ARI, Anthem, and the Objectivist movement, then the primary responsibility lies not with McCaskey but with the letter’s author — who chose to authorize its release in that particular form and who has chosen to let that letter be his only public statement on this issue.

Finally, from ARI’s standpoint, the release of Peikoff’s letter has created an unwelcome controversy. They’ve had to divert resources they could have allocated for other uses such as their public outreach, cultural, and educational programs. Personally, I believe that the long-term negative impact on their effectiveness can be minimal, provided that they navigate through the current short-term problems in a proper fashion. As the current election shows, America needs Ayn Rand’s ideas more than ever, and we need the ARI to help disseminate those ideas.

Nonetheless, the conflict between Objectivists on this issue reveals a real divide. That suggests to me that a controversy of this sort was likely to erupt sooner or later anyways. McCaskey’s resignation may have been the trigger in this particular case, but I strongly suspect that some other issue would have eventually arisen that would have created a similar level of controversy.

Hence, we may as well work now to learn what we can from this conflict — and in particular, to identify principles to help us better manage the inevitable disagreements (whether major or minor) between Objectivists. We are paying an unpleasant price right now for the controversy over Peikoff’s letter. But if we don’t pay it now, we will almost certainly have to pay a higher price in the future when the next big conflict arises, particularly as Objectivism becomes more prominent in the culture over time.

As difficult as this conflict has been, I believe that McCaskey did the right thing in releasing Peikoff’s letter. And in the end, I think the Objectivist movement can emerge from this controversy stronger than ever.

Diana helped Paul edit this post, and she agrees with it fully.

Craig Biddle: Justice for John P. McCaskey

Oct 292010

Craig Biddle posted a personal statement this morning about Leonard Peikoff’s moral condemnation of John McCaskey. You can find it on his personal web site, here: Justice for John P. McCaskey.

If you’re interested in this issue, I recommend that you read it. Paul and I will have something to say about it next week.

My comments are open to discussion of this statement and related matters. However, my strict comment policy stands: any commenters must be not just civil but also respectful in the process. I will strictly enforce the rule against personal attacks by deleting objectionable posts.

Update 10/29: To forestall any confusions, Paul and I wanted to make one point clear now. Like Craig Biddle, we think that a person can judge Dr. Peikoff’s ultimatum about and moral condemnation of Dr. McCaskey as wrong, while still very much respecting and admiring Dr. Peikoff and his achievements. Moreover, a person can do that while judging the Ayn Rand Institute to be blameless in this matter. That’s basically Paul’s and my view. We have some concerns about ARI’s future, but we regard their silence on Dr. Peikoff’s letter and Dr. McCaskey’s resignation as the right course. Unless something changes, we expect to continue our support of ARI.

Update 11/7: Craig Biddle has posted a short FAQ — Answers to Questions about ‘Justice for John P. McCaskey’ — to reply to questions that he’s received on his essay.

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