Yesterday on Facebook, I was alerted to a new web site attacking me: CheckingPremises.org. 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.)
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.
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.
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 @ OList.com 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.
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.