The Objectivism Study Group (OSG) was a moderated, e-mail based forum for discussion of Objectivism. Some years ago I took out trial membership of this forum, and landed in the middle of a debate.
“Reality”, an Objectivism-oriented magazine (since folded), had run a review of a book by Florence King which made some comments about Ayn Rand which many Objectivists thought objectionable. Although the review noted that fact, many people thought that such a book should not even be reviewed by an Objectivist publication, that any such review was a “sanction” of the book’s errors. The editors disagreed, arguing that the book had much of value, and they had noted its had flaws and therefore not sanctioned them.
This generated a running debate between the editors and various others, including the moderator, with escalating attacks on the editors that culminated in their expulsion from OSG.
I had been on the side of Reality magazine; by that time my trial month was up and I had decided that I didn’t have the time required to continue. The final expulsion of the editors, simultaneous with that decision, made me feel it was the right one for me.
My final posting to the group was the following essay on toleration (it has been slightly modified).
I leave you with a plea for toleration.
Some in OSG are far too quick to condemn. Few of the accusations of evasion and evil I’ve seen are warranted, & accusations of ad hominen arguments and other such fallacies have all too often been the pot calling the kettle black, despite the rationalisations to the contrary. Arguments from intimidation (“if you don’t agree with me, you are evading”) and arguments from authority (“X knows far more about Objectivism than you”) have no place in Objectivism. Let alone a combination of the two! An intransigent mind is the sine qua non of an Objectivist: not one which bows to anyone’s authority.
Even Ayn Rand was not infallible. So said Leonard Peikoff (Philosophy of Education tapes: Q & A – available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore). No one is. So that Mr X has been an Objectivist for 10 years longer than me is no more reason for me to bow to his superior wisdom than for him to bow to mine if I have an IQ of 200. Experience, intelligence etc are relevant to how we approach a disagreement, but reality and reason are the only arbiters.
And what if agreement can’t be reached? Does this mean your opponent is a fool, an evader, or evil? No. People can honestly disagree. This is not to say that both are right: at least one is wrong. What it is to say is that each should give the other the benefit of the moral doubt. You might be the one who is wrong (apparently a shocking thought. A prevalent sentiment in OSG seems to be: “You’re allowed to make a mistake. But once I’ve corrected you, if you still disagree you’re evading and beyond reason, and therefore immoral.”). An independent mind with its own reason as its only absolute is a virtue.
The above is in the context of arguments among those who hold the principles of Objectivism. It does not apply to real enemies, to differences in essential principles that cannot be resolved. So who is our friend? I say anyone who accepts that reality exists is on good ground; anyone who also believes in reason is a man we can talk to; if he believes in rational selfishness & individual rights too, he is fundamentally our friend (within the context of honesty & him returning the favour). Some of the attacks in OSG couldn’t do more to drive actual and potential friends away than if that was the intention. This would be a great shame (and I for one won’t sanction it, hence this posting). Objectivism is the intellectual powerhouse of freedom. Puritanism can kill it. I’m deadly serious here. It is one of the biggest dangers to Objectivism from its own adherents: the hatred of the good for not being the perfect. Contrast that with Ayn Rand’s eulogy to Marilyn Monroe (not a paragon of Objectivist virtue) and her praise of Apollo 11 (funded from the ground up by involuntary taxes).
Wherever a large number of people hold the same fundamental principles, there will always be differences in opinion on applications & derivations. People place different weights on different evidence, lean different ways in matters of fine judgment, and are all fallible in both knowledge and reason. But within true fundamentals, we should respect, not despise, the individual mind.
“Accept the fact that you are not omniscient… that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith… accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory.” (Ayn Rand Lexicon: Independence).
That is incompatible with rigid doctrinal uniformity.
I’m not arguing against moral and value judgments (cf Kelley below): these are absolutely necessary. I am saying we need appropriate moral and value judgments. Some of the charges in OSG have been totally out of proportion & perspective. Which is to say, not in accordance with the whole context of reality. Which includes: we all hold the same principles.
Nor am I proposing sanction of what you disagree with, even on minor matters. Fight for what you believe is true. Dispute what you perceive as error. But learn when to agree to disagree; understand that independent men can disagree on many things, even things one of them feels is deeply important or “obvious”, and that this disagreement need not discredit either (though both should continue to seek the truth). To agree to disagree is not to sanction. It is to accept that further thought is needed by both parties (if only to fully divine the root causes), but that further argument at present is futile or counter-productive. It is to accept the dignity, the morality & the glory of each man’s independent mind.
In previous postings I have explained my views on sanction, & I’m pleased that the basic principles from which I argued have been confirmed by Leonard Peikoff (as quoted by David Elmore [the editor of Reality] recently). This issue provides a concrete example of agreeing to disagree. Look at the Florence King book review bunfight. Reality magazine made its reasons clear. Other people despise the King book, as is their right. But they have no justification to attack everyone who disagrees with them. This is not a matter of fundamental principle: we all agree that you cannot sanction the bad. We are disagreeing on a particular application, & the time to agree to disagree is way overdue: some of you guys should loosen up a bit. Reality magazine did exactly what was right: they praised the good but exposed the bad, enabling anyone who read the review to make up their own mind about the book’s value and whether they should read it or buy it, in full possession of the relevant facts.
That the result has been increasingly strident attacks on “Reality” & its owners is bizarre. Realitymagazine may not be perfect (I mean qua magazine, not morally) but it is plainly one of the good things in the world. If you cannot see that, I suggest it is you who should examine your premises.
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, with reason as his only absolute.” (Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism).
So say I. So say all of us. So let’s keep the arguments friendly and drop the holier-than-thou brow-beating. We have enough real enemies to contend with.
For further discussions and notes on toleration, see the relevant parts of:
The Ayn Rand Lexicon, ed. Harry Binswanger
An invaluable aid to the student of Objectivism, with seminal quotes on an extensive array (arranged alphabetically, with a conceptual index as well) of topics. Now available online.
The Hatred of the Good for not being the Perfect
One of Rand’s hates, justifiably, was what she called the “hatred of the good for being the good”. Anyone whose goal is life must love and admire the good for being good. However, the level of hysteria unleashed against Reality magazine was so far out of proportion to the crime — if it was a crime — that they seemed to be committing the other side of that error, the hatred of the good for not being the perfect, where the “perfect”, naturally, meant “agreeing with me”.
David Kelley is a philosopher who was expelled from the Ayn Rand Institute for various reasons, one of the main ones being a disagreement on the relationship between truth and toleration. It has been said that Kelley’s error in this issue is to do with refraining from value judgments even when such judgments are appropriate; on the other hand, I’ve been told that his actual views on tolerance are similar to mine (see some of his own words on the issue). The resolution of this dispute is not high on my agenda, so you be the judge. Kelley founded the Institute for Objectivist Studies: those interested can find further information here. Personally, in my limited experience I find Kelley’s writings unnecessarily jargon-encrusted and his supporters often guiltier of intolerance than those they attack: indeed, tolerant of anything except “official” Objectivists.
Objectivism holds that it is immoral to sanction something that is itself immoral: that is, one should not approve of or support the bad. The disagreements described here spring from the question of what to do if something is a mixture of good and bad. This of course is a crucial issue to resolve, as in the world most people and ideas are such a mixture. Some Objectivists believe that, or at least act as if, to approve of any part of such a mixed thing is to sanction the bad. The stance taken by the editors of Reality Magazine, which I agree with, is that as long as the good and bad parts are identified and treated each as it deserves, then you are acting justly and therefore morally. It is not reasonable to accuse someone of sanctioning the bad when he or she explicitly identifies it as such!