Sunday, March 28, 2010

Closed vs. Open Part 1: Introduction, and the Issues


The dispute between the Objectivists who've sided with Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), and those who've sided with David Kelley and The Atlas Society (TAS), is a philosophical war: a series of ideological battles. Since 1989, boundaries have been drawn, and sides have been taken. Short articles, philosophical essays, critical replies, and even books have written in regard to it; I strongly believe my comments in the essays to come won't be the last. And like any war, it's had dire consequences for the parties involved. Or to phrase it as Pain would, a character from the fictional anime/manga Naruto: “War brings pain and injury and death to both sides.” (Naruto, issue 429, page 2) While I'm pretty sure no one's died from this conflict, spiritual pains and injuries have certainly been inflicted, and will be for years to come. Friends and family have already become estranged or even bitter enemies; people have left organizations, quit attending philosophical meetings, and canceled speakers for lecture events; others have given up the philosophy altogether.

The Issues in Dispute

The issues involved are very technical and varied, concerning issues in epistemology and ethics. The two camps differ on five specific issues, but also differ in meaningful ways within these issues, as we'll see. The issues were encapsulated in the table of contents of David Kelley's book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth & Toleration in Objectivism (CLAR): moral judgment, sanction, error and evil, toleration, and Objectivism itself.

(1) What is the nature of moral judgment, and how should it be applied?
(2) What is it to morally “sanction” something, and can (or should) we avoid doing so at all?
(3) Can ideas be “evil,” and what is the scope of honest error, and of dishonest ideas?
(4) What is the proper way to understand tolerance; what kind of people should we tolerate, and does tolerance as presented contradict the Objectivist notion of justice?
(5) Is Objectivism open or closed? What does this imply about the movement?

Conclusions and Comments

Based on what I've read, I don't believe there's a peaceable resolution to this conflict, just as there hasn't been these last 20 years. Peikoff and Kelley have declared that the other contradicts fundamental aspects of Objectivism, particularly in regards to “objectivity,” and by implication anyone else who agrees with either. Both groups think the other is detrimental to the movement, and prefers the other to simply drop out; Peikoff says this explicitly, while Kelley implies this on page 17 of CLAR's “Introduction.” (He calls Peikoff's approach to the movement “tribalism” and says that we need to get over it in order to progress.)

I stated in an earlier series of essays that I was a “closed system” advocate. Since I think this is the easiest of the issues to discuss, I will comment on it in part 2.

As for polemics: I'm more interested in presenting the views of the two positions, for clarity and to avoid misrepresentation. But if possible, I will critique any statements I find to be untrue, so as to give my perspective on these issues.

Comments would be appreciated.


  1. Since it has been over 20 years since the origin of this particular dispute, many newcomers to Objectivism are completely mystified by the vehemence of the resentment on both sides. However, as you suggest above there are reasons for the dispute as well as the passions it generates. I applaud you for wanting to write what I take to be a review of the major issues involved. Even though I was around when it first happened, it will be good to review the sources of disagreement. Newcomers may find it even more helpful.

  2. Perhaps a careful reading of the problems faced by someone who has been there would be useful.

    Go to

    The dispute is sustained by improper epistemological practices among those of the TOC/TAS. The author of the essay at the above link explains.

  3. It's a review, but more importantly, it's my take on why the Closed interpretation/Peikoff side is right, and the Open interpretation/Kelley side is wrong.

    I criticized the Open system last year, but now I want to present my understanding of the all the major issues involved. From what I've read and understood thus far, Kelley does reject the philosophy of Objectivism, both in its substance and method, despite arguments to the contrary. Commenter Richard is right; Kelley is guilty of improper epistemological practices, and so are those who agree with his view of the philosophy.

    And I've benefited quite a bit from reading Diana Hsieh's history with and arguments against the positions of Kelley, TOC/TAS, and the Brandens. From the evidence I've gathered thus far, I agree with everything she's typed in her "false friends of Objectivism" section.

  4. Nice Naruto reference. Though Pain's character does seem to be about destruction for destruction's sake which does bring in a negative connotation to the topic at hand. I haven't read the manga I just watch the anime as it comes out.

  5. Yikes. That was only five years before I was born.