Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Part 4: Moral Sanction


The issues that constitute the Peikoff-Kelley dispute are very difficult to understand, and require a very technical grasp of Objectivism to confront and answer. This applies to moral sanction as any of the other topics. To determine which side represents the Objectivist position here, I'll follow the methodology I used in Part 3: I'll state my interpretation of the genuinely Objectivist position, and then compare and contrast the statements made by Kelley (and those who side with him) and Peikoff (including those who side with him). During the comparisons, I'll also add relevant points about Objectivism that might have been out of place in my succinct summary of the Objectivist position.

My Interpretation of Objectivist Moral Sanction

As I said in my section on moral judgment from Part 3, the Objectivist view of moral judgment consists of two aspects: consciousness and existence, or its intellectual and existential demands. Intellectually, moral judgment is the identification of facts about other people and evaluating the morally salient facts in reference to the morality of rational selfishness—that is, the moral standard of man's life and principles of egoism. Existentially, moral judgment is using one moral evaluations to guide one's actions, granting to each person that which he deserves, in the form of rewards and punishments. In Objectivism, there is one fundamental kind of recompense for (that is, an action in response to) the characters and actions of others, for their virtues and vices: the granting or withholding of one's moral sanction.

To morally sanction is to regard someone (or action, ideology, organization) as morally good and to endorse, support, approve, and generally promote that person (or action, function). In essence, it is acknowledging the good (that is, good people, practices, etc.) for what it is and choosing to deal with it, giving it one's spiritual and material support. The Objectivist theory of moral sanction holds that it is the good, as defined by the morality of rational egoism, who create and sustain the kind of world that is beneficial and conducive to human life; thus they deserve our support, our cooperation, the practicing of our virtues, and our recognition of the virtues that the good themselves practice.

The reason that people deserve one's moral sanction (or the withholding of it) is the fact of the effects of their volitional action (potential, if not actual) on one's own life and well-being. The people who employ the virtues of Objectivism--being rational, honest, productive--they are the ones who create the values that further our lives, and so it is an act of rationality on our part to repay such virtues with values, especially moral sanction, and vices with disvalues (particularly the withholding of such sanction). (Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, p. 144) In addition, granting one's moral sanction is a way to protect the clarity of one's awareness of people, and the rationality of the ends and courses one chooses to pursue. (Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, 84-85) Moral sanction is a way to express the acknowledgment of the moral values that one perceives in another, and thus is a way to gauge the rationality of the areas of one's life that directly involve others. "It makes a difference whether one thinks that one is dealing with human errors of knowledge or with human evil." (The Virtue of Selfishness, 84-85)

The policy of moral sanction has important implications for how one deals with the morally good people one encounters, this much is certain. It also has an important implication in regard to human evil: the refusal to sanction it.

In essence, the evil in the Objectivist view is evasion, the willful rejection of one's reason and the rejection of reality, on the premise that if only one doesn't acknowledge something, then it doesn't exist. Due to the nature of evasion, evil is necessarily impotent—closing one's mind off to reality, and substituting one's wishes for it, is not the path to practicality. The nature of existence means that it has primacy over consciousness: conscious wishes, in and of themselves, are fruitless. Such a course of evasion can only end in the frustration of one's goals, the adoption of methods incompatible with the achievement of such goals, and the destruction of values—those of the evader and those of others with whom he deals, and this pertains especially to moral values. Indeed, destruction is the only power of the evil. The crazed dictator who starves millions and ruins his country's economy, the manipulative liar who wrecks his business plans and reputation, the hypocrite who eventually loses his friends and political endorsements—as a principle, the actions of evil are detrimental to human life. "Evil men, though impotent, can disappoint, deceive, and betray the innocent; if they turn to crime, they can rob, enslave, and kill." (Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 331) It is due to the (in many cases, obvious) threats to one's self-interest that evil men and actions pose that constitutes the case against sanctioning evil. The immoral characters and actions of men deserve our refusal to sanction them, our moral condemnation, ostracism, and the discussion of the moral judgments made with others when this is appropriate (such as when someone is starting to befriend the immoral person).

Evil is impotent, but it can feed off of the virtues of the good, such as the thought and productive effort of slaves, the genuine benevolence of unsuspecting friends, the sense of justice of those who cannot fathom the deliberate evil that can exist in the characters of others. "Evil left to its own devices is powerless, but evil has not been left to its own devices. It has been able to survive by harnessing and placing the power of the good in its service." (Nathaniel Branden, Vision of Ayn Rand, p. 485) In response to such evil, the Objectivist position is that:
The weapon necessary to defend against evil is justice: the unequivocal identification of the evil as evil. This means the refusal to grant it, by word or by deed, any moral respectability. It is by scrupulously withholding from the irrational even a crumb of a moral sanction—by rejecting any form of accommodation with the irrational—by forcing the irrational to stand naked and unaided—that one keeps evil impotent. (Peter Schwartz, "On Moral Sanctions")
The failure to refuse to sanction evil takes a particularly painful form when the victim of evil concedes his moral stance to that of his enemies, his destroyers. In Objectivism, this is known as the "sanction of the victim." Nathaniel Branden (writing as an Objectivist in the 60s) states:
There is another form, perhaps the most tragic one, of the manner in which the good supports the evil and makes the success of evil possible. These are the countless situations where men of virtue help evil not because of their own evasions, weaknesses, or flaws, but because of their own virtues—because of their own innocence, honesty, generosity, endurance, and sense of justice. Innocence is the key virtue in such cases, the virtue most viciously exploited.

Men who are fundamentally rational are unable to conceive of the kind of motives that prompt the irrational. They do not understand the nature of evil and do not know how to identify its symptoms. Their own honesty makes them regard the wrong actions of others as mere errors of knowledge. Their generosity makes them feel benevolence towards others and reluctant to suspect the worst. Their endurance makes them willing to bear out a good deal of undeserved pain, on the assumption that those who caused it didn't do it intentionally. Their own sense of justice makes them unable to condemn others without understanding, and leads them to give others too much 'benefit of the doubt' for too long. This is the error which Ayn Rand calls, 'the sanction of the victim.'

'The sanction of the victim' means: the willingness to let one's own virtues be used by others against oneself. It means the willingness to bear injustice, to takes actions which help others against one's own rational self-interest, and to concede moral validity to the claims of one's own destroyers. (The Vision of Ayn Rand, 488)
Just as justice is the weapon needed to defend against evil, so it is one's defense against giving evil the sanction of the victim. Two of the characteristics of such sanction are (1) a moral double standard, in which a moral man mistakenly tolerates evils in others that he would condemn in his own character, and (2) an ignorance of the fact that evil men count on and condemn the victim's virtues--his honesty, integrity, productivity, and pride, among other positive traits—not his moral flaws. The solution to (1) and (2) is moral objectivity: being able to articulate one's moral code, to prove it to any honest inquisitor, to understand it, and to apply it to one's own life. In regard to (1), moral objectivity means justice: it means not tolerating what one regards as evil, but applying the same abstract standards and principles one practices in one's own life to the characters and actions of others, and judging them accordingly. "Whenever you are able to say about some immoral action, with full rational knowledge of your reasons, 'I would not permit myself to do this,' do not accept, tolerate, forgive, or sanction it, when it is done by others."(The Vision of Ayn Rand, 491) In regard to (2), moral objectivity means reminding oneself that virtue should be rewarded with values, not disvalues. Upon detecting that one's virtues are being exploited and simultaneously condemned, one should make this injustice apparent to the guilty party: one presents the objectivity of one's case and of one's judgment.

Obviously, there's a lot more to be said about moral sanction, but I think this covers the essential elements of it, as well its importance in the present controversy, i.e. What moral sanction is and how it is applied according to the philosophy of Objectivism.

Objectivism, Existential Aid, and Pragmatism

Peikoff and Kelley certainly differ on the topic of moral sanction. In addition to that, in Truth and Toleration (as well as The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand), Kelley introduces the subject of existential aid, a point on which he claims that he disagrees with Peter Schwartz and Peikoff; I'll note that I agree with his judgment here: their disagreements here reveal philosophically relevant differences. To understand why, let's consider what they say.

Existential aid is benefiting something or someone in some material form, such as funding an event, increasing voter turnout, or even buying a movie ticket, insofar as one increases the movie's prospects for a great financial return on the production crew's expenses. The special case of aid that is being disputed is that of contributions to the morally evil.

Kelley's very first point about evil contributions is that, "it's impossible to avoid every such contribution." He elaborates on this point, claiming that we can't control the actions of others, and thus cannot control what they will do with the benefits we give to them. (CLAR, p. 32) In economics, we give such aid to evil totalitarian countries and groups indirectly, through our savings; in the "marketplace of ideas," we give such aid to magazines by benefiting them at the expense of helping to promote one's ideological enemies, and gaining Ph.D.s at the expense of fostering a graduate program that can continue to promote ideas that one is opposed to. These unavoidable contributions to evil aside, we must pursue our values, Kelley holds; negative consequences cannot deter us in living our lives and pursuing our values. With this in mind, we must "avoid aiding evil any more than necessary." We should make sure that any such aid is an unavoidable byproduct of a rational purpose." (p. 33) We should minimize our aid to evil as much as possible, and avoid granting such aid when the evil's magnitude outweighs the positive effect of our actions.

The first point I'd like to make is that the pursuit of values does not necessarily lead to the benefit of evil, contra Kelley. If the moral state of the people around us, and the world at large, is so corrupted that any given action towards a value may contribute to the morally evil in some way, that says a lot about the current state of things. It also makes the issues of morality, of justice and moral judgment, more urgent in our lives. (Ayn Rand's active philosophical career, for example, is a testament to this need for urgency, as she devoted vast amounts of her energy arguing for the good and rational, and making her judgments about irrationality and immorality known in countless instances. Typically this consisted in analyzing some morally corrupt expression or idea and identifying its relationship to Objectivism, and how a rational person should respond to it.) Kelley here seems to be forgetting the distinction between the metaphysically given and the man-made (Ayn Rand Lexicon: Metaphysical vs. Man-Made). The amount of evil in the world, and the possibility of our contributing to it, are both man-made facts, and accordingly are capable of being judged and changed for the better. As Objectivists, we are not content with minimizing our impact on the ends of evil, and living with the way things are—we are radicals for objectivity, for justice, for a rational society in which the evil is left unaided and condemned for what it is.

(Another way to combat any contributions to evil is practicing moral judgment and especially withholding one's moral sanction, but this will be discussed in the next section.)

In accordance with these ideas, which he calls "commonsense standards" (but aren't they technical details of Objectivism, in his view?), he states that we weigh the costs and benefits of an action, stressing the degree of the good or bad we think may result. As I said in the essay on moral judgment, the Objectivist position is not to merely to assess particular degrees of anything and then consider the "foreseeable consequences" or what "may result." What Kelley is saying is a variant of consequentialism—specifically, a form of pragmatism.

Kelley, of course, denies the charge of pragmatism, first raised by Peter Schwartz in "On Moral Sanctions." (CLAR p. 33) Since his denial is important here, I'll quote it in full:
A benefit is a value, and a cost is a disvalue. The essence of pragmatism is not its concern with costs and benefits; that concern is shared by any value[-]oriented, teleological ethics, including Objectivism. The essence of pragmatism is its claim that costs and benefits can be measured without the use of principles. That is why, as the old joke says, pragmatism doesn’t work.

Moral principles tell us what kinds of things are valuable or harmful, beneficial or costly to our lives. They tell us which traits of people are virtuous and vicious, and thereby tell us whom it is in our interest to deal with. To pursue our interests, therefore, we must act on principle: the moral is the practical. This point is not in dispute. But Schwartz writes as if every action we consider is governed by a single principle. In fact, this is almost never the case. The circumstances in which we act are normally complex, and the consequences various. We use principles to identify the goods and ills at stake, but we must then weigh the good against the ill, in the manner I’ve indicated. This normally requires that we consider specific degrees of good or harm. For example, we do not hesitate to put our money into savings instruments, despite the fact that we thereby lower the cost of loans to evil governments, because the benefits are substantial and the harm negligible. These are quantitative judgments, and they are not always this obvious. Such weighing of costs and benefits is the only possible method of acting on principle, and it is therefore morally required of us: the practical is the moral. (CLAR, pp. 33-34)
It's important to note here that in Objectivism, any sort of "cost-benefit analysis" does not have the kind of importance that Kelley here is stating it does. Objectivists are primarily principled, they live by and according to their principles—the issue of costs and benefits only arises after it's been decided that an action (or policy or function) is in accordance with one's principles. The reason is that principles are general truths on which a number of other truths depend, and thus integrate vast amounts of inductive data. (Though some principles are deductively formed as well.) We exploit the integrations made thereby, judging our actions by their long-range consequences and effects on our other ends, as gauged by the facts we know concerning the principles. If an action is deemed to be against one's principles, that rules it out—there's no need to further consider the case, as if one had to act without the benefit of principles: there's no point in such "cost-benefit" analysis. Objectivism holds that its moral principles identify the kinds of actions that are conducive to human life, and the ones which are detrimental to it—acting against one's principles must resort to courting disaster, and jeopardizing one's values.

In her chapter on integrity, Objectivist Tara Smith makes similar remarks on being principled:
To commit to a principle is to decide in advance how one should act when confronting certain kinds of choices. The reason to do that is the realization that a person will make better decisions that way. By stepping back from the immediate pulls and pushes of a decision-making situation, a person can better grasp what actions will be, all things considered, best for him. Adopting a principle means committing to staying that predetermined course, to taking the kinds of action that the principle prescribes when the relevant occasions arise. (Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, p. 180)
Kelley doesn't explicitly deny the role of principles, but he does misunderstand them. He states that the role of principles is to inform us of the good or ill that is at stake, but that's all they do; we then must act on principle by means of cost-benefit analysis. That is not their only purpose, and the analysis of costs and benefits is not the follow-up of every consideration of actions and the principles governing them, as I've made clear.

As another indication of this misunderstanding, Kelley criticizes Schwartz's view, implying that it's simplistic: "...Schwartz writes as if every action we consider is governed by a single principle. In fact, this is almost never the case. The circumstances in which we act are normally complex, and the consequences various..." (p. 33) By implication of Kelley's statements, Objectivist principles are normally at war with each other in practical reality, and actions often have multiple principles governing them, offering conflicting moral estimates. In other words: principles are unhelpful in reality; cost-benefit analysis is necessary precisely because principles do not (and cannot, by his reasoning) allow us to determine the moral permissibility of an action, and thus cannot motivate our actions either way.

Kelley is criticizing principles for the same reason that explicit pragmatists have derided principles for nearly a century now. Principles are vast integrations and thus are highly abstract, and this very fact disqualifies them as offering practical guidance in this complex world we live in. As Rand once put it, describing the essence of pragmatism: "Their dogmatic agnosticism holds, as an absolute, that a principle is false because it is a principle—that conceptual integration (i.e., thinking) is impractical or 'simplistic'..." (Ayn Rand Lexicon: Pragmatism) The consideration of reality's complexity, and the seeming conflicts that can occur between principles, leads to a hypothesis that principles are indeed false, at least in some contexts: the cost-benefit analysis works in a way so as to solve the conflict and determine what action a person should take or judgment he should make.

The use of practical methods--cost-benefit analysis or otherwise--in response to the recognized failure of ideologies and principles, however, is quintessential pragmatism.

Kelley states that his position is not pragmatism because that school of philosophy endorses the view that costs and benefits can be measured without use of (or reference to) principles. But this lack of principles is one of the Big Lies spread by pragmatist theorists. The truth is that pragmatists typically plagiarize the popular philosophical ideas outside of their own philosophy, not crediting their sources, all the while criticizing those alien ideas and the philosophies upholding them. Dewey promoted a combination of racism, social subjectivism, and altruism without mentioning them (see his "My Pedagogic Creed"). William James's pragmatic theory of truth is in part the correspondence theory of truth melded with the coherence theory of truth (see his "Lecture VI. Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth"). Kelley is merely a pragmatist who explicitly incorporates (badly understood) Objectivist ideas into his philosophy.

An honest pragmatist is still a pragmatist.

On Sanction and Libertarianism

Kelley's section on sanction doesn't add much to the discussion. He adds that sanction involves a conscious judgment which is typically expressed in words, though there are cases where action would betray sanction even if the person consciously doesn't sanction a certain person, group, or organization. (p. 34) Kelley describes various degrees of association, ending with a short explanation of why a speaker's appearance is not a sanction of the group's ideas—that an Objectivist speaking at a libertarian function is not sanctioning libertarianism. He compares the speaker events of ideological groups to that of more open-forum venues, like that of the Ford Hall Forum, which Rand famously attended. It is mistaken to hold that a speaker agrees with the ideology of whomever he is speaking to. (p. 35)

His footnote #5 gives an important quote from Rand, one which Kelley thinks agrees with his view. Here is his footnote in full:
Several people have drawn my attention to the fact that Ayn Rand dealt with precisely this point in connection with a charge by Senate liberals that Justice William Rehnqulst once spoke to a right-wing group: “This is an insidious kind of intimidation: it equates a speaker’s views with those of the discussion’s sponsors. A man of integrity is conscientiously precise about the nature of his views on any subject. If his views are going to be judged, not by his own statements, but by the views of those who invite him to speak... then his only alternative is to accept no speaking engagements. If so, what happens to our freedom of speech?” “The Disenfranchisement of the Right,” The Ayn Rand Letter I (Dec.20, 1971), p. 26.
Rand is correct: it is intellectually dishonest to judge a speaker by the view of those who ask him to speak, instead of his own statements. But Kelley is grossly mistaken if he believes that this is what Peikoff and Schwartz were doing, or that this was the reason why the ARI ended its association with him. Part of the reason was his refusal to denounce The Passion of Ayn Rand, as Kelley claimed, and this is true. Barbara Branden was guilty of psychologizing and rationalization on a massive scale (which I've only learned about in these last few months), and had succeeded in her destruction of the value of Rand's character in the minds of many, and still does so today (check out the Objectivist Living forum and The Atlas Society, for more on that). (My opinion of her has dropped even lower as my reading of The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics continues.) The other part of the reason was the presentation of his philosophical views justifying his action at the Supper Club as contained in "A Question of Sanction," not his speaking there as such. (Though his failure to articulate what he thinks libertarianism is in contrast to Schwartz's view, and his dealings with libertarians regardless, certainly didn't help.)

Schwartz, in his two essays on moral sanction, didn't equate Kelley's views with those of his libertarian audience. He criticizes Kelley for arguing for Objectivism in a format endorsed and structured by libertarians, under their "auspices." There was a well-reasoned argument for this:
If one wishes to reach those who have been defrauded by Libertarianism, it cannot be done by speaking under the auspices of the defrauders. It cannot be done even if one’s topic is why Objectivism offers the proper foundation for genuine liberty. Such a talk grants Libertarianism precisely the moral sanction it seeks and thrives on. Libertarians will readily listen to a talk on Objectivism and liberty—and the next day they will invite someone to speak on why the Bible is the only basis for liberty—and the next week they will hear someone argue why only skepticism and amoralism can validate liberty, etc. They lap this up. It is all entirely consistent with Libertarianism. It is consistent with the philosophy that philosophies and reasons are irrelevant to a belief in 'liberty.' By speaking under the roof of an organization dedicated to purveying Libertarianism, one concedes that Libertarianism does in fact value liberty (and is simply confused about the proper means—i.e., Objectivism—by which to gain that end). Once that fatal concession is made, Libertarianism has obtained the basic moral sanction its survival requires. (On Moral Sanctions)
Kelley is focused on his own motivations for speaking there: "I am therefore on record as having refused to endorse, approve, or sanction any subjectivist variety of libertarianism. It would be entirely irrational to attribute to me a moral judgment that I not only haven’t made, but have explicitly and publicly rejected." (p. 36) He fails to mention that the motives of the libertarians may have something to do with Schwartz's claims: namely, the intellectual promiscuity that libertarianism relies on and fully encourages, the desire to incorporate a host of philosophical viewpoints and adherents to a "common cause." To sanction libertarianism, all one needs to do is claim that they genuinely value "liberty" and that they are a positive force in the cultural (and global) fight for liberty and a proper society—exactly what Kelley did then, and does now (see William Thomas's and Kelley's "What Is the Objectivist View of Libertarianism?") Kelley's actions betray his conscious judgments.

Kelley objects to Schwartz's charge that it is a form of nihilism and subjectivism. But he has no way to identify the political philosophy as a positive alternative to the image formed by Schwartz's arguments. At best, he says: "It is one thing to hold that the advocacy of liberty does not require any objective philosophical basis. It is another thing—and in my experience a more common view among libertarians—to hold that liberty does have an objective basis, but that one may make common cause with those who subscribe to a basis other than one’s own." Since when was Objectivism the common view held by libertarians—or does Kelley now believe that other philosophies can give objective bases for liberty? He also says that the motivation for libertarians isn't what Schwartz says it is, but is more likely an attempt to figure out which philosophy is correct, and therefore which philosophy offers the defense for liberty. (p. 38) "Why would a group bother to invite philosophers at all if they thought philosophy irrelevant?" Kelley asks. The answer in my mind is: to keep up the pretense of being considered a serious political philosophy.

There's never going to be a final answer for libertarianism as to which philosophy offers the best, or only, defense for liberty, because its basic method is to deny that any definitive defense is necessary or desirable. Libertarianism presented itself as a big tent political program, and the subsequent decades haven't lead to a philosophically reasoned consensus, but to further divisions and disagreements. For proof of this, consult the vast and varied works of libertarian authors, and consider their arguments, which I predict will only continue to grow and become even more disparate. (I'll caution that the amount of libertarian works produced has long since became too much to read in a lifetime.) If Kelley's vision was a libertarianism in agreement with (or largely in favor of) Objectivism, as philosophical and political allies, then I truly believe Kelley's hopes are in vain.


Moral Sanction is an important topic in the Objectivist ethics, and understanding it is necessary for not only understanding this debate, but for applying the philosophy in one's own life and for one's own benefit. I certainly hope my essay has helped in both regards. On this topic, as in others, Kelley hasn't represented the Objectivist view in any significant way, and has made claims that are clearly opposed to it, such as our pursuit of interests necessarily benefiting evil. I've also given my reasons for thinking that Kelley is guilty of the very pragmatism he's been denying, largely due to his lack of appreciation for the underlying method of that school of philosophy. Finally, I've argued that Kelley was indeed sanctioning libertarianism, and that his behavior towards libertarianism over these past two decades is no different than it was before his split with the ARI, and is quite the opposite of not sanctioning them.

Reference Works

Ayn Rand Lexicon: Evil
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Metaphysical vs. Man-Made
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Moral Judgment
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Pragmatism
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Sanction
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Sanction of the Victim

Branden, Nathaniel. The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism. Gilbert: Cobden Press, 2009.

Dewey, John. "My Pedagogic Creed" Accessed April 22, 2010.

Hsieh, Diana. Documents, Sanction, and Confusion Accessed April 17, 2010.

James, William. Lecture VI. Pragmatism's Conception of Truth

Kelley, David. 'A Question of Sanction." March 1989. http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=722 Accessed March 27, 2010.
Kelley, David, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism. 2000 (1990)
Kelley, David, and William Thomas. "What is the Objectivist View of Libertarianism?" http://www.objectivistcenter.org/showcontent.aspx?ct=591&h=54 Accessed April 21, 2010.

Peikoff, Leonard. "Fact & Value." http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_fv Accessed April 14, 2010.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian, 1993 (1991).

Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet, 1964.
Rand, Ayn. The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought. Edited by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Meridian, 1990.

Schwartz, Peter: On Moral Sanctions Accessed April 13, 2010.
Schwartz, Peter. On Sanctioning the Sanctioners Accessed April 13, 2010.

Smith, Tara. Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: the Virtuous Egoist. Cambridge U, 2006,

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