Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Part 5: Errors vs. Moral Breaches


Among all the issues that must be confronted in the Peikoff-Kelley split, the most difficult is surely the topic of error vs. evil, of errors of knowledge in contrast to breaches of morality. Fortunately, it is also the most philosophically revealing. As in the topics of my previous essay, I agree with Peikoff's view. To see why, I'll describe my understanding of the error/evil distinction, and compare it to the statements of both Peikoff and Kelley, adding my own comments and polemics when needed. As this isn't a topic that's discussed much, online or anywhere else, I hope my essay here improves the reader's understanding on this technical issue.

My View of Errors of Knowledge vs. Breaches of Morality

The Objectivist view is that an error of knowledge is not a moral vice and must be given every possible tolerance and allowance, while breaches of morality cannot be forgiven or tolerated or accepted. The basis for this view is an aspect of human nature, including our need to pursue our self-interests.

We are beings of volitional consciousness: we have the power of free will, of choosing our actions and thus of bearing the responsibility of our actions' results. We have to choose to exert the effort required to live our lives, and we have to do so by means of our reason, our fundamental means of dealing with reality. This means that we are not omniscient, and it means that we do not automatically live by reason. In Objectivism's view, reason is free will: acting in accordance with reason, and correctly or incorrectly applying one's reason, is a matter of choice. Having reason doesn't entail the possession of knowledge, or even the proper method of gaining such knowledge: the mind is born "tabula rasa" ("as a blank slate") in Rand's view: there is no mental content, and thus no method that is dependent on such content. Because reason isn't automatic, we are capable of errors, of evasion, of distorting what our reason is identifying. Accordingly, we have to choose to discover the proper means to be rational—we must learn how to reach correct conclusions, how to identify truths and falsehoods, and how to determine what counts as knowledge. (Ayn Rand Lexicon: Epistemology)

Whether it is the character and minds of others or of one's self, the Objectivist morality asks (and leads one to answer questions such as): how does a person use his tool of rationality? Is he focusing on the facts, applying his knowledge, forming principles and sticking by them? When he makes errors, does he strive to identify them and correct them, or does he ignore his mistakes or evade them or rationalize them into nonexistence? Does the person practice the Objectivist virtues (even implicitly)? These questions matter because the Objectivist morality is designed to promote those beings of free will who have chosen to use their reason to the best of their ability.

Because humans are not omniscient, morality can't declare that a person is morally flawed for making errors and mistakes, and that he must be judged according to the standard of omniscience, of knowing everything at once. Such a principle would ignore how humans live in reality, and would ignore our need to reach conclusions through the fallible process of reason, even if we occasionally make mistakes and reach contradictions. Engaging in thought and making a mistake along the way is immensely more practical than evading the responsibility of thought, provided that the person continues along a reality-oriented train of thought, as this is the way in which mistakes are corrected. Objectivism is opposed to impractical theories and irrational standards such as omniscience: they contradict reality, and offer only genuine losses for those who try to adhere to them.

Objectivism's censure of irrationality has another form (among others): the refusal to advocate willful immorality. A breach of morality is an conscious choice to go against what one deems to be good, to act in some way that promotes what one regards as evil, to evade one's knowledge of the good. To act against what one knows to be the good, is to act against what one considered in the past to be beneficial behavior and against one's values. Such an action would necessitate that a person judge this person as (at least) immoral. To understand why, let's consider this distinction in regard to the virtues most concerned with the moral character of others and of oneself: justice and pride.

The virtues of justice and pride recognize the basic facts about humans I mentioned above, regarding our volition and need to discover how to use reason correctly. Justice tells us: other people's ideas and actions matter to one's self-interest and life, so determine what kind of person they've chosen to be and their personal context, determine whether they are good or evil according to your standards and principles, and act according to that evaluation. Pride tells us that our principles matter to our self-interest and life, and that we should strive for moral perfection, practicing our virtues and judging our own selves as good or evil according to our morality and our personal context, and pursuing only rational courses of actions, correcting ourselves when we deliberately do otherwise (whenever and to what extent this is possible).

Justice informs us to understand the people we deal with (or, at least, acknowledge the moral characters of people we learn about) due to their effects on our own lives and values. Intellectually, this means discovering facts about other people's lives, especially how they use their mind, and toward what ends. At first, one gives a stranger the moral benefit of the doubt, due to one's acknowledgment of another's nature as a human, that is, as someone who possesses a rational faculty and from whom benefits can be expected. As the relationship is extended or becomes wider in scope and relevance (for example, a daily acquaintance, a friend, a business partner), an awareness of the person's moral standing becomes selfishly obligatory. In the relevant context, this means determining whether the person makes mistakes honestly, struggling to grasp the facts and comply with them, or if the person is practicing evasion, and determining whether rationality or irrationality is the ruling factor in the person's character. This is another way of protecting one's clarity of vision: the rationality of giving one's car keys and car to a parking valet depends on whether the person is a dependable and reputable driver, is known to be (unintentionally) accident-prone, or is a suspected vandal or thief.

In action, justice here means respecting the fallible nature of human reason, and not altering the moral evaluation of those who make honest mistakes. This includes brushing the mistake off as insignificant, helping the individual to correct his actions, or changing one's goals in order to achieve your values (such as, kindly suggesting an honest (but bad) cook to let you do the cooking for an upcoming meeting, or offering cooking lessons). It also means not tolerating, "brushing off," or otherwise ignoring a breach of morality or an act of evasion; immorality, in the Objectivist view, is the path to failure, value-loss, destruction, and death, and is precisely the line where "allowance" and "permissibility" must be drawn. "Tolerating" a gangster, a pathological liar, a swindler, or a hypocrite is an assault on one's values and an injustice to those who are virtuous, including the honestly mistaken among them. "To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims," Rand says. (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 83.) The proper response to breaches of morality is to withhold one's sanction of the activity, and even the person if he proves to not desire to change his behavior in hopes of bettering himself and earning one's forgiveness.

Pride is "moral ambitiousness," it is striving to adhere to one's moral code, creating one's optimal moral character, and taking the actions needed to make one's life worth living—to make one worthy of positive self-esteem. Pride is working towards moral perfection, which is, "an unbreached rationality—not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute." Intellectually, pride means taking moral issues seriously, seeking to understand them and acting as one's moral code dictates, to be "good" by one's moral standard and principles. By the same token, this means consciously refusing to engage in willful evil, to create flaws in one's character. The proud man is one who recognizes that one's virtuous or flawed character is a result of one's own volitional actions, and is therefore capable, in principle, of being changed for the better. As Peikoff puts the point (and several other points), the fact of volition's role on character and it's importance in regard to pride means that:
There is no excuse, therefore, for a man who resigns himself to flaws in his character. 'Flaws' does not mean errors of knowledge, which involve no evasion; it means breaches of morality, which do involve evasion. The moral man may lack a piece of knowledge or reach a mistaken conclusion; but he does not tolerate willful evil, neither in his consciousness nor in his action, neither in the form of sins of commission nor of sins of omission. He does not demand of himself the impossible, but he does demand every ounce of the possible. He refuses to rest content with a defective soul, shrugging in self-deprecation 'That's me.' He knows that that 'me' was created, and is alterable, by him. (Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 304)
In action, the proud person engages in rational actions unwaveringly, earnestly practicing the virtues he regards as true. He does not fault himself for honest mistakes, but rather accepts his fallibility and moves forward, correcting them whenever the means are available to do so. He doesn't accept unearned guilt, faulting himself for failing to fully practice something that is impossible to accomplish. Nor does he motivate his actions by evasion or other forms of evil. Despite this, Objectivism is opposed to the view that moral perfection is a "one-shot thing"; if a person does become guilty of a vice, he doesn't sit in moral helplessness, but rather uses his rationality to redeem himself. He, "condemns his improper behavior, analyzes its roots (identifying in the process the underlying evasions), makes reparation (where applicable), and works to reshape his mental policy; he thereby retrains his character for the future." (OPAR, p. 305)

In the cases of both justice and pride, moral innocence is the crucial virtue to consider. Whether a person thinks he's committed a moral crime or not, or whether he thinks this is the case in regard to someone else or not, are important facts to consider in determining errors of knowledge versus breaches of morality. Honest errors are not to be confused with evils, and Objectivism's moral code upholds the innocent, including the rational but mistaken, while condemning the willfully evil.

Ideas as True or False, Good or Bad

In several important respects I've maintained that Kelley is misrepresenting the Objectivist view in epistemology and ethics. This series of distortion is in full force in his chapter on "Error vs. Evil."

Kelley repeats his dual-standards of human life and rationality, now applying it to the evaluation of ideas, and states that there are two characteristics which apply to ideas, one more essential than the other: the content of an idea, and its relation to some action. He states:
Whether an idea is true or false, and whether it is good or bad, are related issues. But they are distinct, and the issue of truth is primary. The essential characteristic of an idea is its content, the claim it makes about reality. The first and essential question to ask about any idea, therefore, is whether the claim it makes is true or false. Truth or falsity is a feature that an idea has by virtue of its content. An idea is good or bad, by contrast, in virtue of its relation to some action. As I indicated in 'A Question of Sanction,' there are two categories of relevant action. We can evaluate an idea by its effects—the actions it leads people to take—as measured by the standard of human life. And we can evaluate an idea by the mental actions that produced it, as measured by the standard of rationality. In either case, the value significance of the idea is a derivative property, which depends not only on the content of the idea but on the nature of the relevant action. And in either case, as I said, 'the concept of evil applies primarily to actions, and to the people who perform them.' It applies only in a derivative way to the ideas themselves. (CLAR, p. 39)
I won't repeat my criticism of the standards of human life and rationality I made in part 2, but I will comment on some of his other views.

My first point is that Objectivism has no content/action dichotomy, in which the truth of an idea flows from the content, and the moral rightness (or wrongness) of an idea flows from its effects—the actions or consequences of the idea. If this is literally what Kelley believes, then he's completely abandoned the Objectivist view of truth, and thereby of objectivity. The truth of an idea depends not only on what it claims about reality (its "content"), but also the mental processes used to reach it by a given individual, and its practical consequences. (I'm opposed to Kelley redefining "content" here as basically the definition of an idea, since a lot more information than that is relevant to determining an idea's truth.)

An idea's relation to action, including its ethical significance, is part of the content of the idea. It's one's knowledge of the idea, including relevant practical consequences, the reasoning that led to it, and value-judgments made, that constitute the content of the idea. Speaking of this sort of integration, the same kind of reasoning applies to the truth of an idea—the effects in reality of an idea partly determine its truth or falsehood. There's no reason in Objectivism to separate a part of the content of an idea and declare it to be a derivative trait, as far as the value significance of that idea goes. In fact, there's no reason for the content/action split in the first place: Kelley merely introduces it, claims that one corresponds to a primary trait (truth), and that the other applies to the secondary trait (value significance).

Diana Hsieh presented the criticism that Kelley embraces the mind-body dichotomy in moral judgment: well, here it is, in full form, in his discussion of value significance and its application to actions. Notice what Kelley says: "Had the same actions [i.e. Stalin's mass-murder motivated by Marxism] been committed by an Attila, whose power did not rest on ideological justifications, the actions would have been equally wrong." (p. 40) That quote implies that ideas don't matter in evaluating actions; so long as the scale of destruction is the same, then the actions are equally evil, no matter the ideological justification (or lack of it). That's entirely opposed to Objectivism.

First, it's ridiculous to suggest that anyone could've performed the same actions as Stalin without any ideological justifications. Mass murder, conquering other nations—these could be actions of force-wielders without a specific philosophy. Erecting a command economy, contributing to socialist theory and then putting it into blood-soaked practice, purging one's ranks of potential enemies, forcing scientists into labor camps or outright killing them, and so on, couldn't possibly have happened without an ideology driving it, a very definite ideology. If not, then what does Kelley take to be the relationship between ideas and actions, between the mind and body?

Second, Kelley's ignoring the fact that the scope and level of evasion plays a significant role in determining the amount of evil in a given action; indeed, evasion is the source of evil, its basic form. From what I said in Part 3, it should be clear that I think that it takes a greater amount of evasion to believe and practice Marxism to the extent that Stalin did than to commit the actions of Attila. Precisely because of Stalin's ideas, and how he reached them, then, his actions would have been far worse than those of Attila, even if they led to the same number of deaths or other superficial similarities in reality.

Peikoff vs. Kelley on the Role of Philosophy in History

In the next section, "Ideas and Original Sin," Kelley presents what he takes to be his differences with Peikoff on the role of philosophy in cultural events.

The Objectivist theory of history is that philosophy, i.e. the realm of ideas, is the prime cause of the course of history, the cause that influences all of the other causes, social, political, economic, technological, and so on. This isn't to say that history doesn't have many factors which can account for historical events, but it does conclude that not all such factors are primary. Philosophy is capable of this because of its broad range of abstractions, because of the importance of philosophical issues to human life. (Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 452) A philosophy first influences a small group of individuals concerned with philosophical issues, commonly known as intellectuals, and these individuals pass the philosophy down in ways that begin to influence the culture, affecting the fields of art, science, government policy, law, and countless others, in both subtle and stark ways.

As Kelley presents what he takes to be Peikoff's view, I can't help but notice that he treats "Fact and Value" as some sui generis article, as if Peikoff hadn't described his (and Rand's/Objectivism's) view of history in The Ominous Parallels, or even Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. As we're about to see, Kelley is going to say things that Peikoff does not hold, and thus his critique will be that much weaker.

Kelley's portrait of Peikoff's view is a variant of ideological determinism: as soon as you inject a philosophical idea or system into a culture, the result will necessarily lead to certain consequences consistent with that idea, rendering the free will of the people who live under this idea or culture moot. The philosopher thus takes the blame for the transmission and effects of his ideas, as Peikoff notes in F&V with regard to Immanuel Kant. Kelley notes, "[t]hese individuals must, in effect, be helpless and unwitting carriers of the intellectual virus." (CLAR, p. 41) He also comments (rightly) that Peikoff's view is that the majority of people are not in the position needed to exercise their choice regarding fundamental philosophical ideas, and thus are shaped and influenced by these abstractions without their knowledge. Kelley draws the deduction: if such ideas are so embedded into the culture that they are never explicitly identified and challenged by the majority of people (the non-intellectual, the "ordinary"), that they are never issues about which one could choose to think about or not, then one cannot be accused of evasion or irrationality for accepting them. Trying to catch Peikoff in a contradiction, Kelley remarks that Peikoff holds those influenced by ideas they hadn't even thought about to be responsible for the consequences of the idea. Kelley ties this belief to Peikoff's (alleged) principle that an idea's falsehood "immediately implies" irrationality in the persons who accept the idea. Kelley then completes his "reduction to the absurd" argument, noting that if we hold them responsible, then we haven't negated their free will, and they are partially responsible for the disasters of practicing bad philosophical ideas; therefore, the originating philosopher does not really take the blame of such consequences, or only a diluted share of it. (p. 42) He then restates the argument:
In short, Peikoff cannot have it both ways. Ideas necessitate historical results only to the extent that people do not freely choose all of the intellectual contents that govern their values and behavior. Ideas necessitate results only to the extent that artists, journalists, politicians, and people in other walks of life operate within an intellectual context that they necessarily take for granted. But to this extent, they are not responsible for the effects of the premises that make up that context, and cannot be condemned as irrational. To the extent that people are responsible for thinking about their premises, and choosing to accept or reject them, the link between the originators of the ideas and the ultimate consequences is not one of causal necessity. We cannot hold the originators fully responsible for those effects, any more than we can hold a bartender fully responsible for the drunken behavior of his patrons. (ibid.)
Kelley concludes that Peikoff is espousing a form of original sin applied to culture: that Peikoff is claiming that ideas will influence individuals no matter what, free will aside, and that we share moral blame for the negative consequences of these ideas.

Unfortunately for Kelley, his argument has several flaws, some more glaring than others.

(1) Peikoff's discussion of history and philosophy in Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:
Philosophy determines essentials, not details. If men act on certain principles (and choose not to rethink them), the actors will reach the end result logically inherent in those principles. Philosophy does not, however, determine all the concrete forms a principle can take, or the oscillations within a progression, or the time intervals among its steps. Philosophy determines only the basic direction—and outcome." (OPAR, 452)
Ideas necessitate certain results in reality due to the actual casual connection between ideas and action, a fact that is outside the power of human choice. Ideas, when practiced, can only lead to certain results, following the logic of the idea. What is open to human choice is whether and to what extent such philosophical ideas are practiced or rejected. Which brings us to the next topic:

(2) The limits of free will. In Objectivism, free will is the capacity to control and direct one's consciousness, to regulate it towards focus or non-focus, towards thought and non-thought, and direct certain physical actions that are under our conscious control. It's a very delimited faculty: exercised in a certain way, it can lead to great things, but it does not grant one the power to do everything or to be omnipotent. This is the basic reason why we must rely on the knowledge and trade of others who specialize in different fields in order to live, the basic reason for the need of the division of labor.

In "Fact & Value," Peikoff states that, "[t]o an individual in a division-of-labor society, it makes a life-or-death difference whether he is surrounded by producers or parasites, honest men or cheats, independent men or power-lusters." The implication of all of this is that if the specialists or experts are corrupt in their field, the innocent people who rely on them will pay the negative consequences for following their ideas. As examples in psychology, Freud's theories of the id, ego, and super-ego and the theory of behaviorism have been derided by Objectivists for decades precisely because of the damage to human life those ideas have caused, because the non-specialists rely on the faulty views of the specialists. It would be grave context-dropping to blame these negative consequences on the victims as much as those who should have known better. Free will does not mean: go out and discover and do everything by yourself, and if you act on someone else's mistake or deception, then it's your fault, you had free will and could have prevented/ceased the blame-worthy action, but you chose not to.

Peikoff is not dropping the context here: his position is that people can't be blamed for ideas that they couldn't have been expected to know, given their own time, energy, and need to work in some specialized field; this field will typically be something outside the discipline of philosophy or even the humanities. Since this is the case, once a certain philosophical climate sets into a culture, its consequences will influence the individuals of a culture, not due to determinism, but due to the limits of free will and knowledge. (I have to thank Paul Hsieh for quoting some of Peikoff's take on this issue from "The Art of Thinking, lecture 2" in a Noodlefood comment. Not only is the above what I take to be the correct response to Kelley's charge of Peikoff endorsing a version of idea-determinism with respect to a culture, but it also summarizes Peikoff's own words, in which he was showing how an argument about free will much like Kelley's can be met with integrating one's knowledge from other fields and disciplines, with the example being the division of labor and the knowledge of specialists.)

With that said, I'll comment next on the "reduction to the absurd" stage of Kelley's argument, where Kelley insinuates that Peikoff does hold the average person responsible.

(3) Peikoff's notion of "inherently dishonest ideas." To actually make his argument, Kelley has to take elements from Peikoff's section on "inherently dishonest ideas," expanding conclusions made regarding that set of ideas to all ideas in general, with the suppressed premise that this is what Peikoff does in his article (pages 41-42 of CLAR). In particular, he rips these sentences out of their context: "The mass base of such [inherently dishonest] movements are not evaders of the same kind [as the idea's originator(s), leaders, or intellectual spokesmen]; but most of the followers are dishonest in their own passive way. They are unthinking, intellectually irresponsible ballast, unconcerned with logic or truth.” On this count alone, this step in Kelley's argument should be considered context-dropping and summarily dismissed.

Peikoff's view is that unwitting followers of ideas typically are not to blame for relying on the ideas in their cultures, that they are not aware of the issues at stake. “Millions, billions, of men may be oblivious to the mind, they may be ignorant of philosophy, they may even be contemptuous of abstractions. But, knowingly or not, they are shaped ultimately by the abstractions of a small handful of individuals.” ("Philosophy and Psychology in History," Objectivist Forum 6 (Oct. 1985). pp. 14; quoted in CLAR, p. 41) But the followers of "inherently dishonest ideas" are a special case.

In Fact & Value, Peikoff says that "inherently dishonest ideas" are forms of openly rebelling against reason and reality, and in the 1983 lecture course "Understanding Objectivism" (UO) he states that such ideas can have no basis in reality. He says that, "[i]f the conscientious attempt to perceive reality by the use of one’s mind is the essence of honesty, no such rebellion can qualify as 'honest.'" (F&V) In UO, he specifies three kinds of "inherently dishonest ideas": (1) those explicitly against reason and reality, (2) those against values as such, and (3) those which advocate totalitarian states. In any event, Peikoff holds that the area of "inherently dishonest ideas" is filled with notions that couldn't be honestly understood and accepted. Even with such dishonest ideas, Peikoff excludes the very young, the retarded, the illiterate, and a small number of adults of the charge of evasion and irrationality; these are people who, for various reasons, cannot grasp the issues involved or the corruption that results from advocacy of these ideas. Kelley slyly forgets to mention the exceptions that Peikoff makes in F&V, but we should not follow suit.

The topic of "inherently dishonest ideas," as presented in "Fact & Value," is merely a summary of his views; these views are introduced and elaborated upon in the UO lecture course. This fact is something which Kelley also conveniently never discusses in the present issue. But the fact that F&V's discussion is only a summary doesn't mean that Kelley is free to quote statements out of the context that gives them meaning. Unfortunately for Kelley, his "reduction" falls due to Peikoff's actual views on the moral responsibility of cultural innovators/intellectual specialists versus that of ordinary people, and Kelley's quoting material out of context.

(4) Falsehood "immediately implies" irrationality. Kelley continues his "reduction," stating that (his misrepresentation of) Peikoff's views are a result of his general principle that "the falsity of an idea 'immediately implies' irrationality on the part of those who accept it." (CLAR, p. 42) This is false, as Peikoff doesn't hold this view. What he says is that falsehood is a contradiction of reality, and (within a certain range or scope) is the result of honestly mistaken, rational thinking; beyond this range, falsehood does imply irrationality, evasion, a process of vice. "Now we must note that falsehood does not necessarily imply vice; honest errors of knowledge are possible." (F&V) And later:
There is only one basic issue in philosophy and in all judgment, cognitive and evaluative alike: does a man conform to reality or not? Whether an idea is true or false is one aspect of this question—which immediately implies the other aspects I mentioned: the relation to reality of the mental processes involved and of the actions that will result. Truth is a product of effort and leads in action to value(s); hence, one says, the true idea is not only true: it is also good. Falsehood, assuming it reaches a certain scale, is a product of evasion [i.e. irrationality] and leads to destruction; such an idea is not only false; it is also evil. (Italics and brackets mine.)
Peikoff is saying that falsehood "immediately implies" irrationality only if his views are exaggerated, and this is precisely what Kelley does.

Relatedly, Kelley misrepresents Peikoff's views on honest errors, or falsehoods which imply rationality. Kelley says: "Honest errors, especially in regard to philosophical issues, are thus very rare; he suggests that they are essentially limited to the retarded, the illiterate, and the young." (CLAR, p. 40) Actually, the retarded, illiterate, and the young are the honestly mistaken followers of "inherently dishonest ideas" in Peikoff's view, not the representatives of honest errors in general. Indeed, the whole "reduction to the absurd" that Kelley's argument consists of is merely Kelley quoting Peikoff out-of-context and expanding his claims beyond their valid scope, outside the confines of Peikoff's notion of "inherently dishonest ideas."

Now, let's put it all together: Men have free will, but this doesn't mean omnipotence: for countless reasons and in countless situations, we need the specialized skills and labors of others, and we benefit greatly from this division of labor. But our reliance on corrupt specialists, particularly in philosophy, can lead to us creating disastrous events, disasters which are logically consistent with these ideas. This is the way that philosophy is the primary cause of history: the wrong ideas will be accepted and picked up, and people who don't know any better will act on them, to everyone's loss. In the case of "inherently dishonest movements" the philosophic originator of the movement is primarily responsible, as it is his ideas that are being carried out, and the blame is extended to his intellectual followers and spokesmen to a lesser extent, and base followers of the movement to an even lesser extent.

If my presentation of Peikoff is correct here, then Peikoff's view here certainly doesn't represent a "cultural version of the doctrine of original sin," as Kelley claims. (p. 42)

Kelley on the Degree and Kind of Moral Responsibility

Kelley, in the next section "The Role of Ideas in History," reintroduces the topic of Soviet tyrants and academic Marxists, an issue he initially discussed in "A Question of Sanction." He states that Stalin and his henchmen are primarily responsible, as they're the proximate cause of the mass deaths in Russia. The intellectuals were responsible for creating the cultural conditions (or shaping the ones which already existed) making it possible for Stalin and his kind to gain power, and abuse it on a monstrous scale. But there's an important difference in degree of responsibility, Kelley warns. Stalin was personally responsible for the deaths, as he used his political power to instigate the murders and torture. But the intellectuals are not in such a position: it took the effort of many Marxist intellectuals to create the cultural climate suited for Stalin's machinations. As a result, the charge that the academic Marxist is guiltier than Stalin is fallacious on two counts: "first in attributing causal agency to the ideas themselves, and secondly for investing that agency in every individual adherent of the ideas, treating each one as fully responsible for effects that occurred only because millions of other people embraced the same ideas." (p. 49)

Actually, the claim that Marxist intellectuals or academics are guiltier than Stalin or any dictator (which I agree with) doesn't involve either of those fallacies—both are non sequiturs. The Marxist intellectuals are guiltier than the dictators because of their practice with the ideas, not due to any causal efficacy on the idea's part. The intellectuals and dictators share varying degrees of responsibility, with the intellectuals holding the greater share. There's a number of reasons why the intellectuals are guiltier than the dictators.

(For some of the reasons stated below, see Diana's Hsieh's post Marxist Dictators Versus Marxist Intellectuals)

-The Marxist intellectuals presented the moral rightness of the rise of the proletariat, and the takeover of the means of production. They argued that it was morally obligatory, the rational, scientific thing to do, even historically inevitable. Even anti-Marxist practices, like Lenin's New Economic Policy (i.e. which brought private profits to the agriculture industry, instead of outright nationalization), were justified on grounds of historical necessity: it was argued that such policies were needed to implement "state capitalism" (fascism), the last stage before the evolution of socialism could be completed. On economic grounds (and on moral grounds pertaining to the proletariat's historical struggle), it was supposed to bring about prosperity and wealth beyond any of the capitalist's countries' wildest imaginations. The opponents of Marxism were thus faced with the nearly impossible task of combating a carefully crafted doctrine, one that was defended on moral, social, political, economic, and historical grounds. The fact that there were many Marxist intellectuals doing this only made the task of standing against the seemingly universal support for Marxism that much more difficult—their numbers do not absolve them of moral culpability or the degree of blame that they individually deserve, which is what I take Kelley to be implying.

-The dictators, soldiers, and force-wielders in general, merely cashed-in on their position's moral superiority, as established by the intellectuals. As a consequence, the intellectuals rationalized the delusions of grandeur held by corrupt men, bringing them into power over hapless citizens.

-The intellectuals manipulated people's understanding of altruism, history, economics, and political systems. In a response to supposed fears of potential espionage, Stalin began the "Great Purge," rounding up alleged saboteurs, "corrupt" members of the Communist Party, and social groups which were accused of acting against the Party, all with the intellectuals' full support and sanction. They preached historical determinism and involuntary altruism, topics that ordinary people couldn't be expected to know or defend against. Together with their economic criticisms of capitalism and advocacy of communism and socialism, the citizens were not intellectually prepared to combat these ideas—anyone that was surely would have died in the Purge and similar political persecutions, if that person were foolish or careless enough to let that kind of intelligence become public knowledge. If the citizens didn't accept the intellectuals' arguments due to confusion, evasion, or faith, then they most likely accepted it due to fear, fear of being killed for not conforming.

Given that, I find Kelley's distinction between the intellectuals who persuade versus the dictator who uses force to be complete dropping of the context:
More important, however, there is a difference in the nature of their responsibility. Stalin was a murderer; he intended to kill, and he carried out his intention. His victims had no choice in the matter; he did not have to persuade them to volunteer for immolation. The academic, by contrast, was an exponent of ideas. Even though his ideas were incompatible with man’s nature as a rational being, the office he occupied in the causal chain was consistent with that fact: he was engaged in persuasion, in the effort to provide reasons for his political views. Even if he was intellectually dishonest, and his views were caused by evasion, his advocacy of Marxism could have an effect only by eliciting the willing assent of his listeners. If we believe in free will, we must assume that they freely endorsed and adopted his position, that his arguments were not causes affecting them willy-nilly. I am not denying that such advocacy is a form of action, as Peikoff seems to think. I am simply noting the difference between two kinds of action: murder and persuasion. Objectivists, of all people, should be alive to that distinction. (p. 49)
Note the rationalism at work here. Force-users such as Stalin are presumably more culpable than intellectuals because force negates the mind and can kill us. The intellectuals, by contrast, espoused ideas and engaged in persuasion, providing reasons for his beliefs; unlike Stalin, they didn't use force and allowed people to decide for themselves, in effect.

Even if the citizens had a choice, it's preposterous to conclude that they could uncover the evasions and distortions committed by their intellectuals. But it's not more absurd than Kelley's belief that, because of free will, we must assume that they "freely endorsed and adopted [the intellectual's] position." (p. 49) This was a totalitarian state: whatever the nature of their "agreement" with the intellectuals, there was always the threat of physical force, even in private conversations with friends and family. Further, it's important to stress that Marxist intellectuals are certainly not advocates of "persuasion," Kelley's points to the contrary: all Marxists advocate the initiation of force on a massive scale, engulfing the entire globe. That's essential to the moral and political philosophy of Marxism: it's Marxism 101. Consequently, the intellectuals posed as advocates of civilization, using the methods of persuasion and open debate while actually advocating mass murder, and sanctioning the political oppression of dissenters.

Kelley criticizes Peikoff's claim in F&V that a young follower of an "inherently dishonest idea" (Kelley fallaciously expands this to "bad ideas" in general) would seek to make amends for his honest errors as a follower. Kelley appears indignant, calling Peikoff an "intrinsicist" for suggesting that the follower should feel guilt and seek to atone for his past transgressions, even if undertaken honestly. (pp. 49-50) But Kelley is mistaken: Peikoff isn't resorting to religion or intrinsicism in making this point, but rather causality and social objectivity. When a person does make a mistake with regard to "inherently dishonest ideas," it's an expression of causality for others to pay attention and determine if the person is seeking to correct his errors. If they've known of his previous support of communism or ideas of that sort, they can't simply take on faith that he's changed for the better, and they shouldn't tolerate a stance akin to "I've got nothing to prove to anyone." They have a self-interested reason to know if the person was honestly mistaken, and if he truly is trying to reform (even if, in the full context, he's done nothing morally wrong). A perfectly moral man can still have qualities that will turn people away from him, including honest errors of the scope being discussed. In accordance with that, it isn't religion but objectivity and justice that demands that he make his change of view known to those who associate with him, as it is pertinent for them to consider changing their views regarding him just as it was in his own case.

Lastly, Kelley refers to Peikoff's stance that academic Marxists can not be honestly mistaken. In Understanding Objectivism, Peikoff mentions the fact that Marxism rejects Aristotelian logic, and also points to the academic Marxist's necessary evasion of historical knowledge about socialism, fascism and communism. Scholars are supposed to know the historical facts about their field of study, and the history of Marxism is filled with failed states and the deaths of millions of lives, whether the lives of the capitalist bourgeoisie or the proletariat. I agree with Peikoff—there is simply too much literature in history, in economics, and political theory for any knowledgeable Marxist to be actually honest—too many facts to ignore, too many dictators, too many actual tactics of the intellectuals of the past, and far, far too much blood.

I won't discuss most of Kelley's criticisms of Peikoff in the sections "The Scope of Honest Error" and "Inherently Dishonest Ideas" because I've more-or-less answered them when I elaborated on Peikoff's notion of "inherently dishonest ideas." Kelley notes that he isn't clear on what Peikoff means when he discusses philosophical errors and evasions, and their relation to "inherently dishonest ideas." Indeed, I think the same belief applies to a lot of supporters of Kelley's views. But that doesn't stop him from grossly ignoring or misstating Peikoff's views on such ideas, expanding his view of evasion far beyond what he genuinely holds.


"Errors of honest vs. breaches of morality" is a technical topic in the Objectivist ethics, but no less important to understanding the morality's role regarding a person's character and moral judgment. The issues of philosophy's role in history, the moral evaluation of ideas, and the Objectivist idea of free will are no less difficult to understand and appreciate. A thorough study of Objectivism, however, can reveal valuable knowledge pertaining to these ideas and their interrelationships, their larger context, and their applications. I think such knowledge leads to the conclusion that Peikoff has accurately represented Objectivism on all of these issues, while Kelley continually shows himself to stray—perhaps in accordance with his earlier thesis that Objectivism has little to say on judging a person morally in terms of his motives, such data being relevant to the verdict of an honest error or willful evil. More than anything, I hope this essay has given readers enough reason to consider listening to Peikoff's lectures again (or for the first time, as will be my own case) to consider his more detailed views on subjects like "inherently dishonest ideas," and why a non-expert can blame an expert for bad or destructive advice or instruction. The main problem with Kelley's chapter here is his ignorance of Peikoff's actual views on the topics being debated, as it is these criticisms that make up the bulk of it.

Reference Works

Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Epistemology
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Errors of Knowledge vs. Breaches of Morality

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

Kelley, David, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism. 2000 (1990)

Peikoff, Leonard. Fact & Value. Accessed May 2nd, 2010.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian, 1993 (1991).
Peikoff, Leonard. "Philosophy and Psychology in History," Objectivist Forum 6 (Oct. 1985).
Peikoff, Leonard. Understanding Objectivism. 1983.
Peikoff, Leonard. The Art of Thinking. 1992.

Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet, 1964.

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