In recent years, for reasons I have explained at length before, I have separated myself from the formal Objectivist movement and its occasional soap operas—though not, of course, from the philosophy of Objectivism itself, which happily survives independent of the various characters who associate themselves with it.
So it is with some reluctance that I venture back to offer a few comments on the latest Objectivist crack-up, David Harriman’s public defection from the Leonard Peikoff wing of the movement to the David Kelley wing. It’s just a small bit of gossip by itself, but it is a marker for something bigger, for the end of a certain era of the Objectivist movement.
To cover this, I’m going to be delving back into some issues that have been hot topics in the various schisms over the years. If you have no knowledge of these topics or no interest in addressing them, I can’t say that I blame you. So feel free to sit this article out. But in defense of those of us who are interested, these controversies involved real debates over real ideas, and they have had a real effect on the actions of those who advocate for Ayn Rand’s ideas, helping to shape the contemporary organized Objectivist movement (such as it is). As someone who has been steeped in these controversies over the years, I found it helpful to revisit them from the perspective of greater time and wisdom, with the latest development adding one more piece of evidence that helps put these arguments in perspective.
There were four cornerstones of the mainstream or “orthodox” school of Objectivism that formed in the 1980s after Ayn Rand’s death. These propositions, having to do with the nature of Objectivism as a philosophy and how it should be organized as a movement, were solidified between 1985 and 1989 and articulated by Leonard Peikoff and by Peter Schwartz, with Peikoff’s approval and support. All of them are now coming crashing down in one way or another.
Here they are, with a few notes on how well I think they have stood up intellectually, before I discuss how they have been overtaken by events.
1) The Libertarian movement is evil and Objectivists should boycott it.
Peter Schwartz wrote a long, in-depth article on the libertarian movement in 1985 and later summarized his view.
Libertarianism…repudiates the need for any intellectual foundation to explain why “liberty” is desirable and what “liberty” means. Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty”—and no Libertarian (even those who happen to disagree) can objectively refute his definition. Subjectivism, amoralism, and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it….
Justice demands…that Libertarianism…be boycotted and condemned.
Speaking of things that don’t hold up so well decades later, did anyone else notice how “gay rights activists” are lumped in with criminals and anarchists?
Yet there was definitely something to be said for Schwartz’s argument, particularly at that time. You might not believe some of the crazy views advocated back then (and even now) by self-described libertarians, never mind some of the unsavory characters put forward as Libertarian Party candidates. Let’s just say that Ron Paul was one of the more respectable ones.
Yet my own view of libertarians has softened over the years because libertarianism itself has become more of a vague “persuasion” than a specific ideology, especially as the actual Libertarian Party has withered on the vine and libertarianism is starting to be integrated as a faction within the Republican Party. Ron Paul’s son, being significantly more sane than his father, is emblematic of the change.
So “libertarian,” as a political label, is simply becoming a way for people on the right to emphasize that they really care about free markets but not so much about using government to promote religion. (It also contains an element of “isolationist” anti-interventionism, which is why I won’t call myself a libertarian.) In its vague form, this political persuasion tends to attract a considerable number of right-leaning people who have been influenced by Ayn Rand.
More fundamentally, Schwartz’s argument is tied to the erroneous top-down view of the influence of ideas that I have criticized before. In this view, someone who gravitates toward pro-liberty political positions without knowing and accepting the full philosophical justification for those positions is a fraud: he is pretending to an idea he doesn’t “really” believe. In my view, someone who gravitates toward pro-liberty positions without fully knowing the reasons for them is someone with good, or partially good, implicit ideas who is capable of learning more.
Having been around at the time, though, I understand the lingering bitterness between Objectivists and libertarians because it often went both ways. And that brings us to the second proposition.
2) Barbara Branden’s biography of Ayn Rand is a scurrilous attack on Objectivism.
I still agree with this. I have not delved fully into the events of Ayn Rand’s life or into the details of the big break between Rand and the Brandens that started in 1968. That wasn’t how or why I became interested in Objectivism. I was interested in the ideas, not Ayn Rand’s personality, as genuinely charismatic as she was. But hang around in the Objectivist movement for 25 years and you absorb a lot of these details without having to go too far out of your way.
From what I read, the theme of Barbara Branden’s book (and of subsequent tell-alls by Nathaniel Branden) is that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is appealing and inspirational in theory but leads to disaster in practice. For proof, they submit their own supposed practice of it, copping to many (but not all) of the dishonest, scheming, and manipulative things they did when they were running the organized movement that surrounded Ayn Rand in the 1960s. This is, you might notice, a conveniently self-exculpatory approach. It’s not our fault, they seem to be saying, it’s just that Ayn Rand’s powerful intellect and domineering personality forced us to become sycophants.
I think Ayn Rand bears some responsibility for the crack-up of 1968, because she chose the Brandens, elevated them, and let them build the movement they way they did. Not having been around at the time, I can’t say whether this was through naiveté, intellectual error (I am inclined in this direction), or some moral fault of her own. But I know enough to have a poor opinion of the Brandens and their role in the movement, both before and after 1968. And I know how their books have been used by those who are hostile to Ayn Rand’s ideas, particularly by some libertarians. The basic approach is: tell people to read Ayn Rand to get them interested in free-market ideas, then tell them to read Barbara Branden’s book so they’ll know not to take Rand’s philosophy seriously.
But it wasn’t your exact opinion of Branden’s book that was important so much as the next cornerstone of 1980s orthodoxy.
3) Don’t sanction the sanctioners.
This was the principle developed by Peter Schwartz in a 1989 article in The Intellectual Activist when he explained why he was boycotting David Kelley for speaking to a libertarian organization.
Ayn Rand argued that you should not “sanction” evil. You should not give it your moral and material support, either actively or tacitly (by, for example, staying silent when someone advocates a destructive idea). Peter Schwartz’s contribution was to extend this principle indefinitely. You shouldn’t sanction evil, but you also shouldn’t “sanction the sanctioners.” And what about the sanctioners of the sanctioners of the sanctioners?
See here for an honest and therefore unintentionally amusing attempt to grapple with this problem of “sanctioning the sanctioner sanctioners.” If your brain hurts just from hearing that phrase, that means you’re healthy.
This was, of course, a recipe for endless conflict and has helped produce the perversely fragmented “social network” of the Objectivist movement, which you can go and observe, if you like, on the social network of Facebook.
In my view, it is Facebook that has really killed this idea by making social networks formal and observable. Schwartz’s argument can be neatly summarized as: who can you be Facebook “friends” with? Are you required to “unfriend” someone who endorses a bad idea? And can you then threaten to unfriend people who don’t unfriend others? I have actually seen someone demand this. By making such social networks visible, Facebook lays out the absurdity of this way of doing things.
There are only a very few ideas evil enough to deserve this kind of six-degrees-of-separation ostracism, and even fewer where it is practically possible to maintain such a boycott given the amount of agreement and cooperation you can reasonably ask of others. Nazism deserves this and receives it; Communism deserves it but does not receive it. The libertarian movement may be misguided, and the Brandens may be bad people, but they just don’t belong on the same list.
4) Objectivism is a closed system.
This is the most philosophically substantive of the propositions. Here is Leonard Peikoff, from his response to David Kelley.
In his last paragraph, Kelley states that Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though magnificent, “is not a closed system.” Yes, it is. Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed, deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era; it does not change with the growth of human knowledge, since it is the base and precondition of that growth. Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system—its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch—is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author. If this applies to any philosophy, think how much more obviously it applies to Objectivism. Objectivism holds that every truth is an absolute, and that a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system….
The “official, authorized doctrine”…remains unchanged and untouched in Ayn Rand’s books; it is not affected by any interpreters.
There is a whole load of bad philosophy contained in this contention that philosophy “does not change with the growth of human knowledge, since it is the base and precondition of that growth.” That’s the top-down view of the role of philosophy essentialized. Fortunately, this proposition is easily refuted by reference to the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution—expansions of human knowledge that most definitely had an impact on philosophy and particularly on Ayn Rand’s philosophy. (As I have argued elsewhere, the relationship between philosophy and other fields of knowledge is reciprocal.)
Even purely within the realm of philosophical idea, to declare Objectivism closed and complete is to foreclose future knowledge. It raises questions like: what if you find an intellectual inconsistency in Objectivism, one that can be fixed without wrecking the whole system? (I think I’ve done that when it comes to philosophy of history.) Could you change that idea and still have Objectivism? Or what if you discover a new idea that wasn’t covered by Ayn Rand but which you believe to be consistent with the rest of her ideas? It would be surprising if we did not find some of these ideas. Ayn Rand was only one woman, after all. The scope of her achievement was so astonishing that it seems unfair, not to mention unrealistic, to expect that she caught every error and contributed everything that could possibly be contributed to her philosophical system.
So there are reasons to question many points of the 1980s orthodoxy. Yet there seems to be little point to the argument these days, because I’m not sure there is anyone left to argue with. The main points have already been undermined, one after another, by the very guardians of the 1980s orthodoxy.
Let start with that last point, about Objectivism being a closed system. It was, in fact, self-refuting, because Ayn Rand herself never described Objectivism as a closed system. She was adding her own ideas to it until the end of her life. And if there is some differentiation between “essentials” that are closed and mere “applications” left to be discovered, as Peikoff implies, she never left us any such list. That’s not to say that you couldn’t come up with a valid list. It’s just that any attempt to close Objectivism or establish its “essentials” is, by its very nature, someone else’s interpretation of Ayn Rand’s ideas and not part of her own writings. So the contradiction is that to close Ayn Rand’s system, you must open it.
That’s pretty much how this idea of a closed system has actually been implemented. In practice, as interpreted by Leonard Peikoff, it has meant that Objectivism is open for him and for those working under his authority—and it’s closed for everyone else.
That’s where David Harriman comes in, and this is why his defection is such big news. In introducing a set of lectures on his theory of induction, Peikoff wrote that they “present, for the first time, the Objectivist solution to the problem of induction”—not “an Objectivist solution” or “my solution” or simply “a solution,” but the Objectivist solution. Thus, he continued, they “complete, in every essential respect, the validation of reason.” So he offered his theory, in effect, as a completion of the already complete system of Objectivism.
In case you thought that was a careless formulation, he went on to enforce it when Harriman published a book setting forth Peikoff’s theory on induction. When the book came under criticism for bungling its facts about key developments in the history of science—facts that were supposed to support the theory—Peikoff exercised his philosophical “authority” on Harriman’s behalf in an attempt to quash the criticisms, implying that anyone who criticized his theory was challenging Objectivism itself. That’s how John McCaskey, who had played a major role in placing Objectivists in academic positions, was booted off the Ayn Rand Institute’s board.
So down goes the idea of Objectivism as a closed system. As a matter of logical consistency, Peikoff can’t open it up for himself without opening it up to anyone with a rational argument.
Notice that this last big conflict was initiated on behalf of David Harriman. Yet now, less than four years later, Harriman has betrayed his old patron and headed off for what Peikoff would surely regard as the enemy camp.
So down goes that idea about sanctioning the sanctioners.
It’s not Harriman’s action by itself that refutes the 1980s theory of sanction. When an individual turns against his previous principles, even a prominent person, this does not necessarily mean that the principle is wrong; it could only mean that the person is wrong. What makes Harriman’s defection significant is the context of his role in the movement. It is fair to say that no one was more fully vested with Leonard Peikoff’s moral and intellectual authority than David Harriman. So much so that Peikoff was very recently willing to turn the entire movement upside down in Harriman’s defense. So Harriman’s defection is significant, not so much for what it says about Harriman, but for what it says about Peikoff’s judgment.
The principle of not sanctioning the sanctioners holds us all responsible, not just for our own moral judgments about other people, but for our judgments about their judgments. Yet this principle has been insisted upon by those who have repeatedly—and not just in this case—demonstrated that they are capable of major errors in their own direct judgments of other people.
Add to the Harriman affair another fact which emerged during the McCaskey crack-up, but which many of us have known for years: that Peikoff is on terms of personal enmity with several members of the Ayn Rand Institute’s board of directors. I can add, from personal experience, that behind the seemingly united front of the ARI-associated Objectivist movement there is a constant swirl of petty factionalism and infighting.
So I think the rest of us are entitled to tell the folks at ARI: It looks like you’ve got your hands full just figuring out who you should or should not deal with at one degree of separation. So when it comes to who the rest of us should deal with at two or three degrees of separation, you’d do best to leave us to make our own judgments.
Philosophically, this is a reminder that moral judgment is a complicated business with a lot of room for error and honest disagreements. Even famous philosophers can make a hash of it. For the really big, really obvious cases—like the Nazis and Communists, as I mentioned above—it is rational to establish an absolute system of moral quarantine. In less obvious cases, there is a limit to how much agreement we can rationally require from others. This is not about subjectivism or about suspending judgment. In fact, a curious effect of the old orthodoxy is that it required you to mute your judgments and criticisms of other intellectuals within the orthodoxy—or at least, of those with a higher status in the hierarchy of intellectual authority—because to state a judgment openly threatened to start a chain reaction that would require everyone to fragment into opposing camps who could not sanction each others’ sanctioners. Perhaps that’s why so many of these internal discussions tend to happen on Facebook, where they are less widely available to those who are not already in your personal social network. That, and the “block” and “unfriend” functions, which make it easier to fragment your network. They’re like labor-saving devices for schisms.
Since leaving the orthodoxy, I have actually felt free to be a little more sharp-elbowed in expressing my judgment of others. So this is not about refusing to pass judgment. It’s about showing respect for the minds of others and recognizing that you cannot expect automatic or immediate agreement.
The principle of not sanctioning evil remains, and each person has to make his own decisions about who and what he will support. But I don’t think we can have a principle of not sanctioning the sanctioners, the idea of always extending this injunction to the second or third degree of separation.
They have pretty much dropped the idea in practice anyway, as demonstrated by the fact that John Allison, a major backer of ARI, now runs the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank, and that he does so with the support and encouragement of Leonard Peikoff and Yaron Brook—a sudden reversal for which they have never offered a convincing explanation. But no matter: down goes that principle about boycotting libertarians, and it goes down hard.
The 1980s orthodoxy of the Objectivist movement is dead. Its own architects and advocates have killed it, and they killed it through hypocrisy and contempt.
It’s good that the Objectivist movement has begun to evolve out of certain mistaken ideas. The problem is that we can’t do it openly through a rational debate.
From what I can tell, those in the ARI camp are sticking to the usual story: nothing’s wrong with the system, the only problem is an unexpected, unforeseeable betrayal by this one person. Once that person is duly purged, everything will be fine again. This is the same line we’ve heard since 1968, used over and over again through one crisis after another, merely with the name of the villain changed.
It’s time to re-evaluate the whole system, and from what I’m seeing online, that’s what a lot of people are beginning to do.