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Objectivism in the June 2013 Reason Papers: a preview part 2 of 6

A second Objectivist-relevant item in the June issue is an exchange over Tara Smith’s 2006 book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge). To put the point more precisely, it’s an exchange over Carrie-Ann’s relatively positive review essay on Smith’s book in the fall 2008 issue of Reason Papers. Eyal Mozes, a long-time Objectivist (and active participant in the original IOS), recently submitted a sharply-worded Discussion Note to RP taking issue with what he takes to be Carrie-Ann’s overly positive estimate of Smith’s book. Carrie-Ann and I have co-written a joint response to Mozes.

Mozes criticizes Smith’s treatment of four different philosophical issues in her book:

  • Rand’s ‘non-conflicts of interests’ thesis
  • The nature of moral virtue, especially productiveness
  • The nature of emergencies and their relevance to ethics
  • The scope and applicability of moral prescriptions generally

He also takes sharp issue with what he takes to be Smith’s partisanship as a scholar affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute. His overarching point is that Carrie-Ann’s review significantly understates these problems–enough to whitewash some of them.

We fundamentally disagree with Mozes on the first two issues (non-conflicts, virtue), and explain why in our response to him. We basically agree with his criticisms of Smith on emergencies and the scope of morality. We’re still trying to make up our minds about his criticisms about Smith’s partisanship.

It might be wondered whether it’s disproportionate to run a 6,000-word exchange on the verdict of a five-year-old review of a seven-year-old book. It’s a legitimate concern, but we don’t think it’s disproportionate. The issues discussed in the exchange are both timeless and complex. The first fact suggests that they’re still worth discussing, the second that they’re worth discussing in some detail. In truth, neither party to the exchange does more than scratch the surface of the underlying issues they discuss.smith.arne

It might, however, be wondered whether it was legitimate of us as editors to allow Mozes to make such stringently negative moral judgments about Smith in the context of a philosophical argument about her book in an academic journal. This is a tricky issue that involves difficult judgments about several interrelated issues. We can’t, for one thing, permit authors to use the pages of the journal to commit ad hominem fallacies. Nor can we permit authors to use the pages of the journal to defame people. But we don’t endorse a “value free” conception of inquiry, either. Intellectual inquiry is an activity like any other, and is ultimately subject to the same moral principles. Mozes makes a serious moral accusation of Smith, one that in our judgment at least rises to the level of a scholarly equivalent of “probable cause.” A finding of probable cause may ultimately be compatible with the innocence of the accused, but it involves an accusation plausible enough to require inquiry and resolution. In this case, it happens to involve public inquiry and resolution. We agree at least to this degree with Mozes: transparency on these issues is preferable to opacity, and discussion to deliberate silence. So we opted to run Mozes’s piece rather than nix it.

It’s worth comparing this somewhat recriminatory debate within Objectivism to a few similar debates outside of Objectivist contexts. In 1978, the Columbia University professor Edward Said wrote his famous book Orientalism, an indictment of what he took to be the covert racism of the field of Near East Studies. In 1984, the political scientist Charles Murray wrote Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, an attempt to undercut the empirical foundation of the welfare state. Likewise in 1984, the journalist Joan Peters wrote From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, an attempt to discredit Palestinian claims of dispossession at the hands of the Zionist movement. Said’s book was attacked in a famous review by Bernard Lewis, of the Department of Near East Studies at Princeton; Murray’s book was attacked in a famous review by Christopher Jencks, then of the Sociology Department at Northwestern (the link goes to a free excerpt from the review); and Peters’s book was attacked in a famous review by Norman Finkelstein, then a doctoral student in Politics at Princeton (link goes to a Wikipedia entry; the review isn’t online). All three reviews remain controversial, and are now considered classics in their fields (in Finkelstein’s case, supplanting Peters’s book).

All three authors were trying to break scholarly ground on topics where the moral and/or political stakes were high; all three reviewers were determined to stop them. “Stopping” them meant disputing their theses, to be sure, but it also meant identifying the intellectual norms each author had breached in defending those theses, identifying the harmful or immoral consequences of the author’s book, and ultimately discrediting the book’s project on both “purely intellectual” as well as moral grounds. In my view, Finkelstein fully succeeded at that task: his critique definitively destroyed Peters’s reputation, and (justifiably) ended her career. Jencks partly succeeded: he cast enough doubt on Murray and his book to raise suspicions that Murray was less a social scientist than an anti-empirical ideologue. Lewis was the least successful of the three. Insisting that Said’s moral criticisms of his field were irrelevant to questions of scholarship, he did little more than dent Said’s thesis. Said then went on to overshadow Lewis in Lewis’s own field, and to remake that field in his own image.

There are many lessons to learn from these case studies, but the supposed irrelevance of moral judgment to scholarship is not one of them. They throw a useful comparative light on the controversies that have roiled Objectivism for the past few decades. Objectivists aren’t the only ones who spend decades debating the relation of fact and value in intellectual inquiry. And their debates aren’t the only ones to generate accusations of partisanship, factionalism, and rancor, either.



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