Carrie-Ann and I returned late Saturday night from a week at George Washington University for The Atlas Society’s Graduate Seminar–my first engagement with “organized Objectivism” in sixteen years, and her first engagement with it as such. I had invested a great deal of time and energy in my preparations for the seminar, had sold the seminar itself to many people, and had high expectations for it. But now that it’s over, I must confess to having very mixed feelings about it, feelings that reflect my misgivings about organized Objectivism as such in its current form. On reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can at present neither participate in nor recommend participation in the activities of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) or The Atlas Society (TAS). While I think ARI is the more morally problematic–but also the more intellectually rigorous–of the two institutions, I think the problems I encountered at TAS are sufficiently severe to preclude participation in it for the foreseeable future.
In fairness, I should begin by mentioning the “asset” side of the [ledger].* The topic of the seminar, as remarked earlier on this blog, was applied ethics. The seminar began with a series of presentations on issues in epistemology and method relevant to ethics: the role of hierarchy and context in the application of ethical theory; the nature of judgment, ethical and otherwise; the epistemology of definitions (especially of moral terms); and the use and abuse of thought-experiments in ethical theorizing. It covered some important mid-level issues in ethics as well: the nature of emergencies, conflicts of interest, moral luck, and racism. There were some very good discussions of nitty-gritty issues in applied ethics proper, including some distinctively Objectivist issues (e.g., the requirements of the trader principle and the principle of sanction), some issues not much discussed among Objectivists (e.g., the ethics of social science research, the ethical treatment of animals, environmental ethics)–and some fairly standard issues discussed in a distinctively Objectivist way (e.g., the nature and limits of truth-telling). One of the most philosophically challenging presentations fell into a category of its own: what are the ramifications (one presenter asked) of Attention Deficit Disorder on the Objectivist theory of volition and moral responsibility? It occurred to me while listening to this last talk that one of my mentors was right to insist, as he often did, that we have much to learn from those with disabilities, and much to lose from ignoring them from the hauteur that springs from false pride.
All of the issues addressed were important. Many of them were addressed in a competent, responsible way. Many of these, in turn, were addressed in a distinctively Objectivist way that would not have been possible outside of a seminar geared to an Objectivist context. Beyond that, the discussions were often intense and productive. I learned a great deal from them that I would not otherwise have learned or had the opportunity to discuss. I met some old friends, and made some new ones, including people whose names I had heard for years but had never met. So I am very far from saying that the seminar was worthless. On the contrary, all of the preceding in it deserved praise–in some cases, high praise. Over the course of the week, I identified no less than twenty topics addressed at the seminar potentially worth blogging here. I doubt I’ll get to blogging even a small fraction of those, but I’ll try to blog some of them, if only to give readers an idea of some of the important ground that was covered at the seminar.
Having said that, many of the problems I observed at the seminar were, to put the matter bluntly, an offense against the practice of philosophy and of inquiry quite generally. I said that many of the presenters presented their material in a competent, responsible way. But some did not. I think candor compels the assertion that some of the presentations given were shockingly deficient in argument, evidence, and coherence. This would be a relatively minor issue, or at least a remediable problem, if the atmosphere of the seminar had been conducive to an open airing of the relevant problems. But it wasn’t. This latter defect–a defect of openness obvious to just about every participant in the seminar–calls into question The Atlas Society’s much-advertised claim to practice an “open” form of Objectivism not practiced elsewhere. With all due respect, I must dissent from this claim, and insist that those who make such claims acquire more inductive evidence about the rest of the Objectivist movement before they make them. Movement Objectivists should also (let me suggest) stop deriding academic philosophy and start learning something from it. The fact is, there is more openness at the average academic conference–I’ve run five in the last five years–than there was at the TAS Graduate Seminar.
I have on principle refused to participate in activities sponsored, even remotely, by the Ayn Rand Institute since I learned of its existence in the early 1990s. I have resisted ARI’s attempts (since the 1990s) to recruit me into that organization, as well as its attempts (which they dishonestly deny) to try to hire me as a member of its faculty. I refuse to sanction ARI in any form, and have repeatedly made that fact known, in private and in public. Nonetheless, I have (until recently anyway) interacted with ARI-affiliated scholars under the auspices of The Ayn Rand Society, and in other non-ARI-sponsored contexts as well. I know from more than a decade of first-hand experience that it is simply false to assert that ARI scholars are, qua ARI-affiliated, less “open” than scholars associated with TAS. On the contrary, ARI-affiliated scholars have been clever enough to create organizations for themselves that permit them sufficient insulation from the direct supervision of ARI’s leadership to do high-quality philosophy, but involve enough sacrificium intellectus to permit them the imprimatur of orthodoxy.
I don’t mean to imply that these scholars’ modus vivendi is morally justified, nor do I mean to imply that the strategic maneuverings involved permit genuine exemplifications of the virtue of independence. For the most part, I regard them as cynical ploys intended to buy time and space as the ARI-types wait with baited breath for Leonard Peikoff’s demise–the hope being that the death of the Revered Leader will at last bring them the academic freedom they so desperately crave but are too afraid to demand. The fact remains, however, that the ARI scholars’ strategy has bought them time and space, which they’ve used with some skill. I know from first-hand experience that discussions by ARI-affiliated scholars take place in a fashion that mimics the independence required by the unfettered search for truth. Mimicry is a poor substitute for the real thing, but it is better than a great deal of what I encountered last week at TAS.
In “The Argument from Intimidation,” Ayn Rand makes the following remarks:
There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure (Virtue of Selfishness, p. 162).
The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt, or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce [or accept] a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy (pp. 162-63).
All this is accompanied by raised eyebrows, wide-eyed stares, shrugs, grunts, snickers, and the entire arsenal of nonverbal signals communicating ominous innuendoes and emotional vibrations of a single kind: disapproval.
If those vibrations fail, if such debaters are challenged, one finds that they have no arguments, no evidence, no proof, no reason, no ground to stand on—that their noisy aggressiveness serves to hide a vacuum—that the Argument from Intimidation is a confession of intellectual impotence. (p. 164)
Unfortunately, Rand did not discuss the possibility that arguments from intimidation might become the lingua franca of Objectivist discourse, but the TAS seminar demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that they have become just that. (ARI demonstrated it back in 1989.) For five days, almost every participant in that seminar was subjected, repeatedly, to exactly the sort of argument from intimidation that Rand condemns in the passages above. For five days, a group of adults supposedly committed to the primacy of existence and the virtue of pride endured outright abuse while trying their best to act as though abuse was a metaphysically normal condition for philosophy, or the price of inquiry for interaction with self-avowed “experts” on Objectivism. For five days, seminar participants were laughed at and reprimanded for asking questions, were made the objects of bizarre and unpredictable temper tantrums, and were involuntarily obliged to witness maudlin displays of uncontrolled emotion offered in presentations supposedly intended to make claims on their credence. In five days, the only push-back offered in response to this behavior came from a guest auditor in the seminar (not me), who objected (on one occasion) to sarcastic laughter as a response to a legitimate question. One criticism by a non-official participant in response to five days of abuse by a member of the faculty. In twenty-six years of higher education, I’ve never seen anything like it.
The behavior I’m describing here is not appropriate to a philosophy seminar, or to any forum dedicated to rational discussion. Intimidation is to discourse what lies are to love and force-initiations are to human interaction generally. Each transgression subverts the activity it invades, leaving its victims torn between the requirements of the activity itself and the imperative of self-defense against the transgression. That is the dilemma every TAS Seminar participant faced for five solid days. Do I continue doing philosophy or do I stop to defend myself against the abuse coming my way?
I took the first option until the last minute of the seminar, then boycotted the final dinner in protest against the whole sequence. From now on, however, I refuse to do philosophy under the conditions of hysteria, belligerence, authoritarianism, dogmatism, and systematic procedural irregularity that I encountered at the TAS Seminar. Anyone who wishes to do philosophy under such conditions is welcome to do it on their own turf. But they will have to do it without me.
By contrast with what I encountered at TAS (and that I know is the policy at ARI), IOS is open to Objectivists and non-Objectivists alike, regardless of their degree of agreement or disagreement with Objectivism. You can, at our events, feel free to think that Objectivism is all true, or all false. You can feel free to think that it’s a heroic achievement, or a rationalization for evil. And you can feel free to speak your mind on any of that. But you must do so in a way that is intelligible as argument. You must do it in a way that respects the autonomy of your interlocutor. You must do it in a way that demonstrates your consistent commitment to the requirements of epistemic virtue and the moral demands of discourse. You must bear the burden of proof for your assertions, or concede that you haven’t met them or can’t (at least temporarily). If you’re making a presentation, you must answer the objections asked of you, or else take issue with the legitimacy of the question, or defer the question for now (but grant its legitimacy), or concede your inability to provide an answer (at least temporarily). You need never concede what you have not been given sufficient reason to concede. But you must not shift the burdens of your dialectical incapacities onto innocent victims because they have committed the crime of observing that your arguments fail.
Whatever the value of the discrete discussions we had, the TAS Seminar violated these precepts. Each one of us “tolerated” (and was expected to tolerate) epistemic and discursive vice for five days. Meanwhile, we wondered (some of us wondered) why the seminar had, by its last session, collapsed into a bizarre hybrid of a dysfunctional marriage and a fundamentalist madrasa. In fact, there was no need to wonder. I’ve heard Objectivists of the Kelley camp talk up a big storm about how “tolerant” they are. But tolerance was not meant for vice: vice finds its home among the indiscriminately tolerant. That’s what we saw enacted before our eyes for five days.
The bottom line is that the underlying causes for the resort to intimidation have to be uprooted within organized Objectivism (which will often mean “uprooting” the people who practice it from the positions of power and authority they hold in “the movement”). Until and unless this happens, I intend to remain uninvolved and unaffiliated with either TAS or ARI (or any of its affiliates, offshoots, or front organizations). People who attend ARI or TAS events may feel free to attend IOS events, as long as they can sign on to our mission statement without deceptive mental reservations. But I don’t intend to attend either ARI or TAS events for the predictable future, and can’t recommend either organization to anyone else. These organizations will have to learn a different mode of interaction before they can expect rational people to come to their seminars in the expectation of doing philosophy. As far as I can see, ARI will never learn, and TAS has a long way to go.
I’ve spent the last twenty-plus years of my life in rejection of Leonard Peikoff’s “Fact and Value,” but I’ve always thought that Peikoff got some things absolutely right. This passage–the ellipses tell you what I reject in Peikoff’s view–makes the relevant point:
The most eloquent badge of the authentic Objectivist, who does understand Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is his attitude toward values (which follows from his acceptance of reason). An Objectivist is not primarily an academician or a political activist (though he may well devote his professional life to either or both pursuits). In his soul, he is essentially a moralist—or, in broader terms, what Ayn Rand herself called “a valuer.”
A valuer, in her sense, is a man who evaluates extensively and intensively. That is: he judges every fact within his sphere of action—and he does it passionately, because his value-judgments, being objective, are integrated in his mind into a consistent whole…. Any other approach to life comes from and pertains to another philosophy, not to Objectivism.
It is perhaps too early for there to be a mass movement of Objectivists. But let those of us who are Objectivists at least make sure that…in the quest for a national [or global] following we are not subverting the integrity of the philosophy to which we are dedicated. If we who understand the issues speak out, our number, whether large or small, is irrelevant; in the long run, we will prevail.
If we engage in quality-control now…whatever the short-term cost and schisms, the long-range result will be a new lease on life for mankind. If we don’t, we are frauds in the short-term and monsters long-range.
I think it’s time (probably long past time) to acknowledge that the problems with “quality control” began with Ayn Rand’s own insistence on packaging arguments from intimidation and gratuitous psychologizing into her own prose. The problems continued with NBI’s suborning the same tendency and institutionalizing it. They continued again under ARI’s domination of the Objectivist movement, and they have now, despite its illustrious past, infected TAS’s academic programs as well.
Things need not be this way. There is another way to do philosophy, a way that makes truth the goal of inquiry, that dispenses with intimidation and dogmatism, and that achieves what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle set out to achieve 2,400 years ago for the discipline. It’s time for the organized Objectivist movement to discover it. Those of us who have discovered it, and live it, will not accept less.
*I had originally written “equation,” but that mixes metaphors.
[Thanks to Carrie-Ann Biondi and Michael Young for extensive discussion, in real time, of the TAS Seminar, and to Roderick Long and Kirsti Minsaas for enduring my long and anguished emails on the subject. All four of the preceding offered some valuable reality-checking on the subject, but none of them is responsible for the views I express here.]
P.S., August 22, 2013: I should perhaps remind readers that the views expressed in this email are exclusively my own views, not those of the Institute for Objectivist Studies. Positions taken by the Institute are co-signed by Carrie-Ann Biondi and Irfan Khawaja. All other views are exclusively the view of the signed author of a given post, and only of that author. To clarify a point that’s been raised in private correspondence: I do indeed take my post to be an attack on TAS’s fidelity to its announced mission of promoting “open Objectivism.” I see no reason to retract anything I said in the original post.