Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Good Objectivist - Part Two


Within the Objectivist movement, like any movement, we have a wide and diverse range of opinions. That is to be expected. Man is not omniscient, knowledge is not automatic, and we have free will.

But from the way some of us negotiate our differences of opinion, a newcomer might imagine that Objectivism teaches that man is omniscient, that knowledge is automatic, and that one's free will is to be relinquished to authority.

This has to change.

Once the new Objectivist has escaped mine fields like the materialist and spiritualist creeds of his youth, and climbed over the barbed wire of his first experiences with Objectivists, he may imagine himself finally in a sunlit field of non-contradiction and rational interaction. In large part, this is the case. Once a person has grown into the philosophy to a certain degree he can relax. Once a certain general understanding is achieved, he starts to meet all kinds of fantastic, wonderful people.

And we are fantastic. Really. I do not mean these posts to be an indictment of all Objectivists, or even of most. We are friendly, thoughtful, morally conscientious, kind and loving. We work hard, have great lives, and work to stop the evil in this world. A man can get used to basking in the sunlight of this sort of community, and feel free, finally, from intellectual mine fields and barbed wire.

But over time, he learns that there is another danger.

Some things are radioactive.

There are a handful of issues over which Objectivists can easily clash and break with each other. People try to avoid them, paper them over or compromise on them, but inevitably they are asked to choose sides, and are often vehemently denounced if their view differs from what is expected of them.

Let's examine five of these issues and see if we can find a common thread.

#1) What is Objectivism?
#2) Who speaks for / owns Objectivism?
#3) Who is an Objectivist?
#4) Who can an Objectivist work with?
#5) Do you work with/admire/tolerate/know a particular individual?

Hmm -- A lot of this seems to be about intellectual territory. Territorialism, Authority, and Group Loyalty.  Ew. Not pretty.

Before I delve into these let me put on my hazmat suit to protect myself from radiation. This should be unnecessary, but this is what we're driven to:
"I, Richard Gleaves, do solemnly swear on a stack of first edition signed copies of Atlas Shrugged that I do not sanction the work of David Kelly or any member of The Objectivist Center. I do not have dealings with Nathaniel or Barbara Branden, and I recognize they have engaged in unjust actions against Ayn Rand. In addition to these, Appendix A contains a notarized list of personalities, positions, and organizations that I renounce. This is to be considered my position in all matters, public and private, and no sanction of the works of any other individual is to be implied by my writings below, which I hereby affirm are my own independently arrived conclusions. (Signature on file.)"
Did that seem kind of silly to you? It does to me too. It's nonsense. Worse than nonsense. It's pernicious and vacuous nonsense. But that is, in spirit, what we're demanding of each other in the name of free and open inquiry, a love of reason, and intellectual independence.

Let's examine the issues I raised above, and why they are radioactive.

Ayn Rand
#1 "What is Objectivism"?
This should not be an issue to any reasonable person. 

Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand (conceptually)
& Objectivism is the writings of Ayn Rand (concretely).

Objectivism is a human construct, an ideology that Rand devised, articulated, and codified into a code of values and virtues.

Because life is conditional, a code of some sort is necessary to anyone who chooses to live. But: Rand's code is not "in reality"-- there is no "Objectivism" out there Platonically in the physical world which she discovered fully-formed like a new continent. Objectivism  is a sequence of logical conclusions reached from the study of reality; i.e., from the study of man, the facts of his nature, and the requirements of his life. This is important to remember-- that Objectivism is not metaphysically given. It is (wo)man-made.

Which means: In any conflict between Objectivism and reality, by the very principles of Objectivism you have to choose reality. Reality is always primary.

The philosophy was devised and concretized by Rand, promulgated by her associate Nathaniel Branden in the 1960s, and systematized by Rand's heir Leonard Piekoff after her death. But, even if approved by Rand, secondary works are only studies of her thought, not her thought itself. Nothing written by any other person except Ayn Rand should be properly considered "Objectivism". 

However, all writings or commentary by others (derivative of her work and achievement) may be granted the modifier "ObjectivIST" if they are reasonable interpretations, i.e. develop new implications that do not evade fundamentals of Rand's thought, something each individual mind must decide for himself. "Objectivism" is a NOUN-- a thing, in this case a particular set of ideas. "Objectivist" is an ADJECTIVE-- a descriptive modifier, in this case for people and writings influenced or derivative of Rand. A strawberry is red but it is not itself "redness", if you take my meaning. 

What does this mean in practice? That Objectivism is a closed system, but Objectivist thought is an open process of discovery and application. People constantly bicker past each other on this issue, evading the difference between the system and the body of derivative works. Your derivative works can be objectivist, but they will never be Objectivism.

Why is this controversial? Two reasons. First, people don't want anybody spreading lousy ideas and passing them off as Rand's, and secondly because, frankly, Ayn Rand is an industry. Ka-ching! We're all capitalists. That's wonderful. But, truly, anyone who publishes on Rand besides Rand is not publishing ObjectivISM, no matter how much more money he can make if he convinces you it is true. Various "ObjectivIST" work may be excellent and praiseworthy, but all such work derives from an underlying wellspring with only one Fountainhead.

#2) "Who speaks for / owns Objectivism?"
This is a related question. We're all for property rights. How do we defend the rights holder of a philosophy? There's two issues here: the ideas and the writings.

NO ONE owns Objectivism qua philosophy, any more than anyone owns relativity qua physics.

As a legal and moral matter, concepts are not to be considered property. E=MC2 is Einstein's creation, but Stephen Hawking does not pay royalties when he uses it. Concepts are not property, though one must credit their discoverer. The justice owed to Rand is that she forever be recognized with gratitude for her accomplishment in the realm of ideas. But the ideas are not her property. Once you understand them and adopt them, they are your ideas-- they are the things you think and believe. All that is required of you is that you do not pass yourself off as their discoverer, any more than you pretend to be the inventor of internal combustion when you drive a car.

And what of Rand's actual writings? That is a property rights issue. As I said above, she discovered, articulated and codified the philosophy. Therefore, she owned the concrete expression of her thought (such as journals), and the final product in the form of a book. The writings were Rand's property, and she left them to her legal heir Dr. Peikoff, who has since sold dramatization rights etc. Some people have bought various documents. Some journals and preparatory writing have been donated to the Library of Congress. In the case of the novelette Anthem, the copyright has lapsed in the United States. So the answer is that Dr. Piekoff owns some Objectivism, and others own other bits. Some bits are owned by nobody. It is spread around in private and public hands.

So who speaks for Objectivism? 

I do, of course.

So do you.

#3) Who is an Objectivist?
Every writer has interpreters, starting with the first individual who reads their work. When I see someone's error, I can point to Rand's own writing and, in a sense, I am speaking for Rand. I speak for Objectivism. We all do. Hopefully every day and loudly! Some of us may command greater respect than others, but there is no authority. Any man who tells you to accept his authority on Objectivism over the evidence of your mind is ignoring the fundamental teachings of the philosophy! Every man must look and see with his own eyes and mind. This is so crucial. A man who claims to be an authority over your mind is-- by that very fact-- unfit to teach you anything. The search for authorities to be in charge of a philosophy is the fundamental error that drives cult-like thinking. So the proper answer on this issue is that we all speak for Objectivism, some with greater credibility than others.

And credibility is something which self-interest should drive each of us to weigh very carefully.

In my opinion, Leonard Peikoff has the greatest credibility to speak on Objectivism. But Objectivism allows him no authority over and above anyone else's judgement. No one can think for me, just as (in Galt's words) no pinch-hitter can live my life. No matter what a man's accomplishments, I cannot substitute his convictions for my own.

Various organizations have sprung up to promulgate and spread Rand's ideas over the years. I am partial to the Ayn Rand Institute, and I'm particularly fond of Yaron Brook there. But why do I admire people at ARI? Because they have earned it. They have earned credibility, but they are not authorities. They are intellectual vendors, and I am a satisfied customer.

This distinction is crucial to how I personally deal with other objectivist people. If someone is partial to The Atlas Society or some other group I don't agree with, I don't insist they change their view. I explain why I think their group is not credible, and that is sufficient. If they do not see it the same way I do, that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg (as Jefferson put it.) One can't demand loyalty. It has to be earned. I can't earn loyalty for ARI any more than I can earn fans for Peikoff-- each must do that themselves. I adore ARI, but if someone else does not adore them I merely think they are missing out on superlative value. Similarly, I admire and respect Dr. Peikoff, and if someone else does not I merely think they have failed to see the virtues and value of the man. Poor them for missing out, but I do not consider them an enemy, and I still consider them Objectivists.

#4) Who can an Objectivist work with?

My answer: anyone.

This is a question of hierarchy and context: your hierarchy of values and the context of the relationship.

If I were on fire, I would be thrilled if Nathaniel Branden came running by with a garden hose.

If my car were stalled, I would accept Barbara Branden's offer of jumper cables.

If Obama could be defeated via door-to-door canvassing in Ohio, I would march house to house with the entire membership of the Atlas Society if it would deny the president a second term.

The only question that should matter is whether you are pursuing a rational value or not, and whether the association implies sanction beyond the immediate purpose of the association. Fortunately, it is much harder to give sanction than most people suppose. To sanction ideas with which you disagree requires that the offending ideas be voiced in your presence and that you fail to register disagreement. That others hold mistaken ideas is not your concern, only whether they express them. Fortunately, I have never met an Objectivist who wasn't absolutely willing to speak up and disagree at a moment's notice, so I suspect that sanction occurs far less frequently than is supposed.

#5) Do you work with/admire/tolerate/know a particular individual?

This question is bandied about all the time in Objectivist circles, thanks to confusion on the four issues above.

Quite a few Objectivists congregate on Facebook, for example, and often the call goes out from one person or another that Miss X has been found to hold idea "Y", or that Mister Z associates with a Branden or that Mrs. Nobody must be shunned. Often this is voiced in "me or them" language: "if any of you are friends with Mr. Untouchable you can defriend me now!!"

It gets pretty annoying.

Leaving aside the peculiarities of Facebook (which labels one's acquaintances 'friend', and doesn't unfortunately allow a hierarchical division such as best friend, friend, acquaintance, all the way down to 'guy who posts those cat cartoons I like'), how should you respond if someone questions who you associate with? Is it their right? Is it rational behavior?

It is rational to judge a man by what values he holds, and friends can be a clue to a man's hierarchy of values. But they can only be a clue.

A man who adores the writings of Nathaniel Branden, David Kelly or Chris Sciabarra (or whoever) may still be a friend, if we both admire Atlas Shrugged, or share a love of Mozart or for Italian cinema. Friends share your values, but not necessarily ALL your values. What cannot be tolerated is an attack on the things you love. A friend that attacks your values may soon become an enemy. But I could be friends with a fellow Star Wars geek who hated Rand as long as he kept his antipathy to himself and didn't voice it in my presence, and no sanction of his anti-Rand ideas would be implied by the association.

It is nearly impossible for me to tell as a third person what relationship two other people have. There is a certain granularity in relationships which only those in them will understand, and it is difficult to make judgements about how close two people actually are and what has passed between them.

Does this mean a man's friends tell you nothing about him? No. But they do not tell you everything, either. So those who judge others based on associations should be very careful to exercise proper justice, and to avoid blanket assumptions. 

What to do if someone presents you with an ultimatum over an affiliation, friendship, or other association? No one can choose your friends for you, or dictate who you value. Dagny Taggart fell in love with the man who was working to destroy Taggart Transcontinental. Howard Roark loved a woman who spent each day sabotaging his commissions. If you see value in another person, pursue that value, and be prepared to defend your choice if questioned. BUT-- never throw someone over based on a secondhand reason. If you see a value in someone, that is cause enough to pursue an association, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Many Objectivists start these fights thinking they are doing good. Unfortunately, most are committing the error of imagining that the moral stature of a man is determined by the opinions held by his friends. It is tribalist/collectivist, and is as false as saying that you can judge a woman's character by the sins of her sorority sisters.

But what if it's YOU that's getting attacked, and someone is trying to destroy you or your reputation?

That is the subject of the eventual Part Three of this series: The Schism-minded Objectivist.