Adios, Premise Checkers!

 Posted by on 11 December 2014 at 2:00 pm  Objectivist Movement, Personal, WTFuffles
Dec 112014
 

After being dormant for some time, the ridiculous website and Facebook page of “Checking Premises” has been removed. I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’m certainly not unhappy. The bad news is that the dogmatic wing of the Objectivist movement persists, and after the encouragement / tolerance it received from official quarters in recent years, I don’t think it’ll be dying the ignominious death it deserves any time soon. Still, at least it seems quieter these days.

In any case… whatever. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that the various problems in the Objectivist movement are really just very human problems, and I’ve seen them replicated in countless other communities, ideological and otherwise. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to do my own thing, knowing that I’m making countless people’s lives better in the process. That makes me happy!

Just one last thing, because it’s just so awesome:

 

This delightful gem of a comment was offered on my blog post, Asking for Rape?, presumably because I dared to criticize Leonard Peikoff’s view that a woman cannot withdraw consent for sex after penetration.

I feel sorry for these haters of mine, in a way. I was supposed to wither away into obscurity after they’d exposed my treacherous ways — particularly, my failure to properly respect every last one of Leonard Peikoff’s opinions. Surely, I couldn’t possibly succeed after that!

BWHAHAHAHAHA!

Instead, my influence has continued to spread, as evidenced by an over 50% increase in downloads and listens to Philosophy in Action Radio in 2013. I published my first book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame too. That’s not a bad bit of work for the year after my intended demise!

So… go home, dogmatic Objectivists, you’re drunk!

 

I found that photo on Facebook a while back, with the following caption:

This photo was posted on STFU, Conservatives Tumblr page last night [here]. The reason why I’m sharing it is not because of the photo itself (which is epic in it’s [sic] own right), but for the comments it generated.

One person wrote, “but then again, its kind like putting a meat suit on and telling a shark not to eat you”.

STFU responded (with bolded text):

We (men) are not fucking sharks!

We are not rabid animals living off of pure instinct

We are capable of rational thinking and understanding.

Just because someone is cooking food doesn’t mean you’re entitled to eat it.

Just because a banker is counting money doesn’t mean you’re being given free money.

Just because a person is naked doesn’t mean you’re entitled to fuck them.

You are not entitled to someone else’s body just because it’s exposed.

What is so fucking difficult about this concept?

Bravo.

Indeed. Also, Laura Jedeed has some really excellent comments on rape and this image too.

Happily, the rights of women in western countries are more widely recognized and better protected today than at any other time in human history. That’s a huge achievement, and part of why I’m grateful to live in modern America.

However, more progress awaits us. One example was in the news last year:

A recent court case just exposed a barbarity in California law, namely that it’s not rape to trick an unmarried woman into sleeping with you by pretending to be her boyfriend.

Julio Morales was convicted and sentenced to three years in state prison for entering an 18-year-old woman’s bedroom and instigating sex with her while she was asleep after a night of drinking at a house party in 2009. According to prosecutors, it wasn’t until “light coming through a crack in the bedroom door illuminated the face of the person having sex with her” that she realized Morales wasn’t her boyfriend. Holy shit.

But a panel of judges overturned the conviction this week because of a law from 1872 that doesn’t give women the same protections as married women because, as we all know, single women are always down for nonconsensual sex, even when they’re asleep and/or purposefully tricked into the act.

The court admitted that “If the woman had been married and the man had impersonated her husband” it would be rape. But since there was no ring on her finger, it’s not!

Eugene Volokh had some comments here. I agree that rape by fraud shouldn’t be a punishable offense, except in cases of impersonation of a lover or spouse. (I’m not sure of the case of mere friends.) As Eugene says of such impersonation:

It is, thankfully, apparently a rare sort of lie; it is very far outside the normal level of dishonesty that people expect might happen in their relationships; it is one for which there is no plausible justification or mitigation; and criminalizing it is unlikely to sweep in the garden variety lies that, unfortunately, often appear in people’s sexual and romantic lives.

California law obviously needs to be updated.

Here’s another example. The 2012 election was replete with politicians making ridiculous and offensive comments about rape in order to rationalize their across-the-board opposition to abortion. Most notable was Todd Akin’s justification for denying abortions to women pregnant due to rape:

… from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Conservatives need to recognize that forced pregnancy — not just pregnancy due to rape but any unwanted pregnancy — is a morally abhorrent violation of rights, not a gift from God.

Alas, the third example hits closer to home for me. In a February 2012 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said that a man is entitled to force himself on a woman if she has a few drinks with him and then goes up to his hotel room. Thankfully, he corrected that a few weeks later, but only in part. By a rather strange analysis, Peikoff concluded that a woman cannot withdraw consent after penetration. In reality, that means that the man can do whatever he pleases to the woman after penetration, even as she kicks and screams and yells and cries in protest. That’s seriously, seriously wrong — and dangerous too.

On a more positive note, you’ll find my own views on the nature and limits of consent in sex in this podcast. (It’s a pretty lengthy discussion… about over 40 minutes.)

Ultimately, my point here is that the rights of women matter — and they’re not yet fully protected. The image at the top of this post reminds us of that. The fact that she’s half-naked doesn’t make her any less of a person with the absolute right to forbid another person access to her body.

That’s a lesson that some people still need to learn, unfortunately.

Apr 052013
 

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question on whether “gay marriage” should be considered a kind of marriage. (Hint: The right answer is “HELL YES.”) In the process, I’ll explain why civil unions might be a step in the right direction, but they’re not an acceptable alternative to legalizing gay marriage.

Lately, along with everyone else on Facebook, I’ve seen a wide variety of arguments about gay marriage… some better and some worse.

From my libertarian friends, I often hear that the government should “get out of the business of marriage” entirely. That view is wrong, for reasons that I explained in this podcast: State Involvement in Marriage. Basically, the state should not give marriage licenses, but rather ought to treat marriage as a private contract. As with every other kind of contract, the govenment provides the basic legal framework — including establishing the meaning of terms, setting defaults for when terms are not specified, establishing standards for consent, and so on. Moreover, the state will have to determine what counts as a valid marriage contract, so that those standards and defaults might be applied, just as it does for employment contracts. That definition of marriage (and other contractual relations) should not be arbitrary, but rather based on the fact of fundamental similarities in the nature of various relationships between people.

What I find particularly objectionable, however, is when people refuse to support gay marriage due to this view that the state ought to “get out of the business of marriage” entirely. The fact is that legalizing gay marriage would rid our legal system of a major injustice, without impeding the fight for a fully contractual system of marriage. To oppose the former because you want the latter is rather like saying, “I’m opposed to ending brutal corporal punishment of children in government schools because I’m opposed to all government schools.” Political changes that are for the better — that genuinely advance the cause of liberty — can and should be supported, even if not immediately the ideal.

Even worse, however, is the outright opposition to gay marriage that I’ve seen from some supposed Objectivists, particularly in this blog post and its comments. The arguments offered are so weak as to be laughable. Ultimately, they’re based on negative judgments of homosexuality, morally and psychologically, and those judgments are rooted in nothing more than repugnance. (That’s not an inference: it’s quite explicit from the blog post and its comments.)

Thankfully, that kind of irrational bias against gays is far, far, far less common among Objectivists than in years past. Still, I hate to see it… ever.

Update: As promised, I surveyed the various quasi-secular arguments against gay marriage on the 7 April 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the podcast segment here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page. The full episode – where I answered questions on the validity of gay marriage, the is-ought gap, the aftermath of a friendship, mixing politics and romance, and more – is available as a podcast too.

 

Last week, I listened to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast question on the election results. Given my strong disagreements with his October statement on the election, I wasn’t too surprised to find that I disagreed with much that he said. However, I didn’t expect to disagree with almost his whole analysis.

Here, I want to focus on two points: (1) the reasons why people voted for Obama over Romney and (2) the “catastrophe” of these election results. However, before reading my comments below, please listen to Dr. Peikoff’s statement for yourself. It’s less than five minutes long.

First: The Voters

Peikoff claims that the election shows that some American sense of life is left, but less than he thought earlier. He claims that Obama effectively bought off the country, and that something like 47% or 50% of people are only concerned with handouts from the federal government. He claims that immigrants are coming to America en masse for the sake of the welfare state, lacking any American sense of life.

Such claims cannot be substantiated. The election concerned a wide range of topics, and people voted for one candidate over the other for a wide range of reasons. Yes, some Obama voters wanted their government handouts, but I know many people who voted for him for other, better reasons. Similarly, some Romney voters wanted to impose a social conservative agenda, but I know many people who voted for him for other, better reasons. Also, we should remember that most people just barely care about politics. As a result, they’re remarkably ignorant about even the basics of political events and elections.

As I explained in this blog post, this election was not any kind of referendum on fundamental values that could magically reveal America’s sense of life. Contrary to the claims of some Objectivist intellectuals of late, a culture’s sense of life is complex, multi-faceted, and far deeper than politics. It cannot be fairly judged by yet another election between two statist candidates of slightly different flavors. Judging America’s sense of life on the basis of this presidential election is about as reliable and fair as judging a person’s sense of life based on which of the two abysmal movies he chooses to see at his small-town duplex. (For a lengthy discussion of cultural sense of life, see Ayn Rand’s comments in “Don’t Let it Go” in Philosophy: Who Needs It.)

Much of the problem, of course is that Romney didn’t just run an “empty campaign,” as Peikoff claims. Romney wanted to initiate a trade war with China, crack down on illegal immigration, massively increase military spending (presumably for even more pointless and debasing wars abroad), force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, socialize medicine at the state level, and deny gays the right to marry and adopt children. Such positions are not “empty.” They are deeply wrong — and they clash with better elements of American culture, including its respect for individuals and their rights.

I do not blame ordinary voters for refusing to vote for Romney due to these abysmal positions of his. Even many Obama voters determined to preserve entitlements and subsidies were not motivated by personal greed for handouts, as Peikoff claims, but rather by a confused stew of semi-altruistic ideals. That’s bad, but it’s not the same as being bought off.

Undoubtedly, Obama will be worse than Romney would have been on many issues. Undoubtedly, Obama’s spending is dangerously out-of-control, and ObamaCare will be entrenched over the next four years. I fear another financial crisis. Yet the fact is that Romney didn’t even campaign for economic liberty. Instead, he consistently me-too’ed Obama on taxes and regulations, he supported state-level ObamaCare, and he planned to continue to spend like a drunken sailor. The result was that the two candidates didn’t look terribly different to voters, even on economics.

Second: The Catastrophe

Peikoff describes the election as a “catastrophe,” “the worst political event ever to ever occur in the history of this continent,” and even “worse than the Civil War.”

Let’s get some perspective. The secession of the southern states threatened the very existence of America, including the union of the northern states. The secession of the southern states, unless crushed, would have set a very dangerous precedent in which secession would become the solution to any political dispute. As James McPherson describes in his stellar history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, the secession of the southern states inspired northern states and cities to contemplate their own secession from the union. (Bye-bye, New York City!) The result of that would have been very bloody anarchy. Lincoln knew that, and that’s why preserving the union was his primary objective.

However, preserving the union was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. The Confederacy might have won the war, particularly given the skill of Lee in comparison to the string of abysmal Union generals before Grant and Sherman emerged in the west. An independent Confederacy would not have been content to remain in its own territory: its longstanding agenda was to create an “empire of slavery.”

Also, the Civil War killed over over 600,000 Americans. Proportionately, that would equal about six million people today. That was truly catastrophic.

The secession and Civil War constituted a grave existential threat to the United States. To say, as Peikoff does, that it was known that “freedom and normalcy” would return at the end of the war is false. Americans didn’t know who would win the war. They didn’t know what kind of government or nation they would have after the war. And they didn’t know what freedoms would or would not be respected and upheld by the government after the war. Such is only known to us now, when the historical perspective smooths away the painfully rough edges and unknowns of the past.

Another four years of President Barack Obama will be damaging, undoubtedly. (Four years of Romney would have been damaging too, just in somewhat different ways.) Yet that cannot be fairly compared with the Civil War: they’re not even remotely in the same category.

In addition to the comparison to the Civil War, Peikoff said that Obama’s re-election means that “it’s going to be four years of a government single-mindedly out to destroy America at home and weaken it abroad.” Such a dire prediction is not supported by Obama’s record or by his plans. With the House controlled by the GOP, Obama will not even have the latitude that he did in his first two years in the White House, let alone any “single-minded” government at his disposal. Moreover, when is government ever “single-minded”?

Obama is not a defender of individual rights by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, as I explained in my own post-election podcast, his views are significantly better than the Republicans on some important issues. Hence, Obama’s second term offers hope for strengthening abortion rights, reforming our insane immigration laws, and repealing of the Defense of Marriage Act. Those would be positive developments not possible under Republicans.

Peikoff also indicated that totalitarian dictatorship was now perilously close, although “even after four years [of Obama], it is too early to achieve complete totalitarianism.”

Undoubtedly, America has its share of political problems. Many of those problems are quite serious, and most are unlikely to improve under Obama. Still, I simply cannot take secular apocalypticism seriously: the full context of facts paints a very different and far more hopeful picture of our future. Moreover, as I explained in this post, accurate political prediction are nearly impossible even for those immersed in the political news, and Peikoff’s 2004 prediction about the effects of a second Bush’s term is grounds for doubting his current prediction about the effects of a second Obama term.

In my view, the roots of American culture run deep — deeper than Peikoff and many other Objectivist intellectuals seem to think. On the whole, America respects the rule of law, free speech, and political dissent. It lauds achievement, technology, and hard work. It values honesty, integrity, and justice. These core values were not undone by this election, nor revealed to be illusory. They cannot and will not be undone by four more years of Obama in the White House.

America will survive Barack Obama — just as America survived George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and so on. America will survive Barack Obama — just as America would have survived Mitt Romney.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, many Objectivists have been griping of late about how the election revealed the supposedly dismal state of the American culture. That’s unwarranted and unproductive in my view. You don’t win hard-working, responsible people over to your side by painting them as America-hating welfare queens.

American culture is far from perfect, but it’s improved tremendously in recent decades in many ways, as Dr. Eric Daniels explained in this interview on Progress in American History. Still, I recognize that free market ideas have taken a beating of late. The cause was not Obama: Obama just cashed in on the utter failure of the pragmatism and “compassionate conservatism” of George Bush and his fellow Republicans. Honestly, I’m slightly relieved that Mitt won’t be able to inflict further damage of that kind on America, as he surely would have done.

At this point, instead of bemoaning the abysmal state of American culture, advocates of free markets need to start asking themselves: “Why aren’t these ideas resonating with more Americans?” That’s a critical question to ask because many, many Americans are intelligent, thoughtful, hardworking, fair-minded, benevolent, and reasonable people, yet they don’t understand or support free markets.

I will not blame Americans for that disconnect. I want to strengthen and leverage the genuine values and virtues commonly found in Americans, whatever their political views at present. It’s my job as an intellectual to figure out how to do that well, not bemoan the supposed death of America.

Personally, my focus with Philosophy in Action Radio is finding effective ways to persuade people to embrace the principles required to live happy, healthy, and joyful lives. I want to strengthen people’s understanding and practice of justice, independence, responsibility, rationality, and other virtues in their relationships, careers, and parenting. Based on the growth of my audience (here too), I’m doing something right.

Basically, my goal is to foster people’s rationality and value-seeking — and thereby create a more rational, value-oriented culture. I don’t often gripe about the current state of politics. When I discuss politics, I much prefer to discuss the contours of a free society. I’d rather offer a positive vision of what the future can and ought to be, rather than bemoan the problems of the present.

Over the past few months, I’ve realized that promoting a free society requires more than just the usual “moral arguments for capitalism” typically offered by Objectivist intellectuals. For most people, such arguments are too far removed from their daily lives and values to even capture their attention, let alone resonate with them. That’s part of why the surge in interest in Ayn Rand hasn’t amounted to much cultural or political change, including in this election.

In my view, lasting advances in freedom require that people connect political liberty with their own deeply-held and actively-practiced positive values. First and foremost, people need to personally experience the benefits of pursuing their values on the basis of rational principles. Before they can understand and embrace rights as a principle, they need to live by reality, reason, and egoism as dominant themes in their lives. In essence, political activism can be worthwhile, but it cannot create cultural change by itself. Ultimately, I think, political change depends on cultural change, and cultural change depends on personal change.

Over the course of decades on the air, religious conservative advice talk show host Dr. Laura gradually drew that connection between practical ethics and politics for the religious right, and we’re reaping her bitter fruit today. We need to use that same method to create a culture that preaches and practices reason, egoism, and ultimately, rights.

I’m not belittling political activism. It matters, and if that’s what you want to do, that’s wonderful. My point is that lasting political change requires strengthening the basic philosophic values of the culture, at a deeper level than most Objectivists suppose.

America has time to do that, in my view. So as I work on it via Philosophy in Action Radio, I’m busy enjoying all that America has to offer, culturally and economically, thanks to the fact that we are still a fundamentally free society. That’s what I was most grateful for during this delightful Thanksgiving holiday.

 

Recently, Leonard Peikoff posted some comments urging people to vote for Mitt Romney. I’d recommend that you read it for yourself before continuing with this blog post.

I’m not insensitive to his argument: I agree with many of his observations on Obama and Romney.

For example, I am worried by the concentration of power in the executive branch under Obama. Yet such concentration of power seems to happen just as much under Republicans as Democrats: George W. Bush was hardly a paragon of restraint, and Obama has merely taken up where Bush left off. We have every reason to expect that Romney would do the same, albeit perhaps at a slightly slower rate than Obama. But maybe not… perhaps Romney would only differ from Obama by the areas in which he usurps even more executive power.

Also, I’m not remotely upset about the particular case that Peikoff cites of “Obama’s practice of ruling by executive order” … (e.g., his latest edict on immigration).” In fact, Obama’s policy change is really excellent, and it’s hardly clear that Obama overstepped his authority. In general, our immigration laws are a disgraceful mess of unpardonable rights violations, not to mention a major drag on the economy. They should be liberalized, with or without welfare reform. However, Peikoff has expressed strong support for heavy restrictions on immigration given our current welfare state in his podcast, so that might explain why he cited that example.

Also, I disagree with Peikoff’s approval of Paul Ryan. Ryan is only a fiscal moderate, not a fiscal conservative. Even if he were to become president, the deficit would continue to expand under his watch. Plus, Ryan is far more theocratic than Mitt, as can be seen from his support for “personhood” for zygotes.

Those are minor quibbles. My major disagreement with Peikoff concerns voting strategy. As I’ve argued in this blog post and this podcast segment, fiscal conservatives need to stop trying to “buy time,” as Peikoff advocates. (As Paul said about the second presidential debate: “We’re now seeing just how little time Romney would buy us.”) Instead, we must demand that the GOP earn our vote by refusing to vote for GOP candidates who are not true fiscal conservatives. That means accepting some pain in this election for the sake of major gains in future elections.

America has time for that, in my view: we’re facing slow and steady decline over the course of decades, not a sudden crash into dictatorship. Hence, for reasons explained in this podcast segment, I reject Peikoff’s apocalypticism: Obama will do significant damage in a second term, but likely far, far less than opening the door to totalitarian dictatorship, as Peikoff suggests.

Recall that Peikoff predicted sweeping repression and theocracy if George W. Bush were elected to a second term in 2004. Nothing remotely that bad came to pass. Instead, major damage was done on other fronts, particularly thanks to Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” in foreign policy and his explicit repudiation of capitalism in his response to the financial crisis.

So Peikoff was wrong in his predictions in 2004, but that’s hardly surprising. Accurate political predictions are nearly impossible, even for professionals immersed in the political news. (That’s not Peikoff, by his own admission.) Such predictions depend too much on unforeseeable events, including the free choices of many, many people. Hence, I just don’t place much stock in anyone’s political predictions over the next four years, except to say that that apocalyptic predictions will very likely be very wrong. (Again, my reasons why can be found in this podcast segment.)

Mostly though, Objectivists need to understand that we might as well vote for the Man on the Moon as Mittens. We are a completely insignificant voting block. Our votes just don’t matter. So for Objectivists to make asses of themselves based on the pretense that a person’s vote reveals his deepest character is pointless and destructive. (Just to be clear: Although I’ll be voting for Gary Johnson, I don’t fault anyone for voting for Mittens based on their own personal judgments, so long as they’re based on fact.)

That doesn’t seem to be happening so much in this election, and I’m pleased about that. Or maybe I’ve just unfriended most of the asses. Either way, here’s to another crappy four years of American politics!

 

On Saturday, I posted a notable comment on the thread of On Jim Valliant. (It was written in response to this comment from Jim.) It explains as much as I plan to say about my personal judgment of Leonard Peikoff, so I’m reposting it here, with some editing, plus an addendum on the “Premise Checkers.” Hopefully, these will be my very last remarks on these ridiculous WTFuffles.

Jim claims that I am “simply trying to conceal [my] true opinion of Leonard Peikoff from others” because “this would alienate a whole class of readers.”

That’s wrong, and it’s unfair. I am refusing to talk about my own judgment of Leonard Peikoff as a person because it’s a personal and private matter. It’s none of the world’s business.

Some years ago, I was friends with Dr. Peikoff. I didn’t discuss that publicly. Then, the friendship disintegrated. Again, I didn’t discuss that publicly. As usually happens when a friendship sours, I lost some respect for Dr. Peikoff as a person as a result of what happened. Again, I won’t discuss that publicly.

Basically, I regard my personal judgment of Dr. Peikoff as my private business, and I’m entitled to keep it that way. It depends on my private experiences, as well as my personal context of knowledge and values. For me to expose my personal conflicts with Dr. Peikoff to the world would be morally wrong. I won’t do it, no matter how much some people attempt to pressure or provoke me.

Other people can and should should judge Dr. Peikoff for themselves, based on their own experiences, as well as their own contexts of knowledge and values. Even though I might disagree with other people’s judgments, often strongly, I don’t regard the matter as suitable for public debate. That could only be a source of bitter conflict and pointless distraction at a time when our culture desperately needs an infusion of rational ideas.

My personal rift with Dr. Peikoff has not affected my intellectual judgment of his achievements as a philosopher. I don’t always agree with him, but his courses and lectures are indispensable to anyone interested in deeply understanding Objectivism. I’ve learned more from him than I can say, and I’m hugely grateful for that. That’s why I routinely recommend his lectures and books, and I will continue to do that.

Yes, I’ve had some serious disagreements with some of Dr. Peikoff’s remarks in his podcasts over the last few years. I’ve spoken publicly about some of them, partly as an expression of my respect for his importance and relevance to Objectivism. When my disagreements were strong, I expressed them in strong language — rightfully so, I think. I take full responsibility for what I’ve said, and I explained my views in my January blog post, On Some Recent Controversies.

As a result of expressing those disagreements, I’ve been unjustly attacked, harassed, lied about, and defamed on the internet. I can bear that well enough, but it’s an unpleasant distraction, to be sure. I’ve got better things to do than deal with the Premise Checkers and their ilk — as does every other rational and productive Objectivist.

That’s why I don’t plan to comment further on Dr. Peikoff’s podcasts, whether I think them right or wrong. I’ll simply talk about the substantive issues of interest to me, as I did in my recent webcast discussion of consent in sex. That’s a sad state of affairs, in my view: Objectivists should be able to discuss their disagreements openly, without worry that they’ll be unjustly smeared by a bunch of random strangers on the internet.

My critics can choose to interpret all that as me dishonestly concealing my true opinions of Dr. Peikoff. That would be completely wrong, however. I’m trying to be fair to a philosopher who has produced a fantastic body of philosophic work, who I’ve had a personal and private falling out with, and who expresses opinions on occasion that I think seriously wrong.

I will continue to expand my knowledge, pursue my values, cultivate my skills, act on principle, advocate good ideas, and enjoy my awesome life. Yes, I can do that while studying and enjoying Dr. Peikoff’s philosophic work, yet not revering or admiring him as a person.

Addendum

The latest essay from the “Premise Checkers” — Diana Hsieh’s Subjective Morality by John Kagebein — aims to prove that I’m a moral subjectivist and a coward. That’s absurd, as anyone familiar with me and my work knows. (In addition to poor writing and poor argumentation, the essay seriously mispresents the cited exchange on Facebook. In fact, John and other soon-to-be “Premise Checkers” trolled a thread of mine with hostile comments that began with John saying, “Really, Diana? Your’re [sic] just going let the overt, mindless Peikoff-bashers have free reign on your wall?” It went downhill from there. Yes, I got irritated. Yes, I was rude. They earned it — in spades.)

The essay is informative on one point, however: it clearly states the basic moral standards and values of the “Premise Checkers.”

First, John is not merely concerned to defend Dr. Peikoff’s philosophic work, but rather his whole life: “Leonard Peikoff’s life, his work, stands nearly equal to that of Ayn Rand’s in the promotion of reason and Objectivism.” Then, after enumerating some of Dr. Peikoff’s accomplishments, John writes:

Every person who dares to call himself an Objectivist should have nothing but the profoundest respect for Leonard Peikoff and should demand nothing less from their friends and cohorts who also call themselves Objectivists. To fail to do so is an act of injustice!

That’s quite revealing of the core dispute here. The Premise Checkers are not merely lauding Dr. Peikoff’s achievements. They are not merely judging Dr. Peikoff to be a great person. That would not be controversial or problematic. Instead, they are claiming that anything less than “the profoundest respect” for Dr. Peikoff’s whole person constitutes as an intolerable moral failing in an Objectivist. That’s deeply wrong, even alarming.

Personally, I’m not interested in any such cult of personality — and I don’t wish to see the Objectivist movement transformed into that.

A person is an Objectivist or not based on his agreement with and practice of the principles of Objectivism. Objectivists can reasonably disagree amongst themselves about applications of Objectivist principles, as well as about issues outside the scope of the philosophy. Similarly, Objectivists can reasonably disagree in their judgments of any given person due to differences in their knowledge of and experiences with that person.

Some criticisms of Dr. Peikoff are unjust, but that’s not always the case. People can disagree in their judgments of him — or have less than “the profoundest respect” for him — without being irrational or unjust. Here, recall that a number of prominent Objectivists in good standing with ARI have conflicts with Dr. Peikoff. (He said in his statement on John McCaskey’s resignation that he is “on terms of personal enmity” with “a few longtime Board members” of ARI.)

Ultimately, to demand that every Objectivist experience and display “the profoundest respect” for Dr. Peikoff means demanding that some people ignore what they’ve seen and heard for themselves. Basically, it’s a demand for blind worship of a person — meaning: a demand that Objectivists repudiate the virtues of rationality, independence, and justice. Revering Dr. Peikoff based on your own judgment is not wrong. Loudly demanding that others do so, despite their own judgment, is deeply, deeply wrong.

If this cult of personality gains traction, the Objectivist movement will become insular, dogmatic, and repressive — as I’ve said before. Happily, I see much resistance to this trend, particularly from some of the most productive, benevolent, and effective Objectivist activists.

At this point, the “Premise Checkers” have revealed enough of their own premises, motives, and methods that I don’t plan to say anything further about them or their defamatory campaign against me. It’s just a waste of my time. The “Premise Checkers” will likely continue their attempts to intimidate Objectivists into their cult of personality. I hope that people resist, whatever their view of Dr. Peikoff and whatever their view of me. It’s a matter of principle, not personality.

Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth… thank goodness!

Apr 062012
 

Several people have asked me about Jim Valliant’s recent public condemnation of me on Facebook. I’ve struggled with what to say about it because I think that Jim has judged me too hastily, based on some serious misunderstandings. He cut off our discussion prematurely, and much of what I say here is what I’d planned to explain to him. So I hope that he’ll reconsider his judgment.

Jim e-mailed me in mid-March because he wanted to write for “Checking Premises.” He didn’t wish to offend me, but he wanted to defend Leonard Peikoff against criticisms by others that he regarded as grossly unfair. In particular, he criticized Trey Peden, Kelly Valenzuela, and Jason Stotts in harsh terms to me.

As you might expect, I told Jim that I couldn’t look kindly on his writing for “Checking Premises,” and I gave my reasons for that view. As for the rest, that turned into Jim repeatedly demanding my view of claims made by Trey and Jason, usually framed in morally-loaded language.

I was perfectly willing to discuss any beef that Jim had with me — meaning, any problems with what I’d said and done. However, I didn’t think myself obliged to jump into the middle of Jim’s conflicts with other people, simply because those people were friends and acquaintances of mine. Speaking generally, disputes about whether one person has insulted or shown insufficient respect for another person usually generate more heat than light. A dispute about whether my friend Trey Givens insulted Jim’s friend Leonard Peikoff was sure to be hopelessly confused and painfully heated, in my view.

Basically, I didn’t want to get in the middle of conflicts between Jim and anyone else. Moreover, I didn’t think that Jim was entitled to interrogate me about the views of my friends. People can judge me on whatever basis they like, but some aspects of my life are private, and I plan to keep them that way. That includes many facets of my friendships.

My friends are my friends for good reasons, grounded in my own personal context and values. If I have a problem with a friend, I’ll discuss that with him or her privately. I don’t publicly announce every agreement or disagreement with a friend, even when substantial. I don’t feel any need to justify my friendships to others, and I don’t take kindly to insults of my friends from people who don’t know them. Hence, people ought to assume that I regard my friends highly, but not that I agree with everything they say or do. Some of my friends might dislike or even despise each other: I expect them to manage that civilly, with respect for my context of knowledge and values, as well as my independent judgment. If they can’t do that, they should distance themselves from me as needed.

I’ve been friends with Kelly and Trey for many years: we interact routinely online and in-person. I don’t always agree with them, but I respect, value, and trust them — hugely. I don’t know Jason well, but I’ve interacted with him enough to regard him as honest, careful, and fair.

As I mentioned, Jim attacked these people repeatedly in his e-mails to me. From the outset, I knew that those judgments were seriously mistaken, simply based on my personal knowledge of their history, personality, and character. In contrast, Jim has never met these people: he only engaged them online, and he did so for the first time recently over contentious issues. That, in my experience, is an easy way to misjudge a person.

Jim’s claims against Trey, Kelly, and Jason were not of a kind that could affect my own first-hand, in-person judgments of them, established over the course of many years. That’s why I told him that my friendships were not negotiable.

Unfortunately, Jim ignored or rejected my attempts to show that his judgments of these people were in error, despite my far better knowledge of them. After that, I declined to discuss them further with him, although he repeatedly queried me about whether or not I agreed with their views.

As I told Jim, I didn’t want to play defense attorney to my friends. Plus, I knew that any discussion about what others said was sure to become a terribly confused mess. For me to read Trey’s many controversial blog posts with a fine-tooth comb, trying to parse sentences for disagreements of substance versus style, would have been a waste of my time. Also, I wasn’t willing to pass judgment on a short phrase of Jason’s repeatedly quoted by Jim — not when its meaning and context were unclear to me. (The phrase was not from any public statement by Jason, but rather taken from a private conversation between Jason and Jim of which I knew nothing.) I said that I wouldn’t use such a phrase, but that wasn’t enough for Jim.

Instead of discussing the views of other people, I proposed to Jim that we discuss our own disagreements directly. I outlined my views on the date rape podcasts in an e-mail to him, but he ignored that. Also, as I told him, I thought he was seriously misinterpreting some of Peikoff’s remarks on controversial topics, which I thought was unfair to Dr. Peikoff and unfair to Dr. Peikoff’s critics. His reply mostly focused on Trey’s claims, yet again.

Basically, Jim was focused on what other people said and whether I agreed with them. I thought that line of conversation not just futile, but also inappropriate. I’m happy to defend my own words and deeds, but I didn’t see any reason why I was obliged to defend the words and deeds of other people acting independently of me, simply because I’m friends with them or because I’ve mentioned them favorably on NoodleFood. My refusal to discuss his charges against others was a matter of principle: his questions were intrusive and inappropriate, in my view.

In addition, Jim says the following in his Facebook comments:

[Diana] has also repeatedly indicated to me, without qualification, that she agrees with what Peden wrote in his attacks on Piekoff [sic] in this post specifically. Since she did not attempt to distance herself form [sic] any of it, I must conclude that she agrees with all of it, including the unnecessary personal attacks on Peikoff himself.

That is just not true.

First, I never claimed to agree with Trey’s public blog posts, nor his remarks on Dr. Peikoff. Instead, when I told Jim that I agreed with Trey’s arguments, I was referring specifically to Trey’s arguments on transgenderism from his private correspondence with Jim. (Jim sent me that correspondence with Trey’s permission.) Jim misunderstood that as a more global endorsement in his reply, so I explicitly clarified what I meant in a subsequent e-mail. Jim seems to have missed that, and the result is that he’s seriously misrepresenting me.

Second, I’ve not publicly commented on Trey’s controversial posts, either in agreement or disagreement, except to link to a post on transgenderism for its factual content. That silence should not be construed as agreeing with Trey’s other controversial posts in whole or in part. I’ve not publicly stated any opinion, and I don’t plan to do so.

Moreover, I’m not interested in stirring up any more pointless controversy among Objectivists. At this point, I’ve already said all that I wish to say publicly on some controversial topics, such as Peikoff’s views of transgenders. I’ve deliberately refrained from making any public comment about more recent controversies, such as Peikoff’s podcasts on date rape. Similarly, I’m not interested in discussing my private views of Objectivist public figures with anyone but close friends, as my views are personal to me and my context of knowledge and values. I’m certainly not obliged to discuss such topics, simply because other people are doing so.

If people find my refusal to say more than I have on these issues unacceptable, then they are welcome to judge me and act accordingly. Still, I don’t regard myself as obliged to submit to unwelcome and intrusive interrogations.

Based on his e-mails, Jim was deeply unhappy with my refusal to discuss what Trey and others wrote. I wanted to explain my reasons for that in greater detail, as I’ve done above. I didn’t know what the result would be, but I liked Jim enough from our interactions many years ago to make an attempt.

Unfortunately, that attempt didn’t go as planned. Jim repeatedly insisted that I respond to his e-mails immediately, even though my schedule did not permit me to do so. My mother was visiting, and then I had a lecture to prepare for Wednesday night. Plus, I wanted time to think through the issues carefully, rather than replying hastily.

Repeatedly, I told Jim that I was occupied with prior commitments, but that I would reply late this week. For reasons that I cannot understand, he found that unacceptable. He unfriended and denounced me on Tuesday evening.

Basically, Jim cut off our conversation prematurely, based on incomplete information and misunderstanding. That’s unfortunate, in my view. Again, I hope that he will reconsider.

To summarize:

(1) I value my friends, but that doesn’t make me responsible for what they say, nor imply that I agree with everything they say.

(2) I regard arguments about whether your friend insulted my friend as confused messes of fruitless conflict.

(3) I’m entitled to keep some of my views private, even when people inquire about them.

And that’s that, I hope.

P.S. I sent Jim Valliant a draft of this statement last night. He replied, but in a way that didn’t address my objections to his inquiries. In any case, he’s welcome to post that reply in these comments.

 

In last Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed unfriendly disputes in online communities. The question was:

Why are disputes so belligerent in online communities? I’ve noticed that people get into very loud and heated disputes online, whereas that doesn’t seem to happen in local communities. Disputes in local communities tend to be less frequent, less belligerent, and last for a shorter time – even when some people end up hating each other and refusing to have anything to do with each other in the end. Why is that? Also, why do people who are closest with each other (whether close friends, dating, or married) seem to agree more on hot-button issues? Are people more willing to reject a stranger’s arguments than those of a friend? Is that an error?

My answer, in brief:

Conflicts with other people are inevitable in life. Online conflicts are often more belligerent, due to the differences between online and in-person communication. People should try to manage online conflicts in a sane way, with respect for facts about the limitations of the medium.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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On Monday, Dr. Peikoff released a podcast with the following question:

Do you distinguish official Objectivist doctrine from Ayn Rand’s personal views?

His answer was excellent: it’s a brief but clear explanation of the meaning and implications of the “closed system” view of Objectivism. That’s what I advocate, what I practice, and what I defended in my recent blog post. If you’re interested in these matters, I recommend listening to his answer. (It’s only 2 minutes, 31 seconds long.)

Here’s the transcription, courtesy of D Jason Fleming:

Philosophy is broad principles, about the nature of the universe, the means of knowledge, the nature of man, and then the value doctrines that all that leads to. All this is interconnected. In a proper philosophy, it’s one system, as in Objectivism.

Now that does not mean that every specific application of that philosophy is inherent in the philosophy. A philosopher can hold views that do not necessarily follow from the philosophy, but are its application to a realm where facts are established by science, or observation, or some other appropriate means.

Philosophy is wide abstractions. That does not entail specific choices or specific interpretations of how they apply to concretes. For instance, take my theory of history presented in the DIM book. I make a definite distinction between official Objectivst doctrine and Peikoff’s theory of history. Now, I believe that my theory is based on Objectivism, but it does not follow from Objectivism, it is not therefore Objectivism as such. It is my application and each person has to decide is this the correct application or not? It is not subjective, but it’s still not a question of what is the philosophy, but what is its applications? And in that regard, Ayn Rand and I and others can disagree without anybody contradicting the philosophy.

Remember also that there are personal options in applying broad philosophic principles. You can say that, for instance, “sex is good” is a philosophic principle, but that does not necessitate any special particular position or clothing, et cetera. It does specify that the general principles of morality apply, such as fraud, force, evasion, et cetera. But as apart from that, there are many different interpretations and complete options which would be personal, not official.

So: yes, but without that implying a contradiction or a subjective viewpoint.

Hear, hear!

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