Note from Diana Hsieh, 22 Feb 2012: If you’ve come to this page via “Checking Premises” or something similar, please note that I’ve written a length commentary on the criticisms circulating about me, including explaining my views of various controversial matters, in this post: On Some Recent Controversies. I’d recommend reading that, then judging me based on my full range of work, not just a few out-of-context snippets. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul wrote this post, and Diana edited it with him. We meant to publish it under Paul’s account, but we messed that up by mistake.
Last week, Dr. Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute issued statements regarding John McCaskey’s resignation from the boards of the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation:
Diana and I have been giving serious thought to these statements. In addition, we had an in-person meeting with Yaron Brook in Denver on November 11th when he came to town on business, followed by a phone call on November 19th. We greatly appreciate the fact that he was willing to talk with us and help us better understand these issues. We had frank and constructive conversations, and at his request we are keeping the details private (with one exception below where he has granted his permission to discuss it publicly).
As a result of this new information, we’ve had to do a lot of hard thinking, and we’ve reconsidered some of our earlier views and actions. Our purpose here is to discuss our current evaluation of the events, including acknowledging some of our errors. In this post, we will discuss what we regard as the three most important issues, namely:
- ARI’s statement
- Peikoff’s statement
- Our “Fact Finding” Post
We will offer our judgments on some topics but not others. Now that ARI has clarified its view of recent events and its policies, each person can now fairly determine his future relationship with ARI, based on his concerns and interests. We don’t regard our thinking and decisions on some matters as appropriate fodder for further public discussion, although friends may inquire with us privately.
1) ARI’s statement
First, given ARI’s position that The Logical Leap is a “major ARI project” on which they must take “one consistent position”, then it makes sense that McCaskey’s criticisms of the book constituted a conflict of interest incompatible with his serving on the ARI Board. We’re glad that ARI has made this known in its recent statement. In earlier internet discussions, some people made similar arguments, and in retrospect, one of our errors was to not give this view sufficient credence.
As an explanation of our earlier views, I (Paul) have served on the Board of Directors of a corporation — namely, my own medical practice. My medical group is not a small office practice but rather a major business operation with over 300 employees doing over $40 million of business a year. Its board members routinely make multimillion dollar decisions, and they take their fiduciary and conflict of interest policies very seriously. As part of that conflict of interest policy, board members of my practice cannot undermine or criticize major board decisions once made — such as opening a new branch office or signing a new hospital contract.
In other words, the group has a “one consistent position” policy on such major issues, much like ARI. Board members are expected to freely debate such issues as part of the process of arriving at a decision. But once the board has made its decision, individual board members are expected to support it publicly, or at least keep their disagreements private. (The board also has a mechanism for revisiting prior decisions when new evidence warrants.)
Furthermore, the board also supports for-profit medical conferences, lectures, and books, with the revenue flowing back to the medical corporation. So in this respect, there is a loose similarity to ARI. For such work, my medical group has established a policy that board members are allowed to dissent with medical and scientific conclusions expressed in books and lectures sponsored by the group, without that dissent being considered a conflict of interest. Hence, if a board-supported book written by one of the group’s physicians takes a particular position on, say, the proper use of MRI to diagnose certain cancers, any board member would be free to respectfully dissent in his own speaking or writing on that subject. In other words, my group exempts that sort of professional disagreement on medical issues from its “one consistent position” policy.
We assumed — wrongly, in retrospect — that ARI had a similar policy towards McCaskey’s disagreements with The Logical Leap, given that its theory of induction is new work, not part of Objectivism. We weren’t aware of our error until ARI released its recent statement.
ARI’s statement does not say when the Board decided to apply this policy to The Logical Leap. Yet we recognize that once that policy was in effect, McCaskey could not be on ARI’s Board. We’re pleased that McCaskey is now free to state his views of The Logical Leap, whether we agree with them or not in the end.
The range of views that ARI should support under its “one consistent position” policy is a separate question. We regard this policy as wholly proper for Objectivist principles and their public policy applications. Diana has serious concerns about applying it to new philosophic or other scholarly work, however good, including The Logical Leap.
Of course, ARI’s decision to apply their “one consistent position” policy to The Logical Leap is entirely their prerogative. That’s their decision to make, which donors can support or not.
2) Peikoff’s statement
We also appreciated Dr. Peikoff’s statement stating his reasons for demanding that the ARI Board remove McCaskey. In particular, as donors we appreciated his clarifying the nature of his relationship to the ARI Board. He has stated that he has and will exercise veto power over ARI’s Board, according to his judgment. In effect, Peikoff assumes the role of final Quality Control Officer over ARI’s Board, with ARI’s assent.
Prospective donors can have a range of legitimate responses to this new information. If a donor has confidence in Peikoff’s judgment on such issues, he may choose to maintain or increase his financial support. On the other hand, if a donor has concerns about Peikoff’s judgment on such issues, he may wish to earmark or reduce his donations so they won’t be affected by Peikoff’s judgment. Each donor will have to make this determination for himself. As donors, we are now glad to have this greater clarity which will allow us to better decide whether and how we wish to financially support ARI.
Peikoff also clearly expressed his personal negative moral judgment of McCaskey. Based on our own knowledge of McCaskey, we completely reject Peikoff’s characterization of him as “an obnoxious braggart” and “a pretentious ignoramus.” We regard that as a serious misjudgment of McCaskey. In the seven years we’ve known him, McCaskey has always acted as a gentleman and a scholar. Similarly, we still regard Peikoff’s earlier characterizations of McCaskey’s actions and views as unfathomable. Peikoff is not required to explain his personal judgments, nor are we asking him to. We merely wish to register our disagreement. We expect to continue to enjoy McCaskey’s intellectual work as well as our friendship with him.
Such disagreements over personal judgments are not unusual in intellectual movements. Peikoff himself notes that he is at “personal enmity” with some long-standing ARI Board members to the point that he is no longer on speaking terms with them — and this includes individuals that many other Objectivists deeply respect. Such disagreements need not be a problem provided that the relevant parties behave objectively towards one another.
3) Our “Fact Finding” Post
Some people have publicly criticized us for making our inquiries about this issue and publicizing our findings in our NoodleFood post, “The Resignation of John McCaskey: The Facts.”
Our actions and motives were also criticized by ARI during their call to the OAC students in ways we considered inaccurate and unfair; we were greatly disturbed and angered when we learned of them. Yaron Brook also bluntly criticized our actions during our in-person meeting with him on November 11, and we had a frank discussion about this issue.
Yaron Brook has granted us his permission to publicly discuss his criticisms of our actions, so that we could publicly respond — and we greatly appreciate that.
In ARI’s view, the fundamental problem wasn’t that our post was inaccurate or biased. Rather, the problem was our very attempt to inquire about what they regarded as a fundamentally private matter, including Peikoff’s initial e-mail.
Yaron Brook explained to us that the core issues were covered by ARI Board confidentiality provisions, and that anything we discovered could only be “nibbling at the edges” of a core that we could not know about. Hence, our inquiries as such were inappropriate and would only fuel more unwelcome public debate at a time when the right thing would have been to encourage others to remain patient and calm. He told us that the proper alternative would have been to express our concerns to him privately (which Diana did shortly after McCaskey resigned), accept the fact that he could only tell us some information, and then deal with the inherent uncertainty as best we could — which might in essence include telling him, “We don’t like what’s going on, and as donors we’re keeping our eye on you.” (Yaron Brook’s words, not ours.)
We understand his position, and in retrospect we can see why ARI takes that position. Unfortunately, ARI contributed to this difficulty by allowing the release of Dr. Peikoff’s e-mail, then refraining from substantive comment for two months. They’ve subsequently apologized for that, and we appreciate it.
As for us, we had important values at stake as moral and financial supporters of ARI — as we explained in our post. We didn’t know what Peikoff’s letter implied for ARI’s future, particularly whether ARI would turn away from its policy of “fostering a rational, vigorous discussion of Objectivist ideas” — a policy we greatly valued and supported. We couldn’t ignore Peikoff’s letter and continue to support ARI, as if nothing had happened. Yet we didn’t want to withdraw our support from ARI absent compelling reasons.
Basically, we were stuck in limbo due to our lack of information about what had happened and what ARI’s future policies would be. We didn’t expect that more information would be forthcoming from ARI or Peikoff, after our initial inquiries. Hence, we attempted to gather whatever relevant information we could, so we could make the best possible decisions. In essence, we wanted to learn precisely the kind of information that Peikoff and ARI have now provided.
As to why we published our factual post, we knew that many of our friends felt similarly confused and conflicted about the implications of Peikoff’s letter for ARI and the Objectivist movement as a whole. Many were struggling to understand the basic facts, such as what the “forum” was that Peikoff referred to in his e-mail. We were troubled that so many online arguments were premised on false factual claims — for instance, that McCaskey published his Amazon review before resigning from ARI’s Board.
Also, Diana planned to write a post on Robert Tracinski’s “Anthemgate” essay, which we regarded at the time as an unfair and dishonest attack on ARI. To do that, readers first needed to be clear about the publicly-available facts about McCaskey’s resignation.
For these and other reasons, we regarded our factual post as helpful to people sincerely concerned about these events. And at the time, we received many supportive e-mails from people on all sides thanking us for our factual post.
Notably, during our “fact finding” inquiries, we never asked anyone to breach any confidentiality agreements. We made sure to first secure McCaskey’s permission for the release his e-mails (or to report on his spoken remarks) about The Logical Leap before inquiring with those who received those e-mails (or heard those remarks). We didn’t pester strangers, but only contacted people we already knew. We never asked any ARI Board members for confidential information. Rather, we wrote Yaron and one other Board member we knew to express our concerns as donors. Our motive was not to dig into private matters, but to learn what we could about matters already made public by Peikoff, ARI, and McCaskey in order to guide our own choices. Moreover, we were careful to identify the limits of our knowledge as best we could.
Furthermore, recall that the online debates at the time were highly charged, fast-paced, and divisive. We hoped to help steer them in a more constructive direction by encouraging people to focus on facts rather than engaging in speculation, to remain calm rather than acting in anger, and to keep the full context in any moral judgments. In addition to our public posts and comments, we made numerous private efforts to discourage friends from making baseless attacks or overblown criticisms of ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey. We think we helped reduce some of the most egregious speculations and wild emotionalism by our public and private comments.
Ultimately, the online discussions snowballed wildly out-of-control, particularly in the wake of the OAC call. To some extent we were caught up in that, and we regret that. However, once the statements by Peikoff and ARI were published, we realized that people (including us) needed time to think rather than to continue the heated arguments, and so we closed the relevant NoodleFood comment threads.
In retrospect, we recognize that we did not (and could not) have understood some critical issues at the core of the controversy until Peikoff and ARI released their respective statements. Most illuminating were their statements about their respective policies for dealing with these kinds of conflicts.
Since meeting with Yaron, we’ve re-examined our choice to make our inquiries and write that factual post. After some hard thinking, we believe that we acted reasonably on the whole, given what we knew at the time. Of course, knowing what we know now, we would have acted differently. But we cannot criticize ourselves on that basis: actions should be judged in their actual context, not in retrospect.
4) Concluding Thoughts
In this post, we’ve tried to give a fair evaluation of the major events and to explain why we acted as we did. On the whole, we attempted to steer the debate in a constructive direction. Yet sometimes we acted hastily, from anger, or based on supposition. That was wrong of us, and for that we apologize.
We’re certainly willing to take any justly-deserved lumps for our mistakes and to learn from them. We’re willing to accept criticism, but we think that any such criticism should be based on our actual actions, statements, and motives — as opposed to inaccurate portrayals thereof. So if you believe that we owe you an explanation or apology for something we’ve done — or if you want the facts about what we’ve done and why — please e-mail us.
Now that ARI has explained recent events and its future policies, we do not regard further debate on those matters as fruitful. Donors, students, and intellectuals can and should decide for themselves the nature and scope of their future support for and involvement with ARI based on their individual context of knowledge and values.
Personally, we’re glad for the clarity we’ve gained from the recent statements from Peikoff and ARI, as well as from our discussions with Yaron Brook. We’re now able to evaluate these matters for ourselves and act accordingly.
We do not plan to offer any further public comments on our views. Instead, we plan to return to our own intellectual and activist projects. During this process, we never wanted ARI to implode over this matter — unlike Robert Tracinski or the supporters of David Kelley. Even when angry and distressed, we still hoped that ARI would weather the storm and thrive. We still want that now, even though our own future relationship with ARI is not fully settled.
For now, we merely want to repeat something I (Paul) wrote on November 2, 2010: “As the current election shows, America needs Ayn Rand’s ideas more than ever, and we need the ARI to help disseminate those ideas.” We still believe that. With ARI’s latest statement, we hope that it will be able to return to devoting its full energy to spreading Objectivist ideas in the culture. We hope they succeed in this vitally important task.
Note: Because we do not wish to fuel any unnecessary further online controversy, we are disabling the comments for this post. Anyone with comments or questions can e-mail us privately.
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