David Kelley Versus Ayn Rand on Kant

 Posted by on 19 February 2006 at 11:56 pm  Kant
Feb 192006

Myfraf has blogged a bit about David Kelley. His question about whether Kelley’s views on moral judgment can be reconciled with Ayn Rand’s judgment that Kant was the most evil man in history is worth considering. Instead of offering some grand analysis of the issue, I’ll simply quote the relevant texts, to let my readers just for themselves.

Ayn Rand made the “most evil man in history” claim about Kant in the final issue of The Objectivist, in an article entitled “Brief Summary.” Here’s the relevant section:

Those who are not willing to give up the world to mindless brutality, must learn that the battle is philosophical–and that there is no time for anything else.

Suppose you met a twisted, tormented young man and, trying to understand his behavior, discovered that he was brought up by a man-hating monster who worked systematically to paralyze his mind, destroy his self-confidence, obliterate his capacity for enjoyment and undercut his every attempt to escape. You would realize that nothing could be done with or for that young man and nothing could be expected of him until he was removed from the monster’s influence.

Western civilization is in that young man’s position. The monster is Immanuel Kant.

I have mentioned in many articles that Kant is the chief destroyer of the modern world. My primary concern, however, was not to engage in polemics, but to present a rational approach to philosophy, untainted by any Kantian influence, and to indicate the connection of philosophy to man’s life here, on earth–a connection which Kant had severed. It is useless to be against anything, unless one knows what one is for. A merely negative stand is always futile- as, for instance, the stand of the conservatives, who are against communism, but not for capitalism. One cannot start with or build on a negative; it is only by establishing what is the good that one can know what is evil and why.

Kant was opposed in his time and thereafter, but his opponents adopted a kind of Republican Party method: they conceded all his basic premises and fought him on inconsequential details. He won–by default and with their help. The result was the progressive shrinking of philosophy’s stature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All the irrational twistings of contemporary philosophy are Kantian in origin. The ultimate result is the present state of the world.

If, on the positive basis of my philosophy, I may be permitted to express a negative consideration, as a consequence and a side issue, I would like to say, paraphrasing Ragnar Danneskjold in Atlas Shrugged: “I’ve chosen a special mission of my own. I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died 167 years ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. (What man?) Immanuel Kant.”

It is, therefore, appropriate that in the last issue of The Objectivist, I should offer you Leonard Peikoff’s brilliant presentation of Kant’s views on some of the central questions of morality. It is a condensed presentation, especially since it is excerpted from a fuller discussion, but it will be sufficient to give you a clear image of Kant’s mentality and of its product.

You will find that on every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. You may also find it hard to believe that anyone could advocate the things Kant is advocating. If you doubt it, I suggest that you look up the references given and read the original works. Do not seek to escape the subject by thinking: “Oh, Kant didn’t mean it!” He did.

Dr. Peikoff’s essay will help you to understand more fully why I say that no matter how diluted or disguised, one drop of this kind of intellectual poison is too much for a culture to absorb with impunity- that the latest depredations of some Washington ward-heelers are nothing compared to a destroyer of this kind–that Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history.

It will also help you to see what enemy I am fighting and have been fighting all these years.

In contrast, here’s what David Kelley said in “A Question of Sanction“:

The concept of evil applies primarily to actions, and to the people who perform them. [Peter] Schwartz asserts that we should not sanction the Soviets because they are “philosophical enemies.” This is a bizarre interpretation of their sins. Soviet tyrants are not evil because they believe in Marxian collectivism. They are evil because they have murdered millions of people and enslaved hundreds of millions more. An academic Marxist who subscribes to the same ideas as Lenin or Stalin does not have the same moral status. He is guilty of the same intellectual error, but not of their crimes (unless and to the extent that he actively supported them, as many did in the 1930s, although even here we must recognize a difference in degree of culpability).

On David Kelley’s view of moral judgment, no mere intellectual could even aspire to be “the most evil man in history,” let alone achieve that distinction. As a commentary on both Ayn Rand and David Kelley, let me quote Leonard Peikoff’s comments in “Fact and Value“:

Now consider the case of Kant, whom I take to be the negative counterpart of Ayn Rand. To anyone capable of understanding Kant’s ideas, the first thing to say about them is: “false.” But implicit in the all-embracing war on reality they represent is a second verdict: “wicked.” The cause of such ideas has to be methodical, lifelong intellectual dishonesty; the effect, when they are injected into the cultural mainstream, has to be mass death. There can be no greater evasion than the open, total rejection of reality undertaken as a lifetime crusade. And only evasion on this kind of scale, evasion as the motor of an entire philosophic system, makes possible and necessary all the atrocities of our age. (For details, see The Ominous Parallels.)

Whoever understands the Critiques, yet urges “toleration” of Kant (or his ilk), or tells us to practice cognition on his ideas but not moral evaluation, has rejected self-preservation as a goal. He has rejected the principle of justice and the entire realm of moral value. He has said that man’s life or death should not be a ruling concern in anyone’s mind.

In the final issue of The Objectivist, Ayn Rand described Kant as “the most evil man in mankind’s history.” She said it knowing full well that, apart from his ideas, Kant’s actions were unexceptionable, even exemplary. Like Ellsworth Toohey, he was a peaceful citizen, a witty lecturer, a popular dinner guest, a prolific writer. She said it because of what Kant wrote–and why–and what it would have to do to mankind. She held that Kant was morally much worse than any killer, including Lenin and Stalin (under whom her own family died), because it was Kant who unleashed not only Lenin and Stalin, but also Hitler and Mao and all the other disasters of our disastrous age. Without the philosophic climate Kant and his intellectual followers created, none of these disasters could have occurred; given that climate, none could have been averted.

The dishonesty central to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is not some self-evident primary. I’ve certainly questioned it myself. To arrive at that judgment, a person must firmly grasp that intellectual honesty fundamentally consists of actively working to rationally conform one’s ideas to the facts of reality. He must clearly understand the fundamental principles of Kant’s philosophy — as learned from Kant himself. And he must be familiar with the metaphysical and epistemological works of at least some major Enlightenment philosophers, not just to understand the bright intellectual milieu in which Kant worked and which Kant destroyed, but also to provide more than a few clear contrasting examples of clearly honest but also thoroughly erroneous attempts to defend reason and understand the world thereby. (Locke’s Essay is an excellent example, since he’s wrong on almost every substantive point, yet also clearly honest. Looking back, I think that I wasn’t quite certain of Kant’s dishonesty in that old blog post because I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the shining honesty Enlightenment philosophy.) With that background, a person can understand that Kant’s philosophy constitutes a thorough, blatant rejection of reality and reason, not just some misguided attempt to understand reality by means of reason.

As an aside, let me add that I absolutely do not think that Kant’s dishonesty can be directly inferred from his horrendously crow-busting writing, as many try to do. While I think that his style of writing is dishonest obfuscation, plenty of basically honest intellectuals are horrendous writers of various kinds. (Sadly, most of those today are the confused children of Kant, I think.) The judgment of dishonesty cannot be based upon a reader’s inability to easily understand Kant’s ideas; it must be based upon those ideas themselves. And that requires wading through all his jargon and untangling his obfuscation, no matter how hard that might be. Yet once that is done, his style of writing does take on new meaning, since it is clearly his method of concealing his pathetically bad arguments for his shocking conclusions.

Of course, none of that matters for David Kelley, since “in judging an individual… one cannot go merely by the content of what he believes” (T&T 44). Rather, “one must have some independent evidence about his motives for believing it” (T&T 44). So while both Stalin and the Marxist professor willingly adopted anti-life ideas, perhaps even by evasion, Stalin “intended to kill,” whereas the Marxist professor merely “engaged in persuasion” (T&T 36). And so we are supposed to fix our gaze upon the thin veneer of civilization to which so many intellectuals cling, ignoring the obvious fact that they are openly calling for the destruction of all that civilization requires.

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