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Open Objectivism

A Note to Our Members About Open Objectivism

October 17, 2008

 

They say that fish can’t see the water they swim in. It’s a common analogy for the tendency to take our basic values and principles so much for granted that they become invisible. But to stay on track, we sometimes need to make those values and principles conscious, to remind ourselves where we are going, and why.

 

From the very beginning, the basic goal of The Atlas Society as an organization has been our mission of promoting Objectivism. Our basic principle—what has always defined and distinguished us—is the conviction that Objectivism is an open philosophy. That conviction is so deeply rooted in the way we function that we have long taken it for granted. In the course of reviewing our current programs and long-term strategy, however, we gained a new appreciation of how crucially important this principle is, especially in these troubled times, to the mission in which we and you, our partners and supporters, are engaged.

 

I’d like to share with you, our contributing members, our vision of open Objectivism. In essence, it means three things:
 
1) A commitment to reasoned, non-dogmatic discussion and debate
 
People need to think for themselves, to reach conclusions they grasp first-hand through their own individual process of thought. That’s true by the very nature of objective knowledge, and it’s the reason why rationality and independence are moral virtues.
 
There’s a natural tendency for movements and organizations to try to short-circuit the process by appealing to the authority of leaders or demanding total agreement. But that’s not right. We know it’s not right because it contradicts the Objectivist philosophy. But the Objectivist movement has sometimes succumbed to the tendency, with harmful results. If your experience is anything like mine, you have probably met people who might sympathize with our ideas but still keep their distance under the impression that Objectivism is some kind of sect.
 
That’s one reason we feel it is still important to highlight our basic principle. The more important reason is the positive benefit we gain by respecting the rationality and independence of those we deal with. That policy starts with you, our members: we have always tried to earn your support by offering value rather than by guilt or intimidation. The policy applies to our events: those who have attended the Summer Seminar and other conferences have often said how empowering they found the spirit of open discussion and debate.
 
2) The recognition that Objectivism is open to expansion, refinement, and revision
 
Objectivism is a body of rational knowledge rather than a fixed, closed set of doctrines like a religion. This fact is implied by the very nature of human knowledge, which Objectivism teaches us is contextual, fallible, and open-ended. The philosophy itself must therefore be open to expansion, refinement, and, if necessary, revision in the same way as any other body of knowledge, such as Newtonian physics, the theory of evolution, market economics, etc.
 
To say that Objectivism is an open system is to invite discussion and debate, to welcome insights that can be verified and integrated, to recognize that the system can be revised if further inquiry reveals problems, and to acknowledge that there can be reasonable differences among honest Objectivists over specific issues. These are normal, healthy aspects of rational thought and cooperation among thinkers. They are based on respect for the independence of the individual, and they reflect the basic truth that the measure of a thinker is not agreement with a doctrine or a person, but agreement with the facts. In the long run, it is only by promulgating our philosophy in that spirit that we can achieve intellectual progress and attract people to the philosophy.
 
We have tried to practice these policies from the beginning. And, again, with tangible benefits, from the trust we have earned from our friends in academia, in other think tanks, and in the media; to the scholarly work we have sponsored and published ourselves; to the many innovative ideas you can find on our website.
 
3) A policy of benevolence toward others, including fellow-travelers and critics
 
One of those innovative ideas is that benevolence is a major virtue in Objectivism, and we now think of it as another dimension of openness. As I argued in Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, the essence of benevolence is not altruism. It is the virtue of seeking opportunities for trade by treating others with the basic respect they deserve as potential sources of value.
 
In the realm of ideas, benevolence means seeking opportunities for insight and knowledge, not only from other Objectivists, but also from opponents who raise intelligent questions and objections. And it means collaborating with other organizations where appropriate, in pursuit of common goals. As a minority position in the marketplace of ideas, we can expect to have an impact only if we take the initiative to engage with other positions—to make our case with passion, yes, but also to listen and learn, and to seek out willing allies in our cause.
 
And in that spirit, we welcome your thoughts, and we thank you for making our work possible.
                                                                                   David Kelley
                                                                                   Founder and Senior Scholar
 
P. S.     I hope you will continue to support the mission of The Atlas Society at whatever level of support is appropriate to your circumstances.  In these especially challenging times, I think there are exciting opportunities for getting our message heard, which is only possible through your financial support.  
 
P. P. S.You can find a more in-depth analysis of open Objectivism in The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, Chapter 5 (pp. 71-94), the entire text of which is online.
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