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Editor's note: This article was originally written for members of the Institute for Objectivist Studies (the former name of The Atlas Society) in the IOS Journal, June, 1994. Although the specifics of this article are by now rather dated, we believe that the principles involved are still important to make clear. The particulars allow us to formulate a principle in its essentials, an unchanging policy that applies to all similar cases that arise over time.
As readers of this Journal know, over the past few months the Institute has been fighting socialized medicine, sponsoring a lecture series on psychological growth, planning a summer seminar on rationality, starting a mail-order service, taping a weekly program of Objectivist ideas for a nationwide radio audience, and successfully pilot testing the first new introductory course on Objectivism to be offered in 15 years.
Over the same few months, the Institute has also been the target of a flurry of attacks by the self-proclaimed guardians of Objectivism . Among the more significant examples are the following.
1) In last October's newsletter of the Objectivist Health Care Professionals Network, the Network's executive director, Sal Durante, replied to readers who had asked why the newsletter was not publicizing my speeches and articles defending freedom in medicine. Dr. Durante attributed to me certain "views that contradict some of Ayn Rand's fundamental ideas"—specifically the views that Rand's theory of measurement-omission is "tentative" and that "men should not be judged on the basis of the ideas they hold." On that basis, he argued that any gain in freedom which might result from my efforts was more than offset by the long-term "damage caused by distorting Ayn Rand's philosophy"; and that the Institute for Objectivist Studies "takes much needed funds from contributors who might otherwise support the Ayn Rand Institute [(ARI)]."
2) The Association of Objectivist Businessmen (AOB), whose stated goal is "to promote Objectivism in the business community and to foster business support for the Ayn Rand Institute," was revived in 1992 after some years of inactivity. I received a solicitation to join, and decided to do so, believing that the Association might do some good. AOB recently distributed a membership list, followed quickly by a letter from president Richard Salsman to AOB members, apologizing for the fact that Nathaniel Branden, Jeff Scott, and I were listed among them. We are not eligible for membership, Mr. Salsman said, because we had "denounced" ARI. Claiming that we had never been solicited, and had joined "for [their] own unknown purposes," Mr. Salsman removed our names from the Association's mailing list and refunded our membership contributions. (Several IOS members who belonged to the Association have since resigned in protest and asked for their money back.)
3) Robert Stubblefield, who is publisher of The Intellectual Activist, also runs an electronic forum called the Objectivist Study Group (OSG). Its members are prohibited by contract from participating in another electronic discussion group, the Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy (MDOP), which Mr. Stubblefield says "explicitly endorses anti-Objectivists" (a reference to me, among others). Ironically, MDOP has recently been discussing the conflict between Leonard Peikoff (in "Fact and Value") and myself (in Truth and Toleration) over issues of moral sanction and toleration; subscribers to OSG refused an invitation from MDOP to defend Dr. Peikoff's position in that debate. With Mr. Stubblefield's approval, contributors to OSG have also engaged in various psychologizing efforts to impugn my character. Finally, in a message posted to his subscribers on February 19, Mr. Stubblefield said that he had been unable to come up with an accurate name for those who inclined to my view rather than Dr. Peikoff's; after considering and rejecting various labels, he suggested that "snarling wimps" best described our alleged "fear of objective moral judgments and ...hatred of those who [pass such judgments]."
Any one of these incidents, by itself, would be beneath our notice. IOS has better things to do than respond to sniping from those who resent our very existence. But, taken together, the attacks of recent months call for comment. We want to set the record straight for those who may have seen or heard of these attacks, and may not understand the source of the hostility directed against the Institute. In the circumstances, we also believe it time to reaffirm our own principles about the conduct appropriate to a philosophy of reason.
The hostility to the Institute stems from a public dispute between Dr. Peikoff (of the Ayn Rand Institute) and me, involving two basic philosophical issues.
The first has to do with how we should judge those whose ideas we believe to be false. Is a Christian, or a Marxist, ipso facto immoral? Dr. Peikoff maintained that the scope of honest error is small; except for the young, the retarded, and the illiterate, no one can accept a false philosophical conviction without irrationality. Hence we should be prepared to condemn our intellectual opponents as immoral. This is the view accepted by Dr. Durante, Mssrs. Salsman and Stubblefield, and their associates.
The possibilities for honest error are many, especially in a field as complex as philosophy.
I hold that the possibilities for honest error are many, especially in a field as complex as philosophy. It is true, of course, that many people are willfully irrational in their thinking and should be judged accordingly. But we can't know this of a given individual merely from the content of what he believes; we have to know something about how he reached his beliefs before we can pass moral judgment. What I object to is not moral judgment per se but the blanket condemnations that some Objectivists issue without adequate evidence. It is this position of mine that inspired Mr. Stubblefield's name-calling.
The second issue is whether Objectivism is a closed or an open system of thought. Dr. Peikoff has maintained that Objectivism is an immutable system, with an "official, authorized doctrine" laid down by Ayn Rand . Objectivism means all the philosophical ideas, and only the ideas, that she espoused. My position is that Objectivism is a body of knowledge rather than dogma, and as such is open to further discoveries in the same way as a scientific theory. It is even open to revisions in light of new evidence, as long as they are consistent with the central principles of the philosophy, such as the efficacy of reason and the individual's right to live for his own happiness.
In Truth and Toleration, I illustrated this point with the example of Rand's theory of measurement-omission, which addresses a vital but technical issue concerning the nature of concepts. The theory explains, for the first time in the history of philosophy, exactly how and why human concepts are objective. I do not have any doubts about the truth of this theory, as Dr. Durante implies. On the contrary, I have written the only scholarly analysis and defense of the theory ever published (in my article "A Theory of Abstraction"). My point is that if we ever did acquire evidence against the theory, we would not abandon the principle that concepts are objective (which is a central principle of Objectivism). We would look for a better theory to explain that principle.
A systematic treatment of these philosophical issues can be found in Truth and Toleration. I am certainly willing to entertain criticism of my position, and to change it if proven wrong. To my knowledge, however, no such criticism has been offered in the three years since that work was published. Indeed, many of my opponents have declared that, lest they sanction me, they will not even read Truth and Toleration—thereby forgoing the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the views for which they denounce me. Instead, we have Mr. Salsman's exercise in cliquesmanship, Mr. Stubblefield's adolescent name-calling, and the like.
It seems clear that these attacks do not reflect an honest philosophical dispute. They reflect the syndrome that I described (in the final chapter of Truth and Toleration) as "intellectual tribalism": an effort to create an orthodoxy as a substitute for independent thought, placing loyalty to the group above loyalty to the truth. The clearest, and most offensive, illustration of the tribal approach is Dr. Durante's assumption that if the Institute did not exist, its members and their contributions would flow to the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI)—as if our supporters could not think for themselves and would follow any leader who called.
We are aware that some IOS members do support the Ayn Rand Instiute, as well as the Association of Objectivist Businessmen, the Objectivist Health Care Professionals Network, or allied organizations. It has never been our policy to discourage this, nor do we presume to do so now. For all the reasons that I gave in Truth and Toleration, the question of which individuals and groups to associate with is a complex one. A great many facts are relevant, and every individual must integrate those facts for himself. But we hope that the facts outlined above are included in your deliberations.
Some of our members have asked us whether the breach in the Objectivist movement can be healed. Our policy is comparable to the one that Israel long adopted toward its Arab foes. We prefer to live in peace with our intellectual neighbors, but we see no basis for a civil relationship with those who deny the legitimacy of our existence as an independent Objectivist organization, and who launch unprovoked and irrational attacks on us.
Irrationality of this sort can usually be ignored, but we reserve the right to respond as we think necessary to preserve our reputation. Meanwhile, we will continue to pursue our mission: to expand the body of Objectivist thought, and to communicate these ideas to a world sorely in need of them. With your help, we will succeed.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.