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Introduction to The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand

Introduction to The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand

6 Mins
June 24, 2010

Note: Contested Legacy was first published in February of 1990; the newest edition was published in 2018 titled Truth and Toleration in Objectivism.


For as long as there has been an Objectivist movement, its ranks have periodically been thinned by schisms and excommunications, power struggles and purges. I have recently had the opportunity to observe one of these episodes from the inside.

About a year ago, a short essay of mine called "A Question of Sanction" circulated among Objectivists and others. It was a response to an article by Peter Schwartz in The Intellectual Activist, demanding that those who speak to libertarians be ostracized from the movement; without mentioning my name, Schwartz made it clear that I was one of his targets. (1) In response, I argued that those who promote ideas we think are false do not automatically deserve moral censure. There's a difference between error and evil. I also observed that Objectivism is not a closed system of belief; and that we might actually learn something by talking to people we disagree with. On both counts, I said, we should practice tolerance as a virtue.

Leonard Peikoff then published an article, "Fact and Value," in which he took issue with most of the points I had made. (2) He charged that I repudiated fundamental principles of Objectivism , including the objectivity of values and the necessity of moral judgment. In most cases, he claimed, false ideas are evil, and so are the people who hold them. He added that Objectivism is a closed system, and that the movement should be closed along with it. In effect, he invited those who agree with me to leave town.

Unlike most previous purges and schisms in the Objectivist movement, this controversy is essentially philosophical. It's a parting of company over ideas, a conflict between two systematically different views about what Objectivism is, and what it means. The controversy was set off by various specific issues regarding moral sanction, but it has brought to the surface, in the form of an explicit difference of opinion, certain pervasive and long-standing differences in the way people understand and practice the philosophy. In "A Question of Sanction," I stated my position in a brief and highly condensed fashion that left many questions unanswered. Since that essay has received a good deal of attention and caused a good deal of turmoil, I feel that a more thorough and systematic treatment of the issues is in order.

Peikoff has said that the essential issue in this debate is the nature of objectivity. I agree. One of Ayn Rand's great insights, the one that gives Objectivism its name, is her recognition that knowledge and values are objective, not intrinsic or subjective. The common thread that runs through every issue in this debate is the question of how to interpret and apply her insight.

As a theory of knowledge, intrinsicism holds that facts are revealed to us, that the mind is a passive mirror, absorbing the truth by revelation or the unthinking acceptance of authority. No effort or activity of thought is required, beyond the effort to open one's mental eyes. So any failure to grasp the truth is a moral failure, a willful refusal to see, properly to be condemned. Subjectivists, on the other hand, argue that knowledge involves a knower who has a specific nature that limits and governs the way he thinks. To reach any conclusion, they say, we have to classify and interpret our experience, and people do this differently, governed by their biases and preconceptions. They conclude that we cannot grasp the world as it really is. There is no true and false, only the clash of opinion.

In ethics, the intrinsicist holds that what is right and wrong is determined by certain facts or authorities, and must be accepted as duty, regardless of our own needs and interests as valuers. The subjectivist, on the other hand, denies that right and wrong are revealed to us in this way. He sees no objective basis for values. Judgments about right or wrong, good or bad, are merely expressions of our own subjective preferences.

Intrinsicism is characteristic of religious and authoritarian movements; subjectivism has been the hallmark of secular, relativist thought. The clash between them is best captured by Dostoyevsky's statement "If God is dead, everything is permitted." In other words, without a source of revealed truth and intrinsic duties, there can be no objective constraints on belief or action. Ayn Rand rejected this assumption, and saw the clash as a false dichotomy. She faulted intrinsicism for ignoring the fact that knowledge requires a knower, values a valuer. She faulted subjectivism for ignoring the fact that the world exists and is what it is. In epistemology, she said that truth is the grasp of reality by a knower with a specific nature, who employs the method required by his nature: observation, concepts, logic.(3) In ethics, she said that the good is "an aspect of reality in relation to man." (4) The good is that which objectively furthers our needs as living beings.

Philosophically, this concept of objectivity is not a compromise or middle way between intrinsicism and subjectivism; it represents a fundamental difference in principle. Fundamentally, the choice is objectivity versus non-objectivity, in its various forms. Being objective in practice, however, does require a kind of mental balancing that sometimes feels like striking a compromise. We have to hold in mind the requirements both of reality and of our own nature, and if we focus too narrowly on one or the other, we tend to slide into intrinsicism or subjectivism.

When we insist that facts are facts, that right is right, as against the rampant subjectivism of the age, we can easily forget that facts and values must be grasped by people, each acting on his independent judgment. We run the risk of adopting the attitudes and policies of the intrinsicist. When we emphasize that the true and the good are contextual, when we oppose the imposition of dogma and duty, we can easily forget that opinions and preferences are not all on a par--that some are right and others aren't. We run the risk of subjectivism. To be objective, we have to hold both sets of considerations in mind, both reality and personal context. But that's a delicate balance to maintain in the heat of argument, in the passionate complexity of our engagement with the world and with each other. So it's not surprising that Objectivists should disagree about how to strike the balance, and accuse each other of having sinned in one direction or the other. Within the bounds of reason, this tension is normal and healthy. The jostle of argument and reproach helps all of us keep our balance.

But the current debate has passed the bounds of reason. I have been declared an enemy of Objectivism , and my writings, like those of others before me, have disappeared down the memory hole of the official movement. At Peikoff's insistence, the Ayn Rand Institute has ended its association with me, and is warning the college groups with which it works not to invite me as a speaker. Agreement with his article has been made a loyalty test for participating in Objectivist conferences or working with ARI. This is the behavior of religious zealots. On all theoretical issues that have come up in this debate, moreover, I think it can be proven that my approach is the one required by objectivity, and that Peikoff's view amounts to intrinsicism. The proof is supplied in the pages that follow.

The first issue concerns the basic relationship between fact and value, and its implications for moral judgment. Ayn Rand held that values are rooted in the fact that living things must act to maintain their own survival. Since I agree with her position, I do not accept any dichotomy between fact and value, or between cognition and evaluation. On the contrary, I hold that values are a species of facts, evaluation a species of cognition. But this does not mean that we are obliged to pass moral judgment on every person or action we encounter, as Peikoff claims.

A moral judgment, to be objective, must rest on a large body of evidence, and it normally takes a substantial investment of time and energy to gather the necessary evidence. Peikoff's view that facts wear their value significance on their face, that the moral status of an action or person is revealed in a way that allows us to judge every fact, is a form of epistemological intrinsicism. And his view that we have a duty to judge, without regard to the purpose of judgment, without asking whether it is worth our time and effort to gather the evidence, is a form of moral intrinsicism. In support of these conclusions, I will discuss the nature of the evidence required for judgment (Section I), as well as the implications for action, specifically the nature and proper standards of moral sanction (Section II).

The most important single issue in this debate concerns the distinction I drew between error and evil. In "A Question of Sanction," I observed that "Truth or falsity is the essential property of an idea," a property it has inherently in virtue of its content. An idea can be evaluated good or evil only in relation to some action: either its consequence, the action it leads someone to take; or its cause, the mental action that produced the idea. In regard to the consequences, I will argue in Section III that Peikoff seems to espouse an Hegelian view that ideas enact themselves, that individuals are passive conduits for intellectual forces. In regard to the mental actions that produce ideas, I will show that a philosophical conclusion rests on an enormously complex process of thought in which honest errors are possible at many points. In holding that most positions at variance with Objectivism are inherently dishonest, Peikoff is, once again, giving voice to intrinsicism—a belief that the truth is revealed and that error reflects a willful refusal to see. In light of the objectivity of knowledge and the distinction between error and evil, I will show in Section IV that tolerance is the proper attitude toward people we disagree with, unless and until we have evidence of their irrationality.

The nature of objectivity is the common philosophical thread that runs through all the other issues in this debate: fact and value, moral judgment, and the others. But objectivity is a much broader principle, which bears on a great many other issues as well. Why have these particular issues come to the fore? The answer, I believe, is that all of them have a special bearing on the nature of Objectivism as a philosophy, and its embodiment as a movement. In philosophical terms, this is a debate about what it means to be objective. In psychological terms, however, it's a debate about what it means to be an Objectivist--in a world where most people aren't.

I will address this issue in Section V. As a philosophy of reason, Objectivism must be an open system of thought, where inquiry and debate may take place within the framework of the essential principles that define the system. Peikoff's intrinsicism, by contrast, is reflected in his view of the philosophy as a closed system, defined by certain authorized texts. I will also comment on the kind of movement proper to a philosophy of reason, and on the ways in which the Objectivist movement has fallen short of this standard. The movement has been characterized by a kind of tribalism that we must put behind us if we are to make any progress.

My primary purpose in writing this essay was to elaborate the position I took in "A Question of Sanction." In the course of my work, I found that I had to extend the principles of Objectivism to new areas, and address various questions that have never been raised before. In this respect, the essay is a contribution to Objectivist thought. I would not have written at such length for a purely polemical end. As the foregoing summary indicates, however, I have also undertaken to refute the major claims of my opponents. My remarks will be intelligible to those who have not read the essays by Schwartz and Peikoff, but it should go without saying that those who have not done so will not be in a position to judge the accuracy and fairness of my critique.


(1) Peter Schwartz, "On Sanctioning the Sanctioners," The Intellectual Activist IV, Feb.27, 1989.

(2) Leonard Peikoff, "Fact and Value," The Intellectual Activist V, May 18, 1989. Cited hereafter as FV.

(3) Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New York: New American Library, 1979), chap. 8. See also David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), chap. 1.

(4) Ayn Rand, "What is Capitalism?" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1967), p.22.

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