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The Anatomy of Cooperation

The Anatomy of Cooperation

10 Mins
January 5, 2011

At the 2006 Summer Seminar of The Atlas Society, we were treated to a number of excellent presentations that addressed different aspects of a common topic: the perennial problems of cooperation within the Objectivist movement.

These talks added powerful insights to David Kelley’s earlier discussion of the tumultuous history of the movement, published as The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand . Taken together, I believe they constitute an overwhelming case for the kind of open, civil, and tolerant Objectivist movement that has been a central goal of this organization from the day it was founded.

I would like to add something else to this conversation. I believe that in addition to the distortions, errors, and character flaws already mentioned, we must also consider another crucial contributing factor to the turmoil: a tragically mistaken application of the virtue of integrity.

As I hope to show, this misapplication has been central to the tumultuous history of the Objectivist movement—a key factor underlying the factionalism, the denunciations, the purges, and the efforts to transform Ayn Rand’s philosophy of reason and individualism into an organized movement characterized by orthodoxy and tribalism. I do not mean that this factor is either more fundamental or more important than those identified by the others who have preceded me—only that it is another crucial element that we must understand and address.

Why “crucial”? Because it is fundamental not just to the divisions within the Objectivist movement, undermining the ability of many people to cooperate with each other; it is also fundamental to problems that many Objectivists have in cooperating with non-Objectivists, as well.

How can one lead a life of moral integrity in a world filled with people who do not accept one’s own virtues and values?

That is my topic today.

When readers first encounter the works of Ayn Rand , most are struck immediately by its distinctive moral idealism. The iconic heroes of her novels stand out in their complete integrity: in their unswerving pursuit of their highest values, in their steadfast loyalty to their ideas and convictions, and in their unwillingness to betray those commitments in any way.

Many of the most memorable and inspiring passages of her fiction dramatize and underscore the virtue of integrity. Perhaps the most famous scene in this regard occurs in The Fountainhead , where architect Howard Roark—financially desperate, and facing the imminent closing of his office—is offered a last-minute reprieve: a lucrative commission to design an important building. All he must do, he is told, is to agree to some cosmetic changes to his design, as shown to him in a sketch—changes that will make his soaring, 50-storey, modern skyscraper look more conventional, by the addition of ancient Greek ornamentation to the building’s façade.

“It’s a small compromise,” Roark is told, “and when you agree to it we can sign the contract…So I’m sure you won’t mind… ”

Here’s a condensation of the rest of the scene:

Roark got up. He had to stand…He spoke for a long time. He explained why this structure could not have a Classic motive on its façade. He explained why an honest building, like an honest man, had to be of one piece and one faith…and why—if one smallest part committed treason to that idea—the thing or the creature was dead; and why the good, the high and the noble on earth was only that which kept its integrity.

The chairman interrupted him:

“Mr. Roark, I agree with you…But unfortunately, in practical life, one can’t always be so flawlessly consistent…The matter is closed. It was the board’s final decision…I can only ask you to state whether you agree to accept the commission on our terms or not…Yes or no, Mr. Roark?”

Roark’s head leaned back. He closed his eyes.

“No,” said Roark….

Roark gathered his drawings from the table, rolled them together and put them under his arm.

“It’s sheer insanity!” Weidler moaned. “I want you. We want your building. You need the commission. Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?”

“What?” Roark asked incredulously.

“Fanatical and selfless.”

Roark smiled. He looked down at his drawings. His elbow moved a little, pressing them to his body. He said:

“That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

This is Rand’s seminal artistic statement on the virtue of integrity, and on the evil of what she referred to here as “a small compromise.” She would later make her views on compromise more explicit. In Atlas Shrugged, the hero, John Galt, denounces those who seek middle-of-the-road compromises in moral choices. “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube…”

Rand later published two essays that expounded on the subject: “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” in July 1962, and two years later, “The Anatomy of Compromise.”  She also reiterated her views about compromise elsewhere—as in her 1964 essay “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing,” where she wrote: “In the field of morality, compromise is surrender to evil. There can be no compromise on basic principles. There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction.”

Ayn Rand’s powerful defense of the virtue of integrity, and her scorching denunciations of “compromisers” and what she called “the cult of moral grayness,” are hallmarks of her distinctive ethical approach. Over the years, that approach has inspired and influenced thousands, encouraging them to persist in pursuit of their values, to remain loyal to their commitments and beliefs, to refuse to surrender to diversions and social pressures. Many of us could testify to the positive personal impact of what might be called “the Roarkian moral legacy.”

But any virtue can be misunderstood and misapplied, especially if it is torn from its appropriate context. Honesty can sink to gratuitous insult; productivity can be pushed to workaholism; independence can be warped into misanthropy; and—as Victor Hugo dramatized by means of the character Javert in Les Miserables—justice can be twisted to rationalize vendettas and vindictiveness.

Sundered from its appropriate context, integrity can be distorted, too. On a personal level, the desire to maintain moral consistency can morph into blind duty—into viewing virtue as an end in itself, rather than as the means of achieving rational values. And on a social level, the desire to avoid moral compromise can be twisted into a misplaced intransigence that undermines rational cooperation.

I’ve already addressed some of the personal aspects of this issue in my recorded lecture “The Value-Seeking Personality.” Here, I want to focus on one narrower aspect of the issue of social integrity: on the possibilities and limitations of intellectual and philosophical cooperation with others.

Given Rand’s views about integrity and moral compromise, is it ever proper for Objectivists to collaborate in projects with those who do not share Objectivist philosophical principles? Is it proper to work even with other Objectivists who may not fully share one’s own understanding of the philosophy? And if such cooperation is appropriate, then to what extent, and in what contexts?

At the root of these questions is the fact that the Objectivist movement, since its beginnings, has found itself struggling with the problems of self-definition and of moral boundaries.

Internally, the movement has wrestled from its earliest days with the question that Will Thomas raised in his Summer Seminar talk: Who is an Objectivist? What, exactly, is this philosophy—and to what extent must one share its premises and principles before he may properly refer to himself as “an Objectivist”? Disagreements over this have led to decades of movement purges, factionalism, and playing “gotcha” over this or that terminological faux pas or philosophical heresy.

But externally, the movement also has wrestled with a second, derivative question: Who are our philosophical allies, and who are our enemies?  Just as some worry that we “compromise” our principles if we do not purge pseudo-Objectivists from our movement, others worry that we “compromise” our principles if we collaborate with those who promote non-Objectivist ideas. So, let’s begin by reviewing what Ayn Rand had to say on the topic of “compromise.”

In her essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” she offered this definition: “A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. And this means that both parties agree upon some fundamental principle which serves as a base for their deal.”

Observe that nothing in Rand’s definition of “compromise” necessarily implies any breach of moral integrity. As an example, she offers the haggling that sometimes takes place over the asking price for some product. Both the buyer and seller have some value to offer the other, and both accept the basic principles of property rights and trade. The compromise, in this case, is a price that allows both parties to gain something that they want more, by trading away something that they want less. Because both are operating on the basis of self-interest, the compromise is completely moral.

But Ayn Rand goes on to offer this important caveat: “It is only in regard to concretes or particulars, implementing a mutually accepted basic principle, that one may compromise…There can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues…Today, however, when people speak of ‘compromise,’ what they mean is not a legitimate mutual concession or a trade, but precisely the betrayal of one’s principles…”

Note that it is this latter, conventional definition that most Objectivists mean when they refer to some action as a “compromise,” or when they denounce someone as a “compromiser.” They are referring to moral compromising—to breaches of integrity—to abandonment of principles. That’s not surprising, since Ayn Rand herself lent weight to the conventional definition by most frequently using the word “compromise” only in the pejorative sense.

She certainly did so in her subsequent essay on the topic, “The Anatomy of Compromise.” Gone is her neutral definition of “compromise.” Gone too is her careful distinction between compromises on particulars versus compromises of principles. This essay is only about the latter—specifically, about “compromise” in the context of philosophical associations and collaborations. And nowhere does Rand give any indication that such collaborations may have any merits. Just as she uses the word “compromise” in the sense of compromising one’s integrity, she uses the word “collaboration” in the sense of “collaboration with the enemy.”

In the essay, Rand offers three rules “about the relationship of principles to goals”:

1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

The first thing to observe about these three rules concerns their limited scope. Rand concedes that they “are by no means exhaustive; they are merely the first leads to the understanding of a vast subject.” That is certainly true. While she states that these rules are “about the relationship of principles to goals,” they actually pertain only to the pursuit of goals in social settings, where one is interacting with others.

The second thing to note is that the social contexts for all three rules are ones of conflict and contention, in which there are winners and losers. The first principle posits two conflicting people holding the same principles, where “it is the more consistent one who wins.” The second rule ostensibly pertains to collaboration—but it’s collaboration between two people holding conflicting principles, where the rational one is doomed to defeat. The third rule is about the conflicting principles held by a “rational” and “irrational” side, and it counsels the rational side to clearly define those principles so that it will win.

Observe that all three rules are premised on a zero-sum game involving rational and irrational sides, either in collaboration or conflict, in which there must be a winner and a loser. Unlike her earlier essay, in this one Rand does not examine any form of philosophical interaction between individuals that does not involve either conflict, or someone’s betrayal of principle, or someone’s loss. By failing to do so, this essay tacitly leaves the impression that philosophical collaborations are inherently immoral and self-defeating.

Perhaps Rand did not mean to imply this. But judging from the subsequent behavior of generations of Objectivists, that is clearly the message many of them inferred. And who can blame them? Rand ends “The Anatomy of Compromise” with these words:

Whenever evil wins, it is only by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles. [Quoting Atlas Shrugged]

“In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”

So one fundamental question we might ask is: Do the three scenarios embodied in her rules exhaust the logical possibilities? For example, imagine two people who may hold a multitude of clashing philosophical principles, but who share some specific, concrete, political goal—let’s say it’s gathering petition signatures to put a tax cut measure on the ballot. Which of them will lose, or betray his principles, if they limit the scope of their cooperation solely to attaining that narrowly defined, common objective? None of Ayn Rand’s three rules address such a possibility.

A third thing to note about the three rules is the absence of any contextual qualifications. Rand’s first rule was: “In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.” (Emphasis added.) Please observe that she did not write: “All other things being equal, in conflicts between two men or groups holding the same basic principles, the more consistent one tends to win.”

The fact is that many factors can determine the outcome of a conflict, quite independent of one’s degree of consistency to a principle. For instance, a very principled man may not be as clever or intelligent as his less consistent opponent, or have as many resources or opportunities. These things and others can lead to unpredictable results.

To support her first rule, Rand cites the example of the conflict between Democrats and Republicans. “Since both parties hold altruism as their basic moral principle, both advocate a welfare state or mixed economy as their ultimate goal. Every government control on the economy… necessitates the imposition of further controls, to alleviate—momentarily—the disasters caused by the first control. Since the Democrats are more consistently committed to the growth of government power, the Republicans are reduced to helpless ‘me-too’ing…If and when the ‘conservatives’ are kicked out of the game altogether, the same conflict will continue between the ‘liberals’ and the avowed socialists; when the socialists win, the conflict will continue between the socialists and the communists; when the communists win, the ultimate goal of altruism will be achieved: universal immolation. There is no way to stop or change that process except at the root: by a change of basic principles.”

Now in terms of describing tendencies, Rand’s analysis is generally correct: in conflicts, more consistent people tend to win. Broadly speaking, history has subsequently borne out the competitive drift of both Republicans and Democrats to the left. But history has not borne out all of her analysis. If consistent commitment to altruism alone were the decisive determinant of the course of political history, Democrats should have won all recent elections. In fact, by now we all should be communists. But that is not what happened. Communism—the most consistent political embodiment of altruism—collapsed and is virtually gone from the planet; its only remaining advocates are some disheartened diehards on college faculties. Even socialism—the next most consistent form of politicized altruism—is no longer in vogue as an ideology. There are, however, plenty of mixed economies and welfare states in the world, as well as Islamic and secular dictatorships. That’s because many factors other than competitive commitment to altruism have shaped the contemporary political landscape.

Now observe again Rand’s statement, “Every government control on the economy…necessitates the imposition of further controls, to alleviate—momentarily—the disasters caused by the first control.” (Emphasis added.) This analysis parallels—and probably draws upon—that of the late economist Ludwig von Mises, who held an explicitly rationalistic, deductive view of the working of economic laws and principles in society. One of his memorable essays, for example, was titled “Middle of the Road Policies Lead to Socialism.”

But if government controls necessitate further controls, what explains the repeal of Nixon’s wage and price controls? The deregulation of the airline industry and a number of others? The reforms that reduced the nation’s welfare clientele by millions? The privatization of nationalized British industries under Margaret Thatcher? The adoption of private property, denationalization, and many free market reforms in most former communist nations?

Do controls “necessitate” further controls? What about free will? While Rand was a champion of volition, her cultural analysis seems to imply almost a kind of philosophic determinism—the notion that once men accept certain abstract principles, those principles alone take complete charge of their lives, directing their choices and actions in an almost automatic, mechanical way—and that other, non-ideological factors will not be even more decisive.

But just because the logic of a bad premise might point men toward disaster, men are not determined to follow that path of logic to its dead end. In fact, they rarely do. Men are generally inconsistent. Usually, peering ahead at where their premises are leading them, they abruptly decide to change course. Again and again. And even if they don’t, what Rand’s first rule does not incorporate is the fact that more factors are involved in determining the winner of conflicts than philosophical consistency alone.

Similar considerations apply to Rand’s second rule: “In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.” Again, we find no contextual caveats or qualifications. But is the triumph of evil guaranteed in all such collaborations? Not necessarily, for all the reasons mentioned before. Not all participants in cooperative projects are evenly matched. Moreover, the scope of collaboration may be so limited as to provide little benefit to the evil and irrational. Additionally, outside circumstances often play important roles in outcomes. And since evil, irrational people engage in self-defeating behavior, even their desperate exploitation of the good and rational may not be sufficient to save or sustain them. In fiction, James Taggart can be assured of beating Dagny when they collaborate to run Taggart Transcontinental. In real life, James’s victory is by no means certain.

Now take Rand’s third rule: “When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.”

This rule is quite true—but it also tends to undercut Rand’s second rule, which rejects collaborations with philosophic adversaries. Why? Because the best way for an Objectivist to clearly and openly distinguish Objectivism from other philosophies, is to associate with and engage in public discussion and debate with the advocates of opposing viewpoints. But if one is unwilling to appear on public platforms with his adversaries—if one isolates himself from interaction, discussion, and debate—then the meaning and values offered by Objectivism will tend to remain hidden from public view, opportunities to persuade others will be lost, and widespread misunderstandings of our philosophy will persist.

This does not imply that Objectivists should engage in the kinds of cooperation that aid their adversaries in propagating falsehoods, or that imply any endorsements of them or their ideas. But it’s quite possible to associate with non-Objectivists in carefully delimited ways that grant no moral sanctions to bad ideas or to bad people.

Now, to be sure, there is a great deal of wisdom packed into Rand’s three rules. All other things being equal, consistent people do tend to prevail over the inconsistent; in collaborations, the good people do tend to empower and enable the bad people; and in communication, clarity does help the rational side, while obfuscation and confusion do aid the irrational side. But while these may be useful general rules, like all rules, they apply only within properly defined contexts. Again, Rand herself indicated that they “are by no means exhaustive,” implying that other principles might also apply to philosophical associations.

So to regard these rules as universal truths is an error. To apply them rigidly and acontextually, is rationalism. And to treat those who do not apply them rationalistically as being “moral compromisers,” is simply unjust.

Sadly, this describes a mindset common among Objectivists, and it has led to several unhappy consequences.

For one thing, the belief that it’s a “moral compromise” to associate with non-Objectivists, or even with inconsistent Objectivists, has helped to foster a great deal of personal alienation. Rand herself fed this tendency by often projecting an adversarial relationship with the rest of the world. This attitude is to be found in her earliest fiction, including a projected novel, The Little Street, and her stage play Ideal. It is reflected inthe title of one of her seminal essays, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?”—and in her contentious answer: “One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.” It is revealed in notes for her final, projected, but never-written novel, To Lorne Dieterling, whose theme, she stated, was how to maintain love for one’s values “when alone in an enemy world” (Nov. 30, 1957)—and in a later restatement of the story’s theme as “the art of psychological survival in a malevolent world.”

Many observers have commented that the Objectivist movement seems to attract a disproportionate number of bright, but socially alienated adolescents. Could it be that they are responding not only to the many obvious values in Rand’s works, but also to the affirmation of their own inner sense that they are “alone in an enemy world”?

The source of the greatest misunderstandings pertaining to moral compromise is probably Rand’s second rule. Many Objectivists understand Rand’s second rule to mean that collaborations among people who hold differing views can only benefit the more evil or irrational. This premise leads them to the conclusion that they must carefully police their associations, lest they be “compromised” by an immoral world. Within the movement, this conclusion manifests itself in constant moral denunciations, purges, schisms, factionalism, and other rites of purification that one Objectivist philosopher has infamously endorsed as “quality-control.”

The broader legacy of this combative outlook manifests itself as a circle-the-wagons tendency—a desire to live in an exclusively Objectivist subculture, some organizational or online Galt’s Gulch safely insulated from the corrupting influences of and associations with the surrounding “enemy world.” To propagate Objectivism, their implicit model is the medieval monastery, behind whose walls only select students are invited to participate and learn. To write or speak in ways that may attract non-Objectivists—or to associate with non-Objectivists, let alone cooperate with them—betrays one’s corrupt worldliness. Such “unadmitted anti-Objectivists”—declared the previously mentioned Objectivist philosopher— “have one foot (or toe) in the Objectivist world and the rest of themselves planted firmly in the conventional world.” This formulation came as surprising news to those of us who had always thought that there was one “world,” and that we were all in it.

This is a tragic perversion of the virtue of integrity. For one thing, the fear of acting inconsistently is not the same thing as the consistent pursuit of one’s values. But those motivated by that fear tend to replace the persistent, consistent pursuit of their personal values with a crabbed, moralistic misanthropy. Fear of “compromise” and “collaboration” with “an enemy world” leads them to social alienation and insularity. Within the Objectivist movement, that same fear leads to chronic jihads to root out the corrupting influences of those who ask questions, dissent, or utter heresies.

Thus does a movement that began with the vital, creative, worldly image of Dagny Taggart come instead to resemble an aging, reclusive spinster who—reflecting upon her botched life—takes cold comfort in the knowledge that she has at least kept her virginity.  

Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth. It is a philosophy of reason, of self-realization, of the pursuit of personal happiness. However, it is not a philosophy for monks or misanthropes. It recognizes that man is a social animal—that the “division of labor” is a fundamental principle of personal gain in society—and that most of the happiness and values in his life are to be found through associating, cooperating, and trading with others.

Social cooperation begins with the recognition that each person’s life is his own—that other people’s time, energy, talents, and possessions do not belong to us. We have no right to force people to provide them to us for our benefit. To benefit from these values, we need their voluntary cooperation; and to get it, we must offer them the inducements of values of our own. In other words, we must make trade-offs and concessions—what many people would call “compromises.”

But not all compromises are moral compromises. Recall Ayn Rand’s definition: “A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other.”

Nothing in this definition necessitates a moral compromise—that is, a breach of one’s integrity. As Rand pointed out, “A ‘compromise’ (in the unprincipled sense of that word) is not a breach of one’s comfort, but a breach of one’s convictions. A ‘compromise’ does not consist of doing something one dislikes, but of doing something one knows to be evil. Accompanying one’s husband or wife to a concert, when one does not care for music, is not a ‘compromise’; surrendering to his or her irrational demands for social conformity, for pretended religious observance or for generosity toward boorish in-laws, is. Working for an employer who does not share one’s ideas, is not a ‘compromise’; pretending to share his ideas, is. Accepting a publisher’s suggestions to make changes in one’s manuscript, when one sees the rational validity of his suggestions, is not a ‘compromise’; making such changes in order to please him or to please ‘the public,’ against one’s own judgment and standards, is.

In the marketplace of goods and services—as well as of social relationships—to haggle, bargain, barter, make concessions, and trade over particulars, is not the same as “selling out” one’s principles.

In the marketplace of ideas, however, the possibility of betraying one’s principles increases. Ideas, principles, and moral values represent not our possessions, but our fundamental intellectual commitments. On its face, then, prospects for philosophical cooperation seem to be remote. How could one trade off or make concessions about his beliefs and commitments?

Put that way, the answer is: one can’t. One’s views of truth and falsehood, and right and wrong, are not subject to negotiation and sale. These pertain to a man’s fundamental relationship to reality, not to his relationships with others. No one can change, through bargaining and concessions, the immutable metaphysical fact that two plus two equals four, or that productivity is good, or that theft is wrong. One’s life and his integrity depend on his cognitive commitment to reality; and that commitment can have no asking price.

How, then, can we even conceive of philosophical cooperation with those who do not share all of our basic philosophical views?

As Objectivists, our differences with other systems of ideas are usually profound, and rooted in fundamental matters of principle. Objectivism clashes with all religions on the issue of reason versus faith, and with most of them regarding supernaturalism and the ethics of self-sacrifice. Objectivism stands against most secular philosophies epistemologically, metaphysically, and ethically, as well. Though Objectivism coincides in some aspects of its epistemology with some variants of secular humanism and with theories advanced by contemporary skeptics, that overlapping only goes so far, and agreement tends to evaporate in ethics and politics. Even narrowly, in its politics, Objectivism’s theory of rights and government clashes with the intrinsic theories of rights advanced by many conservatives and libertarians, and on a host of important implications of those theories.

Yet the challenge of philosophical cooperation does not end with our relationships with non-Objectivists. Anyone who has been around the Objectivist movement for any period of time—or who cares to go online to sites where Objectivists debate and discuss ideas—will realize that there are vast disagreements even among those supposedly in our own camp. As in the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, it seems that everyone who seizes upon Ayn Rand’s system perceives something different, and reads diverse meanings into her words.

One way of trying to address this is in the manner that Will Thomas did, and David Kelley before him: that is, by defining Objectivism in terms of its philosophical fundamentals, rather than as being synonymous with everything that Rand said, and only what she said. This approach distinguishes Objectivism from other bodies of ideas, but allows for a reasonable range of debate and difference over derivative implications. But that still doesn’t quite solve the problem of philosophical cooperation, since even derivative implications can be very important. (Moreover, I think it’s safe to say that not all Objectivists are going to agree with the definitions of Objectivism put forth by David or Will.)

But the matter is not hopeless. As is so often the case, the seeds of a solution can be found in Ayn Rand’s own words.

Recall her statement: “It is only in regard to concretes or particulars, implementing a mutually accepted basic principle, that one may compromise…There can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues.” If this is true—and I agree with Ayn Rand that it is—then a simple solution suggests itself; let me state it as a basic principle of cooperation:

Limit the scope of philosophical and intellectual cooperation only to concretes and particulars that implement a shared principle.

For Objectivists, there are two ways in which this principle is relevant: first, regarding the possibility of cooperation or collaborations with other Objectivists; and second, regarding the possibility of cooperation or collaboration with non-Objectivists.

Too often, ideological advocacy groups are structured in ways that do violence to the integrity and independence of their members. Frequently, this involves attempts to impose a complete philosophical consensus on all the participants. Trying to maintain a principled, consistent public image, the leadership establishes a “party line” that permits no deviations. Compounding the trouble, the group then attempts to address a broad agenda of issues, thus maximizing the likelihood of conflicts.

While many people will sign on to a general statement of principles—or declare allegiance to some abstract philosophy—the actual meaning of those abstractions is determined by the concrete, specific positions that the group or its leaders proclaim day to day. And on these specific implications there are grounds for endless feuds.

For example, a group established “to defend property rights” initially may attract many members who agree with that general principle in the abstract. But if the leadership then begins to attack environmentalists, the group will lose many of its green members, who never imagined that there was any clash between property rights and environmentalism. If the leadership next defends corporate profits, it will see an exodus of liberals and union members. If it opposes media censorship on property rights grounds, many traditional conservatives will depart in a huff.

Such conflicts multiply almost infinitely when an organization’s scope of interest incorporates not just one principle, but an entire philosophy, such as Objectivism. Every day, the group is compelled to issue statements and position papers on specific new issues. What is the Objectivist position on Iraq? On the NSA wiretaps? On preemptive strikes against nations harboring terrorists? Does the group agree with Ayn Rand’s position about homosexuality? About women Presidents? About libertarians? About anarchism? About Romantic music? Is there some boundary line between Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and her conclusions on such specific issues? Etc.

Those members or participants who disagree with the group’s official stand on any of these issues face a moral dilemma. Should they continue to participate, lending their money and support to propagate views they think are wrong? Or should they try to weigh and balance the overall good they think the group does, against the bad? Or should they try to take over the group, kicking out the present leadership and then imposing their interpretations on everyone else?

It’s easy to see why philosophical advocacy groups are so unstable, and characterized by chronic purges and palace coups.  The underlying problem is that such groups are rooted in the following principle: that some people are to serve as philosophical spokespersons for others.

This principle is perfectly consonant with religious, authoritarian, or collectivist groups. It is not compatible with a philosophy of rational individualism—a philosophy rooted in independent thinking and personal integrity. Objectivism accepts no authority figures or yes-men. No one could imagine a Howard Roark or a John Galt—or an Ayn Rand—allowing someone else to take public positions on his behalf.

And this principle explains much of the tumultuous history of the organized Objectivist movement—the schisms and breaks, the purges and excommunications, the vicious jockeying for positions of status and influence within Objectivist groups. Those groups can be characterized as intellectual orthodoxies—authoritarian structures in which some people presume to think and speak for others.

No mind can represent another—not philosophically. No two people will grasp all the implications of a complex, systematic philosophy in exactly the same way.

To escape the trap of orthodoxy, other ideological groups—such as libertarian and conservative advocacy organizations—have gone to the other extreme, and deliberately eschewed any systematic philosophy. But you don’t solve the problem of authoritarian dogma by sinking to vacuous subjectivism. The proper approach is to structure organizational projects in which a systematic philosophy may be advanced in ways that respect the independence and integrity of all participants.

One such structure is the educational forum. In a forum, the views expressed are solely those of their author, and not those of the group. This, incidentally, is the way that The Atlas Society in general, and the Summer Seminar in particular, have always been structured—and it’s the main reason, I believe, for their stability and success. Members are united by the basic principles of Objectivism, but remain free to openly express and debate a range of interpretations and differences. Because no one is assumed to be speaking for anyone but himself, no one feels any pressure to enforce a party line—or to submit to one.

This is certainly the way I have run The New Individualist—as a forum, and not as an orthodoxy. I consciously decided from the outset that to be an effective “outreach” vehicle, attracting a broad readership, the magazine should not directly preach Objectivism per se. TNI is not about Objectivism; it is about the world—as seen through the philosophical filter of Objectivism. While it strives to be consistent with Objectivism, it aims mainly to refer to Objectivism, to cite Objectivism, and to otherwise intrigue non-Objectivist readers about Objectivism.

To that end, I have enlisted some non-Objectivist writers—including a few conservatives and libertarians—who possess formidable expertise in various subject areas, but whose views in specific articles are congruent with the Objectivist position. This is a perfect illustration of how the structure of an educational forum aids in the transmission of Objectivist ideas: everywhere in the magazine, our non-Objectivist contributors as well as readers are exposed to the Objectivist point of view, but without experiencing the ugliness of dogmatic contentiousness that characterizes intellectual orthodoxies.

Another way to organize activist efforts consonant with individualist principles is through ad hoc projects. These are projects of narrow, predefined scope and duration, which require of participants only a very explicit and carefully delimited range of agreement, usually on some specific, concrete issue. Because of its narrow agenda, the chances of broad ideological clashes are minimized.

The principle here is: the broader the agenda, the smaller the number of people who will agree to it; the narrower the agenda, the larger the number of people who will agree to it.

A great example of a cooperative ad hoc project between two philosophically distinct groups was the 1997 “Atlas and the World” celebration in Washington, D.C., co-hosted by the Institute for Objectivist Studies (precursor to TAS) and the libertarian Cato Institute. The point of the project was narrowly defined: to celebrate and pay tribute to Atlas Shrugged on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. A range of speakers representing a variety of intellectual perspectives gave their distinct reasons for admiring the novel. This ad hoc event not only garnered extraordinary attention for Rand’s magnificent work—including featured coverage in the Washington Post—but it also led to fruitful interaction and discussion among a large crowd of individuals who normally would not be found in the same room.

In both educational forums and ad hoc projects, no one speaks for anyone but himself. There are no gurus, and no “followers”—only independent participants, united by their interest in a common project, or even a shared philosophy. And while these independent-minded participants may disagree—sometimes heatedly—there are no purges or excommunications. It remains a voluntary association of individuals with shared interests and overlapping goals, but with no requirement to march in lockstep.

These same sorts of arrangements can be successfully employed across philosophical boundaries.

One example of an educational forum of some renown is Boston’s famed Ford Hall Forum, which for many years has served as an open, neutral platform for a broad spectrum of controversial thinkers and advocates, including Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff. The value of such an open forum is that it is an ideal example of the marketplace of ideas, where the most prominent and skilled proponents of points of view have the opportunity to make their cases, and where each case is subjected to intellectual challenge and debate.

Familiar examples of ad hoc projects are political campaigns. Each election cycle, voters of diverse views agree to select a particular candidate, and back him or her for a particular public office. The reasons why voters back a given candidate are infinite. But in the ad hoc structure of the campaign, the candidate speaks only for himself, and each voter supports him for his own independent reasons.

An illustration of this principle occurred during one of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. Asked by the press whether he would refuse the support of certain extremist groups, the Gipper answered, properly: “When people join my campaign, they are supporting me; I am not necessarily supporting them.” It was a perfect summary of the principles of independence and integrity afforded by ad hoc arrangements.

There are many kinds of forums and ad hoc arrangements possible. Their very flexibility lends itself to a wide variety of purposes. If you’re planning to organize or participate in philosophical endeavors, I enthusiastically recommend that you think about these two structural arrangements, and incorporate them when designing your organization. You’ll avoid endless conflicts if you do.

We all know too well that the Objectivist movement has a checkered history of denunciations, disagreement, and discord. In one respect, it is a tribute to individuals that they take their convictions so seriously that they will not compromise them. You can hardly blame people for being concerned about their integrity.

But regarding the factionalism and feuds—it doesn’t have to be this way. When individuals agree on 95 percent of their philosophical views and conclusions, there is no good reason for them to conduct jihads against each other over the five percent of issues on which they disagree. What makes these disputes so common and acrimonious are often their endless contentions for a proprietary status in the organs of the movement—a contentiousness born of misapplication of the virtue of integrity.

To achieve greater harmony within the movement—and to grant Objectivism greater credibility in the marketplace of ideas—will require two vital steps.

First, Objectivism will have to come to mean that open system of rational individualist philosophical principles described by Will Thomas and David Kelley; and agreement will have to be based on its essentials, not on every comma Rand struck on her Remington Rand typewriter.

Second, the movement will have to adopt organizational structures congruent with its own stated virtues of reason, independence, and integrity—structures that will allow admission to a broader range of people who admire and agree with the key, distinguishing essentials of Objectivism.

If we do that, who knows? We may at last have the grounds for a convergence of warring factions, and an end to the bitter divisions that have hampered the spread of our ideas, and undermined their reputation with the broader public.

And one day, who knows? We may even witness that which is now almost inconceivable: the presence, in an organized movement, of a real-life Howard Roark or two.

This lecture waspresented at the the Atlas Society 2006 Summer Seminar, July 6, 2006, Chapman University, Orange, CA

Robert James Bidinotto
About the author:
Robert James Bidinotto