In Praise of Some Great Objectivists

In light of recent controversy regarding the resignation of John McCaskey from the board of the Ayn Rand Institute, I thought it was worth stepping back and remembering the strong virtues of the parties involved, and the value of these people to me personally. I also urge other observers of the dispute to tone down the fiery rhetoric and remember that judgment ought not be confused with bitter denunciations.

Leonard Peikoff has written the most comprehensive review of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of all time, with Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. It was a great achievement to systematize Rand’s ideas and integrate them into a single volume. Peikoff also wrote a philosophical analysis of the Nazi terror (The Ominous Parallels), and he is working on a book that I believe will be profoundly important: The DIM Hypothesis.

For me personally, however, Peikoff’s most important work is his lecture series, “Understanding Objectivism.” Frankly Objectivism was too dense — written at too high a level of abstraction — for me to understand well as a young adult. (A single volume on an entire system of philosophy is necessarily very condensed.) I understood the book superficially, but I thought I understood it so well that I knew all the points where it went wrong. “Understanding Objectivism,” on the other hand, seemed to be recorded specifically for me: the errors of rationalism that Peikoff described fit me uncannily well. This lecture was a wake-up call for me, and I have been striving ever since to make sure my ideas are firmly grounded in reality, not in “floating” deductions.

Beyond his published works, Peikoff spent years working closely with Rand to learn her ideas, and he founded the Ayn Rand Institute, which has gone on to achieve many great works.

John McCaskey I do not know well. I’ve heard him speak, and I really appreciated his talks about historical misinterpretations of Aristotle and about the history of science. My impression of him was highly favorable; he was friendly and obviously passionate about his academic work. Moreover, from what I understand, he has done impressive work with the Anthem Foundation in terms of promoting Rand’s ideas in academia.

Diana and Paul Hsieh I know very well, as we live in the same part of the country and frequently socialize. Paul, of course, is a co-founder (with Lin Zinser) of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine, an organization devoted to restoring liberty in health care. Paul has written innumerable op-eds, and he blogs continuously about the issue. While the Democrats successfully rammed through ObamaCare, there remains a very real possibility of eventually overturning that legislation — and mitigating its harm in the interim — to a large degree because of Paul’s work. Those who value their health and their liberty owe Paul a debt of gratitude for fighting relentlessly for free-market reform in medicine.

Diana and I, of course, co-authored a groundbreaking paper on abortion, “The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life
Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception.”
I can call the paper “groundbreaking” without sounding conceited because the most interesting theoretical parts of the paper were written primarily by Diana. Any woman who values her right to control her own body — and any man who values the legal security of women — owes Diana a debt of gratitude.

Diana also blogs frequently and hosts a podcast. She wrote a remarkable thesis on “moral luck” (the summary of which I’ve read) to earn her doctorate in philosophy. She also recorded an amazing podcast on Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which constitutes an immensely helpful guide to the novel.

In addition, Diana has also poured many, many hours into helping to organize and promote Front Range Objectivism.

Craig Biddle wrote Loving Life, an accessible recounting of Rand’s ethical theory. I reviewed his book a few years ago, and I look forward to re-reading it to see what more I can glean from its pages.

Of course Craig also founded The Objective Standard, a journal from which I have learned a great deal about foreign policy, health policy, science, and more. Indeed, perhaps ironically, Craig has published portions of David Harriman’s book, the source of the controversy leading to McCaskey’s resignation. It is not a stretch to claim that Craig played some minor role in the publication of that book, insofar as he played an editorial role in the text’s publication in the journal.

I have written a first and second article as well as a book review for Craig’s journal. I have to say that Craig as an editor sometimes drives me crazy. But I have learned an enormous amount from him, and he has made me a more disciplined writer (though I still have further to travel down that road). As an aside, I will note that Craig reads things in a hyper-literal way — a virtue in an editor as he excises ambiguities from an article — but perhaps a personal characteristic that allowed him to read more than intended into an off-the-cuff remark by Peikoff about McCaskey.

I should also note that Craig offered some useful editorial advice for my own book, Values of Harry Potter. Originally I had conceived the project as a series of articles for Craig’s journal, and, while that plan didn’t work out, it did allow me to get some excellent feedback from Craig on portions of the text.

Yaron Brook, president of ARI, is another man for whom I have profound respect. Yaron has played a large role in my rethinking of foreign policy, as I cast off the non-interventionism of libertarianism while avoiding the “nation building” of neo-conservatism. Yaron helped me understand that a proper foreign policy restricts itself to defending American lives and rights, but that it properly does so aggressively. Moreover, I have heard Yaron speak about a number of issues, and I have found him consistently impressive as a public speaker. I consider him a model for public intellectual advocacy.

Morever, ARI has helped send various speakers to Colorado, and I have learned a lot from them. And ARI organizes the “books for teachers” effort. In these ways, and many more, ARI has benefitted me and contributed to my values.

I am pained that these personal heroes of mine, along with various other acquaintances of theirs and mine, have fallen into a heated personal dispute. Those interested can read the comments of McCaskey, the Hsiehs, Biddle, Peikoff, and ARI.

For what they are worth, here are my brief comments on the matter.

1. I understand that McCaskey’s criticisms of a major project of ARI — Harriman’s book — created tension between McCaskey and the board.

2. I don’t know the issues well enough (and, frankly, neither do many of the other people commenting on the matter) to know whether McCaskey’s criticisms of the book are legitimate, and, if so, to what degree. Are there, in fact, some historical inaccuracies in the book? If there are, do these inaccuracies point to a need to tweak the theoretical conclusions in some way? These are questions of fact, and there are right and wrong answers to them, even though I don’t personally know the answers at this point. But getting mad at people is no substitute for evaluating the facts, and I fear some people commenting on the issue are forgetting this basic point.

3. I fear that both sides of the dispute have at some points failed to understand the concerns of the other side. I also fear that both sides have at some points misattributed certain motives to the other side.

4. We should bear in mind that these sorts of disputes are hardly unique to the Objectivist movement. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to point to any organized movement, whether political, religious, philosophical, or other, in which these sorts of disputes never arise. Whenever you bring together independent-minded, strong-willed personalities, there are just going to be some disputes and fallings out. The rest of us shouldn’t let such disputes hamper our own efforts to achieve positive values. Let us remember that we are in the middle of a profound cultural battle to restore liberty in America. I for one plan to stay the course, and I urge my friends to do likewise, even if we’re not all holding hands along the way.



Anonymous November 12, 2010 at 2:02 PM
I agree. The disputes here are not between Kelley-ites and real Objectivists. There are real, honest and good people on both sides. (There is also witch-hunters and ad hominem-users on both sides, but they aren’t the leaders, nor are they significant). I really think that the entire thing is a result of a misunderstanding–whether or not Peikoff’s email implied a public moral condemnation, which, apparently, it didn’t–that should not create a fissure in the Objectivist movement. Biddle and the Hsieh’s are invaluable contributors to the intellectual battle, and such an insignificant disagreement should not drive a wedge in between them and the rest of the Objectivist “community”. Hopefully it gets put aside so that we can direct our energies against the real enemies–those who are actively working to obliterate our country.

Anonymous November 15, 2010 at 12:50 PM
I loosely quote Peikoff, “Objectivism is not compatible with pragmatism.”

I want explanations before placation. They made this a public controversy by their own actions, so it’s up to them to end it properly. Any person interested in justice and objectivity can demand no less. It’s not proper to ignore bad actions.

Ari November 15, 2010 at 12:56 PM
I’m not arguing that people should be pragmatic, I’m arguing that they should not be complete jerks to good people.

As for who “made this a public controversy,” I think there’s plenty of blame to go around. However, to a degree, the actions of a non-profit board are inherently “public,” so it can be wholly proper to discuss the board’s public actions in public forums.