This is the third of my 3-part series analyzing the controversy over the interpretation of key aspects of the Objectivist ethics. "Facts, Values, and Moral Sanctions" is my discussion of Leonard Peikoff's essay, "Fact and Value," and of companion essays by Peter Schwartz, titled "On Moral Sanctions," and "On Sanctioning the Sanctioners." "Understanding Peikoff" is my interpretation of the reasons for Leonard Peikoff's evolving perspectives on these issues. In the following essay, I discuss other ways in which Peikoff's views diverge from those of his mentor, Ayn Rand.
It appears that -- to some, at least -- Leonard Peikoff's "Fact and Value," and Peter Schwartz's essays "On Moral Sanctions" and "On Sanctioning the Sanctioners," accurately represent Ayn Rand's perspectives on how to pass moral judgments.
In view of Ayn Rand's own words on these subjects, however, I find that interpretation astonishing.
I have already pointed out (in "Understanding Peikoff," and in my 1989 open letter, "Facts, Values and Moral Sanctions") that Peikoff and Schwartz contradicted Ayn Rand on the issue of whether she ought to be judged in toto (i. e., by both her expressed convictions and her actions), or simply by her ideas, as expressed in her books. Schwartz and Peikoff argued the latter, while (in her famous "To Whom It May Concern" essay of 1968), Rand argued exactly the opposite.
But this is not the only aspect of Rand's position that Peikoff and Schwartz have distorted. At the end of this post, I have compiled two detailed excerpts of answers given by Ayn Rand herself to separate interviewers on these matters.
There are certainly a few ambiguities in her statements -- not surprising, given the fact that she was thinking out loud, and not writing out a final position paper on ethics. Yet even granting that Miss Rand was speaking "off the cuff," it is absolutely clear -- taken in full -- that her contextualist position on moral judgment is precisely the opposite of that since expounded by Peikoff and Schwartz, allegedly in her name.
But would Ayn Rand have agreed?
In her interview with Day, the example of religion is raised. Is believing in God "morally evil"? Rand explicitly denies this: read her own words, in context. She draws a distinction between a belief which is "false" and a belief which is "evil." Belief in God, per se, is wrong, she says, because of the harm it will do the individual. But she does not regard the untrue idea of God as "evil" in itself.
There are probably a few -- a very few -- ideas whose acceptance may be regarded as evil virtually on their face: for example, nihilism, or explicit assaults on reason and logic and morality as such -- things on that level of fundamentality. Why? Only because the context of knowledge available to almost any mentally sound adult is probably sufficient to see through the holes in such ideas, or at least to realize their destructive consequences. But complex, abstract philosophical doctrines and intellectual systems are not on this same level of the "self- evident." And yet it is clearly these which Peikoff and Schwartz intend to paint as "inherently dishonest" and "inherently irrational." This gives them a simple, shorthand method of morally repudiating the millions of proponents and adherents of such doctrines, sight unseen.
The notion of an "inherently" good or evil idea, or system, is the same as saying that ideas can be intrinsically good or evil. It is intrinsicism, not Objectivism, that Peikoff is here propagating, in Ayn Rand's name.
But would Ayn Rand have agreed?
Though she tells Ray Newman that a person who "goes about the country preaching immoral ideas" may be regarded as immoral, she immediately qualifies this: one's moral status depends upon "the degree of knowledge a given person has." In fact, she says, people ought to be judged mainly "in action," rather than by their expressed ideas alone, "because most people do not really speak very exactly."
In short, Rand's position on judging individuals appears to employ criteria not unlike that advanced by Senator Howard Baker during the Watergate Hearings, in reference to President Richard Nixon: What did he know, and when did he know it? That's simple common sense. But it's also entirely against the thrust of Peikoff's theory of drawing inferences about character from one's "inherently dishonest" ideas.
Would one's holding a "mixture" of good and bad ideas be sufficient to regard that person as immoral? No, Rand says to interviewer James Day. If a person is confused, "well, that's their problem." But morality would demand, she says, only that they "struggle to the best of their ability to do good and to never do evil consciously. If a man does that, I would regard him as completely good -- if he never does evil consciously, deliberately."
We might sum up Rand's position on moral judgment, then, as entailing the following considerations: How much do they know? How much can they reasonably be expected to know, in their context? Are they really showing a conscientious effort to understand? Yet one searches in vain in "Fact and Value" for any statement by Peikoff suggesting that, in judging someone, one ought to consider any such factors.
Rand's stress on contextualism was ironically the hallmark of Peikoff's "Understanding Objectivism" course, in which he made an all-out attack on "intrinsicism" (meaning, on this issue, the belief in inherently good or inherently evil ideas or actions.) These interviews, in fact, show Rand stressing reasonableness in her criteria for judging people.
But is this the stress that one gets from "Fact and Value"? Is it the stress that Peikoff intended us to get?
One recalls, in this vein, Schwartz and Peikoff's moral equations of libertarians with the Soviet regime, of David Kelley with (late Soviet apologist) Armand Hammer, and their view that Kant was morally worse than Hitler and Stalin. Weighing the moral stature of such individuals hierarchically, in terms of their relative knowledge, contexts, intentions and actions, would be mere "cost-benefit analysis," you see, and hence an improper moral calculus. Such comparisons of stature are irrelevant. There are only the "thinkers" and the "evaders" -- and all the latter class are equally to be damned.
But would Ayn Rand have agreed?
Reconcile their view with Rand's own words to Newman -- that...
...in judging people of mixed premises, as most people are, you have to balance, in effect hierarchically, the seriousness of their virtues and of their vices, and see what you get in the net result.
These are just a few of the more obvious ways in which Peikoff and Schwartz have been distorting Rand's views on how to pass moral judgment. In my opinion, they have utterly abandoned Randian contextualism for a crude, neo-platonic intrinsicism.
Here are the interview excerpts. Judge for yourselves.
RAND: Only when he has done...done, in fact, some immoral action... When someone in action [Rand's emphasis] does something which you know, can prove, is an immoral, vicious action -- a sin, not a value; or a vice (whichever you want to call it) -- then you have to judge him as he has proved.
You never judge a person on mere potentials, and you seldom judge him on what he says, because most people do not really speak very exactly; and on the basis of some one inadvertant remark you would not judge a person as immoral. If, however, he goes about the country preaching immoral ideas, then you would classify him as immoral.
NEWMAN: Well, there are people whom I meet who are mixed. In other words, they hold certain virtues, but then in particular situations they may act against the virtue -- or the sin or the evil.
NEWMAN: Is that like, you can't be a little bit pregnant? Which is that if you're a little bit immoral, you're immoral? Your...your character is rated as immoral?
RAND: In fact, yes. But the important thing here is the degree of knowledge a given person has.
If you do not know exactly the nature of what you are doing, then you can't be considered immoral -- particularly if it's a young person and it's correctible. A person can make a mistake and correct it.
But it would have to be a major crime -- for instance, a person lying. Let's use that as an example. I would never forgive that at all. I would regard that as a top immorality, and regard that person as immoral, regardless of what kind of virtues he or she might have. Needless to say, if you have a robber or a murderer, or a person who is systematically breaking the rights of other people, you would call him immoral, no matter what lesser virtues he might have.
So you, in judging people of mixed premises, as most people are, you have to balance, in effect hierarchically, the seriousness of their virtues and of their vices, and see what you get in the net result.
RAND: ...Values are contextual. They depend on the context of a given situation.
Now there are, unfortunately, too many people who are part good, part bad. Well, that's their problem. But what would morality demand from them? To struggle to the best of their ability, to do good and to never do evil consciously.
If a man does that, I would regard him as completely good -- if he never does evil consciously, deliberately. However, if he does just one action which he knows to be wrong, but permits it to himself, then he's evil absolutely. The rest is only a matter of time.
DAY: You've written that the concept of God is morally evil.
RAND: I didn't say it's morally evil -- not in those words. I said it is false.
RAND: I said it's a fantasy. It doesn't exist. I would say that religion can be very dangerous psycho-epistemologically, in regard to the working of a man's mind. Faith is dangerous, because a man who permits himself to exempt some aspect of reality from reason, and to believe in a god even though he knows he has no reason to believe in a god -- there is no evidence in a god's existence -- that is the danger, psychologically. That man is not going to be rational, or will have a terrible conflict. It's wrong in that way.