Over on Facebook, where I sometimes ruminate to my demise, there pops up, now and then, like a multi-headed hydra out of a jack-in-the-box, the epi-phenomena of friends demanding their friends de-friend other friends who aren't acting like friends. That is, acquaintences in the virtual drawing-room of the web who are -- shall we say? -- consorting with the devil.
I think there are multiple reasons for these recurring moral pronouncements and condemnations of moral turpitude, with accompanied vitriolic demands for "de-friending".
The most superficial of the rationalizations for these assertions is that anyone disagreeing with Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff on this or that issue are corrupting Objectivism, damaging a great value, etc. Therefore if you stand for truth and goodness and don't wish to sanction evil, you must prove your rectitude in the court of public opinion and dissociate yourself from the blight, as well as dissociate yourself from the blighters of the blight.
Let's go beyond superficialities. I think the real underlying notion motivating these pronouncements is less about religious conformity than it is the false notion that a self-evident argument can be made in a simple assertion--from which comes the conviction that anyone who fails to acknowledge the facts of a matter (as presented and presumed by an apparently omniscient presenter) is inherently dishonest.
I'm intentionally not naming names on either side of the equation. I'd prefer that people form their own judgments without coloring things with personalities. For the purposes of this point, I'm asking everyone else who comments here not to name names, either.
Sometimes the pronouncements and demands are simple ones, but sometimes they are accompanied by such overwhelming "evidence" as can be crammed into a paragraph on a Facebook thread -- a link to a damning blog post, a youtube video, the latest insult, the bloodied candlestick in the broomcloset of Colonel Mustard. But it's all held up as incontrovertible proof of intellectual dishonesty, corruption and even evil, which only a blind man can't see and a dishonest person won't see.
You see the syllogism at play here: "I present here incontrovertible proof of the evil of person X. Here it is. If you won't grasp it, you are evil, too. And if you know someone who won't grasp it, they are evil. And if you don't divorce yourself from all evil associations, you are even more evil. So there. Listen up and fly right. Yours, God."
Or at least, Demi-god.
Strangely, I think the people most often associated with this technique (I won't call it reason) are generally honest and well-intentioned in some way. At least, as I've seen it on Facebook. They want to do right. They want to stand up and defend the good. But along the way, they are betraying the very thing they claim to be standing up for.
Their error is a disastrous form of intrinsicism.
I don't mean that the way some are going to jump to the conclusion -- a religious orthodoxy. That may be the eventual consequence. Hold that thought if you wish. More specifically, I mean:
The idea that a rational mind can grasp truth by simple statements.
That is, the idea that the truth is inherent in simple statements -- as if an assertion and a few randomly selected words and facts constitute sufficient intellectual grounds for another mind to reach a complex judgment about another person's thoughts and motives.
I wish I could color that statement in red, highlight it, capitalize it, enlarge the font and add a screaming voice with a brooding background musical accompaniment. Oh, wait. I can:
The idea that a rational mind can grasp truth by simple statements is false.Sans musical accompaniment, unfortunately.
Many people take from Ayn Rand the idea that moral pronouncements and praise of the good or condemnation of the evil is proper. Well, yes, it is. If you know what the hell you are talking about. But in lieu of that it's foolish, stupid, or evil in itself.
Moral pronouncements are easy. Anyone with vocal chords can make them. Rational judgment and reasoned arguments are much harder. And in a contest between those two, I've noticed that people who lack the ability to do the former particularly well are much more inclined to do the latter. Call it a form of empowerment.
But if reasoned argument is hard, it appears that respect for the independent minds of those to whom the assertions are made is the most difficult of all.
Let me say this unequivocally: any person who attempts to impose by threats their assessments on others is operating on a standard of social metaphysics and acting completely contrary to the most fundamental principles of Objectivism.
Those who claim to be defending Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff while employing a method that openly rejects the Objectivist positions on independence and reason are themselves guiltier than those making errors about any other aspect of the philosophy.
By way of reminder, here are some quotes from Ayn Rand on the subject. The particular sources will be left as an exercise. In no particular order:
"We never make assertions, Miss Taggart," said Hugh Akston. "That is the moral crime peculiar to our enemies. We do not tell—we show. We do not claim—we prove. It is not your obedience that we seek to win, but your rational conviction. You have seen all the elements of our secret. The conclusion is now yours to draw--we can help you to name it, but not to accept it-the sight, the knowledge and the acceptance must be yours."
"I don't ask for opinions."
"What do you go by?"
"Well, whose judgment did you take?"
"But whom did you consult about it?"
"I am not committing the contemptible act of asking you to take me on faith. You have to live by your own knowledge and judgment."
"If you want to see an abstract principle, such as moral action, in material form--there it is. Look at it, ...You had to act on your own judgment, you had to have the capacity to judge, the courage to stand on the verdict of your mind..."
"Consider the reasons which make us certain that we are right," said Hugh Akston, "but not the fact that we are certain. If you are not convinced, ignore our certainty. Don't be tempted to substitute our judgment for your own,"
"Don't rely on our knowledge of what's best for your future," said Mulligan. "We do know, but it can't be best until you know it."
"Don't consider our interests or desires," said Francisco. "You have no duty to anyone but yourself."
"Cherryl... Cherryl, you poor kid, ...You don't have to see through the eyes of others, hold onto yours, stand on your own judgment, you know that what is, is--say it aloud, like the holiest of prayers, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
"No, you do not have to live; it is your basic act of choice; but if you choose to live, you must live as a man—by the work and the judgment of your mind."
"The most depraved sentence you can now utter is to ask: Whose reason? The answer is: Yours. No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it. It is only with your own knowledge that you can deal. It is only your own knowledge that you can claim to possess or ask others to consider. Your mind is your only judge of truth—and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal. Nothing but a man's mind can perform that complex, delicate, crucial process of identification which is thinking. Nothing can direct the process but his own judgment. Nothing can direct his judgment but his moral integrity."
"Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of "knowledge; do not forgive or accept any breach of morality. Give the benefit of the doubt to those who seek to know; but treat as potential killers those specimens of insolent depravity who make demands upon you, announcing that they have and seek no reasons, proclaiming, as a license, that they 'just feel it’
"Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life—that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say—so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence."
"This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth. You are asked to sacrifice your intellectual integrity, your logic, your reason, your standard of truth—in favor of becoming a prostitute whose standard is the greatest good for the greatest number.
"Every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment."
"You have cried that man's sins are destroying the world and you have cursed human nature for its unwillingness to practice the virtues you demanded. Since virtue, to you, consists of sacrifice, you have demanded more sacrifices at every successive disaster. In the name of a return to morality, you have sacrificed all those evils which you held as the cause of your plight. You have sacrificed justice to mercy. You have sacrificed independence to unity. You have sacrificed reason to faith."
"...conviction requires an act of independence and rests on the absolute of an objective reality."
"The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary."
"The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence."
"The code of the creator is built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive. The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival."
"Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn't done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence."
"Notice the malignant kind of resentment against any idea that propounds independence. Notice the malice toward an independent man."
"Don't you know that most people take most things because that's what's given them, and they have no opinion whatever? Do you wish to be guided by what they expect you to think they think or by your own judgment?"
"God damn you!" he screamed. "God damn you! Who do you think you are? Who told you that you could do this to people? So you're too good for that building? You want to make me ashamed of it? You rotten, lousy, conceited bastard! Who are you? You don't even have the wits to know that you're a flop, an incompetent, a beggar, a failure, a failure, a failure! And you stand there pronouncing judgment! You, against the whole country! You against everybody! Why should I listen to you? You can't frighten me. You can't touch me. I have the whole world with me!...Don't stare at me like that! I've always hated you! You didn't know that, did you? I've always hated you! I always will! I'll break you some day, I swear I will, if it's the last thing I do!"
"Peter," said Roark, "why betray so much?"
"As a matter of fact, Mr. Roark, I'm not alone in this decision. As a matter of fact, I did want you, I had decided on you, honestly I had, but it was Miss Dominique Francon, whose judgment I value most highly, who convinced me that you were not the right choice for this commission--and she was fair enough to allow me to tell you that she did."
"When facing society, the man most concerned, the man who is to do the most and contribute the most, has the least say. It's taken for granted that he has no voice and the reasons he could offer are rejected in advance as prejudiced--since no speech is ever considered, but only the speaker. It's so much easier to pass judgment on a man than on an idea."
"And what, incidentally, do you think integrity is? The ability not to pick a watch out of your neighbor's pocket? No, it's not as easy as that. If that were all, I'd say ninety-five percent of humanity were honest, upright men. Only, as you can see, they aren't. Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea. That presupposes the ability to think. Thinking is something one doesn't borrow or pawn. And yet, if I were asked to choose a symbol for humanity as we know it, I wouldn't choose a cross nor an eagle nor a lion and unicorn. I'd choose three gilded balls."
"Gail Wynand was not good at taking orders. He recognized nothing but the accuracy of his own judgment."
"You're beginning to see, aren't you, Peter? Shall I make it clearer. You've never wanted me to be real. You never wanted anyone to be. But you didn't want to show it. You wanted an act to help your act--a beautiful, complicated act, all twists, trimmings and words. All words. You didn't like what I said about Vincent Knowlton. You liked it when I said the same thing under cover of virtuous sentiments. You didn't want me to believe. You only wanted me to convince you that I believed. My real soul, Peter? It's real only when it's independent--you've discovered that, haven't you? It's real only when it chooses curtains and desserts--you're right about that--curtains, desserts and religions, Peter, and the shapes of buildings. But you've never wanted that. You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they're reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose. I gave you what you wanted. I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being--only with the trimmings. I didn't go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment--I said I had no judgment. I didn't borrow designs to hide my creative impotence--I created nothing. I didn't say that equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind--I just agreed with everybody. You call it death, Peter? That kind of death--I've imposed it on you and on everyone around us. But you--you haven't done that. People are comfortable with you, they like you, they enjoy your presence. You've spared them the blank death. Because you've imposed it--on yourself."
"That, precisely, is the deadliness of second-handers. They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They're concerned only with people. They don't ask: 'Is this true?' They ask: 'Is this what others think is true?' Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce? Those are the egotists. You don't think through another's brain and you don't work through another's hands. When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life. Second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation--anchored to nothing. That's the emptiness I couldn't understand in people. That's what stopped me whenever I faced a committee. Men without an ego. Opinion without a rational process. Motion without brakes or motor. Power without responsibility. The second-hander acts, but the source of his actions is scattered in every other living person. It's everywhere and nowhere and you can't reason with him. He's not open to reason. You can't speak to him--he can't hear. You're tried by an empty bench. A blind mass running amuck, to crush you without sense or purpose. Steve Mallory couldn't define the monster, but he knew. That's the drooling beast he fears. The second-hander."
"By seeking self-esteem through others. By living second-hand. And it has opened the way for every kind of horror. It has become the dreadful form of selfishness which a truly selfish man couldn't have conceived. And now, to cure a world perishing from selflessness, we're asked to destroy the self."
In response to some personal comments posted elsewhere, I'd like to add that there are two aspects to my post: independence and epistemology, and they're closely related in this context. Let's say Person A wants to inform other people about grievous errors by Person B. How do they do it? I am in no way against this. I am only for doing it rationally, in a manner Ayn Rand would smile upon--not because I want to imitate everything she did, blindly, but because she was the best example I've ever seen of how to engage in reasoned argument, and I think that gets forgotten by many people.
It takes many forms. Sometimes it's open insults, four letter words, this person is a louse, don't have anything to do with them, etc. Sometimes people are explicit and say "de-friend them or you're no friend of mine". Sometimes that's left implicit. And everything in between. But most people can read between the lines.
Sometimes it's got a veneer of reason behind it -- some limited attempt to provide a reasoned explanation for the shortcomings of Person B, with implications of "you'd better look into this and get with the program". But insufficient reasoning for anyone else to really form any kind of proper judgment, and by implication, insufficient respect for the priorities of other people in expecting them to find the reasoned argument you didn't provide.
But what's the proper way to raise an issue about someone's errors or dishonesty? Believe me when I say, that's the thrust of my original comment.
Genuine intellectual dishonesty isn't so hard to treat. It may still take the presentation of a lot of evidence and explanations to actually prove, but comparatively, not so hard to treat. It should not involve screaming and insults and endless moral condemnation, as so much is done on FB -- it should be, in the words of Joe Friday, "Just the Facts, Ma'am". Well, mostly, but the facts leading to a conclusion of moral turpitude. It's not simply that superficial, emotionally laden arguments set a bad example (though they do that), or that it makes O-ism look bad (it does that). The fundamental is that it's not how you persuade people. It's not a process of reason. That is what I'm arguing against.
But here's the deal: intellectual dishonesty isn't usually the issue, even though most people seem to think it is. Most people just do a really crappy job of assessing honesty in other people, and the rush to condemn someone as dishonest -- which is the only proper basis for the flurry of condemnations of "evil" people -- is just horribly misplaced and destructive when the evidence as presented is insufficient and the argumentation sucks. ("Crappy" doesn't really capture just how utterly putrifyingly shitty most of the reasoning is that I see in this context.)
I think this is vastly more destructive to Objectivism than errors by any Person B I've seen. (There's more than a few.)
What I would like to see is more genuine reasoning -- on both sides of the aisle, because that's the only way to make one side.
I'd like to see more genuine recognition that many people can be blind to their errors without being dishonest.
I'd like more recognition that an honest person genuinely trying to understand the truth needs a reasoned argument and that no amount of insults and condemnations are a reasoned argument.
I'd like recognition that you don't make allies out of friends, but out convincing opponents of the truth -- and the truth requires a well-reasoned argument.
And I'd like recognition of the fact that pointlessly alienating and dissociating yourself (and asking others to dissociate themselves) from those who are honest and are trying to understand the truth is destructive in itself -- because you only expand your ranks by persuading those who aren't in your ranks. And nothing is as hopelessly stupid as alienating an honest person who agrees with you on 98% of everything.
All that said, I am defending no one's views here beyond those of my own. I am defending a process, and my comments apply to both sides.
I do sympathize with the frustration of those who see people who vociferously advocate points of view that are wrong (sometimes catastrophically) on important issues, or which seem to willfully be blind to the broadest context, or which just trivialize philosophy with inane "lifeboat situations" or worse. Again, I'm trying to leave those issues out of this discussion. I've just seen very bad reasoning on both sides. That's my point.
I'm simply saying, if you want to win the argument and bring people to your side, you have to be the most rational, and set the best example.
In later discussion, I remarked elsewhere,
1. Moral condemnation over intellectual disagreements is always inappropriate when the disagreements are honest.
2. Public condemnation demands a high standard of evidence, and mere suspicion of dishonesty in intellectual disagreements is not adequate.
3. There is no such thing as "quality control" in a proper intellectual movement. The only arbiter of "quality" is rational persuasion about ideas. Condemnation is not an argument.
A gentle reminder about focusing on the positive. Reason is the positive in this context -- the method of identifying what's true.
My interest is primarily in reminding people that advocates of reason should be focused on making rational arguments about ideas, not about getting into arguments.
My primary value is reason, and persuading people with reason. I don't really give a damn about spending time on other things; Ayn Rand certainly didn't. She was the model par excellance about how to conduct an intellectual movement. Spending time on minutiae is mostly a waste of time and effort and accomplishes nothing in the end. If people are wrong, reality will be the ultimate arbiter of that. If people are dishonest, that too.
Much more important, and difficult, is persuading people what is right. If people want to be exemplars of Objectivism, they'd better spend their time learning how to make coherent, persuasive arguments. Even if you don't persuade your opponent with those arguments, if there's an audience you'll reach other people. That's what spreads the right ideas.
Put it another way: you don't spread the right ideas by spending all your time talking about every mistake that other people have made. People want to know what you know that is right, and why.
They also want to see integrity in action -- that is, if integrity is loyalty to values, and loyalty is consistency, they would want to see, in advocates of reason, really skilled reasoning in advocating the ideas that reason implies, qua Objectivism. But if they see advocates of reason who don't care to take the time and effort to form comprehensive arguments, with precision in formulation -- the right choice of word or phrasing, the attention to answering obvious questions, reference to source materials and facts, etc., the argument is lost by the appearance of a lack of conviction among the advocates.
Ayn Rand was the master of all these qualities. Review how she conducted herself. No one was attacked more viciously than her, but she always conducted herself with class, above the fray. Even if her questioners were antagonistic (for example, Mike Wallace, Phil Donahue), she would always answer questions with detailed, respectful arguments--that is, she took them seriously.
I'm not saying she turned the other cheek when it was clear someone was dishonest, nor that she never expressed anger, but her primary focus was always on making rational arguments for her ideas.
As a further addendum, one thing that drives disputes over intellectual matters far too much is an unwillingness to admit error. Very few people like the feeling of loss of self-esteem that accompanies admission of error to an opponent.
But the genuine intellectual is interested in truth, and doesn't indulge the self-licking ice cream cone of confirmation bias -- the quest for only those arguments and facts that support their position, to the exclusion or evasion of arguments that don't. The genuine advocate of reason simply delights in discovering the truth of things, and if an opponent (or, better, a colleague) discovers it first and makes one aware of it -- the emotion is delight and gratitude, not fear of admitting wrong.
Consider it in the context of, say, some new theory of gravity. You'll have the advocates of General Relativity and the Big Bang fighting for their position, and the Newtonians and Galileans fighting passionately for their viewpoint. And along comes John Galt, let's say, who shows them a new anti-gravity motor he built, based on a completely different theory that makes General Relativity and Newtonian mechanics as obsolete as stone knives and bearskins. What would a rational man feel on being proved wrong? To quote Ayn Rand, "It's so wonderful to see a great, new, crucial achievement which is not mine!"