Intellectual Honesty, Part 1

Notes/thoughts/comments on the eleventh chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "Intellectual Honesty".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is about Lecture Eleven, “Intellectual Honesty”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

Peikoff says he’s going to talk about honesty. He says that “dishonesty” was previously defined as:

“evading some fact or facts of reality, combined with some form of pretense, some form of manufacturing a new fact, that the person wants to be so, regardless of the actual fact.”

That seems like a reasonable definition to me, though I wonder if just evading facts by themselves would be sufficient to be dishonest. I assume there is some reason that Peikoff thinks that manufacturing a new fact is a requirement. Let me think about that. I guess that, as a practical matter, even a dishonest person needs to “take into account” a fact he is evading somehow. Like suppose someone is having financial trouble and is confronted with the prospect of their current funds being insufficient to meet their next rental payment. If they are honest, they will accept that fact and try to figure out a plan to address that situation. If they are dishonest, they might put the reality of their financial situation out of their mind (i.e. evade it) while latching onto a vague/foggy prospect of some money coming in at some point soon somehow (this is the manufacturing of a new fact). So they evade the reality of their financial situation and and then manufacture new facts regarding their financial situation. Then, if they get evicted, the problem (in their mind, not in reality) was just that their vague hope of money coming in didn’t pan out - they just had a “bad break”. It wasn’t their lack of honesty and failure to deal with the facts of reality that caused the issue, but just some bad luck (again, this is their perspective, not the reality of the situation).

Peikoff says that honesty is an important issue in judging other people. A judgment about honesty can be the difference between deciding that you have a difference of opinion with an honest person versus deciding someone is a dishonest evader who wants to live in an unreal world. Also, if you make a judgment that someone is dishonest, and continue arguing with him:

you are then sanctioning evil—you are letting him get away with the pretense that he’s open to an honest discussion.

Peikoff says that rationalists tend to engage in improper condemnations and adopt a malevolent view that everybody’s rotten. Empiricists, on the other hand, either don’t judge people or say everybody’s great.

Peikoff says:

an honest man conforms to the facts of reality as he grasps them; a dishonest man defies the facts that he either does grasp or easily could if only he would look.

Peikoff says that the first thing you need to be able to say to describe some belief as honest is that you have to be able to point to something in reality that would make that conclusion possible or understandable. That seems like a problematic definition to me, since tons of theories with wildly different implications are compatible with some piece of evidence. The evidence of reality is compatible with all sorts of theories. What I think would make some conclusions unreasonable is the cultural context of criticism that exists. Like people used to accept geocentricism as an astronomical model. That theory was compatible with some evidence that they saw. So you couldn’t say that they were being dishonest using Peikoff’s definition. But if someone still argued for geocentrism and didn’t engage with/acknowledge the evidence and arguments that exist today on that point, that seems like it would be dishonest to me! The evidence and arguments on that point are part of reality now, so they’d have to ignore more stuff to maintain their belief in geocentrism.

Peikoff thinks that a belief in God on the basis that someone needed to create the universe is not inherently dishonest, though of course he thinks it is wrong. He says that people can think, e.g., that the orderliness of the universe is evidence for a God. I think I agree with Peikoff on this point. Why the universe is orderly seems like an advanced point that I don’t have an understanding of. Someone using God as an explanation there seems like it might not be inherently dishonest. It seems different than believing in geocentrism. One difference is that when you get into stuff like, “what’s required to have an orderly universe?”, that seems like a “higher mysteries” type of thing that’s the realm of metaphysics and philosophy, on which the current state of knowledge is low. Whereas “which astronomical body revolves around which?” is a much more straightforward kind of question.

Peikoff says that, while, for most errors, there is some context in which you can imagine a plausible basis for the error, he doesn’t think you can do that for all errors. He thinks there are inherently dishonest viewpoints. He then proceeds to present what he describes as a non-exhaustive list of three inherently dishonest positions.

The first inherently dishonest position is an explicit repudiation of reason or reality:

(A) any explicit repudiation of reason and reality—that is, the open statement, “To hell with reason, down with reality.” You say to the person that his argument is senseless, and he says, “That’s tough, I hold no brief with making sense.” You tell him, “Your theory conflicts with reality,” and he says, “There is no reality. It’s a myth. Facts are whatever I want them to be, or whatever society wants them to be.” Honesty is the attempt to conform to reality by the use of your mind, your reason. If you openly reject the mind and/or reality, you have to be dishonest, because that wipes out the whole base of honesty. Nobody, however ignorant, can think, “My way of conforming to reality is to reject it.” That is simply too blatant. There could be no possible basis in reality for the idea that there isn’t one.

I’m not sure about this. I’ve heard people say stuff like (as an absolute declaration) “There are no absolute truths”, apparently without realizing the self-contradiction that is obvious to me in hearing such a statement. So people can believe all sorts of foolish things. For example, someone might think that making sense to other people doesn’t matter because everyone has their own inner truth that makes sense to them. So when they say “That’s tough, I hold no brief with making sense,” they mean making sense to others. They think that their ideas make sense in their own mind, but that to understand those ideas requires some of their context and unique knowledge and experience. I reject that line of argument, but is it inherently dishonest? I’m not sure about that. I think Peikoff may have a very particular context in mind for people making such statements. But then that’s not an issue of inherent dishonesty but of a statement being dishonest in a particular context when used with a particular meaning.

I think this is the key part:

Honesty is the attempt to conform to reality by the use of your mind, your reason. If you openly reject the mind and/or reality, you have to be dishonest, because that wipes out the whole base of honesty.

So I think that this basically says that there’s no such thing as an honest solipsist, because a solipsist would doubt or deny that there’s a reality to conform to outside their own mind, and so in essence they’re denying reality in the way Peikoff means it. And you could define honesty that way, but I’m not sure about it. I have trouble with the idea that certain philosophical positions might be inherently dishonest as opposed to just the result of errors in thinking. But as Peikoff defines honesty, I don’t disagree with the implication that certain philosophical views might be dishonest … like, as Peikoff defines it, I think that rejecting certain philosophical views as inherently dishonest would follow. So I guess what I’m not sure about is defining dishonesty in Peikoff’s way.

Peikoff mentions that he regards Kant as the turning point at which philosophers became dominantly dishonest. According to Peikoff, Plato, at least, thought there was a reality and that we had to conform to it, as against Kant. So this shows that Peikoff does think that certain philosophical views are inherently dishonest.

Peikoff moves onto his next subdivision of inherently dishonest views, which is any explicit attack on values as such. He has in mind nihilism as such an attack on values as such. He says that people have to live by pursuing values. He says if you know the nihilistic essence of modern art, and advocate it, that’s dishonest, but clarifies that he’s not saying every modern art advocate is dishonest. Another example of nihilism, according to Peikoff, is the Kantian view of sacrifice. Peikoff compares this to the Christian view, which he regards as not nihilistic (while very much disagreeing with it, I would imagine):

Christianity said, “Sacrifice yourself in the name of helping the weak, and for an alleged higher value, which is your happiness in the next life.” Kant said, “Sacrifice everything because it’s a value; destroy for its own sake.”

So in one case, you have a sacrifice being made for an alleged higher value. That value doesn’t exist, because the afterlife doesn’t exist, but people believe it exists, and so Peikoff thinks it’s not inherently dishonest, as compared to Kant.

(Question: does Peikoff think that there is evidence for believing in an afterlife?)

Peikoff gives egalitarianism as another example of attacking values as such:

I’m thinking of John Rawls and the idea “Destroy the men who achieve values because they achieve values; cut down the virtuous because they’re virtuous.”

Peikoff’s third subdivision of inherently dishonest views is anyone who advocates totalitarian states (such as communism or Nazism).

I mean the open declaration “Man should be a slave; he should have no right to think, to choose on any level; he should be a complete zombie, mindlessly obedient to a master,” of which the extreme expression is a concentration camp.

You know, one think that troubles me is that I don’t think even an advocate of Nazism or communism would actually say “he should be a complete zombie, mindlessly obedient to a master.” They’d talk about things like racial unity or the solidarity of the masses or something like that. They have what they think are positive themes in their view. And of course I disagree with those views very strongly, and there might be dishonesty or evasion involved in them not thinking through the consequences of their own views and considering the empirical results of attempts to put those ideologies into practice, but still, even here, I’m hesitant about saying this stuff is inherently dishonest on the basis of what seems like a strawman presentation of these views.

Peikoff says that he thinks the three categories he’s discussed are “absolutely devoid of any basis, even mistaken. They fly in the face of essentials that no one can escape if he gives the most casual attention to reality.”

He moves onto considering more typical cases, where the statement isn’t inherently dishonest. He says that you have to consider the cognitive context of the individual. You need to think about stuff like whether the person had access to all the data you did and then evaded it and made up something to replace it, or whether he had a more limited context. Peikoff says a big factor here is age. Young people making errors is more forgivable, he says, especially given:

the fact that the schools and colleges have assaulted their minds systematically for a decade or more, from the time they enter grade one, and make them incapable of thought for the most part, pump them full of falsehoods as the basic self-evident framework.

He says given that context, you should give teenagers the benefit of the doubt in general. I agree.

To be continued next time.