Intellectual Honesty, Part 3

Part 3 of 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 part of a series of posts about Lecture Eleven, “Intellectual Honesty”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

In the last post I considered some more thoughts of Peikoff’s about judging a person’s context. Peikoff talked about how it was more plausible at the time of the Russian revolution to have a communist who honestly believed things would turn out okay, and how you’re more dishonest than an ignorant layman if you’re a knowledgeable scientist coming out with propaganda when you really should know better. I guessed that a unifying theme behind various contextual factors that Peikoff mentions regarding judging dishonesty might be the extent of knowledge you have to ignore in order to come to some conclusion. Peikoff suggested some methods of telling whether somebody is being honest, such as asking whether you yourself could have once believed something honestly, and both I and he talked about limitations of that approach. Peikoff said that people’s psychoepistemology can be so broken that it affects their ability to take in evidence that is available to them, which can cause them to not count as dishonest.

So, moving on to new material, Peikoff says that there are other psychological mechanisms relevant to judging honesty other than rationalism and empiricism, such as someone getting momentarily defensive because they are threatened by an argument you are making, and that you have to look at someone’s behavior across time to judge whether they are dishonest or not. I agree. Peikoff counsels against psychologizing other people, though he thinks specific evidence of a psychological malfunction can “obtrude[] itself blatantly upon you”, and that you have to sometimes take psychology into account.

Peikoff says that in judging honesty, it’s important to figure out if someone attaches the same meaning to a term that you do. He gives the example of a man on the street who advocates altruism and means giving a dime to a beggar or helping someone in trouble, and compares that to a philosophical advocate of altruism. I agree with Peikoff, and I think it’s a particularly important point. I think that failing to take into account the meaning that someone attaches to a particular term could be part of the reason that rationalist Objectivist-repressor types go around inappropriately throwing around moral judgments like lightning bolts. This idea is actually on the same theme that Peikoff’s been talking about regarding taking into account a person’s age and profession and all that, since the meaning of some term like “altruism” in somebody’s mind is part of their context. So you can’t drop that and then just start ranting about how they’re dishonest and bad because they used a naughty word (according to Objectivism) to describe their views. People use words in all sorts of ways that might surprise you. You can’t make sweeping assumptions before clarifying what they mean.

Peikoff says that it’s an error on the part of a philosophical person to assume that a nonphilosophical person has thought through all the implications of the stuff they say, since people casually, lightly toss statements out there and may not even really mean it or remember saying it later. Therefore, you need to be careful in judging them as dishonest on the basis of stuff they don’t even really believe. I think I disagree somewhat. I think that people do what Peikoff describes. But I think there’s still an honesty issue there, insofar as pretending to have opinions one basically doesn’t — as against admitting ignorance or being neutral or giving a disclaimer like “this is my half-baked BS just FYI” — seems dishonest.

Peikoff says that people can have bad explicit beliefs without realizing all the implications of those beliefs, so you can’t put them morally on the hook for all the implications:

Or to give you a more extreme example, I could prove that if you do not advocate private ownership of roads, that implies the principle of statism, which implies that man should be a pawn of the group, which implies an assault on the integrity of the mind. But if you were to say, “The ordinary person who believes in public roads is therefore hostile to man’s mind,” that would be ludicrous.

I agree. Part of the context here, relevant to judging dishonesty, is the level of knowledge and skill regarding thinking through arguments and their implications that a typical person could be expected to have in our culture. People aren’t helpless, of course, and could make efforts to improve their ability to think about arguments and deduce implications and other such “critical thinking” skills, but I don’t think that a failure to do way better than one’s culture on being a critical thinker is by itself an indicator of dishonesty.

Peikoff gives a good short summary of the factors relevant to judging whether someone is honest or dishonest:

There are many factors, therefore, to survey—the context of the person (the evidence available given his age, field, and so on); his psychology (his ability to process the data); his method of arguing; the actual content of the belief he holds; what he actually sees, as against what’s merely implicit.

Peikoff says that there’s a distinction to make between dishonest people and dependent people. He says that people can be passive and just kinda go with the flow of the culture, and that this isn’t necessarily dishonest. Peikoff says that a person who sees the need to think about an issue, has an idea of how to go about it, and then defaults, is dishonest. (So this seems like it’s back to the relevance of context — if you already had the knowledge/skill/ability to be on notice of something, and ignored/evaded that knowledge, then you’re dishonest).

I’m mixed about this. On the one hand, we live in a relatively free society in which alternative views on the value and importance of rational philosophy are out there. Anyone interested in that can read stuff for themselves and learn an alternative perspective. If you don’t, and then come to pessimistic philosophical conclusions as a result, you’re acting as if different perspectives don’t exist because you haven’t read them. On the other hand, I’ve already conceded that someone not doing way better than their culture regarding thinking about things critically doesn’t seem necessarily dishonest. Also, our society sort of brainwashes people into being super sensitive to social status and social ridicule, and then is super hostile to alternative perspectives on things, especially in regards to stuff like Objectivism. So it’s somewhat understandable if people don’t find their way to that stuff. But still, they have an independent mind and independent judgment, which they have a responsibility to exercise. So I’m not sure about Peikoff’s argument regarding excusing the “helpless” dependent people.

Peikoff basically has three archetypes he’s talking about: the helpless dependent, who he seems to think is kind of a sad sack but is basically innocent morally, at least as far as dishonesty goes; a neurotic dependent, whose characteristics I’m not super clear on, but he’s at least partially morally bad; and the dishonest advocate of evil. (Thought: I think Stadler would be the sort of archetype of dishonesty, since he’s the man who really should know better but acts evilly anyways. And I’m guessing Toohey would be dishonest too, but for somewhat different reasons, at least according to Peikoff. Toohey advocates and believes in horribly evil stuff, and is pretty open about it. He’s kind of the guy going around saying that man “should be a complete zombie, mindlessly obedient to a master”, just a bit less direct than that, except in private.) Anyways Peikoff presents the following summary:

I’ll give it to you in a threefold way. What I’m calling the helpless dependent can be completely moral; the weak or neurotic dependent can be morally like a mixed economy; the real dishonest person (and this is the one we’re trying to ferret out) is basically evil. And so I think there is a significant moral difference.

Peikoff suggests the following tip for distinguishing between the different cases: if someone reacts really positively when you present philosophy to them, that’s an indicator that they’re pretty decent and just hadn’t had exposure to good ideas before. OTOH if they become hostile, that’s a bad sign. I agree.

Peikoff offers another tip for distinguishing between his categories. Basically, his point seems to be that if, on some issue, someone just kind of mouths the slogans but otherwise lives according to common sense, that’s an indication of his honesty, and so that fits more with being a dependent type. Peikoff contrasts that with an active debater/lecturer/arguer/activist type, who he thinks must be more dishonest. Peikoff says that, basically, the dependent/follower types hear a bunch of claims, don’t know how to sort things out, and just sort of go along with what other people are saying. I guess the basic idea is that the context of a dependent-follower type is such that they don’t have to ignore a bunch of their knowledge in order to arrive at their views/beliefs, because they don’t actually know that much, whereas someone who’s an engaged, active intellectual promoting bad ideas will often be ignoring something like the scientific method or knowledge in the economics field or whatever.

I think Peikoff’s claim regarding the honesty of a dependent/follower who mouths slogans but lives according to common sense is interesting. I have had the idea that the people that take some idea seriously and actually try to live according to it — however flawed that idea may be — often actually have some integrity and are worthy of some respect even if I think their ideas are foolish (question: is this an example of a rationalistic bias of mine?). Integrity is a different issue than honesty, but they are related (Galt’s Speech):

Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence—that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions—that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him—that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth, and confidence is the practical form of being true to one’s own consciousness.

Regarding the issue of having respect for someone consistently holding to ideas I disagree with, I don’t think that merely killing an animal for some useful purpose (e.g. food, clothing, medical research) is at all a moral problem, and, to the contrary, I think it is positively moral. But I think that if someone does think there is a major moral problem there, they absolutely should not wear leather shoes and eat meat, and I would have more respect for someone who lived consistently by the implications of their theory regarding animals than someone who didn’t. (And I think it’s kind of baffling that there are people who do think there is a major moral problem with using animals in that way but do it anyways.) So anyways, a consistent animal rights type person might be said to have integrity. On the other hand, depending on their context, they might be dishonest (because e.g. they know criticisms of or problems with their view which they don’t address or ignore while continuing to be strong advocates). If integrity is loyalty to your ideas/beliefs/convictions/principles and honesty is loyalty to your knowledge of reality (given your context), mixes where people have more of one value than another definitely seem possible. And so perhaps Peikoff’s dependent-follower type who mouths slogans but lives according to common sense has honesty (to their knowledge of reality as embodied in common sense), but lacks integrity (due to the breach between their stated beliefs and their life).

Side comment: I wonder if rationalists would have a tendency towards dishonesty due to their disconnection from reality, and empiricists would have a tendency towards lacking integrity due to their skepticism of theoretical constructs (which would include things like principles and convictions).