Intellectual Honesty, Part 5

Part 5 of a series on the eleventh chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "Intellectual Honesty".

Table of Contents

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.

Part 3 Recap

In Part 3, I considered some more thoughts of Peikoff’s about judging a person’s context. One of the things he says is important is to figure out whether someone attaches the same meaning to a term you do. He also said that you should be careful about attributing to a non-philosophical person all the implications of their bad ideas. I was a bit split about that. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that a person shouldn’t be held morally “on the hook” for every implication of some idea that they can’t see. You have to take into account things like the cultural state of knowledge about understanding arguments and their implications into account when judging someone, along with their individual intelligence and skill in doing such things. On the other hand, I think even a normal person still has a responsibility to be more humble/tentative/neutral if they haven’t really thought about an issue or don’t care about it much or whatever. Adding to/clarifying what I said in Part 3, I would also say that people have a particular responsibility to be humble/tentative/neutral in their approach to ideas if a person has been put on notice that their ideas often have sweeping, unintended implications. If a non-philosophical person has never encountered a philosophical person and has never had it pointed out to them that one of their ideas has some unintended horrible logical consequence, then that’s one situation in terms of judging the non-philosophical person’s honesty. If they’ve run into the issue of unintended horrible logical consequences of their ideas being pointed out 10 or 100 times, though, that’s another situation for judging their honesty. In the latter case, the fact that their ideas often have unintended consequences — that general fact, apart from whatever they manage to figure out about a particular idea — is now part of their knowledge and part of reality, and so if they keep going blithely forward in putting forth such ideas without taking that into account, they are being dishonest. This is a point that I need to work on in my own approach to discussing issues and being more honest.

Also in Part 3, Peikoff drew a distinction between dependent people and dishonest people, which I wasn’t sure about. He also argued that if someone mouths slogans but basically lives according to common sense, that’s a good indicator of their honesty, and he contrasted that with more intellectual/activist types. I tried to chew that idea some and think about the relationship between integrity and honesty.

Part 4 was a pretty stand-alone attempt to apply some of Peikoff’s ideas about honesty that I’ve learned so far, so I’ll just link that instead of summarizing it.

Peikoff Looks at Applied Examples of Honesty

Peikoff starts looking at examples to apply his framework of honesty to. The first example he considers is someone who says “I like modern art.” He asks how you assess that in terms of honesty. Before reading Peikoff’s answer, my guess is that you’d have to look at the person’s context and reasoning. If they like modern art because they like the idea of deconstructing and diminishing values/beauty/heroism, then that’s going to bode badly for their honesty. OTOH, if they just frequently find the patterns in some kind of abstract art pretty/interesting, then that is probably okay. Peikoff seems to basically agree. He says that he thinks modern art as a phenomenon is wicked, and the originators and passionate defenders, who he calls nihilists, are totally dishonest. But he says that for judging the honesty of a particular advocate, you’d have to talk with them and see what they think and why they like it. His example of the most innocent person he could imagine in this context is someone who just likes the art for the purpose of decoration; the person doesn’t know anything about art or philosophy and just likes “certain smears” because “they’ve got a nice color and so on.” Peikoff says that this is an uncommon case. A more common case would be a “confused, helpless, but basically honest person” who says something like:

“I don’t know much about art. I don’t like it, but of course who knows? It’s just a matter of taste, and a lot of very knowledgeable people seem to like it. So who am I to know?”

Peikoff says someone who tries to endorse the art in a more significant way might be motivated by conformity and dependence. If it’s not a big issue for them, though, then that’s “standard dependence”. So, not great but not too dishonest, I guess?

Peikoff says a con man who does not like the art but pretends to to gain prestige or whatever is way more dishonest, because he’s going against something he knows. Makes sense.

Peikoff considers an example he calls “the pretentious New Yorker” (lol). Such a person does not want to just fool others, like the con man, but wants to fool himself so he can be a member of the “elite”. This person is more dishonest than any person we’ve discussed so far.

And then Peikoff says the inaugurators of modern art like Kandinsky and Schoenberg (not familiar with these guys) were the worst of all. So I think from this analysis I get a sense of Peikoff’s general approach.

Peikoff next considers religion as an example. He says that you have to look “how much they know about its meaning, about what it involves, how much they have to go against their knowledge”. Peikoff says lots of people’s religious beliefs can be honest and that most adherents are intellectual dependents and not innovators. He says most people think there’s some kind of reason or argument that you can give to believe in God:

For instance, a perfectly standard claim is, “There has to be a God, because where else did the material world come from?” This implies the primacy of consciousness so deeply entrenched that they just take it as self-evident that if there’s matter, there must be a consciousness that created it. They seemingly can’t conceive of any alternative. And from their point of view—I have argued with some of these people long enough to be convinced—they truly can’t get the point. So they are not being dishonest. Whether it’s a bad psycho-epistemological method or they have an entrenched wrong metaphysics that would take years to correct, maybe it’s worse to argue with them any further, but I do not think in many cases that that is dishonesty.

I basically agree with Peikoff here regarding whether a believer making such an argument is dishonest. I also think there is a lot of room for improvement to be made in the standard arsenal of arguments that non-believers try to use to engage with believers. I’ve had some of those conversations myself, and I’ve run into similar barriers where there just seems to be an impassable chasm of some kind in terms of making an argument that is persuasive. I think that is at least partly on me — like, I don’t think I’m presenting the best case possible for atheism in such discussions. So, given that context, I should be extra reluctant to attribute any problems in the discussion to the dishonesty of my interlocutor, you know?

Regarding religious people, Peikoff also points out that you have to take into account what religion signifies to someone. For a lot of people, he says, religion is basically the same as morality, so they think that the alternative to religion is the rejection of moral standards in general.

Peikoff looks at one more applied example regarding honesty: a supporter of the welfare state. Here, he says to look at stuff like: whether the person is just going along with the modern view, or whether they support the welfare state as a calculated step on the road to totalitarianism; whether they don’t care too much on the one hand, or want to use politics to cut down the rich in the name of “social justice” on the other hand; and the fact that the education in the public schools (and people’s experience in modern society) doesn’t give any indication that there exists an alternative to the welfare state. I also liked his point that being a welfare statist in the nineteenth century is very different than being one in the twentieth century.

Criticizing the Idea of Philosophy Pitting You Against the World

Peikoff starts to move towards a discussion of an argument against philosophy he says he started the course with, which is that philosophy pits you against the world and the rotten people in it, and that life is “a kind of grim pilgrimage through an alien realm” of sin. Peikoff says this is typically a religious view but some Objectivists replace “heaven” with “Atlantis” and operate along the same premise (gulp, this is hitting a bit close to home!). But he argues that while this attitude would be appropriate for a living in a concentration camp, it’s not appropriate for living in the United States or even Europe. The situation in those places is mixed and so your attitude should reflect the mixture. I agree.

Peikoff says that the sense of alienation from the world can have two sources. One is valid and understandable, in that if you hold a philosophical perspective, there are battles with current cultural ideas that you can’t avoid. But there are some battles you can avoid, and he wants to talk about this part, and about what kind of error could cause someone to exaggerate the evil in the world. He says it’s the mind/body dichotomy, which leads to the dichotomy between the moral and the practical. If you make this kind of error as an Objectivist, you feel like your values/ideals are impotent to effect the world. Gonna quote extensively here because I think this is important:

This is simply another form of the same dichotomy that makes rationalists fear empirical facts and ignore them, or fear emotions and try to wipe them out. And here, the parallel is that the person fears other people as the element he can’t control, the element that does not adhere to his inner standards, that will defeat him unless he brushes them aside, so he gives up relations with them and commits himself to a solitary existence.
I’d summarize it this way: The corollary of the rationalist in thought and the repressor in feeling is the misanthrope in relation to people. And it is three forms of the same basic mind/body dichotomy. It’s all the same error in different versions and applications.
Once this basic mind/body dichotomy is implanted in a person’s soul, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it makes a person act in ways that make him think that his basic viewpoint is ever more true. In pattern, first he decides on philosophic grounds—on the mind/body grounds—that you can’t deal with other people; they’re not like him, they’ll never share his standards or admire him. Then, as a result of this view, he withdraws in action, keeps his distance, rarely if ever tries to make friends, and the result is that nobody does know or like him. In fact he can’t deal with others, because he’s never tried. And so after a while, it isn’t just theoretical philosophy to him anymore; it seems to him that his actual experience bears out his viewpoint, his actual experience of people. And yet his experience was caused and warped by the underlying mind/body dichotomy.
Here’s an alternative: First, either you advocate the mind/body dichotomy or you’re brought up with it, and you take the rationalist path. And this leads you, by a route we’ve seen many times, to over-condemnation of others—you have no method of judging them, so you latch on to utterances out of context, you condemn them as vicious and dishonest, that’s your characteristic method of judging. After a while, and not too long a while, on this policy, you come to feel, “Everybody I actually meet and deal with is irrational, they’re all unjust, they’re all dishonest.” And then you think, “You see, I was right to distrust everybody.” And yet, in fact, you were wrong, because the over-condemnation was a warped by-product of the mind/body dichotomy, which then worked to make it seem even more true.

I think there are important points here. I like especially how Peikoff connected the idea of a misanthropic attitude to other rationalist flaws, and his idea that the misanthropic attitude can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lots to think about here - something that warrants further chewing (in a future post, maybe).

Peikoff says he’s not arguing that you should try to see the good in everybody, because maybe the good isn’t there. But sometimes it is, and you should try to be objective and see it in the mixture between good and bad. Peikoff gives the example of the movie E.T.. He says it has various flaws and certainly isn’t Objectivist, and that liking it or not liking it would be in the realm of reasonable optional reactions. Calling it “[a]nother sign of today’s evil world”, though, would be too harsh according to Peikoff. I don’t remember this movie well enough to have an opinion about it.

To be continued…