Intellectual Honesty, Part 6

Part 6 of a series 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.

Part 5 Recap

In Part 5, I looked at some of Peikoff’s applied examples of judging honesty. He talked in detail about different reasons someone might claim to like modern art and how they fit on a spectrum of honesty. He also considered religious people and advocates of the welfare state. I thought his examples and analysis were reasonable.

Peikoff also criticized the idea that philosophy pits you against the world, in a section I quoted extensively. He framed this error as related to the mind-body dichotomy and as another example of rationalism. Peikoff talked about how the rationalist fears other people as an element they can’t control — similar to how a repressor fears emotions as an element that they can’t control — and then commits themselves to a solitary existence as a result. Peikoff claims that this sort of misanthropic view winds up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think the connection to the chapter is that Peikoff is providing reasons not to be overly condemnatory towards other people on the issue of honesty. He’s arguing for a more careful and nuanced perspective on the mix of values in other people. And so if you have that more nuanced perspective, then you will be able to make more accurate judgments. If you can do that, you will not fall into the trap of being overly condemnatory and will avoid becoming alienated from the world due to such over-condemnation.

Sanctioning Evil

Peikoff talks about misinterpretations of the idea of sanctioning evil. He says that Objectivists sometimes interpret the idea as saying that you’re obligated to constantly pick fights with your boss or professor over various things, and that this contributes to the sense of being at war with the world. Peikoff says that people try to apply the idea of sanctioning evil as a dogma, but the context is critical.

You have to know what the exact situation is, what the alleged evil is, what your relationship to the perpetrator is, whether your silence means that you endorse what he is saying, and so on.

Peikoff says:

Ethics tells us only that we should not help out evil, whether actively or passively, because that will redound to your own long-range harm; the evil is the anti-life.

However, you have to know in a particular context what evil is and what a sanction would consist of.

Peikoff says someone wrote to him earlier in the course about how they felt guilty due to not opposing the irrationality of their boss. They don’t give a lot of details and so Peikoff says he doesn’t know the person’s context, but despite that he can say that you are typically not responsible to tell your boss what you think about your boss’s opinions. There’s no implication that if you work for someone, you agree with their views. An employer-employee relationship is different than a relationship between friends. The employer-employee relationship is one where you exchange your labor for money. Peikoff says that there could be contexts where you should speak up. One example he gives is where the boss’s irrationality means you have to personally do evil work that would benefit e.g. Soviet Russia or something like that. In that case, you should speak up, refuse, even quit if needed. But normally, your silence does not imply anything about your viewpoint. Peikoff notes that a decent boss will realize that he’s in a powerful position and not spout off his controversial views to his employees. This whole analysis seems reasonable. I appreciated Peikoff’s recognition of the position of power a boss is in regarding talking about their views.

Peikoff looks at the case of someone in college. He frames the issue as whether you should let your professor in the class know that you disagree every time you do. That almost seems like a strawman framing to me with obvious problems, but I know from my own experience in making errors and from Peikoff’s discussion elsewhere in the book that very silly applications of philosophical principles are possible. A couple of immediate problems that occur to me with the idea of raising every disagreement in class: there might be minor disagreements that don’t matter; you’re actually pretty constrained in the time you have to raise issues, and also have other things to consider in terms of using your class time, such as raising clarifying questions about whatever material you’re actually supposed to be learning in the class. Peikoff says he realized he couldn’t speak up every time he disagreed, because he disagreed with everything (lol). Peikoff says sometimes he raised issues just to let the professor know there was disagreement, and other times he just felt like he had to say something. Peikoff says that you have to look at the context, including things like the importance of the issue, the difficulty of saying something briefly, your own understanding of the issue, how big the class was (since a small seminar involves more of an issue of implied agreement, which is a good point), whether the professor would hurt your grade for the disagreement, and how strongly you feel. These seem like valid factors to consider to me. One thing I’d be concerned about, though, is that there is a lot of social pressure and conformity in a college environment. Part of what the rationalist mistakenly tries to do is maintain their own purity by being aloof and being dogmatic. That doesn’t work well. But when you take an approach that’s like “well, you have to take into account all the facts and circumstances and various factors”, that leaves people with a tremendous amount of wiggle room and ambiguity with which to rationalize their own conformity and loss of principle over time. Each IRL situation is pretty complicated, and so if you don’t have some sort of principle to grasp onto that can help you cut through that complexity, it can be easy to lose yourself and just go with the flow. And it’s hard to get external help about that sort of thing, because if you’re in a class and something happens, and then you try to describe the situation and what was going on to someone else in order to get criticism about whether you did the right thing, your very description of the situation and context may be colored by your desire to let yourself off the hook. This might not even be intentional — you might just subconsciously retain a recollection of the situation in the class that is consistent with your desire to not speak up and which makes that desire reasonable. Losing your principles by a thousand cuts is part of what the rationalist (as Peikoff has described them) is trying to address, except their principles are too simplistic/dogmatic and not actually calibrated well to reality, so trying to live a real life according to them doesn’t work too well. So I guess the solution is maybe something like being able to do the sort of contextual analysis of many factors Peikoff is talking about, while at the same time making a good faith effort to live a principled life and not let yourself off the hook with rationalizations about how you didn’t speak up when you could have. Sounds hard!

Peikoff says that in a relationship amongst equals, as opposed to the professor/student or boss/employee situations he’s been discussing, that there can be more of an obligation to speak up if somebody says something you disagree with. But even in that situation, you have to think about whether the person is worth speaking to, whether anybody will listen, whether it’s an appropriate forum, and so on. He also says that if you don’t like arguing generally, that’s something to consider. You can also give a brief indication of your disagreement and leave things at that. Regarding one of Peikoff’s points here, I think people not liking to argue can be related to people not wanting to judge other people or being afraid of the judgments of other people. I think it’s often not just an arbitrary, optional preference. So there might be a moral issue there. But even still, one shouldn’t force oneself to engage in arguments and condemn other people to try to be moral or something like that. But I think the reason why you don’t like arguing warrants consideration.

Dealing With Despair

Peikoff says sometimes you’ll feel overwhelmed with the situation in the world, if you’re someone who takes ideas seriously and if you observe concretes that indicate how bad the world situation is. He says that, first, you should accept these attacks of despair as legitimate (assuming you’re reacting to something real and not a rationalist construct). He says that even Rand had them, that Rand said Dominique was herself in a bad mood, and that Ideal captures that mood (describing Ideal as “the kind of play that Dominique would have written if Dominique were a playwright—it’s a beautiful, very bitter play.”) Second, he says that you should try to minimize the occasions for such moods. Some stuff you can’t avoid dealing with, but some you can.

For instance, if you know that a party is going to be filled with particularly disgusting people, why go? If you know that a movie is going to turn your stomach, avoid it, unless there’s some overriding reason. I don’t say avoid every negative, but I also say you don’t have to seek out situations where you know you’re going to be revolted.

He says that, finally, to deal with the actual attack itself, you should let yourself feel it some — don’t repress — but then remind yourself about what you know about life and philosophy, and reestablish a broader context. E.g. Peikoff talked about an example of some students at a debate in New York being really nasty, and he says that he had to remind himself that New York is worse than other places in various ways and so are college kids.

Regarding dealing with despair, Peikoff’s advice overlaps a lot with Stoic themes (regarding accepting emotional reactions, not repressing them but feeling them, and focusing on what you can actually affect). That’s interesting because in Lecture Ten Peikoff trashed the Stoics as being emotion-repressors. While my understanding of the Stoics is still admittedly second-hand in the sense that I haven’t engaged with primary material hardly at all, every modern Stoic I’ve read read rejects Peikoff’s characterization and considers that characterization to basically be an ancient smear.

Peikoff says that philosophy and Objectivism in particular should be an aid to enjoying life, if properly chewed and understood. I agree.