Summary of Understanding Objectivism, Part 3

Final part of a summary of the main ideas of Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism".

Lecture Eleven

I finished reading Understanding Objectivism so I thought it'd be worth it to go through and talk about some important ideas from the book.

When I ended last time, I had summarized every chapter except Lecture Eleven, "Intellectual Honesty", so I'll summarize that chapter now and give some closing comments. Since I wrote about that chapter across six posts, this summary will take a bit.

Peikoff defined intellectual dishonesty as involving the manufacturing of some new fact (which sets dishonesty apart from mere evasion). Peikoff thinks that rationalists are too quick to condemn people as dishonest, but that there are some inherently dishonest positions. As examples of inherently dishonest views, he gives explicit attacks on reason/reality, explicit attacks on values as such, and advocacy of totalitarian states. I had some doubts about Peikoff's examples.

Peikoff thinks that judging someone's honesty involves judging their context. You're trying to figure out what someone "could have grasped" if they'd tried to grasp something, given their context. This involves two major factors: the evidence available to the person (based on things like their age, profession, historical era, and intelligence), and their ability to take in the evidence using a psychoepistemological method.

Things like profession, historical era, and age matter in determining what someone should know and thus what knowledge they're having to disregard when they make up false facts (e.g. a scientist might know a bunch of criticisms of certain climate change narratives but disregard them to help push a certain narrative; a communist at the time of the Russian revolution might honestly think communism will work out). Peikoff is pessimistic about fixing rationalists or empiricists with bad psychoepistemological methods.

Peikoff makes the important point that you have to take into account someone's understanding of a term in judging their honesty. He thinks that you can't put someone on the hook morally for all the implications of their beliefs that they don't see (I agree). I considered the difference between honesty and integrity: basically, integrity is loyalty to your ideas/beliefs/convictions/principles and honesty is loyalty to your knowledge of reality (given your context).

In my fourth post on this lecture, I looked at an applied example of a dispute about honesty between Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson. That was my own self-assignment and not based on anything in Peikoff's lectures. Having just skimmed through it, I thought the attempt to apply Peikoff's ideas to a real-world example was a really good one, and that I should have done more of this kind of thing in my project.

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. This is important material.

In Part 6, I looked at Peikoff's discussion of the issue of sanctioning evil. He basically says that people try to apply the sanction of evil idea dogmatically, but that "[y]ou 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." He considers cases like being an employee or a student in a class. In a relationship amongst equals, as opposed to the professor/student or boss/employee situation, 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.

Closing Comments

I think that Understanding Objectivism is a good book. It has lots of practical and useful advice for people wanting to understand Objectivism more clearly. I thought its discussion of certain mistakes and pitfalls that Rationalists fall into when trying to understand Objectivism was particularly helpful to me.

In terms of my own approach to the material, I think I should have done more applied examples, like I did with analyzing honesty in terms of the Tucker Carlson/Ted Cruz dispute. I fell into a bit of a more summarize-the-chapter pattern towards the end compared to the beginning. Doing tons of dialogue as I did at the start wasn't necessary, but I should have probably done more of that as well. I should probably make some sort of checklist of specific things to try for each chapter if I attempt another such project. Regardless of the errors in method, I felt like I gained some understanding from the book – much more than in a previous, moral casual read. I think part of that was just a matter of going through the material slowly over time, at a regular pace, and having time to think about and process it.