by Robert W. Tracinski
Before I begin, I would like to make a few comments about the method I use in analyzing Kelley’s views. I believe that the primary way one ought to approach Kelley’s statements—and to refute them—is the approach that Leonard Peikoff took in “Fact and Value.” One ought first to identify the essential philosophical fallacy behind Kelley’s views, rather than entering into a detailed analysis of his arguments. To enter into a detailed discussion first would indicate a failure to grasp the fundamental issue: Kelley’s split between fact and value.
I say all of this in order to make clear why I am entering into just such a detailed, point-by-point analysis. There are two reasons. First, a full analysis serves to make the problems with Kelley’s article absolutely clear, and to show how far from Objectivism Kelley really is. Hence, this kind of analysis can be useful as a secondary critique within the context of a more fundamental analysis such as “Fact and Value.” Moreover, it provides an interesting and challenging exercise in philosophical detection.
In this article, I will present the points of Kelley’s philosophy and support them with evidence from the text. I am assuming a fairly close familiarity with “A Question of Sanction,” so a re-reading is suggested. I will give the location of quotes by paragraph number (i.e. P1, P2, etc.). My goal is to present a coherent view of David Kelley’s philosophy, as presented in “A Question of Sanction,” and to contrast it with Objectivism. I will be working both from explicit and unambiguous statements, from clues in the phrasing of Kelley’s article, and from my knowledge of his other works. In investigating the philosophical clues in “Sanction,” my main consideration is to find unifying threads in Kelley’s thought—ideas which unite apparently unrelated views and explain apparent conflicts and contradictions in Kelley’s statements.
I realize that “A Question of Sanction” is a small text from which I draw some very large conclusions. However, I believe Kelley’s statements since his publication of this article have corroborated my interpretation of his philosophy.
This essay was originally written in 1989, shortly after “A Question of Sanction” was made public, and distributed over electronic mail in 1990. Since then, it has enjoyed a wide distribution over the Internet and a longevity that I never expected.
In 1994, having discovered how widely it was distributed, I made a number of revisions to the essay in order to correct some of the immaturites in its style. The content, however, has not been altered.
On seeing this current edition, I have only one reservation. In the original preface, I warned that “A Question of Sanction” is “a small text from which I draw some very large conclusions.” Today, seven years later, such a feat of philosophical detection is no longer necessary. Kelley’s subsequent writings (such as “Truth and Toleration” and “Unrugged Individualism”) and the policies of his institute have provided reams of new evidence concerning Kelley’s ideas.
All of Kelley’s subsequent work, however, has followed the basic themes established in “A Question of Sanction.” Thus, I believe that this essay is still a valuable dissection of Kelley’s attack on Objectivism, and I hope that those who are new to the ideas of Ayn Rand will continue to find it helpful.
Robert W. Tracinski
December 10, 1996
As Leonard Peikoff demonstrated in “Fact and Value,” the major idea presented in “Sanction” is the separation between fact and value. This separation appears in five different forms in Kelley’s article.
1) The separation between volition and ideas.
Kelley severs the connection between one’s choices and one’s ideas.
It is also true that a given person may accept false ideas through evasion, which is morally wrong. But another person might adopt the same idea through honest error. The assumption that libertarians as such are immoral [an assumption which is not actually made by Objectivists] is therefore an egregious insult. Some are honest and rational, some are not. The same is true for any other ideological group, including Objectivists. It is a gross non-sequitur to infer that because an idea is false, its adherents are evil for holding it. (P12, emphasis added)
Kelley says that one may be honest and rational, yet arrive at any ideological result. One’s volitional intentions (intellectual honesty) and method of thinking (rationality) have no necessary connection to the ideas that one arrives at. Think of what this means: No matter how honest and scrupulous you are as a thinker, you still might be wrong. There is no approach that can steer you in the right direction.
This is part of the implicit theme of skepticism which runs throughout “A Question of Sanction.” Kelley believes that one can be honest and rational, yet still be subject to massive error. Then how can one ever be sure that one’s ideas are correct? Kelley’s separation of honesty and rationality from their results subjects all cognitive contents as such to doubt. This is the classic formula of skepticism—doubt as a blanket accusation against all knowledge. There is some corroborating evidence of this in the way that Kelley talks about the relationship between tolerance and certainty in paragraphs 14 and 15. “Certainty,” he says, “is contextual.” One’s ideas are connected to reality by a long and complex chain, which “presupposes an enormous context” (P14). So we must approach others “on an equal footing, a mutual willingness to be persuaded by the facts” (P15).
Think of what it would mean to approach an argument “on an equal footing” and with “a mutual willingness to be persuaded by the facts” when the idea being argued is “existence exists.” You would think that this is ridiculous, since the truth of this proposition is self-evident. What possible argument could there be? What facts could possibly persuade you? If you enter into an argument on this subject at all, you do not do it with an “openness” to opposing arguments. Your motive is not to check whether your ideas are right, or to “strengthen the foundations of [your] own beliefs” (P16), but only to see why it is that another person claims to doubt that existence exists, and to show him why any such doubt is absurd.
The same thing applies to other ideas, not just to axioms. The point is merely clearer with axioms, because they are self-evident. The key is certainty. To be certain of an idea is to see clearly its connection to reality. That is, you see the truth of the idea as clearly as you would see a truck coming down the road at you. (This is what Leonard Peikoff sometimes refers to as a “truck-like” understanding of an idea.) Doubting such an idea is as absurd as doubting the existence of the truck.
In the case of axioms and trucks, Kelley might agree. But when the idea involved reaches a sufficient degree of complexity, if the chain linking it to reality becomes sufficiently long, or if the context required is large enough, Kelley seems to regard truck-like certainty as impossible. The idea’s connection to reality is never, and can never be, completely clear. One must always leave open the possibility that there is a fact lurking unnoticed that will wipe out one’s ideas. What kind of ideas are subject to this kind of doubt? Kelley makes that clear: “[Tolerance] is appropriate not only among people who disagree about the application of principles they share, but also among people who disagree on the principles themselves” (P14). Thus, philosophical principles (e.g. life as the standard of value, the integration of mind and body, emotions as subconsciously automatized value-judgements) are subject to this kind of inherent uncertainty.
This gives the lie to Kelley’s statement that “tolerance is not a weak-kneed confession of uncertainty” (P14). Kelley states that it is the recognition of the fact that “certainty is contextual.” However, he then interprets the contextual nature of certainty to mean that at any moment, what one believes might be wrong. According to Kelley, to be certain of an idea is merely to regard it as true pending its possible falsification by as yet undiscovered facts. The difference between Kelley and Ayn Rand is best expressed by paraphrasing a standard formula which Peikoff uses to explain contextual certainty. According to Kelley, with the growth of knowledge, one becomes more certain (and sometimes less). According to Rand, with the growth of knowledge, one becomes certain of more.
It is true that everyone is fallible. Note, however, the conclusion which Dr. Peikoff draws from this fact.
That man is fallible means that, on the conceptual level of cognition, he is not automatically right; he is not so built that error is impossible to him; he is not so built that the mere presence of an idea in his mind guarantees its truth. It follows that man cannot accept uncritically whatever ideas occur to him. In order to know an idea’s truth, a fallible being must do something; he must form his conclusions by a specific method, a method which will distinguish right from wrong, or reality from unreality. An infallible consciousness could accept with impunity whatever happened to strike it; the responsibility of a fallible consciousness is to validate its conclusions by a specific process.
The science which defines the proper method of validating conclusions is epistemology. … If you follow this method, with all of its implications, your conclusions have been validated and you are entitled to claim them as true. (“Maybe You’re Wrong,” The Objectivist Forum, April 1981) Peikoff starts with the premise that man is fallible, and arrives at the conclusion that man must discover and use a method by which he can assure the validity of his ideas. Peikoff’s assumption is that to know reality is within our power, but that it requires some specific kind of method. Kelley, on the other hand, interprets fallibility to mean that no such method is possible, that one can be honest and rational and arrive at any ideological result.
It is also true that philosophical ideas are complex, and an explicit understanding and justification of the correct ideas requires effort. But there are basic issues which everyone faces and which everyone has the capacity to grasp on some level. A full, explicit understanding of these issues may be difficult and complex, but their implicit grasp and acceptance is not. One does not have to obtain a Ph.D. in philosophy, for example, to grasp that one must think in order to obtain knowledge, or that one must work in order to sustain one’s life. Hence, an honest and rational man may be wrong on many issues (especially technical philosophic issues or complex applications of philosophy) but he cannot go very far astray. Grasping reality is something that is within our power; for an honest and rational person, fallibility has its limits.
What are these limits? In “Fact and Value,” Peikoff gives several examples of inherently dishonest ideas. These are ideas which, by their very nature, undermine any basis on which one could form an honest belief in them. For example: Honesty and rationality both depend on the acceptance of and adherence to the evidence of the senses. Hence, it is impossible to honestly and rationally believe in the rejection of the senses, as in the case of an advocate of “New Age” religion.
Kelley’s views on this issue have some other interesting implications which appear in “Sanction.” The first is a method/content dichotomy. Because Kelley holds that a rational method does not yield or imply any particular content, he holds that the word “Objectivism” does not designate primarily content, but method. “Ayn Rand left us a magnificent system of ideas. But it is not a closed system. It is a powerful engine of integration. Let us not starve it of fuel by shutting our minds to what is good in other approaches.” (P18) Most of the intellectual content of Objectivism—to use actual examples: the concept of “sense of life,” the Objectivist theory of free will, and the need for government—may be sacrificed to maintain an “open system,” but the “powerful engine of integration” must be maintained. (Similarly, there are those who have attempted to reduce Objectivism to only the Objectivist theory of concept-formation.) The second implication is a form of subjectivism. “Above all, let us encourage independent thought among ourselves. Let us welcome dissent…” (P18, emphasis added) Kelley’s equation of independent thought with dissent is a subjectivist extension of his skepticism. If rationality can lead to many different ideas and one can never claim certainty, then independent thought will rarely lead to agreement with others, and the demand for agreement will be tyrannical; it will be an attack on “independent thought.”
There is one more somewhat tangential but interesting note which I will include before going on. I stated before that the separation between volition and ideas implies that the choice to focus may still lead one to false ideas. Conversely, this also implies that the choice to evade may lead one to true ideas. This might explain Kelley’s endorsement of Barbara Branden’s pseudo-biography of Ayn Rand. In his system, it is plausible that someone can be a neurotic evader (as Branden portrays Ayn Rand), yet still produce a brilliant system of ideas.
2) The exclusion of cognition from moral evaluation.
Tolerance is not a virtue where evil is concerned … But it is a virtue in the cognitive realm. (P14) The concept of evil applies primarily to actions and those who perform them. … Truth and falsity, not good or evil, are the primary evaluative concepts which apply to ideas… (P11-P12)
Soviet tyrants are not evil because they believe in Marxian collectivism. They are evil because they have murdered millions of people and enslaved hundreds of millions more. An academic Marxist who subscribes to the same ideas as Lenin or Stalin does not have the same moral status. He is guilty of the same intellectual error, but not of their crimes… (P11)
Morality, says Kelley, applies only to actions. If a man performs an anti-life action, then we can legitimately judge him as evil. (Even this is questionable, according to some of Kelley’s supporters. See articles by Robert Bidinotto and Gregory Johnson.) But ideas are not subject to moral evaluation, and if a man holds a false idea, then he is simply wrong, but we can in no way conclude that he is evil. The content of a man’s mind—and his intellectual associations, such as membership in the Libertarian Party—in no way reflects upon his character. This is closely associated with the following point.
3) The separation of the mind from life.
It is true that the horrors of this century were made possible by irrationalist and collectivist ideas. Bad ideas can be dangerous; that’s one reason we shouldn’t endorse them. But they are dangerous because people use them to perpetrate evil. We are not Hegelians; ideas per se are not agents in the world. (P12)
This point is not quite stated explicitly, but key points of phrasing (along with previously quoted passages) show a consistent pattern of thinking on this issue. Let us examine the above quote piece by piece. “…the horrors of this century were made possible by irrationalist and collectivist ideas … But [these ideas] are dangerous because people use them to perpetrate evil.” Notice the view of action which this implies. Evil actions do not result from bad ideas; they are simply made possible by bad ideas. Acting on bad ideas is not a source of evil. Bad ideas are simply a means of perpetrating evil. Evil itself has its source elsewhere, and it exists independently of ideas, thought, and the “cognitive realm.” Kelley sees choice, not as choice in the “cognitive realm”—the choice to focus or evade—but as a choice simply among alternative actions. (See his discussion of choice in his pamphlet “Life, Liberty and Property” for more on this.) Ideas may prepare the way for, or aid the perpetration of, evil actions, but they are in no way responsible for producing those actions. The choice of actions is an independent primary. Hence, “bad ideas can be dangerous.” This “can be” is very significant. I am reminded of a statement by John Ridpath, who declared emphatically in one lecture that “bad ideas kill.” This integral connection between thought and action is simply something that Kelley does not see.
4) The separation of values from the rest of philosophy.
…one’s philosophical enemies—i.e., those who hold values fundamentally inimical to one’s own… (Peter Schwartz, “On Sanctioning the Sanctioners”) Schwartz asserts that we should not sanction the Soviets because they are “philosophical enemies.” This is a bizarre interpretation of their sins. (P11)
While Schwartz sees values as an integral part of philosophy and as the connection between ideas and action, Kelley sees values as unconnected to the rest of philosophy. Kelley’s example of the honest academic Marxist is very important here. In reality, Marxism is not a set of detached intellectual methods and ideas. Marxism implies and contains a set of values which are integral to it. In order to uphold the ideals of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” any Marxist— especially an academic one, who can be expected to understand the ideas and their implications—must hold an inveterate hatred for reason, ability, ambition, selfishness, and independence. He must systematically turn against human life. He must also accept evasion as a virtue, because he must blank out his knowledge of the destruction that Marxism has produced whenever and wherever it has been applied. According to Kelley, however, no set of values is integral to Marxism. An academic Marxist may be honest, rational, and pro-life, yet still uphold his belief in Marxism. For Kelley, a philosophy is a set of ideas out there in the “cognitive realm,” with no connection to values or action.
This separation of values from the rest of philosophy helps explain Kelley’s view of Libertarianism and the ethical foundations of rights. Because Schwartz recognizes the connection between philosophy and values, he also recognizes that “Libertarians are patently not allies in the ideological battle for capitalism…” (“On Sanctioning the Sanctioners”) But Kelley does see them as allies, and he speaks to them as allies. In speaking before them, he assumed that they do indeed hold capitalism as a value, then proposed to teach them the proper philosophical justification for capitalism. (See “Life, Liberty, and Property,” the published version of his speech.) This is the very approach which is central to Libertarianism and its interpretation of the “marketplace of ideas.” Liberty is taken as a primary, and one shops for a philosophy to fit with that primary, but the value of liberty is seen as independent of philosophy. Kelley agrees in viewing values as primaries which are independent of ideas. Hence, he does not regard Objectivism as the only foundation of capitalism. Rather, he says, “Ayn Rand’s ethics is a better foundation for rights than any alternative.” (P5, emphasis added)
5) Endorsement vs. sanction.
All of the ideas discussed above are integrated in the way in which Kelley looks at the issue of dealing with Libertarians. He sees two discrete issues: endorsement and sanction. A cardinal principle of Objectivist ethics is that one should not give evil the moral sanction it needs to justify itself and disarm its victims. And a principle of responsible advocacy is that one should not endorse false ideas. These principles are related, but they are not the same. (P10) An academic Marxist…is guilty of the same intellectual error, but not of their crimes, unless and to the extent that he actively supported them… (P11)
Kelley sees endorsement as an intellectual matter applying only in the “cognitive realm.” One must not signal agreement with ideas with which one disagrees. Sanction, on the other hand, applies only to the realm of values and action. One must not give moral or material support to evil. A man who endorses Marxism is completely different from one who gives material support to those who put Marxism into practice. For Kelley, the realm of ideas and the realm of values are separate. Thus, endorsement applies in the one realm, and sanction applies in the other. Endorsement concerns only intellectual matters of agreement and disagreement—i.e. of truth or falsehood. Sanction concerns only matters of values and action—i.e. of good or evil.
Kelley does not even hold consistently to his own version of the principle of not sanctioning evil. I cannot engage my opponents without conferring some benefit on them, in some indirect and attenuated fashion—buying their books, helping them retain their audience, or the like. [Notice that all such benefits are conceived as purely material and practical, not intellectual.] If every such benefit is to be condemned as aiding the enemy, then one cannot participate in the marketplace of ideas. …In any given case, therefore, I weigh the costs of association against the possible gains. (P2-P3)
Kelley can offer no principle to guide one’s dealings with others, and instead offers a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis. This is a result of his separation of sanction from the “cognitive realm.” In Kelley’s system, how could one decide between gaining a cognitive benefit (spreading one’s ideas) at the price of conferring material and practical benefits? Since these are separate realms, there is no standard, no common principle according to which one can decide. So, “In weighing these and other matters, I am always looking for long-range strategic gain at minimal cost. That’s how you fight a war of ideas.” (P3)
In summary, Kelley’s philosophy, as expressed in “A Question of Sanction,” is as follows: True or false ideas do not result from good or bad choices, but each can result from either choice. Similarly, true and false ideas do not result in good or bad actions. The realm of good and evil—the realm of choice—exists outside of, and independent from, the “cognitive realm.” Hence, we must not apply moral evaluation to ideas or those who hold them. We must make sure not to endorse false ideas, and not to sanction evil actions, but these apply to separate realms which must be kept distinct. Philosophy and values, ideas and actions, fact and value, are not connected; they are independent primaries.
My second major point about “Sanction” is epistemological. I base my thinking on this issue largely on an article entitled “Reintroducing the Measurements: An Old Fallacy with a New Name” by Bennett Karp. Thus, I will only touch lightly on this issue and refer you to Mr. Karp’s article for a fuller account.
Even if we accept the principle that libertarianism as such is a vice, there would be a vast degree of difference between libertarianism and a regime which has the blood of millions on its hands. When we formulate moral principles, we may abstract from such differences of degree; we omit measurements, as Ayn Rand explained. But when we apply the principles in forming moral judgments about particulars, we must reintroduce the relevant measurements. (P9)
My first reaction after reading this was “So what?” Of what significance is it that there is a difference of degree between Libertarians and the Soviets? They are both still evil and should be treated accordingly. (As I indicated earlier, Objectivists do not exclude the possibility of an honest Libertarian. However, if one applies the judgment of evil to those who knowingly embrace the core and substance of Libertarianism, then it is correct.) Kelley’s argument appeared as a complete non sequitur: Libertarianism is a trivial evil—therefore, we should not regard it as an evil.
My second reaction was to question whether there is actually a difference of degree between Libertarians and the Soviets. Surely there are some important differences. The Soviets have put their ideas into practice and their leaders have been responsible for the deaths of millions. It would therefore be moral, for example, to put the Soviet leaders on trial and to execute them for their crimes. Most Libertarians, on the other hand, are not actual criminals, and many may be well-meaning individuals who do not realize that they are supporting anarchy. Aside from that, however, the only major differences are that the Libertarians have not yet had a chance to put their ideas into practice, and in a Libertarian society—i.e., under anarchy—murder and slavery would be decentralized. The real heart of Libertarianism—which dwells with the nihilists, subjectivists, and anarchists—is a hatred of reason, life, and true liberty as profound as anything one could find within the ranks of the Soviets. The nihilism which is the essence of the Libertarian movement is not a trivial evil. In this respect, at least, there is no difference of degree.
Finally, however, I read Mr. Karp’s article and realized that the real content of this section is not the invalid or inconsistent application of a correct principle, but rather an attack on principles as such. Notice the strong barrier which Kelley erects between a principle and its application to a particular case. Kelley’s emphasis is not on the fact that the principle which applies to the Libertarians and the Soviets is the same, but rather that the particular measurements are different. This is an indication of his separation of concepts from percepts. Specifically, Kelley believes that a large enough difference in degree takes precedence over a similarity in kind. Soviets and Libertarians may be integrated under the same concept, but when we go down from the conceptual level and take into consideration their specific measurements, we must still treat them as if they are fundamentally different. As further evidence, see Kelley’s case-by-case, pragmatic approach towards accepting speaking engagements, as stated in P3. He sees each case as a separate and unique instance, with only a loose set of pragmatic guidelines—but no principles—to guide his decisions.
This is only a brief indication, and for the full argument I refer the reader again to Mr. Karp’s article.
The third major note about “Sanction” concerns the intellectual honesty of Kelley’s assertions and his style of argument.
Truth and falsity…are the primary evaluative concepts which apply to ideas as such. (P12)…ideas per se are not agents in the world. (P12, emphasis added)
The phrases “primary,” “as such,” and “per se” are used by Kelley as means of waffling on the important issue of the connection between fact and value. If truth and falsity are the “primary” evaluative concepts which apply to ideas, one would expect there to be secondary evaluative concepts, namely, good and evil; but, Kelley later asserts, this would be “non-intellectual” and “intolerant.” If truth and falsity apply to ideas “as such,” then one would expect there to be a broader context in which other evaluative concepts (good and evil) apply; but, says Kelley, that would exhibit “a kind of zealotry.” If ideas “per se” are not agents in the world, then one would expect that there is a broader sense in which they are agents in the world; but, says Kelley, this is a “bizarre interpretation.”
When words are used as tools of communication, an author who uses “primary,” “as such,” and “per se” expects the reader to remember “secondary,” “in a different sense,” and “in another respect” as their correlatives. In fact, he is specifically directing the reader’s attention to those correlatives and is promising that he will deal with them later. However, Kelley uses these phrases, not as tools of communication, but as tools of obfuscation. His purpose is not to remind the reader that there are secondary evaluative concepts that apply to ideas or that ideas are agents in the world via actions. He certainly wants to conjure up those implications in the reader’s mind, but only to obscure his rejection of them. He wants to make unclear the common theme which unites the first and second halves of paragraph 12, where he moves from “truth and falsity are the primary evaluative concepts which apply to ideas as such” to “it is a gross non-sequitur to infer that because an idea is false, its adherents are evil for holding it.” The motive should be clear. Had Kelley stated his ideas outright, especially in this crucial section of “A Question of Sanction” his rejection of Objectivism would have been too obvious for even him and his supporters to ignore.
Kelley is walking a tight-rope, trying to avoid facing his rejection of Objectivism. Accordingly, he uses Objectivist terminology and a badly mangled version of Objectivist ideas to present his attack on Objectivism. He is not straightforward enough to admit to the reader (or, apparently, to himself) that what he believes is not Objectivism, that his ideas are in fact opposed to Objectivism.
It seems that when Kelley says “We are not Hegelians,” he is being a bit too hasty. Note the following pairs of contradictions—what Hegel might have called “unities of opposites.”
…to explain why Ayn Rand’s ethics is a better foundation for rights than any alternative. (P4) Then, a mere fourteen lines later…
…my explanation of why individual rights and capitalism cannot be established without reference to certain key principles of Objectivism… (P6, emphasis added)
Thesis: Objectivism is one of many legitimate foundations for rights.
Antithesis: Objectivism is the only foundation for rights.
Synthesis: When addressing a Libertarian audience, Kelley can imply that there are many foundations for rights, but when addressing an Objectivist audience, he can imply that Objectivism is the only foundation. Thus, no one is offended and no one is harangued in a spirit of sectarian hostility.
Tolerance is not a virtue where evil is concerned… But it is a virtue in the cognitive realm. (P13)
Thesis: Moral evaluation does not apply to the cognitive realm. If tolerance is not a virtue where evil is concerned, but it is a virtue in the cognitive realm, then evil must not apply to the cognitive realm. But if there is no evil in the cognitive realm, then there is no good, and moral evaluation does not apply to the cognitive realm.
Antithesis: Moral evaluation does apply to the cognitive realm. If tolerance is a virtue in the cognitive realm, then there is such a thing as virtue in the cognitive realm. But virtue is a moral concept, so moral evaluation must apply to the cognitive realm.
Synthesis: Anything and everything is permissible in the cognitive realm except “intolerance.” The only explicit exception to the principle that moral evaluation does not apply to the cognitive realm is that tolerance is a virtue. Hence, the only vice is intolerance. (Thus, according to some of Kelley’s supporters, Leonard Peikoff is evil, but Immanuel Kant was not.)
Tolerance is not a weak-kneed confession of uncertainty. (P13)
Then, 9 lines later…
We must approach them on an equal footing, a mutual willingness to be persuaded by the facts… (P14)
Thesis: Tolerance is not based on uncertainty.
Antithesis: Tolerance is based on uncertainty.
Synthesis: Kelley (and his supporters), while displaying a mutual willingness to be persuaded by Kantians or Libertarians, can speak out with certainty and righteousness against Leonard Peikoff, et al.
The great minds of the Enlightenment declared war against the entire apparatus of intolerance: the obsession with official or authorized doctrine … These are the techniques of irrational philosophies… But they have no place in a philosophy of reason. (P16)
Thesis: There should be no “official” Objectivism.
Antithesis: “Tolerance” is an official part of Objectivism. To say that there is no place for an idea in a philosophy of reason (by which he means Objectivism) is to say that idea can officially be said not to be a part of Objectivism; the “open system” is not open to that idea. To that extent, an official doctrine has been established.
Synthesis: Anything and everything is compatible with Objectivism, except the view that there are some things which are not compatible with Objectivism.
In any philosophy, a self-contradiction hardly ever stands in a vacuum; it is usually based on a more fundamental contradiction. In Kelley’s philosophy, the hierarchy of contradictions is as follows (starting with the most fundamental contradiction and working to less fundamental contradictions).
a) Skepticism: We know that we know nothing.
b) Uncertainty: We are certain that certainty is impossible.
c) Condemnation of Moral Judgment: We must judge as evil those who judge others as evil.
d) Militant Tolerationism: We must tolerate everything except intolerance. Kelley wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to eliminate the claims to certainty of his opponents without undermining his own position. He wants to close Objectivism off from closedness. He wants to claim moral superiority in the cognitive realm for the idea that there can be no moral evaluation in the cognitive realm. He wants to pass moral judgment on others while avoiding moral judgment himself.
3) The twisting of facts
The facts about Libertarianism, Laissez-Faire Books and the Laissez-Faire Supper Club (whom he uses as examples of fairness and honesty!), and The Passion of Ayn Rand are so clear to anyone with a serious knowledge of them and of Objectivism, as to be almost beyond debate. (I refer you to the Laissez-Faire Books catalog for information on that organization.) There are, as I have described above, reasons in Kelley’s philosophy for his evasion of those facts, but he still must evade them. That he does so while claiming Objectivism as his basis is doubly dishonest. That he does so while claiming to be truer to Objectivism than Leonard Peikoff and Peter Schwartz—and even Ayn Rand(!)—is triply dishonest.
But the following defines a new order of magnitude of dishonesty:
But if we approach ideas with the question: good or evil?, … We will substitute condemnation for argument, and adopt a non-intellectual, intolerant attitude toward any disagreement with our views. (P13)
…the obsession with official or authorized doctrine, the concepts of heresy and blasphemy, the party lines and intellectual xenophobia, the militant hostility among rival sects, the constant schisms and breaks, the character assassinations of those who fall from grace. (P17)
Consider to whom these descriptions are meant to apply: Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, Peter Schwartz, Harry Binswanger, John Ridpath, etc. There is no objective basis in their actions and statements that could make them liable to even mistaken accusations of this sort. (In fact, many of these people were remarkably tolerant of Kelley, even after he wrote “A Question of Sanction.”) Kelley’s condemnation applies, not just to the leaders of the Objectivist movement, but to all so-called “orthodox” Objectivists. I take great offense at this slander, both for myself and for those whom I know who are also its targets. And if the shoe fits, I encourage you to wear it. Taking these remarks personally can be a great help in getting the full impact of Kelley’s meaning.
1) Kelley’s view of ideas.
David Kelley believes that one holds ideas in the same way as the academic Marxist whom he cites. They are something “out there,” a chess game with pieces to be manipulated and complex flanking maneuvers to be performed. But they have no more significance than the pieces of a game. Ideas are not matters of life and death; they have no reflection on one’s values, one’s character, one’s moral status or the way one lives one’s life. Values, for Kelley, are a separate, independent realm, a realm which is not derived from or dependent on the realm of ideas. It is very telling that one of the most frequent charges laid by him and his supporters against those who do morally evaluate ideas is that they are “non-intellectual;” according to Kelley, one can give moral significance to ideas only at the expense of their intellectual significance. How much more complete could the separation between fact and value be? Kelley regards ideas and values as not only separate, but incompatible.
One of the most important ideas in “Fact and Value” was Peikoff’s observation that, unless a man has integrated his ideas into the context of his own life and values, their connection to reality does not become fully real for him, and he has not actually understood them. That is, the discovery of the value-implications of a fact is absolutely necessary for a real understanding of that fact. This explains how a man like David Kelley (or, for that matter, Nathaniel Branden) can apparently be quite knowledgeable about Objectivism, and even give very insightful lectures on the philosophy, yet turn around and act as if he’s never heard any of it. To the extent that he ever understood Objectivism, he understood it only in a floating and detached way, which means that he did not really understand it. This is the only way I can think of to explain the fact that we are hearing the basic rhetoric of skepticism, relativism, and pragmatism (dressed up in Objectivist terminology) coming from a former lecturer on Objectivism.
This also explains and integrates the two main intellectual elements of “Sanction,” the separation of fact and value and the rejection of principle. The common theme is that the connection between ideas and reality is not fully real for Kelley. Ideas are all well and good, but when it comes down to values, choices and the important issues in life, they have no real bearing. Principles are all well and good, but when it comes down to dealing with specific instances, we must reintroduce the measurements, consider each case separately and weigh the costs against the possible gains.
2) A moral evaluation.
In coming to a moral evaluation of David Kelley, three factors (any one of which alone is sufficient) are relevant.
First, he ought to know better. A man who served as an intellectual advocate of Objectivism, in fact, as a spokesman for Objectivism, should have made sure of his own agreement and consistency with the philosophy. Furthermore, his level of knowledge of Objectivism allows no room for such a basic and complete rejection of it. It is not honestly possible to have such a close familiarity with Objectivism and nevertheless to reject it.
Second, his views fly in the face of the facts, and sometimes result in massive self-contradictions within the space of a sentence. The number of facts which he must evade (about the nature of the issues, the nature of Objectivism, the nature of his enemies, and the nature of his supporters) is too great to be the result of honest error.
Third, his obfuscation and equivocation on key issues, as well as his claim to speak in the name of a philosophy which he is attacking, indicate a dishonest approach, an attempt not to let the reader—or himself—know his real position or motives.
In conclusion, it is clear that, whether Kelley recognizes it or not, “A Question of Sanction” is his declaration of a full and complete break with Objectivism on all levels, both in theory and in practice.
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