A Brief Retraction

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

I am retracting my recent endorsement of Craig Biddle's article, "Justice for John P. McCaskey," primarily because I no longer agree with its premise that Peikoff morally condemned McCaskey.


-- CAV

Updates

11-13-10
: The interested reader may find links to statements about this matter by ARI and Leonard Peikoff here.

27 comments:

Shea Levy said...

Do you intend to explain in further detail at any point?

Jenn Casey said...

Hi Gus! I want to understand your reasons. Do you mind sharing/pointing to other information?

Gus Van Horn said...

At present, I do not plan to elaborate further.

One thing I will do is urge you to check your premise that Peikoff actually morally condemned McCaskey.

The letter everyone is basing this on was not originally intended for publication. It is harsh in tone, and it does call for ARI to pick between McCaskey and Peikoff, but there is not, in that alone, or even in the face of a lack of an explanation from ARI, sufficient reason in my mind to conclude that there has been a moral condemnation.

To say that there has been a moral condemnation is to make a positive claim, and on the person making such a claim lies the burden of proof.

Russ said...

I agree. While one may have qualms about the tone and content of Peikoff's letter, it is improper to approach the letter with the mind set of judging its philosophical and moral material because the letter is devoid of all such content. Craig Biddle and TOS are great, but I think he has made a mistake. First, one cannot conclude, from the letter, that Peikoff morally condemned McCaskey; secondly, Mr. Biddle is working against the main motivation McCaskey gave for his resignation: to prevent damage and problems for ARI. Right now, it looks like ARI affiliation has been removed from TOS, and Biddle's lectures, one of which I planned on attending, have been canceled--exactly the negative problems McCaskey may have been thinking about.

--RussK

Dana H. said...

I am happy to see that at least one person in the universe agrees with my conclusion that Peikoff's email does not contain a moral condemnation of McCaskey. (See my various comments on NoodleFood for my reasons.)

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you both for your support.

I'll take this moment to add that this change of position is in no way a moral judgement of Craig Biddle any more than it is of myself for agreeing with him at first.

Anonymous said...

Russ:

Is the statement that Peikoff's letter is devoid of all philosophic and moral content a defense of that letter and ARI's reaction to it or a damnation of both?

Thanks.

Chris L said...

Hi Gus.

Does not the "rung in Hell" comment count as moral condemnation?

Anonymous said...

Uh, Peikoff said that McCaskey belongs "in hell" because of his criticisms. Last time I checked, one's presence in either heaven or hell - no matter which rung therein - had to do with one's behavior. That is: one's moral character.

Gus Van Horn said...

Chris,

As part of a larger context, in which Peikoff explained in what respect he's unhappy with McCaskey, it could.

Consider an analogous case: Your coworker does something stupid that might keep you from meeting a critical project deadline. Out of anger, you say, "Go to hell, you moron!"

Is that a moral condemnation, a diagnosis of mental retardation, both, or neither?

Anon.,

See above.

Gus

Anonymous said...

Larger context?

Okay: LP had already had time to have any unexpected emotional reaction. He was already aware of JM's actions. He had already found out about, and discussed with at least one member of the Board (Mann) this topic. He wasn't even speaking to JM directly. He wasn't speaking at all - he was typing. He wasn't typing in real time - he was composing a letter. He wasn't using the hell phrase per se - he was deliberately utilizing one of AR's sayings that doesn't merely express frustration, but makes a particular point. Uh... JM wasn't doing anything that was preventing the "project from meeting the dealine" (ie: private, respectful, constructive criticism's emailed to DH do nothing to prevent LL from being published, promoted, and sold).

I could probably think of a few more...

Gus Van Horn said...

Some of those things are indeed part of the context -- although Peikoff was writing an internal email, and not a "letter" (i.e., formal correspondence).

So was releasing that letter part of the context, and ARI (McCaskey, too, by the way) all should have known it would look bad, and in a way apart from whatever criticisms of the book McCaskey has.

Regarding "analogous" cases, I clearly cooked up a hypothetical situation that could happen to anyone to show just how common angry words can be within an organization.

Please attempt to remember that Leonard Peikoff is a human being and makes mistakes just like anyone else.

Anonymous said...

So if Leonard Peikoff’s letter doesn’t offer a negative moral) judgment of John McCaskey, what does it offer? Peikoff writes to the ARI board that it’s either McCaskey, or him--his way, or the highway. Hey, those millions McCaskey spent to advance Objectivism, that takes him up a notch as Ayn Rand used to say, but Objectivism’s not pragmatism, don’t you know.
Leonard Peikoff’s letter is an utter embarrassment. It doesn’t justify or explain Peikoff’s ultimatum; instead, it only serves to make Peikoff look like a philosophic bully. To be frank, I’m ashamed for him.

Gus Van Horn said...

The email -- it is not really a letter in the sense of being formal correspondence -- doesn't explain the ultimatum fully because it was part of an email correspondence and a larger dialog between Peikoff, McCaskey, and the people at ARI.

Regarding whether the email expresses a moral judgement, maybe it does, but I certainly don't see a condemnation in it, alone.

That said, the letter looks bad. I never said I thought it the best way to announce or explain McCaskey's resignation.

Chris said...

Peikoff stated that McCaskey belonged in Hell. Absent another explanation, this is moral condemnation. The two possible alternatives that occur to me are 1) humor/sarcasm or 2) a clumsily exaggerated metaphor. In either case, it means Peikoff doesn't really believe what he said. Until/unless he clarifies, I need to take him at his word.

I'm reminded of the phrase "no offense" said after some hellaciously offensive statement. It's comically ineffective. Unless through previous interactions it's clear that the person is completely joking - in which case it's just comical.

Like a lot of people, I wish this whole kerfluffle didn't happen. But it did. Unlike some previous controversies, I have ample reasons to respect both sides.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Peikoff stated that McCaskey belonged in Hell. Absent another explanation, this is moral condemnation. The two possible alternatives that occur to me are 1) humor/sarcasm or 2) a clumsily exaggerated metaphor. In either case, it means Peikoff doesn't really believe what he said. Until/unless he clarifies, I need to take him at his word."

Peikoff gave a very low opinion, apparently while irritated or angry, of McCaskey as an ARI board member, in a communication not remotely intended for public consumption when he wrote it.

I'm not even sure what "take him at his word" can mean without even the larger context of even the other emails in this exchange, beyond, "I really don't think he belongs on the board of directors at ARI, and I will quit my association with ARI if you allow him to remain there."

"I'm reminded of the phrase 'no offense' said after some hellaciously offensive statement."

Why?

"It's comically ineffective. Unless through previous interactions it's clear that the person is completely joking - in which case it's just comical."

I don't think Peikoff was being comical.

"Like a lot of people, I wish this whole kerfluffle didn't happen. But it did. Unlike some previous controversies, I have ample reasons to respect both sides."

So do I, and I am going to show that respect by not reading more into an email than that email and the facts surrounding its release I have available to me warrant.

To wit: (1) Peikoff wanted McCaskey off the Board at ARI for (2) not being behind a book ARI had already published. (Might, say, Bill Gates, upon learning that a Microsoft board member used MacIntosh computers exclusively in his home, want him removed?) (3) This letter was put out as an explanation of why McCaskey resigned. (From a PR standpoint: Why on earth?)

Left out of all the speculation I've seen -- and I have been too busy to spend much time on this -- is the question of why McCaskey, if he felt so strongly that ARI was exercising such poor quality control, didn't resign before the book was put out and state that as his reason for doing so.

Now, if McCaskey were thinking about this, wouldn't he have told someone at ARI before actually resigning, on the off-chance that ARI might reconsider and pull the book, or at least know that he'd quit?

If you're with me so far, then consider what Peikoff did. He's not on the board, but does work with ARI. He was concerned for whatever reason about an ARI board member not being behind an ARI book -- enough that he wanted nothing further to do with ARI if that state of affairs continued. So he warned ARI that he'd quit if it did.

What we actually have here is Peikoff doing the initial stages of basically the same thing McCaskey should have done.

Now that I think it of this way, Peikoff, for his anger, actually comes off looking much better than McCaskey to me.

Galileo Blogs said...

Gus,

This really isn't fair:

"Left out of all the speculation I've seen -- and I have been too busy to spend much time on this -- is the question of why McCaskey, if he felt so strongly that ARI was exercising such poor quality control, didn't resign before the book was put out and state that as his reason for doing so."

McCaskey, by all accounts, never considered resigning *until* Peikoff issued the ultimatum. Why should he have considered resigning over the book? It was Peikoff who thought that the concerns over the book merited someone's resignation. McCaskey was trying to have his concerns addressed *internally* until Peikoff blew the whole thing up as public matter by demanding his resignation.

Second, what about McCaskey's factual questions? I have yet to see a rebuttal by Harriman. This really bothers me about this whole matter. Everyone is talking about *form*. They are discussing *how* things are being said, without actually discussing the content of those criticisms.

Lost in this discussion is that McCaskey has made specific charges that there are factual inaccuracies in Harriman's book. That matters. Harriman should rebut McCaskey. He can do one of three things: (1) refute him; state that McCaskey has his facts wrong and that Harriman's version of the facts is correct; (2)state that McCaskey is or might be correct, but that he is nitpicking; his objections are minor; or (3) agree with McCaskey and take his lumps.

If he did one of these things, I would have a lot more respect for Harriman, but to hold radio-silence on factual criticisms disturbs me.

I say this as someone who likes "The Logical Leap" a lot. I am nearly finished with it and I find many applications to economics, the field I care most about. I am not a philosopher, though, so I cannot assess how original or significant his statements regarding induction are, but I found them very enlightening (I can say more later on this).

In this whole mess, the thing that matters most is: objective reality. That means facts. Everyone is so concerned about who offended whom, and that is nearly irrelevant in all this.

I worship true ideas. The authority I worship is my own mind's judgment of the facts. I can respect authority figures, but the mere fact of their prior achievements does not give them a pass on evaluating their current actions.

Gus Van Horn said...

GB,

"Second, what about McCaskey's factual questions? I have yet to see a rebuttal by Harriman. This really bothers me about this whole matter."

This is really the most important point.

Suppose the book is as bad as McCaskey says it is. (I don't know one way or the other, not having read it.) What could/should McCaskey have done, as an ARI board member, about it, assuming that it became clear to him that it would be published despite his then-private criticisms?

This leads me to:

"This really isn't fair: ..."

I'll concede that. I do think it is a possible better alternative to what he did, but you are right: I can't really fault him for not thinking of doing this. However, as a hypothetical scenario, it does shed some light on why Peikoff basically told ARI they had a choice to make.

Perhaps the take-home point here is that this circumstance was very difficult, and perhaps no matter how it was handled, it would look bad in some way -- so making it worse by slinging accusations around based on scant evidence isn't really that productive. (I am not, of course, accusing you of doing so, and will also err on the side of caution by saying now that whatever I imagine McCaskey or Peikoff might ought to have done is not intended as a moral accusation.)

Gus

Galileo Blogs said...

Gus,

McCaskey should not have thought of resigning because he had no reason to resign (prior to the ultimatum). I doubt very much that concerns of the type he raised over the book even remotely prompted the thought that he should resign from the board.

I also suspect that no one else at ARI would have asked him to resign over this matter.

All the prompting for resignation came from Peikoff, in his reaction to McCaskey. It is apparent to me that Peikoff's demand took the board by as much surprise as it did McCaskey.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm not ready to say I agree with the first point, but it is not at all unreasonable.

I do agree with your last two paragraphs.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Dismuke said...

Here is why I haven't assumed that Dr. Peikoff's comments were necessarily a moral condemnation: there is a difference between refusing to sanction or deal with an individual and morally condemning that individual.

A few years back, an individual whose name long time online Objectivists would probably recognize - an individual I have never met and had no previous interaction with whatsoever - accused me in very obnoxious way in a public forum of being intellectually dishonest. My reply to him in private was to tell him where he could shove it using very graphic terminology.

Needless to say, I want NOTHING to do with this individual whatsoever. Had he been a member, customer or participant in any capacity in an organization that I had control or influence over, I would have definitely booted him out of it at the same time I told him where he could shove it. I REFUSE to have ANY dealings with this bastard.

That having been said, since that time, I have occasionally seen postings from this individual that have been published on the HBL email list. And, for what it's worth, some of these postings were actually quite good - they made thoughtful, intelligent observations. From what I can tell, this individual is apparently well-regarded by others I have respect for. And, based on what limited information I have about him, he is apparently quite successful professionally as well.

For all of the above things to be true, the man clearly has to possess at least SOME amount of virtues. (Of course, there are a lot of crooks in this world who are also capable of virtuous behavior as well - and that ARE, when all is said and done, crooks.)

The bottom line is that I have no idea what the moral status of this individual is. I just regard his behavior towards me as being inexcusable. But I can also think of several potential reasons for such behavior that, while not excusing it, do not involve a breach of morality.

Because of this, I have only told a couple of friends about this individual - and I have zero intention of disclosing his name publicly. If I thought that dealing with him would have an adverse impact on innocent and decent people or that he was misrepresenting Objectivism, I would be shouting out my concern and warning in any forum I could. But the biggest risk in dealing with the man that I can see is getting the same dose of nastiness that I did. People are capable of forming their own conclusions about the man's character without having a need to know of my run in with him.

Again, I want nothing to do with the bastard. His behavior towards me was inexcusable and unjust. I don't morally condemn the man because I don't have enough context to do so. And, quite frankly, I don't even CARE whether his behavior was the result of a moral failing or a psychological insecurity on his part or him simply having a bad day. I do not deal with or sanction people who treat me that way for ANY reason - period. The man can rot in hell for all I care.

Like everyone else, I only have VERY limited information as to what transpired between Drs Peikoff and McCaskey. But the possibility occurs to me that Dr. Peikoff similarly regards his dispute as primarily being a matter of personal sanction rather than a wider moral condemnation. And it occurs to me that Dr. Peikoff's comments regarding "hell" are no more of a wider moral condemnation than my remark above about the individual who treated me unjustly rotting in hell.

By the way, I think the communications regarding this matter have been a total disaster. The fact that DECENT and QUALITY long time Objectivists are anguishing over trying to make sense of the matter is a HUGE red flag in my book that sufficient context/information has NOT been provided. It baffles me why Dr. Peikoff would not want a less ambiguous statement of his position - even if it constitutes little more than an explanation as to WHY he refuses to issue any further statement.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for providing this illustrative example of the difference between a personal dispute and a public moral pronouncement.

Anonymous said...

Intellectually speaking, the whole affair is disturbing. Honest scholars can't disagree with an idea without severe consequences? Whether this is a moral condemnation or not, McCaskey was wronged.

Gus Van Horn said...

Anon,

That's a legitimate thing to be concerned about, although, as Dismuke has indicated elsewhere, we don't yet know enough about the criticism to be sure that's the whole story. I quote him in part:

"The particular nature of the criticism that Dr. Peikoff objected to is all-important on this. And without knowledge of that, it is not possible to form conclusions about the appropriateness of Dr. Peikoff's actions.

...

"ARI has a very specific intellectual agenda. If someone has a professional association with ARI and ends up criticizing something that is at the very root of the organization's mission and agenda – well, there is obviously an incompatibility. And any such incompatibility needs to be discussed and addressed – perhaps even to the point of the person needing to resign or be involuntarily severed."

Gus

Anonymous said...

I understand ARI has a specific mission and agenda. That is to promote Objectivism. But the ideas in this new book are not strictly speaking Ayn Rand's body of ideas. They are new and from the efforts of other people, and hence should properly be discussed amongst intellectuals openly. It cannot and should not be the place of the ARI to sanction or not such new theoretical philosophic ideas to the extent that it seems to have done. There are two problems with it. First, it does provide an opening for a conflict of interest for any board member who is an intellectual and who questions any new idea proposed. (Let's assume that a board member will have accepted Ayn Rand's ideas already.) Second, to claim to have solved the problem of induction is a huge one. We are not talking about the application of one of her ideas to a current situation, which is difficult enough. Isn't the proper procedure to let people mull over it, ask questions, try to find holes, address their concerns... this is a long process. When Ayn Rand first presented her revolutionary ideas to the world, that is what she let people do. Question: you mean to tell me people, even Objectivists should just be able to get it instantly, no debate allowed?

Gus Van Horn said...

I'll address each of your points in turn:

"I understand ARI has a specific mission and agenda. That is to promote Objectivism. But the ideas in this new book are not strictly speaking Ayn Rand's body of ideas."

As well, many of the articles and editorials published by ARI are not part of Objectivism proper.

"They are new and from the efforts of other people, and hence should properly be discussed amongst intellectuals openly."

ARI publishing such things doesn't preclude such discussion. Indeed, one could argue that, in this case, it has introduced Peikoff and Harriman's ideas on induction to the public for such discussion.

"It cannot and should not be the place of the ARI to sanction or not such new theoretical philosophic ideas to the extent that it seems to have done. There are two problems with it."

Taken to an extreme, this would preclude ARI from publishing anything but what Rand has already stated to be part of Objectivism, which would make it impossible for it to apply Objectivism to pressing cultural problems.

"First, it does provide an opening for a conflict of interest for any board member who is an intellectual and who questions any new idea proposed. (Let's assume that a board member will have accepted Ayn Rand's ideas already.)"

Only if he thinks it important enough to oppose it publicly, and if he does -- and finds himself being overridden, then why would he want to remain on the Board?

"Second, to claim to have solved the problem of induction is a huge one. We are not talking about the application of one of her ideas to a current situation, which is difficult enough. Isn't the proper procedure to let people mull over it, ask questions, try to find holes, address their concerns... this is a long process."

I have to admit some discomfort with ARI tackling this, but it is an important issue, and ARI is able to get the ball rolling on such a discussion by publishing this book.

Now, one of the things in the ARI statement is that we should consider its past record in evaluating where it is now and what happened here.

Suppose the worst. Suppose The Logical Leap is indeed flawed. I would hope that ARI might (for example) issue a later edition of the book addressing (or at least mentioning) the criticism. Based on its past clarification (scroll down) of an ill-advised editorial a few years back, I am optimistic that something like this would happen, if warranted.

"When Ayn Rand first presented her revolutionary ideas to the world, that is what she let people do."

Yes, but suppose if, upon publication of, say, Atlas Shrugged, Rand publicly said something like, "Well, that 'money speech' WAS a little extreme, or, "That part about original sin was hyperbole." Who would have taken her seriously, then?

I'm glad you asked this question, because I think that's basically what Peikoff was trying to avoid here: the impression of an outfit that doesn't even agree with itself!

Heck, look at the title of this post. I was wrong and I admitted it. That, I think, is far better than perpetually waffling. At that point, what would I have to say? Nothing.

[continued in next comment]

Gus Van Horn said...

[continued]

That's the crux of the matter. To promote Objectivism, ARI necessarily has to apply Objectivism to new questions. Sooner or later -- not necessarily now, with this book -- it's going to get something wrong.

Otherwise, it will end up either endlessly parroting Rand or putting out so much wishy-washy garbage as to make Objectivism look useless in understanding the world.

In either of the last two cases, ARI would be even less effective overall than if it put out a flawed book in a certain and forthright manner.

"Question: you mean to tell me people, even Objectivists should just be able to get it instantly, no debate allowed? "

Question: How does the publication of a book that might not otherwise exist in our culture's intellectual desert, however flawed it might be, limit debate?

This book is a publication by ARI, not a Papal Bull. If you look at their letter, it says so, but not in so many words.

Thanks for your question. I hope my answer helped.

Gus