On Moral Condemnation

As the Peikoff-McCaskey Debacle continues to roil and rankle Objectivists all over, I’ve noticed a new argument cropping up here and there.  Gus van Horn actually presents it thus, “I no longer agree with its premise that Peikoff morally condemned McCaskey.”

I’ve met Gus in person and I was impressed with the rigor and focus of his thought, so even though he’s not a philosopher, for him to say this actually gives me significant pause.


Now, with signficance.


I don’t get it.

This is what Peikoff said:

I do understand how much money M has brought to ARI, and how many college appointments he has gotten and is still getting. As Ayn would have put it, that raises him one rung in Hell, but it does not convert Objectivism into pragmatism.

Now, at the risk of waving my having been raised Pentecostal as a qualification for remark here, “Hell” is, according to Christian mythology, the punishment one receives after one has suffered the judgment of God. That judgment is moral.

Even if we say, “Oh, Peikoff was just being colorful as he is wont to do,” (Seriously, he is totally wont to do that. Remember his reference to someone throwing acid in your face? And all the talk of hookers and sex toys? Color. He has it.) we’re still left to look at the entire objective of the letter, which is to demand that ARI break with McCaskey because in Peikoff’s estimation McCaskey did something wrong.

This evaluation of wrong-doing here isn’t, “Oh, his opinion here is optional and I disagree.”  That’s how one responds when someone doesn’t like the latest Lady Gaga song or your shirt-tie combo.

Dr. Peikoff’s summarizes McCaskey’s behavior as either being an insult to him or an accusation that Objectivism is insufficient to meet the demands of life in reality.  Both cases represent a breach of principle for an Objectivist.  The first case is dishonest and unjust and the second case is irrational.

In either case, there is a moral evaluation being made here.

Perhaps people are saying that Peikoff’s condemnation applies only to McCaskey’s particular actions and not his character as a whole.  That jives well with Yaron Brook’s statement that

the issue for Dr. Peikoff was only whether or not Dr. McCaskey should remain on ARI’s Board, not his continued involvement in ARI activities. In other words, contrary to claims that some are now making, no “excommunication” was demanded by Dr. Peikoff or considered by any Board member.

To say that the condemnation is of his actions and not his entire character cannot be accurately summed up as “Leonard Peikoff’s now-public moral condemnation of [McCaskey]” strikes me, personally, as an unnecessary splitting of hairs, particularly in light of the scope of the impact this dispute has had on Objectivist circles at large.

If McCaskey’s actions weren’t that serious how does it make sense to use the colorful reference to hell and demand that he be removed from the Board of Directors? If you have a problem with just some particular action, the proper course is to address that action and demand remediation. Sure, that remediation might involve them losing their job, but the more serious the crime, the more care one takes in deliberating over the facts and presenting the case. You don’t have them sent out of the camp and stoned — if you can forgive another colorful biblical allusion — and simply refuse to give your reasons why on the grounds that everyone should simply reflect upon who you are.

Craig Biddle’s citation of Rand and explanation on this point is very apt in my view:

To morally condemn a man, authorize that condemnation to be made public, and then fail to provide a good reason for that condemnation is nonobjective and unjust. As Ayn Rand put it: “When one pronounces a moral judgment, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer ‘Why?’ and to prove one’s case—to oneself and to any rational inquirer.”

And notice that Biddle clearly defines the extent and justification of his judgment on this matter.

If Dr. Peikoff’s moral judgment — and, seriously, that’s what it is — is so limited, how can he allow such gross injustice against McCaskey continue by remaining silent?  Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.  McCaskey is being accused of a lot of bad things.  For example, Harriman has implied that he’s a Kantian with a malevolent universe premise.  How can Peikoff and others stand by while this happens if moral condemnation is not the very issue at hand?


  1. Shea November 3, 2010 1:43 pm

    Gus has elaborated a bit in the comments of his post.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 1:49 pm

      Yes, I see, but the points in my post — and Craig Biddle’s — remain.

      If there is no moral condemnation happening — either in the specific or general sense — then why was action of that nature demanded? Why is Peikoff standing by allowing it to continue?

      The proof I would offer is the action and letter itself. It is abundantly clear that Peikoff has morally condemned McCaskey either in character or in action. And he encouraged that conclusion with his agreement to allow his unaltered email to be made public.


      • Shea November 3, 2010 3:35 pm

        Oh, I agree wholeheartedly with your post, just wanted to draw your attention to Gus’s (disappointing) followup.

  2. Saul Katz November 3, 2010 3:04 pm

    In response to Gus Van Horn’s statement that he doesn’t see any moral condemnation in Peikoff’s letter:

    To say that McCaskey belongs in hell (i.e., is immoral) means he belongs in hell (i.e., is immoral). Anyone who sees that one day, but amazingly evades this simple fact another day, belongs in hell–with the rung they’re on dependent on their reason for doing so.

    (Personally, I don’t believe in hell but I’d hope that the moral coward, who betrays what he knows to be true, sits on the lowest rung of all.)

    Beyond that, Gus Van Horn has some nerve to bring up the onus of proof principle in his necessarily brief elaboration. It is this very principle that completely annihilates and invalidates Peikoff’s entire letter.

    Peikoff asserted that McCaskey attacked Logical Leap and thus Peikoff’s intro praising it. Proof? None offered. He asserted that McCaskey’s disagreements go to “the heart of the philosophic principles at stake.” Proof? Zilch. He asserted what McCaskey’s behavior amounts to. Proof? Facts? Reasoning? Nothing. Squadoosh. Nada.

    All that Peikoff provided were unjustified assertions and an ultimatum. He could have asserted after demanding McCaskey’s resignation that the guy belonged in heaven with the angels at that point and it wouldn’t matter. Even so, he didn’t–and that’s a fact.

    Again, Gus Van Horn wants to drop every single bald assertion made by Peikoff and demand proof of what every schoolchild who understands the term “hell” knows already?

    Fine, let him read what I wrote above again and then let him go to his wife–if he’s married and if he’s still confused. Let him say to her that he understands she raised a wonderful kid, has cleaned the house and cooked dinner or contributed her income and assets to the household for years–and then let him tell her that this raises her one rung in hell, but that that’s where she belongs given her view on some new area of knowledge that she’s been tentatively discussing with friends.

    The slap in his face will be a stinging reminder of what sort of condemnation is bound up in placing someone in hell–and he will have entirely deserved it for treating such years of devotion so unjustly.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 3:27 pm

      I disagree with a LOT of what you’ve said there.

      First of all, there are a number of people who see the hell reference as simply colorful language. They argue that this email — even though it was unwisely allowed to be made public — lacks sufficient context to make the dispute clear. They further argue that the proof necessary to condemn McCaskey has been provided to involved parties of which we are not a part. In light of those arguments, they contend that what we’re seeing is a professional dispute. Yaron’s statement given to the Hsieh’s implies that pretty clearly.

      Obviously, I disagree with their judgment in light of all the facts taken together, but I think their evaluation is an honest one.

      Gus is right about the burden of proof.

      The proof I offer to answer that is the letter and the actions taken based on the demands contained in that letter. Further bolstering my argument there are the subsequent comments from David Harriman on the topic. Even though Peikoff himself didn’t make those comments, I am reasonably confident that they are consonant with his views regarding McCaskey’s critique of the book.

      Just because Peikoff hasn’t provided his reasons to us, does not leave us free to practice the same. Basically, two wrongs don’t make a right.

      Again, I think very highly of Gus and his critical reasoning skills. His disagreement with me on this topic is the very reason I decided to provide my exact reasoning behind my disagreement. So, I’ll ask you to please be more measured in your disagreement with him and avoid personal attacks.

      Gus is very good people and he is worthy of thoughtful consideration.


      • Saul Katz November 3, 2010 4:41 pm

        I have nothing more to say on Gus Van Horn–and, to be clear, I did not saying that he is a moral coward for changing his stance (only that anyone who does betray the truth out of cowardice deserves moral condemnation).

        Responding to the arguments of others that you raised:

        “Hell” is definitely a “colorful term.” It evokes images of people burning in a red lake of fire and screaming in horror for eternity as a direct response to sins they’ve committed. Hell has a specific meaning and within the context of that email especially this meaning is clear. (I think you’ve pointed this out–and done so well.)

        The defense of Peikoff’s statement here amounts to saying that Peikoff does not mean what he says. That’s not a valid argument.

        The other argument is that there is not sufficient context to make the situation clear. Totally agree. Peikoff’s many assertions provided no context whatsoever for evaluating them objectively. Furthermore, he left the ARI board no time to gather information.

        Based on the onus of proof principle, which hopefully has been taught as a part of the OAC curriculum, Peikoff’s letter should have been regarded as epistemologically null and void from the get go. (I say this based on Peikoff’s own words–which are excellent and which I posted on a thread at Noodlefood.)

        This argument does not help Peikoff’s cause, it hurts it–and, incidentally, it implies that ARI accepted the moral condemnation of a friend and then his resignation based on a letter full of arbitrary assertions with no epistemological validity.

        The argument that proof has been supplied to parties of which we are not a part is equally invalid. I don’t believe in God because he’s been said to reveal himself to some select few but not yet to me–nor do I give those arbitrary assertions any epistemological weight.

        This is a basic principle of Objectivist epistemology and, in striving to be honest, I seek to act on the known, discarding the arbitrary–i.e., I seek to practice the ideas I am convinced are true.

        Remember again the time limit that Peikoff placed on the ARI board and ask yourself how much proof could have been gathered in such a time frame, and whom they would gather it from.

        Pointing out that this is a dispute is true, but that’s not an argument for anything–and this dispute is not about nothing.

        It’s about someone being condemned publicly and forced to resign without cause or at least without causes given–someone who has done great things for Objectivism and for ARI. This is becoming a dispute between those who take Objectivism seriously–including the onus of proof principle, ruling out the arbitrary, thinking independently, being honest, making judgments based on the context you have, standing courageously on what you see to be true–and those who do not do so.

        I think you take Objectivism seriously and I do not mean to slander anyone who disagrees with me as necessarily not doing so. But in many cases that shoe does fit, and any of those people who read this should wear it sadly.

  3. Sheldon November 3, 2010 3:29 pm

    Are any of the OAC kids who were in the conference call going to have the courage to come forward?

  4. Kendall J. November 3, 2010 4:21 pm

    It is colorful language to be sure. Certainly inflammatory and maybe not the best way to say it, but what it says is clear.

    That, on principled terms, giving the Institute money does not make up for sullying his role as a director of the Ins…titute. If the Institute were to allow such behavior for a few dollars it would be guilty of pragmatism.

    Compromising his role as a director = -5
    giving the institue money = +1
    Net = -4 (still not out of hell)

    It is a statement of quantification, and has nothing to do with moral condemnation. If it did, I suspect he would have said that directly, not obliquely, as he has a very long history of doing.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 5:00 pm

      I have no idea what else Peikoff said about McCaskey in other communications. That there were other communications is clear, though. It is also clear from the communication that he authorized to be made public that he does have a certain evaluation.

      That evaluation extends beyond the merely professional. That is reflected not only in his reference to hell, but to his summary of what McCaskey’s criticisms of Harriman’s book mean.

      I can’t imagine how sullying the office of director could be construed as a moral act, particularly when the office of director in this case is that of the institute charged with promoting Ayn Rand’s ideas.

      And, again, if Dr. Peikoff did not mean to communicate to the world his moral condemnation of Dr. McCaskey when he approved that note as being made public, he should come out and say so because injustice is being done one way or the other.


  5. Kendall J. November 3, 2010 4:33 pm

    And as to Harriman’s statements, this one stuns me. I have heard his statement called an appeal to authority. It is not.

    An appeal to authority is when authority is used *in place of* an argument. In Harriman’s comments this is authority being used *beside* an argument.

    Harriman’s argument is a good one. Whether it’s correct or not is another issue, but it is substantive. Harriman’s argument is that the traditional historical account is *epistemologically incoherent*, in that it requires use of a concept prior to understanding the concept. What follows is a supposition on where McCaskey might have gotten strength from and continued to cling to the same criticism that has already been asked and *answered* by Harriman.

    Is it condescending, yes. Is it an appeal to authority or an implication that McCaskey is a Kantian, come on. It is not.

    If in fact, McCaskey’s criticism’s had already been answered by Harriman over the *ten year* time period when he was raising them, give Harriman a little break for maybe being just a bit tired of having to yet again answer the issue.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 4:54 pm

      Here’s what Harriman wrote:

      Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian). Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment.

      So, pointing out that McCaskey has written allegedly approving statements about a Kantian philosopher does not imply that McCaskey himself may be a Kantian? You’re not reading critically enough.

      My point isn’t that Harriman isn’t offering a logical argument, but that his argument comes along with a moral evaluation.


  6. Kendall J. November 3, 2010 5:15 pm


    Hardly. That trail of supposed implication reaches far too far.

    It calls into question where he may be deriving his ideas from, but it hardly accuses or implies he’s a Kantian. It literally says, “He likes this guy’s ideas on the subject, and this guys ideas are questionable. You read them and decide.”

    That is what it says, Trey. Further implication is yours, just as is the implication about what “hell” portends. It’s not that I’m not reading critically enough. It’s that I’m not reading *into* the statements.

    Have you even known Leonard Peikoff to slip in his most essential most damming statement into some oblique reference to a metaphorical use by Rand? Please. The man usually says what he means, clearly. It amazes me that we can accuse the man of being overly harsh and judgmental, but when we actually present evidence of it, the real outlandish harshness seems to be hidden in the tea leaves.

    It’s a poorly written note, especially for publication. It however hardly means what you think it does.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 5:57 pm

      I’ll grant you that. If you take the strict, logical meaning of Harriman’s comment they only say that McCaskey approves of a Kantian. He may or may not be a Kantian himself. So, if you want to pick apart the statements for their strict, logical meaning we could argue that it’s an ad hominem argument, then. The statement then reads as “McCaskey approves of a Kantian, therefore we should question the criticisms he has offered of my work.”

      Surely we should question both Harriman’s work and McCaskey’s work with equal rigor. We should not say that simply because McCaskey allegedly wrote approvingly of a Kantian that he is unqualified to comment on Harriman’s work. Truly, we have no need to refer to McCaskey’s work at all if we’re going to evaluate Harriman’s unless they refer to one another — and I don’t think they do.

      Really, Harriman hasn’t made an argument with that passage at all. The only thing of relevance or substance is “Read our work and decide.” So, why include it? Because Harriman seeks to persuade us to his point of view and to categorize McCaskey’s work as “questionable” without any evidence that it is actually questionable at all.

      So, I’ll concede that it’s not an implication, but he puts it out there for a purpose that goes well beyond providing us with a rational argument against McCaskey’s criticisms.

      As for Dr. Peikoff’s remarks, I’m not sure why you think Hell is an oblique reference to Christian mythology. Hell is actually a really well-known concept that refers to moral condemnation. The expression about raising a person one rung of hell isn’t exclusive to Ayn Rand by any means. It’s actually very common. But in looking for an instance where Rand used it in writing I found this:

      By what infernal evasion can they hope to justify the proposition that creatures who have no right to life, have the right to a bank account? A slightly higher—though not much higher—rung of hell should be reserved for those “liberals” who claim that man has the “right” to economic security, public housing, medical care, education, recreation, but no right to life, or: that man has the right to livelihood, but not to life.

      Clearly, she’s making a moral evaluation of those people there and that evaluation is clear by her use of the reference to hell. The same is true of Peikoff’s remarks in that email. What he thinks of McCaskey’s behavior is clear. He thinks they’re so bad that they warrant his removal from the ARI board.

      But Peikoff does provide us of a summary of how he sees McCaskey’s actions. Either McCaskey insulted Peikoff and Harriman’s grasp of Objectivism or he is renouncing Objectivism as being adequate to life on earth. Which of those two options might be construed as an act beyond moral evaluation?

      I’ve known Peikoff to speak rashly, harshly, and without clarity — particularly when he is speaking extemporaneously and off-the-cuff. To my mind, one of the biggest and most apparent mistakes Peikoff has made in this whole affair was allowing his unedited remarks on the topic be made public. He should have composed a statement making his intentions more clear.

      Which brings me to the item of real curiosity here: if this note doesn’t mean what I think it means, what does it mean?


  7. Kendall J. November 3, 2010 7:10 pm


    Firstly, Harriman’s argument is not that. It is in his preceding paragraph. The traditional historical record makes the epistemology incoherent. That’s a darn good valid argument.

    Second, it is not some sort of irrational argument to summarize and then point to the evidence and ask an audience to read and judge. He says in effect “HIs ideas may be questionable due to their affiliations or dervations from questionable ideas. If you don’t beleive me, I ask you to go read those associations for yourself. THe evidence is there for you to judge.”

    The problem with *hell* of course is that is is a common term used when one is scornful or disdainful. Unless of course, every time you’ve used the word “hell” or “go to hell”, you’ve actually always intended a moral condemnation.

    The reason I say your reference is oblique is because it is not what the sentence is about. The sentence is about compromising principles and the magnitude of good or bad of the principles involved. “Hell” orients the number line, albeit scornfully, so that we know that it is greater bad than good. To take that whole sentence and suggest that it is really about a moral condemnation is to hijack what the sentence is *obviously* about.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 7:41 pm

      Harriman’s preceding statement is this, “I don’t think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict.” His discussion of certain historical facts comes two paragraphs after he’s asked us to question McCaskey’s own work to determine whether McCaskey is qualified to offer a criticism of Harriman’s work. Again, the paragraph cited and the reference to a 19th century Kantian is nothing more than a rhetorical jab at McCaskey’s work, which has no bearing at all on the value of Harriman’s work.

      And, yes, we know that Harriman’s argument is that the traditional historical record makes the epistemology incoherent. We also know that McCaskey’s argument is that in order to make the epistemology coherent, one must account for the historical record. If the traditional one is wrong, it is incumbent upon Harriman to show how. But one can’t just assert that facts are different in order to support one’s pet theory.

      But why does that disagreement amount to the insult and/or contradiction of Objectivism that Peikoff makes it out to be? That isn’t really clear because Peikoff doesn’t wish to discuss it. Fine. The conclusion, though, is that McCaskey is unfit to serve on the board of directors of ARI.

      Why is McCaskey unfit to serve on the board of directors of ARI? Because he sullied his office with some alleged bad behavior that is either unjust to Peikoff and Harriman or outright contradicts Objectivism. What’s the moral value of such behavior? Negative. In fact, Peikoff even says that McCaskey’s arguments often amount to an attack on the principles of induction as described by Objectivism. How would we describe an attack on principles? Immoral. Where do people who do immoral things go? Hell. Or at least they go home and don’t work at ARI.

      More simply: is what McCaskey did right or is it wrong? Peikoff clearly thinks it’s wrong enough to demand that ARI not work with him any more.

      As I mentioned in my post: I don’t understand where or how people are making the argument that Peikoff’s obviously very negative evaluation of McCaskey’s behavior does not verge into the moral.


  8. Kendall J. November 3, 2010 7:14 pm

    So if you want to know what it means, go back to the first comment I made. I explained it very clearly. That is what the sentence says. The rest is emotion, and while certainly not well formed for publication, it is wrong to read more into it.

    • Trey Peden November 3, 2010 7:44 pm

      Wait. You’re allowed to read emotions into the text, but I’m not allowed to read the meaning of the words themselves?

      That’s a really snarky way to put it, but I honestly do not understand this distinction you (and apparently Peikoff?) make between saying someone has attacked Objectivism and having a negative moral evaluation of either that person as a whole or of that action in particular.


  9. Bruce Majors November 4, 2010 5:13 am

    Having been excommunicated after being branded with the brand of “not an Objectivist, but a libertarian Ayn Rand fan” (which takes up a lot more space on my forehead than a scarlet A ever did, and makes it hard to know what to do with my bangs), I will pray for you in your time of troubles.

    Breaking up is hard to do. And grandparents always get cranky and hard to manage eventually.


  10. Kendall J. November 4, 2010 8:21 am


    Not at all. I’m not highlighted a province where you’re not allowed. in fact, I’m trying to illustrate what a thoughtful reasoned analysis of the language might have to consider. You can go there to. You just didn’t.

    So, in essence, if you choose to go down that path to determine what an oblique reference refers to or means (which you already have to admit is sketchy if you argue that that becomes the *essence* of Peikoff’s statement) then you’d have to consider various factors when analyzing the language.

    You’d have to consider for instance all possible meanings and contexts of the usage, not simply the one that justifies you argument. You didnt’ do that. If you had, you would have surely indicated that the term can simply be a measure of scorn or disdain, and that this usage is *common* in everyday vernacular. Much more common than the true “Christian damnation”.

    Then if you still believed that that was not the meaning, you’d have to give good reason for selecting your choice. For instance, if Peikoff was actually a Christian preacher known for his tea-totalling lanaguage, then knowing the specific meaning the word held to him, and his infrequent invocation of it, you could plausibly say that hell refers literally to hell and must imploy a moral judgment.

    But Peikoff is hardly these things. So again, why is the much more common interpretation not so plausible?

    What gets me Trey is that you’re Mr Scorn, Sarcasm and Disdain. Your blog is full of this sort of indignation. Yet you can’t see clear to recognize the commonality of it and that this is a very plausible explanation for it.

    It is certainly a poorly formulated email for publication as I have said before; however, that too has a plausible explanation. Peikoff has shown general disdain for the “rabble” in the past. In fact, given the scorn so easily thrown at him, one wonders how he can keep his sense of benevolence. He is dismissive about what people in general think of him. This is proven behavior. Maybe instead of a carefully formulated statement for dissemination to people who’s opinion he cares about he simply in a fit of exasperation said fine, if that’s all it takes to get this guy gone, I’ll do it. It’s a private issue and I don’t much care what people at large think anyway.

    Now that would be much more in keeping with his demonstrated character.

    • Trey Peden November 4, 2010 9:29 am


      The reference to hell is not “oblique.” You keep characterizing it as such, but to refer to someone has consigned to a rung of hell is a common expression with a common meaning referring to a negative moral evaluation. That is the common meaning of that expression that you keep denying. Even the most common use of the term “hell” itself refers not merely to scorn or disdain, but to misery and damnation. You’re either denying this fact of reality or you’re simply ignorant of what the common use of the term is.

      Peikoff provided, in that email, a summary of what McCaskey’s actions mean, the consequences of those actions, and ultimately a summary of McCaskey’s career.

      You persist in ignoring the meaning of the words of Peikoff’s letter on its very face. You also seem to contend that in spite of what a common and basic reading of the letter leads on to conclude, Leonard Peikoff didn’t mean it and, further, owes no one any further explanation.

      The reason one cannot simply write this email off as a common, emotional outburst — which is perfectly plausible, and in which case we would say that Dr. Peikoff used an expression of moral condemnation as hyperbole — is that it is public and it deals with the fact that a man was ejected from the board of ARI for what appears to be a perfectly acceptable disagreement on an intellectual matter. And ARI is important to Objectivism. The impact of this emotional outburst has been widespread and shocking.

      To dismiss this issue with “I don’t care what people at large think” is to ask that we not care about the intellectual integrity of the Objectivist movement. The dispute between McCaskey and Harriman seems like a legitimate intellectual disagreement that should be resolved in calm, rational terms. But in raising the disagreement, McCaskey lost his job as Director. If Objectivists — particularly those of a caliber of Leonard Peikoff — cannot tolerate an intellectual challenge from within, what business have we and with what results can we expect to challenge those without?

      Because of that, I am only willing to ignore the initial email for the sake of a more formally composed public statement. Until such a statement arises, I am left with the plain meaning of what he wrote.

      And this isn’t a private issue. It’s all over the internet by the consent of both parties even if we might question the wisdom of certain party’s decision to grant that consent.


      • Harold November 7, 2010 1:08 am

        Trey Peden wrote “The reference to hell is not “oblique.” You keep characterizing it as such, but to refer to someone has consigned to a rung of hell is a common expression with a common meaning referring to a negative moral evaluation. That is the common meaning of that expression that you keep denying. Even the most common use of the term “hell” itself refers not merely to scorn or disdain, but to misery and damnation. You’re either denying this fact of reality or you’re simply ignorant of what the common use of the term is.”

        I don’t get this at all. To raise one rung in hell, could also be a witticism. One reference to this that is widely known among philosophers and intellectuals is Dante Alighieri’s. Dante in his La Devina Commedia raised Homer and Aristotle one rung in hell too, to Limbo, and Dante clearly had a lot of respect for them both and regarded these per-Christian pagans as moral heroes. So it is not the case as you say that “to refer to someone as consigned to a rung of hell is a common expression with a common meaning referring to a negative moral evaluation” – at least not if one thinks of Dante’s masterpiece. I do not know if Dr. Peikoff was thinking along these lines, but he made me think that way and therefore interpret his allusion to hell quite differently than you.

        • Trey Peden November 7, 2010 10:42 am

          The question is what the common meaning of the expression is, not what its etymological roots are. Kendall accuses me of getting all linguistically analytical here, but all I’m pointing to is what the common meaning of the expression is. Hell is where you go when you’re a bad person, a morally corrupt person.

          Further, the argument that Peikoff was employing hyperbole with his use of the expression is a fine argument except that the nature of the accusations and the consequences that have spun out of it require that we take his remarks with the utmost seriousness.

          Let’s talk about hyperbole for a second. It’s a form of figurative language that draws upon a difference in scale in a particular trait of two things to amplify that trait in the thing that has the lesser degree of the trait. For instance, take the characteristic of height or size. Someone might say, “That dog is as big as a horse!” That’s hyperbole. The dog is big. It’s not literally as big as a horse, but the speaker wants us to know that the horse is bigger than we might expect a dog to be.

          Here, Leonard Peikoff is saying: McCaskey did something so bad that it is worthy of damnation to eternal suffering, hell. Does he literally mean hell? No. Peikoff doesn’t believe in hell and neither do I. Does he think McCaskey should be cast into a lake of fire? Does he think McCaskey should be consigned to suffering characterized by eternal darkness, suffering, and the sounds of weeping and gnashing of teeth? No. But he wishes to draw our attention to the fact that it is bad enough to warrant a pretty extreme condemnation. That condemnation is moral in nature.

          It does seem to me that some are arguing that because this is hyperbole, it is unclear how different in scale Peikoff’s condemnation of McCaskey’s actions is from something that might warrant a call for someone to be literally put into hell — assuming a person believes that is real, of course.

          For example, let’s say you prepare a wonderful dinner but you spill some milk on the table and I say the dinner raises you but one rung in hell compared to the punishment you deserve for spilling milk. That would be hyperbole. Spilling milk is worthy only of mild disapproval. It would be a witticism, sure. And to all observers, the joke would be rather clear.

          But Peikoff has summarized McCaskey’s actions with some serious accusations. They’re either an insult to Peikoff’s understanding of Objectivism or an attack on Objectivism itself. (Either of those might be accomplished innocently by someone who knows better, but a director of the board of ARI whose career is based in the history of science is unlikely to be so exempt in this particular context.) Further, those accusations are followed by a demand that McCaskey be deposed. And if McCaskey isn’t removed, the charge is so serious that Peikoff will leave. Those consequences are not mild at all.

          So, when you take the expression “raises him one rung in hell” within the context of the entire letter, I fail to see how anyone can dispute the fact that Leonard Peikoff fully intended to communicate a moral condemnation of McCaskey and/or his actions.


  11. Kendall J. November 4, 2010 11:06 am

    Trey are you really trying to assert that the *actual* meaning of the word “hell” in common use, every day, the word I hear used 20 or 30 times a day refers to *actual* damnation? Good God man, if that’s the case, then the moral pronouncements are stunningly common. I think I heard someone claim the bus driver was immoral yesterday for running our stop.

    I know what the Christian referent is. You’re tryign to assert that this is its common intended meaning is equivalent to it’s literal meaning. It is not.

    I have much more to say on the public nature of this dispute. Unfortunately it is not all over the internet because of their actions. It is one place on the internet because of their actions. it is all over the internet and it is a scandal because the internet is what it is. A place where poorly through through arguments are placed without much discretion, mixed in with liberal doses of sarcasm, outrage and hyperbole.

    One can attempt to say that the matter was released to the public and that therefore a full disclosure is necessary. However, this court of public opinion remains what it is, not a reasonable place, nor in fact the right place to adjudicate this dispute. One would then view it as a matter, part of which is public and that is unfortunate, but which should have and still should rightly be decided in private.

    As to your post, if the point of your post is that the charges are serious enough as to automatically imply moral condemnation, then please just dispense with the lingual analysis and nakedly say that.

    • Trey Peden November 4, 2010 11:21 am

      Kendall, yes. And our next lesson in language is going to be about how figurative language works and the use of hyperbole in common parlance.

      By the way, Peikoff wasn’t running for the bus when he issued his comment, nor when he approved of it being released to the public.

      And what I said in my blog post is that it is patently clear from Dr. Peikoff’s letter that his demand comes with a moral evaluation. It is by the nature of the charges, the language he uses in communicating his condemnation, and the object of his scorn that we can be certain that Leonard Peikoff fully intended and communicated a negative moral evaluation upon John McCaskey.

      We could argue over whether his evaluation is limited to just McCaskey’s actions or to his entire character, but that you are arguing with me about whether or not there is any moral condemnation in the letter at all strikes me as an overt denial of the facts.


      • Saul Katz November 4, 2010 1:01 pm

        Amen to all that, brother.

    • Dave Z. November 5, 2010 12:10 pm

      I don’t think Kendall knows what the word “lingual” means.

  12. Katrina November 4, 2010 12:47 pm

    Unrelated to the “hell” issue, I’ve heard some people claim that it couldn’t have been a moral condemnation since McCaskey hasn’t been excommunicated, just kicked off the board. This doesn’t fit with ARI and Peikoff’s past actions, as I understand them. I know of at least one person who has been morally condemned not only by Peikoff, but also by another board member, who still teaches at every OCON. So the fact that McCaskey is still officially invited to be involved with ARI proves nothing.

    I agree that Peikoff doesn’t care about the “rabble.” I don’t particularly have a problem with that: he’s just one guy, and I’ve known from a long time that he’s grumpy and generally unpleasant. He clearly doesn’t care, so why should we?

    But for ARI, that “rabble” is their donors, supporters, and, in many cases, people they have professional relationships with (their speakers, lecturers, and other intellectuals). If ARI has decided they don’t care about them, then I’m inclined to not care right back at them.

  13. Katrina November 10, 2010 5:02 pm

    Peikoff’s statement:

    Hell is just bad, not evil. I’m happy to accept Peikoff’s answer on this at his word, but I definitely think explanation was warranted, because, on the face of it, it looks like a moral condemnation to me.

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