I admit: I’m a little obsessed with the Checking Premises website. It’s been a bit of a train wreck. The train wreckishness of it, which seems to have culminated in Mr. Chip Joyce’s nutty argument from authority rant, really made it a hoot. But it looks like they’re shaping things up a little bit. Good for them!
First, they seem to have Dr. Peikoff’s tacit approval in that he gave them permission to publish Ayn Rand’s open letter “To Whom It May Concern” which describes her charges against the Brandens and her reasons for breaking ties with them. Simply because Dr. Peikoff approves isn’t in itself a good thing, but I like that they seem to be pursuing legitimacy with this project.
Second, they have removed the series of pages that attack Dr. Diana Hsieh. As much as I enjoy and respect Diana, I am willing to entertain honest, reasoned dissent from her arguments. I have every reason to believe she is, too. As for the broader topic of her character, her understanding of Objectivism, and all of that — my experience and observations have been overwhelmingly in favor of her, but like all such conclusions about people, my view is contingent upon both her maintaining that good conduct and my continuing to exercise reason and judgment.
If Checking Premises weren’t trying to be a formal sort of “watchmen” site, then the standards and expectations would be a bit lower, but as things stood it was laughable that they would claim to be providing some sort of civil, objective, reasoned opposition to so-called Subjectivist Objectivists. Mr. Burgess Laughlin had this to say about the way such watchmen should bring their charges against people they decry:
Objectivity means drawing all ideas logically from facts of reality. To be objective, an indictment of one individual by another must present facts as well as an argument leading from those facts to the indictment. The facts must be presented with specificity; pointing in the general direction (“Look at his writings!”) is not specific. The argument must cover the steps required to move from evidence to conclusion. The indictment must be clear.
Even though Mr. Laughlin cites Checking Premises as a good example (albeit one in which the content is yet developing) of such watchmen, they really were the portrait of Fail in fulfilling those requirements as they did not provide any arguments to oppose Diana. And that was and remains a major failing of the project.
Third, Mr. John Kagebein has posted an essay entitled “Open Letter to Objectivists and Students of Objectivism Regarding Diana Hsieh,” which does finally contain some substantive arguments in opposition to some of Diana’s views. This essay is what I really want to talk about because in this essay Mr. Kagebein actually points to facts, makes arguments, and explains his conclusion. It’s not uniform in these regards, but it is a major improvement over what has been on that site to date. But that essay is what I’d like to talk about today.
I’m going to start by talking about his disagreements with her arguments on various topics. Don’t worry, I don’t think I will be toooooooooooo long-winded. And then I’d like to talk about his conclusions about her character and qualifications.
Mr. Kagebein argues that Diana has dropped the context to which Dr. Peikoff was speaking when he addressed the issue of compulsory juries. See, Dr. Peikoff answered this question: SHOULD JURY DUTY BE COMPULSORY AS IT IS IN THE U.S. TODAY? And his conclusion was that he thought compulsory juries are just fine. Diana argues that it isn’t.
Mr. Kagebein says that Diana has dropped three critical contexts in producing her response:
- every word of Peikoff’s statement
- all of one’s knowledge of Objectivism
- all of one’s knowledge of Dr. Peikoff’s history and works
Mr. Kagebein can’t exactly provide us with any evidence that Diana dropped the second two contexts listed above given his limited access to her brain, but he does provide us with what he things are relevant facts from Objectivist literature and Dr. Peikoff’s work in the arena. I would argue that if Dr. Peikoff’s body of work is a relevant context to keep in mind when responding to what he says, then it is also reasonable to ask those who would argue against Diana — or even rebutting her arguments against Dr. Peikoff — then one should also keep in mind her body of work as well.
I have a few concerns about Mr. Kagebein’s defense of Dr. Peikoff’s view of juries.
1) Mr. Kagebein argues that it is clear that Dr. Peikoff’s answer refers to how things would be in a truly free society as described in Objectivist work because he repeatedly refers to voluntary support for such government. But I don’t think this argument for dropped context holds. First of all, the question is about juries “as in the US today” not “as in a perfect society as envisioned by Ayn Rand which does not exist,” so I don’t think it’s really proper to say that it is absolutely clear to everyone that Dr. Peikoff has committed something of a nonsequitur and provided an answer that would not apply to the US today, so we have to assume that his reply does apply to the US today and not simply the narrow context that Mr. Kagebein describes. Second, Dr. Hsieh’s argument is that an ideal government would not do this anyway for the reasons she provides. So, it isn’t that she drops the context of an ideal government, but that she doesn’t believe that the context justifies it.
2) Mr. Kagebein plays the political scientist a bit (By that, I just mean that he delves into the practical application of Objectivist politics, which is what political scientists would do.) and suggests that perhaps a proper government could “bundle” jury duty as part of agreeing to defend contracts. While charging for contract dispute mediation is clearly a voluntary exchange of services for a fee, bundling it with other obligations beyond the basic fee opens some rather tricky questions. If it is justified to do that, then why not also bundle in an income tax? Or military service? Or voting? According to the Objectivist view of rights, it isn’t possible to sell yourself into slavery, but is this a suggestion that you could you buy yourself there?
3) Mr. Kagebein argues that there is some sort of misunderstanding about what compulsory means:
One could attempt a pedantic argument that, since these obligations would be a result of a voluntary action, there is no “compulsion”, so Peikoff should not have said that he supports the idea of “compulsory jury duty” at all. That argument depends upon the dropping of the full context of the concept “compulsory”; specifically that the government holds a monopoly on the retaliatory use of force. The government’s force would only be used, in this scenario, against an individual who refused to comply in accordance with the terms of his voluntary agreement.
The emphasis is in the original, but it doesn’t help me understand how “compulsory” sometimes means “voluntary” or why failing to know that makes me a pedant. Instead, I would point out that within Objectivist politics it is regularly pointed out that refusing to fulfill a voluntary, contractual obligation is an initiation of force and the government’s defense of contracts represents a retaliation against that initiation of force, and that — to the best of my knowledge — has never been conflated with the concept of compulsion as an initiation of force. In fact, in the context that Mr. Kagebein outlines, an attempt to make someone perform as a juror would be stupid; a state would instead fine or jail you for failing to uphold that agreement and that is distinctly not the same as a “compulsory jury.” Does Mr. Kagebein think anyone refers to paying at the checkout counter in the grocery store as “compulsory payment for goods received?” I doubt it and I think his attempt to cast it in that light is strange, to say the least.
Finally, I actually do not agree with Mr. Kagebein’s assertion that we must account for all of Objectivism and Dr. Peikoff’s history and works, nor even Diana’s history and works in assessing their arguments. Barring some indication from those making an argument that one should go consult a particular reference, I think one ought to be able to take the arguments as presented and begin weighing them. Otherwise, we place a nigh impossible standard against anyone who wants to review the arguments on a particular topic. It suggests that before one can listen to Dr. Peikoff’s podcast and come away with any valid insights into how Objectivism is applied one must read all of Ayn Rand’s works, all of Dr. Peikoff’s work, and listen to all of his previous podcasts, radio show episodes, lectures, etc. I understand that webcasts and all of that are rather casual formats and we can’t really expect Dr. Peikoff to provide a bibliography or list of references every time he answers a question, but the burden of making the basis for his argument clear and reality-based is on him, not the listener.
Of course, there is one area where I think some background in a speaker is necessary for formulating a judgment: their supposed emotional state or attitude. That’s not something one can cite as a substantive argument against another’s position, but having some experience with a person helps if you’re going to argue that their demeanor is malicious or disrespectful. More on this in a bit.
Therefore, if Dr. Peikoff does not provide substantive support for his conclusion on a particular case, we are left to speculate about what the possible foundation might be. In that case, we might refer to whatever information about his background that we have, but it’s still a bit of a leap. One can hardly blame another for not striking upon his exact line of reasoning when arguing against his conclusion. One must imagine Mr. Kagebein thinks Dr. Amy Peikoff has similar struggles since some of her arguments in support of compulsory juries run counter to what Mr. Kagebein considers reasonable to think of Dr. Peikoff’s arguments.
I must admit: I don’t have a strong opinion on compulsory juries. I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I do find Diana’s arguments persuasive and Dr. Peikoff’s discussion too informal for me to follow him all the way to his conclusion. But I assume Dr. Peikoff has some sort of line of thought that connects the dots on that matter and it would be nice if he would explain further, but as with so many other cases where this has happened, I won’t hold my breath.
The Ground Zero Mosque
I wish Mr. Kagebein had taken as much time and care with this topic as he did with the jury duty discussion. Instead, he asserts, “Hsieh attempts to uphold the principle of property rights as a non-contextual absolute.” I say he asserts this because he doesn’t offer any evidence that she does. He also asserts that, “Her conclusion on this issue also fails to properly account for the specific (in many ways unique) nature of the enemy and the threat we face,” again without providing us with a description of the nature of the enemy in question and evidence that she does not account for it.
This portion of his essay represents a reiteration of what I find is the biggest problem with Checking Premises. They judge Diana by the mere fact that they don’t like her conclusions (or attitude) and not her reasons and they do not provide evidence for why they think her reasons are wrong.
Just saying “context-dropping” is not enough.
As this is the “friend’s blog which mentions a Wikipedia page” I am again tickled to again have an opportunity to address a few issues that have come up in reference to that now-famous blog post.
But let’s go in the order Mr. Kagebein suggests. Starting with a quotation from Diana’s blog, he writes:
“his moral condemnation of transsexualism seems exactly like the moral arguments against homosexuality that used to be common in Objectivist circles.”
In so doing, she also drops the context of knowledge that Dr. Peikoff himself has repeatedly upheld the position that homosexuality is not a basis for moral condemnation.
Although it strains my imagination to think anyone could honestly mess this up, I will extend the benefit of the doubt anyway and say this is just a simple confusion. Diana’s remark is an acknowledgement that Dr. Peikoff does not hold that homosexuality is a basis for moral condemnation, but she is pointing out that at one time many Objectivists thought otherwise. That is literally what that quotation means. In fact, Ayn Rand herself condemned it as immoral, but it has since been pointed out that she lacked relevant facts on the topic and so her judgment was an error of knowledge.
And as Diana points out, Dr. Peikoff seems to be making similar errors of knowledge in making his evaluation of transgender people. So many people have gotten hung up on the fact that in my original post I referred to Wikipedia and Google that they failed to grasp the thrust of my point behind those references: namely that Dr. Peikoff made indisputably inaccurate factual claims about the nature of transgender people which could have been avoided with even a casual search for the facts. As to the psychological aspects of Gender Identity Disorder, I’ve heard it said that Dr. Peikoff has serious qualms about the way many people pursue psychology, but to disregard the arguments of psychologists simply because they are psychologists is a perfect example of the logical fallacy of an ad hominem argument.
Mr. Kagebein asks what facts of psychology Dr. Peikoff lacks on the topic, but his remarks on the topic do not show that he started with any at all, so barring further comment on the matter from Dr. Peikoff himself, it is fair to simply answer that question with “all of them.” Just as Dr. Peikoff is more qualified than anyone to speak on the topic of Objectivism and so his remarks demand greater consideration than most — although those qualifications do not justify blind acceptance — the experience and knowledge countless gender psychologists demands greater consideration on the topic of GID than most as well. To make a long story short: the psychological community has provided their evidence in support of their conclusion and that evidence is readily available to those who care to review it, so if one wishes to rebut their arguments, one must actually make it clear that one is actually addressing them.
Mr. Kagebein echoes the skepticism toward psychologists in his last sentence with “to say nothing of the potential veracity and scientific methodology of whatever claims are currently being propounded by modern psychology on the topic.” Would you like to know what claims are being propounded on this topic? Go look for them. They aren’t a secret. And once you’ve done that, please tell me why you think they’re wrong. I would offer the same invitation to Dr. Peikoff so that I might understand the rational basis for his objections on this matter. Those are the clear and undisputed demands of a reasoned, objective rebuttal.
One might readily ask: why am I as keen to accept the claims of the psychological community on GID and SRS? The fact is that I am not a psychologist and I am not qualified to validate their approach on any matter, least of all one so challenging as gender identity. However, I know without any doubt that there are transgender people out there. They have a very serious issue (if not several) that needs to be addressed. With our current level of knowledge on the matter, many are able to work through their issues and go on to live a happy and fulfilled life but only by transitioning to live as the opposite sex. Fortunately, medical science is able to help many of them physically change their bodies as well. So, to morally condemn those people for pursuing a happy life by the best means they know how strikes me as vicious, rude, and unjust. I think Dr. Peikoff owes the Objectivist transfolk out there a bit more of an explanation and consideration than poorly researched, hurtful remarks such as he has made on that matter.
Diana has said all she is going to say on this topic publicly. And I’ve said far more than I ought to have said on the topic. In discussing the issue with Kendall Justiniano and others, I’ve changed my mind about several things in that situation since it happened and I’ve maintained my judgment of other things in it. Mr. Kagebein would likely say the same of me as he says of Diana: “Hsieh dropped the context of Dr. Peikoff’s unique responsibilities as Heir to the Estate of Ayn Rand as well as that of the administrative concerns of organizational operations in her public comments about the controversy which only served to exacerbate and prolong a controversy about which there was an insufficient context of knowledge in which to formulate conclusions.”
That whole dispute was very hurtful to a lot of people and I don’t want to re-open those wounds. So, I don’t blame Mr. Kagebein for not wading into the arguments here. But he didn’t wade into the arguments; he’s only announced his conclusions. So, as with other topics, there really isn’t any way for a person to know if he is right in his accusation of context-dropping here or not. A rebuttal to this accusation by this same standard of evidence would go something like this: nuh-uh.
Eating Anencephalic Infants
It this topic over which I think Mr. Kagebein has been most unjust to Diana Hsieh in that he cites comments on the topic that she has since publicly repudiated. But he also puts words in her mouth at turns:
- “Hsieh suggests that the uniting principle is that they are questions concerning the rights-status of non-rational entities, as if accepting the moral validity of breeding birth-defected humans for slaughter and consumption could be a reasonable pre-requisite for defending our right to operate cattle ranches or perform stem-cell research!” Diana clearly states that the possibility of consuming these unfortunate creatures is a consequence, not a pre-requisite of accepting the Objectivist view of the nature of rights on this particular topic. She also acknowledges that there may be a moral argument against eating anencephalic babies, only that she is not aware of it and what she’s heard from various corners fails to satisfy critical examinations. Diana stated that she believes it is immoral to eat these babies as a matter of daily life in her later comment here:
In the webcast, I said that using such babies as a food source, even if legally permitted, would be morally horrifying. That feeling would be pretty near universal, however, so I couldn’t imagine that any kind of widespread problem with that would ever exist. That wasn’t a pleasant thing to say, but I didn’t want to evade the question.
It is the mark of someone dedicated to reason that they correct themselves with they misspeak and they change their mind when presented with evidence and/or a clear argument to the contrary of what she said.
- “Objectivism’s ethics does not amount to ‘do what you want as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of others’.” Diana does not suggest that this is the case at all. That would conflate the political and the moral. Diana’s comments focus primarily on the political and leave the ethical open for further discussion. Diana simply points out that given the political principles she posits she does not have a ready moral objection to the practice — although her immediate response is one of disgust. Others are welcome to try to provide one, though. Again from the piece mentioned above:
Basically, I can imagine a few far-fetched scenarios in which consuming human flesh would not be horrifyingly immoral, provided that no rights were violated in doing so. (I’m still uncertain about Case #3: I feel an overwhelming sense of revulsion at the thought of doing that, but I’m uncertain that every rational person would necessarily feel that way. When in doubt, I will not condemn.)
The whole topic is so ridiculously far-fetched that I just can’t see any point in further discussion of it. I’d be far more interested to hear a well-reasoned defense of some kind of legal protections for anencephalic babies, even if not rights.
Again, it is abundantly clear that Diana distinguishes between the realm of ethics and politics, as one well should, and on this issue, she is morally opposed to the routine consumption of the body of Jesus, Srini, Kimberly, or anyone else. Cannibalism is just not kosher for Diana Hsieh.
And later, Mr. Kagebein claims that “Diana Hsieh holds herself out to the public as an expert in Objectivism.” No justification of this is offered, but insofar as Diana does tout the fact that she is a doctor of philosophy and she has been studying Objectivism for quite a long time including having graduated from the OAC. I am not aware of Diana holding herself out to the public as an expert in Objectivism as such, but what, exactly would be the objection if Diana did say that she has superior experience in this area?
Much ado is made over this accusation that Diana is treats philosophy as “a ‘bauble of the intellect’ and dormitory ‘bull-session’ methodology.” And several people, including Mr. Kagebein, have sputtered over how this question could even come up in a serious discussion of the nature of rights of the severely disabled. Let’s assume — contrary to tons of evidence to the contrary — that is Diana’s view of philosophy. So? How does that at all invalidate her argument? Again, this strikes me as an ad hominem argument in the form of, “Well, Diana is not serious about philosophy; therefore, what she says must not be true.”
Although Mr. Kagebein focuses on the accusation that Diana routinely drops important contexts in her commentary, quite a lot of dust is raised over objections to her attitude and that by some folks’ estimation she is not properly deferential to Dr. Leonard Peikoff.
I’ve said before and I will say it again: I think this is baloney. When someone, anyone says something ludicrous I have yet to hear anyone suggest that we oughtn’t treat it as ludicrous and make fun of it. You know, like when Dr. Leonard Peikoff alleged that post-op transsexuals “don’t have the pleasure part connected to the nervous system.” If laughter is our response to the metaphysically insignificant, then I can’t think of any more appropriate response to someone has learned and accomplished as Dr. Peikoff saying something so blatantly false about an issue that is so very far on the edge of applied Objectivist ethics than to laugh about it. It’s just not that important! I get that this issue is important to many people, but let’s maintain a sense of perspective here.
When Diana and I were talking about Checking Premises, she pointed out the issue of compulsory jury duties even though it did not appear on Checking Premises at the time. It was an email conversation, so I could not gauge her tone or demeanor, but I sensed that she brought it up because she felt some regret on the topic. I could very well be wrong, but she did apologize for having appeared disrespectful in discussing that topic. It surprised me so much that I went back and re-watched her webcast.
It starts with Diana gleefully rubbing her hands together, laughing, and saying she’s “super excited” about the question. Greg makes a quip about things “getting spicey.” Diana does a little “happy dance” while listening to Greg read the question and after about 20 seconds, she settles in to calmly listen to and respond to the question. Watch for yourself:
Now, I know Diana as well as one can know a person that they’ve only met a few times and have followed online for years, and I saw her demeanor regarding this question to be the result of two things: 1) excitement about confronting a challenging and real question about applied Objectivist politics and 2) acknowledgment that someone, somewhere would likely think it “scandalous” that she would dissent from Dr. Peikoff’s view without regard to the soundness of her arguments, which is quite silly indeed.
Boy, did she ever get her wish on that second point! But, folks, disagreeing with Dr. Peikoff is actually not a big deal as such. (Unless maybe you think it is, but if you’ve abandoned reason there really isn’t much left for us to discuss.) And Diana is convinced of the soundness of her arguments, which makes objections seem even more silly and baseless. All the more reason to giggle about it.
Some people cite her evaluations of Dr. Peikoff’s conclusions as evidence that she does not respect him. For instance, she says that Dr. Peikoff is ignorant about transgender people and that he is engaging in armchair philosophizing on the matter. Well, given that his remarks on the topic lack even basic facts, what else are we to think? When Dr. Peikoff proposed literally setting off an explosion in the middle of a major city to destroy private property, how would one who does not share his view of the owners describe his suggestion if not as “dangerous?”
I would like to see more acknowledgement given to the fact that when people speak extemporaneously they don’t always express themselves as precisely as they might if they were to write things down. I’ve transcribed enough of Dr. Peikoff’s podcasts myself to know that it’s a real challenge for him as well. So, perhaps we should mind the difference in context there when judging a person’s remarks on a given topic.
Whether he is sincere or not, I think it is to Mr. Kagebein’s credit that he does recognize this about Diana:
She engages in discussions and answers questions and awards “points of awesomeness” to those who make a clever remark. She’s energetic and busy and personable and not at all stuffy or prudish or unapproachable, like one might envision a professional intellectual to be. She’s just like a “normal person”, but she’s also a PhD and an Objectivist. She has new stuff out almost everyday; philosophy plus fun.
Diana apologized for behaving in such a way around the jury duty question that would lead those who don’t know about her background to misconstrue her high regard for Dr. Peikoff. I can understand why she did that, but I can’t understand why there are so many loud cries that Diana keep in mind the full history of Dr. Peikoff’s experience and actions, while ignoring Diana’s own history, experience, and actions. In some cases, this decrying of her attitude has even come from people that I thought regarded Diana as a friend. I would not presume to delve into Diana’s friendships, so I stand back from it, but it really makes me sad, not just for Diana, but for those other people, too.
Accusing someone of having a bad attitude or lacking respect or whatever, just is not a rational argument against their methods, evidence, or conclusions. I guess you might argue that they don’t have the proper hierarchy of values, but I would argue that you should mind your own business. Perhaps you could say that you don’t much care for her because of her too sunny, too funny, too light-hearted outlook on things and that’s your prerogative.
Maybe some people are accusing Diana of malice. But I don’t see the evidence of that. I think they also accuse her of undermining Dr. Peikoff’s efforts to promote Objectivism, but given that she actively promotes Dr. Peikoff, ARI, and Objectivism and she is open to rational arguments against her own positions — so long as they are presented civilly — so, it’s a challenge to see why this accusation that she’s undermining Objectivism holds. As you can see in the discussion above, I certainly don’t even believe a good case has been made to suggest that she’s wrong on these issues.
Some have argued that if Diana wants people to behave civilly, then she ought to behave civilly toward others. I know that Diana has lost her temper with people and reacted sometimes in a hot-headed or hasty manner. I think she has and continues to live with the consequences of such behavior. But I am not convinced that the occasional lapse in courtesy warrants the sort of vitriol she gets from some corners. I would also say, there appears to be some people on the internet who really don’t know when they’re being rude. Diana isn’t one of them, but she certainly sees a lot of them and I can’t blame her for losing her cool at times.
I don’t agree with Mr. Kagebein about Diana, nor even on these particular issues. I think he is wrong on a number of counts and makes errors in his own methodology at several points before issuing what I contend is a false indictment against Diana.
As Mr. Kagebein points out: Dr. Diana Hsieh is extremely prolific. She has 92 videos up on her YouTube channel, 60+ episodes of her webcast, more than a dozen email discussion groups, hundreds upon hundreds of blog posts… And load of other accomplishments and projects that promote Objectivism. He claims that the above half dozen or so issues are sufficient to establish the claim that she “regularly” makes the error of dropping context in her analyses. I argue that not only has he failed to make his case on the issues above, but even if they held they would not support a claim of systematic errors on Diana’s part.
I understand and share some of his worry over incompetent intellectuals, but I would not confine my worry to the ones who are intellectuals by profession. I would extend my concerns to self-appointed watchmen who fail to perform the basic duties of watchmen. I would also extend my concerns to anyone who announces their judgments to the world — myself included.
However, people do have to form their own judgments and they will almost certainly encounter people who make mistakes or deliberately misrepresent the arguments and ideas of others. We’ve seen plenty of that outside of Objectivism even over the most basic points of the philosophy. Objectivism is not simple or easy. We should not be surprised to find mistakes within the movement.
So, how should we deal with this?
Again, I appreciate parts of what Mr. Kagebein had to say. If there is someone who is subverting “the movement” by promulgating contradictory ideas, the best way to fight that is to argue against them publicly in a rational method that moves through evidence, to arguments, to conclusions with as much clarity as possible.
Extending Mr. Kagebein’s concerns even further, I would argue that acting as a watchman for the movement while failing to perform that role objectively not only harms the movement but commits a serious injustice against the subject of those attacks. In the case of Checking Premises, Diana has been wronged by the failure in this error. I hope Mr. Kagebein sees this and either reconsiders or offers us more substantive criticisms and these and/or other issues.
In the meantime, any people new to Objectivism are just going to have to consult a number of resources beyond me, Diana, Checking Premises, and even Dr. Leonard Peikoff and then make up their own mind. I am not worried about this. I have a lot of optimism in the capabilities of new and young Objectivists. I just hope at some point we all learn to be a bit more measured, rational, objective, and judicious in our criticisms, but without losing our sense of humor and positive sense of life in the process.
1) In the process of editing, I did not finish the sentence that begins, “But I am not convinced that any lapse in courtesy…” Thanks, Sam!
2) Diana wrote to me and clarified some of her points about eating children and I’ve corrected that as I did misrepresent her view there. Sorry, Diana! I re-read her latest comments on this and she does think there is a clear moral case against eating anecephalic babies, but she does not see a clear political case for the notion that they have rights.
3) I did the embed code wrong on that video.
4) I’m re-reading and finding some typos and whatnot.