|Having just emerged from a discussion on Noodlefood, Diana Hsieh's blog, which included an exchange with a mysterous L.S., who I suspect was Leonard Peikoff, I find myself left with an over-riding impression that refuses to go away - one that prompts me to ask, ever more seriously, "is Objectivism a cult?" The answer is: not as a philosophy, to be sure, because "a cult" refers to form rather than to content. It refers to the way in which an idea is held rather than to the idea itself. So perhaps the more precise and relevant question is: Do (many) followers of Objectivism exhibit cult-like behavior? And to that, the answer is an unqualified "Yes"! It is an answer that continues to reinforce itself on so many occasions that it can no longer be doubted or denied.|
Take the Ayn Rand Institute, for example. Bearing in mind that the goal of a philosopher is the pursuit of truth, the willingness to follow the argument wherever it leads, ask yourself whether you believe that the main advocates of Objectivism within that organization are psychologically open to admitting any shortcomings or errors in Rand's philosophy, or whether they are far more inclined to rationalize or deny them for the sake of advancing her ideas?
I have often thought that the incentives for an advocacy organization like ARI to give an objective assessment of Rand's philosophy are virtually non-existent. The principals within that organization are like attorneys with Rand as their client. In order to be in a position to evaluate the philosophy objectively and dispassionately, they would have to act, not as an advocate, but as a judge, jury or disinterested arbiter. Now, it can be argued that everyone has his biases - that no one is purely disinterested. Perhaps, but the greater are the stakes you have in defending and promoting a particular philosophy, the less inclined you will be to view that philosophy objectively - the less willing you will be to acknowledge its errors or shortcomings, should they be pointed out to you.
I remember attending a lecture by ARI spokesperson, Harry Binswanger, concerning Ayn Rand's prospective biography, which has now come to fruition under the authorship of Jeff Britting. I asked whether or not such a biography should include any of Rand's flaws, were they to exist. To which Binswanger replied that Rand didn't have any flaws, unless you want to count the fact that she spoke with an accent, and even if she did, we should refrain from mentioning them, lest we give her enemies grist for the mill. I don't think it's presumptuous to infer that he and many others in that organization would treat her philosophy the same way.
For example, observe James Vallient's dismissal of Rand's denunciation of homosexuality as an "off-the-cuff" remark and therefore as not part of her philosophy, or of ARI's dismissal of Rand's article against the idea of a female president as also not part of her philosophy. It seems that if a position Rand held is too blatantly unacceptable to be defended, it must be excluded from her philosophy, just as if she had any personal flaws, they must be expunged from her character and personality.
It should be obvious why a serious philosopher cannot operate in that kind of intellectual environment. He must, if he is to be true to his profession, feel free to disagree with any philosophy without fear of betraying his "client" or of alienating his colleagues. He must act not as an advocate, but as a judge or jury. And this, of course, is true of any student of philosophy including students of Objectivism. Unfortunately, this is not how supporters of Rand typically approach her philosophy. They approach it as if it were the holy grail, as if any who deny its "self-evident" truths are intellectually dishonest and persona non grata.
Even if Objectivism were correct in every respect (and I don't think it is), its acolytes would be advocating a true philosophy by default. They could not claim truly to understand and appreciate it.
What about TOC? Diana has criticized David Kelley for failing properly to advance Objectivism. In certain respects, she may be correct. But the one impression that I don't get (and I can speak only from hearsay, since I have not attended TOC events) is that Kelley is simply an Objectivist mouthpiece. He strikes me as more of a genuine philosopher, who is not afraid to disagree with Rand's views, if it should come to that.
The way Objectivism is being treated at present among many whose sympathies lie with the Ayn Rand Institute is more like a religious dogma than a rational philosophy, even if it is a rational philosophy and even if, in the final analysis, every one of its philosophical precepts is true.
Not that this kind of dogmatism is limited to the supporters of ARI. I have found the same kind of doctrinaire idealism among the libertarian anarchists, some of whom are ideologues of immense proportion and are even more insufferable than the Randroids they are so fond of deprecating. Anarchist, heal thyself!
Philosophy is a serious business and a good philosopher should be a disinterested advocate of the truth, who feels no pressure by his colleagues to conform to a preconceived view of reality. He should be free to change his mind and not be ridden out of town on a rail or denounced as some kind of intellectual heretic.
I recently attended a meeting of the Mt. Pelerin Society in Iceland - an organization of people sympathetic to free-market politics. But many different free-market perspectives were represented there, and everyone felt comfortable presenting his or her views, however much they might disagree with the views of other participants. Wouldn't it be nice if the members of ARI and those of TOC could have a joint conference on Objectivism in a similarly benevolent atmosphere?! This is not out of the question. The Ayn Rand Society, which is a division of the American Philosophical Association, includes philosophers from both camps who meet periodically to exchange papers on some aspect of Objectivism, although from what I hear, the atmosphere is a bit strained. I also heard that Dr. Peikoff no longer attends.