Justice for John P. McCaskey
Note: This post assumes general understanding of the publicly available facts about a conflict that has recently emerged between Leonard Peikoff and John P. McCaskey. For a fairly comprehensive statement of these facts, see Paul and Diana Hsieh’s post on the matter. To read the email in which Peikoff (among other things) morally condemns McCaskey, see McCaskey’s announcement of his resignation from the boards of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship.
Because John P. McCaskey is on the masthead of my journal, The Objective Standard, and because I have great respect for him, I want to say a few words about Leonard Peikoff’s now-public moral condemnation of him. This is a personal statement from me, not a statement from TOS, and it does not imply that those who contribute to or are involved with the journal (including McCaskey) agree with me.
Ever since McCaskey announced his resignation from the boards of ARI and Anthem, and posted, with Peikoff’s permission, the email in which Peikoff morally condemns him, I have been trying to make sense of the situation. Toward that end, I’ve emailed Peikoff and asked whether, given McCaskey’s presence on the masthead of TOS, he could provide me with any information that might help. Unfortunately, more than a month has passed, and I have not received a reply. I’ve spoken with Yaron Brook about the matter, but he told me that he and the board members at ARI are bound by confidentiality agreements and thus cannot provide any information. I’ve looked through the correspondence I have between McCaskey and David Harriman, in which McCaskey provided Harriman with comments and criticisms about a chapter of The Logical Leap that I later published in TOS. But far from this correspondence revealing anything morally condemnable on the part of McCaskey, it shows that he was always thoughtful, professional, and polite. I’ve also spoken with McCaskey about the situation, and he has provided the information he can, which is essentially included in the aforementioned post by Paul and Diana Hsieh.
Given the available information, I find Peikoff’s email to be nonobjective in several respects, but I will focus here on his moral condemnation of McCaskey, which I regard as unjust.
Peikoff claims in his email that McCaskey’s (alleged) wrongdoing is sufficiently bad that even his enormous contribution to the spread of Objectivism only “raises him one rung in Hell.” At first blush, one might assume that Peikoff is exaggerating here, as people sometimes do in private emails, and that he doesn’t really mean to morally condemn McCaskey. But because Peikoff authorized McCaskey to post the email as a public statement of Peikoff’s position, and because Peikoff has not come forth to say that he did not mean to morally condemn McCaskey—which he could do easily and quickly were that the case—I must take Peikoff at his word.
What reason does Peikoff give for his condemnation of McCaskey? He says, “[McCaskey] attacks Dave’s book, and thus, explicitly or implicitly, my intro praising it as expressing [Ayn Rand’s] epistemology, and also my course on induction, on which the book is based.” But criticisms of books, ideas, or intellectuals are not grounds for moral condemnation unless the criticisms are irrational (i.e., dishonest, unjust, or baseless), and Peikoff offers no evidence to suggest that McCaskey’s criticisms were irrational. Peikoff merely says, “I have seen a large part of this criticism myself, and have heard its overall tenor and content from others who attended a forum on the subject.” If McCaskey made irrational criticisms of Harriman’s book, and if Peikoff has seen or heard these criticisms, then the onus is on Peikoff to reveal the content of the criticisms in order to support his now-public condemnation of McCaskey. Likewise, if people are (rationally) to accept Peikoff’s moral condemnation of McCaskey as legitimate, they need to know the content of the criticisms and to understand why the criticisms are irrational. But Peikoff has thus far failed to support his claim with any such data or explanations.
(I will not here consider in any detail McCaskey’s comments at Amazon.com about Harriman’s book, as they were posted after Peikoff condemned him and thus cannot be the grounds for that condemnation. I will note, however, that although I take issue with aspects of McCaskey’s comments at Amazon.com, nothing in those comments even remotely warrants moral condemnation. If I see reason to further address those comments or related issues in the future, I will do so then.)
Rather than provide good reasons in support of his condemnation of McCaskey, Peikoff has provided only this unsupported conclusion: “In essence, [McCaskey’s] behavior amounts to: Peikoff is misguided, Harriman is misguided, [McCaskey] knows Objectivism better than either. Or else: Objectivism on these issues is inadequate, and [McCaskey] is the one pointing the flaws out.” Peikoff does not present any evidence that McCaskey has said anything that amounts to such claims. Moreover, even if McCaskey did issue criticisms amounting to such claims, unless he did so in a dishonest, unjust, or baseless manner, such criticisms would not warrant moral condemnation.
Even if Peikoff personally has good reason to condemn McCaskey, his failure to make known what that reason is, his failure to present evidence or argument in support of his assertion, means that those of us who need to make a judgment on this matter must do so on the assumption that he has no good reason. The claim by some that “maybe Peikoff has a good reason but just isn’t revealing it” is baseless. “Maybe” is not evidence—not in a court of law and not in a rational mind. To accept an idea in support of which there is no evidence is to indulge in the arbitrary.
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.”1 This is a basic requirement of objectivity, and, in this case, Peikoff has failed to meet it.
The claim by some that we cannot judge Peikoff’s judgment because we don’t have complete information is false. We never have complete information about any person or event, and we don’t need complete information to make moral judgments. We can and must make moral judgments on the basis of partial data; and, as a matter of observable fact, we do so virtually every time we make a moral judgment. For instance, we don’t have complete information about why politicians take the actions they take, yet we can and legitimately do judge many of their actions to be immoral. Likewise, we don’t have complete information about why John D. Rockefeller took the actions he took, yet we can and legitimately do judge his productive actions to be profoundly moral. One could multiply such examples endlessly.
The fact that we don’t have complete information means only that our judgments are contextual—i.e., based on the information available to us at a given time. In many cases, the possibility remains that we will gather additional data in the future that will bear on our judgment and require us to revise it. But until such data are available, we are warranted in making judgments on the basis of the currently available and relevant facts. And when our values are at stake, we morally must make such judgments.
When faced with an apparent injustice against a man whom one values and whom one has substantial reason to believe is of the highest moral character, one should gather the available and relevant facts and make a judgment on the basis of those facts. If one later discovers additional facts that logically warrant a change of judgment, then one should revise one’s judgment. But, as Rand noted, “in no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.”2
McCaskey has made enormous contributions to the Objectivist movement. He is a highly valued contributing editor to The Objective Standard. And, to my knowledge, he is a man of impeccable character. For Peikoff to morally condemn him without providing good reason for doing so is objectively wrong.
Does this mean I am condemning Peikoff wholesale? Absolutely not. Rather, I am morally condemning Peikoff’s act of injustice against McCaskey. An injustice of this kind committed by a man of Peikoff’s moral stature does not warrant wholesale condemnation of the man. But it does warrant identifying the injustice as an injustice, and, if Peikoff does not correct the injustice (or show that it is, in fact, not an injustice), it warrants a proportional adjustment of my heretofore enormously high esteem for Peikoff.
I did not arrive at this conclusion quickly or easily, and it pains me to the core to make this judgment. Peikoff has fueled my intellectual development more than anyone except Ayn Rand. He has helped to clarify and concretize in my mind the principles on which human life, happiness, and freedom depend. He has helped me to better understand the principles of communication, grammar, and logic. For all of this, I owe him immense gratitude and the highest respect. Part and parcel of that respect, however, is taking the principles of Objectivism seriously. One of those principles is the moral necessity of judging people according to the available and relevant facts. Another is the requirement of evidence in support of the ideas one accepts. Another is that when one’s values are denounced, one must defend them. And so, it is with great sadness that I make this statement and do so publicly.
What is to be gained by making my thoughts about this matter public? Justice—and everything that follows from it. In addition to the primary gain, which is the moral defense of an innocent man, I gain the self-esteem that follows from upholding my principles and values. Further, in addition to what I gain, my friends, colleagues, and associates gain the knowledge that I will not remain silent in the face of an injustice against them. Further still, we all gain the value of a public rejection of moral neutrality. As Rand wrote, “moral neutrality necessitates a progressive sympathy for vice and a progressive antagonism for virtue.”3 Conversely, moral justice necessitates a progressive predilection for virtue and a progressive antagonism for vice.
A final note concerning the masthead of TOS: The conflict between Peikoff and McCaskey has put Yaron Brook and those on the board of ARI in an extremely difficult position, and I do not want to add to their problems. Thus, in order to forestall any possible assumption that Brook’s presence on the masthead of TOS might imply his or the board’s agreement with me on this matter, I have unilaterally and respectfully removed him from the masthead. He and ARI’s writers are welcome to continue contributing to TOS, and I hope they will.
—Craig Biddle, October 29, 2010
For answers to some recurring questions about this post, click here.