Yaron Brook, Robert Mayhew, Harry Binswanger, and other alleged Objectivists are at it again. This time, they’re attempting to smear me for my upcoming debate with Stephen Hicks about whether Objectivism is a closed system or an “open” system. Because their claims confuse and mislead people about the nature and applications of Objectivism, I want to say a few words about them here on Discord.
The general claim, as Brook emotes, is that my willingness to debate Hicks is “horrible,” “disgusting,” and “a massive sanction” showing that I have “sold [my] soul.” I’m told that on the Harry Binswanger List, Mayhew has called this debate a “new low” and that Binswanger and others have piled on. And on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, others are toeing the tribal line and saying or insinuating that I am somehow a bad guy for engaging in the debate.
Because the claims I’ve seen and heard are often vaguely worded or (bravely) couched in innuendo, I’ve translated them here into clear, unequivocal language so as to address their substance directly. (If you’ve encountered significant claims or arguments about this matter that are not mentioned here, let me know, and I’ll add and comment on them if I think they’re worth addressing.)
The claims so far include:
- It is immoral to have a debate with a dishonest person or a person who holds bad ideas because to do so is to sanction his dishonesty or bad ideas.
- In debating Hicks, Biddle is violating the principle that “In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.”
- This debate was settled long ago, and there is no point in debating the matter again.
- Debating Objectivism vs. “open Objectivism” is akin to debating whether slavery is good.
- The question of whether Objectivism is an “open system” or a closed one is too simple and obvious to warrant debate.
- If Biddle thinks it’s necessary to address this subject, he should give a lecture, not engage in a debate with The Atlas Society. Doing so gives visibility to an organization that misrepresents Objectivism.
Take these in turn.
1. “It is immoral to have a debate with a dishonest person or a person who holds bad ideas because to do so is to sanction his dishonesty or bad ideas.”
This claim makes no sense, which is why no one who utters it upholds it in action—except as a double standard.
Everyone worth debating holds opposing ideas, otherwise what is there to debate? So let’s focus here on the issue of honesty.
Many people we might debate or converse with in order to advance our ideas are (to some extent) dishonest. In particular, many professional intellectuals are. For instance, I think Yoram Hazony, Dennis Prager, and Ben Shapiro are dishonest for pretending that faith is a means of knowledge. I don’t think a professional intellectual can hold this position honestly. An intellectual’s job is to take ideas seriously, to define his terms, to understand the nature and substance of his premises and claims, and to address reasonable challenges to his positions and arguments. The life-or-death difference between grounding ideas in reason (evidence and logic) and accepting ideas on faith (in the absence or defiance of evidence and logic) is too clear, especially in today’s scientific-industrial world, for any professional intellectual honestly to accept (the literal nonsense) that faith is a means of knowledge. Accepting such nonsense is all the more perverse after the 9/11 attacks showed so vividly that accepting ideas on faith means: anything goes.
Hazony, Prager, and Shapiro are highly intelligent, well-educated men who know their history and have the world of knowledge at their fingertips. All they have to do is look and think. But they don’t. And their faith-based dishonesty extends into many significant areas. Hazony, for instance, fully embraces collectivism, holding that “the nation” is the fundamental unit of moral and political concern; thus he advocates “National Conservatism,” foisting the Bible and “God” on children in government schools, and forcing people to sacrifice for “God” and country when doing so serves “the nation”—even though he knows the human destruction that has resulted when such ideas have been implemented. Prager continues saying that there is no secular ground for morality (“If there is no God, murder isn’t wrong”), even though he knows (via my discussion with him) that Rand has provided one that warrants his attention. Shapiro claims that Rand’s philosophy of reason, rational-self interest, and individual rights is “garbage,” while claiming that Judaism—according to which you should accept ideas on faith and kill your son if “God” says so—is a beautiful thing.
These men have irrational agendas and are willing to pretend that facts are other than they are in order to further those agendas. They are dishonest.
Does this mean we should not debate or discuss ideas with them? Should I not have had a discussion with Prager? Would it be wrong of me to debate or discuss ideas with Hazony or Shapiro? Of course not. Explaining our rational ideas against the foil of others’ irrational ideas is one of the best ways to reach active-minded yet confused people who would appreciate our ideas if they heard them. Differentiation is essential to integration; comparing and contrasting evidence-based ideas with faith-based ideas further illuminates the importance of reason.
Likewise for socialist and communist intellectuals. They are dishonest for pretending that socialism and communism are not responsible for mountains of corpses and rivers of blood. Academic Marxist Richard Wolff, for instance—with degrees in history from Harvard, and economics from Stanford and Yale—cannot possibly be unaware of the history and destructiveness of Marxism. Nor can socialist professor Jill Vickers or socialist activist Gerald Caplan be unaware of the history and consequences of socialism. Nor can socialist YouTuber Vaush be unaware of it—at least not without evading the moral responsibility of knowing the history of the system he advocates. Does this mean we should refuse to debate such people? Again, of course not. Showing the difference between our reality-based, life-serving ideas and their dishonest, anti-life ideas is a great way to advance rational philosophy.
Yet, observe that while ARI people condemn me for discussing or debating ideas with Prager (and now Hicks), they do not apply the same alleged principle—“Thou shalt not debate dishonest people or people with bad ideas”—to people they regard as in their tribe. Yaron Brook, for instance, has debated or had friendly public discussions with Hazony, Shapiro, Wolff, Vaush, Jordan Peterson (a Kantian mystic), Michael Malice (an anarchist), Glenn Beck (a devout Mormon), and many more such people. Leonard Peikoff and John Ridpath debated Vickers and Caplan about capitalism vs. socialism. Ridpath and Binswanger debated socialists Christopher Hitchens and John Judis about the same. And so on.
ARI people have never condemned Brook, Peikoff, Ridpath, or Binswanger for debating these dishonest people or for sanctioning their deadly ideas. But somehow they evaluate me as horrible and disgusting, and say I’m selling my soul, for discussing Ayn Rand’s ideas vs. religion with Prager, and for debating Objectivism vs. so-called “open Objectivism” with Hicks.
Such double standards are hallmarks of tribalism.
Whether Hicks is dishonest in holding that Objectivism is an “open system,” I don’t know, as I haven’t heard his arguments. I suspect that he, like many others, is innocently freezing the abstraction of “true philosophy” at the level of “Objectivism.” We will see. But whether he is honest or dishonest does not matter for my purposes. I am not trying to change his mind. My concern is to reach young people who might be confused by the strongest arguments put forth by someone who claims that Rand’s philosophy is an “open system.” I think Hicks will provide the strongest arguments for that position, so I want to hear and address his best arguments—and thereby clarify the matter for the young people listening. (I’m told that a recording of the debate will later be shared publicly and thus potentially clarify the matter for many more.)
2. “In debating Hicks, Biddle is violating the principle that ‘In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.’”
This principle (from Rand’s essay “The Anatomy of Compromise”) does not apply here. My debate with Hicks is not a “collaboration”—but a debate. And it’s a debate at a conference of young people who are relatively new to Rand’s ideas, who have heard that some people regard Objectivism as an “open system” while others insist that it is “closed,” and who are innocently confused about the matter (I indicate why young people are confused about this below).
The principles from that same essay that do apply here are: “In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins”—and “When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.”
If Hicks agrees to the laws of identity, causality, and excluded middle, as I suspect he will, and if he agrees that we must classify things in ways that keep our thinking clear so we know what we are thinking and talking about, as I suspect he will, then my consistency to these principles will win the debate. Likewise, if he clearly and openly defines his basic principles, this will work to the advantage of the rational side and help expose the truth. If he refuses to do so and attempts to hide or evade them, which I doubt he will do, I will call him out on this and insist that he be clear about his basic principles or concede the debate.
To call such a debate a “collaboration,” or a “moral compromise,” or a “moral sanction” is to create a package-deal amounting to: “Discussing or debating ideas with people who disagree with your ideas is immoral.” That is both false and extremely destructive of efforts to advance Objectivism. Imagine young Objectivists thinking, “I better not debate or discuss ideas with someone who holds ideas contrary to Objectivism—that would be a moral sanction.” I can’t think of a better way to stop the very thing we need to do more of if we want to advance Rand’s ideas.
If we should not discuss and debate ideas with people who disagree with our ideas, with whom should we discuss and debate them?
3. “The question of whether Objectivism is an ‘open system’ or a closed one is too simple and obvious to warrant debate.”
This claim betrays many facts, including the fact that Objectivists in decades past wrote many thousands of words in an effort to explain why Objectivism is a closed system (see below)—and the fact that in recent weeks, a number of people claiming to be Objectivists have spent hours on YouTube trying to unpack all the supposed “simplicity” and “obviousness” of the point, while vaguely attempting to smear me for debating the subject with Hicks (see below).
Young people new to Rand’s ideas can be and often are innocently confused about whether Objectivism is a closed system or an open one—just as they can be and often are innocently confused about abortion, immigration, anarchism, and many other issues that require rational standards, principled thinking, and avoidance of certain non-obvious logical and conceptual fallacies, such as package-deals and frozen abstractions. In my debate with Hicks, I will identify the relevant standards and principles, unpack the package-deals, unfreeze the frozen abstractions, and explain how these and related fallacies caused the confusion at hand. I will do so in plain English and with helpful analogies and examples, showing the importance of drawing bright conceptual lines between essentially different things. In short, I will bring clarity to their minds on the matter at hand.
4. “Debating Objectivism vs. ‘open Objectivism’ is akin to debating whether slavery is good.”
This is a false equivalence extraordinaire. To package these things together is like claiming that engaging with libertarians is akin to sanctioning the murderous Iranian theocracy. This, incidentally, is precisely what Peter Schwartz did in his 1989 essay “On Moral Sanctions.” He not only made that obscene equivalence and condemned libertarian groups and the libertarian movement wholesale; he also said that it is wrong to speak to libertarian groups “even if one’s topic is why Objectivism offers the proper foundation for genuine liberty.” His followers, including people at ARI, adopted this nonsense like Christian dogma. Thereafter, they refused to engage with libertarians for decades.
If you think about it, you quickly see that young libertarians—i.e., young people who want to defend liberty but don’t yet know how—are a perfect audience for Objectivists to address. But Schwartz and his ARI followers said to them, in effect, “Although we could tell you how to defend liberty on solid ground, we won’t because you’re evil.”
Imagine what the world might be like today if that dogma had not been accepted and followed for a generation.
It should go without saying that the mistaken or the confused are not the same as the murderous or the tyrannical. Debating Objectivism vs. “open Objectivism” is nothing like debating whether slavery is good. Such false equivalences retard people’s thinking and shut down healthy debate. We should reject such package-deals wholesale and call them what they are: morally obscene.
5. “This debate was settled long ago, and there is no point in debating the matter again.”
This claim drops the context that young people coming to Rand’s ideas today are not likely to have read or even to know about obscure documents and arguments regarding this matter from more than thirty years ago. (There were many, many documents—by Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley, Peter Schwartz, Robert Bidinotto, Robert Tracinski, Bennet Karp, Jerry Nilson, and more.) Further, most if not all of those documents and arguments were infused with animus and thus are not ideal sources for people who want to hear the plain facts of the matter and decide for themselves what makes sense. Further still, the main document from that era arguing that Objectivism is a closed system, Peikoff’s “Fact and Value,” was written explicitly “to and for Objectivists”—not for people new to the ideas.
Many young people new to Objectivism today are aware of the fact that some people and organizations hold that Objectivism is a closed system while others hold that it is an open system. But few to none are aware of the many documents that have been written and arguments that have been made in efforts to support these opposing positions.
And, in the age of the Internet, it would be nearly impossible for someone interested in Rand’s ideas not to be aware of the differing positions. When I discovered Rand’s ideas in 1990, the first thing I did was buy her books and read them. Today is different. Today, when young people discover a new person (or idea) and want to find out more about him or her, the first thing they do is Google that person. And when they Google “Ayn Rand” or “Objectivism,” they soon find that some people say Objectivism is one thing, and others say it’s another thing.
For instance, if you Google “Ayn Rand,” the first thing you find is the Ayn Rand Wikipedia page, which includes this:
In 1985, Peikoff worked with businessman Ed Snider to establish the Ayn Rand Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas and works. In 1990, after an ideological disagreement with Peikoff, David Kelley founded the Institute for Objectivist Studies, now known as The Atlas Society.
Likewise, the Wikipedia page for “The Objectivist movement,” which is linked from the “Ayn Rand” page, has a long section titled “Peikoff–Kelley split,” which explains some of what the split was about, but does not get into any substantive arguments about the matter.
A little further down the Google search page, you find links to ARI and TAS. The TAS description that is visible right there on the Google search page—before you click the link—reads: “The Atlas Society promotes open Objectivism: the philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom.” If you click the link, you find that TAS’s website has much more on this, including a document titled “A Note to Our Members About Open Objectivism,” which is full of package-deals and frozen abstractions that few people could easily detect and sort out.
The Wikipedia page for TAS opens with this:
The Atlas Society (TAS) is an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand. It is part of the Objectivist movement that split off from the Ayn Rand Institute in 1990 due to disagreements over whether Objectivism was a “closed system” or an “open system.”
If you search for “open Objectivism” on YouTube, you find an ARI video titled “Is Objectivism an Open or Closed System?” in which ARI’s “Chief Philosophy Officer,” Onkar Ghate, tries to address the issue. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of that video:
In the late uh 1990s, so just before the 2000s, [NB: it was actually the late 1980s], there was a dispute within Objectivism, and you could say more especially within ARI, about some of the intellectual figures there. And then there was a splinter organization that David Kelley founded, who was a speaker for ARI, writer for ARI, and worked with ARI. He started his own organization, and part of the characterization of it is, they view Objectivism as open and ARI views it as closed. And this, I mean that organization, has gone through various names. It’s The Atlas Society today. But this issue comes up. And new people checking out Ayn Rand, checking out Objectivism, checking out the organizations that are interested or proclaimed to be promoting Objectivism, often come across this…”
As inarticulate and poorly argued as Ghate’s video is, he is right that people new to Objectivism often come across the fact that different people and different organizations have different views on this. What they don’t come across is a clear, calm discussion in which opposing sides of the issue explain the reasons for their positions. That is the kind of thing that active-minded young people (and older people) could use to help them think through the issue and make up their own minds on the matter. And that is what my debate with Hicks will provide.
The claim that this debate was settled long ago, and there is no point in debating the matter again is empirically false. For people new to Objectivism and searching on the Internet for information about Ayn Rand and her ideas, this issue is not “settled.” No debate is settled for an active-minded individual until it is settled in his own mind by means of his own thinking. (Anyone confused about this would do well to reread The Fountainhead.)
6. “If Biddle thinks it’s necessary to address this subject, he should give a lecture, not engage in a debate with The Atlas Society. Doing so gives visibility to an organization that misrepresents Objectivism.”
I’m not engaging in a debate with The Atlas Society. I don’t even know what that would mean. I’ll be debating Stephen Hicks, a philosophy professor at Rockford University, where he is also executive director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. Hicks is the author of several books, including Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Nietzsche and the Nazis, and Liberalism Pro and Con. Although he is a scholar at TAS, he is not TAS. My debate is with him.
As for why I’m debating him rather than giving a lecture on the subject, the live, in-person debate format has several advantages. One is that each side must address the strongest arguments the other side can make, including rebuttals. Neither can get away with misrepresenting the other’s arguments, or attacking straw men, or refusing to define key terms, or evading the central questions at hand. Such tactics, when attempted in a debate, stand out like a big white flag.
Another advantage is that each debater must answer challenging questions from the audience. This requires each to address not only what the debaters think is important, but also what the active-minds listening think is important. This can and often does bring to the fore helpful clarifications that otherwise would not have been made.
Yet another advantage is that the debate can model how disagreements about important matters can and should be handled—civilly, with clarity and truth as the goals.
A final advantage is that all of this can be captured on video and shared publicly—with “debate” in the title, which attracts people who would like to hear steelman cases for both sides of the issue in question.
Of course, I could simply give a lecture about why Objectivism is a closed system. But that wouldn’t be as engaging or as convincing as hearing each side’s strongest case from someone who advocates it, along with rebuttals and answers to questions from the audience. So I much prefer the debate.
As for whether it is wrong to give visibility or attention to an intellectual or an organization that misrepresents Objectivism, this depends on the context. Consider that if you debate a socialist or a theist, you bring more attention to socialism or religion. But if in the debate you expose and clarify what is wrong with the thing, why it is irrational and anti-life, such attention is good.
It’s worth noting that last year ARI published an article (intended to smear Carl Barney and me) in which they dedicated a great deal of space and many words to David Kelley and “open Objectivism”—and then emailed the article to ARI’s entire mailing list. They even linked in the article to TAS’s “A Note to Our Members About Open Objectivism,” in which Kelley argues for “open Objectivism.” Likewise, two years ago, ARI made the aforementioned video in which Ghate discusses “open” versus “closed” Objectivism and posted it to YouTube for the world to see. In that video Ghate repeatedly mentions David Kelley and The Atlas Society and calls the differences between ARI and TAS differences of “view” and “perspective.” Likewise, ARI affiliates working with Ayn Rand Centre UK recently produced a video titled “Why We Would Never Debate The Atlas Society” and another titled “The Limitless Vistas of a Closed System,” in which they repeatedly mention “open Objectivism” and Kelley for the world to ponder. (These two videos came out immediately after the announcement about my debate with Hicks, and although the people in the videos clearly are responding to that announcement, they artfully avoid mentioning my name—until they are asked by a viewer whether they are trying to intimidate me, at which point they insist that this was not their intent.) These items have brought much more visibility and attention to TAS and “open Objectivism” than I ever have. Yet when I debate Hicks openly and show that “open Objectivism” is not a thing, ARI people and their affiliates attack and attempt to smear me for bringing attention to TAS. Here, again, we see the tribalistic double standard.
Another relevant factor is that TAS now, and increasingly, is more active and more visible than it was in years past. In addition to their visibility in Google searches (see above), TAS recently hired three new highly accomplished fellows, Jason Hill, Richard Salsman, and Robert Tracinski. And TAS is substantially outstripping ARI on social media. To date, TAS has 9,000 more followers than ARI on Twitter—43,000 more than ARI on Instagram—95,000 more than ARI on Facebook—and four times as many as ARI on Clubhouse. TAS is also starting to hold summer conferences for young people, while OCON attendance is declining.
In short, TAS is reaching people; with its reach comes the claim that Objectivism is “open”; and that is causing increasingly more confusion—confusion I aim to clear up in my debate with Hicks and any follow-up writing or speaking I do on the matter.
It’s worth noting that, because ARI people and affiliates have argued extremely poorly in their recent efforts to show that Objectivism is a closed system (e.g., watch the Ghate and ARCUK videos linked above), they’ve made TAS and “open Objectivism” sound plausible.
It’s also worth noting that ARI’s violations of Objectivist principles are a much bigger problem than any of TAS’s errors. People at TAS misunderstand or misrepresent what Objectivism is—and some of them may know better, in which case they are being dishonest. That is a serious problem. People at ARI, on the other hand—at least some in upper management and on the board—understand what Objectivism is and can explain (albeit poorly or unconvincingly) why Objectivism is closed, yet they violate principles of the philosophy as a matter of course. (See the unfortunately mounting posts on Discord for details.) Understanding Objectivism, claiming to advocate it, and then violating its principles in action is a much worse offense than misunderstanding the philosophy or misrepresenting it in words.
When I debate Hicks, I will give a sound refutation of the notion of “open Objectivism,” along with a positive case for why Objectivism is closed. To the extent that my debate brings attention to TAS, it will do so while making clear what is wrong with the organization’s basic premise. That will be a good thing.
The basic question for me in all of this is: By participating in this debate, will I bring more clarity or less clarity to the audience regarding this important matter? I think I will bring more.
The job of a professional intellectual is to understand important truths in his chosen field, to help others understand them, and to discuss or debate ideas when doing so can clarify such matters for active-minded people. That’s what I do. If ARI people and affiliates choose to attack me for clarifying important matters in people’s minds, they are free to do so. But in doing so, they further expose their irrationality and tribalism. And they further harm the reputation of Ayn Rand’s magnificent philosophy.