Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Unanswerable Questions

As anyone capable of unbiased judgment can readily perceive, Dr. Garmong has not in fact answered the questions posed to him by ARCHN blog, nor is it likely he ever will. How can he? Founders College was originally conceived on Objectivist principles. How else can you explain a reading list that is almost exclusively made up of books cited by Rand? Or consider Professor Garmong's statement about Founder's College mission, which he says is "to provide liberal-arts education in an integrated, hierarchically organized curriculum." (Emphasis added.) The terms integrated and hierarchically are Objectivist buzzwords. Rand and her followers are always stressing the importance of integration and hierarchy in knowledge. So the Randian roots of Founders College are difficult to deny. Why not simply own up to it?

Why do orthodox Objectivists have so little credibility outside of ARI? It stems, at least in part, from their unwillingness to own up to their mistakes or respond to any of their critics, particularly the critics of their management (or rather their mismanagement) of the Objectivist movement. Now I, as a critic of Objectivism, see very plainly that the mismanagement of the Objectivist movement stems from problems with the Objectivist philosophy. The Objectivist conviction that human beings are the products of their philosophical premises, which influences how ARI goes about the business of spreading Objectivism, is just plain wrong and can only lead those who believe in it to frustration and grief. In a sense, there is a kind of justice in the scandals of Objectivism. Bad ideas, if earnestly followed, must lead to bad consequences. Yet there is a tragic element apparent here as well. After all, not everything about the Founders College is ill-conceived. Dr. Garmong insists that "students will be educated on ... all of the major ideas, not just Objectivism." The reading list, though it includes some howlers (like Calumut K, for instance) also includes Doestoevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Hawthorne, Mann, and Dreiser. Whatever the deficiencies in the Founders curricula and in its staff, it is likely that the handful of students going there will receive a better liberal education than they would if they pursued a humanities or social science degree at most American universities. But in the end, it will all come to nought, because Founders cannot possibly succeed if it is run by orthodox Objectivists who won't even come clean as to what they are about.

The biggest question about Founders has to do with how non-Objectivist ideas will be taught. Orthodox Objectivism has a very poor reputation when it comes to presenting ideas of philosophers Rand disagrees with. Just consider what Rand and her orthodox followers have said about Hume and Kant. Rand sympathizers like George Walsh and Fred Seddon have become pariahs among orthodox Objectivists for trying to correct Rand's misconceptions about other philosophers. Why should we expect Founders to present fairly and honestly non-Objectivist ideas when there is little if any evidence that orthodox Objectivists are even capable of understanding, let alone articulating, non-Objectivist ideas?

18 comments:

Neil Parille said...

Dan,

A liberal arts college with a moderate Objectivist slant might well be better than what is taught in most universities. I'm not a huge fan of Rand's literature, but its better than Toni Morrison and Rigoberto Menchu.

But why not just admit the Objectivist connection, try to be fair to all ideas and move on? Of course, this isn't something that Objectivism can do. In some ways this is similar to the defense of Rand's character. Claiming that her only character flaw was blowing her top once in a while is ridiculous, but that's the party line and it will probably be maintained longer than the USSR.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit much to criticize Garmong for not answering your questions in his reply to you, when he said Founders has directed him not to do so, and he suggested that you direct your questions to their PR firm.

Your questions are legitimate, but abusing Garmong for not answering them, given the circumstances, is unfair. So...have you contacted the PR firm to see if _they_ will answer your questions?

#1 Ramones Fan said...

You wrote:

>The Objectivist conviction that human beings are the products of their philosophical premises, which influences how ARI goes about the business of spreading Objectivism, is just plain wrong and can only lead those who believe in it to frustration and grief.

As someone who likes to avoid frustration and grief, if human action is not directed by one's philosophical premises (tacit or otherwise), what is it directed by? Since at least on this blog one's philosophical premises are off the table, I'm inclined to think it has something to do with either gender or class. I mean have you ever gone clothes shopping with a rich woman? Talk about behavior with no rational explanation!

Then again, perhaps the supernatural has something to do with it. For example, I was going to mow the lawn the other day and suddenly this voice inside me said "DON'T MOW THE LAWN. TAKE A NOONER INSTEAD." If that's not the voice of Providence manifesting its will through me, I don't know was is.

I think it's good that you are keeping tabs on Founders College and holding their collective feet (ha!) to the fire, especially since though you think Objectivists are just plain wrong and you never would take classes there in a million years. Quick question though: do you run blogs on other philosophies that you disagree with and keep tabs on the respective failings of their educational institutions? I wager your coverage of the postmodernists would be a real hoot!

Daniel Barnes said...

>#1 Ramones Fan said...

First of all, #1 Ramones Fan, I dispute your identity. This is because I am the #1 Ramones fan! This can be objectively established using irrefutable philosophic principles..;-)

>...if human action is not directed by one's philosophical premises (tacit or otherwise), what is it directed by?

I can't speak for Greg, but for me I am a partial determinist. To borrow from Steven Pinker: genes 45-50%, parental influence 5-10%, the remaining 40-odd% no one really knows, but largely composed of a combination of culture (obviously this is where ideas and philosophy come in) and personal experience. I'm not a strict determinist - I believe there is some human freedom to choose - but have no idea how much. (Neither does anyone else). Whatever it is, it operates under considerable restrictions, perhaps more than we suspect.

>For example, I was going to mow the lawn the other day and suddenly this voice inside me said "DON'T MOW THE LAWN. TAKE A NOONER INSTEAD."

You don't argue with that kind of advice.

>Quick question though: do you run blogs on other philosophies that you disagree with and keep tabs on the respective failings of their educational institutions? I wager your coverage of the postmodernists would be a real hoot!

You would be right. But such a mission would outstrip even the vast resources of the ARCHNblog team of analysts, who, after 6 months, are still only 18 minutes into Leonard Peikoff's latest 137 cassette-tape lecture series...

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>Your questions are legitimate, but abusing Garmong for not answering them, given the circumstances, is unfair. So...have you contacted the PR firm to see if _they_ will answer your questions?

As a matter of fact when we first started following this story almost two months ago, I contacted Founders designated PR firm by email, identifying myself and requesting simple contact details for CEO Tamara Fuller, Robert Garmong. To date I have received no response from them.

I will forward these questions on, but realistically it is hardly likely a PR firm will give you clearer answers than the key staff themselves!

The main point Greg is making is that Objectivism itself is the stumbling block. Commenter Neil Parille above hits it on the head: being fair to all ideas is something Objectivism fundamentally cannot do. This stems from Rand's attitude to compromise, clearly explained in her essays such as "The Cult of Moral Grayness" and her attempted intellectual absolutism. Rand teaches that all other philosophies, apart from hers and Aristotle's, are either mistaken or evil - and in Objectivist practice, that line is subject to some pretty wild umpire calls. If you attempt to be "fair" to other philosophies - to be open minded as to their truth or falsity, to suspend judgement on them - this would be basically immoral. For Rand explains quite clearly that failing to pass judgement when you know the truth (ie know Objectivism) is immoral. This, AFAIC, seems to put Objectivist tutors in a position where it is hard to remain ideologically neutral to any significant degree. But on the other hand, to declare an outright Objectivist agenda would kill enrollment. Hence, in the face of this contradiction there is a maintenance of silence closely resembling a blank out...;-)

Neil Parille said...

Dan,

In the recent issue of JARS, there is a good essay by S. Parrish on the Objectivist case for atheism (Parrish is a Christian).

As Parrish points out, neither Peikoff nor Gotthelf actually mention any theists they believe is in error. Are all arguments for theism equally bad? Are all inherently dishonest? Is it a crime to mention those with whom one disagrees?

Call me old school, but I think part of philosophy is to engage with the best arguments of the best thinkers.

If a student asks Garmong: "But what about William Lane Craig's argument for theism in book x," isn't Garmong obligated to say that Craig is not simply mistaken, but engaging in willful evasion? Does the fact that he is teaching 19-year olds change this obligation?

KeathCole said...

I hope you realize:

1. That Prof. Garmong has already indicated to you that he has been directed to refer your questions to FC's PR firm.

2. That most of FC's faculty, staff, and administrators are busy these last few weeks trying to make sure FC is ready for students, and that answering avowedly anti-Ayn Rand critics in a niche blog for a meager audience is probably a low priority in what any sensitive observer would have to recognize as 'crunch time' for a brand-new startup college.

3. That no one specified a deadline for answering these questions. Why you seem to have some life and death urgency attached to why Calumet K was included in early drafts of FC's course catalog is beyond anyone's grasp. I mean, even David Kelley had "better things to do." Evidently, you don't.

gregnyquist said...

KeathCole said: "Prof. Garmong has already indicated to you that he has been directed to refer your questions to FC's PR firm."

Whether Prof. Garmong cares to respond is a minor issue of little concern here. My contention is that he couldn't respond even if he were allowed to, because orthodox Objectivists always shun being challenges like the ones brought here.

"[M]ost of FC's faculty, staff, and administrators are busy these last few weeks trying to make sure FC is ready for students, and that answering avowedly anti-Ayn Rand critics in a niche blog for a meager audience is probably a low priority in what any sensitive observer would have to recognize as 'crunch time' for a brand-new startup college."

Low profile or not, we are one a few places on the web discussing this subject. Moreover, our traffic increases when we discuss this subject, indicating interest among Objectivists and anti-Objectivists alike. It would take very little effort to answer the questions raised on this site, and it might potentially reach those who are sitting on the fence at this point in regards to Founders and help them make a decision in favor of the institution.

"[N]o one specified a deadline for answering these questions. Why you seem to have some life and death urgency attached to why Calumet K was included in early drafts of FC's course catalog is beyond anyone's grasp. I mean, even David Kelley had 'better things to do.' Evidently, you don't."

There's no life and death urgency for us. We simply believe that criticism plays an important role in an open society. The stated goals of Founders College, to teach all the major ideas and help students think rationally, are, in the abstract at least, worthy goals. We have some skepticism, based on evidence we have produced in previous posts, that Founders will be able to carry out these stated goals. We especially fear that philosophic and literary traditions contrary to Objectivism (which means nearly all the other traditions) won't be given a fair shake. Now wouldn't it be a good thing for all concerned if Founders was able to take convincing measures to allay these fears? Wouldn't that increase the chances that they would succeed as an institution? And if this website had helped prod Founders into taking those measures, wouldn't we, though our criticism, achieved something of value?

Michael Prescott said...

if human action is not directed by one's philosophical premises (tacit or otherwise), what is it directed by?

Personally, I think ethical concepts do play an important role in directing behavior. A case in point is the difference between everyday behavior in pagan Rome and standards of behavior that became customary in the Christian world. The Romans believed that some individuals were born to greatness and were destined - by birth, or by the inscrutable favor of the gods - to lord it over the commoners. There was no notion of equality or of the inherent worth of every human life. Quite the opposite - slaves were no more than property, inconvenient babies were left to die of exposure, the weak, sick, and poor were treated with contempt, and an afternoon of family fun consisted of a visit to the Circus Maximus, where the paterfamilias and his kids could see other people torn to pieces by wild animals.

The Christian idea (derived from Judaism) that everyone has value in the sight of God, that in spiritual terms the slave and the noble are equal, that the weak and the poor are to be assisted, protected, and loved - this idea was probably the most radical ethical concept that could have been introduced into Roman society, and its eventual acceptance (at least in principle) did lead to major changes: no more "games" in the arenas, no more legalized infanticide, the abolition of slavery, etc.

I don't think anyone can look at the vast differences between pagan Rome and the Christian era without acknowledging the large role that ethical norms play in our lives. (And yes, I know about the Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, and witch burnings, but these were mostly the products of hysteria, not symptomatic of normal, everyday life.)

Unfortunately, a strong case can be made that Objectivism, in its implications if not its stated tenets, is closer to paganism than to Christianity. Objectivism adores the strong, disparages the weak, praises material success, disdains poverty as a sign of moral weakness, advocates ruthless egoism, and hates altruism. Although it speaks glibly of political equality, it implies a fundamental inequality between the elite "men of the mind" and the "moochers," "looters," "parasites," and other "subhuman" irrationalists. Like Nietzsche, Rand seems to have viewed Christianity as a kind of virus that saps the manly vigor from a society.

In short, Objectivism strikes me as a deeply regressive movement, seeking to set back the clock to a mindset that has not been prevalent in the Christian world for more than 1500 years.

Paul said...

"The Christian idea (derived from Judaism) that everyone has value in the sight of God, that in spiritual terms the slave and the noble are equal, that the weak and the poor are to be assisted, protected, and loved..."

Actually, the Stoics and Cynic schools of philosophy championed the idea of Cosmopolitanism before Christianity came about, and likely were a major influence on them. Cosmopolitanism held fast to the idea of the 'brotherhood of man' that transcended things like citizenship, and in fact included slaves amongst this brotherhood. Like the ethics of Solon centuries earlier, they too argued for welfare in the treatment of slaves.

gregnyquist said...

"if human action is not directed by one's philosophical premises (tacit or otherwise), what is it directed by?"

My main objection to this has to do with its Randian context. Rand doesn't mean any premises (and she doesn't mean "tacit" premises, either), she means primarily abstract metaphysical and epistemological ideas. There is no evidence that such ideas have anything to do with human action. Even if we bring in ethical ideas, the question remains, Why did these set ethical ideas become influential, rather this other set? The answer would be that the causes of human action are very complicated, with many causes, each cause effecting other causes, playing a role. Ideas, then, are only one cause among many other causes.

"I don't think anyone can look at the vast differences between pagan Rome and the Christian era without acknowledging the large role that ethical norms play in our lives."

While I wouldn't deny that Christianity played a role in the evolution of moral norms between ancient and modern times, I think that the above quote overstates the case. Yes, it is true, Christianity had a lot to do with ending infanticide and stopping the gladiator combats; but it played a minor role in the evolution between Roman style slavery and the feudal slavery of the Middle Ages (which was largely caused by the cessation of Roman conquests, and hence fresh supplies of slaves, in the second century A.D.). Moreover, one must remember the immense amount of cruelty--comparable to what was found in Rome--that continued to exist well into the Middle Ages and beyond. In fact, one finds parallels to the gladiator combats in the Medieval Tournaments, in trials by combat, in public executions (which often involved hideous forms of torture), and, later, in bear baiting and the like. The exposure of infants no longer was permitted, but leaving infants to be foundlings was not always a huge improvement, since many (even most) such infants died, often of exposure. If they lived, they were often ill-treated precisely because they were the product of sin.

To sum up: While Christianity helped soften manners and take the edge off of cruelty (just think how cruel the Middle Ages would be without Christianity!), it hardly deserves the lion's share of the credit for the change of mores that we have experienced since ancient times. The abhorrence of cruelty (along with the belief in the spiritual equality of all peoples) exemplified in the civilization in the last two or three centuries probably owes more to the rise of wealth than it does to Christianity--although Christianity did play an important subsidiary role and may play an even more important role as a preserve for sentiments opposed to cruelty, malice and discrimination, so that where Christianity is taken away, a relapse to cruelty and violent persecution may become a real danger.

Michael Prescott said...

>one finds parallels to the gladiator combats in the Medieval Tournaments

I think you may underestimate the cruelty of the "games" in the arena. I've made a minor (and morbid) study of this topic. Most gladiators were slaves who were forced to fight. Almost all gladiatorial combat ended in the death of one opponent. Sometimes, weak or infirm or elderly slaves were sent into the arena armed with wooden swords or wearing hoods over their heads, so as to be easy prey for more experienced gladiators, who would cut their helpless victims to pieces for the amusement of the crowd. The crowd took particular delight in seeing the hooded victims flailing blindly in all directions while their opponents pierced them again and again.

The "sports" of the arena were not limited to swordplay. Other diversions included tying down a slave woman and having her raped to death by a donkey (or fifty women raped by fifty donkeys); flooding the arena so the hapless slaves would drown; pitting unarmed slaves against starving wild animals that would tear them apart; or crucifying the slaves, covering them in pitch, and burning them alive (something Nero also did, to provide illumination for one of his garden parties; his guests reportedly found the stunt a bit gauche).

All this is a far cry from jousting, a legitimate contest of skill which typically did not result in fatalities and was not practiced by slaves. It's also quite different from the execution of criminals, however grotesque some of the hangings and burnings may have been.

No doubt human cruelty persisted long after the collapse of Rome, and persists in some quarters today, but we do seem to have evolved different normative standards. And I'm skeptical of the explanation that increased wealth has much to do with it. Some of the cruelest Romans were the wealthiest. The emperors, who had unlimited wealth, were capable of extraordinary exhibitions of sadism that made even the entertainments of the Circus Maximus look tame by comparison.

I'm not arguing for a monistic view of history, one that ascribes all social change to a single cause, but I do think that Christianity played a very large role in the moral improvement of the West. As for the Stoics and Cynics, they had many good ideas but, I think, relatively little influence. Perhaps their approach was too intellectual to appeal to most people?

Paul said...

"As for the Stoics and Cynics, they had many good ideas but, I think, relatively little influence. Perhaps their approach was too intellectual to appeal to most people?"

The Cynic, and later Stoic schools were rather influential in the ancient world, to the point that Justin's Apologias references the Stoic doctrine in an attempt to show what Christianity had in common previous philosophies.

In addition, the ethics of ancient Greece proved a large influence on later Christian thought, with the 'classical virtues' of Plato and Aristotle being held dear by the medieval Christians, and even including- along with faith, hope and charity- among the list of "Christian Virtues". It should also be noted that these same virtues were echoed by the Stoics, and formulated in light of their own philosophy.

I could also discuss the wisdom literature of ancient Egypt, and how it also relates to morals even a Christian would recognize today. Although the status of Egypt as 'western' may be up for grabs to begin with.

gregnyquist said...

"I'm skeptical of the explanation that increased wealth has much to do with it. Some of the cruelest Romans were the wealthiest."

Since these questions are all a matter of tendencies, exceptions to rules are not important. The reason why increased wealth has made people less cruel in general less cruel is that it has made life less miserable, less painful, and more comfortable. Hand in hand with the rise of wealth are advanced in medical care, including pain relievers. One of the reasons why previous ages have been so cruel and so indifferent to cruelty is that the amount of physical suffering that people had to endure was so great that few people were even capable of having much sympathy for the suffering of others. Even Christian doctrine took an attitude of passive acceptance, assuming that suffering was a positive, good for a person's soul. The influence of wealth and physical comfort had a definite impact on the attitudes and morals of people, so that one is justified in saying that Christians of the 19th and 20th centuries were, in many respects, different from the Christians of the dark and middle ages. Christianity itself has gone through an evolution; and much of this evolution is due to external factors. Most Christians today--and non-Christians as well--would be shocked by the Christians of the third through fifteenth centuries. The early Christians leaders were particularly unpleasant: ferociously combative, intensely and absurdly unworldly, and with no appreciation or understanding what it means to be honest. Indeed, the discovery of their dishonesty in the 19th century may have had more to do with the rise of disbelief among the intellectual classes than Darwin's Origin of Species.

Now if Christianity itself evolved over the centuries due to various social pressures, than the view that Christianity played a very large role in the moral improvement of the West simply becomes less plausible. It obviously played an important role—but a "very large" role? That's a difficult one to accept in the light of what we know of human nature. How much different was the conduct of people in the dark ages to that of the conduct of people during the Roman Empire? We don't know for sure, but it was probably not that different.

"As for the Stoics and Cynics, they had many good ideas but, I think, relatively little influence."

Well, they did have enormous influence in terms of their theories. How much influence they had in terms of conduct is another question. Some aspects of the stoicism does anticipate Christian morals, so that one could plausibly argue that stoicism helped prepare the ground for the acceptance of Christianity, particularly in the upper classes. Stoicism also had an important—and more palpable—influence on Roman jurisprudence.

Anonymous said...

um, excuse me, but to return for a moment to the topic at hand (i.e. this school in Virginia)...
Neil opened with a two-part question:
But why not just admit the Objectivist connection, try to be fair to all ideas and move on? Of course, this isn't something that Objectivism can do.
Granting the second question, for the sake of argument, it's the first question that's resolutely ignored, almost pathologically - considering the variance between the website contents and the little banners that show up in, oh, MySpace, Facebook, any number of Google searches (now THAT'S what a PR firm should be doing?!). But back at the ranch, there appears to be a concerted effort to obscure the "Objectivist connexion". Even ARI admits where it's bread is baked. So, take-away question: since when is Objectivism to deny that it is what it is (and take the hits, as they may be)? Unless there's a financial advantage in acting like Moonies?

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>So, take-away question: since when is Objectivism to deny that it is what it is (and take the hits, as they may be)? Unless there's a financial advantage in acting like Moonies?

Hi Anon,

It's like I said elsewhere: we seem to have a little Law Of Identity problem here...;-)

Michael Prescott said...

Going back to our OT conversation one last time ... I was watching a short documentary on the making of the HBO series Rome last night, and jotted down some interesting comments, most of them made by the show's historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp. I realize that historians disagree about everything and there is no such thing as a definitive interpretation of a complex historical event; but at least Stamp's comments indicate that my view about the influence of Christian ethics is not completely idiosyncratic.

What follows are not direct quotes but close paraphrases:

"We're exploring a pagan world, pre-Christian, which had a strong moral code that is a complete reversal of our own."

"(As actors) we certainly have to free ourselves from the Christian point of view. We forget how steeped we are in that. That's got nothing to do with this world."

"They (the Romans) didn't believe that pity, mercy, love were virtues and the one thing the Romans weren't was weak. So they exist in a world where force exerts itself and might is ultimately right."

"One of the hardest things to get around in terms of cruelty is what happens to captured people in the arena - when captured people are put on display and are brutally murdered, tortured, sexually brutalized - unimaginable things going on as part of an entertainment. How brutal must they have been to do that? But to them the people in the arena were not people. They were slaves, they were prisoners of war, they were not Romans so what was done to them was not cruel."

"They're so like us and they're so different. They're different from us because they value different things from us, and they value different things from us because they precede the single most important thing that formed our world - which is the Judeo-Christian ethic. They come before it and they exist outside it."

Again, not "proof" of anything, just a sign that some mainstream historians do accept this view.

By the way, the Rome series is a first-rate piece of work; and for those who care about such things, the actor who plays Lucius Vorenus would make an excellent John Galt, and the actor playing Julius Caesar would make an interesting Rearden.

K said...

Michael Prescott, I'm new to this blog, so I hope I'm not stepping out of line. But you said:

"I think you may underestimate the cruelty of the "games" in the arena. I've made a minor (and morbid) study of this topic."

That must have been an extraordinarily minor study. Because all of your conclusions fly ridiculously in the face of today's overwhelmingly-accepted research into the factual history of the Roman games. Virtually all of those terrible things you mentioned were exaggerations by (big surprise here) the Christians seeking to distinguish themselves from the Pagans.

Apparently this bit of misinformation of theirs is alive and well today.