Dangerous Misinformation

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

In a recent Facebook comment, Craig Biddle accuses me of spreading “dangerous misinformation” in my note on Carl Barney’s statement.

I’ve been accused of much worse in my time, but Craig’s comments are worth examining for the wider lessons we can draw about the meaning of the principle that knowledge is contextual and the implications for objective judgment.

To remind everyone, I was originally responding to Carl Barney’s claim that Onkar Ghate, in a private meeting with OAC students, dismissed Craig’s defense John McCaskey as “garbage” but “did not give reasons, explanations, or evidence in support of his assertion. He just repeated: ‘It’s garbage!’”

I replied:

I can say with 100% certainty this is not accurate. Because I was there and I have my notes from that meeting. The meeting was private so I can’t share them, but I think I’m within my rights to say that Onkar didn’t refuse to give reasons. On the contrary, he argued that Craig’s statement got wrong:

the nature of the arbitrary

the nature of possibility

contextual knowledge

the meaning of two Ayn Rand quotes from “How does one lead a rational life in an irrational society?”

the nature of moral judgment

the nature of moral neutrality”

I added: “But what if you weren’t there? Should you take my word for it that Onkar gave reasons? No, of course not.”

In Craig’s Facebook comment, he says:

I can verify that Don’s notes are correct, but his interpretation of them is not.

The following passage is transcribed from a recording of that OAC meeting, which was temporarily posted on the Internet in November 2010. Here is exactly what Onkar said about my statement to the 70 students on the call:

“It’s garbage… It’s terrible… Of the many philosophic concepts misused in that statement are the nature of the arbitrary, the nature of possibility, the nature of contextual knowledge, both of Ayn Rand’s statements that are quoted, the nature of moral judgment and what a judgment is, the nature of moral neutrality… I’m not going to go into all the details of the nature of the statement or what is wrong with it… If you read and can understand the philosophical issues involved in Craig Biddle’s statement, there are significant problems here… It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement. But I am not a student. I am a professional philosopher. And I can see many things that you can’t see.”

Before we get to the implications Craig draws, what should leap out at us here? Obviously, those last four sentences, which seem really weird. Particularly coming from someone like Onkar who has a track record of patiently providing reasons for everything he says.

But there’s something else that should leap out at us.

One of the points Onkar makes about Craig’s paper is that he gets “the nature of contextual knowledge” wrong. And if you think about where this issue is most prominently discussed in the Objectivist corpus, it’s in OPAR, where Dr. Peikoff starts the discussion by talking about the error of quoting out of context.

This means quoting some statement while ignoring other statements that constitute its background and determine its proper interpretation. By this device, one can make a person appear to advocate virtually any idea. Such quoting is fallacious, because men do not write or speak in a vacuum; they do not emit a stream of disconnected sentences, any one of which can stand independent of the rest. To communicate a viewpoint, a man must say many separate things, each relying on the others; the viewpoint is understood only when the listener grasps the relationship among the items and thus the total. To interpret any single remark, therefore, one needs to know: what else did the man say (or presuppose) that conditioned his statement? What was the surrounding framework? What is the context?

So what’s the context for Onkar’s quote, which I’m assuming is accurate? According to Craig, Onkar is seeking to establish “why my statement was wrong and why it demonstrated that I don’t understand Objectivism.”

But is that really the context? Well, I can only go by my notes, since I don’t have a pirated recording of the meeting. But as best I can tell, that is not at all the context. The context was explaining why ARI chose to cancel Craig as a speaker under its auspices as the result of his McCaskey statement.

Craig, you might recall, published his statement one business day before he was supposed to speak in ARI’s name on the Objectivist ethics. ARI canceled the event without public comment. Craig then released this public statement:

I regret to announce that because of my recent statement “Justice for John P. McCaskey,” the Ayn Rand Institute has cancelled my ARI-sponsored speaking engagements in the coming weeks.

Craig’s formulation unsurprisingly led people to conclude: ARI brooks no dissent on the McCaskey issue. That is what Onkar was addressing.

The problem with Craig’s statement, he argued, was not that Craig was siding with McCaskey, but that in the course of doing so, Craig published something that in ARI’s judgment revealed him to be unfit to speak on the Objectivist ethics.

And that context helps us make sense of what would otherwise be a baffling set of statements: “It is possible that you cannot see the issues in Craig Biddle’s statement. But I am not a student. I am a professional philosopher. And I can see many things that you can’t see.”

Onkar wasn’t asking the students to agree with his assessment. He was explaining why ARI canceled an event. And if Craig has the transcript of the recording, he knows this and chose not to include the parts that make this clear.

For example, here are my notes regarding what came after the portion that Craig quoted: “This is somebody who would have been speaking at ARI sponsored events mostly on the Objectivist ethics, who published a statement one business day before the tour, in which he hits me [Onkar] over the head with the fact he doesn’t understand the Objectivist ethics. We had to make serious decision very quickly.”

That is a very different point requiring very different evidence than the one Craig portrays Onkar as making.

If I made a public declaration, “Bryce is a thief,” then I’d have a strong burden of proof to support my claim. But if I fired Bryce, and Bryce starts publicly complaining that I fired him for unjust reasons, it is completely reasonable for me to say, “Nope, I fired him because he stole from me.” I’m under no obligation in that scenario to open up my company’s books and prove my case to the public. I’m not asking anyone to agree that Bryce is a thief. I’m explaining why I made a decision I had every right to make.

Now, you might think: shouldn’t Onkar still have better explained his reasons to OAC students?* That’s fair. But to assess Onkar’s actions, you would have to answer further questions. For example: at what point in the meeting did this issue come up? Was it at the very end and perhaps Onkar was rushed for time? Were students barred from asking follow up questions, either at the meeting or after? Or did the meeting perhaps start with Onkar complaining that no OAC students came to him with questions along these lines before the meeting?

Craig’s single quote gives us none of that context. If you’ve followed my comments throughout this debate, this is the point I keep hammering: it is unfair to ask people to reach a judgment they have no way of independently reaching. Yet that is what is being asked of us by Carl Barney’s statement and Craig Biddle’s statement.

And, at least in Craig’s case, that’s no accident. This is precisely what Craig believes we are required to do to be objective. Let’s take a look at Craig’s comments in his original McCaskey statement:

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. . . .

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.”

According to Craig, since we “never have complete information,” we must make moral judgments on partial information, and, if we don’t, we’re guilty the kind of moral neutrality Rand condemns in “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?”

But that’s wrong. Like, way wrong.

Moral neutrality, as Rand explains in that essay, isn’t the view that sometimes I’m not in a position to reach an objective judgment. It’s a blank check on evil issued by those who adopt the policy of “judge not, that ye be not judged” and declare that “everybody is white” or “everybody is black” or “everybody is neither white nor black, but gray.”

The types of examples she gives are not people who look at a board dispute and say, “I have no clue what went on.” Rather, we get:

that some contemptible liar “means well” — that a mooching bum “can’t help it” — that a juvenile delinquent “needs love” — that a criminal “doesn’t know any better” — that a power-seeking politician is moved by patriotic concern for “the public good” — that communists are merely “agrarian reformers”

Similarly, “context” doesn’t mean that we are always warranted in drawing a conclusion. Part of our context is knowing when we have enough information to reach a conclusion and when we don’t.

To take a simple example, suppose you see your friend’s wife having dinner with an attractive man you don’t recognize. Part of your context is: I don’t know who this guy, but I do know that people go out to dinner for all sorts of non-romantic reasons. I’m not in position to judge whether she’s cheating on my friend or dining with her cousin or any of a thousand other possibilities.

That’s not moral neutrality or refusing to judge. It’s being objective: your context isn’t sufficient to reach a judgment.

It’s important, in this regard, how much Rand stresses the responsibility involved in passing moral judgment.

To judge means: to evaluate a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard. It is not an easy task; it is not a task that can be performed automatically by one’s feelings, “instincts” or hunches. It is a task that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought. It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles; it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person.

We can see how seriously Rand took this responsibility when we read her private notes regarding the character of Nathaniel Branden. Even though Branden has been providing Rand with evidence of his irrationality for more than a year, she writes in a private note to herself on Jan 25, 1968:

If I know that I cannot accept his present attitude, why don’t I break with him now? Because I do not understand his attitude. Because I must first understand. Because I do believe he loves me in some abstract, subjective manner of his own. And, in view of today’s conversation, I think that his breach with reality is growing wider, not healing. I sense (for the first time and very dimly) the beginnings of something immoral — of rationalization. (If I am wrong I apologize for it.)

So context isn’t license (let alone a mandate) to jump to conclusions you have insufficient knowledge to reach. And, from the other side, context demands that you take into account all of the knowledge you do have.

And notice this about Craig’s original statement. What context is strikingly absent from his analysis? The context of McCaskey’s choice to make the board dispute and Leonard’s email public. It’s not that Craig argues John was right to make it public, knowing it would hurt ARI (a point Carl Barney makes in his own essay), and knowing that outsiders would have no way of objectively assessing it. It’s that he doesn’t discuss it at all.

Let me stress: my point is not to re-litigate the whole McCaskey thing. I thought at the time and continue to think that no one came out of that looking good. Rather, what I’m trying to highlight is how Craig’s misunderstanding of context and moral neutrality help us see why he thinks it’s completely reasonable to hammer us with partial evidence we have no way of assessing and expecting us to assess it.

But that is itself an injustice. And we can see why in the way that Craig goes from presenting Onkar’s comments out of context to the vicious attack on Onkar he makes late in his comments:

Expecting students to accept such assertions as reasons shows utter disregard and disrespect for their minds. And the disrespect is multiplied by Onkar’s naked appeal to authority and a perfect instance of “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, none is possible.”

No wonder several students quit the OAC after that meeting.

I’ll end with a personal anecdote. Many years ago, probably back around 2004 or 2005, an Objectivist speaker casually mentioned during a college campus talk that some of the major courses on Objectivism from ARI got things about the philosophy wrong. I was troubled by this, and asked him: “Can you give me some examples?”

The speaker answered with words to the effect of, “If you listen to them, you’ll see the mistakes.” Not a single example. I remember feeling unsatisfied, as if the speaker was telling me: “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, none is possible.”

The speaker, you probably guessed, was Craig Biddle.

Looking back, I don’t think my reaction was fair. I’m sure if I had gone up afterwards and he had time to elaborate, he would have been completely willing to justify his statement. I only wish that Craig would give such a reasonable benefit of the doubt to Onkar Ghate.

*Since publishing this essay I’ve been reminded that Onkar Ghate later held a session with advanced OAC students, including me, where he spent an hour giving detailed reasons for the problems in Craig Biddle’s article.

Writer. Speaker. Thinker.