Full Context INTERVIEWS

Home

David KELLEY

Vol. 5, No. 10 (June 1993)


Full Context is pleased to offer the complete text of its interview with David Kelley, conducted by Raymie Stata, published in the June 1993 issue of Full Context.

* * *

Q: Of all the things that have been done at the Institute in the last three years, to which would you point to with the most pride?

Kelley: In terms of programs, I would say our Summer Seminar in philosophy. It has been offered all three years we've been in existence. It's a week long seminar. Each year it's held on a different college campus. The topic varies, but we always pick a topic where important issues in Objectivism remain to be resolved.

I think the seminars have been very successful. First, they have provided people with an opportunity to present new ideas and have in-depth discussions on them. And second, for students working at an advanced level and preparing for careers in teaching, writing, research, or whatever, the seminars have provided an opportunity to connect Objectivism to the technical material they are learning in their graduate work or advanced undergraduate work.

One of the problems historically with Objectivism is that it is a broad, systematic philosophy but often does not address the kinds of very specific technical questions that are being discussed in philosophy or psychology or economics. Now, some of these questions are just invalid from a philosophic standpoint. But as a student you want to know: All right, what do you do then if you're asked to write a paper about a topic? We try to counsel students on proper methodology in these cases. But also, some of these questions are perfectly valid and we try to show how to build a bridge from Objectivism's basic principles to those specific issues. And there again I think we've been very successful.

Q: It also seems that the seminars bring outside faculty into the sphere of the Institute. I have noticed that people who were at one time faculty show up regularly in your Journal [The IOS Journal].

Kelley: Right. Yes, this is a kind of side benefit, but potentially an important one. Over the years I've gotten to know a number of people in philosophy and other fields who are not Objectivists per se but are sympathetic. In several cases we've invited them to come lecture at the seminar. These are leaders in their field, or people who are gaining a reputation in their field, so they are good people for our students to get to know.

But also, I think without exception the faculty have gone away thinking "There's a lot more to Objectivism then I realized. This is a powerful system of thought." Typically they agree to come on the basis of some relationship I have with them--they know me and respect me, my work--but they go away respecting Objectivism. In fact, we had a very well-known professor of philosophy last summer who went away saying that our seminar was like lecturing to the Stanford philosophy department, that we've got very good students and a really intense level of intellectual discussion. So it's another benefit that we can make those people more aware of Objectivism. And the same goes for students. Not all the students who attend would consider themselves Objectivists, but they want to learn more about it, and they go away with an appreciation of it as a structure of ideas.

So that was one area I would take real pride in. There are some others or we could keep talking about the seminar if you wanted.

Q: Why don't you mention some other areas.

Kelley: Okay. Another is not really a specific program. There's a broader movement of classical liberals in the country. Ayn Rand was one of the two or three people who had most to do with the growth of real free-market thinking. And the others, like Milton Friedman, are economists. She's the only philosopher who's had that kind of impact. But that movement is much wider than the Objectivist movement per se.

There's been a lot of alienation between Objectivists and people who are free-market oriented but not in the Objectivist movement. There's been a lot of bad blood, denunciations, and so forth. And that's really too bad because a lot of those people got interested in these ideas because of Ayn Rand; they loved Atlas Shrugged and really are Objectivists in terms of basic principles.

Now there's been a gradual recognition in the classical liberal movement that you can't win the debate on economic grounds alone. The Reagan years were a real lesson for people in that regard. For all the free-market rhetoric, almost nothing happened. There were some policy changes, but we certainly didn't get back to laissez-faire. And so I think people like Ed Crane at the Cato Institute and Robert Poole at the Reason Foundation are very clear that there has to be a strong moral case for the free-market to complement the economic case.

So what I have done, and what the Institute has done, is to build some bridges back to those people and to say, "We stand for Objectivism and we are not going to compromise those ideas, but let's talk. We can work with you to provide some of the ethical foundations for the work you're doing." And so over the last few years I've spent a lot of time talking with people like Ed Crane, Bob Poole, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Heartland Institute, a number of other places. And without exception, I have found that if you approach them in the spirit of working together, a willingness to debate and a willingness to sometimes agree to disagree--if you approach them in that spirit, I have found absolutely no trace of hostility towards Objectivism. And I think we have helped restore the good name of Objectivism to a broader segment of the liberal community.

Q: Any more successes?

Kelley: On perhaps an even more intangible level, I think we've restored a sense to many people who have been alienated from the Objectivism movement that it doesn't have to be that way. It doesn't have to be narrow and full of tensions where you're afraid to ask a question at a lecture or afraid to disagree. People who have come to our events see that the spirit is one of open discussion and vigorous debate--I mean, people have to defend their positions by logic, but they're not denounced on moral grounds for asking the wrong kinds of questions. It's a spirit of what Objectivism is and could be as a philosophy of reason. Over the years, I think that large numbers of people got interested because they loved Ayn Rand's novels but then got alienated by what they saw in the organized movement. They are coming back because of what we are doing, and I'm proud of that.

I guess the last thing I would mention is that it takes a lot of time and work and people to get an organization going. Particularly an organization that defines itself with a goal as broad as ours, which is to realize the potential of Objectivism in every dimension--as a theoretical body of ideas, as an activist tool in defending liberty, and as a practical philosophy to live by. We have spent part of our time part in the last three years just building an organization and a plan and the funding that can go about creating value in all of those areas.

Q: What are some of your limits right now: money, manpower, talent? What is keeping you from growing faster?

Kelley: Well, talent and money. We have been quite successful in attracting members who support our programs, but because Objectivism is still an unconventional philosophy, we don't have much access yet to corporate or foundation money. We've had some grants, but they tend to be exceptional. It's very hard for us to get mega-grants, the six-figure grants--the Ford foundation is not going to help us.

The more money we have, the more we could be doing. We could have a larger staff, which is the second bottleneck: there are only so many hours in the day, and I can only be involved in so many things. I've really been the chief fund raiser, chief writer, chief teacher in our programs--although at the summer we have other faculty--as well as the manager of the Institute's affairs. We now have a director of operations, who has taken over the business side of things. What we need next is the ability to have interns who are working on projects. For example, we could be doing something on medical care, which is a burning contemporary intellectual issue and one where Objectivism really has a unique perspective. But we just haven't had time to do anything because we need to have someone who can spend a lot of time researching, someone who's knowledgeable about all the issues at a technical level and who knows the philosophy as well.

There is a limited amount of talent in the sense of people who are knowledgeable about Objectivism and about a specific field and who are good writers or good lecturers. But at the moment we have more of these people than we can fund, so I'd say the real bottleneck is funding.

Q: Going back to programs, one that catches my eye is applying Objectivism to daily life. In the Journal you've recently touched on this topic, and in New York you once sponsored something called the Life Management Framework seminar. What's the status of this activity?

Kelley: Well, the Life Management Framework seminar is something developed by Jim Bird, whose background is Objectivist and who has worked with me. Jim had built an earlier and very successful business, and felt very strongly that part of what made him successful was Objectivism. But he also felt that he had to work very hard to make the connections between the principles of Objectivism he got from the novels and the practical decisions he had to make as a business owner, manager, and entrepreneur, and also as a father, in his family life, and so forth.

So he has developed the seminar, which is his new business. It focuses on managing your life in terms of knowing what your purposes are in each area of your life and how to allocate your time in the most effective way. You know, it's one thing to say purpose is a cardinal value; but it's another matter to be able to live that in an effective way by knowing exactly what your specific purposes are in your work, your relationships, any civic affairs you might be involved in, your own psychological goals for yourself. Jim's seminar deals with that, and also with how to take the many different activities that you're involved in and put them in order so you're managing your time, which is your most important resource. Now some of these are simple time-management techniques that are being taught elsewhere, but what Jim has done is to simplify and connect them with broader principles.

We would like to take that further. All of this is still in the development phase. We sponsored Jim's seminar as a kind of test. It was very successful; I think the people who attended got a lot out of it, the feedback was terrific. Jim is marketing his seminar to companies who want their employees to be more in control of their lives. That's a different focus from ours. We are marketing to individuals, and that leads to a number of differences, so we need some more time to develop our program. There certainly will be something, it's a project we're going to be working on this year, and in '94 it's going to become a major project.

Q: I sent out e-mail asking "What can I ask David Kelley?..." Well, 9 out of 10 of the responses were "What's up with the split?" Three years ago you published Truth and Toleration. Since then, there hasn't been any news. Is there any?

Kelley: Not really. To my knowledge, no one has published any kind of response to Truth and Toleration or given a talk that was taped and made available. The last thing I know of on the subject were some remarks that Leonard Peikoff made at a Jefferson School conference, but that was before Truth and Toleration. So I guess the news is that there really isn't any news: the two sides have gone their separate ways. There are a number of people who attend our events and their events and get what they can out of each side. I understand there has been some pressure on the student groups not to have any dealings with me or the Institute. But very little news, really. It's been just a parting of the ways.

When we got started, it was very important for us to define our position in relationship to the movement that had been before. That's why the first talk was my talk on Objectivism as a philosophy and a movement. At the time, we were contemplating having further lectures on this topic, but after my talk we all felt, "No, we've had our say, now let's do our positive thing, let's go about our business." And so we haven't thought much about what anyone else is doing these last three years, we've been so busy developing our own programs.

Q: What's it like to be, in some sense, the "other" Objectivism institute, and the first other too? What's it like being on the bad side of Ayn Rand's chosen successor? I'm sure there are handicaps. But maybe, not as obviously, there are some benefits as well.

Kelley: Well, you're right: we are the first organization that emerged out of any kind of split and went off in its own direction but still called itself Objectivist and still committed itself to Objectivism as a philosophic framework. It was very hard in many ways because we had no access to the organized instruments of the Objectivist movement: mailing lists or visible names. George Walsh, Jim Lennox, and I were the only three intellectuals who came over who had any kind of visibility in the Objectivist movement. And when we started, our mailing list was cobbled together from my Rolodex and a few other sources. It's been a slow process of becoming visible.

Also, I felt very strongly that I didn't want to ask people for money or support until we could show results. So we started out on a shoe string. When we did our first summer seminar, I taught the whole thing myself: a week of lectures, all day long. We did it on a tiny budget; I think it cost the Institute a net of $3000 the first year to have 20 people at subsidized rates.

On the other hand, it's been very liberating because we don't owe anybody anything. We have set our own course, and we are following our own counsel. Another liberating aspect is that we have built our market from scratch; it's all ours; we earned it. And that's the way it should be. I feel that whatever leadership position in ideas we may gain, vis a vis other groups and other intellectuals, is a position we have to earn. I don't want to be a leader, I don't want to be respected, on the basis of Ayn Rand's (or anyone else's) imprimatur.

Also, I think that as an organization we have been remarkably free of political constraints and internal fighting and people looking over their shoulders and worrying about what someone else is going to think. We don't engage in moral denunciations or put moral pressure on people. And that's the way it should be. So, I'm proud of that.

Q: One of the concepts you've been trying to define is the so-called marketplace of ideas. It comes up a lot in your lectures and literature. You've now had three years to be in that marketplace and explore it and come to know it. Have you learned anything about it? About how it works? About alternative avenues that you have open to you that maybe you didn't know about three years ago?

Kelley: I guess there are two main things I have learned. They're very broad generalizations. One is that people are very interested in ideas. I'm constantly surprised by the level of interest that we get at all different levels, from students, where you would expect it, to people who listen to radio call-in shows. I've been on a number of those; people call in and want to talk about philosophic ideas--not in overt philosophic terms perhaps, but they're concerned about issues in their lives and they are eager to talk about them.

But the second thing I've learned is that it's very hard to predict what particular issues people are going to get excited by. The idea of starting with "A is A," working to man's life as a rational animal, and then moving on to politics is not typically the way people respond to ideas. They have particular interests that are important to them in their lives or in their studies, often very concrete issues. If you speak to them on those issues, they will listen, and you can start a conversation that will gradually lead back to the philosophic assumptions. But to know what those issues are, you have to listen very carefully to people and keep your ear to the ground.

In that way, I think the marketplace of ideas is very much like the marketplace of goods and services. No one could plan it or predict it. I would have not predicted that people would be so interested in the decade of greed issue, but they are. Everyone's been hearing the 80's denounced as a decade of greed. I send my article from Reason magazine on that issue to radio shows and the host says "Boy this is interesting, this is a different perspective. I know my audience is going to want to hear your ideas on this." And we start talking about that, and we talk about financial markets, and the movie Wall St. and the book Barbarians at the Gate and other concrete issues. Then eventually I get back to issues like greed, making money, what the market is all about, and finally to capitalism and egoism. So it's that unexpected flash of interest that you have to look for.

In terms of specific vehicles, I've been struck by the popularity of radio talk shows, and we're exploiting that as strongly as possible. Also, there is a huge amount of activity going on outside the campuses that we are trying to tap into. I still believe, like most Objectivists I guess, that the universities are of central importance in spreading ideas. But the universities have become so locked into certain ideologies and are so dependent on government money, that they have become bureaucracies. Meanwhile, there are a growing number of institutions that exist outside the universities, and a large amount of very new and interesting work is being done there.

Probably the most advanced case is economics, where a large amount of research is being done at Rand and Brookings and the Cato Institute. But the same is true in the humanities, I think. The Institute is an example: people are coming to us for ideas that obviously they're not getting in their university courses. And I think that's going to continue to be the case: as we become a gradually wealthier society and people have more leisure time, one of the things they're spending it on is ideas and intellectual interests. (Of course I am assuming the economy doesn't collapse, but I'm not a pessimist.) And they're going to be turning to groups outside the universities who have the better marketing sense, who go where the interest is.

Q: One market that ideological groups are targeting more and more is high school students. That concerns me a bit, people beaming ideologies at high school students. Do you feel comfortable with that?

Kelley: Well, there's been an argument going back and forth about what level in the education process is the best level for addressing philosophic ideas. And there is an argument for high school. That's when I first read The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and everything else I could get my hands on, and I know a lot of people who are like me in that respect. The drawback is that you're younger, and most people may not be intellectually mature enough to wrestle with philosophic issues and make a real commitment to a philosophy...

Q: I guess my concern is that--and maybe it's just me--I feel uncomfortable about taking advantage of people when they're vulnerable in some sense. And maybe even if I do believe that my ideas are okay for them, I'm concerned about the other people--environmentalists, for example--just beaming all these ideas at students when they are vulnerable.

Kelley: Well, yes. First of all, I feel as a general principle of communication that if you've got a case to make and you're in the business of persuading people, what you should do is make your case, give them the facts, give them the connections, but do it in a way that expresses that you realize they're the ones who are going to have to integrate it and make up their own minds. Most people react very negatively to being pushed; in the long run, pushing can harm your cause more than it helps.

Now that combines with another principle--and this gets to what you're saying, I think. When I was a college teacher I felt very strongly that teaching and polemics didn't mix. I always taught Ayn Rand's ideas in some form or another whenever they addressed important aspects of an issue. But I never taught them in a way that conveyed to the students that they had to believe them. I presented them as one of many theories on an issue. I was frankly not interested in them being Objectivist unless they became so in a fully independent way.

I felt that teaching and polemics didn't mix because students were not in a position of equality with me: I was grading their papers, I was the authority. Now if you're speaking to an equal, you can be more aggressive in your approach. There's a continuum here. At one end, there is a debate with a colleague where no holds are barred: you go after the guy's ideas and try to demolish them. But moving in the other direction, you're right: when you're talking to high school students, you're not dealing with people who are your intellectual equals yet, and I think there's a principle there that you ought to take special care not to be doing anything that is taking advantage of their innocence or their lack of knowledge. Again, you should just lay things out and encourage them to read and to think freely.

But I do think it is a good age to expose people to these ideas. I think it's a great age to encourage people to read The Fountainhead, if they're interested.

Q: One more question on the marketplace of ideas. There are so many cults out there--some secular, some religious. They seem to attract many people. What's the explanation? Why are so many people flocking to cults and why, on the other hand, is it so hard to get a similar reaction for ideas that you might say are truthful? Or at least, a lot more truthful.

Kelley: Well, first of all, everyone feels the need at some level, implicitly or explicitly, for an intellectual framework, that is, some kind of code of values, some kind of basic sense of how one fits into the world and what the meaning of life is. That's why there have always been religions, quasi-religions, and full-fledged philosophies.

Secondly, people have a craving for certainty; they want to know for sure. In principle, that's a healthy thing: certainty is a tremendous value. But here I think Ayn Rand's insight on the role of religion, mysticism and other forms of irrationality runs deep. Because the conceptual faculty doesn't function automatically the way perception does or the way our emotions do, certainty at the conceptual level requires hard, rigorous thinking and a contextual approach where you remain open to new evidence. Now that doesn't preclude certainty, but it means that certainty at the conceptual level--certainty about things like values, the world, philosophy--is not to be achieved by just looking and saying "Oh, that's it."

But many people haven't grasped that. Because perception is our basic link with reality, people tend to want to function at a perceptual level; that is, an automatic, effortless, no-further-questions-asked kind of policy, even with regard to issues like the meaning and purpose of life. And so they gravitate to people who say "Yes, I have the answers. It's these five principles, or these ten commandments, or whatever. Memorize them, and that's it." Or you have some myth that they can tell and it puts the whole world in perspective. That's what cults really are: a narrow--no, narrow's the wrong word--a specific set of doctrines or rules of action, more or less concretely formulated, that people can follow without having to think. Not only that, it gives them a sense of certainty, a sense of structure.

All of this is compounded by the fact that our educational system is not teaching people how to think conceptually. There's been a very definite decline over the last--well, I guess it started at the turn of the century in some of the progressive schools. People coming out of high school now often have abysmal levels of training in logic. A lot of pedagogical techniques actively discourage thinking in principles. And so people are all the less able to function and achieve certainty in a proper conceptual way.

So that's why I think there are cults. And there always will be some because there is free will: some people always are going to choose to function that way. Objectivism, on the other hand, has a real uphill battle to fight. We've got a message that really requires people to think and to function at a level that many currently do not function at.

Q: Do you think that the Objectivist movement has been a victim of the same kind of desire to not think?

Kelley: Sure, there are people who basically have a cult-like mentality vis a vis Objectivism. Objectivism--or the pronouncements of Objectivism--become the content of their cult.

There was an example of a person--I can't even remember the guy's name so I don't have to worry about not giving it--who said it was clear that I was not an Objectivist on the grounds that I said Objectivism is an open philosophy, subject to modification if someone provides evidence for it. He said that you can't be an Objectivist and believe that. Why? He gave an analogy to a coach with ten rules; this is the coach's philosophy, these ten rules. If someone comes along and says "I subscribe to coach's philosophy but I don't like rule six", well then it's not coach's philosophy anymore. That's the cult mentality--that Objectivism can even coherently be compared to a list of ten rules, you know, like the ten commandments.

I think a more common problem is something a little more sophisticated, which is rationalism. That is, people who want Objectivism to be like Newtonian mechanics: a fairly complete, deductive system, where all questions are really engineering questions of running calculations from principles to applications. They tend to zero in on a few key principles which function like coach's ten rules, but you have to give the people credit for a little more sophisticated understanding.

But yes, Objectivism has been subject to the cult mentality. There have been a large number of extremely weird people that have been involved with it, or have been on the fringes of it, who might in other circumstances just as easily have become Hare Krishnas or whatever.

Q: One topic that very often arises in conversations among Objectivists is "What can one do?" People want to know what they can do to make the world a better place, and I get a sense of a lot of frustration. Do you have any suggestions?

Kelley: The most important suggestion I could make is to define exactly what it is that you want to do. The world consists of people, and you can make the world a better place simply by being a good person: just by being independent, honest, productive, rational. If you have children, by raising them to value those things, or at least exposing them to those things in a way that will make it easy to chose them. And by producing good products: everyone's life depends on trade and the level of productiveness in our society.

For people who want to get active in persuasion and polemics, there are a lot of different routes. I don't have anything revolutionary to say: it runs the gamut from writing letters to the editor, to sending contributions to IOS, to developing your own skills and knowledge as a writer and trying to become a full-time activist--and I think the world is open to that.

In so far as you're thinking about getting into the media and getting large public exposure for your ideas, you have to appreciate the fact that there are huge numbers of people competing for the ear of the public, and it gets bigger every year. So you have to be patient. You also have to recognize that it's a profession; I mean, there are real skills here. If you want to get involved, it has to be in a way that's realistic about what you can do as an individual. You can't expect to succeed if you haven't been trained or it isn't your profession to be an advocate.

Let's see if there is anything specific I would suggest... I do think that letters to the editor and letters to your congressman are effective. Even if they don't get a response, they get noted--you can pretty much count on it registering somewhere. A lot of community papers are very eager for material. Also, we are about to have an expansion of cable channels available to most people, from something on the order of fifty at present to something on the order of five hundred. That means there's going to be a huge need for content, which should make it possible for anyone who's serious to get their ideas out. It will probably be mostly local programming and narrow markets, but it's a start.

The communications media are being decentralized the way everything is being decentralized. That makes it harder to reach the whole nation in a single broadcast--unless you're John Galt and can take over the air waves. Probably even Tom Brokaw's days are numbered in terms of the networks owning a big chunk of the public's attention. But that does mean that there are many more opportunities for getting out. Julian Simon once told me something interesting as he was getting involved in a cable narrow-casting venture. He said something like the following: "I figure that our ideas are so much better than theirs that if we get 1/10 the exposure we'll win. It used to be that we got zero exposure because all the media were centralized. Now we may only be reaching a 1/10 of the audience that the bad guys are, but if we can reach that 1/10 with our ideas we'll win." I think there's something to that; I would encourage people to explore every opportunity open to them.

So again, some people like to be involved simply by contributing. Some people like to be involved by just coming and enjoying the benefits of a talk or reading, and that creates a market and that's important and that's a value. Some people want to be involved in producing it, and that's fine too, it's just harder, it takes more work.

Q: My perception as a consumer of Objectivism is that there's not a lot of written material. Why is that?

Kelley: Right. Well, I think that producing high-quality written work is extremely difficult. It's harder and slower work than giving a lecture. It has to do with the medium. As a writer, you are not addressing an audience that you can monitor and answer questions for on the spot; your writing has to be self-contained, clear to readers who may not even be born yet. And the fact that the printed format allows people to go back, re-examine and make connections, means that the writer must make sure that the work can sustain that kind of examination. In philosophy it's particularly difficult because the scope of philosophy covers everything. It requires the widest integrations; it requires that you take all of your experience as your data for almost everything you do. So it's hard, slow work.

Now, another problem has been that innovation has to some extent been discouraged in the Objectivist movement. I think a lot of people who might have done something have been turned off by the act of getting their work approved or making sure that they were not crossing someone higher up in the movement. That's why I think a hierarchical structure is not a good thing in an intellectual movement.

However, having said all that, one of our current projects at the Institute is to take some of the work that's been done and put it together and try to publish it. In laying out what that might be, I've got about three volumes of material with what I consider enough quality to publish under our name. Some are things I have written and haven't published yet and lectures I've given but haven't written up. We've transcribed George Walsh's lectures on religion and we're going to do the same with some of his lectures on the history of philosophy. There have been a number of talks given at our summer seminar and I'm trying to get them written up for publication. I think in the relatively near future--say within the next two years--we will publish three, maybe four volumes of work, and that will contribute to the Objectivist corpus. Actually, it's kind of a pathetic, but even three or four volumes will significantly expand the body of literature that's out there.

Q: What do you think are some of the open research questions in technical philosophy? Where might we go in terms of research.

Kelley: In epistemology, an issue that interests me is nature of certainty: the contextual nature of certainty and how to integrate it with the primacy of existence. It's the question that arises when you make a judgement based on your context of knowledge and there seems to be ample evidence to support that conclusion, and yet later, when your context increases further, you learn that you were wrong. Were you in fact wrong, in which case you were certain of something which wasn't true? Or, is truth in some way relative to context, and if so, how is that consistent with the fact that truth means correspondence to facts that are what they are whether you recognize them or not? I don't think there's any genuine intellectual dilemma here, but I think much further development is needed to make the ideas more precise and rigorous.

Q: You say there's not a dilemma, but isn't this the exact dilemma that philosophers have been grappling with forever? And now you're kind of saying "Well, let's see, maybe we don't have quite the grasp on it we thought we did?" I'm being the devil's advocate here, but it sound's like that's what you're saying.

Kelley: Yes, it is a serious problem, and it's one that I don't feel I have an adequate philosophic answer to at this point in time. But I think I know in a broad sense how to go about finding it. That is, there are certain benchmarks that one always keeps in mind. The primacy of existence is one, and the fact that our consciousness is necessarily limited to a specific context is the other. So it's an area where we understand things broadly, but it remains a puzzle, a paradox to be resolved.

I think that certainty and concept-formation are the two central questions of epistemology. I think concept-formation has been solved--there are more details to work out, but it's really been solved. Certainty is not anywhere near the same level of development philosophically.

Q: How about the nature of propositions? Meaning at the propositional level? Isn't this related to certainty?

Kelley: Here again, we don't have a theory of propositions or of the exact nature of truth on the same level as the theory of concepts. And again, that's something I want to work on. Now, the answers on propositions and certainty will be connected because ultimately they turn on the same kinds of considerations. But it's two different specific issues that take you in somewhat different directions.

Q: Okay, how about another issue?

Kelley: In ethics, there are a number of different areas. The core of the Objectivist virtues seems solid to me. The only thing I would pursue is some kind of principle of generosity, kindness, sensitivity to others. These are somewhat more important than Ayn Rand made them out to be. She regarded them as virtues, but very minor ones. I think they may be more important, in light of the fact that we are in important ways social animals. So I'd like to see that area explored, those concepts and virtues.

There is a lot more to be done applying ethics to the issues we have to deal with on an everyday basis. I've just lately been writing in the Journal about the kinds of fundamental values people choose. I'm in the middle of an argument about what it means to say that productive achievement is a central value in a person's life. I think achievement has to be understood much more widely than just a job or a career. I think Ayn Rand meant it in that wider sense. But then what exactly do we mean by achievement as the creation of value? How can we define more specific standards?

And there's a lot to be done in applying ethics to the ways organizations work, how a corporation works for example.

Q: Two technical issues have been pursued in-depth over e-mail the last six months. You've already mentioned one of those topics, certainty. The other topic is again pretty narrow: the question of the fundamental value and the difference between survival and flourishing. Actually, Douglas Rasmussen and Tibor Machan have been posting regularly. Do you think there's a real issue here? Or is this just a matter of word choice?

Kelley: Well, from the standpoint of theoretical ethics and the intellectual understanding of the basis and structure of the Objectivist system, yes, I think there are some very interesting questions there. I've criticized Rasmussen for his view that flourishing is the fundamental value. The alternative of existence or non-existence is what bridges the is-ought gap, it is what all values have to be tied back to, and that means literal survival or death. I think if you're going to ground your ethics in facts, you have to trace everything back to survival or non-survival, because that's where you face the fundamental alternative. Or you have to develop a new theory, some other connection between facts and values, in addition to or instead of the one Ayn Rand proposed. But I haven't heard anyone do that in a coherent way.

So that's why I'm against treating flourishing as the fundamental value. But it is true that we just don't want to survive into the next minute or two. We want to live a full life, the one we can anticipate with our conceptual faculty. And therefore we want to pursue values that will secure our life over the full lifespan that's open to us biologically. Also, as you live your life you begin to incorporate certain values into your very conception of what your life is, so that you can reach a point where life might not be worth living to you if you lost your wife or you lost your career. And so in that sense, the concept of flourishing has validity. It's valid in certain contexts, but we need to work out the concept exactly and how it applies. And similarly, we have to work out in-depth what exactly the connections are between survival on the one hand and values like production, self-esteem, and aesthetic enjoyment on the other.

Q: How does psychology fit into that picture? Do psychological needs count as survival needs, even if there isn't an obvious connection to sustenance? For example, there seems to be a psychological need for different kinds of human contact, and while there are certain survival benefits to such contact, these benefits don't seem to fully explain our needs in this area. Might these needs be accidents of evolution that we have to consider when formulating our code of values?

Kelley: Well it's absolutely true that psychological evidence is relevant to ethics. The structure of the Objectivist ethics is life as the standard of value, and then the law of causality. Once you've adopted life as your standard, you have to ask: By what means can life be achieved and maintained? That's a causal question which entails taking into account the world you live in and your own nature. So then the question arises: What's our source of information about our own nature? Well, the key point of course is that we're rational. But I think that there's been a tendency on the part of some Objectivists to think that we can deduce all the survival needs of a rational being more or less from our arm chairs. There are some things you can do that with, some connections you can make, but I do think you also need to look at the kinds of material your question is talking about: raw, inductive, psychological evidence about human capacities and human needs, the effects of depriving people of certain things over time, and so forth.

This, by the way, is one of the issues we're going to explore in some depth at the seminar this summer, which is on human nature and values. Both the issue of flourishing and the issue of psychological evidence in ethics. I think there's definitely a large need to integrate the valid psychological evidence—there's a lot of hokum in psychology—with the basic principles of the Objectivist view of human nature.

Kelley_dc_sm.gif (15199 bytes)David C. Kelley is the Executive Director of the The Objectivist Center (formerly Institute for Objectivist Studies) (IOS), a not-for-profit education and research organization that he founded in 1990 as an alternative to the de facto Objectivist "establishment" centered at the Ayn Rand Institute. In his inaugural address, Kelley blasted ARI's intolerance and tribalism, and in his monograph Truth and Toleration explained the principles of objectivity in moral judgment, delivering an extended critique of Leonard Peikoff's litmus test "Fact and Value." The book has since become which has become the most divisive and controversial book within the Objectivist movement.

Kelley has taught philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University, and is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology, and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used logic textbook. He wrote "A Theory of Abstraction," the only technical presentation of Rand’s theory of concept-formation in print. His taped lectures dating from the mid-1980s, currently sold under the title "Foundations of Knowledge," are definitive sources for the Objectivist views on the primacy of existence, skepticism, universals, induction and free will. More recently, his Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence argued that the Objectivist ethics provides a basis for the rationality of acting on the social virtues such as civility and generosity.

Always a popular speaker at Objectivist and libertarian functions, Dr. Kelley’s articles have appeared in several scholarly journals, including Social Philosophy & Policy, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and Reason Papers, as well as in Liberty, Barron’s, and elsewhere.

Other links of interest:ios-small.gif (2241 bytes)


Back Issues | Interviews | News & Events | Reviews | Topics | Information | Home