A Short Note on Tolerance and Sanction

March 27, 2009 by  

An acquaintance and fellow student of Objectivism read Leonard Peikoff’s “Fact and Value” this week. I asked him for his thoughts on it, and he wrote:

What stood out in F&V for me was this: “When I speak of truth and falsehood in what follows, therefore, I am presupposing a definite (adult) context.” I agree with that and would add to it saying that it’s important to take into account the abilities of the other person in the discussion when choosing the tactics of how to refute evil ideas that other people might hold. If it’s possible the goal should be to get the person to change their mind, and if they hear “You are evil for holding that idea.”, many people will just start arguing from emotion, making it that much harder get them thinking rationally about the idea in question.

But as for this: “As one of his examples of an intellectually honest man, to whom others should show “tolerance” and “benevolence,” David Kelley offers not a groping teenager, but “an academic Marxist,” academics should be held to a higher ethical standard when it comes to the ideas they hold and promote.

I replied as follows:

I agree about academics.

I’m leery of tolerance in the face of an evil person. I know what you mean and intend. However, in my experience, one will get absolutely nowhere if one concedes, to a person holding and acting upon an evil philosophy, that he is “good” or “well intentioned” or “nice”. Such representations are false but, worse, the person hearing such representations ends up feeling that even an altruist can be a good or nice person. They cannot. They are not.

Showing, in isolated instances, good will toward a stranger, or smiling and shaking the hand of ones philosophical opponent to demonstrate civility, etc., are not the substance of “good”. I have little doubt that suicide bombers have tipped a waitress, held a door for an elderly lady, and said to a fellow conversationalist “Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree…so what about those Jays?”…only minutes before murdering hundreds of “infidels”.

Such a person is not good, but evil. Pure evil. And to say or imply that he is just a person who hasn’t yet had the benefit of learning the right philosophy is to give an out to every rotter and murderer in history. Hitler was evil, even if, had he only lived a few more years, he would have read Ayn Rand and reversed himself metaphysically, epistemologically, ethically, and politically. A thing is now what a thing is now, and it is a mistake to treat a refusal to observe and acknowledge the facts of reality – which is the case with almost all irrational adults – as though it is the result of mere unintentional ignorance. No person capable of being rational rightly gets a pass on moral judgment, at the appropriate times.

That is the case even if, having been judged to be evil, they might be put-off learning why they have been so judged. The point of Objectivism is not to cause others to be good. It is to help oneself to be good. If someone is upset at having been judged evil by an Objectivist, that’s tough. Consider that history is filled with the judgment, torture and murder – by religious people and organizations – of “non-believers”, “sinners”, and the like. Observe that, despite thousands of years of such inverted condemnation, torture, and murder, rational people continue to exist and to express their commitment to reality and reason.

Sticks and stones.


One Response to “A Short Note on Tolerance and Sanction”

  1. Mike Spencer on March 29th, 2009 1:16 pm

    It always seems odd to see politicians say harsh things about their opponents, but when they meet for a debate they become civil. I was reminded of this when I read “smiling & shaking the hand of ones philosophical opponents to demonstrate civility”. I agree that that is not good, & is disingenuous.
    But to say a person cannot be “good, well intentioned or nice” if they are altruistic is too general a statement. Some altruists may not be any of those things, but some could be those things in certain areas of their lives. If perfection is required to be good, then I would be put in the unfortunate position of agreeing with theists who say all are sinners. And nobody could be considered rational unless they have been perfectly rational in every aspect of their lives.
    You mention various situations where evil people have done nice things. That very distinction proves that people can be good & evil in various parts of their lives. Now if you mean “pure evil” to mean overwhelmingly evil, as in the case of Hitler, that could be reasonably argued. But I am sure these people with whom you “get absolutely nowhere” are not overwhelmingly evil as Hitler. And are you more likely to get somewhere with them if you do call them evil?
    I very much enjoy your insights & videos. Especially in these times when the political world seems to be shifting so far left. Please keep it up.

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