Oct 4, 2010

Best approach to disputes in a movement?

If I had another lifetime to live, I would like to study social movements -- for example, how they form, how they expand without losing their original purpose, and how individuals respond to the inevitable disputes among members. Intriguing movements of the past were the anti-slavery movement in the 1700-1800s, the movement to break down trade barriers in the 1800s, the movement to abolish the draft in the 1960-1970s, and the movement to abolish prohibitions against abortion, also in the 1960-1970s.

I have been a student of Objectivism and a member of the Objectivist movement for almost fifty years. I have seen conflicts arise and fade away. I am learning that there is a proper procedure for outside individuals -- those who are not directly involved -- to approach these conflicts. Part of that procedure consists of asking and answering these questions:

(1) Does the dispute deserve my attention, that is, is there justification for taking time away from pursuing my highest personal values -- my central purpose in life, my friendships, and my favorite and much needed recreational activities?

(2) Exactly what is the conflict? Is it philosophical, personal, something else, or a combination?

(3) Exactly what is the issue in dispute? If there are several issues, in what order should I resolve them?

(4) Is all the evidence available that I need in order to make a decision about which side, if any, to support? Have I waited long enough -- usually months or even years -- for all the relevant facts to emerge? Do I have the facts straight about who did what? Are my sources -- primary and secondary -- reliable?

(5) Do I need to make a decision now or at any time? If so, why?

(6) If I do decide to investigate a dispute and if I uncover enough information to form a judgment, should I take a stand (which entails time and effort to formulate, present and defend), either in private or in public?

The main lesson I have learned is to wait until I can answer such questions with confidence. A secondary lesson is that Objectivism (which is a fixed set of ideas) remains unchanged no matter what happens between individuals in the Objectivist movement.

What other approach would you suggest?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Burgess, I am indeed an outsider. I was raised by an objectivist dad and a libertarian mom, and they remained married because they refused to get involved with Ayn Rand's excommunication of the libertarians. Thus the small "o" and the small "l".

Neither would sacrifice their marriage or their independence of thought for the sake of a movement. For myself, I would say that I am more of an objectivist than not, especially the older and more curmudgeonly I become. I am not mincing words. At the same time--having watched my parents weather the various schisms and excommunications of the early Objectivist movement, and having watched how politics and ideology have made strange bedfellows in the LP--I have been reluctant to join either and thereby give up a certain independence of thought. I was reconsidering my options with respect to objectivism when I heard Leonard Piekoff advocate bombing the Ground Zero mosque. I don't like the mosque's location either, however I especially did not like Piekoff's insinuation that those who disagree with him cannot understand objectivism, even though his reasoning was far from complete in the talk. It became the argument from authority--do this because I say its right-- and it is the reason I still don't want to be involved with the movement. I am happy to remain outside and retain my independence of thought.

I don't need to do a lot of research to find the logical error in that kind of statement, and I heard it with my own ears. By remaining outside the movement, however, I do not feel any obligation to defend this kind of thing.

Adam Mossoff said...

Excellent blog posting, Burgess.

I think your first question is absolutely dead on. Unfortunately, too many Objectivists think they have an intrinsic duty to investigate and judge events that are irrelevant to their lives and values. In essence, they think that being an Objectivist means that they are now tasked as Diogenes with his lamp looking for one honest man. But that's an entirely wrong view of the nature and function of morality -- it's rationalistic in its methodology and, in substance, it's a view of morality as a set of intrinsic duties.

These Objectivists forget that judgment, especially moral judgment, is made according to the universal standard of man's life, but that its function is to serve one's own happiness. Thus there must be some concrete values and specific actions at stake in one's own life to justify that one weigh in on a controversy involving third parties. This is what justifies taking the time and energy away from selfishly pursuing values in one's life to engage in the very difficult and time-consuming task of gathering evidence, determining when one has sufficient evidence to judge, weighing the evidence, and then inferring a conclusion that is fully supported by the evidence at hand. If there is no selfish value at stake in doing this, then it is an ultimate act of self-sacrifice in the name of moral duty to do this -- one succeeds only in undermining value pursuit in the name of a moral judgment disconnected from the very facts in one's life that makes such a judgment objective and legitimate.

Tony Donadio said...

Burgess, Adam: thanks for your comments on this. I agree, and particularly with your points about the first question.