An Open Letter to Objectivists and Students of Objectivism Regarding Diana Hsieh

In 1989, I was a sixteen-year-old kid when I first picked up The Fountainhead and began my personal journey to becoming an Objectivist.  I lived in a small, culturally-isolated farming town in the Deep South.  As I read, re-read, and seriously studied Rand’s fiction and non-fiction, I did so with zero guidance and little encouragement.  There were no Objectivists to be found in my town and no way to attempt to find or communicate with any at my disposal.  I know that there where early, limited forms of “cyber-space” in existence, even then, but, growing up poor in rural Arkansas I had no real knowledge of or access to them.  So, it was just me and my books.

I would have given almost anything to have others with whom to discuss and explore these exciting ideas.   But, what I craved most was the guidance of experienced, expert Objectivists to help me learn and expand my understanding.  I never suffered from the delusion that “independence” somehow makes the notion of “expert”, “authority”, or “teacher” obsolete, as so many seem to, today.  If I were embarking upon the same journey today, I would have delved into the internet, seeking both camaraderie and experienced guidance.

I would have found it.  But, where would I have found it and whom would I have found?

Whether one starts on Facebook or with a Google search, there are a lot of ways to find Diana Hsieh.  She has blogs, webcasts, mailing lists, and discussion groups.   You will find that she has a PhD in philosophy and has lectured at various Objectivist conferences.  You will also find that she was once closely associated with the Brandens and with David Kelley and has since publicly renounced her affiliations with them, even to the extent of writing some very good essays against them.  All of which cries out to the eyes and ears of newcomers to Objectivism that Diana Hsieh is an expert, professional Objectivist intellectual.

If and when such newcomers go to her blog or seek her out on Facebook, to their delight, they will find that they can actually interact with her. She engages in discussions and answers questions and awards “points of awesomeness” to those who make a clever remark.  She’s energetic and busy and personable and not at all stuffy or prudish or unapproachable, like one might envision a professional intellectual to be. She’s just like a “normal person”, but she’s also a PhD and an Objectivist.  She has new stuff out almost everyday; philosophy plus fun.  To the young newcomer, that seems the epitome of cool.

And it could be, if she were as serious about the philosophy as the fun.  At her best, Diana Hsieh has been very good on certain topics, such as her essays exposing the “open system”.  But, when one looks closely, at much of her work, especially her most controversial statements, it becomes evident that her thinking methods leave much to be desired.

Consider her treatment of Leonard Peikoff’s brief podcast remarks on the subject of compulsory jury duty.  In his podcast, Dr. Peikoff says (transcription with emphasis mine):

“If you sign up for government; if you volunteer to help set up and support it, you want the protection, you pay the cost; then, implicit in that is that you will contribute the minimum that is actually required for it to perform its functions, even if that includes a certain degree of your own participation…”

And later in his remarks, he reiterates:

“So, I would say if the jury system is the means of deciding, and you want that system—paying voluntarily for it—then that implies that you’re going to contribute…”

When attempting to understand and evaluate Dr. Peikoff’s statements in this podcast, the cognitive method of objectivity, which is a central principle of Objectivism, demands that one maintain the full context of one’s knowledge.  The full context of one’s knowledge includes, not only every word of Peikoff’s statement, but also all of one’s knowledge of Objectivism, and all of one’s knowledge of Dr. Peikoff’s history and works.  In her response, Diana Hsieh drops all three of these aspects of the proper context.

Dr. Peikoff’s remarks clearly indicate the qualification that before one can properly be compelled to jury duty, that one must “sign up”, “volunteer”, “want that system” and be “paying voluntarily for it”.  These statements cannot reasonably be confused with the invalid concept of Social Contract Theory’s “tacit agreement” or its notion that all one has to do is be born—i.e. simply exist—within that system to be beholden to it.  On the contrary, Peikoff is quite obviously saying that one must make a choice and take willful action before being compelled to jury duty.  An appropriate example would be, in a fully capitalist society in which government financing is voluntary, that it be expressly (not tacitly) understood that by choosing to pay the cost to support and set up government, one agrees to serve as a juror when so called.

There is also a precedent for this principle (not exact formulation) to be found in Ayn Rand’s own writings.  In Government Financing in a Free Society (VOS, 116), Rand discusses some possible methods of voluntary government finance that would be entirely compatible with her philosophy.  One of them involves imposing a fee on credit transactions.  She wrote:

“Suppose that the government were to protect—i.e., to recognize as legally valid and enforceable—only those contracts which had been insured by the payment, to the government, of a premium in the amount of a legally fixed percentage of the sums involved in the contractual transaction.” (VOS p. 116-117)

Suppose that the government also placed upon the usage of its voluntarily funded services the proviso that volunteers must agree to be enrolled on the list of potential jurors and to serve when called?  Where would be the initiation of force in such an arrangement?  For that matter, where is the initiation of force in the system that most (all?) citizens of the United States live in today, with regard to jury duty?  In each of the many places I’ve lived in the U.S., it has only been my voluntary choice to register to vote that has made me eligible to be called to jury service.  I knew explicitly that my choice included the possibility of being called upon as a juror.  Had I been unwilling to accept that requirement, there was nothing preventing me from abstaining from the voting process.  The fact is, there is no initiation of force involved.  There was only an act of choice with full understanding of what that choice meant.

One could attempt a pedantic argument that, since these obligations would be a result of a voluntary action, there is no “compulsion”, so Peikoff should not have said that he supports the idea of “compulsory jury duty” at all.  That argument depends upon the dropping of the full context of the concept “compulsory”; specifically that the government holds a monopoly on the retaliatory use of force.  The government’s force would only be used, in this scenario, against an individual who refused to comply in accordance with the terms of his voluntary agreement (as in a breach of contract).

I have now illustrated how Dr. Peikoff’s statements do not necessitate the contradiction of any principles of Objectivism; there is no implication of violating individual rights, or of the initiation of force.  However, in her webcast, Diana Hsieh quotes much of the relevant content of Peikoff’s statement, then immediately drops the relevant context that could lead her to a proper understanding of it.  She embarks upon a lengthy flight of fancy and, dropping the context that she is talking about the man who, above all, has earned the maximum benefit of the doubt regarding his understanding and integration of Objectivism, envisions Peikoff’s statement as implicitly supporting the initiation of force and the theory of Social Contract.  She even goes so far as speculate that Dr. Peikoff’s position could lead to the ridiculous spectacle of jurors being held at gun-point and commanded to think, as if a man of Leonard Peikoff’s history would ever advocate such an absurdity!  Furthermore, after a great deal of unnecessary conjecture about the potential damage that Peikoff’s position could impose upon innocent victims, she uses quoted dialogue from Atlas Shrugged to insinuate that Leonard Peikoff has advocated the validity of a system of enslavement!

There was much uproar about Diana Hsieh’s physical and verbal demeanor in her webcast indictment of Dr. Peikoff.  I completely agree that the attitude, demeanor, and content that she displayed in her webcast was egregiously disrespectful of a man who deserves far better treatment (even if the method of her disagreement had not been invalid) from anyone who knows who he is.  But, equally egregious, was the context-dropping, rationalistic, philosophically non-objective, and intellectually cavalier method of thought with which she approached and executed her consideration and evaluation of Peikoff’s podcast remarks.

On the Ground Zero Mosque issue, Hsieh attempts to uphold the principle of property rights as a non-contextual absolute, thus violating the Objectivist principle of objectivity, which holds that all conceptual and generalized principles are contextual; only the proper method of reason is absolute in all contexts.  Her conclusion on this issue also fails to properly account for the specific (in many ways unique) nature of the enemy and the threat we face.  Whether this failure to account for the nature of the Islamic threat was due to context-dropping or a failure to grasp its nature (an error of knowledge), I don’t know.  She compounded her errors by leveling the ridiculous charge that Peikoff’s position constituted a “grave threat to [Hsieh’s] life and liberty”.

On the Transgender Persons issue, Hsieh drops the contextual distinction between the metaphysical and the psychological in order to make the following fallacious comparison in her January 25, 2012 blog post:

“his moral condemnation of transsexualism seems exactly like the moral arguments against homosexuality that used to be common in Objectivist circles.”

In so doing, she also drops the context of knowledge that Dr. Peikoff himself has repeatedly upheld the position that homosexuality is not a basis for moral condemnation.

Hsieh also refers to Leonard Peikoff as “horribly ignorant” and guilty of “arm-chair philosophizing at its worst”, a charge she has since reiterated, unabashedly.  What evidence does she offer to support these insults?  In the same blog post, Hsieh explains:

“Dr. Peikoff doesn't seem to be aware of the basic claims about the psychology of transgenderism.”

To what “basic claims” does she refer?  She references only a friend’s blog which mentions a Wikipedia page.  Apparently, a second-hand report of a Wikipedia page is all the “scientific” evidence that Hsieh deems necessary to support her offensive conclusion that Leonard Peikoff is an ignorant arm-chair philosophizer; to say nothing of the potential veracity and scientific methodology of whatever claims are currently being propounded by modern psychology on the topic.

On the topic of the resignation of John McCaskey, much has been written and anyone who is unfamiliar with that controversy can find all the relevant factual information through a careful examination of the public statements on this topic.  I will only say that Hsieh dropped the context of Dr. Peikoff’s unique responsibilities as Heir to the Estate of Ayn Rand as well as that of the administrative concerns of organizational operations in her public comments about the controversy which only served to exacerbate and prolong a controversy about which there was an insufficient context of knowledge in which to formulate conclusions.

In her discussion of the morality of eating anencephalic infants, during her May 29, 2011 podcast, as well as the ensuing online discussions in which she participated, both in her blog commentary and on Facebook, Diana Hsieh exhibits a rationalistic approach and fundamental lack of seriousness with regard to philosophy that is reminiscent of a post-modernist “thought experiment” or a late night collegiate “bull session”.

On June 2, 2011, in response to a listener’s challenge to her podcast discussion, Hsieh begins her response with the following statement:

“It's important, I think, never to sugar-coat one's views.  So if we're considering whether anencephalics have no rights, then we have to consider the very disturbing consequences of that, namely that they could be raised and slaughtered just like any other animal.  And yes, that could mean seeing human flesh available for sale in the grocery store.  That needs to be considered.”

Why does that need to be considered?  Hsieh suggests that this consideration is somehow important to answering questions about the moral validity of eating cows or pigs and when considering the ethics of cloning.  Why?  What is the fundamental principle that unites these considerations into a common context?  Hsieh suggests that the uniting principle is that they are questions concerning the rights-status of non-rational entities, as if accepting the moral validity of breeding birth-defected humans for slaughter and consumption could be a reasonable pre-requisite for defending our right to operate cattle ranches or perform stem-cell research!  This is an example of treating philosophy as, in the words of Dr. Peikoff in the first line of OPAR, “a bauble of the intellect”.

Hsieh then goes on to show a fundamental misunderstanding of Objectivism’s ethics, when, later in the same comment, she says:

“Personally, I tend to think that it's more of a taboo, based on mistakenly valuing outward human form per se, than a genuine moral wrong.  If I'm going to condemn it in cases that don't involve any violation of rights, then I'd better have some good argument for doing so, not just some fuzzy appeal to the value of people."

And, three hours later, she comments:

“For the record, I have zero desire to eat human flesh (!!). But I don't see any strong grounds to condemn someone who did as immoral, provided that no rights were violated (or any other injustice or immorality done) in the process.”

Objectivism’s ethics does not amount to “do what you want as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of others”.   The principle of individual rights is the bridge between ethics and politics, not the standard of morality.  If it were, then ethics would be impotent to guide a man’s choices in the preservation of his own life and the achievement of his own happiness.  Is it immoral for me to get high on crack cocaine, as long as I don’t steal it and do it in the privacy of my own home?  If the non-violation of the rights of others is the standard of moral judgment, then the answer is “Nope. Go for it. You’re not hurting anyone else.”  But, that is not Objectivist ethics.

In another comment, three days later on the same comment thread, after the discussion has been extended to encompass the moral status of cannibalism in general, Hsieh offers four examples of circumstances under which she wouldn’t consider cannibalism to be immoral:

“(1) If you're starving and shipwrecked…”

“(2) If eating the deceased is your culture's traditional way of respecting and honoring loved ones…”

“(3) People who are connoisseurs of exotic foods eat all kinds of things that I find completely and utterly disgusting, like balut eggs and animal penises.  I can imagine that such a person might want to try human meat -- because he values eating exotic foods, not due to any depravity or hatred for his fellow humans.”

“(4) If meats could be grown in a lab, without ever creating anything like the whole animal, then I'm doubtful that human meat would be terribly different from eating pork or beef or chicken.”

The first example is the ethics of emergencies (which Hsieh herself points out).  The second is nothing more than an appeal to tradition of the same variety offered by multiculturalists.  The third example is pure subjectivist whim-worship.  The fourth is the same as the third, but dressed up to appear more “scientific”.

In the final analysis, Hsieh pleads in frustration with those who take her to task by suggesting that she shouldn’t be judged on this issue because she’s just speculating and doesn’t really have any firm views on the subject.  This takes us back to the point about treating philosophy as a “bauble of the intellect” and dormitory “bull-session” methodology.

Diana Hsieh holds herself out to the public as an expert in Objectivism.  Her many activities and outlets, coupled with her easy accessibility, make her stand out as a beacon in cyber-space, welcoming all those who are seeking to learn more about Objectivism, interact with others who have an interest in Objectivism, and/or are looking to become involved in Objectivist activism.  I have discussed several examples of how her attempts at applying Objectivism to moral questions display a poor grasp and often a complete departure from the objective methods of Objectivist philosophy.   The combination of these two factors is the reason that I consider Diana Hsieh to be potentially damaging to Objectivism as a philosophic movement.

Those who are newcomers to Objectivism are eager to find a competent, expert teacher to guide them through the process of learning to understand, integrate, and apply Objectivism.  Anyone who has read The Comprachico’s (Ayn Rand, 1970) and The American School: Why Johnny Can’t Think (Leonard Peikoff, 1984) should understand the crucial role that a teacher plays in the proper development of a student’s ability to grasp, integrate, and apply knowledge.  It is epistemology, which Ayn Rand described as the “foundation of philosophy” (ITOE, 74) and “a science devoted to the discovery of the proper methods of acquiring and validating knowledge” (ITOE, 36), which is most crucial for any student of Objectivism in his quest to grasp, integrate, and apply philosophic principles.  Without the proper cognitive method, Objectivism can, at most, be held as nothing more than a list of isolated—i.e. un-integrated—“bullet-points” or formulated “commandments”.

When a newcomer to Ayn Rand’s ideas sets out on the internet, seeking a greater understanding of Objectivism, it is the proper methods of cognition that is most crucial for him to grasp.   Diana Hsieh has, not only in the handful of controversial statements discussed herein, but repeatedly, in her many statements, discussions, blog posts, and webcasts, shown a habitual failure to apply the method of objectivity, which is central to understanding, integrating, and applying Objectivism.

It is NOT my intention in writing this to advocate the public moral condemnation or complete ostracism of Diana Hsieh.

My (and’s) purpose is to raise an alarm with regard to her methods and to the potential damage that her method of “doing philosophy” can cause to the philosophic development of the students of Objectivism who easily can, and regularly do, find her in their search for expert guidance from professional Objectivist philosophers and intellectuals.  This self-described “specialist in practical ethics” and self-proclaimed “Philosopher-in-Chief” is not competent to the task.

Consider similar scenarios regarding the raising of a public alarm in the realm of professions other than that of professional intellectual.

If you became aware of an incompetent automobile mechanic, plying his trade in your community, would you warn others?  Perhaps this mechanic is honestly doing the best he can, but his skills are simply not up to the standards sufficient for his job.  Perhaps he doesn’t even realize it.  He genuinely enjoys the work and is just doing the best he can in his performance.  What if such an automobile mechanic existed in your neighborhood but, being new to the community, you were unaware of his professional incompetence?  Would you prefer to gain this knowledge at your own expense; or, would you prefer to have been warned by your neighbors?

Consider a similar scenario in which the stakes are, usually, far higher than wasted expense and inconvenience.  What if the previous example pertained to a local physician?

Diana Hsieh is not an auto mechanic.  She is not a medical doctor.  She is a professional philosopher who advertises as an Objectivist intellectual.  If you don’t recognize the equivalent life and death necessity of “quality control” in philosophy and among the professional intellectuals in a philosophic movement, then I urge you to re-read everything that Ayn Rand ever wrote.

In closing, I offer a relevant passage from Ayn Rand’s brilliant essay For the New Intellectual (FTNI, 27):

“The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher. The intellectual carries the application of philosophical principles to every field of human endeavor. He sets a society’s course by transmitting ideas from the ‘ivory tower’ of the philosopher to the university professor—to the writer—to the artist—to the newspaperman—to the politician—to the movie maker—to the night-club singer—to the man in the street. The intellectual’s specific professions are in the field of the sciences that study man, the so-called ‘humanities,’ but for that very reason his influence extends to all other professions. Those who deal with the sciences studying nature have to rely on the intellectual for philosophical guidance and information: for moral values, for social theories, for political premises, for psychological tenets and, above all, for the principles of epistemology, that crucial branch of philosophy which studies man’s means of knowledge and makes all other sciences possible. The intellectual is the eyes, ears and voice of a free society: it is his job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields.”

And a final question:

Does your independent judgment conclude that a person, who regularly commits the kinds of philosophical errors of method that are illustrated in Diana Hsieh’s controversial statements, is competent to the task of professional Objectivist philosopher or intellectual, as described by Ayn Rand?

When I think of that sixteen-year-old me, who I described at the beginning of this letter, so desperately craving expert intellectual guidance, who would have gone in search of it by today’s technological means, had such been available to him, I’m stricken with a startlingly clear, concrete vision of the crucial role that the professional philosophers and intellectuals play in the cognitive development of the those who seek their expert guidance.  When competent, the professional intellectual creates an incalculable value.  When incompetent, the professional intellectual can cause incalculable damage.


Best Premises,

John Kagebein


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