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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Chip Joyce's "Subjectivist Objectivist" essay is barely up and the usual suspects are already branding it as "anti-independence." To them, his argument is that Diana Hsieh and her ilk are controversial because they have the audacity to disagree with Leonard Peikoff.

For me, it's like programming. You write a program using frameworks and libraries. When you're done, you run it and everything seems fine. And maybe it continues to run well until it hits an unusual condition, what we in the business call an "edge case." How you respond to this situation is telling.

Some people, typically amateurs or novices, will immediately jump to the conclusion that there is a bug in the framework or libraries on which their program is built. It's a very tempting leap because then they don't have to confront their own fallibility or lack of forethought.

More seasoned programmers will assume that they've made a mistake somewhere along the line and dig into their code to find it. They know that the underlying libraries and frameworks are widely used, deeply tested, and most of the bugs have been found. They don't assume an infallibility on the part of the framework developers—they just recognize that those creators are more skilled than themselves and less likely to have made a seemingly-obvious mistake.

Sometimes, after all is said and done, there is a bug in the library or framework. But you don't know that until you've actually put forth the effort to rule out your own mistakes and to create test cases to demonstrate the problem. In other words, you don't know that there's a deeper problem until you actually know that there's an issue. You may have been right when you made the initial surmise, but it was baseless until you did the work.

That's kind of how I view Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff. Every time I've ever come across something with which I disagreed, I pored over my thinking on the matter and really dove deep into their reasoning. I assumed that I had made a mistake because, well, they're experts and had done an order of magnitude more thinking on the subject than I had. Blindly accepting their position and capriciously rejecting it are two sides of the same coin: shortcuts of thinking.

If after all of my delving I decided that they had made the error, then I'll formulate my reasons (e.g., on the 2004 election) and decide how essential the disagreement. In every case, we've appeared to disagree over strategy rather than anything fundamental. Presumably, I would reject Peikoff or Rand if I thought their conclusion, reasoning, or premises were unsound or at war with reality. So far, I haven't come across anything along those lines and it's certainly not for lack of exposure.

To put this in terms of Joyce's essay, the "Subjectivist Objectivist" wants his program to be treated as part of the underlying framework or library even though he isn't one of the maintainers and isn't willing to publicly fork the project. When anyone calls him on that, he gets defensive and attacks the whistleblower. Other "Subjectivist Objectivists" rally to the task because there's safety in numbers and their worldview is similarly in peril.

What's most interesting to me is that nearly everyone who fits the characterization of "Subjectivist Objectivist" is a former Kelleyite. I think that's important but I'm still mulling over the implications.

[UPDATE (2/2/2012): Revised a sentence in the third paragraph that was very poorly worded. Thanks for letting me know, Mark!]