Tuesday, 20 September 2016

On David Kelley’s Idea of The Legacy of Ayn Rand

The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand
David Kelley

Through the lens of David Kelley’s polemical work, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, a few critical issues in Objectivism get revealed. The book proposes ideas that seem to contradict some of the shibboleths of Objectivism. These shibboleths have very little to do with the fundamental tenets of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but most Objectivists accept them as incontestable facts.

The foremost shibboleth that Kelley takes an aim at is the idea of Immanuel Kant being a monster. Kelley says that he has met Objectivists “who casually denounce Kant as the most evil man in history without having read a word of what he wrote.” Unfortunately this is true—in case of Kant, many Objectivists tend to claim certainty even though they may lack the knowledge.

Kelley asserts that the Objectivist position on Kant does not show the full picture—it does not take into account the individualism that is there in Kant's ideas. Kant was not a collectivist; his philosophy was used for developing collectivist doctrines because he made certain errors in his thinking.

“One effect of Kant’s system was the emergence of philosophical collectivism, because Kant taught that happiness should be sacrificed to duty. Kant himself, however, was not a collectivist. He thought the source of our duties was not society but a higher, “noumenal” self residing within every individual. In acting from a sense of duty, he claimed, we are treating this higher self, in ourselves and in others, as an end in itself. In political philosophy, accordingly, Kant was an individualist, advocating individual rights and a limited government. It was because there is no such thing as the noumenal self that later thinkers such as Hegel, who wanted to preserve the ethics of duty, turned to society as its source and object.”

Kelley says that if Thomas Aquinas, instead of Hegel, had succeeded Kant then the Kantian ideas would have led to some sort of Christian mysticism, which is as consistent with Kant’s premises as secular collectivism is.

On the issue of moral judgement, Kelley raises some thought provoking points. He says that we can only make an objective moral judgement when we have sufficient evidence, and it takes significant amount of time and energy to gather such an evidence. He also points out that we have to consider the motives that inspired the action in order to pass a moral judgement.

“There’s obviously a moral difference between a person who kills someone accidentally, while playing with a loaded gun, and a cold-blooded killer who shoots his victim deliberately. The consequences are the same, but not the moral status of the agents.”

In the chapter, "Objectivism," Kelley gives the impression that he is not fully convinced about Ayn Rand’s theory of measurement-omission for concept formation; he seems to suggest that it is possible that in future we may acquire evidence against this theory. “As an inductive hypothesis about the functioning of a natural object—the human mind— the theory of measurement-omission is open to the possibility of revision in the same way that Newton’s theory of gravity was. And the same is true for the other principles of Objectivism.” But in his book A Theory of Abstraction, he has clarified that he does not reject the theory of measurement-omission.

Kelley’s views on whether Objectivism is a closed system or an open system can be deemed controversial. He suggests that Objectivism must be an open system of thought, “where inquiry and debate may take place within the framework of the essential principles that define the system.”

According to Kelley, a lot of work needs to be done to enable Objectivism to serve as an alternative to Kant’s philosophy. Objectivism is a young system and many issues in various branches of philosophy have not yet been adequately addressed in the Objectivist theory. These issues must be addressed by rational and independent minds whose only concern is the truth. According to Kelley, to enable such minds to do their work, Objectivism must remain an open system.

You get the feeling that Kelley is being iconoclastic when he says that loyalty to truth matters much more than the loyalty to any particular person, including Ayn Rand. “The greatest contributions to this development will come from the most rational and independent minds, whose only concern is the truth. They will not function with double vision, as Peikoff demands, keeping one eye on reality and the other on Ayn Rand’s texts.”

On the issue of Ayn Rand’s association with Nathaniel Branden, Kelley says that most Objectivists seethe with “borrowed anger” against Branden, and they have “denounced him as a moral monster” without knowing all the facts. But the Branden issue is of no consequence as far as Ayn Rand’s literature and her philosophy are concerned, and whatever Kelley has written on this subject is, to my mind, an unnecessary distraction from the book’s core theme.

It is not possible for me to pass a moral judgement on David Kelley; I don’t have the complete information. After all, Kelley has said on the subject of moral judgements that one needs sufficient amount of evidence to make an objective judgement, and the collection of such an evidence is a time consuming and exacting process. Due to the lack of evidence, I continue to be unsure if Kelley’s intention in writing such a book is principled or otherwise.

However, whatever his intentions may have been, it is clear that the issues that he has raised are most relevant to Objectivism. There is immense amount of logic in all the points that he makes and the right answers to his issues must be discovered. Overall, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand is an interesting book, it's full of quotable lines, and if you are close to Rand’s ideas you will discover in it an amazing amount of firepower.


  1. Kelley, A Theory of Abstractions
    - could you please clarify this reference?

    1. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Theory-Abstraction-Objectivist-Studies-Book-ebook/dp/B00ZQQALES/#nav-subnav