McCaskey made a good deal money in the computer business. He then went back to school to get a Ph.D. in history. Presumably, he should have been perfect ARI board member. He had money, he had the credentials, he shared an obvious passion for Rand and her ideas, and he wanted to teach. What more could be wanted by the folks over at the institute? Well, there was a fly in the ointment; a tragic flaw, if you will, that would lead to McCaskey's fall from grace over at ARI. And I suspect it goes well beyond merely disagreeing with Harriman and Peikoff over a few points of historical scholarship. When Peikoff described McCaskey as "an obnoxious braggart" and "pretentious ignoramus," Ayn Rand's heir clearly exaggerated. But if you read McCaskey's blog, you may detect an element of truth behind Peikoff's exaggerations. Peikoff likely had reasons beyond McCaskey's criticisms of Harriman for his histrionic denunciations of the former ARI board member. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the McCaskey's Harriman criticisms were merely the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. While calling McCaskey an obnoxious braggart and pretentious ignoramus is clearly over the top, McCaskey does exhibit just that sort of breezy self-confidence as an expositor of Randian ideology that could easily exasperate the over-protective, thin-skinned Peikoff. In his infamous "ultimatum" letter, Peikoff described McCaskey's criticism as saying, "in essence, Peikoff is misguided , Harriman is misguided, [McCaskey] knows Objectivism better than either." At the time, Peikoff's criticism struck many ARI critics as unjustifiable hyperbole stemming from an over-sensitivity to criticism. But if, as I suspect, McCaskey had, during his tenure on the ARI board, been riffing on Objectivism like he riffs on his blog, I can see how that would get on Peikoff's nerves. Riffing has always been a problem for orthodox Objectivism. Objectivism mostly appeals to high school and college students. While some of these students are content to follow an orthodox path, the more bolder nascent Objectivists often irrepressible desire to "improve" Objectivism in some way or another. It is likely that Peikoff, over the years, has received scores of emails from pretentious, sometimes even belligerent and nasty college students offering "improved" versions of the Randian creed. This sort of thing was never welcomed by Rand, and it certainly would not have been welcomed by Peikoff. McCaskey's riffs may seem, to those of us who are outsiders, as mild and inoffensive. They most deal with semantic issues (i.e, with how Objectivist arguments are worded) rather than posing any serious challenge to orthodoxy. But any sort of changes, even if merely to the phrasing of arguments, would constitute a challenge to Peikoff's authority as the most qualified interpreter of Objectivism. Over the years, Peikoff has guarded his position as the supreme authority on Randian doctrine with an intense, paranoid jealousy.
Consider, as one example of a McCaskey's riff, a blog post about "the initiation and use of physical force." Objectivism conflates physical force with fraud. While agreeing with this conflation, McCaskey suggests a reformulation which, he insists, is more in keeping with Ayn Rand's original text:
[Rand] was right to indicate that “physical force” here is the same thing physicists mean. And Peikoff’s dropping “use of” and Objectivists speaking of two kinds of physical force make, I think, Rand’s doctrine about individual rights harder to conceptualize; more difficult to apply to threat, theft, breach, extortion, and cases with conflicting indications of consent; and more susceptible to the claim that it should be expanded to cover trade when one party has superior economic power.
In this passage (and in much of the blog post), McCaskey is basically implying that he is a better, smarter, and more faithful interpreter of Rand than Peikoff. Perhaps McCaskey is right in this implication. I take no position one way or the other. I'm merely pointing out that McCaskey is manifesting just the sort of attitude Peikoff complained about in his ultimatum email, an attitude which might very well have manifested itself on occasion prior to McCaskey's resignation from the ARI board of directors.
McCaskey's criticism of Harriman's scholarship, even if entirely justified from an intellectual point of view, obviously betrays a kind of social/political ineptitude. If he wanted to maintain his position at ARI, he should been more aware of how his criticisms, however mild they may have been, might prick Peikoff's tender sensibilities. Nonetheless, there is something refreshing in McCaskey's candor. In reading McCaskey you get the sense that, whether you agree with him or not (and I generally don't), he's not trying to pull one over on you. He is a candid Objectivist. Unlike Peikoff, for instance, McCaskey doesn't come off as particularly guarded or suspicious. He doesn't assume the worst about other people and only drops his guard when proven otherwise. He tells it like he sees it, and lets the chips fall where they may.
This feature of McCaskey's character is manifested in perhaps his most incendiary post of all, where he admits, with a candor rare to find among Objectivists, that "any logic professor," using "the highest established standards of logic" can "decimate Ayn Rand’s moral and political philosophy in one 45-minute lecture." McCaskey is quick to add: "But Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic. She has her own distinctive method of arguing."
While it's unclear whether McCaskey's is speaking for the orthodox wing of Objectivism (as filtered through Peikoff), there does seem to be at least an undercurrent of this sort of thinking within ARI, even among the old guard. Binswanger once described "the Objectivist theory of logic" as "a super-set of ordinary, Aristolean logic." Since there has been no detailed treatise on "the Objectivist theory of logic," those of us who are innocent of the inner sanctums of current Objectivist thinking have no idea what it might be (if it is anything at all). Could it be that McCaskey has given us a glimpse into this obscure bit of Objectivist arcana? Or is this another one of his riffs on Peikoffian orthodoxy? In any case, one appreciates McCaskey's candor in stating what has become obvious to critics of Objectivism. It has long been known that the Objectivist theory of ethics cannot hold up to logical scrutiny. Neither Rand nor any of her followers have ever attempted to provide a rigorous logical argument for their moral theory. What we get, instead, is arguments based on loose rhetoric where the vagueness of terms is used equivocate to whatever conclusions are deemed proper and necessary. The glue that holds Rand's arguments together is not logic, but moral intimidation and ad hominem abuse.
McCaskey, while admitting that the Objectivist morality can't hold up under "the highest established standards of logic," does not, however, go so far as to admit that Rand just made everything up to suit predetermined conclusions. He argues that "Rand’s distinctive method to answering many philosophical questions is to ask what knowledge is already presumed by the very terms in the question." And: "The crucial element of Ayn Rand’s method amounts to avoiding what she calls the fallacy of the stolen concept. The fallacy is like a petitio principii, but applied to concepts instead of propositions."
Admittedly, this is all rather vague; nor do the examples McCaskey provides help much. However, given that the stolen concept fallacy is itself a fallacy (the fact that a given attack on premise X presumes premise X in no way establishes or proves that premise X is true), Rand's "distinctive method" merely seems yet another form of rationalistic speculation, framed to deceive those who wish to be deceived. It is not anything a serious logician, let alone any man of practical good sense, would countenance.
Yet from another point view, McCaskey's attempt to define a new sort of "super" logic necessary to safeguard Objectivism from "the highest established standards of logic" and science (not to mention worldly practical sense as well) strikes me as a probable future development of the Objectivist epistemology. While I seriously doubt that Ayn Rand would have ever acknowledged the logical failure of her Objectivist ethics, since her death criticism of Objectivism has only become more precise and devastating. The Objectivist ethics is probably the best refuted doctrine in the entire Randian creed. Over time, it's going to become increasingly difficult for Objectivists in academia to continue to maintain the logical, scientific, and objective pretensions of their moral theories in the face of increasingly knowledgeable and effective criticism.
If the Objectivist ethics is so thoroughly based on "reason," than Objectivists should be able to provide an actual logical proof of their ethical positions. They have been unable to do so. The only way for them to get around this signal embarrassment is play the super-logic card. Objectivism, they will be forced to say, enjoys a "distinctive" method of establishing objective moral truths. Therefore, the old "highest standards of established logic" no longer apply.
What McCaskey has admitted to in a moment of candour might very well give us a glimpse into a future development of Objectivist doctrine. There really is no Objectivist "theory of logic" -- only a few vague phrases from Rand herself, which can be interpreted to mean many different things. Since Objectivism cannot rest on standard logic, it may have to formulate its own logic going forward. Whether that formulation is based on McCaskey's "stolen concept" speculations, or Binswanger's "hierarchy of concepts," or some other, yet to be broached, confabulation is of no matter. Whether it's based on stolen concepts, conceptual hierarchies, or even the flying spaghetti monster, it's all the same: it's an abandonment of rational standards and a confession that Objectivism is no more rational than any other ideology.