Question: Open Objectivism states that one can't distinguish whether another is holding a non-objectivist view because of evasion or because of an error in judgment. Couldn't an error in judgment lead someone to refuse to think and thus commit evasion? Nihilism would be a good example of this: Nihilists don't just simply commit evasion, but rather have incorrect philosophical premises that lead them to evasion.
Answer: Evasion is the choice not to think. It is the failure to focus one’s mind. Since to focus or not is the basic choice we make, evasion is at root unrelated to judgments of all sorts, even erroneous judgments. Judgments, after all, involve conscious consideration. And that requires choosing to think about the issue in the first place.
Psychologically, the experience of evasion is deep in the root of consciousness: it is not subconscious—it is not automatic—but it feels that way, since it involves passing off responsibility for a decision to whatever can distract one’s attention. It is hard to literally empty one’s mind: that’s why one needs to be distracted. Subconscious habits and emotion are great, automated distracters.
For example, say you’ve just opened a pile of credit card bills. The fact that you can’t pay them and can’t manage your debts looms before you. You turn on ESPN instead. “Oh, cool, the Yankees are playing!” Problem evaded.
Certainly, one could analyze your choice in terms of reasons and values. If you were in focus, you could do that yourself. In that case, ignoring the bills and watching the game might be an error—or it might not. It would depend on your context of knowledge and your goals in life, and on the process of thought you used to relate them. But in evading the bills, you didn’t relate them to your context of knowledge and life goals. In fact, doing that is just what you were evading.
So evasion isn’t the result of errors of judgment. Error is the result of an error of judgment. Evasion can cause you to overlook or avoid important facts, and lead to furthers errors that involve thinking. And a tendency to commit errors can itself be something one addresses or evades.
It seems to me that in most cases it is therapeutically useful to treat problems of evasion as if they were errors in judgment. After all, the process for rectifying any particular error is similar in both cases: focus on the facts accurately and act accordingly.
Now let me turn to the issue of moral judgment.
In Truth and Toleration ( The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand ), David Kelley, founder of the open Objectivist movement , argues that we cannot directly infer from a person’s ideological position whether he has evaded the facts. In other words, no idea is intrinsically evil. Practically any philosophical position can be reached in error, since philosophy is so abstract and since judgment is fallible. To judge the person’s thought, actions, and character, we need more information than to merely know what ideologies he agrees with. Sometimes we don’t need much more: if someone’s evading basic facts, it can be pretty obvious pretty quick. But sometimes we need a lot more. It depends on the person and the case.
You mention nihilism as an instance of a doctrine that implies evasion. Nihilism is the doctrine that there are no moral values. It holds that anything goes, and normative terms like “ought” can only be linked to hypothetical goals, if to anything.
I think this is a pretty easy doctrine to come to by error. For one thing, it is true that normative terms can only be linked to hypothetical goals. There are no intrinsic moral values or duties. Human morality is based, in the end, on a choice to live, according to Ayn Rand . Many other philosophers, realizing there are no intrinsic moral values or duties, have plumped for nihilism.
In the case of any given nihilist, you would need to know more to really determine if he was evading or not, and what in particular, he was evading.
For instance, a nihilist might hold that liberty and happiness are very important and that he wished everyone would act for the sake of those goals. In that context, he could recognize that he is simply in profound conflict with any others who deny those goals. Such a position involves errors, to be sure, but evasion is not needed to reach it.
By contrast, consider a person who lives destructively, undermining his own goals and relishing the destruction of others’. Think of a drug-abusing wastrel, or a nihilist “anarchist” anti-trade rioter. Here nihilism provides abstract cover for a life spent negating his own needs, a life inconsistent with personal goals. It is hard to see how one could live such a life without evasion.