Disclaimer: Elliot Temple suggested people analyze an attack by David Deutsch on Ayn Rand and they have been doing so. This is my analysis. (Note: I didn’t read much of anyone else’s criticism before writing my own). It likely has many errors. I am not a professional philosopher. I welcome criticism. If you want to criticize this post, post to my blog comments or the Fallible Ideas list.
While everything I say is tentative in that I am open to being corrected, I have preceded paragraphs I feel less subjectively certain about with “Tentatively:”.
NOTE: Within the first day of posting this, I made a few minor revisions which I have not noted (such as fixing formatting errors or adding some clarifying words to a sentence where I thought a point was unclear), and I made a more substantive addition which is noted in the body below. Last edit was early in the morning of August 9, 2019.
View the accompanying video, which depicts part of the writing process (note: parts of the audio may be a bit choppy as I was using a new recording process and had an issue I didn’t anticipate):
David Deutsch wrote an email to someone in which he attacked Ayn Rand. This email was posted on Reddit. I quote from this email and criticize it below.
“I admire Ayn Rand, but not as a philosopher.
This is burying an attack in social niceties. It’s designed so that if you object strongly, then a bystander will say “but why are you so mad? DD said he admired Ayn Rand, just not as a philosopher!”
A philosopher is what Ayn Rand was. It’s also what she presented herself as. So DD’s accusing Ayn Rand of being a fraud.
If DD wanted to say that he liked some of Ayn Rand’s ideas but disagreed with her on some important things, he could have written that. He could have said something like “I reject Rand Ayn Rand as an epistemologist”. He intentionally chose to say he doesn’t admire her as a philosopher because he wants to indicate that he, in essence, totally rejects her thought. He chose an abstraction — philosopher — that covers a ton of ground. All the concessions to Rand having some value in the rest of his reply are contextualized by this overall rejection.
So DD rejects her philosophy. But DD 1) won’t engage with Objectivists/serious Rand-fans directly, and 2) won’t write his thoughts on Ayn Rand publicly and submit them to criticism so that both he and Objectivists could discuss and learn something. Instead he’s doing private replies to people that get passed along on reddit threads.
As an observer of people, and of some of the pervasive irrationalities and hangups of our culture (especially the ones she somewhat misleadingly called ‘altruism’), she was outstanding.
First I’ll discuss what I think is a writing issue, then I’ll get to my substantive objection.
Writing issue: I don’t like this parenthetical re: “altruism.” I think Rand had detailed thoughts on both the topic of altruism and her use of the specific term “altruism”. And if DD wants to criticize that, that is fine, but it seems like something you shouldn’t just throw in a parenthetical aside. So I hope more is coming. (Edit: Nothing was coming).
Main point: DD says he admires Ayn Rand, but not as a thinker.
This paragraph regarding Rand being an observer of people/irrationalities appears to be the beginning of DD’s explanation for the basis of his alleged admiration.
Our culture has pervasive hangups and irrationalities because of ideas being passed on from parents to children and creating blindspots which people can’t think about well. This is a cycle that continues on and on from generation to generation.
Most people don’t think or introspect much about the ideas that govern their lives and cause them all sorts of problems. They don’t lead the examined life. And so they are at the mercy of various ideas that they have accepted without much thought.
To be able to observe and discuss the ideas that most people leave unconsidered is a skill. It requires a skillset. What skillset? The skillset of a thinker — a philosopher. Meaning: person who does lead the examined life.
DD opens by saying he admires Ayn Rand, but not as a philosopher. But then the beginning of his explanation for the part of Rand he supposedly admires talks about something which actually requires philosophical skill. This is a contradiction.
Tentatively: Rand was indeed a great observer of people, but DD puts “people” before “irrationalities and hangups” in terms of what Rand’s good at observing, and that’s not quite right. I think Rand figured out the principle behind various types of people — like what Roark refers to as the “principle behind the dean” in The Fountainhead — and then went back and explained the people she had observed in life in light of the principles she figured out through philosophical analysis. By putting “people” first, DD is de-emphasizing the amount of philosophical analysis and explanation that went into Rand’s analysis of people.
Tentatively: Finally, “observer” is not the right word. Analyzer or explainer would be more descriptive. Just observing sounds a bit passive. Rand did more than observe. She figured out some really bad things that motivated people (like second-handedness) and explained how they were harmful and explained a better way to live. That’s not passive.
As a polemical writer criticising these irrationalities and exposing the harm they do, she was excellent and persuasive.
Similar criticism to the above. DD is describing Rand as “excellent and persuasive” (or before, “outstanding”) at doing writing/analysis that requires philosophical skill.
And her optimism and pro-human stances are refreshing and inspiring (and true).
This is okay as far as it goes, though I note that part of Rand’s pro-human stance was rejecting altruism, which she regarded as turning man into a sacrificial animal. But DD has some objection to how Rand thinks about altruism, which he has left vague.
But she had a strong tendency to make hyperbolic generalisations and to double down on them with nonsense in order to deflect any potential criticism.
Even if DD was right that the upcoming example proved the point he claims it does, the one example he provides wouldn’t show a strong tendency.
David claims Ayn Rand writes “nonsense”. This is an incredibly strong claim. It’s much stronger than saying someone is wrong or their point is badly reasoned. David’s claim that Rand’s view is nonsense is a lie.
David hasn’t made reasonable, good faith efforts to get the perspective of philosophers who like Rand and might explain why the stuff he thinks is nonsense actually isn’t. He’s not disclaiming his lack of expertise regarding Rand, though — he’s actively relying on being an authoritative voice in his communication with this redditor. He is the expert teacher lecturing to the inquisitive student, but he hasn’t done the basic work to speak competently about Rand and Objectivism. It’s a bit like if DD decided some text in another language he came across was nonsense without consulting any experts in that language, and then someone asked DD his opinion of the text, and DD said it was nonsense in an authoritative tone and without qualification.
Just consider dispassionately, if you can,
“If you can” is a nasty attack in an aside. The meaning is something like: what follows is so ridiculous, you probably won’t be able to stay rational & impartial reading it.
whether the following statement is true or false:
”In no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent”.
The thing is, if literally true, this is a profound discovery in moral philosophy, with dramatic practical implications. But if it is merely a maxim that is true in a certain vaguely defined set of circumstances, and her idea is that people often defer to social convention when they shouldn’t, then it is unoriginal and unspectacular though arguably useful in a self-help-book sort of way.
The essay this quote is from is available here: https://courses.aynrand.org/works/how-does-one-lead-a-rational-life-in-an-irrational-society/
I think both the paragraph the quote appears in and the paragraph immediately preceding that paragraph are key context. I’m going to move to quoting Rand and talking about what I think her views are for a while now.
Rand is providing advice on living in an irrational society regarding how to preserve your judgment and mind. She says you always need to pronounce moral judgment. She qualifies this statement by saying that this doesn’t mean you have to go around trying to save souls. What does her statement actually mean? Rand:
It means: (a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly; (b) that one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.
So she says people need to (step one!) form moral judgments about other people, events, issues (meaning: form the judgments in their own mind, get them clear and solid) and then act accordingly. And then (step two!) “one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.”
So she’s emphasizing having your own independent moral judgments about stuff, and then, in certain circumstances, making those judgments known to others. “Rationally appropriate to do so” means e.g. you don’t have to out your Jewish values to the Nazis trying to murder you. (Rand talks about how emergency situations can have a different moral analysis in “The Ethics of Emergencies” essay in The Virtue of Selfishness1, and talks about the issue of forced compliance not being equivalent to sanction in “The Wreckage of the Consensus” essay in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal2.) Then Rand provides some actual details about how when to make your moral evaluation known to others:
This last means that one need not launch into unprovoked moral denunciations or debates, but that one must speak up in situations where silence can objectively be taken to mean agreement with or sanction of evil.
I think the standard here (speak up when people think silence = agreement) is pretty clear. DD refers to a “vaguely defined set of circumstances” in his criticism, but I don’t think the above is vague. One case it clearly covers is when someone’s own best judgment tells them that other people will take silence as agreement. That is an important case that comes up pretty frequently. And Rand’s principle provides guidance as to how to act in that case.
I think figuring out when one is in such a silence = agreement” situation could be challenging because human social situations are pretty complicated and people can be bad at evaluating them in terms of moral principles (as opposed to analyzing them in terms of social dynamics, where most people have more practice). As a result, people could reasonably err on the side of speaking up too much or too little.
But people in our current society err heavily on not speaking up and lose their minds and souls as a result. Rand is trying to help with that — and not with some self-help stuff that applies in some vaguely defined set of circumstances (like DD frames it), but with clear moral principles and rational, philosophical thinking. More Rand:
When one deals with irrational persons, where argument is futile, a mere “I don’t agree with you” is sufficient to negate any implication of moral sanction.
Note that she’s saying, even in the context where you should say something, it can be pretty minimal. Why is that?
You don’t actually owe it to any random irrational person to give a full explanation of your views on some issue. You can try that if you want to, but you might reasonably have better things to do.
When there is a situation where silence could be interpreted as agreement, but argument is futile, all Rand is saying to do is to rebut the presumption of agreement that being silent would create. This is different than how many people would act.
Tentatively: Saying you don’t agree shouldn’t be thought of as a moral duty. It can have practical benefits. As a general rule, it’s good to stand up for yourself and live your values, and stating your views clearly helps you do this — it helps keep your values alive in your mind. More practically, it can lead to benefits: suppose you’re at work, and everyone starts talking about politics from a perspective you disagree with, and you say “I don’t agree.” Maybe the other people will change the topic of conversation to something more pleasant for you, rather than carrying on presuming you do agree.
There may be some situations where it’s not rationally appropriate to even say as much as “I don’t agree,” especially when dealing with irrational people who have lots of power over you (like parents) and will make you suffer if you disagree with them about certain things. Those are (hopefully) limited-time-duration situations where you have to try to do your best to handle the situation, and where lying can be okay. Rand continues:
When one deals with better people, a full statement of one’s views may be morally required.
When dealing with better people, standing up for your values and giving details benefits you. If you fake your values in order to fit in and not cause conflict, you will ultimately lose your values. It’s really hard to keep two sets of values — your actual ones and your interacting-with-most-people ones — in your mind. Some people can manage to do this when facing stuff like religious persecution when they have some family support group or something like that, and even then, it’s still really hard to hang on to their real values. But a typical person trying to hang on to their outlier political or economic views while trying to fit in with people is going to have a very hard time.
Tentatively: But if you stand up for your values, you might discover other people who have some of the same values, or other people who are inspired to learn more about your values by your presentation of them. And you might get criticism and learn flaws in your view or how to better argue your case. You also might get clarity about what sort of people you’re dealing and realize that people you thought were good are actually bad. That might seem unpleasant, but if you’re dealing with people who are actually bad by your lights, it’s important to figure that out early and clearly, rather than trying to ingratiate yourself with them and losing bits of yourself while failing to see their badness clearly. So there are lots of potential benefits to giving your views forthrightly.
But in no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.
So now we’re up to the bit DD quotes. Regarding “permit”, here’s a definition of “permit” from New Oxford dictionary:
give authorization or consent to (someone) to do something
I find this a reasonable definition for what I think Rand is talking about. Rand talks specifically about the case where silence can be interpreted as agreement with or sanction of evil. She says don’t be silent in those cases. In that kind of case, silence is approval or consent to attack some values that you support. So with the bit above that DD quoted, Rand is talking about the same sort of idea. In a normal (non-emergency) situation, you shouldn’t act in such a way that people think you’ve given them consent to trash your own values. Stand up for them. Be proud of your values and defend them. Don’t give people a green light to tear them down.
So reading DD’s Rand quote in full context, Rand is saying something like:
1) People need to form judgments about people, events, and issues around them.
2) People should share these judgments when it is rationally appropriate to do so.
3) In a normal situation in a civilized society, one should speak up and defend one’s values when silence could be taken as agreement.
In light of this, I put it to you, reader, that DD’s Rand quote does not reflect a “maxim that is true in a certain vaguely defined set of circumstances … [and is] unoriginal and unspectacular though arguably useful in a self-help-book sort of way.” I think the quote, considered in context, is a clear statement of useful advice from a great thinker trying to help people preserve their minds & their sacred fire.
She intends the latter meaning but expresses it in terms suggesting the former.
DD is accusing Rand of fraud — of passing off vague, unoriginal, unspectacular, self-help-book stuff as philosophy. This follows up his earlier implication that Rand was a fraud as a philosopher.
As polemic or rhetoric, that’s great. As philosophy, it’s embarrassing wannabe stuff.
DD wants to convey that he’s done the work to have an expert-level opinion on Rand and her philosophy and whether parts of it are embarrassing wannabe stuff. But, as I discussed earlier, where is his engagement with pro-Rand/Objectivist thinkers? Where is his public writing on this topic on which he solicits criticism? Where are his paths forward?
She was (ironically) obsessed with attributes of people rather than of ideas.
Talking about Rand being “obsessed with” stuff is invoking mental illness language to delegitimize her.
Before, DD called Rand “outstanding” as “an observer of people, and of some of the pervasive irrationalities and hangups of our culture.” Now he’s trashing her for supposedly focusing on people. Perhaps DD thinks that focusing on people lets you make good observations but leads to being “obsessed” with people’s personal attributes. But, as discussed before, DD never explains how you can be an “outstanding” observer of people and irrationalities without philosophical skill. Rand’s skill at observing and analyzing people is not the same sort of thing as a gossip with a good intuitive understanding of social dynamics. She figures out people’s motivations and what they are like in a deep way.
Before, DD was attacking Rand’s philosophy and writing, but now he’s just attacking Rand directly (as being “obsessed.”) Is this simply ad hominem? Also, even if Rand sucked (wrong) and even if Rand sucked in the specific way DD says she sucked (also wrong), her ideas would still stand on their own and would need to be judged according to their truth.
Initially, I started reading this quote as DD saying that something like: Rand’s philosophy involves focusing on attributes of people, and that’s why she focused on people— because she was acting according to her philosophy. And so I made some comments in my video about how Objectivism is not focused on people, and is instead very reality focused, anti-second-handedness, etc. But then I wondered if this was just a straight ad hominem attack.
That’s why her followers tend to form themselves into groups with insider/outsider ideologies (somewhat unfairly called ‘cults’ by her detractors).
So now David does seem to be attacking Objectivists on this supposed attribute of Rand’s to be obsessed with attributes of people. This must mean he thinks being an Objectivist involves, as a primary focus, focusing on people. This is absurd and contradicts the whole text and spirit of Objectivist philosophy.
Like with many things in this email, it’s very unclear what DD is referring to by “groups.” Does he mean the major factions? Like ARI vs. the Kelleyites? That doesn’t fit with their being plural “groups” with “insider/outsider ideologies”, because the Kelleyites are very much about wanting to try to go for broad appeal. Does DD mean IRL local Objectivist groups? Lots of Objectivist groups are actually pretty mild (and I mean “mild” negatively). They’re kind of like moderate Ayn Rand fan reading groups with some right-wing political discussion. It would be better if they were way more serious. So I don’t think David knows what he’s talking about regarding Objectivist groups.
“Somewhat unfairly” is a very nasty attack pretending not to be. It implies there is some fairness in attacking Objectivist groups as cults. There is enormous cultural pressure against taking ideas seriously and living according to them. Even if you’re a member of a fairly large religious minority group that takes its values pretty seriously (like, say, the Mormons), people can find you pretty weird. A member of a tiny group philosophical group faces even bigger cultural pressures. By flaming Objectivists as being somewhat fairly characterized as cult-like, David is participating in the social pressure that makes it hard for people to take ideas seriously. Which is disgusting.
In regard to fundamental philosophical theory she was hopelessly incompetent and confused.
Wow fuck this guy.
Despite this, her actual conclusions about economics and politics, which don’t really follow from these purported foundations, are very good indeed
Building on a theme from earlier — how’d she get “very good” conclusions about economics and politics without serious philosophical skill? Blind luck?
— though she underestimated the resilience of American and Anglosphere institutions, and indeed underrated the importance of institutions generally.
(I don’t want to get into a tangent on the political situation in other parts of the Anglosphere, so I am going to limit my comments here to the institutions of the United States.)
On what basis does DD think Rand underrated the resilience of American institutions? Again, he is vague and doesn’t say, so I can only guess. Maybe DD thinks Atlas Shrugged was supposed to be prophetic. But Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged (which depicts a collapsing society) so that what’s depicted wouldn’t happen, meaning she still thought things could be turned around despite certain bad trends. Regarding Rand’s respect for American institutions, here is one example comment by Rand from “Theory and Practice” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:
It took centuries of intellectual, philosophical development to achieve political freedom. It was a long struggle, stretching from Aristotle to John Locke to the Founding Fathers. The system they established was not based on unlimited majority rule, but on its opposite: on individual rights, which were not to be alienated by majority vote or minority plotting. The individual was not left at the mercy of his neighbors or his leaders: the Constitutional system of checks and balances was scientifically devised to protect him from both. This was the great American achievement—and if concern for the actual welfare of other nations were our present leaders’ motive, this is what we should have been teaching the world.
So Rand had enormous respect American institutions. She thought Constitutional government was “the great American achievement.” So it doesn’t make sense that she’d view our great American institutions as having resiliency issues. She was worried they could be harmed and eroded by bad ideas (and they have been) but she had enormous and deep respect for the achievement of Constitutional government, and for America, which she described as “in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.” (title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It).
Her main — perhaps her only — innovation,
So nasty re: “perhaps her only.” Super fuck this guy. (NOTE: Remainder of paragraph added after initial posting) I had a visceral negative reaction to this bit of DD’s email and it took me a while after publishing the initial version of my post to unpack it. I think my reaction had two reasons: a strong objection to DD’s substantive claim, and the way in which DD wrote it. 1) Rand had many innovations and DD is misrepresenting the facts and won’t discuss this or other topics. Tentatively: 2) I think that DD knows his evaluation of Rand’s achievements. He’s burying his actual evaluation of Rand’s achievements in a “perhaps” aside to make it harder to object to the claim she only had one innovation. He’s conveying his low opinion of Rand to people open to that while making it harder for critics to object to his evaluation, because he’s given himself the fallback position of claiming that he was only talking about her “main” innovation.
I notice that when people talk in a limited, dismissive way about Rand’s intellectual achievements, they never mention her discussion of second-handedness. To me, that’s a top-tier Objectivist subject matter, yet somehow that just gets ignored and people focus more on political/economic/free market stuff (as DD does below). Do they just read Atlas Shrugged (while missing a bunch of stuff) and a couple of essays? Is second-handedness a particularly sore spot?
It’s hard to say Rand was total crap because she obviously wasn’t, so people feel the need to make some small concession. I think defending free markets is somewhat respectable and doesn’t threaten people in the same way that Rand’s discussion of second-handedness and people’s psychology and motivations does.
was to stress much more than anyone before her that free markets are morally superior to socialism, and that defending them in terms of efficiency only is to concede much of (she would say the whole of!) the opponents’ case.”
DD doesn’t quote Rand and buries what seems to be a disagreement with Rand in a parenthetical aside. He seems to be saying that Rand would claim arguing for free markets in terms of “efficiency only” is to concede “the whole of” the opponents’ case against it, and that he disagrees with that.
Given that he’s not using quotes and talking about this topic pretty vaguely, I find DD’s comments a bit confusing. One thing is that what part of your opponents’ case you are conceding by arguing for markets on the basis of efficiency only depends on which opponents you are talking about. There are some unreconstructed Marxists who might still claim a communist society could be more efficient at production given certain conditions, or whatever. But there aren’t many of those around, so we can imagine a context of the sort of opponents one is more likely to encounter in Western society today. I’ll just make some general comments here.
If you concede that free markets are run on the principle of evil greed, that they produce the wicked result of inequality, that they are dog-eat-dog, that they lead to the exploitation of the common man, etc etc., but then you say “oh but they’re efficient!” (which would be defending markets in terms of “efficiency only”) then you are basically conceding the whole of your opponents’ case. Common attacks against free markets are based on moral arguments about things like fairness, consequences to market efficiency be damned. So your defense is empty and unconvincing. People don’t care about the efficiency of a thing they view as fundamentally evil. If you’re arguing an evil thing is efficient, you’re done. You might as well defend fascism on the grounds of fascism’s alleged ability to get the trains to run on time (which is apparently a myth anyways).
A similar example comes up with fossil fuels. If you say, “Oh, they’re dirty, they pollute, and they’re heating up the planet, and they’re melting the ice caps, and the poor little island peoples are going to drown due to the rising oceans, and oil spills kill all the precious little sea creatures, but! They’re cheap!” then you’ve already lost the argument.
If DD had paths forward we could get more precision as to the exact scope of the disagreement DD has here with Rand and talk about it. Alas.
Conclusion: I’ve harshly criticized DD in this post. But I may be wrong and DD may be right. I’m willing to make an effort to try to talk about any or all of my criticisms, in public, and try to discuss these points to resolution. I’m willing to make an effort to find the truth. I don’t think DD is willing to make such an effort — not with me, and not with people who know more than me about the relevant topics (like Elliot Temple) who he could have talked to about these issues for many years.
Instead, DD lectures ignorantly in private email and helps turn people off to Rand. The Reddit original poster said:
Agreed. I recognized truth and insight in some of her critiques but incorrectly assumed it meant her philosophy had merit.
DD’s email is terrible and he won’t talk about it. Instead, he uses his reputation and influence to turn people off to rational philosophy and make the world a worse and more irrational place. Damn him.
“ It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case requires precise definitions.
An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible—such as a flood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck. In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions (to reach dry land, to put out the fire, etc.).
By “normal” conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.” ↩
- “A forced compliance is not a sanction. All of us are forced to comply with many laws that violate our rights, but so long as we advocate the repeal of such laws, our compliance does not constitute a sanction. Unjust laws have to be fought ideologically; they cannot be fought or corrected by means of mere disobedience and futile martyrdom.” ↩