David Deutsch (DD) wrote an email which was posted to reddit. This post critically analyzes it. I comment on small chunks at a time, but everything DD said is included and is kept in order.
I admire Ayn Rand, but not as a philosopher.
Being a philosopher is what Ayn Rand (AR) wanted to be admired for. This is pretending to be partially friendly while being hostile. AR would regard someone saying this as an enemy, not an admirer – and DD knows that.
Fake evenhandedness is a theme through DD’s email. He falsely communicates objectivity. DD mixes in praise in order to pretend that he’s giving credit where it’s due, rather than focusing just on attacking her. That’s a way to attack AR extra. He’s attacking her and manipulating readers into thinking he’s not doing an attack (so they believe what he says more).
The praise DD offers is either basically empty (as in this case) or else understates AR’s virtues (so it’s actually downplaying how good she is). And none of the praise actually explains any non-philosophical reason to like AR (contrary to DD’s alleged non-philosophical admiration).
Also, this is not what DD said about AR to me during our many years of discussions and when he repeatedly recommended her books to me. He was genuinely friendly to AR in the past and was a fan of AR (“fan” is his word that he gave me explicit permission to quote publicly). He’s changed his mind, in a big way, without any public announcement or retraction, and without explaining what changed.
Also, DD can say critical things about any thinker that he wants to. He attacks AR without putting it in context: he thinks that almost every thinker is far worse than AR. (Unless he’s changed his mind even more than I think he has after reading this email.)
As an observer of people,
She was an understander and explainer of people, not a (passive) observer. That involves philosophy skill. And it wasn’t a major focus for AR.
and of some of the pervasive irrationalities and hangups of our culture (especially the ones she somewhat misleadingly called 'altruism'), she was outstanding.
Was she outstanding at that? She was bad at judging her associates. She overestimated Nathaniel Branden, David Kelley and others. She said something about this being hard and one of her weaknesses.
She was good at writing fictional characters to represent and explain certain traits which she’d seen in real people. She was great at some of what DD is talking about. But overall, in this area, she was kinda mixed. (Though have other people actually been better at it? That’s hard to say.)
The comment that AR used the word “altruism” misleadingly is an unargued and unexplained attack which DD sneaks into a parenthetical (it ought to be the topic of at least one paragraph, not an aside). It’s an unreasonable point to attack in passing because AR actually addressed the matter, e.g. in the introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness (which discusses the closely related issue of why she uses the term “selfishness”, and directly addresses her critics).
DD is also writing in his own terminology rather than AR’s. E.g. “hangups” is his word, not hers. He avoids speaking like an Objectivist, even though he knows a lot about how to, in order to distance himself from Objectivism. He doesn’t want to reveal how much he himself learned about Objectivism (which implies that he saw a ton of value in it in the past).
And DD is being vague rather than naming some of AR’s accomplishments like her explanation and criticism of second-handedness. The vagueness makes her accomplishments sound less impressive and avoids bringing them – along with their substance – into the reader’s mind. If DD named them, readers might see him as more of an AR fan and say “Wait, you thought that was good? I disagree with that! You like her more than I do!” But when it’s more like “She got some stuff right but she sucks.” then it sounds more like lip service and like he doesn’t really like her.
As a polemical writer criticising these irrationalities and exposing the harm they do, she was excellent and persuasive. And her optimism and pro-human stances are refreshing and inspiring (and true).
Being refreshing and inspiring were not primary goals of AR. They are secondary points. Saying true things was a primary goal which DD downplays as a parenthetical (as if it’s not that big or unique of an accomplishment).
Calling AR a “polemical writer” is an attempt to distance her from being a philosopher or intellectual. It makes her sound like a good mudslinger who could be a politician who gives speeches and makes short quips to be replayed on TV. It makes it sound like her skill was more about rhetoric than reason. DD suggests she’d be impressive on the debate stage, which is different than being a serious intellectual. None of this is clearly stated, and if the rest of the email was more positive then it might actually be reasonable to view these words as a compliment not an attack. But in the context of the other attacks, it helps pile on by vaguely implying more bad things, and it reinforces some of the themes of the other (clearer) attacks.
But she had a strong tendency
Saying “X tends to Y” is a way to avoid discussing the causal mechanism. It doesn’t say why that happens or in what circumstances it doesn’t happen. It’s a way to make an unargued, unexplained assertion which sounds to people like a reasonable statement.
People also commonly use terms like “likely” and “probably” when they leave out explanations and don’t want their statement to look like a bald assertion. That’s the same issue.
DD knows this. I made literally dozens of comments about these issues when editing his book The Beginning of Infinity. DD himself helped figure out this knowledge, perhaps more than I did. We both played a role in developing this viewpoint and I applied it to an editing pass of his book.
It’s sad to see him getting worse as a thinker. He should know better. Or maybe he does know better and he’s doing this anyway because his goal here is to smear AR. If you want to attack someone good, you have to do something wrong in order to accomplish that. Leaving out explanations of why AR is bad – because they don’t exist – is important to what DD is doing.
to make hyperbolic generalisations
This (the word “hyperbolic”) is flaming, not serious analysis. (Compare it to the analysis you’re reading right now and consider how different it is.)
DD gives one incorrect example for this point. (One example doesn’t tell you anything about her tendencies, but it does help clarify what he means by a hyperbolic generalization.)
and to double down on them with nonsense in order to deflect any potential criticism.
This is triple flaming. He’s saying that she doubles down on bad ideas, she speaks nonsense, and she won’t address criticism.
DD then gives an example which does not involve AR doubling down on anything or deflecting any actual criticism (criticism that she’s aware of and could state). I don’t know how one would preemptively double down to deflect potential criticism (criticism that someone might think of in the future, but today you don’t know what it would criticize or why). I don’t think that makes sense.
Just consider dispassionately, if you can, whether the following statement is true or false:
DD suggests that “if you can” analyze AR’s statement dispassionately, you’re high skill. He suggests the statement isn’t intended (by AR) to be analyzed dispassionately, so if you can do it you’re outcompeting her.
DD is also baiting the person to analyze the way DD wants by challenging them and suggesting that maybe they can’t. DD also implies that his own analysis is dispassionate (which people think means it’s objective, even though a person thinking unemotionally can be biased).
DD is trying to give readers the impression that they have seen for themselves that AR is bad. He wants them to think they thought for themselves. What could shatter their respect for AR more than personally outthinking her!? (People generally don’t have much self-esteem or respect for their own intellectual abilities, even if they say they do. They admire thinkers they see as way above themselves.)
DD is carefully guiding the whole project. DD decides what is analyzed, in what context (out of context...), and what the goals of the analysis are (judge truth or falsity, nothing else). DD picked the book, chapter, paragraph and sentence. DD has an expectation in advance about what conclusion the reader will reach. DD is leading his audience by the nose while pretending to give them space to do their own thinking.
"In no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent".
This AR quote is taken out of context. It’s the end of a paragraph. I’ll cover this more below.
Here is what DD wants you to think: If a communist points a gun at you and says “Shut up or die.” and then says something to attack your values (e.g. “The USA is an evil empire which should be destroyed with nuclear fire!”), then you should keep silent. But AR said not to keep silent in any situation, including that one. That’s a counterexample, and one counterexample means AR’s statement is false. Also, AR must have been a bad thinker (worse than you) to fail to consider a well known scenario (that you thought of quickly, without difficulty).
Can it really be the case that DD’s audience can predictably think of a counterexample, but a top philosopher would miss it? No! It’d genuinely be damning if AR didn’t think of any scenarios of that type.
But AR’s statement, even taken out of context, is true. Why? Because “permit” means “give authorization for”. (Seriously. Check several dictionaries and its etymology.) Yes there exist definitions of “permit” for which AR’s statement is false, but there also exist definitions for which it’s true. It’s your job as a reader to interpret multi-definition words using the best option. E.g. if I said “Kant is dumb because he thought truth-telling was a universal, categorical moral law, even if it got you killed!”, you wouldn’t respond “How does having a bad idea imply that Kant was unable to speak?” (The word “dumb” can mean “idiotic” or “mute”.) Also, AR wrote it 57 years ago and the definitions that work better for her sentence are the older ones.
AR said that you shouldn’t authorize or sanction people to attack your values. Keeping silent at gunpoint doesn’t give them permission, so it’s OK. (Keeping silent in situations where you are at liberty to speak up can give implicit permission but doesn’t always – it depends on the situation. That’s an important and tricky issue which DD is familiar with from considering e.g. what to do if a parent mistreats his child in your vicinity. What sort of involvement does it take so that you should speak up, and how much should you say?)
DD knows what AR’s view of the matter is. He was picking on a particular wording which he thought people would misread as saying something that he knows is not her position. He’s trying to do a picky logical point instead of engage with her views. If he was right, a slight rewording would fix the problem (there’d be no need for Objectivists to reconsider their philosophical ideas). But even for this small, technical point, where DD chose the discussion topic out of everything AR wrote, and chose the limited terms of the critical consideration, he’s still wrong.
DD has exceptionally good vocabulary knowledge (better than mine!). So, if he wasn’t being biased, I’d expect that he probably knows what “permit” means. Or, if he didn’t know it offhand, he could have looked it up (as I did). He should know better than to think it’s this easy to catch AR being wrong. He should have done some double checking.
AR’s statement also has context. Earlier in the book was the chapter The Ethics of Emergencies which basically says that her claims about moral philosophy are, by default, trying to talk about regular life, not emergency situations. She thinks regular life is more important for moral philosophy to address than lifeboat scenarios or being held at gunpoint.
Now, for context, let’s look at the whole paragraph that DD took the quote from (in The Virtue of Selfishness, ch. 8, which is available online):
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. 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. When one deals with better people, a full statement of one’s views may be morally required. But in no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.
Here we see that AR was aware of the key qualifier: you must speak up “where silence can objectively be taken to mean agreement with or sanction of evil”. If a gun is pointed at you, no reasonable observer would think your silence means agreement. (If a gun is pointed at you, even saying “I agree! That’s great! That’s the truest thing I’ve heard all year!” couldn’t be reasonably taken as meaning you agree.)
AR’s statement is true as written if you look up what the words mean. But even if it wasn’t, the worst you could reasonably accuse her of is failing to repeat something she had already said earlier in the paragraph, which she could reasonably have thought was implied.
DD made the context harder to check because he left out the source of the quote. In the past, in my experience, DD was great at attributing quotes accurately, and he thought it was important. (Edit 2021-07-16: I was wrong about this. See my article Misquotes by David Deutsch.)
The thing is, if literally true, this is a profound discovery in moral philosophy, with dramatic practical implications.
If AR’s sentence meant something like “Always tell the truth, even when people will shoot you for it.” and that was actually true, that would not be a profound discovery in moral philosophy. It’d be unoriginal.
Kant (one of AR’s main enemies) already said that. (I doubt it was original to Kant, but I don’t know the history of the idea. Also I think Kant did allow silence – which is insufficient to save yourself in some scenarios – but never lying. See Kant’s On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy which literally discusses the scenario of a murderer at your door asking if his intended victim is home, and then says “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits of no expediency whatsoever.”)
Kant’s position on this matter is well known enough that DD ought to have heard of it. I’d guess that DD knew it at some point but forgot. And that, before making his claim, DD didn’t stop and think (let alone use Google) about whether this “profound discovery” was actually already discovered.
But if it is merely a maxim that is true in a certain vaguely defined set of circumstances,
As mentioned above, the circumstances for not speaking up were defined earlier in the paragraph, and they also got additional elaboration earlier in the book.
and her idea is that people often defer to social convention when they shouldn't,
No, the essay says a lot more than that. DD is stating a dumbed down version of one paragraph (to make Rand sound more basic than she is). But the essay says more, e.g. AR talks about why to defer to social convention less. And if you understood her essay, you wouldn’t think the issue was whether or not to follow social convention – that’s a poor framing of the matter (a better question – suggested by the article title – is how to maintain your own rationality or integrity, and AR’s answer is by making moral judgments).
then it is unoriginal and unspectacular though arguably useful in a self-help-book sort of way.
“Unoriginal and unspectacular” is flaming.
“Self-help-book” is a flame. DD doesn’t respect those books much. And his point is that they don’t have serious philosophy like AR claimed to do (he’s calling her an amateur or non-philosopher).
DD is mixing flaming with praise again. He’s pretending to be fair and unbiased by admitting that, “arguably”, there is some partial merit in AR’s sentence.
She intends the latter meaning but expresses it in terms suggesting the former.
No, AR intended the true meaning. (Or, conceivably, she intended “permit” to be read in the way DD has in mind, but also intended the qualification from earlier in the paragraph to apply to it.) DD is being arrogant and condescending by speaking for AR. He’s implying that he’s so far above her that he can understand and judge her thought process, not just judge her conclusions (as is more standard and easier).
As polemic or rhetoric, that's great.
DD means that polemic is dishonest and AR is dishonest. He dishonestly presents this as praise (“great”) but it’s actually a smear. He’s saying she does social manipulations well (something she and he both oppose) but that she’s bad at truth-seeking and logic (something she and he both value).
As philosophy, it's embarrassing wannabe stuff.
DD’s email has many insults. He’s done a lot of good writing which isn’t like this, e.g. his books and physics papers. He knows how to do better.
She was (ironically) obsessed with attributes of people rather than of ideas.
What AR was obsessed with (if anything) is an attribute of a person (AR). DD has been talking more about various attributes of AR than about her ideas. It’s ironic that DD is criticizing AR (incorrectly) for something he’s doing.
The focus on AR’s attributes contradicts his own philosophy. DD is perfectly capable of writing about ideas rather than people. He’s done a lot of it. But this time he’s behaving differently (it looks to me like bias).
AR wrote a bunch of impersonal non-fiction that was about ideas, not people. In her novels, she uses fictional characters to help present ideas (including, yes, some psychological ideas). She wasn’t writing parochial material about specific individuals. She did so little of that that, e.g., I don’t know of anywhere that she elaborated much on her criticisms of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman.
There’s also another irony. DD views himself as doing serious intellectual work (when writing the email) but he’s unaware of how badly he’s screwing up. Overestimating one’s work is something DD (incorrectly) attacks AR for.
That's why her followers tend to form themselves into groups with insider/outsider ideologies (somewhat unfairly called 'cults' by her detractors).
DD presents himself as not being one of AR’s detractors. He talks about her detractors as a separate group. But, based on my experience, he’s actually flaming her more than a typical AR detractor.
DD pretends to be unbiased by partially defending AR by saying the “cult” charge is “somewhat” unfair. But that implies it’s somewhat fair, so that’s actually another unargued, unexplained attack. DD is (a little bit indirectly) calling AR’s fans somewhat cultish.
In regard to fundamental philosophical theory she was hopelessly incompetent and confused.
There isn’t much to analyze here. DD is just openly flaming AR. Only the part about the quote even tried to be a substantive argument. The rest is basically just assertions of DD’s opinions, but without explaining his reasoning (how he reached those conclusions).
Despite this, her actual conclusions about economics and politics, which don't really follow from these purported foundations, are very good indeed ---
This is more mixed praise and flaming. DD’s saying her conclusions were good (praise) but her reasoning was wrong (flame). Overall, this is a flame, not a neutral comment. It’s kinda like saying “A broken clock is right twice a day.” If your reasoning is wrong but your conclusions are correct, you got lucky. DD, while pretending to be neutral, is accusing AR of getting lucky even to the partial extent that he accepts that she got stuff right.
DD does not argue his case. He doesn’t discuss AR’s arguments about (classical) liberalism, nor what he thinks a better approach is, nor how or why the wrong arguments led to (largely) the right conclusions. (It’s unusual for bad reasoning to reach especially good conclusions.) The one sentence quote was the only part of his email where DD even pretended to go into detail. (And even then he didn’t actually give arguments, he instead led the person to think of the arguments DD intended without being directly told.)
though she underestimated the resilience of American and Anglosphere institutions, and indeed underrated the importance of institutions generally.
DD doesn’t argue or explain this point. Knowing DD and knowing AR’s material, I’d guess that DD’s primarily referring to ch. 1 of The Fountainhead where Roark questions the architecture tradition with the Parthenon and tells the dean that he stands at the end of no tradition and inherits nothing. I won’t analyze that scene because it doesn’t discuss American or Anglosphere institutions.
I think DD is mistaken about AR’s views. In Justin’s analysis of DD’s email, Justin points out an AR quote in which she speaks positively of American institutions and their development over centuries.
Her main -- perhaps her only -- innovation, 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.
Stressing something is like calling attention to it or putting italics around it. While AR did that, that wasn’t the main thing she did there. She argued the issue, and reasoned about moral philosophy, instead of just stressing it. Saying her main innovation was to stress something is basically denying that she had any substantial intellectual accomplishments. This is another flame disguised as praise.
AR would not say that those bad defenses of capitalism concede the “whole of” the opponent’s case. That would be the sort of hyperbolic error which DD accuses her of, but which she was actually skilled at avoiding. To back up his attack, DD had one incorrect example (above) and one made up example here (she didn’t say it, DD just asserted that she would).
DD, AR and I all agree that defending only the efficiency of capitalism concedes a lot that shouldn’t be conceded. But that specific point is fairly simple. It’s not a complex argument that if you only defend one aspect of capitalism, then you’re not defending various other aspects. So this isn’t very impressive. (And DD made it less impressive by simplifying the logic by saying “only” instead of “primarily”, even though AR’s arguments work with “primarily”.) AR said it, and it’s a good point, but by highlighting it this much for praise DD is implying that AR didn’t have a bunch of other more major points (she did, e.g. her explanation and criticism of second-handedness).
All the manipulative stuff DD does is intentional. He’s developed the skill to do it. He has extremely good control over what he writes – better than most people realize is possible. He’s a very precise, careful writer and thinker – even offhand, speaking extemporaneously. He put effort into this email.
It’s possible he’s not consciously thinking about some aspects of what he’s doing while he does them. That wouldn’t diminish his responsibility. He made choices which led to this result. What he’s done in the email wasn’t bad luck.
It’s similar to how Gail Wynand was responsible (in AR’s The Fountainhead) for what the Banner wrote even when he was on vacation:
“I know what you think. You understood that I didn’t know about the Stoddard Temple yesterday. I had forgotten the name of the architect involved. You concluded it wasn’t I who led that campaign against you. You’re right, it wasn’t I, I was away at the time. But you don’t understand that the campaign was in the true and proper spirit of the Banner. It was in strict accordance with the Banner’s function. No one is responsible for it but me. Alvah Scarret was doing only what I taught him. Had I been in town, I would have done the same.”
Part of why DD seems somewhat convincing is that he does know a lot about Objectivism. He used to like it. (Notably, nothing he says here explains why he changed his mind.) DD chose an important essay – that clashes with his current life – as the one to misleadingly quote from and attack. And most AR critics wouldn’t have made the points about defending capitalism that DD did. But DD isn’t the same person he was when he studied and liked AR, so there’s something unfair about using his former self’s knowledge to attack his former self’s own values.
And DD doesn’t acknowledge or address the conflict and explain his reasons for changing. What he ought to do – this is the kind of thing DD normally advocates – is explain what’s wrong with AR in a way that DD’s own former self could agree with and voluntarily change his mind to. The new view offered ought to be strictly better – better in every respect (while that’s unusual, it’s something DD and I both advocate). He’s basically calling his former self (and all AR fans) bad instead of attempting to be helpful by providing strictly better ideas that they would prefer to hold.
Note: This blog post doesn’t attempt to be a complete analysis. I think there are other bad things about DD’s email which I didn’t cover here.
- The video of me writing this blog post (and reading Justin’s blog post).
- The video of me editing this blog post (and part 2).
- My initial critical comments about DD’s email.
- My video comments on DD’s email and Justin’s video (and part 2).
- Justin Mallone’s blog post about DD’s email.
- The Fallible Ideas discussion of DD’s email.
DD was a great man and was my friend and colleague. He’s done great work in both physics and philosophy. This is the worst thing he’s ever written that I’ve seen. It’s sad.