Dialogue on Emotions and Moral Judgment, Part 1

A dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism".

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi. I want to discuss some passages from Lecture Ten, “Emotions and Moral Judgment”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

A: OK!

B: So Peikoff says that emotional repression is harmful and unnecessary.

A: I agree!

B: He says that there are three attitudes towards moral judgment. He starts by describing what he calls the rationalist/intrinsicist approach, which he describes as involving moral orders or commandments - sometimes literally, like the Ten Commandments. Basically, people think that morality consists of some orders that come straight from reality or God or something like that. He says that with this approach, your own individual life does not matter. Instead, you’re just supposed to do what morality demands, and your own personal interests don’t matter.

Anyways this brings us to the first passage I wanted to discuss:

We know that life requires a very specific course of action, which the rationalist approach thoroughly ignores. So the result is that morality, as he construes it, does not coincide with what is required to live. And consequently he ends up with a constant clash: Morality points in one direction, your life and needs in another. And hence the rationalist view: It is morality versus your welfare; virtue is self-sacrifice for the sake of morality; we reach the idea of morality as necessarily involving a struggle that is inherent in the intrinsicist approach: morality as self-overcoming, or self-conquest, or to put it another way, the self as the major obstacle that you must beat down in order to achieve morality. If you're an intrinsicist, then your desires, interests, choices, preferences are irrelevant. You should merely be mirroring and obeying reality.

A: Isn’t there a good or noble idea of “morality as self-overcoming, or self-conquest”? Like, people might have desires, emotions, habits or attitudes that they know are a problem, and managing to address and overcome those problems (rather than just learning to live with them) can lead to a happier and more joyous life.

B: There is something along those lines that is good, but a proper approach to reforming yourself should take your existing desires, emotions, habits and attitudes into account. You shouldn’t just try to run roughshod over yourself to be a better person. Like, Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Quit Smoking book/program focuses on actually persuading the person that smoking is not enjoyable, as opposed to trying to get them to use willpower to overcome themself. A quote from Easy Way to Stop Smoking:

The smoker despises himself, every Budget Day, every National No-Smoking Day, every time he inadvertently reads the government health warning or there is a cancer scare or a bad-breath campaign, every time he gets congested or has a pain in the chest, every time he is the lone smoker in company with non-smokers. Having to go through life with these awful black shadows at the back of his mind, what does he get out of it? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Pleasure? Enjoyment? Relaxation? A prop? A boost? All illusions, unless you consider the wearing of tight shoes to enjoy the removal of them as some sort of pleasure!

Your self matters. The fact that you currently think smoking is a source of pleasure matters. You shouldn’t just try to ignore that in order to try to serve some higher moral duty. Like Carr says (again quoting Easy Way):

However, what I can say is that most smokers expect us to achieve that objective by telling them of the terrible health risks that they run, that smoking is a filthy disgusting habit, that it costs them a fortune, and how stupid they are not to quit. No. We do not patronize them by telling them what they already know. These are the problems of being a smoker. They are not the problems of quitting. Smokers do not smoke for the reasons that they shouldn’t smoke. In order to quit it is necessary to remove the reasons that we do smoke. EASYWAY addresses this problem. It removes the desire to smoke. Once the desire to smoke has been removed, the ex-smoker doesn’t need to use willpower.

(emphasis added)

So “self-overcoming” in some loose sense can be okay, but if interpreted as repression and self-denial it is misconceived and ineffective.

A: Interesting.

B: Peikoff said that “If you're an intrinsicist, then your desires, interests, choices, preferences are irrelevant.” Peikoff is against intrinsicism and thinks that your desires are relevant. Carr treats the desire of a smoker as the critical thing. So Carr also thinks your desires are relevant. And his anti-smoking program is very effective compared to alternatives.

More Peikoff in Understanding Objectivism:

What is the obstacle to virtue on this approach? Why doesn’t everybody simply obey the commandments? The obstacle, the rationalist will typically say, is the fact that we have desires, wishes, hopes, preferences. That’s what “distorts our actions.” Instead of simply theoretically grasping our duty and then obeying, we are tempted by our “lower nature,” as they call it. And our lower nature is our personal nature, our individuality, our desires—what you want, what you care for, what you prefer. On this view, you are led inexorably to the idea of emotions as the villain, the enemy of morality. Plato said this openly when he divided man into reason versus emotions; reason, in his interpretation, led us to the world of goodness and virtue, and emotions pulled us down into the muck of this world. And Kant had a variant of that view.

A: The approach Peikoff is criticizing sounds kind of similar to communism.

B: Say more?

A: Like, communists suppress people’s actual preferences, wants, desires, and plans in order to try to achieve some great thing via central planning. But the central planners can’t take account of everyone’s actual individual needs and preferences to any meaningful degree because the only system that does that effectively (capitalism and especially the price system) is the very system that they sought to destroy when they were establishing their communist state. So their top down system leads to chaos and misery and poverty and lots of people wearing mismatched shoes.

This intrinsicism stuff sounds like doing the same in morality - imposing a top down plan. Except instead of the government thwarting a bunch of individual people’s plans, you are thwarting parts of yourself internally. You are using your own reason like the govt, which seems bad.

B: So I take it you think that an economic system should take account of people’s actual needs, preferences, and desires?

A: Of course.

B: So morality should take those into account as well, yes?

A: Well, but see, like, I wouldn’t say “no” to that question, but … I see production under capitalism as focused more on meeting people’s existing needs, and I see morality as more of the realm of “should” and “ought to”.

B: There are plenty of “shoulds” and “ought tos” under capitalism. The entrepreneur trying to bring a new product to market, and the venture capitalist trying to bring a new company into existence, and the creative professional trying to get a new TV show developed, are all examples of people saying that something should exist or ought to exist and then taking action to bring it into the marketplace. The economic system isn’t just reactive, producing what people currently want. There are people pushing boundaries. Think of the fictional example of Hank Rearden or the real example of Steve Jobs.

A: Yeah okay. So capitalism takes the existing preferences of consumers into account but also tries to come up with new products that it thinks the consumers will like.

B: Yes. You could say capitalism takes existing preferences into account but also tries to improve things. I think a similar approach makes sense for morality. In general, you should use the existing preferences you have and seek to improve things from there, rather than trying to plan everything out from the top down. Five Year Plans and divine Commandments aren’t a reasonable way to organize an economy or to understand morality.

One way to think about things is in terms of their goal. What’s the goal of an economic system? To organize production in a way that satisfies the needs of consumers and producers while continually making progress. What’s the goal of morality? To live well. What’s that constitute? Living a life where one is fulfilled, productive, and happy, and continually making progress. Fighting with parts of yourself is a recipe for unhappiness. So don’t do that. This doesn’t mean just do whatever you want, though.

A: I think “do whatever you want” is what Peikoff will criticize when he gets to the subjectivist stuff. I have a question, though. Regarding living a moral life, do you need to find some kind of “balance” between satisfying your existing preferences and improving yourself? I am generally skeptical of “balance” type things. I find them vague.

B: I think a better way to think about things than balance would be something like - look for opportunities to improve yourself constantly. For example, imagine that you want to watch some TV show. Well, do that. But maybe try to be less passive while doing so - be more critical, notice more plot holes, try to follow what’s happening better - instead of being totally passive. Or maybe try watching TV for a while, then switch to spending some time doing something else like reading or writing. And if you get tired or bored with the new activity, switch back to TV, and don’t reproach yourself. But maybe try switching back again in a little bit or tomorrow.

A: But what if you just want to watch TV passively?

B: Well I would ask why you want to do that. There are some contexts where that actually makes sense - like suppose you are pretty tired but can’t sleep yet for some reason. Watching TV passively can make sense in such a context. But if you have some active mental energy, why would you want to waste that resource being passive?

A: Hmm.

B: I don’t think there’s an actual argument for doing that that would stand up to criticism.

A: I think that sometimes, there is an issue of not wanting to “ruin” the suspension of disbelief or whatever by coming up with a bunch of criticisms of a show, and instead to just go with it.

B: Well, I have some things to say about that. First, I think that that sort of thinking is how people get stuck in doing worse activities. Suppose you thought critically about the plot of some TV show or movie for a while, and you realized that it was dumb and had a bunch of plot holes. What might you wind up doing in response?

A: You might wind up saying “this is dumb” and turning the show or movie off and doing something else.

B: Right. So you might actually give yourself a reason to want to do something else instead of what you are doing. Like, you’d use your mind, and come up with an actual argument for changing activities, instead of suppressing yourself and then trying to make changes with willpower.

A: Hmm.

B: I think another thing that happens btw is that people want to do TV or movie watching as an activity with other people, and so then if you start thinking and then saying a bunch of criticisms, the other person might get annoyed, because you’re “ruining” the activity. It’s not typical to have an interaction where one person will start criticizing something and then both people will say “lol this is dumb” and then just happily decide to change activities. So then there’s some background social pressure to not think of or say criticisms in order to not irritate the other person. So you get a sort of lowest common denominator effect where the most passive person gets to decide how mentally engaged the activity is for both people.

A: Interesting.