Dialogue on Emotions and Moral Judgment, Part 2

Part 2 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism".

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi. Let’s continue our discussion of Lecture Ten, “Emotions and Moral Judgment”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

A: OK.

B: So Peikoff is describing different approaches to morality. He is setting the groundwork for later discussion of the connection between emotions and moral judgment. In speaking about one alternative, which he refers to as empiricism or subjectivism, he says the following:

Now let’s look at the empiricist approach to ethics. The empiricist is the subjectivist, the skeptic: There is no moral knowledge; there are no absolute truths, no principles; everything is uncertain or relative. Reality has nothing to say in ethics; we simply go by our feelings, our desires. “Good” means “I want it”; “bad” means “I don’t want it.” Period. There’s no way to resolve conflicts, you each just feel what you feel. There are no answers to moral questions.

A: That sounds like a ridiculous moral system - or like a negation of a moral system. People’s desires obviously can conflict, as Peikoff indicates, and also, people can want bad things, so those are fatal issues with such an approach. And what’s the point of a morality with no moral knowledge?

B: I agree. Peikoff continues:

The empiricist regards this as empirical, because, he says, the only way to have an ethics is to observe what people desire, so he simply observes desires; “I take desires as such,” he says, “as my data.” One variation of this approach is to give people no guidance at all, to be openly skeptical like the Greek Sophists and say, “Deuces wild, do whatever you feel like, might makes right.”

A: So you look around in some culture and you see legalized slavery, or widespread sexual violence, or corruption and tyranny, and you just say “well, might makes right, this is fine”? That’s just a way of (badly) rationalizing and minimizing whatever problems exist in the society.

B: Not only that, but the problems with things like slavery or other ills are things that people can see. One example of such a problem that even a pro-slavery perspective might concede is the risk of a violent uprising. That’s a big problem and a very visible one if the revolting slaves sack your town and capture or kill you. So such problems are empirical - they are facts about the world. I don’t think you can legitimately claim the mantle of empiricism if you’re ignoring facts about the world like that.

Someone with the approach Peikoff is criticizing might look at something like the rebellion of Spartacus and say “well the slaves lost at the end of the day, might makes right.” That’s a backwards-looking perspective, rationalizing about the results as they occurred. But it’d be better to have some guide to make better choices in the first place rather than just rationalizing what happened in hindsight. If 120,000 people think they’re being so mistreated that they’re willing to join an army in rebellion, and the result, even in victory, is tens of thousands of people dead on both sides, I think that one might reasonably wonder whether there was another course of action that one could have taken, besides risking war, that might have produced a better outcome. Morality is a field that would have something to say to this.

A: A course of action like don’t enslave people and set the existing slaves free?

B: Sure, but it’s not even necessary to go that far right away. There are milder reforms to things like slavery that might be acceptable to both sides as intermediate steps. Oftentimes people just want improved treatment and aren’t demanding total reform. There are various types of slavery and various reforms that you could imagine. For instance, if the situation is that the owner can just hurt or kill his slaves at will with no penalty, you might imagine reforms to that - e.g. no killing slaves on your own; only objective law courts can impose the death penalty. Or you might have a reform where slaves are given some actual spending money instead of just room and board, or various other things.

A: Makes sense.

B: Peikoff discusses another example of the empiricist approach to ethics:

Another is modern pragmatism, which is the same thing but pretends to be different. Pragmatism says abandon principles, but be practical; define your concrete goal of the moment, and then act to gain it; don’t just plunge in arbitrarily, Dewey says, but study first what you want, how to get it, what is required, and then act. If you ask him, “But how are you to decide what you want? What if you decide differently tomorrow? Are there any absolutes?” the answer comes down to, “Whatever you feel today is good enough for today.”

A: That seems a bit different than the “do whatever you feel like” approach from before, because it’s saying “don’t just plunge in arbitrarily,” and people might feel like they want to plunge in arbitrarily.

B: I think Peikoff means that it’s not different in essence as opposed to not different in any details.

A: Okay. The lack of standards for deciding what you want seems like a big problem. I don’t like “Whatever you feel today is good enough for today.” Because what if you want to have longer term goals than just for today? Or what if you have some shorter term goals that conflict with longer term goals? How do you untangle that? Preferring to relax and watch TV versus preferring to look for a new job might be an example of that. Do you just go with the shorter term goal? Or the longer term goal? I don’t think a mechanical rule like that would work, so how would you decide?

B: Right. Parts of you can want different plans, so even if you’re willing to follow the authority of your own preferences - which would be a bad idea - you can’t actually implement that approach, because you might have an internal conflict.

A: Yeah. So this whole approach sounds pretty dumb.

B: So here Peikoff begins to lay out the Objectivist approach:

Now let's turn to Objectivism in this broad survey. On the objective approach, value judgments are objective. Value implies of value to whom and for what-it implies a valuer for a purpose. Morality is not an end in itself; it's a means to an end.

A: That’s a big contrast with “Morality is these commandments you’re supposed to follow just because.”

B: Right.

A: But then couldn’t you just pick any purpose and have that be kind of like the subjectivist approach?

B: Peikoff is getting to that :)

A: Ok :)

B: More Peikoff:

And it is only for that reason that it can be based on reality. As against rationalism, as we've already pointed out, Objectivism stresses purpose, that sets our ultimate standard; context, which dictates and shows how our purpose applies in specific circumstances; and therefore, we reject dogmatic absolutes, and we certainly include ethical or evaluative options, about which we will have a lot more to say. I've been stressing the contrast to rationalism. What about the contrast to empiricism on these points? Are we then empiricists in stressing the role of purpose in ethics? No, because our purpose, according to Objectivism, has to be based on reality, not arbitrary. Morality is conditional. It's of the form, "If you choose to live, then you should follow such and such virtues," as against the intrinsicist dogma "Thou shalt do so-and-so." But our ultimate purpose is not arbitrary or optional. It's based on reality. Lecture two discussed in what way it's only the requirements of life that give rise to the possibility of, and need for, value judgments. So, in our fundamental approach to ethics, we combine a purpose-based ethics with the idea that the purpose itself is based on facts of reality; it is not arbitrary.

A: I’m not sure I fully understand this yet, and I think it’s a pretty high level summary and Peikoff will go into more detail, but in essence I think it’s saying something like: there are things in the facts of reality and in the requirements of life that impose some kind of restriction or limitation on what courses of action are moral. So that’s a distinction between Objectivism and the empiricist-subjectivist approach.

B: Maybe a concrete example will help flesh things out. Suppose you’re alone on a desert island. The objective situation is that you need to gather some coconuts to eat if you want to live. Part of you just wants to sit around feeling sorry for yourself and your situation. Let’s consider what the moral approaches Peikoff has been describing would say about the circumstances.

A: OK!

B: First, what would the intrinsicist-rationalist approach say?

A: Maybe something like “Thou shalt gather coconuts, because it is God’s Will that Thou live and prosper and procreate.”

B: Ok! Now what about the empiricist-subjectivist approach?

A: They might say “If you don’t feel like gathering coconuts today, don’t worry about it.”

B: And what about the Objectivist approach?

A: They might say “If you want to live, you need to gather coconuts.”

B: And what is the connection between morality and reality there, under the Objectivist approach?

A: Your body needs food in order to survive. The food available to you in your situation is coconuts. Before you can eat this food, you need to employ your labor in order to gather it. If you have the goal of living, your goal needs to take account of all these facts.

B: Exactly.

A: Doesn’t that give people an “out” clause out of morality though? Like, say somebody doesn’t want to live?

B: I think that sort of thought is related to the intrinsicist approach that Peikoff is criticizing. People expect morality to be a sort of commandment from God acting like a gun to their head, making them do the right stuff - or in Rand’s rather different but very vivid metaphor (Atlas Shrugged), “a phantom scarecrow made of duty, of boredom, of punishment, of pain, a cross-breed between the first school-teacher of your past and the tax collector of your present, a scarecrow standing in a barren field, waving a stick to chase away your pleasures”. But morality is more like some knowledge that helps you achieve the goal of living well. And so there is an “out” clause, as you say. If somebody actually doesn’t want to live, or to live well, then morality wouldn’t be able to speak to them. Reason would be able to speak to them, though, and might be able to point out some flaw in their reasoning for not wanting to live or to live well.

A: Interesting.

B: I think that part of the issue that people have with certain ideas about morality like Objectivism - and a pretty big theme in Atlas Shrugged - is that most people want to live but don’t want to admit that there is some contradiction between their ideas and life, or between their ideas and the well-lived life. Atlas Shrugged has a dramatic scene where one of the villains vividly realizes the contradiction between his values and life when one of the heroes is being tortured. The dramatic circumstances of the novel make the contradiction so clear to the villain that he can’t evade it. So then he has an emotional breakdown. Most people don’t experience internal realizations that are quite that dramatic. But they still sense some threat to their existing way of life from Objectivist type moral ideas.

A: Don’t they feel some threat to their preferences or desires from traditional morality too?

B: Yes but I think it’s different. Like maybe someone wants to get drunk or high or something. The intrinsicist-rationalist might say “Thou shalt not get drunk or high; it is contrary to God’s will.” And people might mostly follow that but then get really fed up sometimes and say to hell with it. And if morality is just some edicts coming from on high, maybe people think that a little cheating here or there isn’t such a big deal, and won’t be enough to push them into going to hell - God won’t burn them forever for relaxing a bit. They’re “only human” after all, right? And then the empiricist-subjectivist comes along and says “just do whatever you feel like, no big deal, you’re not hurting anybody haha” and some people rebel and do that and like it for a while (though they have to deal with the long term consequences of that). And then the Objectivist comes along and says “Using drugs to intentionally put your mind into a stupor is contrary to the requirements of life, contrary to your nature as a rational being, indicates that you dislike thinking, is a waste of your potential as a human being, and is an inferior use of your time relative to other projects you could be working on that would improve your life and situation.” And this sounds way worse and more preachy than even the Thou Shalt Not crowd (which makes some allowances for being “only human”), and super pushy and preachy compared to the “just do whatever” crowd.

A: Hmm.

B: Let’s end this part of the discussion here for now, it’s getting a bit long.

A: OK!