Dialogue on Emotions and Moral Judgment, Part 3

A dialog discussing the Objectivist ethics and going on various tangents. It is setting the groundwork for a discussion about morality and emotions

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 laying out an explanation or summary of the ethics of Objectivism as contrasted with other approaches to morality, in order to set up a discussion of the relationship between emotions and moral judgment. So he describes Objectivism in the following way:

Again, with regard to context, Objectivism is a contextual ethics, but it says the context must be determined objectively, not by feelings or subjective personal variation. There are principles, and in the right circumstances those principles are absolute; where those circumstances don’t apply, it’s also an absolute that that is not a virtue (which is why it is okay to lie to a crook).

A: So if you took the rationalist-intrinsicist approach that Peikoff has talked about, you might have a rule that says “don’t lie” or “don’t kill” and apply it regardless of context.

B: Yes. In fairness to people who follow religious moral commandments, the major religions typically recognize various exceptions to even very strong/important commandments like “don’t kill” in the context of things like self-defense. OTOH, there are philosophers (like Kant) who treat things like lying as always wrong in an out-of-context way.

A: So religions are wiser than some philosophers on this point?

B: Yeah. Anyways Peikoff continues:

Ethics is not subjective, emotional, or arbitrary. It’s contextual, but “contextual” does not imply subjective. Again, on the question of options, as opposed to empiricism, there are options, but not everything is an option. There are absolute principles. Options, as we’ll see, come in only in regard to concretes, not in regard to principles.

A: So Objectivism might have some principle like “do productive work; don’t loot from others.” In an ancient civilization that might mean being a farmer or tradesman and not a thief or brigand. In a modern civilization that might mean being any number of things (e.g. programmer, engineer, lawyer, warehouse worker, Uber driver) but rule out being a thief or fraudster or scammer.

B: Yeah. By the way, some people who generally act decently in their actual IRL life will become super subjectivist when analyzing certain moral questions. E.g. they’ll say that they’d steal money if they were sure they could get away with it, which is basically taking a “might makes right” sort of approach to whether thievery is okay.

A: How could you actually be sure whether you’d get away with it in any case?

B: Yeah that’s one of the problems with that sort of view. Anyways, Peikoff continues:

On the question of selfishness, if anything is known about the Objectivist view, it’s that it’s an ethics of self-interest. And all I want to do is show you in what way this follows from the basic approach. In ethics, we have to assert our self—that is, our consciousness. We can’t accept any ethics that says, “Dismiss your consciousness, its needs, its requirements, overrule yourself,” as the rationalists say. Because the first question we would ask is: Overrule yourself in favor of what? What should you give yourself up for or to? If you say intrinsic commands, of course the answer is that there are no such things.
Suppose you say, “You should give up your self-interest for other people’s selves.” Why? Why should there be a double standard? Why should they get what they want, but you can’t get what you want?

A: And if everyone is giving themselves up to what everyone else wants, then it seems like nobody gets what they want.

B: And if there is some ordering principle, it often winds up being that those with the most “need” get an unlimited claim on other people’s lives, which Objectivism has a lot to say about. More Peikoff:

Suppose you say, “There are more of them than there is of you, so therefore, they’re more important.” “Important” is a value term, and if you take the objective approach, the first thing you’ll say is, “Important, to whom and for what?”

A: There’s a line in The Wrath of Khan where Spock says “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk replies, “Or the one.” So Spock is saying that we should add up a bunch of other people’s lives on the one hand, and a smaller number of lives (or maybe just one life) on the other, and decide that the bigger group of lives is more important. And Objectivism says to ask “Important, to whom and for what?”

B: Right. I actually found a discussion of this line from a Objectivist perspective.

A: Oh good!

B: It’s here. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

What of Spock’s claim, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”? Logic requires that some evidence be offered in support of such a claim—but Spock offers no evidence in support of this. He just asserts it. Which “many”? Which “few”? “Outweigh” on whose scale? For what purpose? To whose benefit? Why is his or their benefit the proper benefit? Spock does not address such questions; he simply asserts that logic clearly dictates his conclusion. But it doesn’t.
Far from being an expression of logic, Spock’s claim that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few is an arbitrary assertion and a restatement of the baseless moral theory known as utilitarianism, which asserts that each individual should act to serve the greatest good for the greatest number.

A: I disagree about evidence being used to support claims, but overall, I think these are good points! Spock is using a reference to what logic dictates to assert his moral ideas in an authoritative way (note even the verb choice there - dictates, one definition of which is “lay down authoritatively; prescribe:”)

And “Which ‘many’? Which ‘few’?” are also important questions. Also which needs (though that overlaps with “For what purpose? To whose benefit?”?) Suppose some racist majority decides its “needs” include wiping out a minority, and the minority would prefer that to not happen. If we’re just counting noses and assertions of needs to determine who wins, then Spock’s approach seems like a horrible moral system that would validate e.g. the Holocaust. OTOH, if only certain “needs” are considered legitimate, then that’s a big complication that needs to be explained.

Re: “‘Outweigh’ on whose scale?”, I’m guessing the idea here is that Spock is trying to look at the situation objectively and in an unbiased way.

B: Real people have particular people they value and prefer more than others. It’s appropriate to take that into consideration when deciding whose interests to value more. You’re generally not going to be in a position where you’re coming into some situation as a totally disinterested, objective observer who has to make some decision between the interests of two groups or between a group and a person without any context besides “number of people in the groups.” To put this in concrete terms, if you are a parent, you will typically care for and value your child more than countless other unknown children in the world. So it makes sense for you to do things like spend money on your child in order to improve their life and well-being. This is the case even if you could feed multiple children for quite some time in Africa for a donation equivalent to buying your own child a book here. The needs of the many children don’t outweigh your individual child’s joy and happiness.

I think if you looked at the situation as “well there are a bunch of kids over in Africa that need food, and there is my kid over here that wants to buy a book, and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so I’ll buy food for the kids in Africa”, I don’t think that would be looking at the situation objectively. It would be dropping context. An objective, factual description of the situation must include the fact that you are the parent of a particular child, and have special responsibilities, duties, and obligations to that particular child, and, hopefully, a particular emotional attachment to and appreciation for that particular child. These are facts. Evading those facts and pretending that you should be indifferent between your child and other children will lead you into making a moral mistake and acting inappropriately.

A: So essentially if you prioritized the food for African kids you’d be treating something like “each individual should act to serve the greatest good for the greatest number” as a moral commandment, to be obeyed regardless of your own needs, wants, preferences, desires etc?

B: Yes.

Note that I don’t think most people would actually do that - while lots of people think they should value other people’s lives and happiness more than their own life - or at least they think that sometimes, in an inconsistent way - they would disagree with the Spock line insofar as they would be okay with valuing e.g. the lives of a member of their family over the lives of some greater number of strangers.

Back to Peikoff:

And as soon as you say “to whom and for what,” that should remind you that it’s an issue to be resolved according to some objective standard of value—what is that, according to the facts of reality? And that should bring you back to the requirements of the life of each organism. If you take the objective approach to knowledge, you have to end up with the idea that each man is an end in himself. The identity of his consciousness is a crucial factor in cognition and a crucial datum in ethics. We have to start from “There’s a reality, and we have a self that has desires, needs, requirements, and we have to take into account what it requires to achieve its ends.” One is the reflection in ethics of the other. I stress that this is not a subjective issue, because consciousness is the faculty of perceiving existence.

A: Regarding the part…

We have to start from “There’s a reality, and we have a self that has desires, needs, requirements, and we have to take into account what it requires to achieve its ends.”

…so going back to our discussion of parenting and the Spock line, you might have the desire to help your child, and that involves taking certain actions (giving them food, shelter, books to read, games to play). And being able to do those things involves having the resources to do so, which involves having some productive occupation (or having saved enough from productive work in the past to be able to have sufficient money now). And having a productive occupation has its own requirements (some skill or knowledge or credentials) which you have to meet in order to maintain your productive occupation.

B: Yes. And there are lots of valid options along this chain (what to buy for the kid, what job to take/skills to learn) but still, ultimately, there is a connection with reality, so it’s not just all up to your subjective whim. There are objective requirements that you have to deal with in order to achieve your goals. You can’t just send out positive thoughts about what you want and have the universe bestow things upon you.

If your whim was to support yourself and your child with a job as a lawyer, but you lacked the relevant credentials, then you can’t actually do that until you get those credentials - the credentialing requirements are a fact you have to deal with.

And if your whim was to support yourself and your child with a job as a lunar farmer, then the current state of economic and technological development is something that is going to prevent that - that’s a fact you have to deal with, and lunar farmer is not a job you can currently have.

And if your whim was to support yourself and your child with a job as a faster-than-light starship pilot, then the very laws of physics may be a prohibition, and are a fact you have to deal with.

So there are a bunch of facts - societal/cultural facts about what credentials are required for certain jobs, economic & technological facts about what jobs exist given the current state of technology & economic development, physics facts that may prohibit certain jobs from existing at all - that have to be taken into account when formulating a plan to meet your ends. That there are requirements that need to be met goes for you sustaining your very life itself, and it goes for all the goals that you may try to meet in the course of sustaining your life.

Back to Peikoff:

In epistemology, consciousness asserts its identity in conformity with reality, and the same is true in ethics—we have to assert the needs of our consciousness in conformity with reality. That’s the objective approach, where each is involved. So reality dictates the standard, the ultimate purpose, and the principles to follow. Therefore, selfishness is not a subjective free-for-all, but selfishness in conformity to reality. And that’s what Ayn Rand calls rational self-interest, and you see that both of those concepts are essential—the “self-interest” is what differentiates it from an intrinsicist ethics; the “rational” is what differentiates it from an empiricist or subjectivist ethics. And this, I think, is the deepest root of the Objectivist approach to ethics. It actually follows from the objective, as opposed to the intrinsic or subjective.

A: So you figure out what you want to do or accomplish, and then figure out how to conform it to reality. What if what you want something that does not conform to reality? For example, what if you wanted to be a faster-than-light starship pilot, and physics says “that’s not allowed”?

B: Then you’ll have to examine the reasons for your desires and also see if there’s some alteration you can make to achieve your essential ends in conformity with reality. Like, why do you want to be a faster-than-light starship pilot in particular, as opposed to just a pilot, or even a space pilot? Pilot is a job, and space pilot may be becoming more of a job now. Maybe you saw a depiction of being a faster-than-light starship pilot in some fiction and it seemed cool, but you have to look at what reality will actually let you do, and not be disappointed when you can’t do unrealistic sci-fi stuff.

A: Hmm.

B: We’ve spent the dialogs so far setting some groundwork in terms of different moral systems. I think next time is when we will actually get to talking about emotions and their connection with morality.

A: OK cool!