Emotions and Moral Judgment, Part 4

Part 4 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 has been 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. One thing that I wanted to mention before we move forward to actually discussing emotions is a point about the content of the ethics of the empiricist/subjectivist types.

So Peikoff says that some empiricist-subjectivist types follow the principle of “Just assert yourself—satisfy any desire you get no matter what. Run roughshod over others and cut their throats if you feel like it.” He gives the examples of Nietzsche and the Sophists. But then he says:

But this model is not common among empiricists. The reason is that telling people to act on their feelings is not enough to give them any guidance or to get them acting. Feelings are not a primary. Where do they come from? What is their source? Ideas, value judgments. Empiricists don’t advocate any value judgments on their own, being skeptics, but they can’t get along without them. Consequently, they have to take over the value judgments of others in order to give some content to their own minds and thereby generate feelings. Where do they get this content? From rationalists. They go to church, to synagogue, to the schools, to the movies, they read the New York Times, and so on; they’re written to and lectured at by rationalists, religionists, and all their derivatives, from morning to night, from birth until age fifteen, and their feelings therefore end up on the whole being just what the rationalist imperatives say they should be. And consequently you get people like Dewey and Bertrand Russell and so on, who are just as thorough altruists and advocates of selflessness as are Plato and Kant. Empiricism is not an original source of ethical ideas; it’s a parasitic approach, as against rationalism, which can be innovative and original, even if incorrectly. In essence, both rationalism and empiricism end up being champions of selflessness—the rationalists because they claim that’s the voice of God, or reality, and the empiricists because they claim that’s the way they feel.

A: So both the rationalists and most empiricists wind up in the same place on the question of selfishness.

B: Yeah. You can see why the “cut their throats if you feel like it” sort of approach wouldn’t have a lot of appeal to people. Some people go for that kind of thing but most people actually want to try to act somewhat decently and not harm others. And so in the context of culturally mainstream ideas, all they have to choose from is some variant of selflessness, as Peikoff tells it.

Anyways now let’s move on to the discussion of emotions:

The rationalist, as we’ve seen, is typically opposed to emotions. He regards them as a bad element of human nature, so he typically counsels repression. And usually this is tied in with a supernaturalist viewpoint: There are two worlds and two sides of human nature reflecting these two worlds, and your emotions are hooked up with the bad world—namely, this physical world. So repression for the rationalist is like a form of asceticism; it’s a form of beating down the low, materialistic, worldly element within you. Since you have that element and can’t get around it, ethics is a permanent struggle against temptation. Recall the famous quote (as I remember it) from Paul, “The good that I would I don’t do, and the evil that I don’t want to do I do do,” and that’s very poorly put—he put it much better* —but the idea is that he’s in chronic temptation, where his mind tells him to do something but his passions pull him in the opposite direction, so if only he could obliterate them or tame them in some way, he’d be happy. And the Stoics went so far as to say that non-emotion was the standard of the good; apathy, nonfeeling was their term for virtue—kill this evil element.
[Endnote in original at the end of the chapter]* “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Romans 7.

A: This is a tangent, but the discussions of Stoicism I’ve read from modern Stoic authors emphatically disagree with Peikoff’s description of the Stoic approach to emotions above. I haven’t read the primary material in Stoicism yet, but I’m very skeptical of what Peikoff is saying.

B: Noted.

A: So regarding this part:

So repression for the rationalist is like a form of asceticism; it’s a form of beating down the low, materialistic, worldly element within you.

Given that the preceding discussion of rationalism came up in the context of people who try to follow moral commandments, what I’m connecting Peikoff’s passage to in reality is something like: people feel a strong desire to do something like have sex with somebody, and the rationalist approach to that is to say you should repress that desire because it violates some moral commandment (which might say that sex is only okay in a particular context or for particular purposes). So you have this “low”, base desire that you are supposed to suppress in order to comply with the dictates of morality.

B: Yes I think that’s a fair example.

A: This sort of rationalist isn’t consistently opposed to strong emotional experiences though, I think? Like if you had some sort of intense religious/spiritual experience, they would think that is okay?

B: I think that’s right. I’m not an expert on that sort of thing. That might be related to the part where Peikoff says:

And usually this is tied in with a supernaturalist viewpoint: There are two worlds and two sides of human nature reflecting these two worlds, and your emotions are hooked up with the bad world—namely, this physical world.

So perhaps certain emotions - like those connected with sex - are thought of as originating in the “bad” world, and certain emotions are thought of as originating in the good world. I’m honestly not sure.

A: OK. So this part…

but the idea is that he’s in chronic temptation, where his mind tells him to do something but his passions pull him in the opposite direction, so if only he could obliterate them or tame them in some way, he’d be happy.

… seems bad to me. It seems like the approach Peikoff is describing involves a chronic use of willpower to try overcoming oneself, instead of trying to persuade oneself to actually be better.

B: Yes. I agree that that’s problematic. I think that if you take it for granted that people have certain unalterable urges or passions or desires, and notice that these can have bad effects, then something like the approach Peikoff is describing/criticizing can make sense, since you’re basically trying to avoid really negative outcomes. Like imagine if you took it for granted that people have strong sexual desires for people in general, and you also think it’s important that people get married. Pursuing your sexual desires with anybody you can in the context of a marriage can be a really bad idea that will destroy the marriage. So given the premises there, trying to control, tame, or restrain the sexual desire somehow so that you don’t interfere with or destroy this higher value of the marriage could make some amount of sense.

A: Yeah I can see that. There is an issue there though, which is that while some people succeed with that kind of approach, lots of people fail. It’s not a consistent or workable strategy to just willpower yourself into being loyal to a human being.

B: Right. It doesn’t actually work well. I’m not trying to defend that approach overall. I’m just saying that, given certain premises, it could make a certain amount of sense, and possibly be superior to “just do whatever the hell you want.”

A: Right okay.

B: So then Peikoff discusses an alternative view:

In regard to emotions, the empiricists are the opposite. They are really emotion worshippers, in the sense that they cannot criticize or judge an emotion. An emotion to them has to have the status of a revelation, because by their viewpoint, their minds are helpless; they have no way of criticizing an emotion by reference to cognition, and therefore, feelings are their only guide to action. "Do whatever you feel," they say, "reality is irrelevant, unknowable."

A: One thing I’m not clear on - so Peikoff said that the empiricists generally follow the rationalists in being advocates of selflessness, though some empiricists would say that you should just do whatever the hell you want and cut other people’s throats if you have to. So my question in, regarding the example of say someone wanting to cheat in a marriage, what would the empiricist analysis type be? I am guessing that the result would be to rationalize the cheating, but I’m not sure how you would get there on the grounds of selflessness.

B: It’s a good question and I’m not really sure, but I think you may be expecting a logical and analytic consistency in a place where you shouldn’t. My guess is that you are right that the result would be to rationalize the cheating, but in practice I think the subjectivist-empiricist type approach would be framed in terms of “follow your heart”, “be your authentic self”, and that sort of thing, with perhaps some blaming of the spouse for being inadequate in various ways thrown in for good measure.

A: Ah so it wouldn’t actually be framed in terms of selflessness.

B: I don’t think so, no.

A: OK.

B: So now Peikoff offers a bit of clarification. Note that he says he’s going to focus on philosophy and these are therefore just tangential comments on psychological issues. I nonetheless think that they are interesting:

I want to make a clarification here: I do not mean to imply that rationalism and empiricism are the only possible causes of these attitudes. There can be repressors or emotionalists for other reasons, quite apart from the issues of rationalism and empiricism. Many complex psychological factors could enter into the development of these kinds of psychologies, factors that I have not even hinted at, pertaining to early self-esteem, traumatic experiences, early events, for instance, in a child’s development far before the time that he could reach such a sophisticated adult issue as rationalism or empiricism. You could even argue, for instance, that repression comes first in time and is a precondition of the development of rationalism; it could be the case that through various traumatic experiences in childhood and wrong conclusions, a child becomes a repressor. Then he grows up and, let’s say, he becomes an intellectual, which they don’t all become. And then he decides to retreat to a safe, unemotional world of the intellect, and he finds rationalism and it’s really congenial to him, and he falls for it entirely. And it turns out that it’s congenial to him because he came to it as a committed repressor. You could even argue that if he hadn’t been repressed, he would have been repelled by rationalism when he first heard it and never accepted it. On that model, repression could be a precondition of rationalism. I am neither challenging nor endorsing this.
The point I am making is only this: However he gets to this development, once a person is a rationalist, he finds his earlier disdain of emotions (assuming he had it) philosophically supported, justified, and therefore immensely strengthened. His rejection of emotions is not just an implicit childhood error but a fully conscious viewpoint that he identifies with value, virtue, logic, reality. So you have a vicious circle, a reciprocity: repression leading to rationalism, leading to a more intense repression, and so on.

A: So Peikoff is saying that maybe you have some predisposition to rationalism due to being a repressor before you discover rationalism as an intellectual idea, based on past bad experiences, and then the intellectual idea solidifies and supports your pre-existing preference towards repression. So you had some bad experiences at some point, became a repressor, and then learned some ideas that gave some intellectual support or context to your repression strategy. He’s laying this out as a possible story.

B: Right.

A: That makes sense. I’m thinking about what sorts of things might lead someone to become a repressor initially. I am guessing it might be stuff like maybe they had a very emotionally volatile parent and disliked that and decided to go to the other extreme because that seemed better.

B: Right that sounds plausible. Sometimes people follow in their parents’ footsteps, sometimes they do the exact opposite. And sometimes they do some mix of the two, so in the example you lay out, someone might be a repressor overall or on certain matters but have tendencies towards emotionalism in certain contexts. Since we are talking about mistaken approaches to emotions and philosophy issues, you cannot expect rigorous consistency.

A: Right that makes sense, that it might be a mix of the two mistakes, and with just a tendency towards one side or the other.

B: Lots of people also move from one mistake to the other, starting out as repressors and then having some sort of break where they become emotionalists because they can’t stand the repression anymore.

A: Right that makes sense also. If you assume that those are your two options, you might get fed up with one and then wind up embracing the other after a while.

B: Right. Let’s end it here for now. But next time, we’ll talk to talk about the issue of Objectivist repressors.

A: OK!