Emotions & Moral Judgment, Part 17

Dialog about the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

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 in Part 16, we further considered Peikoff’s notions about the role of emotions in choosing among optional cases. We discussed criticisms of certain aspects of his view via discussion of the concrete of appreciating Perry Mason, and discussed how factors like pre-existing judgments about something and a lack of relevant skills can affect one’s ability to appreciate some work or cause problems in appreciating it. We discussed the idea that one should not let the current extent of one’s abilities/skills be the limit of one’s life, and the idea that one should be open to revision about one’s judgments regarding the value/interestingness of things.

A: Yep.

B: OK. Let’s continue on with the chapter. Peikoff discusses another concrete example, in regards to music. He says:

As Miss Rand many times pointed out, there is no vocabulary worked out to judge music objectively, in terms of judging its meaning, as against just its technical structure. You can say that atonal music is invalid, because it violates the essence of the medium. But you cannot prove, the way you can in literature or painting, “This is the theme and this is the so-and-so.” Consequently, moral judgments of any kind are simply inappropriate in regard to music. If you like a composer, within the framework of human music (and by that, I mean excluding the distinctively twentieth century), you just go ahead, you don’t try to force it on anybody else if they disagree. At that stage, I think we literally have to say, “This is what I hear, this is what I like, you don’t agree? Good luck.”

A: So I think that it is harder to talk about the content music than about other fields. A couple of things though. First, and this is more of an aside, but I find Peikoff’s comment about “excluding the distinctively twentieth century” from “the framework of human music” odd. Maybe he means a specific subset of music that originated in the twentieth century, but I don’t think his description is specific/clear enough. Secondly, I think that you can often say quite a lot about the ideas involved in liking particular music because lots of popular music has actual lyrics that tell a story, so that’s information that lets you bridge the gap between concepts and the musical notes. If someone likes a love ballad, you can often say something meaningful about why, what their values are, and that kind of thing. Third, I think that if you know something about why someone likes music, based on say, what they tell you about their appreciation for it, then you can connect that reason to a moral judgment. And of course I think the moral judgment depends on their specific reasons for liking the music, just as the moral judgment of someone’s preference for horror movies depends on what specifically they like about horror movies. But if someone tells you something about their reasoning for liking music, I think you can connect that to a moral judgment, and that would be a moral judgment in regards to music that would be appropriate, which contradicts “…moral judgments of any kind are simply inappropriate in regard to music.”

B: With regards to connecting music to moral judgments and Peikoff’s criticism of doing that, I assume that Peikoff has something in mind like making a moral judgment based on someone’s preference for purely musical aspects like melody or whatever, and that he’s pushing back on that.

A: Right, I get that, but I think his statements are too sweeping in that he thinks you can’t make moral judgments of any kind in regards to music. Also, you know, there are certain typical types of songs, like love ballads or whatever. And they’re not super standardized in the sense some widget might be, but they follow certain conventions enough that a human being is able to recognize the form or pattern. And if one has a preference for certain types of songs in a certain cultural context, I think one can draw some reasonable inferences there. It’s not a matter of airtight deductive logic - you can’t say “Oh you like this type of song and thus you’re 100% an emotionalist-sentimentalist”, because the reasons someone might like a particular type of song are many. But you can make a reasonable guess. And by the way, I don’t think a preference for a particular type of song that had some issues or problems with it from a philosophical point of view would, in a typical case, be a major moral infraction or anything like that. I’m just saying, you know, there’s a connection you can make there, there’s some potential tentative conclusions you can reach about somebody and what they’re like and what their ideas are like, given a certain standard cultural context. It’s similar to the thing Francisco d’Anconia says about sexual attraction:

Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.

I think that a preference for a certain kind of music may run “less deep” in terms of someone’s psychology or values and thus not be as revealing as their sexual preferences, but I still think it can say something.

B: I don’t have any criticisms of this. Let’s move on to discussing some comments that Peikoff makes regarding rationalism and condemnation of others. Peikoff says that a rationalist condemns themselves for preferences in optional cases, becomes distrustful of their own emotions, and represses themselves. They’re very harsh on themselves, and are harshly judgmental in a dogmatic moralizing way to other people as well. He talks about some possible motivations for being overly condemnatory towards others, such as being uncertain about people and wanting to remain aloof, or being misanthropic. He then discusses what he calls the rationalist’s pattern of judging people:

The rationalist’s pattern of judging people is that first he represses his emotions, so he has no way to judge others; then the flood of data about the person goes by him—he doesn’t know how to take it or deal with it, it’s too much to take in, so he flounders altogether with regard to people; yet he knows it’s very important to judge people—he gets that drummed into him from the Objectivist literature—“You shouldn’t be amoral, you must pass moral judgments”; so he takes the typical rationalist method: Grab on to an axiom in the flux; find something in the chaos that seems to be clear-cut or unequivocal, and then deduce from there; find an axiom, like the base of a deductive system. And, of course, for the rationalist, it’s perfect to find some concrete rule that the person violates, that stands out in the chaos and that becomes his axiom. He has no hierarchy, no context, no principles; everything whirls until something strikes him.

A: Yeah this makes sense. And it may explain a lot of the stereotype of the judgmental “Randroid” that goes around spouting “Objectivist dogma” out of context (until they flame out of being an Objectivist). This approach doesn’t sound like a recipe for happiness or success in life.

B: Peikoff gives various concrete examples of what he’s talking about. I think it’d be good to go through them one by one:

For instance, he sees a person reacting to an unhappy movie or music, and he says to himself, “Aha, now I know what this guy’s like. He responds to tragedy, so he has a tragic sense of life—inferior, philosophically corrupt, weak, no good.” Can you respond to tragedy without having a tragic sense of life? Yes. Can you have a tragic sense of life without being in any way immoral, corrupt, or evil? Yes. Can you have a tragic sense of life and still be one hundred percent honest, rational, and moral? Yes, absolutely. But this rationalist has a dogma, “Thou shalt respond only to the benevolent.”


Can you respond to tragedy without having a tragic sense of life? Yes.

I agree. You could have some part of your ideas that responds to tragic stuff, maybe in a particular context, without that idea constituting an overall sense of life.

Can you have a tragic sense of life without being in any way immoral, corrupt, or evil? Yes.

I’m more on the fence here, but it seems plausible to me that one could arrive at a tragic sense of life largely through innocent errors.

Can you have a tragic sense of life and still be one hundred percent honest, rational, and moral? Yes, absolutely.

I’m the most skeptical here, and I think the skepticism relates to the previous question as well. I’m especially skeptical about “one hundred percent honest, rational, and moral”. So that seems to indicate that I am skeptical that one could arrive at a tragic sense of life through innocent errors. If I reject the idea that one could arrive at a tragic sense of life through innocent errors, then that implies that I think non-innocent errors must be involved, such as those involving dishonesty and irrationality. This seems like a tricky issue and I’m not sure I’m going to figure it out today, but it seemed worth flagging.

B: OK.

A: It occurs to me that, with regards to the quote from Francisco I introduced earlier with regards to the connection between someone’s sexual desires and philosophy of life, part of the context there is that Francisco is basically a world-class philosopher. And a lot of the people Peikoff is talking about, who are throwing around moral judgments like lighting bolts, are decided not world-class philosophers. And so there is some major element of arrogance in what they are trying to do. They are coming to conclusions that are not warranted by the quality of the abstractions they currently possess.

So like, even if there were a connection to find between a person’s emotional reaction to a tragic movie and some statement about that person’s worldview, a lot of the rationalists that Peikoff is criticizing might not have the philosophical competence or skill level to find it. In particular, they might go for a very sweeping judgment when something much narrower would be warranted.

B: Someone new to Objectivism is going to see Rand “throwing around moral judgments like lighting bolts” and not actually understand all the background knowledge involved there in her doing that. And part of what attracted them to Objectivism in the first place, as I think Peikoff has mentioned, is the strong moral component. So they try to copy what they think is Rand’s style but they don’t have the intellectual equipment to back it up.

A: Right.

B: Peikoff gives another example:

Or, he might come out with a statement like, “Ted Kennedy is just as corrupt as Andropov, they’re both collectivists.” Are there differences in degree? Are there differences in consistency? Does it make a difference that one came from Massachusetts and the other from the head of the KGB? For the rationalist, all of this is beside the point. “Anybody who doesn’t subscribe to my politics is equally wicked.” Is it possible for there to be different kinds of collectivists? Is it possible for there to be an honest welfare-statist (leaving aside a discussion of Ted Kennedy)? The point here is that there is no attempt to analyze, just a trigger-happy snap judgment.

A: I don’t think I would have picked Ted Kennedy as an example of a relatively innocent collectivist!

B: Lol.

A: Seriously though. But anyways, setting that point aside, yeah, the reasoning that Peikoff’s rationalist has there is really bad. And it’s characteristic of a certain bad strain I see in modern politics (where basically if you disagree with someone you’re just a Nazi or a Communist, full stop, no discussion).

B: Right, and a lot of the people tossing these judgments around barely know what the terms Nazi and Communist even really mean. They’re almost completely floating abstractions, and tossing around the labels is part of an effort to signal tribal affiliation.

A: Right so it’s a good example to consider of certain bad dynamics in society. And yeah, you know, I hadn’t really considered that kind of thing (being very loose with tossing around extreme labels in political disagreements) as being an example of rationalism, but yeah, I can kind of see it now, at least in the context of the “reasoning” that Peikoff provides above.

B: One thing about “Anybody who doesn’t subscribe to my politics is equally wicked” is that it inappropriately drops a massive, massive range of relevant concretes. Like, if you’re on the left, you’re collapsing everyone from John McCain to Adolf Hitler under the same heading of “a bad person whose politics disagree with mine”. So you’re dropping out the concretes of their stances on things like whether the state should murder millions of Jews and other people, or not. That’s abhorrent and ridiculous. The concept there is malformed. And Peikoff already gave us an example for someone on the right.

A: Right.

Let’s end the discussion here for today.

B: OK!