Emotions & Moral Judgment, Part 18

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 17, we considered some more concrete cases in which Peikoff claims that people make erroneous moral judgments, such as in judging people on the basis of their musical preferences, or in treating anyone who disagrees with their politics as similarly wicked. We discussed but did not resolve whether a tragic sense of life can be arrived at entirely innocently.

A: Right.

B: OK. Let’s consider some more concrete examples Peikoff talks about regarding moral judgments, because I think these are interesting:

Another example: “I just saw that guy say ‘Good morning’ to a priest. Sanction of evil.” Is politeness the same as a sanction of evil? Is every courtesy to someone else an endorsement of every sin of the recipient? Are all priests evil? Can some priests be better than others? Can it be proper to be friendly with a priest? None of this is asked, considered; it’s just, “Religion is bad, thou shalt not touch it.” Now that is dogma, not philosophy, not moral judgment.

A: The specific example that Peikoff uses doesn’t involve any moral problem - I don’t think saying good morning to someone whose values you disagree with implies any sort of meaningful sanction of them or anything like that. I say “good morning” to strangers on the street that I pass by sometimes. But again, and maybe this is a nitpick, I’m not sure I agree with the full sweep of Peikoff’s statements, or the implications of his questions. E.g.:

Is politeness the same as a sanction of evil?

I think he thinks the answer is “no”. But politeness could be a sanction of evil (in a not-super-contrived context). Like, if you were very polite and friendly to someone with horrible views in the context of an intellectual debate, like on a podcast or at a university, that could be a kind of sanction. Not sanctioning someone in such a context wouldn’t require being super aggressive and hostile, I don’t think, but it would require not chatting with them like you’re their friendly bro. But as far as the specific concrete example Peikoff is talking about, okay, I agree with that.

B: Here’s another concrete case:

I’ve heard this one, “My parents are no good because they look forward to vacations and family gatherings”—because the idea is that you should be like Roark, who didn’t have any use for his family; in fact, his family wasn’t even brought into the novel. You can see how many ludicrous things are evaded in this idea: Is there no place for vacations in life? Is it possible for a man to have a job he doesn’t like, without that reflecting on him, given factors outside of his control, so he really looks forward to vacations? Or, he needs a rest, and he really wants a vacation; or, he has awful coworkers, or an awful employer, and he has to get away, and so on; or, believe it or not, he actually likes his family, and he respects them and enjoys their company. It is no answer to this to say, “Ayn Rand was not big on family, so this guy is no good.” None of this is proper moral judgment. It is just the flinging of concrete dogmas without relation to Objectivism.

A: I think that people can morally enjoy things like vacations and family gatherings. I don’t think there is some big moral issue there. I think vacations can have a place in a moral life.

I have an issue with the implication of this question though:

Is it possible for a man to have a job he doesn’t like, without that reflecting on him, given factors outside of his control, so he really looks forward to vacations?

I think that Peikoff thinks the answer is “yes”. But I don’t know. Like, I think that one can temporarily find oneself in a job one doesn’t like due to an innocent error of knowledge, or because one is young and hasn’t figured out what one wants to do yet, or whatever. But, you know, part of how people use vacations IRL is to escape a job that they dislike on an ongoing basis. And that sort of thing is bad, I think. So I’m not sure that I accept Peikoff’s example here. Like he says “Is it possible”, and sure, it is possible, and so you can’t go as an airtight argument from “person has job they don’t like” to “bad person”, but you know, the cultural context of how people use vacations is not great.

B: Being against vacations is interesting for an Objectivist, since Roark actually takes a vacation with Wynand in the novel…

A: Yeah good point heh. Like, if you wanted to be dogmatic about it, you could just as well take the other side and say that taking some sort of vacation was mandatory cuz That’s What Roark Did.

B: Right.

A: And I agree strongly with Peikoff’s point that one shouldn’t cargo-cult what Rand did in her personal life and try to follow that somehow. Like, first of all, she was her own person with her own values, so you can’t just copy her life details and have that work with your own values. Also, if you don’t actually understand Objectivism well enough to figure out what’s an optional detail and what’s a matter of principle, you actually won’t understand which parts to copy, like Peikoff mentioned much earlier.

B: I think a valuable theme that one can get from what Peikoff has been talking about in general is that it’s important to have some honesty about what you actually know and understand when trying to apply Objectivism. I almost want to call it “rational humility” although humility isn’t the greatest terminology to try to bring up in an Objectivist context. But you know, the basic idea is, if you don’t actually fully understand in an intuitive way how an Objectivist principle applies to the concretes of your life, don’t try to live your life according to Objectivism in that respect. You are not there yet. And it’s okay not to be there yet, if you are making steady efforts to learn and improve. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Wanting the moral status of being an “Objectivist” without having earned that status is a problem, though. And it’s a problem that could cause you a lot of havoc. So don’t cargo-cult the personal details of Rand or Roark and try to copy them into your own life. Don’t throw around moral judgments like lightning bolts, unless you’ve got the full, intuitive understanding of moral and philosophical principles to back them up and cash that check. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be thinking about or questioning things, but the role and attitude of someone who is trying to learn a philosophical system is different than the role of an expert issuing a proclamation or denunciation.

A: Yes I agree.

B: OK. Peikoff summarizes:

To summarize: Yes, you should judge others, but by principles in the proper context. You can condemn someone as wrong if you can show that he violated a principle in the context where it’s applicable. But that requires that you approach the whole matter in terms of principles, which have to be concretized, chewed, that you can therefore actually apply to real life.

A: I agree.

B: OK. There’s a tiny bit more and some Q&A but I think we’re basically at the end of the chapter. How would you summarize the chapter?

A: Peikoff talked about three different basic approaches to moral issues - the rationalist/intrinsicist, the empiricist/subjectivist, and the Objectivist. The rationalists think there are some moral commandments out there - from God, reality, whatever - and try to follow those. The empiricists try to follow their feelings in order to do what’s right, but the moral ideas that create their feelings are often taken on board from the rationalists. The Objectivists think morality is a means to an end in the context of a life (and of choosing to live that life) and that morality is connected to reality. If we choose to live and to try to achieve goals, we can’t ignore the requirements of reality in doing so.

The approaches to emotions of these three broad approaches to morality vary. The rationalists think that emotions are a bad, low element, and try to suppress them. The empiricists worship emotions and use them as guides to action. The Objectivist rejects both the rationalist-repression approach to emotions and the emotion-worshipping approach. Emotions are an automatic consequence of our value judgments/ideas/premises.

Peikoff talks a lot about Objectivist repressors. They are afraid that their emotions say something bad about them, and so then try to repress the emotions. Part of their mistake is that they don’t understand Objectivism well enough to figure out what parts of, say, Roark’s character are expressions of principles versus what parts are optional concretes. So they try to blindly copy everything and repress any differences. This repression is not tenable in the long term, so people trying it eventually blow up and become emotionalists.

Peikoff articulates what he sees as the role of emotions:

  1. Letting you analyze a situation without having to figure out everything intellectually
  2. Helping us keep our values connected to concretes
  3. Serving an essential role in doing creative work (need some intuitive judgment to get through writing even a paragraph)
  4. Helping us evaluate things we see around us, including people and art
  5. Serving an essential role in choosing among optional cases. Peikoff gives a number of examples of the role of emotions in optional matters - e.g. people wanting to be mothers, or not liking skyscrapers, or liking horror movies.

Peikoff discusses how if someone is overly critical of themselves for perceived moral failings, they will also be overly critical of others.

He concludes by saying that moral judgment is necessary and important, but needs to be done by principles in the proper context.

B: And what did you think of the chapter and the arguments Peikoff laid out therein overall?

A: I had a lot of sympathy for the basic thrust because I think I’ve been very heavily on the repressive side of things and it was good to get a chapter of material pushing back on that. I found myself disagreeing with Peikoff frequently on some concrete examples though, because it seemed to me like he was too dismissive of the possibility of arriving at some kind of moral judgment in connection with a particular concrete. That’s not to say that I think most students of Objectivism would arrive at the right moral judgment or that I would, but it’s one thing to say that arriving at a moral judgment based on someone liking something is difficult and another to say that it’s not doable.

B: Now a meta question: did you find the method of approaching reading the chapter through a dialog helpful?

A: Yes. I thought it stimulated a lot of discussion I otherwise might have suppressed. For some reason, pulling apart my thoughts into two streams seems to help a lot with thinking. There were some disadvantages. Like, I decided that “B” was the person who was going through the text of the chapter, and so if I wanted to move ahead and “A” had just been speaking, I found myself having to “switch back” to “B” just to quote more text. Also, a dialog introduces the possibility of mixing up who is supposed to be speaking, and can affect readability if one character goes on a big multi paragraph monologue. So I think there are some issues there. If I wanted to do more of this type of thing, some sort of system of different background coloring for the different characters that I could get to work well with publishing from Ulysses would be ideal.

B: Do you think you’ll try more dialogues?

A: For sure. I’m not sure if I’ll keep going with another dialogue for further reading in Understanding Objectivism. I am intending to read more of that, as there’s a specific issue Peikoff says he gets to in the next chapter that I am curious about. However, I’m currently undecided about whether I should do that as an actual dialog or just say my thoughts.

B: OK. Let’s end it here for today.

A: OK!