Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 10 - Tangent on Deserving to Suffer

Part 10 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism". This shorter dialogue is about the meaning of deserving to suffer.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on Objectivism or philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself.

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi.

A: I had a thought relating to the overall issue of moral judgments and our discussion about it, so no new book material for today I think. My thought is that people often beat themselves up for moral failings and feel very bad about them.

B: Yes.

A: And they often think that when they suffer some negative consequence, like being unhappy, that they deserved it, because they acted wrongly. And someone trying to be kind to such a person (who made some mistake and feels bad about it) might say to such a person something like, well, you don’t actually deserve to be unhappy.

Now my question is whether the idea that someone doesn’t deserve to be happy in such a circumstance makes sense. Because, the way I see it, if they made some kind of error, and the error had certain foreseeable consequences, and one of those consequences is that they are unhappy, then they’re just getting exactly what they deserve.

B: Let’s take a concrete case. Suppose a married man loses his job. He responds not with resilience but with a slide into heavy drinking. His wife leaves him and his friend desert him. He winds up unhappy.

A: Right that’s a good example of the sort of thing I had in mind.

B: OK. And you think that it’s reasonable to say that he deserves to be unhappy in such a scenario, because that’s just the natural consequence of his actions, and a foreseeable result of them?

A: Right.

B: I think if you just take the meaning of “deserve” as nothing more than “you should get everything that’s logically coming to you based on your actions”, then that’s okay and makes sense. There are some dictionary entries roughly along those lines. For example, Random House Webster’s gives us the definition “1. to merit, be qualified for, or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities, or situation: ”. I think it’s frequently used in a different way by the people you are talking about though, who use morality as a bludgeon against themselves.

A: How do you mean?

B: I think they take “deserve” in the sense of a punishment, not a consequence. The source here may be something like a rationalistic commandment-based morality.

Imagine a different case. You decide to be a bit foolish with an amount of money that’s fairly trivial to you and try investing it on a lark in some company without knowing much about the company or industry. You lose your investment. You say to yourself wryly “well, I deserved that.” But you don’t beat yourself up about it. It was foolish, sure, but you actually have some perspective on the matter as a foreseeable result of a foolish decision. You’re not hypermoralizing about it and are not beating yourself up about it.

Now consider the person who is beating themself up - perhaps our drunkard divorcee. Obviously, he has lost a bigger value (presumably!) than our foolish investor, and so it’s understandable that he would be more distraught about that. But he’s also got a fundamentally different perspective on it. He’s not viewing it as “Well, this is the foreseeable consequence of my poor choices” in an objective way. He’s beating himself up for something like being a sinner, for having violated a moral commandment and having been branded accordingly with a low moral status.

Consider that depending on his religious beliefs, he might view divorce as actually sinful. Regardless, he’s likely viewing his situation in terms of “I have transgressed what I was supposed to do morally and am thus bad”, and not “I have made bad decisions and am experiencing the results of them.” There is a big difference there. If you view yourself as having made an error, even a serious one, then that’s something you can correct, and you could try to get new values - a new job, a new wife, whatever - to replace the ones you lost due to your error. However, if you take the view that your violation of some moral commandment reveals something fundamental about your character, then you’ve been revealed as evil and low fundamentally and inherently, and so that’s more of a damnation of your soul than a condemnation for specific acts. And so if you take the damnation view, then you take a state of unhappiness as something like the appropriate punishment from whoever out there is meting out such punishments, as opposed to the result of choices you made which are amenable to your control and thus amenable to change. And you in a way even ennoble the experience of unhappiness, because it’s a sign that you’re experiencing what you’re supposed to be experiencing, and if you didn’t experience unhappiness that might be like you evading justice.

Objectivism does say that people should be treated according to their character and according to their actions, and that the pursuit of certain values and certain courses of action will not produce lasting happiness (and are even incompatible with the requirements of life), but it does not say that people should be cursed with suffering for moral transgressions. There’s no eternal hellfire of damnation and suffering - as a physical plane or an emotional state - to which people are condemned to in Objectivism.

A: But isn’t Objectivism really big on justice, moral judgment, and that kind of thing?

B: Yes. But consider what Rand said about justice (this is in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology)

What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them.

So here Rand is talking about the need of a person to judge other people (and treat them accordingly to how he judges them). The issue of justice isn’t one of Cosmic Justice being meted out by God on the Faithful and the Sinners. Treating people justly is actually a practical requirement of life. It serves your own interest to value a hero above a moocher.

A: So a person who tortures themselves over perceived moral deficits has a misconception rooted in sort of rationalistic/commandment-based moral perspective that they’re using to judge themselves and their mistakes?

B: Yes.