Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 11

Part 11 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism". Focuses on the utility of emtions and hwo to cultivate interests.

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. 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 9 we started looking at Peikoff’s arguments for emotions. The first point was that emotions are essential to figuring out how to act given the complexity of the world. We criticized the example Peikoff used to demonstrate that while accepting his basic point. We also started to look at his second point, which is that emotions help keep our values alive and help us maintain a connection to concretes. We talked about a concrete example of this in connection to learning, and how people try to impose “interests” on themselves rationalistically without having convinced themselves that they actually want to learn something. Part 10 was a tangent where we didn’t cover new material.

A: Right. A follow-up point on learning … I think if people just concretized more why they wanted to learn something, it’d help them a lot. I think the motivations people try to use for learning just aren’t very good. Maybe they want to seem a bit more educated or cultured or think that knowing, say, a foreign language is something a smart person should do. That’s not the sort of rationale that is going to support hundreds or thousands of hours of study.

B: Right.

A: So it’d be better to concretize all the ways learning some field might help them in their day to day lives, and also consider the alternatives to learning that field and how that might help them in different ways, and carefully think about the alternatives and decide what sort of person they want to be and how they want to direct their efforts.

B: Right, I think that projecting the long range consequences of different courses of action can absolutely be helpful.

So continuing on Peikoff’s second point in favor of emotions - that they help keep our values alive - Peikoff says:

A quickening of interest leads you to contact reality; that kind of dead repression leads you to obliviousness and castles in the sky. Miss Rand used to be a strong advocate of what she called “the pleasure-purpose principle.” She meant the idea that on any level, whether we’re talking about thought or action, you cannot function without a purpose that brings you pleasure, something you want to achieve, that you enjoy achieving.

A: I would guess that this includes subtle/nuanced pleasures/enjoyment and is inclusive of “higher” or more intellectual pleasures.

B: Yes.

Peikoff continues:

You can see this in an everyday example in the contrast between getting up on a day when there’s something that you like—I don’t mean necessarily some grand passion to be captured by a novelist for the centuries, but just something: You’re going shopping, or you’re going to have a nice day at work, or you have a special date for lunch or something, and you have a little jolt of anticipatory pleasure—that is crucial to the whole quality of your functioning throughout the day, as against that kind of gray, dragging yourself through some dutiful routine, which can only go on for a limited period of time, after which you either end up giving up action and giving up generally, or else you say, “I can’t stand philosophy,” and you become an emotionalist. The point here is that pleasure—and we mean here personal pleasure, personal interests, your likes and dislikes—is essential to your functioning, in action and in thought.

A: The contrast with “dragging yourself through some dutiful routine” sounds important. Going back to that discussion about learning and motivation that we had, I’ve noticed that people who learn a lot about a topic - languages or math or whatever - seem to really enjoy it. It’s not work for them to learn about it. And we sort of touched on this, but one thing I’m trying to figure out is how to integrate that fully with the idea that sometimes some topic that’s worthwhile may not immediately grab your interest, and you have to give it a chance.

B: Yes.

A: And I think there’s some tension there, because on the one hand, you have this idea that putting effort into learning something should be fun and enjoyable, and that if it is fun and enjoyable, it shouldn’t feel like a bunch of strenuous effort, but on the other hand, you have this idea that there may be some effort involved in broadening your horizons and that new stuff might not be fun at first.

B: I think one way to resolve this apparent conflict is to think carefully about your goal. Suppose you want to try taking up math as a hobby to learn a thing or two about. You should not approach this with the attitude of “this is something I’m going to power my way through, regardless of my interest level”, because you’ll quickly run out of steam.

A: Right.

B: Instead, you should approach it with the attitude of giving yourself the opportunity to cultivate an interest, explore it, try it out. You shouldn’t take the attitude that because you’re not necessarily super interested in or passionate about it currently, that there is nothing super interesting in the field. You shouldn’t let your current, uninformed perspective be the limit of your interests. That’d be treating your current set of interests as all there is worth doing, which is compatible with the sort of whim-worshipping subjectivism where you just try to follow what currently seems “fun” without considering why.

Here’s a dichotomy breakdown: the rationalist tries to impose interests on themselves and disregard desires. The subjectivist tries to follow their desires and disregard ideas (such as criticism of certain desires or introspection about why they find certain things interesting). The right approach is to take account of both desires and ideas, and follow one’s current interests but also seek to cultivate new/improved/better ones to the extent one can.

A: Okay that makes sense. It seems like a specific example of taking your current ideas seriously and not disregarding them while simultaneously seeking to find better ideas which might replace them.

B: Yes. Peikoff next introduces his third point in favor of emotions:

Point three—this is a variant—is that emotions are crucial in creative work of all kinds. Not just in concretizing abstractions and understanding them, but in any kind of creative work. And here let me just tell you my own experience from writing, which I think would apply generally. As I understand creative work, it involves a deliberate mixture of reason and emotion; both are indispensable. Before I can engage in writing, I have to have an outline, so I have to figure out topics that I think are logically necessary, a structure that makes sense. And that, of course, is an intellectual assignment. Even there, though, I have to consider what I am interested in. Some topics on the outline arouse me, make me feel something, and others I jot down sort of dutifully with the idea, “It seems that this point is unavoidable, regretfully, but I’ll see when I get there, maybe I can pare it down.”

A: So reason helps you impose order on your writing, but emotions are necessary to figure out what you even want to write about.

B: Yes. Peikoff continues:

So it’s basically intellectual, but with a definite emotional input. Then I get to the stage of writing out the rough draft, and there I function on the idea that you have to be motivated by the unleashed subconscious, whatever pours out—desire, interest—you keep one eye vaguely on the outline, but the basic moving force is let it out, whatever you feel. What releases that material? Basically, it is your emotions taking charge. You get on a certain topic and it interests you, and you feel, “This is important, this is good, this is worth saying,” and you ride that for all it’s worth, and it starts to grow and develop, and at a certain place you say, “To hell with the outline; this is better than the outline,” and you just keep going. You get to another point on the outline, you start to yawn, and I’ve found many times that that means your subconscious is giving you the message, “This is not really important to your theme; you thought it was necessary, but really it isn’t, and that’s why you’re bored.” Which is very often something you cannot decide on until you actually get there and see your emotional reaction in the moment. You have to be guided by this inner pleasure principle or you just dry out.

A: I think what Peikoff is describing as emotions taking charge is what some people might think of as acting according to intuitions or something like that. I guess emotions and intuitions overlap. It sounds like he’s describing “flow”.

B: Well he talks about being interested, being bored (yawning). Those seem pretty straightforwardly like emotions to me. Anyways I think that in the context of this discussion, we can treat emotions and intuitions as being pretty equivalent, in that they’re not the result of some kind of conscious analysis but instead part of a somewhat automatic process based on your existing ideas. Like, at some point in the past, you took on board some ideas or did some learning, and that resulted in some kind of automatic reaction now that’s not a result of conscious analysis. Whether that automatic reaction would be classified as an “emotion” or an intuition or whatever isn’t critical, I don’t think. I think the main point Peikoff is getting at above is that you can’t be guided by your conscious mind/intellect in writing even a paragraph, but need some sort of intuitive or subconscious sense of what you want to write. Imagine trying to walk even a mile paying full conscious attention to every detail of walking. It’s just not practical. You can pay full attention to movement details for a little while if you go very slow, but to get anywhere fast you’re going to have to automate things enough to be able to not need your full conscious attention. The same goes for writing. And doing careful, detailed analysis of your movement, or your writing, may make sense if you are having some kind of specific issue, but it’s not a mode that you can use for getting a lot done with the activity.

A: So emotions or intuitions or whatever are a necessary part of having mastered something well enough to use it for much of anything productive?

B: Yeah. Peikoff continues:

Of course, if you’re an emotionalist, you just stop there; you pour this stuff out and say, “That’s it, that’s the way I feel.” But I don’t say that. Now comes the last stage—editing. And here I’d say you have to be cold, objective, unemotional, but it’s also very uncreative. You just clarify, you get rid of repetitions, you remove confusions, you say it more smoothly, and so on. You say, “This point is overdone, and this needs a little more elaboration.” There is no clash with your emotions, because as soon as you see an error, your subconscious, having now released itself, is happy to correct it and make it even better. But I think you need this whole combination of oscillation. The rationalist tries to create by deduction, from some theoretical outline, without this personal motor, and I do not think that can be done. The valid procedure is reason and emotion in a certain combination. Your emotions tell you something about what is needed that you could not know strictly intellectually in that context. So they’re crucial. But emotions are not infallible, because once they lead you to a certain point, then your objective, intellectual mind has to take over. So I would summarize it this way: Emotions are aids, critical aids, to creative thought, without therefore being tools of cognition.

A: I think the point about the rationalist trying to proceed from some theoretical outline without a motor is interesting. It sounds like being effectively creative requires some actual interest/passion/emotion/commitment. Having that interest (in whatever it is you’re trying to be creative about) requires already having an idea that something is interesting, since ultimately you’re going to be relying on your intuitive side in being creative. I guess that if you suspect that something (say, writing fantasy stories) is interesting, then the right approach would be to explore the topic with curiosity and learn more about why it might be interesting. But you could decide that you should find it interesting too early, and then you get in trouble. You try to make up for the deficit in your interest level by using reason (maybe by using an outline, which can be fine as an organizational tool but isn’t a substitute for interest), but you get stuck and have issues like “writer’s block”. Your efforts are being misdirected. Your problem an organizational problem but an interest problem, and that boils down to a knowledge problem - a lack of knowledge of why what you’re trying to do is interesting and worthwhile.

B: This issue about a lack of knowledge of why what you’re trying to do is interesting and worthwhile is the sort of thing that affects people’s careers. Consider this scene in The Fountainhead with Keating:

Facing his first task of designing, Keating thought of Tim Davis, of Stengel, of many others who had wanted it, had struggled for it, had tried, had been beaten—by him. It was a triumphant feeling. It was a tangible affirmation of his greatness. Then he found himself suddenly in his glass-enclosed office, looking down at a blank sheet of paper—alone. Something rolled in his throat down to his stomach, cold and empty, his old feeling of the dropping hole. He leaned against the table, closing his eyes. It had never been quite real to him before that this was the thing actually expected of him—to fill a sheet of paper, to create something on a sheet of paper.

Keating got into architecture because he was pressured into it by his mother, because he wanted to be prestigious, and so on, but never figured out why it was interesting. Roark, on the other hand, is consumed by his passionate interest in the problems of architecture. So they have totally different attitudes.

A: Right that’s a good contrast.

B: OK that concludes Peikoff’s discussion of his third point on emotions. He’s got a couple of more but we’ll get into those next time.

A: OK!