Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 12

Part 12 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism". Discusses the role of emotions in understanding and interpreting art.

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 11 we looked at a couple of Peikoff’s arguments for the value of emotions. We continued looking at his point that emotions help keep our values alive, and we also looked at his argument that emotions are essential to the creative process. We considered whether there might be a tension between the ideas that 1) learning should be fun and 2) that you might not find worthwhile activities fun right away, and resolved this apparent tension with the idea that the right approach to a new potential activity or interest is to “try it out” and give yourself a chance to cultivate the interest, rather than dumping it if it doesn’t grab you right away. We discussed the importance of emotions in creativity and in being effective in your career.

A: Right. One thing I wanted to mention on the learning point is that if you only do stuff that grabs you right away, that’s introducing a major systematic bias towards stuff that grabs you right away, in terms of what stuff you’ll try doing. And that might not be the best approach.

B: Right.

A: It’s somewhat similar to how people will be really reluctant to do something like switch computer or phone operating systems or other software if they’re already familiar with one alternative, because they don’t want to have to learn a new approach. And like, sometimes that can make sense if you’d have to learn a lot, but oftentimes it’d be better for people to switch, but they make their own issue with learning new things into a major barrier. They’re comfortable with the system they already know and so they won’t even give new stuff a chance.

B: Right.

Ok so Peikoff introduces his fourth point regarding the purpose of emotions:

Point four is evaluations of things that you see around you—people and their products, including artworks. Without emotions, this is a hopeless task. Typically the data confronts you, in a concrete case, so thick and so fast, so much faster than you could identify intellectually and integrate, that if you did not have this chronic emotional reaction, you would just swim helplessly. For instance, once in a very early phase I tried to be a thorough intellectualist—that is, I was going to function exclusively cerebrally, without the aid of emotions (I was young at the time). And I remember very clearly that I went to a movie with the idea of having absolutely no emotions—that is, they would have nothing to do with my assessment of the movie and were just going to be pushed aside. I was going to try to judge purely intellectually as the movie went by. And I had a checklist in advance, certain criteria: I was going to judge the plot, the theme, the characters, the acting, the direction, the scenery, and so on. And my idea was to formulate to myself in words for each point where I thought something was relevant, how it stood on all the points on my checklist. And to my amazement, I was absolutely unable to follow the movie; I did not know what was going on.

A: I think this is related to what you mentioned in Part 11:

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.

You absolutely could do a careful analysis of a small part of a movie while trying to be objective. I think trying to do that with a whole movie before you’ve done that with a single scene is kind of absurd. I also think that something about Peikoff’s method was mistaken. Like, he had a checklist of stuff that he wanted to get through that might not necessarily reflect how he would normally analyze a movie. It seems like a lot. Like just following the plot and theme might be plenty for one passthrough. When I’m watching a movie, sometimes something like the acting or cinematography will really jump out at me if it’s notable - or like a recent example is the animation quality in Arcane is something that I found notably impressive. But often I’m pretty focused on the plot, the characters, and certain sets of criticisms (like character motivations not making sense or an adaptation lacking integrity to the book it is adapting). Anyways it might have made more sense for Peikoff to start off analyzing a small scene and doing a more careful, deliberate pass through that - maybe multiple passthroughs, so it might make sense to do it with a movie you can rewatch repeatedly at home.

B: Yeah I think both the scope and the method Peikoff used have issues. They seem in tension with what Elliot Temple suggested that people do in analyzing some short clips from How to Train Your Dragon 2:

Write down your comments on the clips (don't watch the clips again, just use your memory). Don't write things you wouldn't normally say. Don't stop being yourself to do analysis. Don't write a bunch of dumb stuff just to have more written down. Don't write what you think I would say. Only write points you think matter: reasons stuff is good or bad that you care about and genuinely, in your own opinion, think is important. Only write things that make sense to you. Don't write down picky criticism you don't care about but you think might be what a pedantic philosopher is looking for. Write your actual beliefs. If you don't see anything wrong with the clips, don't write anything negative. Writing about what you liked is a good idea too.

A: Yeah the scope is much narrower (just short clips). And while Peikoff doesn’t say he was trying to be a pedantic philosopher, Peikoff’s general attitude towards what he was doing, based on his own description, comes off to me that way.

B: Right.

A: I think that if you took the method of critically analyzing short segments of a work, you could gradually build up to analyzing larger and larger sections of a work in more of a real time way.

B: I think what Peikoff is getting at is that that is what people already do using their emotions and that that’s the only way to go about analyzing a bunch of stuff quickly - you literally can’t do it any other way.

A: Ah! And what Elliot Temple was suggesting in the bit I quoted above was that people try to do some analysis, as a first pass, according to their existing beliefs/ideas/emotions.

B: Yes. Note the rest of Temple’s instruction:

Writing things down lets you see if your thinking changes at any stage in the process. Don't rely on your memory of what you thought of the clips at first. Put it in writing so you can compare later.
Now that you've written down your initial thoughts, go ahead and rewatch the clips as much as you want and check out these transcripts. After the transcripts are some things to look for and questions to consider, which you can look at immediately, or after considering it more yourself (it's your decision).

A: Ah, so you generate an honest, written assessment of the clips according to your own existing emotions/ideas/beliefs, and then after doing that, you look at the clips again and also challenge yourself with a different perspective.

B: Right. So a better method for the young Peikoff to try might have been to watch a bit a clip of a movie and write down whatever struck him about it, and then rewatch the clip and see what else he can come up with to say about it on a more rational/intellectual level, and then ask Miss Rand to write down her own analysis and compare his notes to hers. That would have engaged with both his emotional and intellectual tools in an integrated way and he might have gotten somewhere with that approach.

Note that Temple was taking for granted the point that Peikoff is arguing for - that existing emotions/intuitions/ideas are necessary for engaging with a work and dealing with/understanding it in real time. Temple was saying to do that, to use that toolset, for the first pass, and then try to do more additional analysis later. Peikoff sounds like he was trying to disregard the emotional toolset.

Anyways Peikoff continues:

I needed to sit through it I can’t remember how many times, and I discovered that what you have to do is simply react, let it happen, feel, immerse yourself in it. And what happens is that your emotions give you an automatic sum. You just simply attend to it with no checklist, no intellectualizing, no thought, just watch the movie, like a person. If there was a major point in the plot, you react to it; if there was beautiful acting, if there was some scene that was really depraved, your feeling is simply instantaneous, integrating, evaluating for you. It’s your subconscious applying automatically all of your knowledge and value judgments. At the end, you have a lightning summation: you’re exalted, or you feel like throwing up, or whatever it happens to be.

A: I definitely experience what Peikoff is describing. I remember, oh I forget exactly what the context was, but I was watching some TV show recently and there was a scene that had a bad theme, maybe something about the necessity of violence to bring about change, and I just reacted viscerally, something like “oh that’s terrible.” Didn’t need to do any conscious analysis; the wrongness of the message just “hit” me directly. And I also have positive reactions on such an instantaneous basis as well, like if there’s a nice depiction of heroism or something like that.

B: And that’s fine, and inevitable, but it’s also important to be able to break down and question some of those automatic reactions if you want to try getting a different perspective on things than the mainstream/conventional view.

A: Yeah that makes sense.

B: Peikoff continues:

Here again, without emotions to perform this function, it’s hopeless, it’s the crow epistemology—you have no way to take it in.
Does this mean emotionalism? No, because when you do get your emotional assessment, it’s not necessarily the objective truth; it’s possible to have emotions that came from mistaken conclusions. Maybe in the heat of the movie, you latched on to a nonessential; maybe one of your value judgments was purely associational and had nothing to do with the actual movie; maybe your attention wandered for a second and you missed a point and that’s why the whole movie seemed unintelligible to you, which is not the fault of the movie. This is the point that is the parallel to editing in writing—after the movie and after the emotion, if you want to have an objective assessment, in a calm state, you try to review your feelings and identify: in response to what—what were the essentials about the movie, how would you objectively formulate the aspects to which those emotions gave you a clue? Using your emotional reactions as data, you then intellectually, rationally, reach an assessment. But both stages are crucial. A repressor cannot do the first part, so he is simply lost. And an emotionalist can’t do the second part, so he never gets to the movie, only an autobiography of his reactions to it.

A: The specific errors that Peikoff talks about are: latching onto a nonessential, having a value judgment that was purely associational and had nothing to do with the movie; missing some information in a scene due to attention wandering. But you might also have emotional reactions that result from value judgments which are themselves mistaken, as opposed to having made some factual mistake about the movie or a mistake in connecting the value judgment to the movie. And connecting that possibility with the overall theme of the chapter, I would say that you should consider that possibility but not reproach yourself if you think that might be the case. Like, if you are learning about Objectivism, and like it, but have a positive reaction to a scene in a movie depicting something altruistic, you shouldn’t beat yourself up for that. You should just take the opportunity to analyze your reaction and whether it fits with whatever sense you can make out of your ideas.

B: Yes I think that’s true. Another thing I would add is that frequently, upon analyzing a scene that depicts something like a “heroic” altruistic sacrifice, you might find that, by the laws of whatever fictional world is being depicted, there was another alternative open to the heroes other than making that sacrifice.

A: Ah, right.

B: And so then what’s supposed to be an emotional scene becomes a bit ridiculous, because you see it in the light of “what are you doing, silly? Just go around to the other side and sneak in the back and you won’t have to die” or whatever the case may be.

A: Right, so you can actually change your emotional reaction by criticizing the art a bit and giving it a bit of thought.

B: And if you do that sort of thing regularly, I think it becomes the sort of thing that becomes more automatized, and then you start looking out for things like that in films in real times - as in, you start looking at for alternative solutions to whatever problem situation the heroes find themselves in, other than the solutions presented to you by the writers.

A: And that process causes you to have different emotional reactions from what you’re expected to.

B: Yes, so it gives you some resilience to being emotionally manipulated by screenwriters, and it may also change your very evaluation of the value of certain things (like movies) in general - because if you start noticing common patterns and flaws in things, in a clear way, then that kind of “ruins” the emotional payoff that you might get from such works, and then you start to lose interest in them.

A: Right that makes sense.