Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 13

Part 13 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism". Discusses the role of emotions in choosing among valid options.

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 12 we looked at Peikoff’s argument that emotions have an essential role in interpreting art. This is the fourth of five points on the role of emotions he is going to introduce. We contrasted a mistaken, overly intellectual/rationalistic approach that Peikoff tried to take to analyzing a movie to a different approach suggested by Elliot Temple. We talked about how taking the right approach towards analyzing a work can let you get a different perspective on it than the mainstream view.

A: Right.

B: Ok. So now Peikoff introduces his fifth point on emotions:

Here is the last function of emotions that I’m going to cover this evening: Emotions are essential to choosing among optional cases. Let me begin with an example in regard to choice of a career. Ethics tells us that there is a certain principle involved in regard to choice of a career, and that is the virtue of productiveness—you have to earn your sustenance, as opposed to living a life of crime or a life on welfare as a moocher; you have to earn it by your thought and action in the achievement of pro-life values. And even further, you can make a moral principle out of the fact that you should survive not by a mindless job if you’re capable of more, but by the active use of your mind and your intelligence—as against stagnating in some kind of rut. This much you can prove as a matter of moral principle. But now we come to the question: In what realm, what concrete application, should you make of this general injunction? And here, there is no moral principle to guide you.

A: Hmm. This reminds me of a point that you brought up in Part 9 of our discussion:

It might be better to consider the case of deciding which of several potential activities to undertake. Like, you might potentially read, or watch TV, or go for a bike ride. And you could do a rational analysis of relevant things like your interest level in the different activities, your energy level, whether you’ve been neglecting one of the activities lately, etc., but it will often be better to just pick the thing you currently want to do. Rational analysis has a role in determining which activities to choose, but it’s more in the role of thinking about overall policies or uses of time or values of activities than in making every particular decision. If the thought of taking a bike ride makes you happier than the other potential activities you could undertake, then it can be reasonable to just go with that, unless you think of a criticism of that option.

B: Yes, I think that’s on much the same point that Peikoff is discussing. Obviously, like Peikoff says, philosophy, moral principles, and so on, would rule out certain activities, like trying to steal people’s wallets. But within the realm of permitted activities there are quite a lot.

I think the sphere of optional choices can be more difficult for people than the sphere of mandatory ones. Someone might have trouble figuring out what to do with themselves, in their free time at least. For example, it’s common for people to not enjoy retirement because they feel useless and purposeless. They needed the job they were doing to give some purpose and meaning and context to their existence. My guess is that most people have not done a good job of cultivating interests, of giving things a chance. They’re decent enough people such that they try to live productive lives, but they don’t actually have much passion or drive towards anything specific that they will pursue of their own accord and interest.

A: They’re not Roark with architecture.

B: Right. Another issue that you can have is people who do want to do some things but repress those desires because they think the things are bad.

A: Sometimes that makes sense, though, right? To repress?

B: Sometimes, with various very serious things. Like if you’re tempted to do something criminal/violent, that’s a valid case for repression as a temporary emergency measure (which might not work, since repression is unreliable, but it’s still worth trying given the stakes). Repression is typically a bad idea if you want to (safely) have an alcoholic drink or watch a dumb TV show passively, though. In the latter cases it’d be better to try to consider why you might like the thing as you’re doing it.

A: Ah I see.

B: If the cost/downside of the problematic thing that you want to do is just a bit of your time or a small amount of money or whatever, then there’s much more scope for treating it as an object for exploration, introspection and, perhaps, gradually persuading yourself/changing your preferences, as opposed to using the firefighting method of repressing yourself.

A: So for that kind of thing (where the downside is low) you want to treat things more in the model of smoking like we discussed in Part 1.

B: Yeah.

Anyways let’s pivot back to Peikoff. Here, he’s further developing his point about how you can’t derive concretes like what specific job to do from philosophical principles, and thus why you need emotions:

We have to remember that a principle is an abstract formulation in terms of essentials. It has to be derived from life as the standard, and mandated by reality. Remember the work we went into to establish the principle of honesty, and if you remember in our follow-up discussion I made a point of saying “Wearing raincoats in the rain” is not a principle; that is a concrete. Can you think of a principle that would dictate one specific career, or one specific career field? You could not do it, because by definition you would have to descend to concretes, rather than the whole broad area. Could you say, for example, as, believe it or not, I have heard people say, “Morally, everyone should be a philosopher”? If you ask them why, they say, “This is the most abstract field, and you’re supposed to think; therefore the more abstract, the more thinking.” Why shouldn’t anybody apply the abstractions to actual life? What is the use of all those abstractions, if everybody just sat around thinking about them? Actually, you could make a perfect case in the reverse—that is, that philosophy is of no value except as a means to all the other fields that it leads to and makes possible.

A: Hmm, you know, I actually disagree with some of this, or at least, I feel the need to contextualize it. So we had a discussion about the idea of everybody being philosophers.

B: Right.

A: And so, part of what we talked about there was this idea that there is a major shortage of people who are specializing in philosophy, and so there is a lot of opportunity for someone who wants to specialize in that. And you know, philosophy affects everything, so given its reach and the shortage, that’s a reason to consider specializing in it.

B: And you are bringing this up because you are sensing a contradiction between what we said in that discussion, where we were talking about some stuff Elliot Temple said, and the point that Peikoff is making here?

A: Yes.

B: And I think maybe the resolution to the tension is to consider that Peikoff is saying that there isn’t a requirement that everyone be philosophers as a matter of philosophical principle. The existence of a critical shortage of philosophers (or at least of competent philosophers) is a concrete. It’s not something that is true and exists in all times and circumstances. Perhaps in Ancient Greece, they didn’t have such a shortage, because philosophers and schools of philosophy were flourishing. But there is certainly such a shortage now. And the widespread understanding of philosophy is at a very low level.

A: So in that view, then, the shortage of competent philosophers is a concrete that’s worth taking into account when making career choices, just like a shortage of, I don’t know, truck drivers might be worth taking into account?

B: Something like that. I would say that due to the scope of what philosophy deals with, if there is a shortage, then there may be more, and more valuable, “low-hanging fruit” in terms of opportunities to take advantage of, than would be the case with something like truck driving. But as far as a shortage being a concrete that one can take advantage of in deciding where to focus one’s attention, I think that could apply to philosophy or to other jobs.

And you know, recall the context that what Peikoff is trying to push back on here. There is a tendency towards rationalism on the part of Objectivists. So he is dealing with people who are perhaps trying to pick a career regardless of their actual interests, according to pure philosophical principles - like maybe they really want to be an artist, or a lawyer, or whatever, but they think that Objectivism says that they must be philosophers, or something, and he’s saying no to do that.

A: Right.

B: But obviously, philosophy can be brought to bear in various pursuits, including artistic ones, as Rand’s novels demonstrate.

A: Right. OK, I think I can buy that it’s both the case that 1) Objectivism doesn’t dictate that everyone needs to pursue philosophy as their primary career, and 2) there is, as a concrete fact, a desperate shortage of philosophers, and this is a relevant thing to consider.

Another thing I took an objection to in what Peikoff said is:

Actually, you could make a perfect case in the reverse—that is, that philosophy is of no value except as a means to all the other fields that it leads to and makes possible.

B: Let’s consider what Peikoff says after that, and let him put a bit of meat on the bone as it were, before we start tearing into and criticizing that.

A: OK!

B: OK, so Peikoff continues:

You could make the point that the abstraction inherent in philosophy is bad, that it is a deformation of a proper human function, and that a philosopher pays the price in personal frustration in the fact that he sees results only long after he’s dead. But the actual point here is that the philosopher’s only significance is in the culture he shapes; without that, he is just clacking his uppers. Every form of productive work is crucial, whether it’s as a businessman, a philosopher, an artist, an engineer, a computer programmer; all of them properly approached take full intelligence.

A: I think Peikoff is making a side comment or something here and it’s not his main point, because he says “But the actual point here is” to pivot away from what he was saying. But I disagree with the idea that “philosophy is of no value except as a means to all the other fields that it leads to and makes possible.” I think one could find the problems of philosophy inherently interesting, in a way, as in intellectually interesting to think about, and that is a value that would be distinct from the value of being a means to other fields. And I think that’s a thing that you could say about various fields — e.g. Roark found the problems of architecture interesting; he didn’t just treat the field as a means of providing structures for people. And I’m sure there are people who, say, find the problems of agriculture interesting and don’t just treat it as a means of making food for people.

I’m also not quite sure what Peikoff means by the abstraction inherent in philosophy being a “deformation of the proper human function.” Isn’t abstraction necessary if one is going to use reason, which is the fundamentally important human faculty? So I don’t get it.

Oh and I also take issue with “the philosopher’s only significance is in the culture he shapes; without that, he is just clacking his uppers.” So if a philosopher figures out a bunch of truths, which they commit to books, but isn’t widely appreciated in their time, they have no significance?! What?

I think finding out truth has value. And if someone has figured out some truths and managed to commit them to writing somewhere, you might hope that at some point the culture would appreciate that, at least some time in the future. But I think the figuring out the truth part (and writing it down so others can learn from it) is what matters, not cultural influence. Looking at reality and figuring out some abstractions that explain some parts of it is a lot more than “clacking” your uppers!

I guess that if you’ve figured out some things and written them down, there is some possibility or potential od influencing the culture down the line. But that potential might not be realized for thousands of years or ever. You figuring things out was still good.

B: Yes, I find Peikoff’s remarks here to be odd, underexplained and wrong according to how I interpret them.

OK Peikoff continues:

If there are countless equally legitimate ways to apply the moral principle, how are you going to decide what to do with your life? There is no way but by consulting your feelings, your desires; there is no other way. There is no argument, for instance, against me being an architect, except that I don’t like it. It is not me, and by that I mean it doesn’t interest me; it’s not what I like to do with my mind and time; it is not what I want. There is no way to choose among legitimate options, except by reference to feelings.

A: I think that whether you like something or not is absolutely relevant to whether or not you should do it, but I think I disagree with where Peikoff says “[t]here is no argument, for instance, against me being an architect, except that I don’t like it.” Often, I think you could point to particular aspects of something that you don’t like or find especially tedious or whatever and offer some explanation as to why. And also, you could point to particular aspects of some field that you do like and explain a bit about what you find fun. So I don’t think you have to take your emotions about such things as some black box - you can say meaningful stuff. And that can be helpful cuz, say you find yourself in a career you have some issues with. If you figure out what specifically you don’t like, you can maybe figure out some way to address that.

B: Right, that makes sense. Let’s end it here for today.

A: OK!